Reading List/On the Record

August 1, 2004

Reading List

We asked ocean-sciences professors in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences: What is your favorite beach read--literally, a book about the ocean?

-The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson. "The reason a lot of people in my generation became interested in ocean sciences." It was a "great read" in 1951 and "remains a great read" in 2004. --Richard T. Barber, professor at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina

- The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Ruark. "Many of the stories revolve around hunting and fishing. As someone who deeply values those activities, I feel Ruark beautifully expresses my, to some, contradictory sense of how they fundamentally connect me to nature and nurture my reverence for it."
--Richard T. Di Giulio, environmental toxicology professor

- Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1584-1958, by David Sticks. "I enjoyed reading about how so many phases of American history are woven into the story of this region, starting from the early European explorations and extending through the middle of the last century." --Brad Murray, assistant professor in the earth and ocean sciences division

- The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander. "The true story of one of the most dramatic shipwreck adventures ever told. .... [H]ow 0 men survived their subsequent 20-month ice, land, and sea ordeal is brought to life through Alexander's controlled writing style and the associated photographs taken by Frank Hurley, a professional hired by Shackelton to record the expedition." --Emily Klein, associate professor in the earth and ocean sciences division

- Outerbridge Reach, by Robert Stone. "Besides the quality of writing and the exquisite way the metaphor of a man traveling solo on a boat around the world is treated, I found its matter-of-fact descriptions of contemporary WASP culture, particularly the upper class, enlightening. Books like this provide a window into a way of life and culture that I've run into at Duke and elsewhere that I'm always trying to understand a little better."
--Stuart Rojstaczer, geology, environment, and civil- and environmental-engineering professor

On the Record

How art history can help interpret the film The Passion of the Christ.

Teaching has its obligations. As a professor of Early Christian art, seeing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was one of mine. After all, most of my future students will be more familiar with Mel Gibson's account of the Passion than with Matthew's.

The film turns out to offer a good bit of art-historical information. But the history it references is not that of Roman, first-century Jerusalem, but rather that of late-medieval and early-modern Italy. This film would have been made by the Franciscans in the fifteenth century, had they had the technology. Anyone who has visited the Franciscan "sacred mountain" at Varallo, north of Milan, with its life-size terra-cotta figures in scenes representing the Passion, will recognize the similarity. In both the sculptures and the film, exaggeration of gesture and expression make pain appear desirable: Suffering is the way to salvation.

The Passion of the Christ also provides the credible conditions for the creation of relic cults popular in Catholic Europe from the thirteenth century on. Pilate's wife provides the means--fine linen cloth--by which Jesus' blood might be preserved for the Blood Relics so popular in the late Middle Ages. Veronica's veil looks suspiciously like the Turin Shroud.

More darkly, The Passion of the Christ re-presents the violent hatred of the Jews that characterized the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One example makes the point: In his Lenten sermons of 1475, the popular Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, denounced the Jews, warning that God would reveal their iniquity. A few days later, the body of a Christian child was discovered, and the Jews were baselessly accused of his ritual murder. Many of the Jews of Trent were tortured and executed. Images of the blood libel were circulated, making Trent a popular site of pilgrimage.

How could Evangelical Christians embrace a film that promotes those pre-Vatican II Catholic sacramental practices against which their founding fathers railed? Evangelicals know their Gospels; they see in the film the story with which they are familiar. Perhaps if Evangelical Christians took more art-history classes, Mel Gibson wouldn't be pocketing more than $350 million in personal profit.