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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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear

Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers concise answers to some of the key questions that circle about the life of Jesus and the religion spawned by his existence. It tells the reader what is known about the life of Jesus, providing insight into what life events are well supported and which are only described in accounts written long after the fact (e.g. the gospels.) It describes which factions believed Jesus was a god and which didn’t. It describes opposing views of what Jesus was (i.e. if he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill human being, was he wearing a human suit or was he some sort of divine hologram.) A lot of the book is more about Christianity than Jesus, proper, exploring how the religion came into existence, how it changed, why it became schismatic, and how it was influenced by other domains of human activity (e.g. governance and philosophy.)

As the subtitle suggest, the book uses graphics throughout – primarily drawings and monochrome artworks depicting Jesus, events from his life, and other characters in his story (e.g. apostles, disciples, and such.) Besides graphics, the only ancillary matter is a “Further Reading” section that discusses Bible versions and scholarly works on Christianity and the life of Jesus.

I found this book to be concise, interesting, and informative. If you’re looking for an outline of Jesus’s life that offers insight into the evolution of Christianity from a non-theological point of view (i.e. having no dog in the fight of whether Jesus was a god) you may want to give this guide a look.

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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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BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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