With a twinkle in his jolly old Archdruid eye, JMG set out to make an easy buck off the 2012 apocalypse by writing a book on how the 2012 apocalypse iWith a twinkle in his jolly old Archdruid eye, JMG set out to make an easy buck off the 2012 apocalypse by writing a book on how the 2012 apocalypse is hooey. This book presents a breezy history of the very idea of the apocalypse, of the notion that at some point (usually quite soon) the world and history would end, once and for all.
While I didn't seriously believe Terence McKenna's TimeWave Zero prediction about the end of time in 2012, I'd known about this obscure prophecy for decades before it became a pop cultural meme. Looking forward to 2012 provided me some comfort in the wake of the Y2K and millennial nonevents and the all-too-real events of 9/11/2001. I say comfort because I was raised in a home with a father who was exploring the apocalyptic fringes of Pentacostal Christianity, and so there has always been a part of me that expects the world to end right fucking now.
This image hung in my dad's workshop. It depicts the Rapture.
This is like the Episode 1 version of the previous picture, with a new and improved Jesus and 25% more resurrected Christians in glorified bodies.
This one's kinda pretty, with a New Agey feel and a Tibetan color scheme.
This is like the Periodic Table of Rapturology.
I still remember (though he doesn't) the time my dad explained to me that the world would end in 1992 because the dates in the Bible added up thusly. I became a stoner mystic in fall 1992. Coincidence? Jesus is like, "Dude, what took you so long?"
Waking up on December 22, 2012 was slightly weird. I had expected something after all, and nothing had happened. And yet something had happened. I had finally realized that I had responsibility for my own life, in a deep, fundamental way. That's what this book is actually all about. That and history.
Greer traces the apocalypse meme back to Zoroaster and a dysfunctional, as it turns out, reinterpretation of the cyclical procession of the equinoxes. The Jews picked it up during the Babylonian Captivity, Christianity was forged in the crucible of apocalyptic expectations, and Islam inherited the same family resemblance. Chinese Buddhists and Daoists picked it from up along the Silk Road, and later from Christian missionaries.
One of Greer's insights is that secular utopian thinking is a contemporary form of the apocalypse meme, of the notion that history can end and in fact has ended with us, here, now, in the perfect present moving into an ever more perfect future. It is a function of what Greer calls the myth of progress. And the meme, whether in religious or secular form, in apocalyptic or utopian drag, serves the same basic purpose, to assuage our own personal fears of change, of death, and of dying. And of taking responsibility to live in the face of those realities.
It's the emotional payoffs of apocalyptic faith here and now... that explain the extraordinary persistence of the meme over more than three thousand years of history. (197)
The apocalypse meme... encourages people to believe in promises of a kind that will never be fulfilled. (200)
The apocalypse meme is not really about the end of the world, or more precisely, it's not about the kind of end that the world, or humanity, or contemporary industrial civilization, or each of our lives, will actually have. At the center of the apocalypse meme is the insistence that those endings aren't for us—that, as Joseph Rutherford insisted, millions now living will never die. (207)
Lots of great material in this series of lectures, although most is about the study of religion in general and less about the specific discipline of cLots of great material in this series of lectures, although most is about the study of religion in general and less about the specific discipline of comparative religion. ...more
The Phoenicians we learned about in grade school are a larger part of history than I would have first believed, and this approachable account attemptsThe Phoenicians we learned about in grade school are a larger part of history than I would have first believed, and this approachable account attempts to set the record straight.
This loosely affiliated band of nomadic Semites provided cedarwood for the pharaohs of Egypt and learned mastery of the Mediterranean Sea, and with it, international trade. Later they had many of their coastal lands invaded by another upstart band of Semites called "Israelites" (who knew the Phoenicians as "Canaanites," the name Phoenicians used for themselves). Subsequently King Hiram of Tyre, one of the main Phoenician city-states, provided cedar and craftsmen for King Solomon's temple, and the two groups of Semitic peoples lived in relative peace under one or another empire.
Semitic gods and goddesses made their way east and were incorporated into the Greek pantheon: Aphrodite, Heracles, Adonis, Dionysus. Even the name Europe was derived from the name of a mythic daughter of a Phoenician king who was kidnapped and ravished by Zeus. Even as the Hellenes replaced the Phoenicians as the kings of trade and of the sea, they did so using the alphabet invented by their rivals. Alexander the Great was finally able to conquer Tyre before he went on to conquer much of West Asia by building a bridge from the land to the fortified island. Even with Tyre out of the picture, however, the Phoenicians were not done influencing the West.
Carthage, a city-state in North Africa, was founded by Phoenicians (Poeni or Puni in Latin), and the general who led elephants across the Alps to wage war on Rome had a Semitic name, Hanni-Baal. Although Carthage was destroyed utterly by the Romans at the conclusion of the Third Punic War, the Carthaginians/Phoenicians left their mark on the island nation of Malta, the only European nation with a Semitic official language.
This was a fascinating history of a fascinating people whose descendants still live in Lebanon and Syria, albeit without the fame and recognition one might think they deserve. It is also a much needed reminder that the world has always been smaller than it seems and that those in power today aren't guaranteed power and fame tomorrow. ...more
In this, the second volume in his "Hinges of History" series, Thomas Cahill explicates the Torah and finds within it the first inklings of Western ideIn this, the second volume in his "Hinges of History" series, Thomas Cahill explicates the Torah and finds within it the first inklings of Western ideals (now taken for granted as simply "the way things are").
"Most of our best words, in fact--new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice--are the gifts of the Jews," Cahill concludes on p. 241.
The "gifts of the Jews" that Cahill discusses are limited almost exclusively to that form of Judaism which scholar Jacob Neusner calls "Biblical Judaism," the form of Judaism recorded in the Hebrew Bible and transmitted to humanity by way of Christianity, via its "Old Testament," in contrast to the "Rabbinical Judaism" of the Mishna and Talmuds:
The link between the mainstream traditions of the Western world and the traditions of the Jews shows itself at its weakest when we consider the many prescriptions in the Torah that will come to serve as the basis for halakha, the body of Jewish prescriptive law that is meant to govern every aspect of life and that has grown to enormous proportions from the late classical period to the present. (153)
It might go without saying that monotheism is a gift of the Jews (whatever minimal impact Akhenaten might have had not withstanding). What this means, though, is lost on those of us for whom monotheism, (or a unified worldview, at the least) is the status quo. Regarding the horrific scene from Genesis of child sacrifice averted, Cahill asks the core questions that have confronted all subsequent monotheists:
Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and schemings, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced us all to death? All the other gods are figments, sorry projections of human desires. Only this God is worth my life... For "there is no other." (86)
Monotheism, for Cahill, means not just the notion of one God, but an understanding of God, and of the universe, that is profoundly different from the pagan view of the gods as larger-than-life-human beings:
The religious center is no longer what it had been for the Sumerians and all other ancient cultures--impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions--but a face-to-face friendship with God. The new religion has been given shape through three generations of nomadic men and women who have ceased to bow down before idols or kings or any earthly image. They have learned, with many fits and starts, to depend on God--and no one else--this inscrutable, terrifying wilderness God. (90)
Of course, I would hardly describe what (almost) happens to Yitzhak (Isaac) as an ideal expression of "friendship with God" but as Cahill reminds the reader time and again, that is because I am approaching these gifts (including monotheism) as their long-time beneficiary and heir, forgetting how raw and radical this situation must have been at its inception.
Monotheism isn't simply about having one God in distinction to having many, according to Cahill, but also opens up new possibilities, new understandings of humanity's place in the cosmos and in history, indeed the experience of "newness" itself:
This God is the initiator: he encounters them, they do not encounter him. He begins the dialogue, and he will see it through. This God is profoundly different from them, not their projection or their pet, not the usual mythological creature whose intentions can be read in auguries or who can be controlled by human rituals. This God gives and takes beyond human reasoning or justification. Because his motives are not interpretable and his thoughts and actions are not forseeable, anything--and everything--is possible....Because all is possible, faith is possible, even necessary. (93-4)
Along with monotheism, and the idea of a personal relationship between individual human beings and their transcendent Creator, the Jews bequeath the gift of history and of a historical consciousness:
There are real differences--literary differences, differences of tone and taste, but, far more important, differences of substance and approach to material--between Gilgamesh and Exodus, and even between Gilgamesh and Genesis. The anonymous authors of Gilgamesh tell their story in the manner of a myth. There is no attempt to convince us that anything in the story ever took place in historical time.... The text of the Bible is full of clues that the authors are attempting to write history of some sort....there is in these tales a kind of specificity--a concreteness of detail, a concern to get things right--that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that each of the main events he chronicles happened....
We are looking here at one of the great turning points in the history of human sensibility--at an enormous value shift. What was real for the Sumerians (and for all other peoples but the Jews) was the Eternal. What was to become gradually real for the Jews and remains real for us is the here and now and the there and then.(126-8)
A new sense of history means a new sense of possibility, the unknowable, and of moral responsibility for the future:
For the Jews, history will be no less replete with moral lessons [than myth was for the ancients]. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding throigh time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come.... We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present (130-1)
The Jews gave us the first hint of the weekend, of a time without work, with its implicit valuation of freedom, education, creativity, and self-betterment:
No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us to do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation).... The connection to both freedom and creativity lie just below the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made... (144)
Cahill sees in the stodgy old Ten Commandments ("a simple, incontestable thing to say that [they sound] banal. But for all our resourcefulness we have never yet managed to do [what is commanded]") a surprising freedom, much in the same way that students of Zen Buddhism discuss the freedom provided by the seemingly austere forms:
[T]his gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now.... in this moment--and only in this moment--I am in control. This is the moment of choice, the moment when I decide whether I will plunge in the knife or not, take the treasure or not, begin to spin the liar's web or not. This is the moment when the past can be transformed and the future lit with radiance. And such a realization need bring neither regret nor anxiety but, if I keep the Commandments, true peace. But not the peace of death, not the peace of coming to terms with the Wheel. For in choosing what is right I am never more alive. (146)
Finally, the Jews gave us prophecy and with it the earliest notions of social justice and compassion:
[T]o serve God means to act with justice. One cannot pray and offer sacrifice while ignoring the poor, the beggars at the gates. But more radical still: if you have more than you need, you are a thief, for what you "own" is stolen from those who do not have enough. You are a murderer, who lives on the abundance that has been taken from the mouths of the starving. You are an idolator, for what you worship is not the true God. You are a whore, for you have bedded down with other gods, the gods of your own comfort and self-delusion... (214)
[T]he true prophet is the one who sees the future implicit in the present; and his authenticity is confirmed when his prophecy comes true. (226)
God wanted something other than blood and smoke, buildings and citadels. He wanted justice, mercy, humility. He wanted what was invisible. He wanted their hearts--not the outside, but the inside.
There is no way of exaggerating how strange a thought this was.... There was in every human being an "inside," which the Jews had never steadily adverted to before. Could God possibly mean that each of them was to be a king, a prophet, a priest in his own right?... Those who first thought these thoughts must have felt that a great thunderclap had shaken them to their roots. They could now look back over the whole of their history... and see that God had been leading them all along, from one insight to another, and telling them a story, "something new on earth," the story of themselves. (226-8)
This book, like its predecessor How the Irish Saved Civilization is an engaging read that brings some scholarly insights to a popular audience, but this work lacks the sparkling wit that made the former volume at times laugh out loud funny. (That is possibly because the Irish commentators were more ribald and carefree than the Hebrew chroniclers of the Tanakh, and so Cahill less funny--if more profound--material with which to work this time around.)
**spoiler alert** Good anthology for course on religion in science fiction.
"In the House of Sorrows," Poul Anderson -- a contemporary**spoiler alert** Good anthology for course on religion in science fiction.
"In the House of Sorrows," Poul Anderson -- a contemporary world with Zoroaster and Mithras instead of Moses and Jesus.
"Counting Potsherds," Harry Turtledove -- What if Athens, and with it the idea of popular government, had been crushed by the Persian armies of Xerxes the Great?
"Leapfrog," James P. Hogan -- also in one of Hogan's anthologies, wherein it is asserted that private industry and the free market are the ideal means for achieving interstellar travel.
"To the Promised Land," Robert Silverberg -- Roman Imperial Egypt, 2700+ years from the founding of Rome, and the Jews are set to follow a new Moses, a new Messiah, into the intersteller Promised Land.
"Bible Stories for Adults, No. 31: The Covenant," James Morrow -- YHWH is an artificial intelligence designed to piece together the shattered tablets of Moses and reveal to the world, for the first time, the Divine Commandments. But then the Son of Rust gets involved, and those simple rules are revealed to be more problematic than you might think.
"Waiting for the Olympians," Frederik Pohl -- another vision of a contemporary, global Roman Empire, in which a struggling science-rom (romance) author explores the notion of alternate history and sketches a world in which Chrestian-Judaenism becomes the dominant ideology.
Some other fun stories too. A solid alternate-history anthology.
The series totally lost steam with this, the intended penultimate volume. Still wheels within wheels, but now they aStop the ride, I want to get off.
The series totally lost steam with this, the intended penultimate volume. Still wheels within wheels, but now they are turning aimlessly. And there was something absurd about the last chapter.
Seventeen years ago, when I first read the Dune saga up until this installment, a friend told me he thought that Herbert was senile when he wrote this one. After finishing it finally, I've got to wonder... ...more
I really wish I liked this book more than I did, especially since I ordered a copy for my dad as a father's day gift based on my enjoyment of the firsI really wish I liked this book more than I did, especially since I ordered a copy for my dad as a father's day gift based on my enjoyment of the first 20 or so pages. Unfortunately, this book has too many problems that kept me appreciating it more fully. For one thing, Wolverton jettisoned almost everything interesting about his visual style when he created his illustrations for the Bible. Evidently, he, like so many other Christians, felt that silliness and reverence don't mix at all, and so he inserted the proverbial corncob up his butt whenever he sat down to sketch Holy Writ. His "grown-up" visual style isn't bad at first (and near the end, in the Apocalypse illustrations), but it wears thin quickly, especially when the reader gets to the middle of the book. At this point in his Bible illustration trajectory, Wolverton's budget dried up, and he was forced to replace full-page artwork with little visual "quotes" that just don't work. Because he really didn't do such a great job in selecting either the stories to illustrate or the images with which to illustrate them, the reader gets treated to lots of landscapes with shadowy figures in the distance, people with surprised looks on their faces, and drawings of piles of rocks. Why he chose to spend more effort illustrating the minor prophets than he did the classic stories of Jonah, Job, etc. left me scratching my head. If you need a comics adaptation of the Bible, check out R. Crumb's masterful look at Genesis and leave this one on the shelf. ...more
I've always found Huston Smith insightful, lucid, and fun to read, and so I chose this as one of my course textbooks (when the previous textbook cameI've always found Huston Smith insightful, lucid, and fun to read, and so I chose this as one of my course textbooks (when the previous textbook came out in a new edition---for $110!). In spite of its lack of much primary source material (which Philip Novak's collection of scriptures supplements), this is an excellent introduction to the major religions of the world, "our wisdom traditions." Smith's concise chapters describe the big religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity--as well as discussing the role of religion in the 21st century and providing tips on how to approach religions and religious diversity. The illustrations are the weakest part of the book. Some are excellent, others (like the image of Mahavira in the chapter on Buddhism) are out of place, and the heavy reliance on the paintings of Marc Chagall didn't make much sense when the religions of the world afford so much imagery. ...more
After reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, liAfter reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, light stuff that Gaiman could crank out while catching his breath, preparing for the next run. Boy, was I wrong.
The first story in this collection, "Three Septembers and a January," brought me to tears as I read it on my lunch break. It tells the story of one Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States, a man whose waking dream saved him from utter despair and whose holy madness inspires many of us to this day. Gaiman does him honor with this story.
"Thermidor" introduces the reader to Orpheus, son of Dream, in a tale about Robespierre's Reign of Terror, the ironic effort to effect the Age of Reason through terror. Heads will roll!
Werewolves. Subtle rendered, hinted at, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye until the very end, but werewolves nonetheless. These People and their history and customs are the focus of the third story, "The Hunt," a tale of the Old Country told by grandfather to granddaughter.
"August" explains much about the life and deeds of the First Citizen of Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, by interweaving imperial conquest and childhood sexual abuse. I wonder how this one went down with classicists.
My least favorite story in the collection, "Soft Places," is more hallucinogenic than the others (hence the title). G.K. Chesterton (whom I can identify only thanks to Gene Wolfe's introduction), Marco Polo, Fiddler's Green, and Dream meet in the sands of the Desert of Lop. But of course, it's "really" a dream...
A retelling of the myth of "Orpheus" juxtaposes classical symbolism with contemporary style and imagery, and does a great job at it. Gaiman shows he can write a relatively straightforward story and yet suggest visual imagery which "problematizes" that same narrative.
"Parliament of Rooks" takes a little boy's dream, and uses it to discuss Adam and Eve via the classic DC Comics spooky comic narrators Cain and Abel. The reader learns about the three wives of Adam, from the Midrashic account of the Creation; about how the two brothers got neighboring houses, one of Mystery and the other of Secrets; and about the differences between a murder of crows and a parliament of rooks.
"Ramadan" concludes the volume with a haunting tale of Haroun al-Raschid, the sultan of Baghdad at the height of its prominence and power. Gaiman trenchantly connects the myth, legend, and dream of the Baghdad of Ali Baba and flying carpets with the then-contemporary (and, sadly, now-contemporary) bombed out modern metropolis.