A very engaging read and well reasoned thesis on the historical Jesus. Jesus would probably high five the author (and the many scholars who provided tA very engaging read and well reasoned thesis on the historical Jesus. Jesus would probably high five the author (and the many scholars who provided the research) for this attempt to put his image back into historical/cultural context....more
This book was a pleasure to read and I had a hard time putting it down. Friedman, a Harvard trained Biblical scholar, concisely walks us through the hThis book was a pleasure to read and I had a hard time putting it down. Friedman, a Harvard trained Biblical scholar, concisely walks us through the history of Old Testament scholarship while arguing for his own theories on who wrote specific portions, when, what their motivations were, and how and by whom the book was compiled. His purpose is not to debunk or criticize the Bible, but simply to solve the puzzle; and the book reads this way, like you are in on the quest to solve it. All along Friedman provides insightful and essential historical, political, and religious context of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, pivotal to solving the mystery of authorship.
For over two thousand years it was assumed that Moses was the author of the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament. Over past centuries a few individuals were bold enough to question this assumption, based on contradictions in the narrative - such as the problem of Moses narrating his own funeral, observations on his personal character describing him as the "humblest man that ever walked the earth," and many other issues. Because of dogmatic opposition these issues could not be fully explored until the 19th century, when scholars began to discover that there are actually several different writing styles, and even several different versions of Old Testament stories throughout the text. For example, there were originally two creation stories written by two separate authors. The person/s who compiled the bible took each version and compiled them into one, in the form that we have now. There are also two versions of the flood, of Abraham and Moses stories, and many others. In some cases these stories tell very different things depending on the motivations of each author. Friedman attempts to sort all of this out for the reader and includes his own theories on authorship. He even gets specific enough to name individuals he thinks wrote specific portions and why they did it.
Friedman does not suggest these facts should lead people to dismiss the bible. He believes scholarship can enhance appreciation for these writings, whether or not that appreciation is in the form of faith or belief. I think the book helped me gain an appreciation for the Old Testament as far as understanding why and by whom it was likely written. The historical context of ancient Israel/Judah is ultra fascinating to me. However, it is clearer to me than ever that the stories of the bible are mostly myth. Many of the individuals in the stories may actually have existed, and some of the events may have happened. To be sure, the bible was shaped and molded in the real historical context of ancient Israel and Judah. But the stories about creation, Abraham, Moses - the bedrock of Judaism and Christianity - were written by individuals with specific political and religious motivations. The different versions of these stories are sometimes contradictory. The compiler of the bible mashed these separate versions into one narrative, and for two thousand years Christians and Jews have read them as one story when they were not intended to be read as one. But above all, these stories represent the cultural and religious heritage of a people that lived almost three thousand years ago, on a tiny little slice of land in the Middle East.
It blows my mind that the stories of this tiny, ancient population, have profoundly influenced the history of the world. It is almost comical that we attempt to apply and interpret these stories as the narrative for all of humanity and to try to interpret and incorporate them into our daily lives. Sure, there is always something valuable to be learned from the human experience - even if those experiences are of ancient peoples. But I think it is nonsense that western civilization takes these stories literally as an explanation for who we are and where we came from. And especially for modern Americans to want to enshrine the Ten Commandments on the walls of public institutions.
I'll stop preaching and get back to the book. You should read it. You'll find it hard to put down....more
Hitchens of course makes many valid points and observations. Pointing out all the bad things people have done in the name of religion and all the negaHitchens of course makes many valid points and observations. Pointing out all the bad things people have done in the name of religion and all the negative consequences of religion in particular instances does not quite prove that "Religion spoils everything." That is a bold assertion that is hard to prove. I listened to the audiobook which is read by the author, who is quite witty at times, and at other times his loathe of religion comes off a little snooty through his British accent.. ha (but that's Hitchens for you). To be sure, I agree with many of the points Hitchens makes. But his case is overstated....more
I listened to the audiobook - something I've been doing lately at work. With science topics, even when they're presented in simple ways, it's easy toI listened to the audiobook - something I've been doing lately at work. With science topics, even when they're presented in simple ways, it's easy to miss important technical when you're not paying full attention. And it's difficult to rewind on an ipod. So, there are details in this book of various quantum theories, etc, that I didn't fully grasp via audio.
But it's the implications of these theories that I'm more interested in anyway. I've read several of these theories before, but each time I'm fascinated by how counter intuitive the nature of reality is in light of quantum and other theories. Hawking engagingly describes these models of our universe - that it came into existence from nothing, and how it is "finely tuned" for life to exist. He discusses M Theory, which he believes is the closest thing scientists have come to satisfying Eintein's yearning for a "theory of everything." All along, he demonstrates how these models affirm a universe that came into being without a creator....more
Krakauer is an excellent storyteller. I couldn’t put down his other two books – Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. Similary, I was entranced by Under thKrakauer is an excellent storyteller. I couldn’t put down his other two books – Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. Similary, I was entranced by Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s dark, heavy, and affecting, and it even made me angry and emotional on occasion. At the same time I was disenchanted with aspects of Krakauer’s narrative approach, which values sensational historical facts, naïve characterizations of mainstream Mormon culture, and careless comparisons at the expense of objectivity. The result is that his book is likely to misinform non Mormons about the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of modern mainstream Mormons. On the other hand, he does well to give insight into the origins and appeal of Mormon fundamentalism, and into the possible motivations of the Lafferty brothers to commit murder in the name of God.
I was very disturbed by the violent story of the Lafferty brothers and that of other fundamentalists. I listened to the audio version while at work, and a couple times I had to pause and take a walk around the building. Krakauer easily makes the case that the history of polygamy in the early days of the church is also disturbing, and that in some ways Mormon fundamentalists are not very different from Mormons during the polygamy era. I am not implying that murder by revelation and/or incest and rape was common in those days. But let’s face it (and state the obvious), polygamy in the early church was dreadful. And most Mormons do not realize how doctrinally pivotal it was to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and to Mormons at large for many decades in the church. I would say that if a Mormon fundamentalist (such as one from Colorado City) were transported back in time to Utah under Brigham Young or John Taylor, the church would feel relatively familiar and comfortable. If a modern mainstream Mormon were transported to the same, the church would likely feel foreign and extreme.
As far as Mormon history goes, there wasn’t much in the book I hadn’t heard before. But there were many interesting details of which I was reminded and that were written in an unusually engaging narrative form. But Krakauer is a storyteller and not a scholar, and he blatantly selected segments of history that better maintain the book’s dark and ominous tone related to the Mormon fundamentalist story. More bothersome to me was the author’s mischaracterizations of modern mainstream Mormons. For example, when discussing the Elizabeth Smart case, he states that Brian David Mitchell was easily able to manipulate her in part because of the indoctrination she had received in Mormonsim since she was a little girl; that his white flowy robes resembled the temple clothes she had worn and seen her parents wear in the temple. He states:
”Raised to obey figures of Mormon authority unquestioningly, and to believe that LDS doctrine is the law of God, she would have been particularly susceptible to the dexterous fundamentalist spin Mitchell applied to familiar Mormon scripture.”
“Mitchell would never have been able to have such power over a non Mormon girl.”
Is this true? People are held captive all the time and suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, like the recently discovered girl in California who was held captive in her kidnapper’s backyard for several years, bore his children, and never tried to escape. This kind of manipulation has worked on all kinds of people, and it’s a little unfair to claim that a non Mormon wouldn’t have been susceptible to Mitchell. I understand what Krakauer is trying to say, but I think he is exaggerating the doctrinally subservient mindset of most Mormons (*see examples below of other things that annoy me in the book).
However, I can’t fault Krakauer too much for his storytelling. The modern mainstream LDS church is also a storyteller, and you’re not going to get a complete or accurate or objective version of its history from church publications. In fact, it bothers me at times that the church is so easily able to sweep the dark portions of its history under the rug, and avoid ever having to discuss them. In the cultural discourse of the church, anything bad that happens to the saints is the result of persecution - you rarely if ever get the details of how Mormons sometimes brought persecution onto themselves by their own actions. And of course you never hear that the story of the success and growth of the modern LDS church is largely the story of abandoning polygamy (a practice that disgusted most Americans), becoming more mainstream, and then practically pretending like polygamy never happened, or at least minimizing the huge doctrinal centrality it once held. I understand the faith logic about continuing revelation and how doctrines can be replaced and forgotten, but it is a disservice to lifetime members and converts who stumble upon the complete history and learn that the church was very different in its first few decades than they were led to believe.
This brings me back to what are seemingly the questions Under the Banner of Heaven tries to address. What is the appeal of Mormon fundamentalism and why is there a history of violence associated with it? Why are some people—apparently mentally healthy, intelligent people—able to buy into strange beliefs and sometimes willing to do terrible things in the name of those beliefs? In answering the first question I think Krakauer overstates his case. He is mostly interested in all the sensational tidbits, and he is too comfortable blurring the lines between fundamentalism and mainstream Mormonism—although much of what he shares in Mormon history is corroborated by scholarship. He doesn’t spend a lot of time addressing the second question, or offer a lot of unique or sympathetic insights into the nature of belief.
Another question that I think the book addresses is perhaps the most interesting to me. What is the difference in the nature of belief between a Mormon fundamentalist and a mainstream Mormon (or between believers of all faiths)? Mainstream Mormons tend to view fundamentalists as crazy, or at least as weirdo, clueless apostates. But in reality our beliefs have much more in common than we let on. I would say that our epistemologies – our ways of knowing the “truth” about spiritual things are exactly the same. We all believe in golden plates, angels, priesthood authority, the restoration, atonement, the second coming, living by the spirit, obeying prophets. Most fundamentalists are sincerely living the way they think God wants them to, and they know this through personal revelation. How much should we trust in personal revelation as a way to know truth? In Joseph Smith’s day many men acted against their initial personal moral instincts and went along with polygamy. Perhaps personal moral instincts and common sense should be trusted above faith and obedience.
At any rate, for all its faults, Under the Banner of Heaven demonstrates that polygamy was born in a context of deceit. It was imposed on generations of Mormons, set seeds of violence towards Latter Day Saints and by Latter Day Saints, was harmful to many families and individuals, and it almost destroyed the church. The doctrine of plural marriage as taught in D&C 132 is not dead. It continues to buoy up fundamentalist communities, like Colorado City, that are remnants of the mainstream Mormon era of polygamy. And it continues to lure once-faithful Mormons into fundamentalism.
**A few other examples that annoyed me: He claims that Mormons consider Utah Valley the true hub of Mormonism, and that Mormons think Salt Lake has been taken over by sinful gentiles (I am paraphrasing). Do Mormons really believe this?
He says “The LDS church frowns on contraception and teaches that LDS couples have a sacred duty to give birth to as many children as they can support, which goes a long way to explaining why Utah County has the highest birth rate in the United States.” This was definitely taught in the church up until the 1970’s and 80’s, but I think that kind of talk had been deemphasized for over a decade by the time he wrote the book (2003).
On the Haun’s Mill Masacre: He says Mormons today still speak of it with “indignation and rage.” Do they? I can’t remember one instance growing up in the church when someone showed anger about this. Perhaps sadness, and an exaggerated sense of persecution, but not indignation and rage.
Referring to the moment John Taylor’s watch was stopped by a bullet in Carthage Jail: “Mormons the world over have committed this time to memory, marking the death of their beloved prophet.”
Really? We all have that committed to memory?
On blacks and the priesthood: “Even after LDS President Spencer W Kimball’s 1978 revelation reversing the church doctrine that banned blacks from the priesthood, official LDS policy has continued to strongly admonish white saints not to marry blacks. Make no mistake, the modern Mormon church may now be in the American mainstream, but it usually hugs the extreme right edge of the flow.”
I agree with hugging the right edge of the flow, but does the church still admonish white saints to not marry blacks?
Perhaps these naive observations or mischaracterizations aren’t that important. It just surprises me that an author who is so meticulously well researched on many aspects of his book can so easily fail to capture the nuance of most individual Mormons, and misrepresent the current cultural trends in the church.
One more example of where he unfairly uses this kind of misinformation is when he relates it to the behavior of fundamentalists. In speaking of the day Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley for the first time—“...the date now venerated throughout Mormondom as Pioneer Day,” he adds that this is “the holiday Ron Lafferty would choose 137 years later on which to fulfill his removal revelation,”—the day they killed an innocent woman and child in 1984.
I feel like this wording, like much of Krakauer’s writing, is sensational. He ties this ominous, disturbing act of the Lafferty brothers to Pioneer Day, for no other reason than to be sensational. Why do they need to be linked? Are Mormons really that obsessed with Pioneer Day, that it is somehow insightful that Ron Lafferty chose that day to kill Brenda Lafferty and her daughter? The answer is no. ...more
The Moral Landscape is a concise but important book in my opinion. Harris argues that science should contribute to our understanding of morality, andThe Moral Landscape is a concise but important book in my opinion. Harris argues that science should contribute to our understanding of morality, and that it can and will eventually help determine the most important human values. In making these claims, he goes against the grain of liberal academia where morality has been viewed as relative to cultural contexts. Using extreme examples, such as the kind of "morality" that is imposed by the Taliban, he argues that there are clearly forms of morality/behavior that are superior to others. Should cultural practices such as genital mutilation be written off as philosophically equal to other societal standards of morality? Of course not. Harris makes the case that a moral standard of "maximizing the well being of conscious creatures" should be the premise of morality. While some of his arguments are naturally philosophical, many of them are based on research in neuroscience. Human experiences (love, happiness, and many other emotions) are increasingly linked to physical locations and states of the brain. The more we learn about the brain and what conditions optimize well being, the more science may be able to recognize behaviors that improve and reduce this well being. I welcome this.