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.
It was hard to decide whether this book deserves 3 or 4 stars. In the end I gave it 4 because I couldn't put it down. It's raw and horrifying in someIt was hard to decide whether this book deserves 3 or 4 stars. In the end I gave it 4 because I couldn't put it down. It's raw and horrifying in some instances, but entertaining. If you've seen American History X, some of the skinhead / prison / life redemption experiences will not feel particularly unique. But this is a true story. And it's written in an entertaining way from the perspective of Frank Meeink - a legit ex skinhead from South Philadelphia. It's not just about racism and neo nazis, but also drug addiction, abuse, and growing up.
This book resonated with me in part because I can relate to the late 80's/early 90's era when skinheads and sharps were everywhere in the punk scene - and when I allowed myself to flirt with racist sentiments. My 9th grade year I began attending school at Las Vegas high - a school that included zoning for a lot of rough neighborhoods. Immediately me and my punk/skater friends were harassed by big and intimidating black and Latino gangster kids. This intimidation coincided with attempts, outside of school, by the largest skinhead gang in Vegas (Christian Identity Skinheads) to recruit us.
Long story short, I never entirely bought into the rhetoric. It was ridiculous, illogical, and appalling. A couple friends began attending skinhead rallies, but most of us avoided the skinheads while privately beginning a racist dialogue of our own. It wasn't as extreme as the skinhead rhetoric, but we began interpreting our negative experiences at school in light of racial differences. Inspired by a Rush Limbaugh book I was reading at the time that ranted against 'multiculturalism,' I tried to start a 'White American Youth' club at my school as a political statement against the hypocrisy of allowing African American Youth and Latino American clubs. Naturally this didn't go over well.
Somehow I endured a year of threats by gangster kids without getting my ass kicked, although I watched one of my friends get beat up for having his head shaved and for having drawn a little swastika on his skate ramp (oops). My head wasn't shaved so they left me alone. But as we walked home, my friend Jacob's face still stinging after three black dudes took turns punching him over and over in the face, we reached the pinnacle of our hatred and were moments away from calling the skinheads who had been trying to recruit us. There is no question they would have showed up immediately and stood up for us and continued the violence, and very possibly converted us to that lifestyle - just out of the shear appeal of feeling tough and protected. But somehow we refrained. By our sophomore year we'd fortunately stopped flirting with racist ideas (and threw away our mock KKK membership cards we made during class / stopped drawing swastikas on our folders - yeah, seriously).
I also played in a punk band all through high school and continuously witnessed the violence of skinheads and sharps. They would get in the mosh pit and literally start riots. One time I watched the sharps (skinheads against racial prejudice) take turns kicking a guy - punting his head like a football until he went into convulsions. Another time the skinheads started a riot at a punk show that moved out into the parking lot and in the street and had to be ended by a couple dozen cops. The scariest moment was when some sharps showed up to one of our desert shows and started shooting guns. We all ran for our lives and hid behind cars and bushes.
I don't know how prevalent the skinhead scene is anymore. But there are probably still a lot of stories to be told by people willing to share them. It's a unique and terrible part of American subculture that should be documented and shared. Frank Meeink's story is valuable in this sense. It's an interesting and entertaining read.
Excellent one hour read from the author of Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
Pollan gives a list of rules regarding what to eat and how to eaExcellent one hour read from the author of Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
Pollan gives a list of rules regarding what to eat and how to eat, based on the results of research involved with his other books.
Although there are 64 "rules" in the book, they can more or less be boiled down to a phrase from his last book: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
The details are important though. Such as what actually counts as food in modern times as opposed to "edible foodlike substances" - which is what Pollan considers most of the processed foods on grocery store shelves.
I like that the "rules" are practical. He does not suggest avoiding sweets or meat entirely. "Treat treats as treats," for instance. He mentions that some people have a rule to only eat sweets on the weekends. And he suggests that you only eat sweets that you bake yourself, always avoiding the freely available, cheap, and highly processed sweets from stores.
Meat should be eaten as a side dish only a couple times a week. And if you do eat meat it really does make a difference that the animal you're eating was grass fed.
But some of the best rules are in the section on how to eat: Stop eating before you're full; eat when you're hungry; eat slowly; don't eat seconds; do most of your eating at a table; leave something on your plate; cook your own food, etc.
Anyway, I think it's a handy book and hopefully I can implement some of these rules. ...more
It's been a few weeks since I read it and the details are already fuzzy - he provides a lot of examples and detailed explanations to back up his thesiIt's been a few weeks since I read it and the details are already fuzzy - he provides a lot of examples and detailed explanations to back up his thesis. I skimmed through several paragraphs in a couple of the chapters because it gets pretty boring. But Kurzweil's main predictions are at times mind blowing, scary, difficult to buy into.
Kurzweil - who supposedly is a respected inventor and futurist who's made accurate predictions in the past - claims that through technological advances in Gene Therapy, Nanotechnoloy, and Robotics (GNR), humans and machines will become indistinguishable within the next 30-40 years. He names this merging of humans and machines "the Singularity."
Kurzweil bases his predictions on ideas like Moore's law, and other rates of advancement in various technological fields. He offers all kinds of numbers and figures to back up his ideas. As interesting as his predictions are, the book is hard to wade through. And it's more than a little creepy to hear the human body referred to as Human Body 2.0. I gave it four stars because some of the ideas really did blow my mind and got me thinking pretty deeply about the nature and destiny of humanity, etc. But I think Kurzweil is far too optimistic. Not just about the technological predictions, but in his belief that humans will go along with human-machine integration. He has admittedly seen the Matrix and Terminator but doesn't believe the potential dark side of AI will dominate. Although, he does spend a chapter at the end answering fears and criticism of his ideas. I get the impression he's just another man obsessed with immortality and overzealous about science and technology being the answer.
2018 -1013 bits of computer memory--roughly the equivalent of the memory space in a single human brain--will cost $1000.
2020 -One personal computer will have the same processing power as a human brain.
2020s -Computers less than 100 nm in size will be possible. -Highly advanced medical nanobots will perform detailed brainscans on live patients. -Accurate computer simulations of the entire human brain will exist due to these hyperaccurate brainscans, and the workings of the brain will be understood. -By the later part of this decade, virtual reality will be so high-quality that it will be indistinguishable from real reality. -The threat posed by genetically engineered pathogens permanently dissipates by the end of this decade as medical nanobots--infinitely more durable, intelligent and capable than any microorganism--become sufficiently advanced. -A computer passes the Turing test by the last year of the decade (2029), meaning that it is a Strong AI and can think like a human (though the first A.I. is likely to be the equivalent of a very stupid human). This first A.I. is built around a computer simulation of a human brain, which was made possible by previous, nanotech-guided brainscanning.
2030s -Mind uploading becomes possible. -Nanomachines could be directly inserted into the brain and could interact with brain cells to totally control incoming and outgoing signals. As a result, truly full-immersion virtual reality could be generated without the need for any external equipment. Afferent nerve pathways could be blocked, totally canceling out the "real" world and leaving the user with only the desired virtual experience. -Recreational uses aside, nanomachines in peoples' brains will allow them to greatly expand their cognitive, memory and sensory capabilities, to directly interface with computers, and to "telepathically" communicate with other, similarly augmented humans via wireless networks. -The same nanotechnology should also allow people to alter the neural connections within their brains, changing the underlying basis for the person's intelligence, memories and personality. -Human body 2.0 (as Kurzweil calls it) is incrementally accumulated into this decade. It consists of a nanotechnological system of nourishment and circulation--obsolescing many internal organs--and an improved skeleton.
2040s -Human body 3.0 is gradually implemented during this decade. It lacks a fixed, corporeal form and can alter its shape and external appearance at will via foglet-like nanotechnology (similar to the T-1000 from Terminator 2). -People spend most of their time in full-immersion virtual reality (Kurzweil has cited The Matrix as a good example of what the advanced virtual worlds will be like, without the dystopian twist).
2045: The Singularity -$1000 buys a computer a billion times more intelligent than every human combined. This means that average and even low-end computers are vastly smarter than even highly intelligent, unenhanced humans. -The technological singularity occurs as artificial intelligences surpass human beings as the smartest and most capable life forms on the Earth. Technological development is taken over by the machines, who can think, act and communicate so quickly that normal humans cannot even comprehend what is going on. The machines enter into a "runaway reaction" of self-improvement cycles, with each new generation of A.I.s appearing faster and faster. From this point onwards, technological advancement is explosive, under the control of the machines, and thus cannot be accurately predicted. -The Singularity is an extremely disruptive, world-altering event that forever changes the course of human history. The extermination of humanity by violent machines is unlikely (though not impossible) because sharp distinctions between man and machine will no longer exist thanks to the existence of cybernetically enhanced humans and uploaded humans.
Post-2045: "Waking up" the Universe
* The physical bottom limit to how small computer transistors (or other equivalent, albeit more effective components, such as memristors integrated into Crossbar latches) can be shrunk is reached. From this moment onwards, computers can only be made more powerful if they are made larger in size. * Because of this, A.I.s convert more and more of the Earth's matter into engineered, computational substrate capable of supporting more A.I.s. until the whole Earth is one, gigantic computer. * At this point, the only possible way to increase the intelligence of the machines any farther is to begin converting all of the matter in the universe into similar massive computers. A.I.s radiate out into space in all directions from the Earth, breaking down whole planets, moons and meteoroids and reassembling them into giant computers. This, in effect, "wakes up" the universe as all the inanimate "dumb" matter (rocks, dust, gases, etc.) is converted into structured matter capable of supporting life (albeit synthetic life). * Kurzweil predicts that machines might have the ability to make planet-sized computers by 2099, which underscores how enormously technology will advance after the Singularity. * The process of "waking up" the universe could be complete as early as 2199, or might take billions of years depending on whether or not machines could figure out a way to circumvent the speed of light for the purposes of space travel. * With the entire universe made into a giant, highly efficient supercomputer, AI and human hybrids (so integrated that, in truth it is a new category of "life") would have both supreme intelligence and physical control over the universe. Kurzweil suggests that this would open up all sorts of new possibilities, including abrogation of the laws of Physics, interdimensional travel, and a possible infinite extension of existence (true immortality).
Rated it well mostly because I couldn't put it down. Frey intermingles historical and factual information about the city of Los Angeles with the narraRated it well mostly because I couldn't put it down. Frey intermingles historical and factual information about the city of Los Angeles with the narratives of many individuals, many of which seem to be based on actual people. All of them came to Los Angeles to fulfill their dreams. In many instances this isn't accomplished, and it ends poorly. But in some cases there's success and happiness. He tends to focus on the underbelly of the place, and it's many contrasts and contradictions. But he also put the history of LA and it's modern contexts in perspective, and it's mind blowing at times -- although I'm not one to know whether it's an accurate perspective. Regardless, it's clear that LA is fu**ing crazy. Read it then try to stop reading it. ...more