Noted religious scholar Reza Aslan set out to write a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, the man. It was a daunting task given the fact that there are on...moreNoted religious scholar Reza Aslan set out to write a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, the man. It was a daunting task given the fact that there are only two known contemporary historical references to his subject, one by Pliny the Younger and one by Jewish historian Josephus. And both of those references are simply made in passing and contain little information. In fact, the reference by Josephus is made as he is discussing the influence of Jesus' brother James.
James, known as "the Just," was the leader in Jerusalem of those who followed his brother's teachings and he was a highly respected and influential man among both the Jewish and Roman communities there.
James lived his brother's philosophy. He was a strong defender of the poor and weak against the wealthy and powerful. As such, he came into conflict with the greedy high priest, Ananus, who was a reverse Robin Hood kind of guy. He believed in stealing from the poor and giving to the rich - mainly himself.
Ananus had James executed in 62 C.E. That unjust killing caused a wave of protest in Jerusalem and led to Ananus' downfall. Frankly, this book left me hoping for another biography - one of James the Just, brother of Jesus. He seems a fascinating character.
But, back to Jesus.
What is a historian/biographer to do when there are such meager references to the object of his research? In Aslan's case, he has chosen to take the Gospels which portray Jesus' life, but were written several decades after his death and not by men who had actually known him, and has examined them in contrast and comparison with the well-documented contemporary histories of the period in which Jesus lived in Palestine.
If there is one thing that the Romans were good at - besides war and building roads and aqueducts and...well, maybe a few other things - it was keeping records of events in their empire. And so we can learn very easily what was going on in that relatively insignificant backwater of the Roman Empire during the period when Jesus lived.
Aslan finds that some of the things reported by the Gospels do not add up. They do not comport with the Roman records. For example, the story about his being born in Bethlehem because his parents had to go there to be taxed. Didn't happen, Aslan found.
The Roman tax collectors were extremely efficient and people were taxed where they lived so as not to remove them from their daily work, so Joseph and Mary would have paid taxes in Nazareth. It seems likely, therefore, that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. Plus, of course, he was known throughout his life as "the Nazarean."
Aslan does find confirmation or at least supporting documentation for some other events that are reported in the Gospels. But the most interesting part of his research, for me at least, dealt with the cultural and political atmosphere of the period.
It was a time that was rife with the spirit of revolution and apolcalyptic fervor. Hundreds of men claiming to be messiahs walked the land, preaching, healing the sick and performing miracles. Most, if not all of them, ended their lives on the cross, convicted of sedition. Crucifixion for the Romans was a form of punishment that was reserved for such crimes against the state and that was the crime of which Jesus was ultimately convicted.
Aslan follows Jesus as he meets John the Baptist and is baptized into his discipleship. He maintains that the preaching that Jesus did after that experience was a continuation of John's message.
He left his home and became an itinerant preacher and miracle worker, gathering disciples and followers to him as he walked across Galilee, Samaria, and finally entered Judea and Jerusalem, where his story ended.
Except, of course, it didn't. Within decades after his shameful death on the cross, his followers would begin to call him God. So, what made him different from all those other "messiahs" of the period whose names are now forgotten? The radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth's life and death and their continuing influence on human history cannot be denied.
The Jesus described by Aslan seems very much a part of the spirit of zealotry that marked the period and certainly his followers were full of zeal as they continued to spread his message after his death. I think the author has done an excellent job of teasing out the history of the man and his movement. Moreover, he has presented a thoroughly human man who was full of conviction and passion, but also full of contradictions, as, in fact, are most human beings. He was a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and miracle worker who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret. He was a politically conscious revolutionary whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime.
Aslan has written in a popular style that is easily accessible to the nonacademic audience. This is a brief book for a brief life, but there are copious notes and bibliography added for those who want to get further into the story. I found it an enjoyable read, one which gave a whole new perspective to the life of the simple illiterate Galilean peasant and day worker whose life changed the world.
While I was reading this book, the news broke of the 101st self-immolation of a Tibetan in Nepal since 2009. The self-immolaters are protesting the Ch...moreWhile I was reading this book, the news broke of the 101st self-immolation of a Tibetan in Nepal since 2009. The self-immolaters are protesting the Chinese occupation of their homeland.
It was a sad reminder that, even though these books are fiction, they are based on very real events; namely, the sixty-year-long effort by China to subjugate Tibet and obliterate its culture and religion.
Of course, for the traditional Tibetan, culture and religion are very much the same thing. Evidently, that is what the Chinese state finds so offensive.
But, as this book makes clear, it is not just the Tibetans whose culture is under attack by the Chinese government. The other ethnic minorities in the western China borderlands suffer from the same efforts at repression. The Kazakhs, the Uighurs, and the Tadjiks, as well as the Tibetans have a sad history of interaction with the giant to their east. And all of these peoples play a part in the story told in this second book in the Inspector Shan series, Water Touching Stone.
The story briefly is that an honored teacher has been murdered. The lamas in the secret gompa where the fugitive Inspector Shan has been staying since his release from the gulag divine that it is necessary for Shan and two of their number to travel to the remote northern regions of the Tibetan plateau, where the teacher was murdered, to restore the spiritual balance which has been upset by her violent death. They are accompanied by one of the purbas, resistance fighters against the Chinese.
This motley crew of outcasts heads into the wilds of Tibet. They soon discover to their horror that it is not only the teacher who was killed. Some of her students - all boys - have been killed, too, and it is feared that the others are targeted.
The herdsmen in the area attribute the deaths to a demon. Shan isn't so sure. He believes the serial killer is all too human and that the motive for the killings may be found in the Tibetan struggle against cultural annihilation.
Along the way, we meet secret Buddhists, some proud remnants of Muslim clans, vengeful Chinese officials, American anthropologists who are in the country illegally, soldiers, smugglers, and people who are just trying to survive. It is a heady cultural mix. The book is at its strongest in its exploration of the customs and daily lives of all these diverse groups and of how they coexist in a hostile land. It was on that level that I most enjoyed the tale.
But the book is classified as a mystery and that, frankly, didn't work so well for me. The story was all over the landscape - literally - and it didn't hold together very coherently for me. Now, maybe that's because the book is telling a story of a very non-literal society which exists on a spiritual more than a physical plane. Perhaps my western brain just isn't geared to absorb it, but I found the things that I look for in mysteries - the character development, the plotting - to be weak.
Moreover, there was SUCH foreshadowing! One character in particular - and I don't want to give anything away here - was constantly looking forward to a certain happy event. So much time was spent in building the event up that I, the jaded reader, felt, "Uh, oh, this isn't going to end well." It didn't.
Eliot Pattison is obviously very sympathetic to the cause of the Tibetans and to the other cultural and ethnic minorities of that troubled region of the world and he writes movingly of them. Perhaps the best way to enjoy these books is as anthropological or sociological instruments and to not worry so much about the obviousness of the "mysteries." (less)
In the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things. It was a poem, Stephen Greenb...moreIn the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things. It was a poem, Stephen Greenblatt assures us, of unsurpassed beauty, but it was also a work which explored and tried to explain why the universe is the way it is. It explained that everything from stars to earthworms was made up of atoms, tiny particles which could not be divided. Beyond the atoms was the void, and that is the universe: atoms, void, and nothingness. You might say that this poem was the beginning of string theory, the attempt to explain everything.
Lucretius was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus. He believed the highest good was pleasure and that everything about humans including the "soul" was made up of those atoms that he described. When humans die, the soul, which is a physical part of the human, dies, too. There is no afterlife of either reward or punishment. Therefore, human beings should seek pleasure in this life since that's all there is. In seeking that pleasure, though, they should try to live a moral and abstemious life, one that brings good not just to the individual but to the community of which he is a part.
Lucretius' poem was lost sometime in antiquity. In 1417, an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini found a copy of it in a German monastery. He had it copied and sent it to a fellow humanist in Italy. In time, more and more copies were made and distributed and the philosophy of the poet began to find its way into the conversations and the thoughts of intellectuals and artists of the Renaissance. The Catholic Church tried to stop the dissemination of ideas which flowed from the poem. They convicted many admirers of the poem of heresy and killed them in the most horrendous and cruel ways possible. But they were unable to stop the flow of ideas.
Stephen Greenblatt makes a strong case that the modern world actually began with the wider distribution of Lucretius' poem, helped along by Gutenberg and his printing press. Throughout the six hundred or so years since the poem emerged from obscurity, it has influenced the thinking of many movers and shakers who have helped to create the world we know. Not least of these was Thomas Jefferson who once wrote to a correspondent who asked his philosophy of life, "I am an Epicurean."
Interesting stuff and very well-written. Greenblatt knows how to tell a story that connects all the dots. (less)
Oh, my God, this book made my brain hurt! Actually, reading any Umberto Eco book makes my brain hurt. Even The Name of the Rose, which I loved, and Fo...moreOh, my God, this book made my brain hurt! Actually, reading any Umberto Eco book makes my brain hurt. Even The Name of the Rose, which I loved, and Foucault's Pendulum, which I liked, gave me pains when I was reading them. I think the problem may be that Eco is so far beyond me intellectually that I have to struggle to keep up with him. Even so, I probably miss a lot of his references. Somewhat paradoxically though, I do enjoy reading him. I enjoy the challenge.
This book is the fictionalization of the creation of an actual work of fiction, the notorious The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is the anti-Semitic screed that had its origin in the 19th century, being based on what was apparently intended as a political satire. In the hands of those who hated Jews and who sought justification for oppressing and ultimately eliminating them, it became the excuse for the instigation of extreme evil.
Eco takes us into the middle and late 19th century in Italy, France, and Prussia. It was a revolutionary time, a time of extreme political upheaval when Italy was on its way to being unified and the Paris Commune was attempting reform in France. Moreover, it was a time of religious conflict and of the prominence of belief in the occult and of the rise of Freemasonry, as well as celebration of Black Masses. This was a heady mixture which resulted in plots and counter-plots. Eco imagines that behind it all is one man, one evil genius, Simone Simonini.
Simonini is a master counterfeiter who produces all kinds of fake documents which keep the political pot boiling, including the document which convicts the Jewish Captain Dreyfus in France and lands him on Devil's Island. It is Simonini who, at the behest of the Russian secret service, produces The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The document purports to be the minutes of a meeting of rabbis in the Prague Cemetery, in which they discuss their plans for world domination. Not only was this document accepted and believed by many in the 19th century, it continued to be published as fact(!) throughout the 20th century and was actually cited by Hitler as justification for the Holocaust. Henry Ford - yes, that Henry Ford! - was also a big fan. Sadly, it is still being published - and believed - by people today.
There is an extensive cast of characters here, who are sometimes difficult to keep straight. Interestingly, they, except for Simonini, are mostly all actual historical characters and, Eco assures us, they spoke and behaved in the way that he reports. I'm not enough of a historian to judge whether that is really true, but it does give this story an extra fillip of authenticity.
This was a difficult read, but I'm glad I read it - emphasis on the past tense. It does have some relevance, I think, for today's world beyond that unfortunate zombie document, The Protocols, which just refuses to die. It reveals to us how easily humans can be manipulated by the unscrupulous who are willing to concoct and repeat lies that appeal to people's basest instincts - and keep telling them over and over and over again until they become a part of the public canon. God, what fools these mortals be! (less)
Roberts writes about the advances of women in the political and cultural milieu of our time and how these advances came as our generation (and each ge...moreRoberts writes about the advances of women in the political and cultural milieu of our time and how these advances came as our generation (and each generation) stood on the shoulders of our mothers who struggled and sacrificed to earn respect. She writes from a very personal perspective - about her mother, her sister, her friends in the world of journalism, and about her own experiences and those of her daughter and nieces.
Roberts' journalistic attempt to be, dare I say, "fair and balanced" leads her to give equal weight in her writing to a certain female politician who is a media creation and who never had an original idea regarding the role of government and to other female politicians who have devoted their lives to public service. Many of them have suffered greatly for it. Roberts' acknowledgment of those sacrifices is a rather shallow thing.
In fact, the entire book is rather shallow in its outline of women's issues and their contributions. It is at heart a personal memoir of what she has observed and experienced. It is a pleasant read, but any reader who wants a truly serious discussion of the status of women in our society will need to look elsewhere. (less)