After reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, li...moreAfter 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.
**spoiler alert** Good anthology for course on religion in science fiction.
"In the House of Sorrows," Poul Anderson -- a contemporary...more**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 Phoenicians we learned about in grade school are a larger part of history than I would have first believed, and this approachable account attempts...moreThe 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. (less)
Good book for a Religious Themes in Science Fiction-type course. What if Nietzsche's famous statement that "God is dead" was literally true? What if t...moreGood book for a Religious Themes in Science Fiction-type course. What if Nietzsche's famous statement that "God is dead" was literally true? What if the Creator --- the two-mile tall, bearded, bephallused, vertebrate, bipedal Creator --- died of unknown causes and plunged into the sea? Would atheists see God's death as a victory or a failure (since His death means He really existed in the first place)? Would women see the death of the patriarchal Abrahamic God as a case of just deserts or would the fact that the male Creator WAS the prototypical human ("Man") lead to even worse times for women the world over? These are some of angles from which Morrow probes the theme of the death of God. The epic quality and maritime context echo *Moby Dick* and make for a compelling read. (It also didn't hurt that I read it as a break from the Aeneid, and so blazed through it in a couple sittings.)(less)
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 ide...moreIn 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.)
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 firs...moreI 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. (less)
[T]his book is part of a series on cultural impact. And the great question about Jesus must always be: Did he make a difference? Is our world--in the century that began with the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, reached its nadir with the "scientific" holocaust of six million Jews (and five million others), not to speak of the slaughter by their own governments of Russians and Chinese in the scores of millions, and now comes to its end with genocides in central Africa and "ethnic cleansings" in the Balkans that are still, horribly enough "in progress"--is our world any better than the one inhabited by the Celts and Romans of twenty-four centuries ago? Did the values preached by Jesus influence the Anglican Queen Elizabeth or her opponent the Catholic Earl O'Neill? Did she ever shudder at the carnage of her battlefields? Did he, even once, as he surveyed the hacked limbs, the gouged eyes, the grisly dying, ever wonder if there was another way? Do Christian values have any influence on the actions of Christians who on both sides of the English/Irish divide have continued to "fight the old fight again"? Did the life and death of Jesus make any difference to the denizens of first-century TransTiberim? Does he make any difference to the residents of today's Trastevere?
These are hard questions; some will no doubt label them unfair. But they must be posed at the outset. For if this Jesus, this figure professedly central to our whole culture, has had no effect, he has no place in a history of cultural effects. (8-9)
As we now stand at the entrance to the third millennium since Jesus, we can look back over the horrors of Christian history, never doubting for an instant that if Christians had put kindness ahead of devotion to good order, theological correctness, and our own justifications--if we had followed in the humble footsteps of a heretical Samaritan who was willing to wash someone else's wounds, rather than in the self-regarding steps of the priest and the immaculate steps of the levite--the world we inhabit would be a very different one. (185)
Morris Berman begins his exploration of the "hidden history" of the West with a discussion of the nemo, a word he borrows from John Fowles' The Aristo...moreMorris Berman begins his exploration of the "hidden history" of the West with a discussion of the nemo, a word he borrows from John Fowles' The Aristos which connotes the sense of non-existence at the core of the existential condition. The experience of this nemo, according to Berman, results from a developmental split between the felt sense of embodiment (somatic awareness) and the mental self image that comes from how others see us (specular awareness). Berman uses the history of mirrors and the human relationship to animals to demonstrate how this split has led historically to a de-valuation of somatic, embodied experience, a consequent preference for "cognitively top-heavy" abstraction, and various attempts to heal the breach between the two.
The core of the book is an exploration of four different periods in Western history---the origins of Christianity and Gnosticism, the Cathar/Albigensian heresy in Southern France, the rise of modern science from the practice of alchemy, and the modern phenomenon of Nazism. Berman investigates how these periods relate to the suppression of the body in favor of the abstracted intellect and to the return of that suppressed somatic experience in different forms (e.g,. Gnostic mysticism, romantic love, scientific abstraction, and Nazi mass murder).
Finally, Berman looks at our prospects for the future. Since the abstraction/experience split and our attempts to smooth it over are still going strong in modern Western societies, Berman fears the potential for a resurgence of fascism. (Given the tenor of the 21st century so far, it would seem that his fears are well founded.) Instead of advocating another mystical or political attempt to heal over the split and to fill in the nemo, Berman discusses the possibility of a "gesture of balance"---learning to accept the split and the feeling of the nemo without being compelled to fill it in or smooth it over. This radical acceptance of the gap might be the key to "resolving" the gap altogether.
In short, this is a book that demands serious attention from students of history, politics, religion, philosophy, psychology, and also for those dedicated to pursuing a spiritual path.(less)
After all, it is the Bible, which carries a LOT of baggage. As the sacred scripture of over 1 billion people,...moreThe Bible is a difficult book to review.
After all, it is the Bible, which carries a LOT of baggage. As the sacred scripture of over 1 billion people, its impact on the lives and minds of those who view it as The Book is difficult for a secular reader to appreciate fully. Moreover its influence on two thousand years of human history and culture cannot be overstated. That said, it is not really a book for general reading, nor was it ever intended to be. It is hard to consider it a book at all; it is instead a particular edition of a library of texts, first transmitted orally and then written, spanning a time frame of a millennium and a half, dealing with the evolution of one religion and the formation of another. So instead of providing a flowing story-line with an overarching plot and character development, the Bible presents a tangle of poems, myths, hymns, aphoristic wisdom literature, cultural and historical narratives, prophetic exhortations for social justice, and theological fragments. Part of the challenge of reading the Bible as a whole is figuring out just what all these different parts can possibly mean: one their own, in relationship to one another, in their original contexts, and within my own 21st century USAmerican experience. Some of texts speak directly to "the Human Condition" and are as radical to the contemporary reader as they were to the powers and principalities of the times in which they were composed. Other texts seem relevant only to archaeologists and students of ancient history, and still other texts seem downright perverse and un-sacred; I honestly have some problems with my nine-year old reading the Bible because of the questions it raises (almost none of which have to do with God or theology).
I didn't really like the One Year format. Breaking the various texts into sections and then alternating the daily excerpts (in the order of Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm, Proverbs) made it difficult to maintain continuity in the readings. From what I have gathered online, there are resources to assist the reader in dividing the Bible into daily portions, and so I recommend trying that out with the Bible you already have or can obtain at any motel, second-hand store, or Campus Crusade give-away. I am also not so keen on the New Living Translation. While I am not a Bible scholar or an expert in translation, I have certain preferences and look to the NRSV as my "favorite" translation of the Bible, having used that while at university. The biases of the translating committee of the New Living Translation were pretty obvious in points (e.g., repeatedly translating "disciples" as "believers," and translating "the saints" as "other believers," etc.), and at other times the language lacked any sense of gravitas, sort of like the King James version in reverse.
I finally settled on two stars for the rating. The Bible deserves a couple of stars simply for being one of the main wellsprings of Western civilization, religion, and literature. I find many verses in the Bible to be amazing (5 stars) because of their beauty or insight or provocative quality, but others (too many) are difficult to understand or downright meaningless (2 stars, tops). Unfortunately way too much of the Bible was devoted to war, warriors, and war-making for my taste (not surprising, seeing that God is regularly referred to as the "LORD of Hosts" or "LORD of Heaven's Armies"), and many of God's proclamations reminded me too much of an abusive spouse, raging and forgiving, raging and forgiving. As with many other challenging books, this is another that I want to re-read and re-engage with, but I am going to read the Jewish Study Bible next time, maybe for 2012 or 2013.(less)
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 came...moreI'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. (less)
The series totally lost steam with this, the intended penultimate volume. Still wheels within wheels, but now they a...moreStop 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... (less)
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 c...moreLots 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. (less)