A few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collA few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collectivization (20 to 50 million dead,) and Hitler's genocide (11 million dead). I am largely unshockable. However, the avarice and deceit of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo (10 million dead) has been something of a revelation. I hereby enter his name in my Rogues Gallery roster. It is important that we remember what he perpetrated for his own personal gain. Adam Hochschild's book does an excellent job of registering these crimes in the collective memory. The book has been justly praised. Let me add my own.
Also, it turns out the first great unmasker of Leopold was an American, George Washington Williams. He was a lawyer, minister, popular author and activist. He wrote an open letter to Leopold that was published in the Times in 1890 and which might have saved millions of lives had he been listened to. Williams was a man of considerable intellectual acumen and courage. Largely because he was black, however, he was ignored. I had always thought that great whistleblower was Roger Casement. And certainly Casement's key contribution is recounted here, as is that of the great popularizer of the Congo cause, E.D. Morel, but Williams' audacious early warning was a surprise to me. I hereby enter his name into the book of latter-day Cassandras, and suggest he be given greater emphasis in all relevant texts and courses....more
Oliver Sacks mentions this work in his new book Hallucinations for its depictions of groups experiencing mass delusions. I do not know if Arthur MilleOliver Sacks mentions this work in his new book Hallucinations for its depictions of groups experiencing mass delusions. I do not know if Arthur Miller read this when working on his play The Crucible, but I have my suspicions....more
Author Elaine Pagels includes here discussion of not only John of Patmos's Book of Revelations, so well-known from the New Testament, but also discussAuthor Elaine Pagels includes here discussion of not only John of Patmos's Book of Revelations, so well-known from the New Testament, but also discussion of the numerous revelation texts found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. These are the so-called gnostic or apocryphal texts expunged by order of Egyptian bishop Athanasius in the 4th century C.E. Because of the range of her sources she's able to give us a picture of Christian revelatory thinking and mindsets through the ages.
For instance, the original "beast" or anti-Christ as conceived by John of Patmos was clearly Rome. John, a Jew, wrote in 90 C.E. This was just twenty years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish people. Once Constantine adopted the faith (312 C.E.) and ended the persecution of Christians, however, the beast was reinterpreted to mean all so-called heretics: Jews, ironically, pagans, essentially any nonconformist.
Pagels also discusses how due to the thematic broadness of much of what John wrote he created imagery that has over two millennia been capable of being projected onto any perceived threat of the moment. The list of examples is extensive, but includes Martin Luther's depiction of the pope as the beast, and the Church's depiction, in turn, of Martin Luther as such. We might also add Hitler as beast, Stalin as best, western sexual and moral laxness as beast, and let's not forget the current favorite: Obama as beast. Recommended.
Let me add that there's a wonderful book by Norman Cohn called Pursuit of the Millennium which I discuss elsewhere that looks at this penchant for flexible interpretation of anti-Christ during the 11th through 15th centuries or so, and how this capacity in turn engendered the most appalling mass hysteria and genocide in central and southern Europe. Cohn's is an astonishing book and I recommended it highly....more
This is sort of wonderful. King follows the ancient polemical and modern scholarly views of Gnosticism down through the ages. Her main point is that tThis is sort of wonderful. King follows the ancient polemical and modern scholarly views of Gnosticism down through the ages. Her main point is that the late 19th-early 20th century scholars for the most part accepted and reinforced the views of the early church polemicists (Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc.). She gives detailed example after detailed example. We look at the work of Harnack, Reitzenstein, Bousset, Bultmann, Bauer, Jonas and others. She then undertakes a review of shifting scholarly positions after the astonishing discovery in 1945 of a trove of ancient mostly Gnostic manuscripts near the Upper Egypt village of Nag Hammadi. These manuscripts, written in Coptic, were hidden in a jar under the sand and estimated to be 1,600 years old. They threw much light on the formation of the early church and raised many questions. Does King belabor her point a bit? Yes, she is nothing if not a scholar, but it's such a fascinating overview, requiring only minimal googling for the general reader, that one is borne along nicely. Her writing is clear and free of jargon save for the first chapter or so where she pays the requisite obeisance to scholarly argot. Though she isn't the writer her peer Elaine Pagels is, King nevertheless does a rock solid job. She wants to follow the sequence of ideas and compare and contrast them as she goes along. Just the sort of treatment I was looking for. Thorough and admirable....more
3.5 stars — What an elephantine statement. I began the novel with the impression that it was kind of a Christian millenarian Germinal in terms of the3.5 stars — What an elephantine statement. I began the novel with the impression that it was kind of a Christian millenarian Germinal in terms of the bleakness of its storyline. By the end, however, it was clear to me that Vargas Llosa's model was predominantly Russian. When AC says here that "there is a certain archaism and hieratic nature in the writing," I think this is in part what he means, though the limited third-person voice never widens to full God-like omniscience.
The novel is based on the Canudos or backlands rebellion in Brazil of the late 1890s, which is known to us primarily from Euclides Da Cunha’s pioneering Sertões (available in translation from Penguin as Backlands: The Canudos Campaign), which has been called the starting point of Brazilian letters. Brazil has deposed its monarchy and established a young, unstable republic. The disenfranchised monarchists want to hang on to their property rights and are in a political fight with the republicans. This conflict forms the novel’s lethal backstory. In the foreground is the messianic figure, Antonio Conselhiero (the Counselor), who, over thirty years of preaching in the backlands has assembled a flock of congregants, including many notorious bandits, but made up largely of poor farming families forced off the land by devastating drought.
The Counselor views the new republic as the Anti-christ because of a constitution that separates church and state. The republic's transgressions include the institution of civil marriage, when, as the Counselor knows from direct contact with his deity, a perfectly valid form of religious marriage already exists. Also cited as fodder for rebellion is the collection of taxes, viewed as an encroachment on Church tithing; and a census, which is seen as a way to both reinstitute the slave trade, abolished under the monarchy, and provide the Antichrist republic with the information it needs to undertake a pogrom of all declared Catholics. An entirely baseless claim yet one that is not without irony given the story's genocidal conclusion.
In time the dispossessed pilgrims settle on one of the landholdings, Canudos, of the Baron Canabrava. The pro-republican propagandist, Epaminondas Gonçalves -- a man whose murderous PR would make even Joey Goebbels burst with admiration -- paints the squatters as recidivist monarchists in league with the elderly baron. This is false. It is true, however, that the squatters have rejected the republic. When Gonçalves arranges for a shipment of English rifles and ammunition to Canudos he conveniently exposes the "monarchists" as traitors to the fledgling republic and publishes accordingly. Because of this deft bit of disinformation, the republicans and their armies and most of the public do not know that Canudos is in fact a religious settlement with eschatological leanings. Even during the last prolonged campaign against Canudos the commanding general still believes that the jagunços have monarchist tendencies and English officers advising them. Three times the republic sends the army against Canudos and loses ignominiously, thanks to the insurgents' ruthless guerrilla tactics. The fourth campaign succeeds.
Vargas Llosa spends the first 200 pages alone establishing his characters. They are a rogue’s gallery, too, and include the “nearsighted journalist,” a character based on Euclides Da Cunha himself; the elderly Baron Canabrava, head of the (real) ousted monarchists; the newspaper owner and lethal republican, Gonçalves; Galileo Gall, a Scottish socialist, whose over-zealousness and lack of self-examination bring him to an ugly pass; the ex-slave, Big João, who ruthlessly slices his mistress to bits during a backlands excursion; Abbot João, formerly Satan João, Pajeú, Pedrão, and other murderous bandits turned upstanding Christians; the Vilanova brothers, itinerant merchants; the filicide Maria Quadrado; the Lion of Natuba, a literate, deformed young man who serves as the Counselor's scribe; and the entire Brazilian army -- a Dostoyevskian dramatis personae if ever there was one.
On the whole, the novel is an admirable endeavor. The narration is straightforward, the diction very flat. There's no fancy vocabulary, except for the occasional Portuguese word, and no structural sleight-of-hand. The writing strives to stay out of its own way, and largely succeeds. But neither does the prose exhibit any real nicety of style, to use E.M. Forster’s phrase. The idiom did not inordinately excite or please this reader. In other words, it doesn't sing. The book’s achievement is in its structure and its length (580 pages). A bit too long for me, the battle scenes especially. As we hurtle toward the end, increasingly there's a tendency toward melodrama. Cliches start popping up: "A chill ran down his spine." Then again there are many beautifully vivid renderings of action and space: the sere landscape, the streets of the impoverished squatter town. Recommended with reservations....more
Armstrong is a scholar of comparative religion. In numerous examples here, she shows how worship in virtually all world religions depends on a foundatArmstrong is a scholar of comparative religion. In numerous examples here, she shows how worship in virtually all world religions depends on a foundation of silence, or what she calls unknowing. This is the silence through which one gets intimations of the divine presence. I found the description remarkably like two kinds of Eastern meditation I have practiced over the years. There was no presumption on the part of early theists that they could grasp God. He was beyond human comprehension. Since knowledge was not possible the only alternative was what Armstrong calls kenosis, or self emptying: techniques that led one toward the necessary quiet contemplation. Armstrong is liberal with her examples here and they are all fascinating. In fact, this part of the book is a kind of survey course in comparative religion, but without the other students.
There is a wonderful description, the first I have come across, of the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece. Armstrong describes this ritual, emphasizing how inherent in it were two key concepts: "mythos" and "logos." Mythos was a "story that was not meant to be historical or factual but expressed the meaning of an event or narrative and encapsulated its timeless, eternal dimension." Mythos was a teaching tool; one that helped to impart to the initiate or religious a sense of the sacred. The other term is Logos. Logos means "dialogue, speech; reasoned, logical, and scientific thought." In the past, religion was always a matter of practice. Practice is defined as daily ritual. Like the Mass, for instance, in Catholicism; or the five daily prayers in Islam; or the Passover seder in Judaism. Religion was not, she stresses, about "belief." No one was expected to believe in God. In fact, the idea of belief as we know it today did not then exist. There was, too, among all monotheistic religions, a remarkable lack of rigidity when it came to interpreting the holy books (Bible, Talmud, Koran). The object being not to pick interpretations that were correct and inflexible, but to find new and innovative interpretations. In fact, if the initiate was not finding some new twist in the scriptures, some novel interpretation, that person was considered remiss in his or her practice. And practice was the only way to know the sacred.
Then the Enlightenment came along, and with it the scientific revolution. The scientific method taught that facts were right or they were wrong. Either you could repeat the experiment, or you could not. Many early scientists were religious. Newton, for one, but many others as well. Gradually there was a shift from kenosis, from the gentle act of self-emptying for purposes of contemplation of God in silence, to one which began to seek "scientific proofs" of God's existence. For instance, it was at first thought that the incredible detail revealed microscopic structures was a sign of the divine. How else could these astonishingly minute structures have occurred but through God's hand. This way of knowing God flourished. God thus became an outsize if finite being, to the extent that he was knowable. For a while science continued to provide these "proofs" of his existence.
Then something happened, two things really that threw this approach to knowing God on its ear: the first were certain advances in geology. Geology showed that the earth was not created in six days, as stated in Genesis. It pointed to time spans that were almost beyond human conception. Then came Evolution. Darwin showed us that Man and his fellow creatures were not created all at one time and set down on the planet in their current form. Evolution, in fact, showed us that there was no Intelligent Design, for its process (selection) was not in any way directed. That is to say, it was a geologically slow and muddled process marked by eons of struggle, most of it futile, and mass extinction. Persons of faith, however, were by this time hooked on their concept of "belief," which they had gleaned from the sciences. The silent contemplation of early monotheism--unknowing, kenosis--had been lost in the West. Faith began to be sustained through a literal (i.e. rigid) interpretation of scripture. So here we are in the present day. The Fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Something never required of early worshippers. Somehow, it has come to be thought, that religion must be made to match science, truth for truth. And of course religion can never do that. Historically, it has never functioned in that way. Yet we need it in our lives. Why? Why can't we do away with it as the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) seem to believe we can? Armstrong quotes Jean Paul Sartre saying that when we do away with religion there is left in the human psyche a "God-shaped hole." Armstrong argues here, makes her case for god, for maintaining touch with the old, kenotic ways of belief. She is very persuasive. I treasure this book and look forward to rereading it.
There is a lot here about Irenaeus, a major second-century figure in the establishment of the early Church and its gospels, which were later confirmedThere is a lot here about Irenaeus, a major second-century figure in the establishment of the early Church and its gospels, which were later confirmed at the Council of Nicea (325). There is also very interesting material on Emperor Constantine. I had not known, for example, that his support of the early Church had so pervaded the everyday workings of his empire. In addition to sponsoring the Council of Nicea, Constantine ruled the empire from the perspective of a Christian, issuing numerous edicts favorable to the Church and Christians. Not long before that, of course, Romans were throwing Christians to the lions. The book is worthwhile reading. It's filled with interesting bits. But it's not a cohesive work. I found it lacking the overarching unity such as I found in The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. It seems clear that the data before Ms. Pagels, who is really a wonderful writer, did not permit the sort of unity that I as a reader sought. So she can't really be blamed. Beyond Belief touches on a private tragedy in Ms. Pagels own life. Though the book is popular religious scholarship, the inclusion of such a heartbreaking tale gave it a human dimension this reader warmed to. I felt the narrator to be someone I knew something about, and that made progress through the text far more pleasurable than it would have been had she employed the usual scholarly anonymity....more
The so-called apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, are here explained in the context of late second-centuThe so-called apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, are here explained in the context of late second-century RC church history. Gnostic (gnosis, Gk: knowledge) Christians did not believe that human intermediaries (priests, etc.) were necessary for an individual to find God. For the gnostics, enlightenment was an entirely inward and self-determined process. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus was not divine but an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. They did not believe in the resurrection of the flesh. They did not believe in the eucharist, nor did they have any eschatalogical beliefs. They believed in a higher supreme god and a lower creator god, Yahweh, the Jewish god, who maliciously made man in his image and demanded to be worshipped by him. They believed that "secret wisdom" was handed down to the Apostles by Jesus, esoteric knowledge which was not vouchsafed to ordinary believers but only to mature ones. The gnostics believed that through their inner way of knowing God that they were then able to exceed the knowledge of the Apostles. There is language in the New Testament to support this idea of Jesus's secret wisdom. For the masses Jesus had only parables, exoteric knowledge appropriate to the less spiritually advanced. Late in the book some of the techniques for achieving gnosis are reviewed and they are surprisingly close to those used by Buddhists. Though Buddhists are nontheistic what they and the gnostics do has uncanny similarities. Elaine Pagels shows us that there was no early Christian golden age. That is to say, an age that had uniform teachings accepted by all. Instead the teachings were far more diverse than they are today, and highly contentious. Moreover, the RC church could have developed radically differently if some of these writings had been accepted, instead of being purged, as they were, so that someone, perhaps a monk belonging to a monastery near Nag Hammadi, buried them in a jar under the sand 1,600 years ago. I found the book fascinating and fun to read. I recommend it highly, as I do Pagels's Adam, Eve and the Serpent, The Origin of Satan, and Beyond Belief....more
If you're new to Pagels I would suggest that you start not here but with The Gnostic Gospels. That is the foundation, it seems to me, on which all ofIf you're new to Pagels I would suggest that you start not here but with The Gnostic Gospels. That is the foundation, it seems to me, on which all of her other works build. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent focuses on why early Christians came to believe sex was inherently sinful. An excellent question. It begins with more of the fascinating story of the Valentinian gnostics, who were so troublesome to the early church. Apparently, like earlier Talmudic scholars, the gnostics saw little usefulness in Scriptural readings that were not fresh and innovative. (Karen Armstrong goes into this subject at length in her The Case for God.) Such a spur to inventiveness naturally gave rise to widely variant readings. This was at a time when early church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian and others were trying to standardize Scriptural interpretation. The gnostics also believed that clerics were not needed for what was essentially an inward journey of spiritual discovery. Rituals such as baptism and the eucharist they viewed as preliminaries. The gnostics were thus considerably anti-establishment and as such they drove Irenaeus and his fellows a little crazy. So consumed was Irenaeus with the gnostics that he composed a multi-volume refutation of their divergent beliefs. Most useful to this reader was the story in the chapter "The Politics of Paradise" of how Augustine "transformed much of the teaching of the Christian faith" from one that emphasized "freedom of the will and humanity's original royal dignity" . . . "to one of enslavement to sin." Pagels explains how Augustine's own out of control sexually promiscuous youth made it all but impossible for him to understand then prevailing Christian concepts of free will. "Astonishingly," she says, "Augustine's radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of western Christians the consensus of more than three centuries of Christian tradition." There is so much interesting content here. I've just touched on just a few spots. The book is a little denser in terms of its scholarship than other Pagels books. (I've read all but the first two.) I could not get straight through it in one go, but needed a fiction interlude before returning to finish. Nevertheless, highly recommended....more
I don't think Karen L. King has been good for Elaine Pagels's prose. I strained thoughout to hear Pagels' distinctive voice and could never quite locaI don't think Karen L. King has been good for Elaine Pagels's prose. I strained thoughout to hear Pagels' distinctive voice and could never quite locate it. Instead the tone seems a little rushed, a little shrill almost, as opposed to Pagels's much more relaxed and considered pace. Second, while the arguments broached here are compelling enough they never seem to go as deep as Pagels' on her own seems to go when writing without a collaborator. If you want to start with a great Pagels book try The Gnostic Gospels. This is an astonishing work. It looks at some of the gospels that were not made canonical by the early Catholic Church; that is to say, gospels that did not make it into the New Testament because they supported a non-clergy based view of Christianity. These gospels were found in Upper Egypt in 1945 near a place called Nag Hammadi. The Gnostics, basing their faith on these texts before they were expunged, preached an "inner way" to Jesus Christ that required neither priest nor institution. For this reason they were branded heretics by early Church zealots Irenaeus and Tertullian, and persecuted. The second book I would recommend as a possible starting point for those not familiar with Pagels's work is Adam, Eve & the Serpent. This volume tackles the question of why we in the West consider sex sinful today. Pagels's argument is fascinating. It turns out that it was St. Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century theologian, who pretty much single handedly created original sin--a concept, it should be emphasized, that Christians were unburdened with before his writings changed everything. Augustine, you see, was quite the rake and libertine in his youth who became guilt-ridden by his (healthy) sexuality and came to see it as a curse. Both books are must reads, which you start with is up to you....more