One of my friends once said Christianity was a great idea, unfortunately, Jesus' disciples made it into a religion. I was never sure if I could agree One of my friends once said Christianity was a great idea, unfortunately, Jesus' disciples made it into a religion. I was never sure if I could agree with him. One thing to take away from this book, like other books by Ehrman, is that once you look critically into the historical stuff about Jesus and what he actually said and did, not what others interpreted him to say, things aren't as romantic as moralists or philosophers (not to mention theologians) would like us to think.
Unlike what most people would imagine, that Jesus was an asteroid hitting the earth with great moral force, he was more like a pebble thrown into the sea. His influence outside Palestine was nil, very little was known or written about him in the pagan or non-Christian Jewish literature, the best we had was a passing mention of some guy called Christos by the historian Josephus. He was more like a typical village preacher than a great philosopher. Apart from the four Gospels, each with a distinct theological orientation, very few other Christian sources actually described Jesus' life and deeds, often with contradictory and unreliable information. Jesus' preaching had little to do with reforming society or inculcating better morality but much more about what people had to do to enter the imminent Kingdom of God when all current social institutions would be destroyed to be replaced by God's eternal happy paradise. on this topic Ehrman's "Jesus, the first millennium apocalyptic prophet" is a much better read.
I think the most interesting thing I learned from this book is the increasing anti-Jewish tendency of early Christianity. Most Jews at that time probably found it ridiculous that some people believed that Jesus could be the messiah. The messiah is supposed to be a fantastically powerful, glorious warrior with aura shining and angels flying above his head not a humiliated, helpless little guy. To recruit more followers, Paul made it very clear that Gentiles could also be salvaged by Jesus' suffering given that they believed in him. Unlike Judaism, which was exempted from persecution by the Roman empire in many aspects, as a weak emerging religious movement without any political clout, early Christianity had to defend itself against subversive charges, and had to create an "enemy" in its process of self-definition. And if you can't tickle the big guy (Rome), the easiest target was Jews who refused to believe in Jesus, and these attacks became increasingly vitriolic and took tragic turns once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. Another minor interesting thing is how Ehrman explains the evil number 666 (mine is that it sounds like sex sex sex). He says that in ancient Hebrew, each letter can have a numerical value, and 666 makes Rome, the evil centre of the world at that time, which makes pretty good sense. The book gets a bit tedious at times, but is still an excellent textbook to learn about early Christianity. I love Ehrman as always, his writing is so brilliant and engaging that even a mind-numbingly boring topic like this can be interesting.
If i could think of this book as a meal, then indeed Michael Pollan is a marvelous cook. He writes well, vividly and convincingly.As dense and inform If i could think of this book as a meal, then indeed Michael Pollan is a marvelous cook. He writes well, vividly and convincingly.As dense and informative as it is, the book doesn't make me feel bloated, but nourished :] I can't remember the last time I have discussed a book so many times, with so many different people. Chapter 17 on the ethics of eating animals is just mind-blowing and alone can make this book a worthwhile read.i can't resist talking about it before anything else.
I've tried to become a vegetarian a couple of times and have always eventually lapsed back into eating meat. The main reason I would ever become a vegetarian is environmental, the huge amount of energy expended in producing and preserving meat. I've always found the ethics of eating meat hard to defend on the moral basis. And it's fascinating to see a person do it convincingly like Pollan. Pollan starst with Peter Singer's argument against eating meat. A wonderfully simple but powerful idea: "if possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?". Leaving aside the problematic question of how we define animal "intelligence", there is no debate as to whether animals can suffer. And if we have extended equal rights to women, minorities, homosexuals, should we and why don't we extend these rights to other species? ouch. most people, like me, when faced with this question and thinking about it seriously, either look away or become vegetarians. it is difficult to reconcile our instincts to eat meat and the moral implications of it. but Pollan shows us that those are not the only two alternatives.
He argues that while animals rightists have always stressed the suffering of animals due to our meat eating habits (although we have rather slim evidence of exactly what goes on in the brain of a pig about to go to heaven, (or hell?)), they have also failed to acknowledge that humans are capable of giving animals a decent and happy life. and "happy" in this case means the ability to do what they would naturally do, either pigs rooting around in the dirt, or cows wandering on pastures. "to think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to miscontrue that whole relationship-to project a human idea or power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species."
as he points out, domestication is an evolutionary development. domesticated animals have a much higher chance of surviving than in the wild, compare dogs and wolves for example. they therefore evolve to serve human benefits, winning our favor, in order to be provided with shelter and protection. they probably don't like being killed very much, but if that gives them a longer life and a much better chance to spread their genes to the next generation, they would much rather be with us than be in nature. "predation is not a matter of morality or of politics, it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. from the point of view of the individual prey animal predation is a horror, but from the point of view of the group-and of its gene pool-it is indispensable." That is exactly the point that most animals rightists miss. they concern only with individuals, but nature doesn't work that way, no matter how cruel that might sound. nature is about maximizing the survival of the whole species. our morals were developed to help us function as a healthy, cooperative society, but it is rather irrelevant to what should happen in nature.
Pollan charges that this very embraced and apparently self-righteous "ideology" is a product of an urban society which has lost touch with nature. A friend of mine told me that he took his children to a slaughterhouse to see how pigs are killed because he believes that if we want to eat meat, we should be able to face the morality involved in it. that, i think, is a respectable viewpoint. the children were slightly disturbed but it didn't stop them eating meat. this father is probably an exception in our society. most of us probably have never raised a cow and seen a cow. our meat comes from nice little packages that never remind us of that it comes from something that used to have a brain and can suffer. when i asked my NZ friends why people no longer eat animal organs, like we do in Vietnam, they stared at me with disturbed looks. but really, when you think about it, offal is very nutritious, and there's little reason why we can accept eating meat, but not kidney, heart, or brain. i suspect the reason is the viscera brings home to us the fact that what we are eating used to be quite similar to us, which means, having eyes, lungs, heart. and we are so scared to face that reality that we get rid of it altogether.
the second reason is that once the meat production process is out of sight, we have lost the traditional rituals justifying the act of killing and governing the slaughter of animals. the disappearance of these old practices gives way to the brutalization of animals to the extent that the animals become so sick that we have pretty much run out of anti-biotics.
but that is not the same as to say that we can eat meat carefree without any moral consideration. given the fact that our food chain has become increasingly industrialized and heavily dependent on fossil fuels, we do have a moral obligation to care about the health of nature, i.e, the condition of the soil, the health of the animals we eat, the impact of animal farming on the environment. I can't agree more with him that while we don't need or arguably shouldn't give up our meat consumption, we should at least make sure that the way we eat is sustainable and the animals we eat are treated decently. the way that animals are treated in most farms is quite despicable. and i bet that if we had a chance to look at it, most would quite happily choose to be vegetarian. giving animals a humane treatment does not only give us a clear conscience but really serves our benefits as well. who would not want to eat a healthy chicken instead of a disease-ridden one? recently, when a documentary about the treatment of pigs in battery farms in NZ was broadcast on TV, the public displayed outrage at what they saw and have pushed quite vigorously for legislation prohibiting cruel treatment of farm animals see here. i don't know of progress elsewhere. i like the idea that once the public know about what's happening to what they eat, they can make a difference.
most of the rest of the book deals with corn and how our (meaning American) food chain has been reduced to a monoculture of soy and corn. they are present in something like 75% of the processed food products on the market. 40% of the calories a Mexican eats comes from food. if you think that's quite astonishing, then apparently American have overtaken Mexicans to be kings of walking corns. corn became the winner in the competition to be human's favorite crop because of its capacity to store a lot more calories than other species. the invention of fertilizers (interestingly made widely available by the surplus ammonium nitrate after the war) made growing corn so incredibly efficient that corn gradually replaced all other crops. and in the 1950s, feeding cattle on feedlots was cheaper than on grass, enabling the farmers to build massive chicken factories. livestock farmers went out of business because they couldn't compete with giant factories. fertilizer was a mixed blessing because the soil fertility shifted from reliance on the sun and a careful rotation of crops, to fossil fuels. we might like to think that fertilizers make agriculture a lot more efficient, but in fact, we expend twice as much energy to produce corn than when we relied on nature. and that's not to mention the huge cost of environmental pollution.
when corn got cheaper and cheaper, the Nixon government stepped in to subsidize it, encouraging growing even more corn of lower nutritional quality and sparking the beginning of agribusiness. the excess corn finds its way into most processed energy-dense foods and feeding livestock. getting rid of this huge amount of excess energy contributes to obesity and an impoverished food culture. it makes good economic sense to dump excess corn on cattle, but biologically, they evolved to eat grass, and being forced to eat something they are not supposed to eat has caused grave problems. in a shit hole with piles of waste, polluted air and water and no space to even wiggle their tails, the only way these cows can survive is to swallow humongous amounts of anti-biotics.
that sounds quite depressing, but the organic industry doesn't really hold a torch toward a moral utopia as we would hope. Pollan points out that the organic industry has diverged exponentially from its original ideals in the 1960s, and is now not so much better than the establishment. they consume a huge amount of energy to transport their products across the country, most "free range" farms mean that the chicken has a palm-sized window to look at the sun 5 minutes a day. real organic farmers have a hard time to get their products on the market because of government regulations. to me it seems like America's unsustainable food consumption is perpetuated by a cycle of ignorance and government intervention. so much for laissez-faire capitalism.
growing so much corn might seem to make good economic sense. we must admit that it's quite remarkable that this is the first time in human history, we can produce food so cheaply and so abundantly. but this is the thing that has always not sat right with me about economics. that it hides all the expensive external costs involved in the process: environmental degradation, costs to the government in terms of subsidies, a huge consumption of fossil fuels, public health and malnourishment. so in fact, eating cheap corn is very expensive.
so the key question is WHY is America doing all these things that defy logic? to summarize the whole story in one word, I'd say efficiency. feeding corn to livestock is so much cheaper and easier than grass (don't have to wait for grass to grow). and it supports a legion of other industries: the chemical and biotech industries, the food industry, the oil industry, pharma, agribusiness. If we keep in mind that hunter-gathers didn't become agriculturists out of choice, but because they depleted the animals they were hunting, it makes me worry what will happen to us when we deplete our soil and degrade our environment so the same disastrous extent. the food price riots in 2007/8 give us a glance at how depressing such a world would be.
but this book isn't just depressing, it's enlightening and inspiring. it shows us that there ARE alternatives to the status quo: eat local, subscribe to a farm you know, and as he says in "In defense of food", then simply "eat food, not too much, mostly plants". I find Michael Pollan a remarkable writer, very humble and articulate. I can't recommend this book too highly. ...more