I just finished The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. It’s absolutely delightful, and I recommend it to those in the Venn intersection of People who used to love C.S. Lewis and People who no longer love C.S. Lewis.


Previously: WTF happened to Susan

There’s a weird phenomenon where people discover  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as children, absolutely love them, discover that both were Christians— and discard  just Lewis.

Miller is writing for these people, and does a great job explaining what she loved about Lewis, why she felt betrayed by his ‘evangelism’, what else is wrong with Lewis, and why after all she finds a lot to value in his books.

Before getting to that, though, I want to emphasize: whatever you don’t like in Lewis, whatever is problematic, is just as much there in Tolkien. I don’t really get why Tolkien gets a free pass. I mean, God is right there (see the Silmarillion); Gandalf is a frigging angel; Frodo suffers because saints suffer. The men of the east and south are irredeemably bad (no one even preaches Eru to them), the ideal state is agricultural feudalism, and the Scouring of the Shire is a top-down aristocratic coup to restore things as they were for the last thousand years.

Miller covers Tolkien as well, and by her account, Tolkien was really far more bigoted. Lewis was Anglican but accepted all Christian churches; Tolkien only really approved of his own Catholicism. Lewis liked Celtic mythology; Tolkien found it “rambling and incoherent.” Both were casually sexist, but Lewis provided interesting female protagonists; both Bilbo and Frodo’s adventuring groups were all-male clubs.

True, Tolkien kept his theism on a very low boil in LOTR and The Hobbit, while Narnia is full of Christian elements. Far more than Miller, I’d suggest that not being able to read and enjoy it, despite that, is bigotry. If you said you couldn’t read The Arabian Nights or Salman Rushdie or Orhan Pamuk because the writers were Muslims, that would be bigotry; likewise if you couldn’t read Journey to the West because it’s at root a Buddhist story.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept or like those elements, or that those feeling of betrayal aren’t real. Before getting to why Lewis is fun anyway, though, it’s worth looking more at what he was trying to do, and whether it succeeded.

For one thing, if he was attempting to evangelize kids, the evidence seems to be that he failed. The Christian imagery, obvious as it is to adults, just doesn’t register with most kids. Lewis was actually instrumental to my Christian period, but not because of Narnia; the culprit was his explicit apologetic works.

Miller makes a good point: there really are children’s books that preach to kids, and they’re pretty much unreadable. If Lewis was really preachy, no one would feel betrayed by him because no one would read him.

More than he was an evangelist, Lewis was that rare thing, a very readable and sensible moralist. More than half the time Aslan is there to model being a good person rather than to expound Christian doctrine. The situations where he guides or intervenes are usually universal moral situations: being the only one in your group to know some truth (Lucy in LWW); getting someone else in trouble for your own gain (Aravis), the dangers of gossip and group membership (Lucy and the magician’s book), cheating vs. following rules (Digory and the apples).

To an extent, Lewis succeeds so well in making Aslan interesting that he fails in the larger goal of making Jesus interesting. He’s very good at appealing to the imagination; but then the fall to actual pews and hymns feels all the more excruciating. The problem of Christianity isn’t the doctrines; it’s Christians. There are some very lovely Christians, but good lord, how the bad and boring ones have the loudest voices.

Also, as a conworlder, I wish I’d ever had an idea as good as Aslan. But then, he was far less successful in the Space Trilogy.

The one place where Lewis’s method falls apart, for me, is The Last Battle. Creation myths are kind of fun, so I don’t mind The Magician’s Nephew. But as Miller says, Lewis’s assertion that the “new Narnia”, the one in paradise, would have better stories than the old, falls flat. To be blunt, how do you have stories without conflict, without sin? And if the stories are so great, why isn’t there a Book 8?  (I have the same problem with the Singularity, by the way.)

There’s other stuff to worry about— Lewis was by no means progressive even for his time. He was anti-Nazi, as Tolkien was, but disliked most anything modern, including the progressives of his time. (Admittedly many of them were hard to like; when he got to know them, they were busy excusing Stalin.) He was pretty xenophobic and even more sexist. (It’s curious that though he does have male villains, by far the liveliest and most memorable of his villains— Jadis, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Miss Hardcastle— are women.)

Now, if you can’t read a book with such things, I won’t argue. Miller explains pretty well, I think, why she can enjoy the books anyway, for the good parts, while acknowledging the problems.

And there really are a lot of good parts in Narnia: the exuberant appeals to the senses; the little factoids (why you want to use a knife rather than a sword to peel apples); children having really interesting adventures far away from parents; the sly asides (e.g. the titles on Tumnus’s bookshelf); the eclectic interest in everything fantastical, from pagan mythology to George MacDonald; characters like Reepicheep and Puddleglum.

By the way, if you like Lewis and/or Anthony Bourdain, you must read this fantastic mashup: No Reservations, Narnia, by Rachel Manija Brown.

Anyway, Miller’s book is really good, and she seems Lewisian in the best sense: like someone you could spend a delightful time with in a pub or on a long walk. One of the things Lewis emphasized (more in his other writings than in Narnia) was the joys of friendship: finding someone who is thrilled by the same things you are— whether or not they take the same lessons from them. Her book is like having that kind of chat, centering on Lewis but moving on to England, Ireland, Tolkien, World War I, the Middle Ages, various mythologies, and other fantasy/sf writers, as needed.

(Plus, as a skeptic, she’s free of the fustiness that believers too often adopt when writing about Lewis. From Lewis and other Inklings, I once suffered from a bit of Britophilia… but I was cured by reading one of Lewis’s super-admirers. Admire an author, but don’t try to be him.)








The library has slim pickings on linguistics, but it happened to have a couple of books on opposite sides of the innatism debate: Ray Jackendoff’s Patterns in the Mind, and Daniel Everett’s Language: The Cultural Tool.


File photo of Everett in the Amazon researching Pirahã

Overall judgment: both books are full of interesting things; both are extremely convinced of their position; both reduce their opponents (i.e. each other) to straw men.

It’s a lesson, I suppose, in letting one’s speculations get ahead of the evidence. Many a Chomskyan book has a long annoying section on how children could not possibly learn language; the arguments are always the same and they’re always weak. The Chomskyans’ problem is that they don’t spend five minutes trying to think of, or combat, any alternative position. They present the “poverty of the stimulus” as if it’s an obvious fact, but don’t do any actual research into child language acquisition to show that it’s really a problem.

Yet Everett doesn’t do much better on the other side. He’s all about language as a cultural invention, and he mocks the Chomskyans’ syntax-centrism and their inability to explain how or why Minimalism is embedded in the brain and the genome, but he doesn’t really know how children learn languages either.

My sympathies are far more with Everett, but an honest account has to admit: we just don’t know. Well, the third book I picked up is a massive tome called Language acquisition and conceptual development, so I’ll report back if it turns out we do know.

Sometimes the two authors cover the same facts– e.g. what’s going on with Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the brain. Their account is different enough that it seems that both are cherrypicking the data. Jackendoff doesn’t mention the non-linguistic functions of these areas, while Everett pooh-poohs that they’re language-related at all.

What ends up being most valuable about both books is when they’re talking about other things. Everett is full of stories about Amazonian peoples and languages; Jackendoff has a very good section on ASL.  (They both also have quite a bit of introductory linguistics, which I could have used less of. Sometimes it’s a pity that academics only have two modes, “write for the educated high schooler” and “write for each other”. I suspect their editors overestimated just how many people entirely ignorant of linguistics would read each book. I guess I’m lucky that readers of my more advanced books can be assumed to have read the LCK.)

I don’t mean to sound entirely dismissive. In fact Jackendoff makes the Chomskyan case about as well as it can be made (far better than Chomsky ever does); but if you find him convincing, make sure you read Everett to get a fuller perspective.

(I may also be unfair to Jackendoff calling him a Chomskyan; apparently he’s broken with Minimalism. He also makes a point, when pointing the reader to books on syntax, to include a wide range of theories, something Chomsky himself and his acolytes don’t bother to do.)

If you wait long enough to read one of the classics, maybe it’ll be conveniently forgotten. Or maybe you’ll just pick it up anyway. I just finished Vol. 1 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the hot bestseller of 1781. This volume covers the period from AD 180 to 395, in 956 closely printed pages.


Julian. Not accidental that he’s depicted in philosopher’s robes

Should you read a history written 237 years ago? Well, sure, if you want to. Gibbon is old-school history, which means it’s all about the Great Men and the far more numerous Not Great Men. But he’s quite readable, he relies closely on primary sources, and it’s pretty hard to make this swath of history dull. Not only were the emperors a motley crew of heroes, tyrants, and perverts (sometimes all of the above), but the topic of disaster never loses its allure.

I can’t say how much Gibbon has held up as history– he’s probably pretty good at what he does, which is retelling the major wars and events of each reign. Look at a more modern history, like this one from Adrian Goldsworthy, for more of a social and administrative overview.

What does Gibbon think went wrong? Well, he’s big on the influence at the top: there were too many timid, tyrannical, or cruel buffoons in charge. And he’s big on the morale of a society– he thinks Republican Rome was a lovely combination of martial vigor, civic virtue, law, and manliness. (One of his worst epithets is “effeminate”.) Yet these are probably only old-fashioned ways of saying what Goldsworthy pointed out: the empire was fatally weakened by internal strife and an out-of-control army long before the barbarians took over.

Gibbon is, by the way, horribly and casually racist. He can’t resist calling the Persians effeminate (and prone to luxury and tyranny), the Jews anti-social and narrow, the Africans ineffectual and stupid, the steppe nomads as ugly and lazy. (They’re lazy because they don’t grow crops, you see. Adam Smith made the same mistake, not realizing that some regions just can’t support agricultural states.) Yet by his own account the Romans were despotic, often faithless and cruel, and not “manly” at all. The racism is completely gratuitous– he’s perfectly capable of soberly describing the respectable Persian religion and recognizing the virtues of their armies.

He’s also completely in favor of empire, Roman or British; manly nations should just spread out over the globe as far as they can, though again, by his own showing, no one has ever made these huge empires last too long without falling apart.

He also has a rather parochial kind of aristophilia, in that he naturally prefers and argues for whatever most resembles the British kingdom of his own day. He doesn’t like democracy or too much power in the hands of the people; he doesn’t much like absolute monarchy; it’s evident that he expects and wishes the Roman Senate would act like the British aristocrats of his day: rule the country in a more or less benign way, consult with each other, support a congenial ruler though holding the ultimate upper hand, and serving as the officers of both military and civil administration. I doubt the Republic was really what he imagined it was, and the imperial-era Senate certainly wasn’t. He clearly understands both why the Emperors needed to be generals, and why the Roman state was ultimately weakened because of military rule.

For much of the last 200 years, the book has had a slight tincture of scandal, because of his treatment of Christianity. I’d had the vague impression, in fact, that he was an atheist. Not at all; in fact he goes out of his way to talk about the Deity and Providence and how all the heretics were wrong; there’s really nothing here that a Christian could really object to. What earlier generations hated, of course, was that Gibbon wrote as a historian and not as a partisan. He downplays the persecution of Christianity (really, most emperors ignored it; only Diocletian really cracked down on it, and for a relatively brief period); he is not impressed with the Christians’ doctrinal squabbles or fearsome counter-prosecution of pagans; and he’s quite sympathetic to Roman religion. (Though he really hates Nordic religion.) He criticizes the luxury and venality of the 4C bishops, and is just a bit sarcastic about the miracles of the ecclesiastical sources. (He points out that if the sun really darkened during the Crucifixion, it’s rather surprising that Roman naturalists never mentioned it.)

An unexpected hero of the book, in fact, is the emperor Julian, who reigned just from 361-3, and received the title “the Apostate” because he reversed his uncle Constantine’s imperial embrace of Christianity and attempted to restore paganism. His apostasy is more excusable when you learn that the people who taught him were the same people who murdered most of his family. He had a natural leaning toward philosophy and loved hanging around with Neo-Platonist teachers; but he turned out to have an aptitude for war and statecraft as well. He turned back some Germanic invasions, reluctantly was acclaimed emperor by his troops, was personally abstemious and workaholic, and won the East by accident, when the emperor Constantius died. He advanced into Persia with some remarkable victories, inspiring his soldiers and dashing about the battlefield like a second Alexander… and then took a Persian javelin in his liver. Oops! The Romans kind of fell apart, extricating themselves from Persia only at the price of a significant loss of territory.

An alternative history where Julian lived longer would be interesting. It was probably too late for paganism– but the fact that most of his army flip-flopped from Christian to pagan and then back again, as his career waxed and suddenly ended, shows that the religious struggle was far more chancy than later events made it look.

Gibbon goes on, perhaps too much, about the politics of the intra-Christian squabbles, but doesn’t really bother to explain the theological problems. He simply assumes that the later-orthodox position is obviously right. This does a disservice to his own story, since in this period Arianism was actually dominant, and he can’t really explain why. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if it weren’t for a few historical accidents, one of the “heretic” sects would be orthodoxy and the other would be obviously wrong.

Another curious topic: the extension of Roman citizenship. The Greek attitude toward citizenship was like Trump’s: make it as hard to get as possible. The Romans extended citizenship first to their Italian allies, then to more and more subjects, and finally (in 212) to all non-slaves within the Empire. Gibbon more or less disapproves of this: he’s all about the manliness, and obviously the city of Rome had lost its martial abilities and then its pre-eminence, well before the barbarians started causing trouble. But (say) Colin McEvedy thinks that this was one of Rome’s great strengths. The city itself could afford to decline because more and more people were willing to fight and die for the Roman name and civilization. (To the end, the Greek “Byzantine Empire” called itself and its people Romans.) If it had kept citizenship as a prize for itself, its empire would be as short-lived as those of Athens or Macedonia.

I’m not sure if I’ll go on to Volume 2… in many ways Vol. 1 tells you all you need to know. It ends just as the Germans are invading and the Huns aren’t far behind; the actual fall of the Western Empire in the next 80 years is just anticlimax.

A little linguistic note: you have to watch out for a few words that have changed meaning in 237 years. E.g. of one Gothic leader Gibbon says “the love of rapine and the hatred of Rome seconded, or even prevented, the eloquence of his ambassadors.” This could easily be taken as the opposite of what he means. We’d say that these things endorsed or preceded his diplomacy.

(Perhaps you’re wondering if a Rome Construction Kit is in the future? That would be fun, not least because I’d love to improve my Latin. And ooh, the world needs a history that puts all the macrons back on the Latin names. But no, this is just side reading for now.  Maybe later…)



Today’s reading: Grammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal, by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, published in 1660.  Let’s call it PRG. You can get it here, in the 1803 edition. My understanding was that it was a precursor to Chomsky, and in fact he claimed as much in a book, Cartesian Linguistics (1965).  Spoiler: it isn’t.


Undoubtedly your first question will be: as a grammar from Renaissance times, how does it compare to the word of Šm Fatandor Revouse, Pere aluatas i Caďinor? In overall coverage and linguistic knowledge, it’s fairly similar— for instance, PRG, like Šm Revouse, stumbles in the phonology section through not having any vocabulary or notation for phonetics; both are reduced to talking about letters.

On the other hand, PRG is fairly free of the sort of metaphysical and nationalistic nonsense that Šm Revouse indulges.  In particular, they never claim that the ancient languages are better than the modern, nor do they try to find spiritual categories or whatever within language. They acknowledge at several points that many aspects of language are arbitrary, and vary between languages. (They do sometimes appeal to the notion of ‘elegance.’)

By the way, see here for an argument from W.K. Percival that there is really no such thing as “Cartesian linguistics” at all, that PRG was not particularly innovative or Cartesian, and that Descartes’ idea of language, to the extent he had any, had very little resemblance to Chomsky’s.

Anyway, what is PRG? It’s not really a grammar at all, either of French or the ancient languages. It could be called a sketch of a comparative grammar, or an overview of the concepts needed to study grammar. So it starts with sounds, then discusses nouns, pronouns, adjectives, cases, verbs, etc.  It never gives enough information to fully cover any topic or tell you in detail how a language handles it, but it does define all grammatical terms, gives examples, and opines on what the functions of each thing are.

Chomsky felt that his notion of “universal grammar” was prefigured here, but I’d say PRG starts from the pretty obvious fact that a similar grammatical analysis can be used for the major languages of Europe. PRG never really runs into a fact about modern French that can’t be described using the terms of classical grammar.  So, for instance, they are perfectly aware that French nouns don’t have case, but they find it useful to relate subjects to the Latin nominative, PPs with de to the genitive, and PPs with à to the dative.

The languages covered are very few: of ancient languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; of modern, French, Italian, and Spanish. There are a couple of references to German; none at all to English, and nothing on languages the authors surely were aware of: Basque, Bréton, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic.

Chomsky went so far as to assert that PRG prefigured his “surface and deep structures”. This is completely absurd; PRG talks about things like subjects and predicates and propositions, but this was bog-standard thinking about language since ancient times. They come a little closer in this passage on adjectives:

When I say Invisible God has created the visible world, three judgements occur in my mind, contained in this proposition. Because I judge first that God is invisible. 2. That he has created the world. 3. That the world is visible. And of these three propositions, the second is the principal one, and the core of the proposition; the first and the third are incidental to it.

The idea that the adjective invisible applied to God represents a proposition God is invisible reoccurs in generative grammar. On the other hand, it is not part of a transformational view of language, nor it is part of a systematic treatment of semantics. It’s really a pretty basic observation about adjectives… if you want to say what an adjective is, you’re almost bound to observe that it says what something is like. It doesn’t mean that you’ve invented deep structure, or phrase structure rules.

There are some interesting bits where the authors try to relate meanings to other meanings. E.g. they say at one point that Petrus vivit ‘Peter lives’ is equivalent to Petrus vivens est ‘Peter is living’, or that Pudet me ‘I am ashamed’ is equivalent to Pudor est tenens mihi ‘Shame is had by me’. You could generously relate this to generative semantics, except backwards: GS tends to make verbs primitive, while PRG tries to restate verbs in terms of adjectives or nouns.

But we really have to avoid overinterpreting texts in terms of current theories. PRG is, by modern standards, hobbled by a lack of semantic terms and frames of reference. The authors didn’t have predicate calculus to think about, or Minsky’s idea of frames, or Fillmore’s idea of semantic roles, or Rosch’s prototypes or fuzzy categories, or Lakoff’s ideas on categories and metaphors.

They’re doing the best they can with the concepts they have. On verbs, for instance, they reject the old idea that verbs represent actions or passions, pointing out (quite rightly) that there are stative verbs which are neither. They propose that the essence of a verb is that it affirms something— that is, it asserts a proposition about something. The prototypical affirmation is the word est “is”, which is why they restate Petrus vivit as Petrus vivens est. Essentially they’re reducing sentences with verbs to things they have already discussed: objects and attributes.

They have a very short chapter on syntax, whose content is rather disappointing. It amounts to these observations:

  • Some words have to agree with each other, to avoid confusion.
  • Some words require each other (e.g. nouns and subjects), and some words depend on another (e.g. adjectives on nouns).
  • When everything is stated well, without rhetoric, the order of words is “natural” and follows the “natural expression of our thoughts”.
  • However, sometimes people want to be fancy, and they omit words, insert superfluous words, or reverse words.

I’m guessing they were in a hurry to wrap up, because they certainly knew Latin well enough to know that the basic sentence order was different in Latin and French, but also could be more freely varied.

A minor point of interest: PRG frequently, like generative grammar, gives negative examples— things we don’t say. This was by no means common in grammars— Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar, for instance, doesn’t do this.

Should you run out and read it? Eh, probably not, especially as it turns out it’s not a precursor at all to modern syntax. It is interesting if you want to know how early rationalists approached grammar, e.g. if you wanted to write something like Šm Revouse’s grammar for your own conlang.




I’m up to page 220, which probably means I’m half done with the Syntax Construction Kit. So it’s time for another progress report.

The last book I read, Robert Van Valin’s An introduction to Syntax, is perhaps the least useful on the details of syntax, but the most useful on what syntax has been doing for the last forty years. There are two overall strands:

  • A focus on constituent structure, the path taken by Chomsky.
  • A focus on relations between words: semantic roles, valence, dependencies.

That’s really helpful, and it’s a better framing than the division I learned in the 1980s between Chomskyan syntax and generative semantics.  The problem with that was, in effect, that GS disappeared. So it kind of looked like the Chomskyans won the battle.

But like Sith and Jedi, you can never really get rid of either side in this fight. In many ways GS simply regrouped and came back as Cognitive Linguistics. Plus, it turns out that many of the specific GS ideas that Chomsky rejected in the 1970s… came back in the ’90s as Minimalism. In particular, semantic roles have a place in the theory, and even the semantic breakdown of verbs (show = cause to see) that GS emphasized years ago, and that Chomsky at the time bitterly resisted.

Also, an unexpected side path: in order to understand and explain a lot of modern theories, I’m having to re-read papers I read for my first syntax classes, nearly forty years ago. My professor had pretty good taste in what would prove important.

There’s two challenges in writing this sort of book.

  • How to communicate that Chomsky isn’t the only game in town, without simply writing a brusque travelog of maybe a dozen alternatives
  • How to make this useful and interesting for someone who just wants to write conlangs, man

Van  Valin scupulously divides his page count between the constituent and the relational point of view. I will emphasize relations far more than I originally intended to, but I’m still going to focus on constituent structure. Partly that’s because there’s so much to cover, but it’s also because I’ve already written quite a bit about relations and semantics in my previous books.

But in general, I’m trying for breadth of syntactic data, not depth in Minimalism (or any other school). The problem with the latter approach is that you may learn to create a syntactic tree that your professor won’t scribble red marks over, but you won’t learn why that particular tree is so great. Every theory can handle, say, WH-movement.

Hopefully, that will address the second challenge as well.  As the Conlanger’s Lexipedia gives you a huge amount of information about words, my aim with this book is to give you more things to put in your syntax section than you thought was possible. And hopefully some pretty weird things. Wait till you see a Bach-Peters sentence.

Plus, web toys! I don’t know why more syntax books haven’t been written by computer programmers; it’s a natural fit. Though I have to say: Chomsky should have run his ideas on Minimalism past a programmer. Some of Minimalism is beautifully simple: you can set out the basic structure of a sentence with a minimum of rules. Then, to handle tense and case, question, and movements, you have to add an amazing superstructure of arbitrary, hard-to-generalize rules. The idea is to get rid of ‘arbitrary’ rules like Passive, but the contrivances needed to do so seem just as arbitrary to me.


I was out with a friend last night, and he asked about the book I’m working on, and I said it was on syntax.  So he asked, reasonably enough, what’s syntax?

Well, how do you answer that for a non-linguist?  This is what I came up with.

Suppose you want to make a machine that spits out English sentences all day long.  There should be no (or very few) repetitions, and each one should be good English.

How would you make that machine in the simplest way possible?

That is, we’re not interested in a set of rules that require the Ultimate Computer from Douglas Adams’s sf. We know that “make a human being” is a possible answer, but we’re looking for the minimum. (We also, of course, don’t want a machine that can’t do it— that misses some sentences, or spits out errors.  We want the dumbest machine that works.)

One more stipulation: we don’t insist that they be meaningful. We’re not conducting a conversation with the machine. It’s fine if the machine outputs John is a ten foot tall bear. That’s a valid sentence— we don’t care whether or not someone named John is nearby, or if he’s a bear, or if he’s a big or a small bear.

That machine is a generative grammar.

The rules of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures are in fact such a machine— though a partial one.  And along with the book I’m creating a web tool that allows you to define rules and let it generate sentences with the Syntactic Structures rules, or any other set.  It works like a charm.  But the SS rules were not, of course, a full grammar.

Now, besides the amusement value, why do we do this?

  • It’s part of the overall goal of describing language.
  • It puts some interesting lower bounds on any machine that handles language.
  • As a research program, it will uncover a huge store of facts about syntax, most of them never noticed before.  Older styles of grammar were extremely minimal about syntax, because they weren’t asking the right questions.
  • It might help you with computer processing of language.
  • It might tell you something about how the brain works.

I said we wouldn’t worry about semantics, but in practice generative grammar has a lot to say about it. Just as we can’t quite separate syntax from morphology, we can’t quite separate it from semantics and pragmatics.

You might well ask (and in fact you should!), well, how do you make such a machine?  What do the rules look like?  But for that you’ll have to wait for Chapter Two.

At this point I’ve written about 150 pages, plus two web toys.  (One is already available— a Markov text generator.)

I mentioned before that my syntax books didn’t extend much beyond 1990. Now I’ve got up to 2013, kind of. I read a book of that date by Andrew Carnie, which got me up to speed, more or less, on Chomsky’s middle period:  X-bar syntax, government & binding, principles & parameters. The good news is that all this is pretty compatible with what I knew from earlier works, especially James McCawley.

I’m also awaiting two more books, one on Minimalism, one on Construction Grammar.

Fortunately, I’m not training people to write dissertations in Chomskyan (or any other) orthodoxy… so I don’t have to swallow everything in Chomsky.  (But you know, rejecting Chomsky is almost a full time job. He keeps changing his mind, so you have to study quite a lot of Chomsky before you know all the stuff you can reject.)

I just finished re-reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles. It came out in 1996, and I read and liked it then.  I’m surprised I’ve never written about it; I think it’s my favorite book about God.


Illo by Robert Leighton

We often hear about “the Bible as literature”, but we rarely treat it as literature. This is what Miles does; more precisely, he aims to analyze God as a literary character.

This probably wouldn’t work without one further constraint: Miles goes through the Tanakh in order, analyzing what the text says about God without reading ahead, and without reference to later theology, whether Jewish or Christian.  That turns the book from a humdrum Bible-reading plan into a series of shocks and surprises.

Now, eventually this process will result in a portrait of the God most people remember. But it takes surprisingly long to add in all the pieces.  God, at first, makes few demands on humans.  Even when he finds some humans he commits to— Noah, Abram, Joseph— he does not ask for worship or prayer, does not talk about love or law or justice. He has a strange obsession with human fertility.  He does not refer to himself as a father till the story of David; does not present himself as a king until we reach the Prophets.

If you’re a believer, the book is likely to be challenging, yet fascinating. Miles doesn’t assume orthodox theology, so he is constantly asking: what do we know about God so far; what does God think he’s doing? God is always supremely confident, but Miles makes a good case from the text that he is constantly improvising, constantly surprised at the things humans do, surprised too at what he himself does in response. From being the creator of mankind he moves to being a fiery destroyer… seems to repent of that, and concentrates on a single human family, becoming its patron… loses track of them, then rediscovers them as a large population oppressed in Egypt… turns himself into a mighty warrior on behalf of his adopted people, yet becomes murderous when they don’t do what he wants, which is often.

Though he doesn’t use later theology to elucidate any of this, he does use historical criticism— showing how strands of God’s character come from different traditions, related to various Semitic gods. Genesis, for instance, has been knit together from two accounts, one of which calls God ʾElohim (‘god’), the other Yahweh. The patron god of Abraham acts much like other friendly family gods; the warrior god of Exodus has much in common with Baʿal. (The goddesses are largely present as an absence: the compilers made sure God was both extremely male, and devoid of sexuality. Yet feminine points of view do appear later in the book.)

This is given as essential background information, but isn’t allowed to undermine the unity of the text.  The Tanakh was put together as one text, after all, and we read it, not the original sources or myths.  But the seams where it was knit together show, and help explain exactly why God, as a character, is both compelling and unpredictable. He seems conflicted because he was put together out of conflicting elements. We don’t read the text as a story of multiple gods, but of one personality whose conflicts, like ours, are internal.

Miles chooses to read the book in the Jewish order.  Tanakh is an abbreviation: Torah + Nebiʾim (Prophets) + Ketubim (writings). You can compare the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic orders here. But in short, the Tanakh follows the Christian order through Kings (with the exception of Ruth).  Then it includes all the prophets, major and minor. Then, everything else: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.

The order doesn’t make a difference for the main narrative of the Exodus, the lawgiving, the conquest of Israel, the apogee under Solomon, the centuries of decadence, and the final catastrophe— the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon.

But it does make a huge difference toward the end: in the last of the Writings, God is increasingly eclipsed. His last words are spoken in Job; after that, for nine books, he is silent. He is frequently discussed and invoked and referred to, of course, but he never speaks, much less acts in the world as he did in the first books.  He’s barely present in Song of Songs and Esther; and in Ezra and Nehemiah the roles of the Jews and God have almost reversed: where once God acted and the Israelites reacted (or disobeyed), now the Jews act, and God is simply their passive inspiration.

It’s often said that God answered and silenced Job, and Job repented.  From the text as written, however, it would be more accurate to say that Job has silenced God. Job is truly a strange book: first, a new character named Satan is introduced; he makes a wager— which God accepts— that Job will renounce God if his worldly goods and his health are removed. Job does not renounce God, but he bitterly complains about his treatment: why should an innocent man be punished?  God appears to reprimand him, but tries to change the subject: his entire discourse is an eloquent poem on his own sovereign power. Job concedes, of course, that God is all-powerful. God does not attribute sin to Job, neither does he explain the very ungodly wager he made.

In most translations Job repents, but Miles makes a good case that this is a pious mistranslation. Rather than “I repent in ashes”, Job says “I feel loathing and sorrow for man’s state.”

God never apologizes in words, but occasionally he changes his course of action, and in this case he quickly restores Job’s fortunes. We hear no more of Satan. And perhaps he goes off to think about what sort of being he’s become, because he offers no more prophesy and no more miraculous interventions in history.

And yet it’s not a defeat— more of a retirement in honor. If anything, the Jews do better— taking the Law and their God more seriously than they ever did when he was constantly and directly involved with them.

Miles is by no mean a hostile observer. Sometimes you need to shake things up to make a text come alive. He is always erudite and charming.  And if you’re not a believer, there’s no better or safer guide to the Tanakh.  He’ll show you what’s there, and introduce you to the striking characters inside it, without prodding you to believe or disbelieve in anything.

In 2002 he came out with a sequel, Christ: a crisis in the life of God. It attempts to apply the same treatment to the New Testament, but I found it far less interesting, because it takes far fewer liberties. It basically goes over the standard idea of the incarnation, but doesn’t bring much that’s new to the story. If you want new ways to think about the NT, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which reconstructs the dizzying array of theological options in the first centuries of Christianity, without assuming the correctness of what became the orthodox faction.




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