I am Jewish, and someone who looks at religions as cultural expressions, embedded in their context. That being said, I did not re...moreFirst, a disclaimer.
I am Jewish, and someone who looks at religions as cultural expressions, embedded in their context. That being said, I did not read Left Behind because of an interest in Evangelical theology, but more as an anthropologist, wanted to watch from the outside the workings of an expression that comes out of the American Evangelical Christian context. Before reading this book, I had seen it as a practice of fiction claiming religious truth, which wasn't disproven as I read.
That being said, you can definitely see Left Behind has trying to push a universalist message (a claim in salvation as achieved only through Jesus Christ) that is embedded in specific political Christian framings. This theo-political ideology bleeds out of the text, even if ultimately it is not its primary focus. Some instances are of a characters mentioning of his fight against big government, implications of disgust of the "violent" city (the characters suffer a break-in described as something that is now happening in the suburbs and not the "inner city"), there is a brief dialogue on a character's sister who sees abortion as a business (definitely a twisted malignant take on organizations like Planned Parenthood who provide birth control primarily), an inherent distrust of the UN (repeated references to a "global village" as something the suspecting Antichrist aspires to), a pervasive anxiety about global government and currencies, a distrust of disarmament, and a simplified view of the state of the world's "Others." Specifically, this book should not be read as Christian, but a specific Christianity embedded in a political ideology.
The characters themselves are NOT especially ideologically obsessive - instead, they undergo a process of questioning their lives before the Rapture, seeing themselves as inhabiting arguable bad characteristics of self-involvement and importance, a lack of modesty and humbleness, and a greed for materialism. They struggle with their Christianity, don't find its evangelizing particularly easy or clear, and strive to overcome their hurt and pain at human relationships in order to find their way to put a trust in God. These are aspirational in many ways, but embedded in this particular ideology, somewhat disarming because ultimately they are not universalist, but rigidly cultural.
As a Jew, reading this book was a bit unsettling. Jews in the book are strangely portrayed. They are basically pawns of Biblibal prophecy. There are strange references to a meeting of "Nationalist Jews" (not Israeli) who are specifically Orthodox and want to make a one world government along with other international organizations. I had no idea what the authors meant by "Nationalist Jews" and I had an odd feeling that I was missing something that is a signal for others who read this. Israel plays the part of a victim nation that is also a Biblical pawn. There is unconditional support for Israel in this book on one layer, and a strange undercurrent of messianic fervor that links it simultaneously with the Antichrist character, Carpathia, and with evangelism on the other, with the emergence of converted Jews. As someone aware of the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli control, the simplification of Israel as a victim is pretty hard to take for very long. The Russians play an odd role, in that they attack Israel, jealous of its success (since it created an agent that "makes the desert bloom"), which the authors root in the Bible (seriously, they have a section in the appendix about a passage in Ezekiel). Claims are made in the appendix that Vladimir Putin is the "bear" of the bible, justifying a reading of Russia as a harbinger of the end times.
So then comes some of the big critical questions of this book. Is it using a theology to create something fictional, or is it using fiction to advance a theological ideology. Obviously the latter. What is unsettling is that it seems to be advancing these aims by using noncritical readings of biblical prophecy. Does the bible really say that Russia is going to attack Israel? It references an enemy from the north, not necessarily Russia, which as a nation, the "Rus" tribes had not yet existed in that state on the Caucasian plains. In all, the desired effect is to push that we are now in the messianic era, the Rapture and Judgement just around the corner. One could really go on and on questioning these claims and what it means to fiction generally, and this particular evangelism specifically.
Just a note or two on the language and craft of the novel. The book is not particularly well written in that the authors tend to favor general language over specific with odd logic, describing many things analogous to someone who goes to a bar and "drinks a beverage." There seem to be weird editorial revisions (I assume) that create a few parts that look like vestiges of earlier texts. At one point, for instance, a character rewinds a DVD that he sticks in the VCR. There is virtually no description of places, things happening generally in place names like New York or the UN or London. All in all, sometimes you stop and pause trying to understand the logic of a specific sentence, but then find yourself moving on anyway.
In conclusion, I don't want to trash something so wildly popular- as the publishers claim has "converted" 64 million people. I am sure the story and lessons mean a lot. I just want to offer some critical readings from a perspective of someone who does not identify with the specific cultural context. (less)
My initial gut reaction regarding "The Finkler Question" is that it is a book that could be funny and important, but ends up falling flat because its...moreMy initial gut reaction regarding "The Finkler Question" is that it is a book that could be funny and important, but ends up falling flat because its author seems genuinely ill-informed or purposefully ignorant about the state of Israel and Palestine discourse. Now, I temper this with my lens - that is, as a Jewish person in the United States who is actively engaged in Israel-Palestine issues. If people want to nullify my review because "The Finkler Question" takes place in Britain, then that's fair. I don't assume to know the level of discourse there. But in terms of what I know about the global discourse surrounding Israel-Palestine issues, Jacobson falls flat because his fictional world seems ignorant of the real world.
First off, the book reportedly is about satirizing Jewish cultural questions, and of course, to make it current, Israel discourse has to be a part of that. In the case of Sam Finkler, one of the main characters, he becomes involved in a Jewish group that speaks out against Israeli oppression. And here lie a lot of the 'blind-spots' when it comes to Israel-Palestine discourse, which I argue, ultimately affect the ability of the book to be satirical and relevant.
1. This group of ASHamed Jews don't seem to be opposed to anything in particular. In fact, I believe Jacobson never writes "Occupation," that is, the Israeli Occupation of Palestinians, a chief reason why Jewish groups speak up against Israeli actions. It seems odd that this central military fact simply does not exist.
2. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement makes a brief appearance in the form of one of the members of ASHamed. Central to BDS is that it was a Palestinian call for boycott, stemming from a 2005 Palestinian civil society iniative. Jacobson's characters simply do not "know" this, their BDS seemingly only as a result of their Jewishness. However, all groups that support BDS do so because it is a Palestinian call for non-violent resistance. It is odd that characters who are engaged in being outspoken, do not recognize this. Maybe Jacobson just doesn't know?
3. Jacobson's ASHamed Jews are shallow characters with no redeeming qualities. They are only outspoken against something Israeli because of their own issues with Judaism (indeed, this seems to be Jacobson's implicit argument: you can clincally diagnose Jews who speak out against Israel as people who hate their own Judaism). There is no mention of concerns for human rights and international law, the cornerstones of progressive Israel-Palestine groups. They operate in a lonely world, where there are no connections with others.
Some can say that this was only a part of the book that shouldn't be focused on, but I think there are very large implications to these three issues:
1. Jacobson equates Israel and Zionism with Judaism, without acknowledging other Judaisms. His satire cannot move past this. Judaism hardly exists at all - you can't seem to be Jewish and not be supportive of a right-wing brand of Zionism.
2. He equates Jewish culture to always feeling under assault.
3. He concludes that the people that feel strongly about Palestinian rights, or dislike Israeli actions, are anti-Semitic. They only focus on a uncentered hatred of Jews and Judaism, seemingly unable to separate Israel's actions and Jewish culture. Indeed, Jacobson's non-Jewish British are cold and anti-Semitic; his 'Arabs' are others, racist, menacing, and violent. It is odd that outspoken Jews like Finkler do not have friends and allies who are not Jewish and focus on Palestinian rights, wherever they claim descent.
4. With the chief arguments of the global movement against Israeli oppression missing from the book, Jacobson's work seems to be an "in-touch" relevant novel about an urgent subject, when in fact, it is masquerading as something it is not. He either knows very little about his subject, or edits it purposefully.
The end result is that a lot of people will read it, thinking that this is the state of discourse about Israel-Palestine, when it is obviously not. Anyone could pick up a newspaper and read about the Occupation. What bothers me most is if this is the reason that Jacobson won the Booker prize - he glommed onto a subject he knows little about, knowing that it is controversial and politically relevant. I'm even more surprised that he won the Booker for producing something so ignorant and shallow. It basically attempts to sabotage a movement that Jacobson sees with very little complexity.
It's misleading, and I fret to think that people will pick this book up thinking that this is what the world is like. It's also depressing, not funny, and leaves you feeling as though nothing happened. There are much better ways to satirize the issues around Judaism and Israel, and it's a shame that the Booker committee awarded the prize to Jacobson for turning in something so poorly done.
My expectations were such that this collection would include a lot more on Munro's immigrant/Scottish ancestral past and I was looking forward to what...moreMy expectations were such that this collection would include a lot more on Munro's immigrant/Scottish ancestral past and I was looking forward to what I had heard about the melding of memoir into short fiction. That being said, the book starts strong and ends strong, but I found the middle a bit hard to muddle through - especially her childhood stories. All stories are punctured by beautiful moments. Munro very carefully sets up a web of tensions between characters, but rarely do they give the reader some sort of closure, as these tensions set to linger from one story to the next. (less)