This book was such a surprise. I had tuned into a conversation between Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, hosted by Point Reyes Books, and afterward submitted a request for this book to my library. Not sure what I expected but it was very unexpected. Though all of it is based on historical texts and it is written in a very straightforward manner, it is also very funny. Some of the entries, just unbelievable.
It is a slim book, just over 150 pages, and is organized into two main sections – the first on Angels, the second discusses Saints. In Angels, Weinberger draws on various religious and historic writings to lay out the wealth of possibility re Angels. What are they, how many are there, what are there powers, what do they look like, are they corporeal? Etc. I was astounded by the lengths to which people will go to explain that which they do not understand. And to justify discrepancies between texts across history. It becomes quite hilarious, though never sarcastic or mean spirited. He says –
Surprisingly little was originally known about the angels. They are mentioned less than two hundred times in the Bible, usually only in passing. They appear or they act, but the matter of their existence is not elucidated.
It is in the texts across the centuries, where writers attempt to flesh out these ideas, that things get interesting. And this is what Weinberger ponders.
The section on Saints begins in the first century and proceeds to more modern times. Some Saints lives are given several pages. Others are included in sections titled Brief Lives (I-V) and are given as little as a single sentence. For example –
Dathus (Italy, 2nd century) He became bishop of Ravenna after a dove miraculously appeared above him, but it is doubtful that he existed.
Brigid of Kildare (Ireland, d. 523) She used to hang her cloak on a ray of sun,
Anthony Grassi (Italy, d. 1671) It was noted that his manner became more severe after he was struck by lightning, which also cured his severe indigestion.
You get the picture. There is also a brief section called The Afterlife, less than one page. Clearly Weinberger picks and chooses what he includes in the book. While it is erudite and succinct, a true scholarly work would run hundreds of pages. Instead I see this as a poke to consider humanity and the lengths we will go to in an attempt to make sense of the ineffable. Honestly, the book was hilarious, truly entertaining.