Books

Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

SupermoiOkay, I have officially lost my mind. Here's what I hatched with a bunch of cronies over the weekend. We already have publisher interest. I am boggled. I think the project is suddenly taking on a life of its own. Get on board with us:

Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

The career of college professor, giving back to the society that provided for them through education, was once a respectable path to the middle class. That class position is now slipping through the hands of the very people who helped create it, thanks to the erosion of tenured and tenure-track positions in favor of short-term contract positions without security. What should be rags to riches stories about the power of education to lift people out of poverty by providing a pathway to better jobs have become, for many academics, stories of stagnation, downward mobility, and outright impoverishment under the burden of massive debt uncompensated for by the very academy that helped contract faculty incur it.

Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariate will be a collection of voices from the world of so-called adjunct or contract college instructors who now teach 60-75% of all college courses in the United States and are paid wages equivalent to Walmart workers. In the tradition of Studs Terkel’s Working, Teaching Poor will honor both the difficulties and the triumphs of this new class of impoverished white collar laborers in the academic trenches, detailing personal struggles with the resultant poverty produced by low wages, crushing student loan debt, lack of healthcare and retirement provisions, and the professional and cultural costs this system levies on individuals and the students they teach.

I welcome creative non-fiction, biographical essay, short stories, poems, comics and, in the spirit of hacking the academy through digital humanities, may eventually expand to multimedia and a permanent archive of work similar to Story Corps.

This project is in its very early stages and I’m looking to see what kind of interest there is both in contributors and publishers before defining it or looking into other funding/publishing sources. I have publishers in mind (AK, Haymarket, Soft Skull, Atropos, Verso, ILR, Atticus, Riverhead), but also welcome suggestions. I do want this to be more than a self-published ebook though, and perhaps something truly groundbreaking if we can make a collaboration work.

Send your queries and submissions to Lee Kottner at teachingpoor@gmail.com.


Be Subversive! Read!

LibrarianG It's Banned Books Week (Sept. 24th-Oct. 1st), again, and it's hard to believe that in a country based on free speech, we should even have such a thing. But we do. And this is why librarians have always been my heroes. Nobody protects our right to read whatever we want, no matter what age we are, more strenuously than librarians (independent booksellers are a close second). When, after 9/11, the FBI decided they wanted to see what books some people in America were checking out of the library, Connecticut librarians not only said, "no freakin' way," they filed a lawsuit to challenge that part of the Patriot Act—and won.

Banning books is a form of thought control, and thought control is an attempt to make people conform to one particular idea of social behavior. Seems obvious, right? Of course, when these protests are made, the protesters have hardly ever read the book in question in full, if at all. Someone has said this book is "obscene" or "subversive" or "anti-American" or "dangerous," and they've jumped on the bandwagon. What makes a book "dangerous"? Anything that challenges the status quo, whether it has to do with religion, sexual orientation, or political thought. So why do some people in the Land of the Free think they have the right to decide what I can read? How is that not "anti-American" in itself?

As an example of the kinds of books that are frequently challenged, there's this list of 46 of of the books on the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 novels of the 20th Century that have been banned or challenged at one time or another. Here's the list:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald ALA_BBW_Poster_2010_sm
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
57. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
66. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike 

If books hold up a mirror to our society, some of us must not like what we see. But even if we don't, there's no sense killing the messenger.

Challenges to kids books are particularly galling to me. My parents never censored anything I read, though they would sometimes caution me that a book I'd chosen might be "too old" for me, and I might not like it, or might not "get" it. Sometimes they were right, but sometimes I wound up loving something they didn't think I would. Mom sometimes despaired of my love of comics, but basically, if I had a book or magazine in my hands, that was okay with them. I even read my dad's Playboys. And yeah, there was some good journalism in them. Seriously. Because my reading wasn't censored, guess who became the font of information on sex and reproduction and birth control for my friends in junior high and high school (and sometimes even college)? Not unusual for kids to get that information from each other, except that the information I had was actually accurate, not rumor.

According to the ALA, there were:

  • 1,536 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
  • 1,231 challenges due to “offensive language”;
  • 977 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
  • 553 challenges due to “violence”
  • 370 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and

Further, 121 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 304 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”

With kids, the fear at the heart of banning some books is that your children might somehow be harmed by being exposed to ideas about sex, gender, nonconformity, death, suicide, drugs, or actual cuss words. That's right: real, live cuss words. I'm sure they've never heard those before in movies, on TV, on the playground or at home. I'm insulted on behalf of children that parents like these think their kids are that dumb, or that mentally fragile, that they think their kids are incapable of telling fact from fiction, or have never let their pure minds wonder about sex, death, drugs or what life is all about. Honestly, grownups are so stupid sometimes.

 


Publisher Tinkers With Twain - NYTimes.com

TeacherMoi

Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave,” a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.

via www.nytimes.com

Can I just say that this is more a failure of the instructor than anything else, though I fault the publisher for going along with this bowdlerization. When you teach historical literature, you have to teach the historical period, as well. Teaching Huck Finn gives an instructor the perfect opportunity to talk about cultural influences, i.e., endemic racism, as well as the power of words. If you are too embarrassed to do so, as a grown up with a Ph.D., get outta the classroom. You've failed in your calling.

I'm often surprised by the number of my colleagues who have difficulty teaching anything but contemporary literature because they can't set a book in its historical context. The themes of literature are universal, but the way they discuss them is not. Folks in the past were both like us and unlike us, and that needs to be addressed when teaching literature written in the past. Language changes, attitudes change, politics change, world-views change, but our basic humanity doesn't. That's the beauty of teaching historical lit.


one last story

ChinaMoiLotus I've been saving the best for last, not only because that's when it happened, but because it's a good place to sum up. I meant to get to it earlier, but my back has been out and I've been more or less flat on it when I'm not going to the chiropractor or getting a massage. It's also been unspeakably hot here in NYC (I miss my Harbin AC!), which never makes me happy. And the jet lag has been, in a word, awful: in bed at 9:30, up at 5:30. Ugh.

But all that inactivity has given me time to digest and distill the trip, and other people's questions have made me think about the highlights. To be honest, I have to say that China is still not my number one choice of places to go, but in all fairness, I saw a very small and untouristy part of the country. In many ways that's good: I got to meet people one normally wouldn't on a vacation and see more of the "real" China than tourists usually do. In another way, I feel a bit cheated; the area we were in was heavily Russian/Western influenced and not, I think, "typical" if there can be such a thing in a country as big as China. It's like coming to, say, Indianapolis and judging all of the US by it. Except that China has this very old culture, and much of Harbin felt, in comparison, quite new, even the parts that date back to the 19th Century. Because in 3,000 years of history, that's pretty darn new.

One of the things I'm coming to realize now, looking back, is how entrenched that culture is. The sense of continuity is like oil on water. Sure there have been wars, but they seem to have the air (and this just may be my ignorance) of wars of succession, rather than wars of revolution. Even Mao, whose ideas truly were revolutionary, didn't completely succeed in upending thousands of years of culture. The Imperial bureaucracy is still there; only the name has really changed. If there's any one reason for that (and there never is), I think it boils down to the contrast between the western desire for progress and change and the Chinese respect for the past and tradition. I think that reverence for the past made China lose some of the momentum it once had in science and technology. Turning inward will do that. But what I didn't see in physical culture was more than made up for by the wonderful people I met, something I would not have been able to do on a regular tourist jaunt. China's people, if the ones I met are any indication, are its real treasure.

And that reverence for the past still produces some astonishing contemporary art, which I found out when Li Liqing took me to the Art and Culture center not far from campus. This was a kind of mini-mall for artists, two stories tall, with small studios/galleries for individual artists. The first floor was mostly jade, furniture, and ceramics (with a pet store and flower shop thrown in for good measure, probably to feed all the koi in the various displays), and the top floor was mostly painters and calligraphers. Not all the art was Chinese style; there were a number of oil painters doing landscapes in the western style as well.

CalligraphyTools I'd been asking around at dinner to see if anyone knew where to buy calligraphy supplies, like ink sticks and ink grinding stones. It turned out that Li Liqing's niece was taking calligraphy lessons from a woman named Teacher Tang. She very kindly sold me some beautiful, handmade paper (100 large sheets for about $30!). Teacher Tang doesn't speak English but understood it well enough to realize that I recognized good paper and knew a little bit about calligraphy and the tools. Enthusiasm translates easily and she could tell I loved the paper. Teacher Tang then walked me over to another store where they sold me a quite nice ink stone with cranes carved on the lid and three ink sticks, all for about $45.

The ink sticks are works of art in themselves, and the largest one, which cost me about $10 (the smaller ones were about $1.50), has the most beautiful pine fragrance. Teacher Tang walked me through the grinding process and showed me how to hold the brush and very kindly offered to tutor me via the Chinese IM qq.com. I may take her up on it; or if I go back next year, just sign up for lessons while I'm there.

Li Liqing and I walked around the rest of the mall a little bit before we had to rush back to classes. The standout for me was a man doing ink paintings of wild horses. The brush strokes were extremely economical in the way Chinese ink paintings are, but I've never seen anything look as lively as his work did. I have a weakness for Chinese and Japanese horses anyway, and these left me gasping. I never got a chance to price them, but I suspect they were waaaaaay out of my league. Maybe next year.

Just before we came home, I asked Li Liqing to take me back to the calligraphy shop because I wasn't sure I could find it again, and because I needed an interpreter. Jan came along for the ride too, and we wandered around the showroom a bit more and bought some jade. We went back to Teacher Tang, and discovered Li Liqing's niece having a lesson. She's eight and was shy and stubbornly refused to "perform" (not that I blame her a bit. She did say hello in English though and went right back to her work.

NiHao I'd decided to buy a piece of calligraphy and watched a demo by one man whose style is that interesting messy freehand but his attitude turned me off. Most of the other stores were closed for the day (it was late on Friday) so we ended up back at Teacher Tang's where Li Liqing's niece had made a little piece of calligraphy for both Jan and I that said "Ni Hao" (hello), which Teacher Tang stamped with her own chop.(It's still wrinkly because I didn't have it dry mounted.)

It turns out Teacher Tang's father, who is now 80, is one of the top three calligraphers in Harbin and has collectors all over the world. She was happy to bring some of it out and show me. The first piece, translated roughly, said "books are treasure mountains" which could not have been more perfect for me. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement and made it clear that that was the one I wanted. It's beautiful calligraphy, crisp without being stiff, done on gold-speckled paper. (It's off for framing, or I'd post a picture.) I was so excited and pleased that Teacher Tang started to tear up and knocked 200 yuan off the price. Li Liqing kept saying that Teacher Tang was so touched by how much I appreciated Chinese culture, which is something I've heard again and again, whenever I expressed any interest in any aspect of Chinese art or history. Teacher Tang and I hugged each other and professed our respect and admiration for each other and I went off to dinner with Li Liqing.

Scroll-Marcy's That's where things got really amazing. I had my loot with me in a lovely green box and Jan and I were talking to the rest of Class D about our art purchases when Lin Tao (thanks to Jan for reminding me of his name) asked to see it. I pulled it out and he looked a little critical, asked what I paid for it (not considered rude in China) and then said he thought I paid too much (which is a pretty common conclusion, I suspect, when Westerners buy stuff in China). My response was that it didn't matter what it was actually worth because I loved it. That led to a longish discussion about the value of art and beautiful things and then art in general. At some point in that discussion, Lin Tao says, "I had no idea you had such respect for Chinese culture. I have something you should have." And he leaves the restaurant, goes home, and comes back about 20 minutes later with a six-foot long scroll of yellow silk, with a beautiful painting of chrysanthemums and bamboo and rock mounted on it. Lin Tao's uncle had done it and insisted that I should have it. Here's Marcy's pic of me all choked up, accepting my marvelous gift from Lin Tao, who's opposite me (that's Chang Juntao holding the top).

That's one of the top ten presents I've ever been given, from someone who was nearly a stranger. And that's pretty representative of the graciousness and kindness of the people I met, from new freshmen, to professors, administrators and people on the streets of Harbin. Damn, I'm choking up now, just thinking about it.

About a dozen people turned out on Thursday to see us off at 6 AM and Shuai Yong shepherded Elliott and I to the gate with several other HIT faculty members. We were asked to autograph four shirts for them, which I thought was hilarious, and given a CD with copies of the pics all the HIT faculty took when we were together. This was the note Shuai Yong attached to it:

Time flies.
I hope it gave the beautiful recollection to you in Harbin city.
I wish the past 3 weeks is just the beginning of our friendship. I miss those days very much. If God can give me another chance, I will say 3 words to everyone-I love you. If you have to give a time limit to this love, I hope it is 10 thousand years.
Let's keep in touch.

I would like to go back again, just to see the friends I made there, if I can't see more of the country. I would like to go back again in 10 years, in 20 years, and see what China has become. We can learn so much from each other about living and how to do things. I hope the Chinese government gets the hell out of the way of its own people. China will be a truly great nation then.

Continue reading "one last story" »


corporate censorship

Rar!Moi In case you were under a rock or celebrating Easter or something today, and haven't heard about the AmazonFail brouhaha, here's what they're up to: Amazon has, ostensibly for the sake of their readers delicate constitutions, decided to strip the rankings from pretty much any book that has to do with anything related to the LGBT community, everything from textbooks to literature to scientific studies, whether those books include explicit descriptions of homosexual acts or not. This prevents those books from showing up in general searches and will ultimately hurt their sales figures. You know, the harder stuff is to find, the less likely people are to buy it? That kind of logic.

According to Mark Probst, who first noticed this a couple of days ago, and wrote to Amazon about it, a spokesperson from Amazon explained it this way:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Among the books being stripped of their sales ranks and obscured in the search function are notable classics like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, E.M. Forester's Maurice, Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, all of which I've read in English classes at some point. Oddly enough, both Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita have retained their sales ranks (Lolita is up around 2,000). Also stripped of their rankings are Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Even Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity has had its ranking stripped.

If you're unclear about what this means, go to Amazon and search books for "homosexuality." You'll notice that what comes up are largely Christian screeds against it, written by straight people, even when you click on "Gay and Lesbian" in the side search tabs. This made me feel physically sick. How awful to have decades of writing just erased from public viewing. I can only image how my LGBT friends feel watching their literature, history, and scientific studies disappear virtually overnight. This is censorship of the worst kind, and a really vile form of bigotry.

Horror aside, one of the interesting things about this event was how quickly it exploded onto the net. I saw a note about it from Charlie Anders of io9 over on Facebook this afternoon, toddled over to sign the petition after doing a little confirming research, and by 9:00 pm, it was racing across Twitter, LJ, and the blogs like wildfire. The Google search results went from two pages to 13.

So I'm urging you to boycott Amazon until they stop with censorship crap. Over at Publishing Talk, there's an excellent, excoriating open letter to Jeff Bezos, written with the kind of gentle viciousness the British do so well. There are Google bombs on the words "Amazon ranks" spreading (look! here's one now!), and numerous petitions. You can call Amazon's customer service: 1-866-216-1072 or if you're feeling particularly frisky, their board of directors. In the meantime, fuck 'em. Get your books from Powell's instead.

UPDATE: This is hitting the mainstream press now, with "Publisher's Weekly" and Salon reporting Amazon claims it's "just a glitch," which still does not explain Probst's and others reply from customer service, or the fact that this started several days ago. There's an interesting theory at the LJ of former SixApart employee who was around for the Great Strikethrough on LJ. He thinks is a trolling campaign. I'm reserving judgment. My natural suspicion makes me think that Amazon is just covering their ass with the "glitch" statement. I'd be pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

UPDATE 2: More information and sleuthing at Dear Author, which definitely makes it appear far more deliberate than glitchy. The evidence deals with the metadata entered by both publishers and Amazon and a filter applied to that data: "It appears that all the content that was filtered out had either “gay”,  ”lesbian”,  ”transgender”, “erotic”  or “sex” metadata categories.  Playboy Centerfold books were categorized as “nude” and “erotic photography”, both categories that apparently weren’t included in the filter." *rolls eyes*

FINAL UPDATE:So the word is out it was some Amazon employee in France who "broke" the system by flipping a database flag from false to true. Even if this was not a policy change, Amazon's PR needed to make that clear a lot sooner than they have (there's still no official statement, more than 4 days after this started happening). When the literature of an oppressed minority group starts to disappear without explanation, it makes people testy. And isn't spin control what PR people get paid for? Where are they? Where, for that matter, is Amazon's official explanation?

So did we all over-react? I don't think so. I think it's obvious that, thanks to the vocal activists in various movements, none of us have a real sense of trust in corporate America, or, after the last eight years, in the stability of our rights. I think it was heartening to see how fast the response moved, how vocal it was, and how much it seems to have freaked out a large corporate entity. I feel a little like the girl at the end of "V for Vendetta," taking off my Guy Fawkes mask.

If this were a real emergency . . .


thought for the day

Badgirl Moi I thought maybe I'd start sharing some of my favorite quotations. I've amassed quite a few and what's the point if I don't share them? So probably once a week or so, I'll drop one of these in here. I'm sort of working my way backwards on the list, as this is one of the most recent ones, which I've taken from Neal Stephenson's most recent novel Anathem, strangely appropriate to the present economy:

Fraa Erasmus (a cosmologist): "I always tend to assume there's an infinite amount of money out there."

"There might as well be," [Fraa] Arsibalt said, "but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water, and bombs."


Ouch.


Grudge Match: NYTBR vs. WRB

LibraryMoi I've gone on here and in other places about how badly the New York Times Book Review and the reviewing establishment in general ignores books by women and women's opinions on books. With book reviewing on the wane (hell, books are on the wane), it's hard to find a good source of book reviews that doesn't entail subscribing to a number of different journals and blogs. I'm terminally fed up with the Times, and yet I keep going back to it because there's so little else. In desperation, I subscribed to Book Forum, which I like, but which is also heavily skewed toward art and academics. Not that I've got anything against either art or academic books, but I'm a writer, among other things, and I want to read about fiction and history and poetry and biography and okay, yeah, some politics for general readers. There are still some of us, yanno, who actually read books.

Today, like the infamous dog returning to its vomit, I glanced over the Times list of the year's ten best books, which is a dubious proposition anyway. I mean, ten best book for whom? Never mind in whose opinion. How many women made the cut? Three. Four (see comments below). Oh so predictably, two in fiction, one in non-fiction: Toni Morrison for A Mercy and Jhumpa Lahiri for Unaccustomed Earth (excellent writers both); Jane Meyer for The Dark Side:The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. I'm a fan of both Morrison and Lahiri and happy to see them on the list. Would one more women author have killed them? Like, oh, Marilynne Robinson's Home? or Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves? Jane Meyer's investigative reporting on the Bush administration's adoption of horrific policies like sanctioned torture, suspension of habeas corpus, and extraordinary rendition is a great piece of work and belongs on the list. But instead of, say, honoring yet another book about the Civil War (it's OVER, people; quit fighting it), it would have been nice to showcase, for example, Joanna Bourke's Rape: Sex, Violence, History, given the continuing conditions in Darfur and the widespread use of rape as a tactic of war in Africa.

Continue reading "Grudge Match: NYTBR vs. WRB" »


Banned Books Week

Bbwposter2006thumbnail Sept. 27th through Oct. 3rd is Banned Books Week. This is the American Library Association's (ALA) 27th year fighting book censorship in this country and that's shameful in any democracy. Considering the fact that the GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin asked her town's librarian about both the procedures for and response to requests to ban books, I thought it was doubly important to bring it up here this year. Ostensibly, these were "theoretical" discussions, but in a country where we supposedly have freedom of speech and freedom to read there are no procedures for banning books (why would you think there were any?) and the only reasonable response to such a request is "Are you nuts, lady? Just put it back on the shelf! Nobody's making you read it." There is no theory. Even asking such questions evinces a dangerous desire to keep other people from reading something you don't like. Saying these were only theoretical discussions does not somehow make those discussions less dangerous or less appalling. Sadly, Sarah Palin isn't the only person in the country who thinks they have a right to tell you what to read.

Libraries and librarians are the front line of defense against all kinds of censorship, and that includes computer access, such as banning children from accessing social networking sites at public libraries. (H/T to Resource Shelf). Librarians and indie book store owners, and writers were three of the few groups to stand fast against the Patriot Act's sweeping intrusions to protect the rights of readers.

And during Banned Books Week, spare a thought for many of the writers suffering imprisonment in other countries for writing what they think or feel or believe. Many are prisoners of conscience or continually harassed for speaking truth to power. Amnesty International has a list of them who need your support, and suggestions about what you can do. Click the link at the beginning of this paragraph. Banning books is first step on the slippery slope to imprisoning writers.

Closer to home, urge your congressional representative to support a bill coming up in congress that would protect American citizens from libel judgments levied against them in other countries, most notably Great Britain, where the libel laws are ridiculously liberal. You can learn more about the situation here, and more about the bill here. New York recently enacted such a law, but it needs to be national to curb the "chilling effect" the threat of libel suits have on publishing houses.

And finally, Here are the ten most banned books for 2007:

Continue reading "Banned Books Week" »


The Lost Female Apostle

LibrariangI just finished reading a couple of books I put in the sidebar a week or so ago about the female apostle Junia. That's right, female apostle. Didn't know there was one? Neither did I. I ran across references to her while looking up something else and was intrigued. One of my biggest problems with the religion I grew up in was that we were supposedly all "ministers," meaning we all could teach outside the church, but only the men could teach inside the church. That's based on the scripture in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, which, it turns out, just may be a non-Pauline interpolation, though it appears in all the texts, though in different places, it turns out. In light of these verses, it seems obvious that there couldn't possibly be a woman apostle, so magically, there wasn't.

But let me back up a minute. The two books are Rena Pederson's The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia and Eldon Jay Epp's Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The first is a general reader's version of the same kind of curious search I'm engaging in. Pederson is a seasoned reporter, not a scholar, but does a good job of outlining the issues and the controversies, as well as describing how other women mentioned as deacons or servants of the church were slowly erased and pushed from view, including Junia. Epp's book is extremely scholarly, and it helps to have a background in both grammar and textual criticism. You can squeak by without knowing Latin and Greek, but that wouldn't hurt either. In 81 very closely reasoned pages, he demolishes the support for the arbitrary and sudden metamorphosis of Junia's feminine name in Romans 16:7 into the masculine and highly improbable Junias. The reasons, it turn out, are almost entirely cultural bias and late 19th and early 20th century cultural bias at that, not those pesky misogynist medieval monks, even. Epp connects the arguments about the possibly interpolated text in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, with Junia's "sex change" quite convincingly, connecting them as part of a gradual move to erase the vital parts in the early church hierarchy that women played, and thus keep them out of positions of similar service in the contemporary church, whether it was the contemporary medieval or modern church. After reading both of these books, the ordination of women seems the only logical step that could possibly be taken.

Shocking, I know. Even more shocking when I realized that the Bible I had used my whole life had been based on this biased text. Junia was a man in the Bible I had always thought of as a very good translation, one that restored the 7,000-some-odd occurrences of God's name that had been replaced with his job title.

In most ways, it is a good translation, careful yet colloquial and easy to understand, unlike the more poetic but problematic King James Version. But one of the things Epp's book did was give me a clearer understanding of just how that Bible translation was produced. I'd always known that the translators of my version had gone back to the original manuscripts and started from scratch, but I didn't understand what "going back to the original manuscripts" actually meant.

There are around 500 manuscripts and papyri (manuscripts made of papyrus reed rather than cotton rag paper or vellum, both of which are far more durable) copied by various scribes throughout history, from the first century through the Middle Ages. There are scribal quirks and variations in the texts, sometimes really significant ones, and it is ultimately impossible to state without a doubt which versions are the definitive ones. Translators and scholars have been able to make a pretty good stab at deciding which are closest, but there's no THIS IS IT! manuscript. Transcription and compilation proceeds by textual analysis, paleography, chemical studies, carbon dating, comparison with archaeological evidence, etc.

The sources used by the translation committee that produced the Bible I grew up with were themselves first collated, transcribed, and printed by other committees of scholars, following in the footsteps of previous scholars of various ability and merit. The real problem arises because languages change over time, and you're talking about 2,000 years of history here, from the time the manuscripts were first handwritten in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic. For the first 700 years after Jesus, for instance, Greek was unaccented, which is one of the ways the gender of nouns was determined. Manuscripts were also written in all capitals ("majuscules") or all lowercase ("minuscules"), often with the words pretty jammed together, so YOURTEXTMIGHTLOOKSOMETHINGLIKETHIS, or somethinglikethis. Good luck with that. No wonder scribes often went blind. So turning these manuscripts into easily usable modern transcriptions (never mind the translation bit yet) is tricky.

Plus, unlike English, names in Greek and Latin have cases as well as gender, so their endings vary. This was one of the things I struggled with mightily when I was learning and translating Old English, which is actually way more like, say, German, than modern English. You're constantly asking yourself if something is masculine or feminine and what ending it gets. In this case, the names in Romans (duh!) were originally Latin being translated into Greek forms, and then often back to Latin (like for the Vulgate version).

This is where the problem with Junia's name arose. I won't go into the technicalities of it; you can read the books for that. But suffice to say her name was accepted as female by the earliest of the church fathers, for about the first thousand years. Then her name slowly transformed into the masculine Junias, and then back again to Junia here and there, though in the printed transcriptions used by the committee that translated the version I'm familiar with, it was arbitrarily, against any textual evidence (e.g., that the male name Junias exists nowhere else, though Junia as a woman's name appears at least 250 times) decided that Junia was a man. Why? Well, because it's obvious there couldn't be a female apostle. Just that.

Epp's argument, short as it is, seems definitive to me, not as a woman, but as someone who's done both textual criticism and translation (though not of Greek, and only a little tiny bit of Latin). It must have seemed definitive to the latest revisers of the manuscripts at fault, because they've changed it back to Junia, acknowledging her as a female apostle. The problem is that the original sex change existed in the printed transcriptions (as opposed to the original manuscripts) for the last 70 years or so, and crept into just about every Bible translated from them, including mine, just when the issue of ordaining women was becoming or about to become very hot. Considering how long people hang on to their Bibles, it's liable to remain incorrect for another 70 years, giving the erroneous impression that women were silent and powerless in the early church, when that was not the case.

What saddens me is that I would never have known any of this had I not defied conventions in my church and gone to college where I was introduced to both textual criticism and the shallow edge of Biblical scholarship. Though we were always encouraged to study our Bible deeply and there were plenty of supplementary materials put out by the church to do so, none of them mentioned the wider world of Biblical scholarship except briefly in passing, when it suited them. Certainly, little of that filtered down to the congregations. To be fair, I think most Biblical scholarship happens in fairly rarefied air in the academy; it's complex and requires years of study in dead foreign languages. But I think for years I was under the impression that our supplementary materials were "original" research. I wonder now how much of it was selectively cadged from other scholars. This isn't to say there aren't some smart and learned people in the upper echelons of my former faith. But I'm pretty sure none of them participate in the scholarly exchange of ideas and arguments, and I'm not even sure where some of them were trained, i.e., where or if they went to college or hold degrees.

Now that society is changing enough to accept women in so many other positions of power (albeit still reluctantly), it's a shame that this impression remains in the church. It has robbed itself of the unique viewpoint and skills of half the population. No wonder so many people like me are abandoning ship. Whose truth have we been fed?


Where to Begin: Books

LibrarymoiFor me, everything begins with books. It always has. I always loved to read, like both my parents, and the believers I grew up with took their Bible study very seriously, churning out numerous aids in the shape of books and magazines used in the five meetings per week, most of which were "classes" with the exception of one public lecture a week. I still have my gigantic library of reference and study aids, some of it now on CD; the Bible encyclopedias they published were particularly useful. But only a few of their study aids moved me or seemed, after I learned what good scholarship was, meaty enough. And, of course, there was no mention of controversies or disagreements among scholars. We were all in accord, though the worlds of relgious and Biblical scholarship are pretty contentious. The arguments about the Dead Sea Scrolls alone have filled multiple volumes.

I spent much of my twenties reading feminist theory as it came out (no women's studies departments in my day), some of which had to do with women and organized religion, especially medieval monasticism. In my thirties, I started reading more and more outside the prescribed literature of my own faith, reading church history both feminist and mainstream, reading about other people's searches for a spiritual path, and other spiritual paths in general, especially Buddhism. I've long been fascinated by Zen and meditation in general, so a lot of my recent reading is in that direction. Likewise, I've always been interested in Christian church history, as a former medievalist, and fascinated by monasticism, church architecture and sacred music. Many of Bach's church organ compositions are my favorite pieces of music and the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers has been known to make me weep. But I digress. As powerful as music is, it's only ever an adjunct to knowledge for me, and that comes from the written word. Exegesis is in my blood.

Some of the books I've been reading recently are over in the sidebar, but others I read in the past were more scholarly tomes. I thought I'd list some of them here. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it's very idiosyncratic and somewhat dated in places. I'll be the first to admit I haven't kept up on the scholarship, A few people in the field I can highly recommend: Elaine Pagels (read everything she's written), Peter Brown, and Kathleen Norris. It's been a while since I did an annotated bibliography, so bear with me. It won't be standard MLA or CMS style and these are in no particular order, not even alphabetical. Thanks to the magic of hyperlinks, it doesn't really need to be. Please, if you've got other recommendations, add 'em in the comments! I'm always interested to see what other people are reading.

  1. Holy Anorexia, by Rudolph M. Bell.  This was one of the first I read about women in the Church and it was a fascinating study of women exerting control and exercising the only power they had in the medieval church, control over their own bodies, as a way of connecting to God. Sheds some interesting light on contemporary eating disorders too.
  2. Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of the foremost experts on the early church, especially what the mainstream now thinks of as its heretical elements like Gnosticism. She's made something of a specialty of lost texts, from the Gospel of Thomas to the Gospel of Judas. This, by contrast, is a study of how the mainstream church came to find sexual desire and activity sinful in its early centuries.
  3. Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church, by Uta Ranke-Heinemann covers similar ground but follows it into the present. A little heavy going, but definitely worth the read.
  4. On a similar theme, but much more controversial was Yale scholar John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That and his Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe are landmark studies.
  5. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman, is a great study of the copyists and translators of the Bible and their political and religious agendas throughout the centuries. Ehrman, Chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill, is not well liked by the fundamentalists, needless to say. There are a slew of books contradicting him too, but I haven't read those. I find his research and arguments pretty convincing.
  6. Alistair McGrath's In the Beginning: The story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture provide a great example of what Ehrman is talking about, and dovetails nicely with his book.
  7. Heavier going but worth the effort is James L. Kugel's The Bible As It Was, which is similar to Misquoting Jesus, but with the emphasis on the Old Testament and not the New this time.
  8. I'm always drawn to those limnal spaces where one thing becomes another, so I particularly liked Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians: Religious and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century AD, when the Gods of Olympus Lost Their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World. That subtitle sort of says it all. You'll be surprised where many of those saints and festivals and traditions in the Church came from.
  9. Ditto in Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. Appalling how many of those symbols and holidays are not really all that Christian. Like, oh, Christmas? Easter?

I also read a lot of books about spiritual journeys of one sort or another, not all of which were particularly interesting or relevant. In addition to Eat Pray Love and Escape over in the sidebar, there are these three that moved me.

  1. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Written by a Presbyterian with a fascination for monastic life that mirrors my own, this is as much a meditation on community and faith as it is on monasticism. Really moving in places and very smart, as well as beautifully written.
  2. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong. She's considered kind of an outsider scholar, one whose work is less rigorous than academics usually are, but that's part of her virtue. This book is more personal, but no less important. Armstrong spent many unhappy years in a convent and this chronicles her return or embrace of the secular world. Smart, sad, and fascinating.
  3. Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, by Martha Beck. In a completely different way, this is just as harrowing as Escape (see sidebar), though this is mainstream Mormonism and not the fundamentalist, polygamist type. This makes clear the literal second-class citizenship of Mormon women in their own church and how demoralizing it is wherever it's practiced.

And there are a few books about the intersections of science and religion that I think are worth considering too:

  1. The Dalai Lama's The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, which is mostly about quantum physics but also touches on neuroscience and how similar the explanations of relevant theories in those fields parallel the philosophies of Buddhism. Hmmmmm. . . I like the Dalai Lama's easy acceptance of "what is" and lack of desire to make it fit what ought to be according to his own belief structure.
  2. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Gould got more than the usual flack for this book, but like most of his writing, I find it pretty balanced. It manages to avoid the "There can be only one" mindset and contempt that so many religion-hating scientists and science-hating religious have for each other. He also offers, I think, the only logical solution to the problem.
  3. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, by Ken Wilbur, who alternately irritates and impresses me. Sometimes he's a little too flaky for my taste (unlike pie crust, which can never be too flaky), sometimes he seems right on the money. Sometimes he's also a little too full of himself; but then, aren't we all at times? Definitely worth the read, especially on this subject.

I'll probably be working my way through this subject area for a while yet, so I'll keep you posted in the sidebar.

There were also magazines like Shambala Sun, Tricycle, and Buddahdharma. I've been doing a lot of reading about Buddhisms, lately and it's as instructive to read the letters to the editor as it is the main articles and book reviews. Each one definitely has a different focus and is more and less geared for the non-practitioner. Start with Shambala Sun, if you're a newbie like me. If you're interested in myth and religion, Parabola is also pretty cool. I don't read it that often, but I'm never sorry when I do.

Please keep in mind that these are just books I've read on my own journey. You many not find them either interesting or relevant.