It has been a few years since I read a Bryson book, and it's clear that his style has shifted a bit. Bryson has always been informative to an encyclopIt has been a few years since I read a Bryson book, and it's clear that his style has shifted a bit. Bryson has always been informative to an encyclopedic extent, but he also tends to be side-splittingly funny. Alas, humor is not characteristic of "One Summer," (though a snort or two is to be had), though it must be said that that's partly due to the subject matter: while the 1920s were a decidedly intriguing and exhilarating time, they weren't especially funny (and the subsequent decade even less so).
Nevertheless, this is an engaging and breathtakingly expansive book, and Bryson's skill as both an explainer of the intricate (who knew the advent of aviation or television could be conveyed so simply?) and a connector of the disparate (it's always a small world, but the focal figures of "One Summer" are separated by far fewer than six degrees once Bryson has finished weaving) render what is essentially a history textbook vastly more readable than one would typically expect. ...more
What a book to read under the glow of a Christmas tree and in earshot of traditional carols.
Aslan has thrown down a gauntlet in this book that, franklWhat a book to read under the glow of a Christmas tree and in earshot of traditional carols.
Aslan has thrown down a gauntlet in this book that, frankly, does not seem likely to be easily ignored or brushed aside. For years I, a lifelong Christian, have routinely claimed that “there are no contradictions in the Bible” and placed the burden of proof on others to show me I am wrong. Zealot is in a way the response: explicit, corroborated demonstration of inconsistency both within the New Testament accounts and between those accounts and external historical records. Some of these inconsistencies are a matter of interpretation, and while Aslan argues extremely convincingly for his perspective, he acknowledges that other scholars dispute his position. However there are numerous points on which Aslan offers no such caveat, claiming unanimity in scholarly consensus and in no uncertain terms accusing those who cling to a Christian tradition on such points of willfully ignoring plain and irrefutable facts.
To be clear, not every argument in the book is ironclad; while Aslan weaves a good story, there are some points where what he says feels more clearly like an opinion than empiricism. True, most points are corroborated with external support, but Aslan’s routine citation of only a handful of sources suggests what the author rather openly admits: he’s not necessarily saying anything unique, but merely parroting a few scholars whose work he feels (and you are welcome to disagree) have already done enough to establish the points about Jesus and the gospels he is making.
Aslan, perhaps recognizing the ad hominem responses he’s likely to receive for writing anything about Jesus with an Iranian birth certificate and a Muslim faith, is quite up-front about his credentials as a scholar — a point no one who has seen the infamous FOX News interview (which, admittedly, led me to add this book to my reading list in the first place) can rightfully forget. Those who will reject scholarship on the basis of authorship alone are already perhaps the wrong audience for a book like this, but their misgivings might be assuaged a bit by noticing that Christianity was part of Aslan’s life and indeed a major part of the impetus for his career in religious history. It was only during the process of studying scripture that Aslan’s doubts and eventual apostasy emerged. This of course makes him the antithesis of apologetic heroes like Lee Strobel, but that point alone should not be cause for abandoning what he has to say outright.
I’m sure I’m not the only Christian who will read this book and feel extraordinarily conflicted on how to properly digest it. While Aslan rather soundly dismantles Christianity as the word is understood today, he nevertheless salvages both the miracles and the resurrection as points historically difficult, if not impossible, to brush aside. He is not, after all this, an atheist — and the implication is that a supernatural undercurrent may indeed have played a role in the life and aftermath of Jesus, even if the precise nature of that role is historically inscrutable. This puts the would-be anti-theist in a bind, because the same authoritative voice that tears to shreds things like the nativity story and the trial before Pilate also reinforces the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was famous for his ability to heal people instantaneously and that too many people died horrific deaths on the basis of claiming to have seen him alive and well post-crucifixion to assume they were lying.
Yet perhaps the most critical contribution Aslan makes to modern Christian thinking (if one can “contribute” via excoriation) is his assessment of Paul and Paul’s impact on what would become the religion we now call Christianity; in short, Christianity is Paulism, and the majority (if not entirety) of what Christianity teaches is in fact the gospel of Paul, explicitly at odds with the gospel of Jesus, James, and Peter. Aslan traces the antagonism between Paul’s teachings and those of the rest of the early church leadership both within and beyond scripture, using the historical dynamic between Rome and Jerusalem to explain how something so vastly disparate from what Jesus and his relatives and confidants actually believed could become the thing associated with Jesus’ name.
As a critical reader of the New Testament I have always been put off by Paul in a way I never was able to properly articulate… Years back I complained to friends that Paul seemed incredibly disagreeable and that some of what he said seemed incongruent with my understanding of the gospel. Aslan gives me a great justification for those misgivings — but simultaneously strips Christianity of its raison d’être, transforming a global message of salvation into a Greco-Roman cult distinct from the Jewish messianic movement that had actively condemned it.
Ultimately, this is a book one should not read nonchalantly, because its implications — regardless of where on the religious spectrum you reside — are immense. At the same time, it’s a book well worth reading, pondering, and discussing. I am sure that there will be, and already are, excellent responses to Aslan’s claims, both those he declares are unanimously supported and those which he less obliquely accepts as controversial. Such considerations should obviously be carefully weighed before allowing a single book by a single author to radically alter an entire worldview. But if Zealot does not singlehandedly topple the monolith that is modern Christianity, it goes a long way towards shaking the foundations. And that alone makes it worthy of your attention.
A note on the score: I found the construction of the book itself at times slightly distracting. Aslan plays to his strength as a narrator, and thus for the most part relegates the scholarly tussles and contestations of his argument to endnotes. The book thus plays out as Aslan's story, followed by a fifty-page chunk of how he got there and who disagrees with him. Personally, I wanted a closer tie between the content of the chapters and the content of the endnotes. Each chapter's "Notes" section simply addresses a swathe of concerns from the chapter -- that is, the notes are on a chapter basis, rather than (a la typical endnotes or footnotes), numbered references to specific sentences or paragraphs in the chapter. The jarring jump from one subject to the next in the Notes, without a clear antecedent in the text, to some degree (for me) diminished the value of the notes. Admittedly, I read all the notes after finishing the book, rather than reading each chapter's notes at the end of that chapter -- a personal choice which may have been the wrong choice, even if the design of the book seems to suggest going that route. To the extent that this editorial decision (to lump all notes together, without reference numbers, at the end of the book, rather than distribute them throughout) was consciously made to sustain the narrative (rather than a simple sloppy oversight), it does seem worth pointing out as the chief negative in my reading experience. ...more
Though it begins tongue-in-cheek enough, Assholes: A Theory is not really a comedy book. It's a refreshingly honest look at what we mean when we referThough it begins tongue-in-cheek enough, Assholes: A Theory is not really a comedy book. It's a refreshingly honest look at what we mean when we refer to someone as an asshole -- and, accordingly, what we *don't* mean. James spends the first half of the book building a convincing argument for his definition, using case studies to illustrate his proposed distinctions. He then moves into the economic and political indications of the asshole, because of course asshole proliferation transcends the interpersonal and exists as a major social force at institutional, cultural, and international levels.
Whether you find yourself on James' side of philosophical, political, or religious aisles or not, his writing remains accessible and refreshingly humble. For those frequently surrounded by assholes, James provides both a comforting solidarity and encouraging strategies for, if not fixing the asshole problem, then at least better coping with it. Yet I'd recommend the book even to those who cannot readily think of assholes in their lives; not only are the implications, as I noted above, bigger than any one person's social circle, but there is of course the danger that you do not recognize the problem because you *are* the asshole in your life.
For myself, the most useful insights in this book were not into the human condition or the perils beholden our capitalist society (though not for lack of trying on James's part), but rather the mirror his words create. While I can safely say I fail the standards for assholism, James's description of the Jerk (quoted in part in my prior status update) hit a bit too close to home. I can honestly say this book has me reevaluating my own behaviors and the impact I have had, perhaps unwittingly, on those around me. It is not terribly often I can say that about something I read on a whim -- and so I'm grateful for that whim, and imagine many others will be too.
Truly a remarkable read. Satrapi's story is at once deeply personal and deeply universal, uniquely Iranian while simultaneously, it would seem, also tTruly a remarkable read. Satrapi's story is at once deeply personal and deeply universal, uniquely Iranian while simultaneously, it would seem, also the story of diaspora the world over.