During Great Lent, the Eastern Orthodox Church reads the books of Isaiah, Genesis and Proverbs. Why those books? I think the daily readings on March 4 and 5 suggest an answer (Isa 2:3-11; Gen 1:24-2:3; Prov 2:1-22; Isa 3:1-15; Gen 2:20-3:20; Prov 3:19-34). The three books are trying to illustrate God’s relationship to His people from three different perspectives. Genesis narrates the creation of God’s people. Conversely, Isaiah describes the destruction of God’s city because of her disobedience. Proverbs serves as a commentary on both the creation and destruction stories by arguing that seeking after wisdom is the saving grace of God’s people, that wisdom preserves God’s city. While Jerusalem has grown rich with silver, gold, and other material treasures (Isa 2:7), it has neglected the true silver and spiritual treasures of wisdom (Prov 2:4-5).
So if wisdom is to be desired above all else (according to Proverbs) and lack of wisdom caused Jerusalem’s downfall (according to Isaiah), then wisdom looks like a pretty good thing according to the Bible. Why, then, does the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve describe the desire for wisdom as evil? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6; emphasis added). Why is desiring wisdom considered evil before the Fall but the highest good after it?
A few days ago, I watched the movie “Defiance” with my parents. The plot was engaging, the acting was decent, and there were tasteful doses of action, romance, and philosophy throughout. What most captured my imagination about the movie, though, was a theme I mentioned a few days ago: storytelling. Defiance manages to tell, in one film, a Belarusian, Jewish, and American story. Those three happen to be my personal backgrounds (although I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian by faith, I am also ethnically Jewish) so I found myself drawn to all aspects of the film.
I think the overarching story is a retelling of the Exodus narrative: the Belarusian (technically, what is now western Belarus was eastern Poland at that time) Jews are in the wilderness, escaping from their pursuant enemies – the Germans rather than the Egyptians. Tuvia Bielski is a Moses figure and the film even has a modern rendition of the parting-of-the-Red-Sea tale. In addition to the Jewish theme, Defiance glorifies the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, a common Russian motif. Finally, these familiar narratives are packaged into a Hollywood product. I enjoyed this American take on a Russian story (although my friend Mike, also a Russian, loathed the movie for its American clichés). Russian movies are often tragic and lack the redemptive, life-affirming conclusions of American films. Defiance fits the latter mold and follows the Hollywood forumla in other ways too (such as the obligatory love story). All in all, the movie Defiance is an interesting study in how narratives from different cultures can be synthesized to tell a refreshing, if familiar, story.
After a week-long television feud, yesterday Jim Cramer appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to explain why CNBC had failed in their mission to intelligently report financial news as the financial crisis was beginning to unravel. I admire Jim Cramer for going on the Daily Show (and several times on the Colbert Report) and his willingness to have an honest debate with commentators that challenge him.
Nevertheless, there was a tinge of irony in Cramer’s response to Stewart as the comedy show host was probing his guest to try to understand why Jim Cramer was so buffoonish and irrational about serious financial matters on his show. Jim Cramer responded by saying, “I’m a guy trying to do an entertainment show about business for people to watch, but it’s difficult to have a reporter say, ‘I just came back from an interview with Hank Paulson and he lied his darn full head off.’ It’s difficult; I think it challenges the boundaries.” Ironically, though, this is what Jon Stewart does every day on his show. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is primarily an entertainment show, but it also interweaves smart social criticism into its comedy. And Jon Stewart is famous for giving colleagues and guests (many of them powerful and high-profile) tough cross-examinations. He does this so well that his parody news show often delivers better journalism than the established media. Stewart said to Cramer in reply, “Yeah, I mean, I’m under the assumption – and maybe this is purely ridiculous – but I’m under the assumption that you don’t just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out.” I commend (for what it’s worth) Jim Cramer for having the guts to confront Jon Stewart on his home turf, but perhaps the financial news commentator has a thing or two to learn from Jon Stewart about successfully marrying smarts and entertainment on television.
In the Republic, Plato warns us that the pursuit of power and prestige leads to suffering, injustice, and perhaps even death. Living – as some of us are – in comfortable homes and safe neighborhoods, one easily forgets that Plato’s advice is very pertinent to real life. One need only to look at history at some of the most famous cases of worldly ambition to see that striving for power often meets the grizzliest of ends. One such example is that of Beyazit I, an early Ottoman sultan who was also called Yilderim (“Thunderbolt”) because of his notorious spurts of anger. He set out to do what no former Muslim ruler could up to that point – capture the jewel of the eastern Roman world: the city of Constantinople. He came fairly close. The Byzantine empire was fragmented and weak. Beyazit had just crushed at the battle of Nicopolis (1396) an alliance of western European armies sent to thwart the Ottoman advance. Constantinople was for the Thunderbolt’s taking. Beyazit himself was to fulfill a prophecy of Muhammad that a blessed Muslim ruler and army would capture the ancient capital, ensuring his place in history as a hero of Islam. But then, Beyazit’s prize was snatched from his hands and he himself would meet a bitter end. The armies of Tamerlane, one of history’s most famous conquerors, swept in from Central Asia and invaded the territory of the Ottomans. At the battle of Ankara on July 28, 1402, Beyazit’s armies were defeated and he was captured by Tamerlane. Here is how Stephen O’Shea describes Beyazit’s fate in Sea of Faith:
“The Thunderbolt was not as lucky – taken prisoner, he was carted around in a litter, which later legend made into a cage, as Timur sacked the cities of northwestern Turkey that the sultan’s ancestors, Osman and Orhan, had conquered. Apparently, during this campaign Beyazit’s lovely Serbian bride, Olivera [by whom “he was, by many accounts, deeply smitten” when he was getting to know her], was relieved of her clothes and forced to serve, stark naked, at the table of the great Mongol. Beyazit, dejected and humiliated, died the following year” (252, 245).
Hearing about Beyazit’s life, Plato’s advice rings truer. He would have us be like his Odysseus in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. For Odysseus – who is in Hades having to choose a new life for himself – “the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the [same] had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it.”
There are events in the past – a few days, hours, or minutes even – which determine the course of history for centuries to come. This statement is banal without adding to it an appreciation for just how arbitrary those fateful moments are at times. On the whim of a general or the passing mood of an army or the momentum of herd mentality, the course of a country’s future can be decided. One such event occurred at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 AD. For five-hundred years prior to the battle, Muslims had shared the Iberian peninsula with Christians in a relationship that ranged from tolerant to brutally violent. At the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the Muslim armies were delivered a death blow by the Christian Spaniards united thanks to the saber rattling of Pope Innocent III. Christianity would become the dominant religion in Spain to this day as a result of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. But for a few desperate moments on Monday, July 16, 1212, the path of Spanish history hung in the balance. Stephen O’Shea in Sea of Faith writes:
“The day seemed to be going for the caliph. Battle standards wavered in the dust and shouting, as the Christians desperately tried to hold their ground but seemed poised to desert en masse. From his vantage point atop the Mesa del Rey, King Alfonso is supposed to have turned away from the disheartening spectacle and said to Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, ‘Archbishop, let us die here, you and I'” (226).
The outcome of the battle turned out quite differently. A group of Christian knights from the rear guard thundered into the battle and, almost inexplicably, broke through and routed the whole Muslim army. And the confessional geography of Spain would never be the same again.
Jimmy Fallon recently replaced Conan O’Brien as host of Late Night and, in my opinion, he has been off to a sluggish start. In the first episodes of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he swayed on stage in a distracting way during the stand up routine, he was aloof with guests, and he seemed all-around awkward hosting a television program. Nonetheless, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon made a major comeback yesterday when it exhibited a four-minute comedy sketch about the Gadsden Purchase (1853). Nothing says, “I’m striking out on my own and creating a unique television comedy presence” like obscure history humor. High risk, high reward – well done, Jimmy Fallon!
How does a good storyteller narrate a tale? One of a storyteller’s rhetorical tricks, I have noticed, is keeping in mind the connotation of what he is saying or writing. That is, he adds to his narrative phrases that stimulate the imagination and suggest another way of seeing things, though such phrases may not add any new information to the story. A good example I found in Stephen O’Shea’s Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World:
“The freed warrior was past thirty, already a ripening age for an ax-man with countries to cleave. Henceforth Karl Martiaux – Charles Martel – would forge a kingdom that covered much of present-day France, western Germany, and the Low Countries. Martel – the name comes from Martin, not marteau (hammer) – embarked on an unrelenting itinerary of violence, forcibly bringing the eastern and western Franks to heel” (62; emphasis added).
The artful passage speaks for itself, but I’ll dissect it anyway. O’Shea adds the parenthetical phrase about Martel’s name to slily suggest that Martel was indeed very hammer-like, even though the literal meaning of the excerpt looks as if O’Shea is trying to dispel this etymology. The reader gains nothing from the author’s tricky penmanship other than a more vivid and enticing portrait of Martel, his character.
I have been thinking a lot lately about stories and storytelling. Stories, loosely defined, are the way we understand everything about ourselves and the world, form morals to how an engine works, from theoretical physics to the origin of life. From this perspective, every act of communication is an instance of storytelling. Scientists are storytellers; historians are storytellers; marketers are storytellers; professors lecturing are storytellers; movie directors are storytellers.
But not all stories are equal in our eyes. We are choosy with what stories we take seriously and which ones we dismiss. A Christian fundamentalist may disregard the story of evolution, while the secular scientist will find little use in his life for reading the stories of the Bible. Why is that? How do we decide which stories we are going to hear and believe?
Welcome to the History Journal blog. My name is Alex and I am a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin majoring in history, economics and classical humanities. I decided to start this blog – a continuation of my older blog, http://trojanwalls.blogspot.com/ – for the sake of writing about what I am reading, engaging in discussion with others, and staving off boredom as I search for a job. Enjoy!