Let me start off on a tangent. I've been watching some Reza Aslan clips on YouTube and been really pleasantly surprised by some of his perspectives. TLet me start off on a tangent. I've been watching some Reza Aslan clips on YouTube and been really pleasantly surprised by some of his perspectives. This one for example:
Q: As a historian and scholar, as you read all this, how can you still believe any of these religions?
A: I don't believe in a religion, I believe in God. The only reason that I call myself a Muslim is because the symbols and metaphors that Islam uses to talk about God are ones that I like, the ones that make sense to me. It's not that Islam is more true than Christianity, or Christianity is more true than Judaism, they are all equally true equally valid ways of expressing what is absolutely inexpressible. If you believe there is something beyond the material world, that there is something truly transcendent, then you need some kind of language to talk about it, to make sense of it, that's all that religion is. Anyone who says "I believe in Christianity" or "I believe in Islam" misses the point. Christianity and Islam are not things to believe, they are signposts to God. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
It's a simple proposition. You either believe there's something beyond the material world, or you do not. If you do not, fine. If you do, then do you want to actually experience it? Commune with it? Or do you not? If you do not, fine. If you do, then you need some help. You need a way to express what is fundamentally undefinable. And that's all religion does, it gives you a language to express it. Anything more than that and you're missing the point of what religion is. The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said "If you focus too narrowly on a single path to God, all you will ever find is the path."
I love this idea of religion as simply a language. A language that may help some to reach God. As well as a language to commune with other believers. It's a way of making life easier and more meaningful for some, and there's nothing wrong with that, even if it is historically inaccurate and/or technically untrue. And as an agnostic-bordering-on-athiest but one who disagrees with the attitudes of extreme athiests like Richard Dawkins, I find Reza's attitude refreshing. If more people adopted this viewpoint of religion, the world would be a much more relaxed, laid back place to live.
This perspective also comes across when you read his book. It doesn't take many pages to realize that the Jesus we know from Christianity is different from the Jesus of history. But Reza does not say therefore Christianity is wrong. I think the people who are offended by this book are being automatically defensive because that is exactly the claim they think a book like this would be making, whereas the book simply presents a different "knowing" of Jesus. Reza talks about different ways of knowing, to know something factually and historically (which only became a way of knowing things in very recent history, say for the last 300 years or so) or to know something through faith. And each way of knowing is equally valid and can co-exist.
So back on the topic of this book, specifically... It's quite amazing that historians know anything about Jesus (the man) at all. Afterall, there were very few written records of Jesus beyond the four gospels. And the gospels were written decades after Jesus's death by communities of believers--not by the actual Matthew, Mark, and John. (Luke was written by Luke, but he never met Jesus and wrote it more than half a century after Jesus's death). And there are only a few very brief mentions of Jesus from outside sources. On top of that, the concept of historical truth was totally foreign to the people at the time. So even though we may read the gospels now as supposedly what happened when Jesus walked the earth, nobody read it that way at the time when the gospels were written! It's simply a difference in literary convention and cultural understanding that has been lost over time. People back then wouldn't understand the concept of historical accuracy, what they looked for was a portrayal that got at the "truth" of who Jesus was, regardless of whether or not things actually happened that way.
What Reza did here (while standing on the backs of a lot of other research) was to put what little we know about Jesus in the context of ancient Rome, which we do know a lot about. And through this, he is able to make educated guesses on what is more likely vs. less likely in terms of what is written about Jesus in the gospels.
So, yes, I read these chapters with many grains of salt. Some parts I agreed with his conclusions more than other parts, and overall, it was more of a spark to my imagination than a "oh this really was how Jesus was" kind of thing. There is very little certainty here, but I liked that about it.
Even though I found the chapters on Jesus and Jewish/Roman society fascinating, what was even more fascinating were the chapters on the aftermath of his death and resurrection. I remember reading about Saul/Paul in Bible study, but it isn't until now that I realize what a huge influence he had in setting up what we know as Christianity now. Because Paul never knew Jesus firsthand, his interpretation of Jesus was not tethered to any facts whatsoever. (He was basically an egomaniac and crazy-person -- he told people not to believe anyone's teachings but his own, even if it came from the mouth of an angel!). Much of what Paul preached went against what the other apostles (James, Peter, et al) were preaching at the time. And much of what he said contradicted Jesus's own words--probably the biggest one being that Jesus never claimed to be the literal son of God. Son of God was a title that was attributed to many people at the time, kings and such received the title, and it definitely did not mean being actually God himself. Besides Jesus mostly used the phrase "son of man."
Despite these facts, Paul is the real bedrock of the Christian religion, not Jesus! Without Paul's transformation of Jesus's original message, there would be no Christianity today. His (some would say) misunderstanding of the real living Jesus and his re-interpretation of it into a more inclusive, less Jewish, more palatable to Gentiles, "Jesus as literal Son of God" thing made Christianity into a totally separate religion from Judaism. And because of the political landscape at the time, his version of Christianity ended up really catching on:
[when a] group of bishops gathered ... to canonize what would become known as the New Testament, they chose to include in the Christian scruptures one letter from James, the brother and successor of Jesus, two letters from Peter, the chief apostle and first among the Twelve, three letters from John, the beloved disciple and pillar of the church, and fourteen letters from Paul, the deviant and outcast who was rejected and scorned by the leaders in Jerusalem. In fact more than half of the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul.
I'd love to read a full biography of Paul by Aslan, or someone similar. Knowing Aslan and his views on religion, I wonder if he's ever read Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann. Even though that is more historical fiction/philosophy, I feel like it shares a lot with this book... both value history while also understanding the power of myth, storytelling, and the human imagination. Both vividly recreate a historical place and time and context for reinterpretation of these myths. And Joseph's story has a lot of obvious echoes with Jesus's....more
You don't love someone until you love their flaws as well. And that's what I started to do with this cast of characters. They're not exactly sympathetYou don't love someone until you love their flaws as well. And that's what I started to do with this cast of characters. They're not exactly sympathetic characters, and Mann doesn't try to endear us to them, preferring to remain aloof, distant, semi-objective. At first I was turned off by their stodgy appearances, their classist snobbery. But I soon realized that that was an unfair assessment without delving deeper into each and every Buddenbrook. The more I read about them, the more their uniqueness within that general family resemblance became apparent, and the more I liked them. In fact, each one was an aberration from the family norm, and even the one character (Thomas) who was supposed to hold the whole family together, even he was not who he seemed--not at all a Buddenbrook. He was just holding up the backbone of a giant Buddenbrook puppet, in some parade around town. In the end there was no Buddenbrook, just the facade of Buddenbrook, with each Buddenbrook departing from that ideal in their own way.
(view spoiler)[At first it's easy to see Tony and Thomas to be similar for instance. Both are concerned about appearances and about the family name. But underneath the surface there is a world of difference. While Tony cares about the ultimate fate of the family, she operates through a narrative imperative... Her pride comes from the story of the family through the generations, maybe even more than the outcome. She wants to carry this story forward. Thus, when she sees the family tree, she cannot help but fill it in as if it were a choose-your-own-adventure book. She wants to see her life in the context of something bigger, not in a religious sense, but in a storybook sense. At heart--though she's weathered many a storm--Tony still retains a bit of that "silly goose" that she keeps claiming she's outgrown. But it's this childishness that makes her endearing, it's this insistence on her own personal and family narrative legacy that makes her bring up the names of Grunlich, Permaneder, Weinschenk at the dinner table even though they were shameful episodes. Yes, it wasn't how she wanted things to turn out, but she's spunky and comes back from these setbacks precisely by celebrating and proudly declaiming these injustices in order to conquer them.
Not one of life's insults or compliments had ever left her at a loss for words... Nothing left unsaid gnawed at her; no unspoken emotions weighed her down. And she did not have to carry her past with her. ... But since they were publicly acknowledged facts, she used them--by boasting of them and speaking about them with a terribly serious face.
Thomas, on the other hand, is all about suppression and self denial. He is not naive like Tony. He is steeled against life, and to live, in his mind, is to submerge his true self. To not do so would be irresponsible.
But to use a situation without any sense of shame, he told himself, that is what it means to be fit for real life.
It is telling that he died of a tooth ache, as teeth live in that region between inner and outer life. That true self that never got expression but decayed inside of him. He is ultimately a tragic figure, but I really liked him too, for totally different reasons. I pitied him. And I felt for him, and knew he didn't really want to be who he was. His inner and outer selves were not talking to each other, and the more he tried to hide his inner weaknesses, the more he had to strengthen his outer appearance. Unlike Tony, he would never bring up or celebrate his failures. He is a practical results oriented person, or at least he tries to be, and so there would be no reason for him to build a story. He only cares about the story's ending.
Christian is also the opposite of both Thomas and Tony.. He doesn't care about appearances, not only that, he isn't even aware of them. He's a bit of a contradiction, wanting to please the crowd with his theatric tales, yet not having the social graces to get the hints that people throw him. He's oblivious. He's sort of a buffoon, but a lovable one, especially refreshing in contrast to the rest of the family. Ultimately he's a little selfish, yet maybe that's not unwarranted. He's a sort of counterweight.
I don't think that the salve itself does it, you see. But the main thing, you understand, is that one idea can only be canceled by an opposing idea.
Thomas and Christian's out and out arguments throughout the book, though rare, were some of the highlights of the book for me, because of that brotherly interaction, where so much is understood in a word or a glance because of their long history.
That's what I lack, you see. I get totally used up by the other things, all the junk, you see, and have nothing left for the respectable part of life.
Ultimately, this book is a character study more than anything else. I don't even know how to talk about the book without talking about its particularities, its personalities. And that is also why it is so impressive, that Mann wrote this when he was 25, to have such a full understanding of so many different human motivations, so many types of differences that make one and one and one. That make up one name Buddenbrooks, distinguished into shades.
That is not to say it does not have its flaws either... I thought the last three chapters of this book were a mistake. Not because of what happened in them, but because of how Mann wrote them. The "day in the life of Johann" chapter surprised me by how badly written it was. Even down to the sentence structure, it just seemed oddly subpar. The tone and style was totally different from the rest of the book, and yet not different in a good way. The dialogue felt really wooden and the details that he chose to write about did not seem to illuminate as much as the ones he chose in many of his much shorter chapters. It felt almost like Mann wasn't sure how to end his long epic novel, and was scrambling for ideas.
Also, even though there were many fully fleshed characters here, I was disappointed that many of the minor characters remained pretty one dimensional and did not become more complex or barge in somehow with their own personalities... (hide spoiler)]
Lastly, it's interesting to see the beginnings of Mann's obsession with tradition. It seems like this motif has deep and personal roots for Mann. The only other novel I've read of his so far is Joseph and His Brothers, where he had a more balanced/philosophical approach.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more