Reading and Reputation

If you’re like me, there are books that you enjoy having on your shelf because other people may think you’re smart/deep for having read them, and others that you don’t read in public (or hide the titles if you do) because they don’t fit with the image you try to project. Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a shining example of the former (well-regarded, hefty, with a clearly-approved subject matter for Serious Thinkers), and Merrill Unger’s Biblical Demonology is an example of the latter (its sub-title “A Study of Spiritual Forces at Work Today” doesn’t help- I’ll be the first to admit that I’d probably sit a little further from a stranger reading it on the bus).

My interest in Renaissance Europe is long-standing, so I thought that reading a single, expansive work on the Reformation would be more engrossing than reading a more narrowly-focused text, and might also give me a more historically-minded interlude from the theology of the past several books. While MacCulloch’s work is incredibly comprehensive, it is also so vast in its scope that it was slow going, and even while reading it I was hard-pressed to identify a single thesis/theme. It was full of interesting, rich facts, e.g., although we think of that era as being one in which people married young, the average Englishman in the 17th century first married at 28, and woman at 26. Average ages didn’t drop until after 1700. Since many young people worked in others’ houses, MacCulloch advances the idea that homosexual/extramarital activity may have been more common and tolerated than we imagine. MacCulloch also shares a marvelous quote regarding the pursuit of knowledge: “Newton, Alsted and other international and ecumenically minded contemporary scholars like John Dury or Jan Comenius were intent on forwarding all knowledge, which is why they saw classical esoteric literature as an ally in enquiry and not a series of ancient dead ends, as their scientific successors now tend to do.” This is a part of the motivation behind this project. At the risk of self-flattery, I hope that reading so broadly enhances my ability to engage with all knowledge. Additionally, I find the strain of history-sharing that opposes past misunderstandings of the world to the present as a source of comedy somewhat unfair; I’m trying to approach false or misguided historical claims in a more humble spirit to better understand the internal logic and observations that might lead someone to believe that, for example, all things are composed of four elements, and what value they might have derived from acting as if that were true.

At the same time, there are claims that do not bear up to even modest scrutiny. I’ll admit that was hoping that a book with the title of “Biblical Demonology” would identify particular forces of evil and their mythoi. I was looking forward to a quick, entertaining read that would teach me the names of particular demons, their attributes and powers, techniques for banishing them… something more in the Pokémon vein than a line-by-line examination of biblical statements that suggest that demons exist and offer theories of their origins. Mr. Unger argues two primary theses, first that the Bible makes the case for the existence of demons as independent, malevolent entities (not “fallen angels”), and secondly that they are active today. While the first claim is reasonably well-argued textually as far as I can tell, I find the latter insufficiently supported and ethically problematic. Mr. Unger equates Hitler’s genocide with a part of the “Unholy Trinity” of Beast, Dragon, and False Prophet who will persecute the Jews until Jesus decides to convert them all. I can certainly understand the sense that evil beyond the levels of mere mortals must be at work, but Unger offers no evidence for such a claim, simply his own perception/feeling that it must be a supernatural explanation. Theodicy is tricky in any context, but identifying the real suffering and extermination of people with an object lesson feels like a low. It’s all too easy for me to imagine Mr. Unger “pitying” the concentration camp survivors while also feeling smug satisfaction at what he perceived as the realization of his reading of the Bible. This is surely one risk of prophesying doom in general- that if/when one’s audience doesn’t change their ways we take more schadenfreude in their suffering and pride in our own accuracy than we feel empathy for their pain. The desire to say “that’s what you get” or “I told you so” runs deep. I wonder if Mr. Unger’s own interest in being perceived as intelligent/an authority within his field led him to fixate on the universal explanatory power of his model, rather than to admit a more tenuous connection to contemporary life.

I’ve been interacting with a lot of people who seem to think they have to have an answer for everything, whether management consultants, experienced professionals, or Ivy League undergrads. They state conjecture with the confidence of fact, and feel that their audience will lose respect for them or interest in what they have to say if they admit ignorance. In 2020, I’m going to try to break that cycle, with greater transparency about what I know absolutely to be true, what I am not certain of, but believe based on related things that I know, and what is pure speculation on my part. I also hope to never be ashamed of seeking knowledge, to have confidence that my reputation and relationships are strong enough for people to ask me about unexpected things I might read, and that being a complete and honest person is more important than protecting an image or “brand”. For years I resisted being silly or fully relaxed around people I hoped to impress, feeling that I needed to portray seriousness and skill at all time; it was exhausting and inhibited the formation of deeper friendships, as well as skill development. If you won’t sing, dance, or practice a foreign language in public until you feel competent, you’ll never do it. We’re all ignorant of so much, and if we celebrated the acts of learning and practice as much as the state of excellence, we might have a kinder society with more humility and more music.

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