BOOK REVIEW: Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber

Romanticism: A Very Short IntroductionRomanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s commonly believed to have been a response to the Enlightenment, a desire to not throw out the baby with the bathwater as the influence of religion waned. In this book, we learn that that’s a misleading oversimplification, but not one completely devoid of truth.

Like a lot of “movements,” Romanticism is a fairly loose set, containing a disparate band of entities. This is exacerbated because it’s not just, say, a style of painting or of music, but rather it cuts across a diverse range of activities. Because of that, the book offers the least clarity in the opening chapters (ch. 1&2) and in the last one (ch. 6.) The first two try to rope in Romanticism and to differentiate it from “sensibility,” a movement oft-confused for Romanticism. The last chapter attempts to show the commonality that cuts across different domains, e.g. how are Romantic paintings similar to Romantic novels, or – for that matter – Idealist philosophy.

However, starting with chapter three, the book provides clear insight into the nature of Romanticism. Chapter three investigates poetry. Chapter four examines philosophy and Romantic attitudes towards religion and science. This was quite eye opening to me because I’d previously contrasted Romanticism with the Enlightenment, and here I learned that the Romantics’ views on religion and science were far from the opposite end of a spectrum. Chapter five shines light on the social context of Romanticism, focusing on politics, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, and War, but also evaluating what influence, if any, Romanticism had on changing views toward women.

I feel I came away from the book with a better understanding of Romanticism, and so I’d recommend it for others interested in learning more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miracles: A Very Short Introduction by Yujin Nagasawa

Miracles: A Very Short IntroductionMiracles: A Very Short Introduction by Yujin Nagasawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This concise guide to miracles is built around the intriguing observation that, according to polls, a majority of people believe in miracles, and yet we don’t witness supernatural events [at least not ones that can be confirmed by objective investigation.] There are coincidences (boosted in salience by selection bias and / or a lack of intuitive grasp of probability,) there are patterns that our minds turn into significant images (e.g. the Madonna on a taco shell,) and there are cases of spontaneous remission in which a serious medical condition disappears where treatments haven’t worked or weren’t tried (experienced by the devoutly religious, the marginally religious, the agnostic, and the atheistic, alike.) But those events can be explained more simply without resorting to the supernatural (i.e. probability, the human brain’s great skill at pattern recognition [re: which is so good that it often becomes pattern creation,] and the fact that under the right circumstances the human body’s immune system does a bang-up job of self-repair.)

The five chapters of this book are built around five questions. First, what are miracles – i.e. what criteria should be used, and what events that people call miracles fail to meet these criteria? Second, what are the categories of miracles seen among the various religious traditions [note: the book uses examples from both Eastern and Western religions, though generally sticks to the major world religions?] Third, how can one explain the fact that so many believe despite a lack of evidence? This chapter presents hypotheses suggesting we’re neurologically wired to believe. Fourth, is it rational to believe? Here, philosophers’ arguments (most notably and extensively, that of Hume) are discussed and critiqued. The last chapter asks whether non-supernatural events can (or should) be regarded as miraculous, specifically acts of altruism in which someone sacrificed their life for strangers.

I found this book to be incredibly thought-provoking, and it changed my way of thinking about the subject. I’d highly recommend it.

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Sacrifice Play [Common Meter]

A prayer was made at the altar --
a prayer no one could hear.
A sacrifice had been promised
of someone all held dear.

But not one soul would take the knife,
and do the wicked deed:
to take that life, an unearned life
and speak the evil creed.

They dragged the victim to the rim
of an old volcano.
Just one kick would be all it took;
still, they all said, "Hell no!"

What kind of beastly deity
could fault them for failing?
The kind whose sense of right and wrong
is fucked beyond ailing.

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 Page

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: Why I Am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor

Why I am a HinduWhy I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

There are two core premises in this book. First, Hinduism is non-dogmatic and can be almost whatever a given believer needs it to be, and, therefore, the objectionable elements associated with it [e.g. casteism] aren’t the religion’s fault. Second, Hindu nationalism represents a break from Hinduism’s historical proclivity for acceptance, which (circling back to the first point) results from the fact that believers aren’t forced to accept particular beliefs, thus making it easier to accept that believers from other sects have different perspectives.

Overall, the book’s first part does a fine job of showing how Hinduism has historically been accepting, non-dogmatic, and pluralistic; and the second part neatly describes the many ways in which the Hindu nationalist movement has abandoned those same values – ironically moving away from Hinduism’s open and agreeable nature to adopt the parochial and fanatical ways that they’ve decried in others.

As common among those wishing to glorify religions as faultless, Tharoor does some whitewashing. He argues that casteism (as with other faults) isn’t the religion’s problem, but society’s. However, Tharoor doesn’t make a convincing argument that the caste system could stick devoid of religion’s authority, or even that there’s a clear distinction being made.

When I reviewed Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Why I’m Not a Hindu, I mentioned that I was reading these two diametrically titled books to get a clearer picture of the religion. What I found was that they’re both anti-Hindu nationalist works, though coming from very different perspectives. I did learn a great deal from reading each of the books, though they largely talk past each other as opposed to offering the head-to-head one would expect, given the opposing titles.

I would definitely recommend reading this book, with the proviso that one be cautious for instances of embellishing or glossing over, which – it seemed to me – did take place.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein

Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short IntroductionTibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book outlines the philosophy, theology, history, and future prospects of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a big topic because Tibetan Buddhism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, indigenous beliefs (e.g. Bön,) and adapted teachings from Yoga and Tantra.

For a concise guide, the discussions of history and philosophy can get deep in the weeds. However, to be fair, Tibetan Buddhism has a long and complicated history, and has produced deep metaphysical ideas, particularly with regards to philosophy of mind. Furthermore, it’s not a unitary religion, having schismed into a number of sub-sects.

Special attention is given to Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings on Enlightenment and death. Even those who aren’t familiar with Tibetan Buddhism may have heard of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and may not be surprised to learn the topic is given its own chapter. I learned that the Bardo (e.g. a lobby between death and rebirth) was in part hypothesized to help reconcile the idea of Anatta (there being no persistent self, or soul) with reincarnation. [i.e. The question arises, what’s reincarnated if there’s no persistent “I” (i.e. atman, soul, etc.?) The book doesn’t really explain how the existence of a Bardo achieves this reconciliation, but achieving accord with the two ideas appears complicated, and -arguably- spurious.]

The book ends with a look at the religion’s prospects for the future, which are darkened by the Chinese government’s desire to subvert the religion’s influence, but may also be brightened by the fact that the current Dalai Lama has been open to dialogues, and – in particular – has made Tibetan Buddhism arguably the religion with the most cordial relationship to the scientific world. (No mean feat for a religion that is as superstitious as any in the modern world.)

If you’re interested in a concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why I’m Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political EconomyWhy I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

As a foreigner living in India for almost a decade, I’m always looking for books that offer insight into cultural and political realities that remain obscure even after many years in country. I stumbled upon this book and the diametrically titled book, “Why I Am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor. I figured the two books might cover the pro / con accounting of Hinduism through two personal accounts of how a couple of thoughtful individual’s perceptions of the religion differ.

Having read this book, chronologically the first, I discovered that the two books might not mirror each other as well as I’d thought. For one thing, this book is really more about: a.) why dalitbahujans shouldn’t be considered Hindu, and b.) why following the dalit cultural framework would be better for India than following Hinduism. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t count off many theological points that rub the author the wrong way, socio-politically speaking. It also displays no shortage of anger (which one could certainly be argued is righteous, but nonetheless detracts from the feeling of scholarly objectivity that one might hope for in such a book.) But, at the end of the day, this is a book about caste, and how the system is used by the few to oppress the many. [It also turns out that both books cast themselves in opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement.]

In short, the author argues that the “high castes” of Hinduism (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are parasitic, misogynistic, violent, oppressive, corpulent, and demanding of “spiritual fascism.” On the other hand, the Dalitbahujans are painted as productive, egalitarian, democratic, creative, less materialistic, and capable of creating a sustainable path toward a healthy India of the future. I don’t know whether I came away with a much better insight into the truth of the situation, but as a social scientist I learned that what is true is often not so important as what is believed to be true – the latter can have huge impacts regardless of its objective truth. I say this because the author does make a lot of gratuitous assertions – unsupported statements — and these are particularly difficult to process when they address the motives of high caste people. He also sometimes whitewashes the “sins” of other religions to make the argument that Hindus are the worst / most unreasonable of all religions.

While it’s certainly true that the caste system has been oppressive and that the oppressed are within reason to be angry and to insist upon change, it’s hard for me to get a good read on what is true regarding the details because the author takes a preaching-to-the-choir route and doesn’t really provide the evidence an outsider would need to judge. That said, the book still offers a great deal of value because it tells one what the author (and presumably many others) feel to be the truth of the situation.

I found this book insightful and thought-provoking. There may be better books out there in terms of supporting arguments, but it’s a solid counter to the throngs of books by the Hindu intellectual elite. [FYI – The book will drive typo-haters insane, it’s loaded with missing letter typos, etc.]

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BOOK REVIEW: What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

What Makes You Not a BuddhistWhat Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book provides exposition of the Four Seals (not to be confused with the more well-known Four Noble Truths.) As the title suggests, the author believes that accepting the truth of these four propositions is what distinguishes Buddhist from non-Buddhist (rather than many of the more well-known teachings and practices of Buddhism.)

The Four Seals are easily listed, but are challenging to intellectually grasp (hence the need for a book.) 1.) All compounded things are impermanent. 2.) All emotions are pain. 3.) All things have no inherent existence. 4.) Nirvana is beyond concepts. While I came away from the book with largely the same views on the Seals as when they were presented in the Introduction, I did learn a great deal, and had one epiphany (re: an explanation of Samsara and Nirvana.) [My own views remained: 1.) True to the best of my knowledge; 2.) This remains the most controversial teaching of the lot for me, even with elaborations. I think it does just what we should strive not to do, which is attach a value judgment to things; 3.) & 4.) I don’t know enough to have any firm opinion on these.

I found this book to be well-organized, highly readable, and to use humor and examples to good effect. While I remain “not a Buddhist,” the explanations in the book did move the needle on my way of thinking about a couple things. Along with Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, I believe this book is an excellent means to gain greater understanding of an oft-misunderstood religion / philosophy. Check it out if you’re curious about whether you’re a Buddhist (whether or not your currently identify that way.)

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Agents of Sanctification [Free Verse]

Some love attributing sacredness --
places beyond place,
times beyond time,
the infinite
the infinitesimal.

But anything elevated
to the sacred
becomes a thing 
for which
people will kill 

Often, people don't
make this reckoning 
until the dying 's done: 

-death for a sign
-death for a symbol
-death for a chunk of dead earth
-death for a vaguely evaluated idea

The agents of sanctification
will kill us all.