BOOK REVIEW: Social and Cultural Anthropology [VSI] by John Monaghan & Peter Just

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short IntroductionSocial and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction by John Monaghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was one of the most interesting “Very Short Introduction” books — of the many titles in the series that I’ve read. The authors use stories and examples to convey the basics of the subject in way that’s not mind-numbingly dry (i.e. the scholarly norm) – in fact, there’s a fair amount of humor laced throughout the book.

Most of the examples come from the two tribes that these two authors study – i.e. one in Mexico and the other in Indonesia. However, those two groups provide a rich arena of interesting anecdotes, and the authors do use social groups outside their research focus when necessary.

In addition to learning about the nature of ethnographic fieldwork and what anthropologists do, there’s an exploration of culture, the various ways in which people are socially organized (i.e. kinship, castes, societies, etc.,) and how different societies view religious belief, economic activity, and selfhood.

If you’re starting from zero and are seeking an introduction to anthropology, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: By Water by Jason Landsel & Richard Mommsen

By Water: The Felix Manz StoryBy Water: The Felix Manz Story by Jason Landsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023

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This is a graphic novel-style biography of Felix Manz, a Protestant (Anabaptist) reformer from Zurich during the sixteenth century. Manz and his compatriots had a few beefs with the Catholic church, broadly classified. The first (and most religious / doctrinal) grievance was with respect to how the Church handled baptisms; specifically, infant baptism prevented baptism from being a free choice for the baptized. The second set of grievances involved the priesthood and how priests were moved around at the convenience of the Church and how much money they cost the citizenry. (i.e. They wanted local priests and not to be forced to pay a lot of overhead.) The third complaint was more an entire slate of complaints about resources. In that era, Swiss commoners couldn’t just go hunting in the woods or chop firewood as they needed because the land was under the ownership of the powers that be.

The story of Manz and his followers is intriguing, if one is interested in history. It’s kind of a strange topic to read in comic book form, but as history can be tedious in historical / biographic tomes, this makes for a quick and painless way to take in the story. There are a couple points where the book seems to shift into hagiographic territory (i.e. being difficult to swallow for the non-believer.)

The art is clear and neatly rendered, but I wondered how time-accurate it is. Maybe it is, but the inside of the houses looked pretty much like today (e.g. curtains and furnishings) and I found myself wondering whether its anachronistic or not. Ultimately, I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt as I know virtually nothing about how Swiss commoners lived in the 1500’s. At the end of the book, there are some appendices that provide more information in prose text.

If you’re interested in European and / or Religious History, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.


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Temple on a Hill [Free Verse]

granite bubbled out of the jungle,
and - upon it - they built a temple

its walls were anchored into stone
until its walls were the hill,
and the hill was its walls

and no one could find one true point
at which one ended & the other began

was it built to be 
closer to the heavens,
or further from hell?

not by people for whom
heaven & hell
reside in the mind --
unattainable by velocity,
inescapable by distance --
constant traveling companions
only confronted head-on

maybe they wanted it to feel
permanent,
knowing even that granite
would crumble in due time

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

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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

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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

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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: 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

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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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