DAILY PHOTO: Interior Monochromes, Ibrahim Roza

Taken in November of 2020 in Vijayapura (Bijapur)

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: Iranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard & Deloupy

Iranian Love StoriesIranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 14, 2021

This graphic novel shows what life is like in Iran. A French couple engaged in immersion journalism converses with Iranian men, women, and couples. As the title suggests, the theme of the book is intimate relationships (and marriage, when it – sadly – doesn’t fall into that category,) and the trials of love under an ultra-conservative theocratic regime. The book offers insight into how singles sneak love, how arranged marriages work (or don’t,) and how the bizarre in-law dynamics of arranged marriage are navigated. One also learns about non-amorous elements of Iranian life – i.e. the illicit nature of dog owning, workplace dynamics, etc.

The people Deuxard talked to were overwhelmingly wealthy, educated, and unhappy with the regime. That said, there’s a range of views presented. There were a few who were mostly happy – e.g. one young woman complained about the impossibility of openly dating, but said she was ultimately happy not to live in the West where she would probably have to work and / or take on other responsibilities she was freed of as an Iranian housewife. Additionally, one girl said that a relationship in Europe would offer no thrill because, you know, no one will murder you for smooching your boyfriend in Denmark. There were also many who desperately wanted out of the country, some of whom felt trapped and others who were working toward getting away (there are measures in place to make this difficult for many – e.g. if you have an Iranian degree, you have to pay it off before you’re granted an exit visa.) Some were hopeful that the theocracy would be overthrown, but most were resigned to a tormented life.

As a traveler, I’m fascinated by how people live at various places around the world, and so I found this book intriguing and thought-provoking. However, I can see how those who aren’t interested in such questions might find it a bit dull. It’s essentially documentary-style interviews in graphic novel format. That said, I thought the artist and writer did a good job of conveying mood. If you want to know what life is like in Iran, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dangerous Religious Ideas by Rachel S. Mikva

Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and IslamDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Rachel S. Mikva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve only read this book’s title, it may not be the book you think it is, but I would argue that that’s a good thing. The first thing one might expect from the title is that it’s by an atheist or skeptical agnostic, someone in the vein of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Michael Shermer. Not that there is anything wrong with such books or authors, but there are a ton of books of that nature, and I’m not sure how much value-added is to be found in new ones. (And more importantly, if one is interested in what is dangerous about a thing, taking into account only views of outside critics presents substantial risk of misconstruing the insider’s perspective.) This book, however, is by someone “on the inside,” a Rabbi and scholar of the Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It’s worth noting that Mikva deals only with the Abrahamic traditions in this book. The degree to which the ideas discussed apply to other traditions varies greatly.]

One might be thinking that the book plays Nerf-ball, a religious individual explaining the faults in religion will surely be like “greed is good” Gordon Gekko explaining a market crash, making end-runs around reality to justify a point of view and to minimize the role of one’s belief system in the tragedy. However, when Mikva was elucidating the dangerous ideas of religion, I felt she was candid in her criticisms and that she carefully balanced criticism among the three Abrahamic traditions. The main difference between Mikva’s arguments and that of those mentioned above isn’t so much seen when she’s laying out the dangers, but rather when she discusses the theologians who’ve historically tried to mitigate said dangers.

A second mistake that one might reasonably make about this book is to think that is focuses on the usual suspects of outrage about religion — honor killings, sanctioning of slavery, misogyny, etc. I think Mikva made a wise move in focusing on a few ideas that are deeply engrained in a broad cross-section of religious followers. The central theme of this book is that the danger lies all around, not only, or even primarily, in the hateful ideas of a few extremists, those who misinterpret scripture or who hold onto interpretations that maybe accurate to authorial intent but that are still horrifying to our present-day notions of what is appropriate (e.g. treating all humans like human beings, which was not so much a thing in Biblical times.) Instead, Mikva proposes that dangers lie in ideas that are often not given a second thought, such as followers’ beliefs that they are part of the one and only true faith.

The book’s thirteen chapters can be thought of as taking on three major dangerous ideas. First, in chapters 2 through 6, the book considers the idea of scripture as the literal word of god. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the scriptures of the Abrahamic religious were as vaguely benign as those in some Eastern religions, but the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran all have some cringeworthy ideas in them. Still, it’s hard for a large number of religious followers to accept that these are just books written by humans who may not have had as great of insight into the divine mind as they claimed. So, what to do? Does one accept that it’s alright for a man to sell his daughter into the sex slave trade if he’s cash-strapped?

The second major dangerous idea (Ch. 7 through 10) is that of “otherness.” This is described in different ways, depending on the nature of the religion (i.e. “chosenness” in Judaism or “election” in Christianity,) but it’s essentially the idea that one’s religion is the one and only true religion and everybody else is wrong and immoral. This is the kind of widespread idea that poisons human interaction. [It doesn’t really matter if you’re a smiling missionary or a Semtex-strapped suicide bomber, if you’re approaching other people from the perspective that they are inherently wrong, immoral, and inferior, then you don’t have any basis for a relationship of peace, respect, and understanding.]

The last idea, addressed in a much more compact space, is that there are pitfalls to religion being too fundamentally entwined in what we normally think of the sphere of governance – i.e. lawmaking, crime and punishment, etc. One issue is that ideas about justice were relatively draconian in Biblical times. However, a bigger problem may be that of foisting one’s beliefs on others in an underhanded way, using the State’s monopoly on force to do so.

It should be pointed out that this book is written in a scholarly fashion. This means that readability isn’t has high as it could be. It will send even well-read readers who aren’t theologians or experts in religious studies to the dictionary now and again to learn the jargon of religious philosophy.

If you are interested in the impact of religion on the societal landscape, this is a worthwhile book to check out. If one has read Dawkins, Hitchens, or the like, this book is worth rounding out one’s understanding by seeing how the problems of religion are seen by those on the inside, those who choose to reflect upon the problems, but who aren’t willing to throw it all out to get rid of said problems. I felt the book was balanced and it pointed out some important ideas that are not necessarily readily apparent to everybody.


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