Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Land of Forgetfulness

Radio and TV preachers are fond of scaring the hell out of their audiences and trying to put them on the straight and narrow by painting a visual image of Hell as a fiery place of punishment (Rev 21:8; 14:10; 19:20; 20:10). Oddly enough the word Hell does not even appear in the Greek New Testament. Several words for the place of punishment of evil-doers appear in the New Testament,1 but Hell is not among them. The Biblical Greek word is "Hades" (usually translated as Hell). The worst thing to fear about Hades and Sheol (the land of departed spirits in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), however, is not the New Testament fire and brimstone [sulpher], for how could actual fire affect a nonmaterial entity (soul, spirit)?2

            The most terrifying thing about Sheol is loss of memory. In the ancient world, in both Hebrew and Greek traditions the dead continue in a kind of semi-existence. It is once referred to as "the Land of Forgetfulness." The psalmist questions God:

Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,
or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are thy wonders known in the darkness,
or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:12-13, RSV)

The place the psalmist inquires about is not the fictional Land of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey,3 but rather the mythical place of departed spirits in Semitic and Greek antiquity, as the Hebrew parallelism with "the grave" and "Abaddon" (Rev 9:11) makes clear. Sheol is described as "the land of gloom and deep darkness where light is as darkness" (Job 10:21). The dead are there, but as "not existing" (Sirach 17:27-28). They are spiritless shades (Baruch  2:17) that know nothing (Eccl 9:5). In Sheol the dead are but shadows of their former living state; thinking, feeling, purposeful action, and remembering are finished, for in Sheol the vacant, thoughtless, and oblivious monotony of death reigns.

            In Greek mythology the underworld was ruled over by the Greek God Hades. His kingdom was populated by the shades of those who had died. One of the five rivers running through Hades was called Lethe (forgetfulness, oblivion). The dead drank of the waters of this mythical river and instantly lost their memories. For example, Odysseus journeyed to the mythical land of Hades, the land of death, and found his mother's shade. She did not know him until she sipped blood that Odysseus poured out; then she knew him.4

Both Sheol and Hades hold a terror worse than a lake burning with fire. Being bereft of memory is a loss of self identity and hence a loss of self; it is in a sense a kind of living death. You "live," but it is no longer that person you once were, but someone without a past—where one has neither memory of childhood nor of one's own children.

            The places of punishment in the Judeo-Christian tradition are mythical locations. Yet there is a real location, sharing the terror of Sheol and Hades, in which the land of forgetfulness becomes a contemporary reality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) dementia/Alzheimer's "is a syndrome in which there is a deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform every day activities." The syndrome is not a normal part of aging and there is no current treatment either to cure dementia or slow its progression. Approximately, 50 million people around the world suffer from dementia. Alzheimer's is the most common form of the disease; the WHO estimates that 60-70% of dementia sufferers may have Alzheimer's disease. The WHO claims that "there are nearly 10 million new cases every year," and further estimates the number of people with dementia will be 82 million in 2030 and 152 million in 2050.5

            One could debate which of the two is the greater threat to the human psychē—the mythical hell of Sheol and Hades or the living hell of dementia/Alzheimer's. It seems to me, however, that dementia is by far the greater threat, for dementia robs sufferers of the integrity of life in the land of living in the here and now rather than in some mythical future. I seriously doubt, however, that true believers will see it that way.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts on Religion Blog: "Does Hell Exist," August 29, 2015: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=hell
2Well, maybe, a mythical, magic fire might. 
3In this land all who eat the intoxicating fruit of the lotus "longed to stay forever, browsing on that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland" (Book 9).
4The Odyssey, Book 11

Monday, October 7, 2019

Dismantling a Scholar's Library

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl 12:12, RSV).

A true statement! But it tells only half the story. Much study may weary the “flesh,” but it encourages the spirit and enlightens the mind.

When you come bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments (2 Tim 4:13, RSV).

We need books and, as the writer of this statement notes, we collect them. We cannot hold everything in mind, but if we can remember the book, we can find therein, precisely stated, the information our brain only half remembered.

Shapan read [the book] before the king. And when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes (2 Kgs 22:10-11, RSV).

Books can regenerate a community; books change the course of one’s life. Hence there is little wonder that we find libraries to be essential.

            Sometimes books become a difficulty, however, especially when one finds it necessary to change one’s residence. For then one discovers a large library collection is a major problem, as I recently have been made aware. We waited entirely too long to begin downsizing in preparation to move near children who would be able to assist us in our advanced years (she, 83; me 85)—the child becomes the father of the man! Our 39 years in Springfield, Missouri had seen us gather through inattention a mass of “stuff”: luggage, brief cases, photos, pictures, clothing gathering dust in closets, “stuff” at the bottom of stacks of other “stuff,” office material, mementos, et cetera and so forth.

            In my case there were also several thousand volumes of books collected over a lifetime of professional study of religion, which included a 30 year teaching career. Unfortunately there is little interest among the American public for technical books written in Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, French and German—the languages one must master to be granted membership into the guild of New Testament scholars. What does a scholar* do near the end of life with a well-worn research library, especially when University libraries are reducing their collections of print media and increasing their electronic media. Journals are now online (so I tossed out all my journals), as are certain major works of the previous generations of scholars. In short, as a collection my library is an unwanted commodity with no real financial value.

            That prompts the question what does a critical scholar of religion leave behind when his library is not valued? That valuation seems to pass over also onto his published books and articles. Had I been an architect, my legacy would have been written in buildings of mortar and stone that passed into the next century; were I a physician I might have perfected a new surgical technique or discovered a new cure for the many illness of humankind; were I a lawyer I might have been survived by legal briefs that inspired laws improving the common lot. A critical scholar of religion, however, leaves behind books and articles that may or may not even find a place in the history of scholarship; if fortunate they may find shelf space in libraries and used book stores. Should the guild make it so, a scholar during his career might have discovered what becomes accepted solutions to nagging problems in New Testament Studies, or perhaps raise new questions about the discipline. Discovering new problems for the guild to ponder would have been a singular achievement—for solutions come and go but the enduring questions of New Testament Study seem to have a very long life for those who read with a critical spirit (for example, did Q really exist or is it doomed forever to be a scholar’s invented [hypothetical] source for partially explaining differences between the Synoptic Gospels).

            What then should I do with my professional library if I cannot sell it or donate it as a collection? Here is what I did: I invited a few of my local colleagues and former students to come by and select whatever they wanted from the collection after I had packed what I regarded as the basic tools of my discipline (I included few commentaries and specific studies) for moving to a much smaller home. I offered this in the interest of finding my books a good home. My books are good friends and have served me well in the past 50 years, or more and still have good years remaining. What books remain on my shelves when they have finished their selections will regrettably be abandoned to their fate in the estate sale—a sad ending! But endings are accompanied by new beginnings. What’s next?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*A scholar is one who has done advanced study in a special field, and is guided in his/her studies by the spirit of criticism: that is, to make judgments in the light of evidence.