DAILY PHOTO: Saint Stephen’s Basilica Under Blue Skies

Taken in the Summer of 2011 in Budapest

DAILY PHOTO: St. Vitus Stained Glass, Prague

Taken in 2002 in Prague

DAILY PHOTO: Church of the Immaculate Conception, Yanque

Taken in 2010-ish in Yanque, Peru [Near Colca Canyon]

BOOK REVIEW: Angels: A Very Short Introduction by David Albert Jones

Angels: A Very Short IntroductionAngels: A Very Short Introduction by David Albert Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers an overview of angels in the Abrahamic religious traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It does take a quick dip into angel-like beings from other religious traditions – e.g. Hindu and Parsi – but generally comes down on the side of it doing a disservice to everybody to equate such beings across mythological traditions – with the possible exception of the New Age angel which is predominantly an offshoot from Abrahamic mythology.] The book considers the evolution of theological thinking on angels: how they’ve been portrayed in art; what they are [made of;] what their purposes are (i.e. messengers, healers, guardians, warriors, etc.;) and, occasionally, how they play into popular culture.

I took away a great deal from this book. For example, I learned about the differences between the djinn of Islam mythology and demons of Judeo-Christian mythology, and the theological underpinnings of this difference (i.e. Muslims do not believe angels have free will, and thus angels can’t be fallen, and so the djinn are a separate entity altogether [rather than being fallen angels.]) I found the book to be readable, interesting, and balanced in its approach to the topic. If you’re looking to learn more about how angels (and related beings, e.g. fallen angels / demons) have been treated by thinkers of various ages, without getting deep into the minutiae, this is a fine book to consider.


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BOOK REVIEW: Saints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow

Saints: A Very Short IntroductionSaints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an overview of the history of sainthood in Christianity: how the canonization process changed over time (i.e. from mostly dispersed to increasingly controlled by Rome,) what types of individuals have been selected (from ascetics and martyrs to the heads of orders and other more conventional candidates,) the changing incidence of women saints (while always far less than males, at times almost nonexistent,) and who were some of the more prominent (or atypical) saints.

The book’s organization is primarily a chronological flow, but there are a couple chapters that are of a more topical nature (e.g. on female saints and about hagiographies [“biographies” of saints that mix fact and fiction.]) It was fascinating to me to learn that we are amid a resurgence of canonization. The making of saints had fallen off for a time around the 1800’s (presumably at least in part because it became increasingly challenging / embarrassing in an “Enlightened” age to argue for miracles [“proof” of which is necessary as part of the process.]) However, that can’t be the full story because since John Paul II there’s been a substantial increase in canonization, while we have less reason to believe in supernatural phenomena than ever.

The book takes an agnostic / scholarly stance on the rightness or wrongness of sainthood and doesn’t go out of its way to discuss the scandalous. However, it does not shy away from – here and there – mentioning misbehavior of the Church (e.g. Papal Indulgences and political canonization.) The economist in me found it fascinating that Indulgences gained fungibility – i.e. tradable as an intermediary of value, i.e. like cash.

I found the book interesting despite its occasional drifts into obscure theological / historical territory. It’s readable and, at times, fascinating.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge

The Devil: A Very Short IntroductionThe Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief guide examines the shifting landscape of thought about Christianity’s Devil. Over the centuries, the Devil has been considered a person, a fallen angel, a metaphor or abstraction, a voice, and a literary device. Satan’s stock has risen and fallen, up with the Dark Ages, down with the Enlightenment, and, on the verge of outright demise, reconsidered when the mid-20th century brought such horrors that the human mind couldn’t cope with them sans supernatural explanations. At the same time, the power of the Devil waxed and waned in the face of philosophical challenges. There’s the Devil so strong he can give God a run for the money, a Devil reduced to whispering in ears, and a Devil who’s practically irrelevant – having no power whatsoever beyond making for an entertaining plot device.

I thought this book did a laudable job of showing the Devil through the light of history, philosophy, art, and literature. It offers a great deal of food for thought about how the Devil has been viewed over time, and what factors influenced these changes in perception. If you’re interested in the role the Devil has played in theological thinking over time, this book does a fine job of shining a light on the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

Jesus: A Very Short IntroductionJesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores the life of Jesus, the historical context of that life, his approach to teaching, the nature of his identity, the story of his death, and concludes with the origins of Christianity. The book rests on a couple of controversial ideas, the most influential of which is that the four gospels of the New Testament are valid historical sources and that they’re more useful than competing sources (e.g. the Gnostic Gospels.) Rather than asking the reader to take this as a given, Bauckham does present his argument in the second chapter.

I found this book to be intriguing and worth reading – surprisingly, once I realized it was written by a theologian, and not a Religious Studies scholar or historian. (Theologians have skin in the game of religious teachings, whereas Religious Studies scholars and historians are expected to be more objective with regards to religious claims.) It’s telling that I didn’t realize Bauckham was a theologian right away; he does generally present the material with the dispassionate objectivity of a scholar. However, eventually, he slips into the proclivities of a theologian, such as the stance that in the absence of strong evidence either way one might as well accept the truth of religious teachings. Also, he gives Jesus a free ride on shady behavior (as when Jesus compares a Gentile to a dog – which Bauckham calls “almost rudely negative” before rationalizing away said negativity.)

For me, the discussion of Jesus’s teaching style (Ch.5) was the book’s strongpoint. That chapter shows the reader how Jesus became such a big deal. Believer or not, one will come away impressed with Jesus as a teacher.

If one is looking for a book that considers the gamut of views about Jesus, this isn’t the book you’re looking for – e.g. Chapter 6 on Jesus’s identity doesn’t give time to the view that he was just a smooth-talking preacher whose followers likely absconded with his body – let alone that he was a fiction. That said, there is a great deal of interest in the book, and I found it well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel ChristThe Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Pullman tells the story of Jesus’s life from manger birth to the birth of the religion that flowed from Jesus’s crucifixion, with two major deviations from the gospel accounts. First, in this book, Mary gave birth to twins: one healthy, disciplined, and charismatic [Jesus] and one stunted, bookish, and with grand designs [Christ.] Second, the book tells the story in a way which requires no miracles or magic.

The reason for complicating the story with twins is to be able to split apart two confounding entities. Jesus represents the traveling preacher that most people find appealing and admirable. He’s compassionate, non-judgmental, simple (in the sense of eschewing wealth and glory,) and is a great storyteller. Christ represents the path that Christianity would come follow — one of billionaire evangelists, manipulative missionaries, and the Spanish inquisition – as well as, less intentionally, the Crusades, witch hunts, and pedophilic priests. That said, “scoundrel” status is only realized at the story’s end when Christ plays the Biblical role of Judas. Even then, Christ is conflicted and thinks he’s acting in accord with the directions of an angel.

While most of the events described will be familiar (in some form) to those acquainted with the New Testament stories, there’s an ongoing sub-plot between Christ and “the stranger,” a mysterious character who has an interest in seeing Christianity blossom, if in its imperfect form.

This book is part of a series on mythology called the Canongate Myth Series that features numerous renowned authors.

I found this take on Jesus’s story to be compelling and thought-provoking. I’d highly recommend it, except for those who take their Bible stories very literally and get riled by such writings.

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