Category Archives: religion

Books about religion.

Review 64: Lamb


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If you’ve been following my reviews over the last few years, I don’t see any reason why I should have to put a caution into this, but here it is: if you’re not interested in speculative fiction, open to the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, speculation on the gaps in the gospels and the possibility of pan-religious values having been vital to the formation of Christianity, then you should probably not read this book. Nor should you really be using the internet – there’s just too much nasty “Free Thinking” out there. Take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.

Okay, that’ll weed out the wusses. Although, as I think about it, perhaps those are exactly the people who should be reading this book. I’m sorry for all the nasty stuff I said – come on back!

Each time I read this, I love it more. For one thing it’s Moore’s best work, without question. Not only is it blindingly funny, which is a hallmark of Moore’s style, but it’s also thoughtful, philosophical, and is supported by obvious research. Because he’s dealing with real places and real people, Moore has made sure that his depiction of first-century Israel is as accurate as he can make it. It’s all there in the details about the lives of the characters, the struggles they go through and the understandings they come to. Without hours of research as its foundation, the book would have failed almost instantly. Moore didn’t have to do it, but it is a great sign of his character as an author that he did.

This is also by far my favorite interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is the Gospel According to Biff, the best friend of Joshua bar Joseph, the man who would one day be called Jesus Christ. Of course, when Biff met him, the young Son of God was occupying himself by resurrecting lizards after his brother smashed their heads in. But they grew to be fast friends, and everywhere that young Joshua went, so went his buddy Biff.

The best way to describe Biff would be Jesus’ Sidekick. He’s a troublemaker, sarcastic, and far too prone to succumb to temptations of the flesh. But he’s clever and resourceful, and mindful of his friend’s mission on this earth. He’s young Joshua’s best friend in every way, so when Josh goes searching for the three Magi who attended his birth, Biff knows he has to go with him. The way to finding Joshua’s destiny will be long and hard, and Biff knows that his friend needs him.

The main part of the book has to do with Biff and Josh’s search for the Magi, to learn from them how Josh can be the Messiah. On their way they face demons, death and certain temptation, but also wisdom and experience from the wisest men in Asia. From Balthazar in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, Joshua learns of the Tao, contemplating its Three Jewels – compassion, moderation, and humility. He learns about suffering and mercy and kindness and the effects they bring.

Biff, on the other hand, learns about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can make life a wonderful place, night after night. He learns how to make potions and explosives, how to cast metal and read Chinese. He learns vital skills that the Messiah cannot – or must not – know.

From there they go to China, to a monastery high in the cold mountains to study with Gaspar, a monk of the Zen school. From Gaspar, Josh learns stillness and mindful breath, compassion for all things and, oddly enough, how to turn invisible. He discovers the divine spark that exists in all things, a holiness that no one can claim or take from you. He also learns what it’s like to be the only one of his kind, and foreshadows the tragic end that can bring.

Biff, of course, is learning kung fu and how to break bricks with his head.

Finally, they go to India to seek out Melchior, an ascetic yogi and the last of the wise men. Joshua here learns about sacrifice and blood, and the horrors that are perpetrated in the name of religion. He discovers the injustice of denying the Kingdom of God to anyone, Jew or Gentile, and the futility of trying to teach yoga to an elephant.

Biff, for his part, manages to put together a truly spectacular version of the Kama Sutra.

Don’t get me wrong – while Biff is certainly more earthly than his friend, he is also devoted to both Joshua and his mission. He is Josh’s anchor to the real world, always reminding him of his mission and making sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Biff, in this rendition of Jesus’ story, is a necessary element in the ultimate teachings of Christ.

As he admits in his afterward, Moore has tackled a very tough subject here, one that he knows is likely to rile people up. Jesus is one of those characters that is very set in peoples’ minds – he is the tall, beatific figure with a gentle voice and blue eyes who glides around in robes followed by insightful and worshipful men.

He certainly never ate Chinese food on his birthday, nor did he get hopped up on coffee or learn kung-fu. He’s never had a sarcastic best friend who was willing to risk damnation to describe what sex was like to the young Messiah, who was pretty sure that he wasn’t allowed to Know women. We haven’s seen Jesus get frustrated and yell at his disciples because they didn’t get the message he was trying to send, or be torn between what he has to do and what he wants to do. The Jesus in this book is an excellent meld of the human and the divine. He has the miracles and the powers, but his mind is human. He knows that he’s the son of god, but he feels like just a regular guy who’s been tapped to save humanity from itself. It’s a very difficult situation to be in, and Moore does a really good job of getting us to understand that.

More importantly, the life of Jesus hasn’t been this funny before. This is the kind of book that will piss off your family or co-workers, because you’ll want to read out passages from the book every five minutes, but you won’t get it out right because you’ll be laughing too hard. The way the book is set up, Biff has been resurrected by the angel Raziel in order to write a new gospel. Unfortunately, he’s been resurrected in the modern age, about two thousand years too late to help his friend avoid the awful, horrible sacrifice that he knows he has to undergo. So he writes in the modern American vernacular, assuring us that while the words may not be a direct translation of first-century Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Chinese or any of the other languages they encounter, the tone is accurate. And the tone is comedy, all the way through.

Of course, the comedy kind of drops off as the book races towards its unpleasant end, which is where my troubles with Moore as a writer usually lie. He tends to write endings that are abrupt and unfulfilling, as though he just wants to finish writing the book so he can, perhaps, get on with the next one. Even though we know how this story ends, it still feels rushed. Biff’s attempts to save his friend from horrible death make sense, but I would like to have seen them drawn out a bit more. I have a feeling that Moore could have added another hundred pages without breaking a sweat – and I wish he had.

The best thing, though, is that Moore treats his characters with the utmost respect. Nothing that Jesus does in the book is out of character for him, insofar as we know his character. And Biff is more than just a goofy friend of the Messiah – he is the reminder and the anchor of Jesus’ humanity. I’m not a Christian – I don’t claim any religion, in fact – but this version of Jesus would be one that I might be willing to give some time to.

It’s a brilliant book, in my top ten….

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“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?”
– Biff and Josh, Lamb
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Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Lamb on Wikipedia
Lamb on Amazon.com
Christopher Moore’s homepage

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Filed under angels, Christianity, Christopher Moore, coming of age, demons, friendship, good and evil, humor, Jesus, quest, religion, travel

Review 58: Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

So. What happens after we die?

I’ll wait.

Is it a Heaven of clouds and harps and angels? A Hell full of fire and brimstone and horrible torture? Do you get to come back again and live a new life, perhaps building on the mistakes of your previous one? Yeah, I guess that’s all well and good. I mean, the classics never go out of style, right? Perhaps some pearly gates with Morgan Freeman hanging out nearby, or an place of endless torment where David Warner is ready to turn you into a cockroach. Variations on an old and well-worn theme.

But how about an afterlife where you get to live with every possible version of yourself? You know the “many worlds” theory of the universe, right? For every choice you make, a new universe is born, and in that universe there lives a different you. Perhaps one who made better choices, perhaps worse. Well, after you die, you get to hang out with them all! Including, unfortunately, all the yous who made much, much better decisions than you did.

Or perhaps you get the afterlife where you re-live your entire life, but with all moments of the same quality grouped together. So that means you get to spend thirty years sleeping, or two hundred days taking a shower. Doesn’t sound too bad, except for the eighteen months you spend waiting in line, or the five months you spend on the toilet, or the 27 hours of intense pain.

Maybe you discover that there is no afterlife for us, just as there is no afterlife for a computer chip. We’ve all been components in a great computer, wherein every nod of your head, every word, every blink is merely a signal sent to other processing units (AKA people). Of course, the programmers don’t know why we’ve thrived as we have – they didn’t make us to be sentient, and still don’t realize it’s happened. But our world is the greatest of the computer worlds they’ve built.

There are forty other afterlives in this book, all described in two or three pages. Each one is an attempt to break free of the traditional sense of what the afterlife “should” be, and shows a great deal of creativity.

What’s fun is reading this and understanding that any one of them could be true. Just as true as the traditional heavens and hells we’ve been building for the last few millennia. After all, why couldn’t we have an afterlife where we’re given the opportunity to come back – but with one change of our own choosing? Or another where we get to choose the form of our next life, but are betrayed by our inability then to remember why we had chosen it? Just because they don’t have the weight of a Church’s doctrine or thousands of years of philosophy doesn’t make them wrong.

Because, after all, we don’t know. We can’t know. We may think we know, or believe we know, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Hell, I came up with my own afterlife scheme that sounded pretty good to me, but does that make it true? Nope. The one big constraint that seems to apply to all afterlives is that no one ever gets to tell the living how it worked out. Why this should be is unknown to me, but that just puts me in league with every philosopher who ever lived. Not bad company.

But since all afterlives could be true, it can be argued that none of them are. And if you can’t know what will happen to your soul after death, and how to ensure that your eternity is a pleasant one, then perhaps you should stop worrying about it. The nature and requirements of your afterlife are totally out of your control.

The same cannot be said for your life. That is something that you have knowledge of and control over. So appreciate that little fact and go do something with it.

Go ahead and entertain speculation about life after death. Let your imagination go wild. But don’t for a moment think that you know what will come when you breathe your last. Because it probably won’t be anything you ever expected.

Or maybe it will. Who am I to say?

In any case, this is a fun little (and I do mean little) book, suitable for reading in one sitting or in forty tiny bites of time. And who knows, maybe it’ll spur you on to thoughts of your own afterlife. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

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“Among all the creatures of creation, the gods favor us: we are the only ones who can empathize with their problems.”
– David Eagleman, Sum
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David Eagleman on Wikipedia
Sum on Wikipedia
Sum on Amazon.com
David Eagleman’s homepage

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Filed under afterlife, David Eagleman, death, essays, philosophy, theology

Review 43: Underground

Underground – The Tokyo Gas Attack & the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

On March 20, 1995, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo. Five men on five different trains unleashed sarin gas in the subway system, which shut down most of the city, injured at least 5,000 people, and left 12 dead. It was the single worst attack on Japan since the end of World War Two, and it gripped the nation.

I remember hearing about this, but I don’t remember giving it too much attention – I mean, when was I ever going to have to know much about Japan, right? In the light of our own terrorist woes in the US, I wish I had.

Haruki Murakami is best known for being a fiction writer. I’ve read a few of his books, and they’re all really interesting. He has a very strange mind, and he’s a good enough writer that he can often successfully avoid giving his characters names, something that still surprises me. This time, however, he decided to turn his hand to non-fiction, chronicling the events of what was a shocking blow to his home country.

In his introduction to this book, he explains why he decided to write it. Like many people, he heard about the attacks while he was living abroad, and thought, “Oh, that’s terrible.” And then he tried to put it out of his mind. But it wouldn’t stay there. A woman had written a letter to a magazine about her husband. He had been on the subway that morning, and had been injured by the sarin. His injuries had impaired him to the point where he had been forced to quit his job. Not only because of the physical effects of being gassed, but also because he had become an outcast at work. People would look at him and whisper about the “weirdo” who had been on the subway that day. He was, probably, a reminder of what people wanted to forget. He had, by no will of his own, become an outsider, and that pressure led him to quit his job – what Murakami calls a “double violence.” First by the sarin, then by Japan.

From that point, Murakami took to wondering what really happened to people that morning. Not what the newspapers and TV said, but the stories of the people who had actually been on the trains.

So he began taking interviews. Of the hundreds he contacted, he got a total of 60 people to agree to talk to him. This is definitely a huge difference between Japanese and Americans. After September 11th, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to tell their stories, or to talk about their dead friends and relatives.

In Japan, people were eager to forget. They didn’t want this nosy journalist stirring things up again. It’s easier to put things in the past, to say, “It can’t be helped” and go on with one’s life.

Fortunately for us, Murakami got some people to talk, and for that we have this book.

He divides the stories into subway lines and stations, and it’s interesting to see how peoples’ stories are slightly different at times, where one interviewee and another interacted. He gives the histories of people, and provides a narrative of what was happening to people on that morning – where they were going, what they were doing and thinking, and how they felt. Some people thought they were sick, others thought that some kind of cleaning fluid had splashed. A few guessed that it was an attack.

Some of the best stories come from the station personnel. So far, my experience with the guys in the uniforms who run the stations is that they all say “Arigatou gozaimas” whenever you put your ticket through the gate. These guys, though, had to take charge of a subway system that was under attack by an odorless, invisible weapon, without knowing who had done it or why. Unlike firemen or policemen, these guys had to deal with a situation for which they had likely never been trained.

The civilian stories are also fascinating, as they tell how they tried to help, and they vented their frustration with the lack of help. They talked about what they were thinking as the symptoms set in – dimming of vision, nausea, lack of coordination…. One interesting commonality is how many people kept trying to go to work. They put down their symptoms to any number of garden-variety maladies – anemia, lack of a proper breakfast, general stress. Half-blind, unable to walk straight, many of them still made it to their workplaces, not knowing the danger they were in until they heard about sarin on the news.

Sarin is a nerve gas, originally designed by Nazis, it is one of the most powerful gasses out there. Iraq used it to great effect against Iran in the 80s, and could well still have some floating around. According to the translator’s notes, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a person.

The cult members who set this thing off had liters of the stuff. Fortunately, they cut it with another liquid (and even pure sarin doesn’t evaporate well) which cut its lethality. Somewhat.

Perhaps the tiny number of fatalities – 12 – were due to the lower potency of the gas. It certainly wasn’t because the Tokyo or Japanese governments were any good at dealing with disasters. Interviews with doctors at local hospitals talked about the utter confusion that ensued after the attacks. None of them were briefed on the situation, they didn’t know what kind of gas had been used, and therefore couldn’t treat it properly. Worse yet, in some cases, they didn’t even know it was a gas. In some hospitals, sarin victims were admitted to the emergency rooms, where the sarin in their clothes began affecting the ER nurses and doctors.

They figured it was probably cyanide. One doctor, who had happened to have been at a seminar on a previous sarin attack in Japan, recognized the symptoms of sarin poisoning and faxed the information around the city’s hospitals, apparently a very unusual act by a doctor in Japan. Like many organizations in Japan, hospitals are loathe to share information without going through the proper channels, even in an event such as this. But this fits into the Japanese mind-set as well: to take such initiative is to invite criticism. Should the decision be the wrong one, it would bring shame down on everyone involved. Thankfully there were some people whose minds were more concerned with saving lives than saving face. Not enough, though. The Tokyo Bureau of Health didn’t chime in until 5:00 PM, nearly eight hours after the attack.

One doctor claims that the only reason so few people died was because of the efforts of individual doctors and paramedics. The official organizations were more or less useless, much like they were after the Kobe earthquake in 1992.

However it happened, the death toll was kept low, but the effects lingered on. Sarin has long-lasting physical effects, weakening the victim for years to come. Even more, there were the psychological effects that come with any event of mass terrorism.

I saw an article in an Australian magazine which interviewed some people who had been photographed during the burning and destruction of the World Trade Center. None of them were happy, none of them were leading good lives. Months later, the attack still lingered in their minds and their lives, effectively continued on. The same was, and probably is, true in Japan after the Tokyo subway attack.

After the publication of the first edition, Murkami decided that he had a few more interviews to do. It’s one thing to know what happened to the victims, but one also has to wonder: Why would anyone do such a thing?

So he went to interview current and former members of the Aum cult, and find out why they joined, what attraction the cult held for them, and what they knew of the cult’s plans. After the attacks, most of the Japanese media were treating Aum simply as “The Enemy,” a faceless group whose members were, in the grand Japanese tradition, not individuals but simply facets of the whole.

Aum, under its leader, Asahara, worked like most cults do: They recruited people with doubts, misgivings and unreconciled views of the world. Many of the people Murakami interviewed were highly intelligent people who felt, from childhood, that the world they lived in made no sense to them. Others were lost, confused, who felt unhinged and disconnected. Such people are classic candidates for cults, and Aum took them in.

In Aum, they tell Murakami, there was no fear of responsibility, no worries about their choices for the future, because their future was preordained. If anything bad happened, it was just bad karma falling away. For some, Aum was just a new way to look at life, a new way to go through life that offered less uncertainty and pain than conventional life.

For others, though, it was a political movement. It was a group whose goals could be achieved by murder, both individual and mass. The interviews are interesting, because you can understand why the lifestyle of Aum might be attractive to people, if not very practical.

Murakami wanted to point out, by interviewing the Aum members, that this cult didn’t appear out of nowhere. It arose in Japan, made up of Japanese men and women. It was a reaction to Japanese society, a signal of the illnesses that permeate it. It was not, and should never have been treated as, something separate.

There’s not a lot of judgment in this book, as that was not Murakami’s goal. He did what he set out to do – tell the stories of people who had been there, who had experienced the terrors of the sarin attack. It’s always interesting to hear real stories, and always good.

One has to wonder, though…. Terrorism is not all bombs and airplanes and Arabs. These terrorists – and they do fit the bill – were people who looked like everyone else, men in suits, carrying briefcases and a newspaper-wrapped bundle each. No one would have given them a second thought.

Could this happen in America? Probably. We still haven’t found whoever was mailing the anthrax around, at least not at the writing of this review. It would be very possible for a group of men to board the subways in New York at rush hour, gather their resolve, and unleash an attack at least as destructive as the World Trade Center attack was. And the answer isn’t “More Security” – that’s closing the barn doors after the horses have not only left, but they’ve started their own fertilizer reprocessing plant and planned to blow up the Kentucky Derby. The interviews in this book suggest that terrorism is a societal issue, not a security one. If we want to stop people from doing violence to us, we need to find out what drives them to do so. Remember: the majority of terrorist acts carried out in the United States were not done by al-Qaeda. They were done by Americans, just as the Tokyo attacks were done by Japanese.

No matter what our politicians and police tell us, we’re never completely safe. Japan learned that in ’95. We need to learn it as well.

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“We need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe, from the outside, more than average lives) who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.

“Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.”
– Haruki Murakami, Underground
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Haruki Murakami at Wikipedia
Underground at Wikipedia
Tokyo sarin gas attack on Wikipedia
Aum Shinrikyo on Wikipedia
Haruki Murakami’s website
Underground at Amazon.com

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Filed under cults, Haruki Murakami, history, Japan, nonfiction, society, terrorism, Tokyo

Review 26: Hardcore Zen

Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner

This book is very different from most other Zen books out there.

A lot of books on Zen and Buddhism in general tend to be… how shall I put it… flaky. They tell you that if you eat a certain way or chant certain mantras or take certain drugs, you will attain the state of Nirvana, in which all your suffering will end and life will be an eternity of bliss thereafter. It’s the classic self-help contradiction: happiness is just so easy to find, but you won’t find it unless you read My Book. And also buy the candles, incense, mandala cloths, chanting CDs, windchimes, power crystals…. Despite claiming that they’re not in it for the money, a lot of those purporting to offer enlightenment to the masses have a whole lot of stuff to sell.

Warner, to put it simply, calls this “bullshit.” He doesn’t try to affect the “wise and learned sage” voice in his writing. I imagine him more as a jittery skinny guy, telling you about the time he saw the entire history of the universe unfold around him in a dream. His writing is energetic and colloquial, and he talks to the reader as an equal, if a slightly less informed equal than himself. He tells you right from the beginning that you have no reason to do what he’s done, or even to believe anything he has to say. But he’s going to say it anyway because, as far as he knows, it’s the truth.

He has an unusual background for a Zen Master. If you’re anything like me, when you hear those words you think of a little bald guy in the mountains, calling people “grasshopper” and staring at nothing. Warner is not that. He talks a lot about his experiences as a punk rocker back in the days when being a punk rocker actually meant something, and this is pretty important.

You see, one of the driving forces of Punk, at least when it first emerged, was the idea that doing what society approved of was not being “real.” In an era of power ballads, disco and soft hippie pablum, Punk music went the other way – loud, fast and hard songs full of anger and blasphemy. While everyone else was growing out their hair and trying to make it look like John Travolta’s, punk rockers were wearing mohawks or shaving it all off. The basic message of punk: whatever is acceptable to society is unacceptable to me.

While that spirit of individualism and rebellion only lasted a little while, it did, in that time, share something with Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular: Question everything. Never take anything at face value or accept it just because someone tells you to. Ask questions, criticize, poke, prod and be a general pain in the ass until you’re happy with the answers you’ve got. And even then, keep questioning your own conclusions.

Another thing that Warner brings up again and again is that, with Zen, there is no requirement that you actually do what people tell you. There’s no such thing as a Zen evangelist or Zen missionaries going out to convert the heathens. Buddhism, at least the way Warner sees it, is a path for the individual, not the group. The only person who can find the way is you. There will always be teachers out there who can make suggestions, but what it really comes down to is the individual doing the hard work – meditating, thinking, and questioning every day.

I like this approach. One of the things that turns me off from your standard religions is that they generally frown on independent thought. You’re not supposed to think about what Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross meant, you’re just supposed to thank Him for it. You’re not supposed to think about why God doesn’t want you to eat pork, or why He wants you to abstain from alcohol, or why He thinks women should cover their heads, you’re just supposed to do it. Religion, in my mind, stifles creativity and tries to absolve people of the responsibility of running their own lives.

And Buddhism is not really that much different, despite Warner’s presentation of it here. It has its scriptures and its prohibitions, its rules and regulations which many people around the world follow without question. Just look at the “Free Tibet” people and you’ll see how even Buddhism isn’t free from the virus of the Argument From Authority. I’d bet that if the Dalai Lama announced tomorrow that eating cats was a sacred and venerable tradition for Tibetan Buddhists, Richard Gere would start eating kitty steaks within a week.

But the idea is sound. The idea is that there is no such thing as Authority. There is no human being, past, present or future, who is more qualified to tell you how to run your life than you are (even if you aren’t all that good at it yourself). All it takes is dedicated thought and concentration to figure out how to live your life well, and the weird thing is that most people who do this tend to come to the same conclusion: the best way to live your life is to do the right thing, right now.

What is the right thing? Only you can figure that out.

Zen interests me, for many reasons, and a lot of them were addressed in this book. The idea that the past is the past and the future doesn’t exist is one that I picked up years ago and has made life a lot less stressful. The focus on personal responsibility is another aspect that is quite attractive. I find that people in this modern age like to dodge their responsibilities to themselves and others, and I find that disturbing. We need to take responsibility for our own actions, and blaming the government or our parents or video games for our suffering really isn’t going to make the world a better place.

The first step to having a better life is taking control of it. But don’t just take my word for it, and don’t take Warner’s. Work it out for yourself.

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“Question Authority. Question Society. Question Reality. Question Yourself. Question your conclusions, your judgments, your answers. Question this. If you question everything thoroughly enough, the truth will eventually hit you upside the head and you will know. But here’s a warning: It won’t be what you imagined. It won’t be even close. ”
– Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen
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Hardcore Zen on Wikipedia
Brad Warner on Wikipedia
Hardcore Zen at Amazon.com
Zen Buddhism at Wikipedia
Introduction to Zen from Kodaiji Temple

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Filed under Brad Warner, Buddhism, nonfiction, philosophy, religion, Zen

Review 23: American Gods


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I remember waiting a long time for this book. Neil documented the process of writing it on his blog, so every few days I would get a little glimpse at what he was doing – and it drove me nuts. Living in Japan, I can never be sure when my favorite entertainment will make it over here. Movies and books can take months to get from the US to Japan, and while I’m waiting not-so-patiently, all my friends at home have just devoured it and are in the process of raving about how awesome it is. Oh, sure, the hyper-sellers like Harry Potter might have a worldwide release, but Neil wasn’t exactly a mainstream superstar when this was written.

So yes, one of my main memories associated with this book is frustration. Fortunately, when I picked up the book during a trip home back in 2001, my frustration was erased and replaced with profound satisfaction.

American Gods was one of Gaiman’s first full-length novels, though I may be wrong about that. It was not, of course, his debut – he had made his name a household word in fantasy-reading households by penning the epic comic book series Sandman, in which he proved that he was able to marry huge metaphysical themes to personal narrative. He could make the dissolution of worlds pale beside a broken heart and make you believe that even the simplest of life had vast meaning.

In other words, this man has some serious writing chops.

As the title implies, in this book Gaiman takes on the gods, and asks a very interesting – and important – question: what happened to the gods that came to America? I’m talking about the Old Gods, the gods that had been living in the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Leprechauns and dryads, three-in-one forces of fate and representations of the seasons. Easter and Odin, Bast and Anubis, gods of once-great nations and unknown villages. As their people came to America over the millennia, they brought their gods with them.

But as the people stayed in America, they changed. They grew. And the gods discovered that America is not a good place for them.

Now the old gods are small and unworshipped, save by a few tiny, dwindling pockets of their old culture. What’s more, new gods are rising, gods of media and internet, highway and television and government. And, as has been said in countless westerns and cowboy movies, there isn’t room for all of them. There will be a reckoning, and a man named Shadow is in the middle of it.

Shadow is a convict, nearly at the end of his time in prison. He wants nothing more than to get out of prison and rejoin his wife. He gets one of those wishes when he is released early. Unfortunately, he is released early to attend his wife’s funeral.

Without friends or family, Shadow is aimless and alone. It is in this condition that he meets the enigmatic Wednesday, a man who seems to know Shadow and his situation, far better than any stranger should. He offers Shadow a job – to assist Wednesday when he needs it, protect him if he has to, and sit a vigil for him if he dies. With nothing to lose, Shadow accepts the deal. In so doing, he finds himself facing a war of gods that he never knew existed.

It’s a great story, on many levels. In one sense, it’s a love letter to America. Shadow’s journey takes him through small towns that have yet to be subsumed into the ever-devouring maw of the modern American monoculture – from roadside attractions to tiny motels to strange lakeside communities, the unacknowledged weirdness of America is put on display here for all to see. As is its history, in the form of flashbacks to the journeys that people made from their homelands to this land, voluntary or not. The book reminds us that there is a complexity to not only American history, but also to American culture, which gets lost in the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The metaphysical angle of this book is also something to give you pause. It asks the questions about what gods are, how they’re born and how they die. Most importantly – how they flourish or wither, and why. It is said over and over again that America is a bad place for gods, although it’s not clearly explained why. Perhaps something to do with its geography – a vast, variable landscape that’s too big for small tribal gods to get a hold of. Perhaps it’s the people, brought from all over the world, who can’t help but wonder what other cultures can offer them. Perhaps it’s just the nature of its people – always moving, independently-minded. The old gods, who were gods of small nations and regions, simply didn’t have the power or flexibility to stay on.

Which really makes us wonder, how did capital-g God manage to get a foothold? As one of the characters notes, Jesus has done really well over here. Perhaps because the God of Abraham can be all things to all people – a god of vengeance and justice, a god of mercy and love, a creator, a destroyer, a personal friend or a distant observer. There is something to be said for non-specialization, I suppose….

This book is a journey, and it’s a long and complicated one at that. But it’s enjoyable and personal. Gaiman writes with great empathy, so that the reader may even understand the gods themselves, as reduced and attenuated as they may have become. Though Shadow is not exactly the protagonist of the story – he spends most of the book doing what he is told to do, only taking initiative on his own towards the end, he is observant. Through his eyes, we learn more about America. Its triumphs, its flaws and its potential all become a little bit clearer, and upon finishing the book, those of us from that strange, turbulent land can perhaps appreciate it a bit more.

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“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”
– Wednesday, American Gods
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Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman’s homepage
American Gods on Wikipedia
American Gods on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman on Twitter

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Filed under death, fantasy, gods, murder, Neil Gaiman, religion, The United States

Review 13: Misquoting Jesus


Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

I saw this guy on The Daily Show a few years ago, and his book sounded like a really interesting idea – study the ways in which, over the last two thousand years, the text of the Bible has been altered. Sometimes it has been altered by mistake and sometimes on purpose, but it has been altered nonetheless.

Now this is a claim that angers a certain section of Christianity – often known as the Biblical Literalists – who believe that every word of the Bible is true, the revealed Word of God. Unfortunately for them, once the text is analyzed, once source texts and translations are looked at carefully, there are too many discrepancies for that to be true.

What makes this book interesting is the author’s background, which he explains in detail in the introduction. Bart Ehrman is not an angry atheist, looking to tear down the New Testament. Quite the contrary – in his teens, Ehrman became Born Again, filling the void in his life with 100% Jesus. He threw his heart and soul into Bible study, convinced that the book was the inerrant, incontrovertible Word Of God. It was only when he began really studying the Bible that he started to get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

And when I say “studying the Bible,” I don’t mean just reading a few passages before he went to bed at night. Ehrman is the kind of person who learned Latin and ancient Greek and Aramaic so that he could read the oldest known manuscripts for the Gospels and the Epistles. He immersed himself in Biblical history, arming himself with every tool he would need for textual criticism and a better understanding of the text that meant so much to him.

An explanation of textual criticism takes up a great deal of the book, since it’s a branch of academia that most people aren’t all that familiar with. Textual criticism is the analyses of ancient manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original text was. This is done by comparing manuscripts. It attempts to determine what changes were made and when. It’s very difficult, even worse so the older the work is, but it’s a task that has absorbed Biblical scholars for centuries. This brings up two questions: why is that difficult to do, and why is it important?

As to the first, it’s difficult because these manuscripts were, before the printing press got into full swing, copied by hand. By humans, to be specific and if you’re a human – and there’s a very good chance that you are – you know how hard it is for us to do things without making errors. A pen might slip, your eye might skip a line, or you just might be tired and misread a word. That error then gets around, and someone else copies it, probably adding their own errors as well. Many of the original copyists of the New Testament weren’t professional scribes, and even some of the pros were barely capable of actually reading the text they were copying.

What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that the “correct” text is the one that gets the most exposure. You might have fifty copies of, say, the Gospel of Luke that say one thing and five that say something else, but those fifty copies might all be wrong. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but there you go. And age isn’t always reliable either. You might think that an 8th century text is more “correct” than one from the 10th century, but not if that 10th century text had been copied from a 4th century manuscript. You can see how problems emerge.

Ehrman lays out, as simply as he can, the criteria by which textual critics judge a manuscript. It can’t be called scientific, as there are a lot of judgment calls to be made, but within the field there are a lot of very good guidelines, and the peer review process is relentless.

The bigger question, then – why is it important? Well, the biggest reason is because there are over a billion people on the planet who live their lives, to one degree or another, by the words of the New Testament. They look at the Gospels and see the stories of Jesus and his miracles, they read the letters of John and his instructions to the newly-birthed churches of the first century to try and find out what Jesus would have wanted. And because Jesus himself never left us any notes, the words in the New Testament are all they have to go on. Isn’t it vital, therefore, to know what the writers originally wrote? If you’re basing your faith off of inaccurate writings, does that mean your faith is flawed? If you’re living your life based on ideas that were not inspired by Jesus, but by a third-century scribe who, for example, had certain ideas about a woman’s place in the church, does that mean you’re living wrong?

And if you are one of those who believe that God transmitted His words to the writers of the New Testament, what does the fact that we no longer have those original words mean to your faith?

That’s the big thing here – we don’t have Paul’s original letters to the early churches. We don’t have the notes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used when they were writing their Gospels. We don’t even have copies of copies of those notes. What we do have, and what Ehrman demonstrates in detail, are many manuscripts over many centuries that have thousands of points of divergence. Sometimes those differences are minor, but some of them affect the very foundations upon which Christianity is built.

Like the famous story of the adulteress, where Jesus gave his “Let he who is without sin” speech. It doesn’t show up in the earliest and best texts, but gets wedged in a few centuries later. Or the bit in Luke where Jesus sweats blood? That, too, appears to have been a later addition to an otherwise well-constructed section of that Gospel. Even the famous King James Bible is not immune – it was based off a Greek New Testament that was written earlier, parts of which were constructed by a man named Erasmus, who did it not by using original Greek writings, but by translating later Latin translations back into Greek. Why? Because those original Greek writings were lost, but they had to have something….

Ehrman tries to look at the possible motivations for these changes, and they are necessarily speculative. The early Church was a turbulent and unstable entity, with many different groups pushing their rendition of who Jesus was and what he wanted of his followers.

Was Jesus an emotionally turbulent rabblerouser or was he a calm and serene figure of peace? Was he the begotten son of God or just adopted? Did he die with quiet dignity, willingly surrendering his spirit up to God, or did he die in torment, forsaken? Was he entirely human, entirely divine, both or neither? Christians of the early Church knew these to be vital questions – with a variety of answers. The New Testament we have today is the result of who had the most power to enforce their interpretations of Jesus’ life, times and teachings.

This book covers a whole lot of ground in 218 pages – Biblical history, Christian history, textual criticism, politics, sociology…. The history of how the New Testament came to be the way it is today is a complicated and fascinating one, and Ehrman casts it in an interesting light.

You see, rather than spend 200 pages noting the history of alterations in the book, he doesn’t say, “And that’s why we should just throw it the hell out!” Rather, he encourages readers to look at the New Testament as an ornate human creation, a text (or, more accurately, a collection of texts) that has survived the millennia by being complex enough to survive interpretation after interpretation. The inerrant Word Of God? Sorry, but no. But it is still key to understanding human history in the last two thousand years, and is therefore worthy of study.

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“What if God didn’t say it? What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age – abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol – or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?”
– Brad Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus
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Misquoting Jesus at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman’s homepage
Textual criticism at Wikipedia

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Filed under Bart Ehrman, Bible, Christianity, criticism, history, Jesus, nonfiction, religion, textual criticism, theology

Review 07: The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

I miss Carl Sagan.

Ever since I was a kid, Carl Sagan has been the face of science for me. I would watch Cosmos and feel a sense of amazement that the universe was as wonderful as it was. He’d be there in his turtleneck and his blazer, smiling as though he’d just heard the coolest secret and he wanted to share it with you. And he did, except that it wasn’t his secret. Hell, it wasn’t a secret at all – it was the combined results of thousands of years of thoughts, deductions, mistakes, missteps, experiments, accidents and achievements. Whether he was talking about the orbits of the planets or the genetics of peas, or measuring the Earth with shadows, you could feel an almost palpable sense of wonder coming from him. You’d listen to him and think, “Y’know, maybe we humans aren’t too bad after all….”

Then the smile would fade, his eyes would get serious, and he would explain how, for all our achievements as a species, humans were still terribly fallible creatures. Our knowledge has, perhaps, outpaced our morals, and we are only a few simple steps away from losing everything that we’ve gained. Our mastery of nuclear technology could wipe out civilization in a day. Our carelessness with industry could do the same in a century. His earnestness was clear, as was his disappointment.

It was in this latter mood, perhaps, that he wrote this book. Simply by looking at the title, one can glean his attitude not only towards science, but towards the world around it. When he looks at the world, he sees a place filled with demons – not literally, of course – the demons of irrationality, superstition and an unfortunate willingness on the part of people to believe in things that just aren’t so.

This book is about the advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking. In a world where people are obsessed with celebrity, where people trust their feelings over their observations, where rulers make decisions based on the predictions of astrologers, Sagan feels rather threatened.

I can certainly understand why.

It still angers me that now, in the 21st century, we are still arguing about evolution over creationism. It amazes me that newspapers even print horoscopes, to say nothing of the fact that there are people who take them seriously. It horrifies me that evil men are still able to use fear and superstition to convince people that they should kill in the name of God. And it saddens me that so many people have given control of their lives over to their concept of a deity rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.

Sagan’s premise in this book is simple: knowledge is better than ignorance. Full stop. Whether it’s witches, “intelligent design,” UFO abduction or anything else, it is always better to find the truth rather than to rest comfortably in a lie. The truth is hard, yes, and it may feel better to stay wrapped up in our illusions, but no matter how comfortable they are, they’re still illusions. Still lies.

He spends a lot of time on UFOs and abductees, actually, and uses that as a bridge into other areas of skeptical inquiry. This is because UFO abductees (and the legions of enablers who encourage them – psychologists, writers, newspapers, and conspiracy nuts) exhibit the same behavior that allows unreason to flourish: an unwillingness or inability to consider other options. Yes, you see some lights in the sky that you can’t quite explain – the alien explanation would be a romantic and weird one, but wanting something doesn’t make it so. There is probably a reason why you saw things out your window, and that explanation is probably perfectly terrestrial.

Whether you’re talking about UFOs, reiki, power crystals, witchcraft, tarot cards, channeling, telepathy, past lives, Indigo Children, psychic surgery, miracles, visitations by angels, demonic possession, the hollow Earth theory… The evidence just isn’t there. As interesting and entertaining as a world containing such things would be, they’re just not so.

Wouldn’t it be better, Sagan asks, if we could all dismiss such things? If everyone could think critically about them, dismiss them, and turn their vast amount of energy and resources towards actually making the world better? If, instead of putting together high budget shows about ghosts and Bigfoot, networks made programs about scientific inquiry and achievement? Or perhaps a show about mysteries that science has solved? Instead of portraying scientists as either nerds or maniacs, why not show the scientists who are looking for ways to make safer materials, better medicines and more efficient cars? I suppose that the Discovery Channel has done a very nice job of trying to realize this dream, with shows like Mythbusters, and Penn & Teller strongly advocate critical thinking in their Showtime program Bullshit! But I reckon Sagan would want more.

This is where he does come across as something of a curmudgeon in this book. You get the feeling that if Old Man Sagan had his way, there’d be no X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flintstones. Science fiction would all be something like Contact – nothing that isn’t reasonably explainable by our current understanding of science. No evil robots or planet-busting Death Stars would survive such skeptical scrutiny. Indeed, you get the feeling that he would not only disapprove of those shows, he would definitely look down on those of us who do.

This is an attitude I’ve noticed a lot of in modern skeptics – a certain annoyance with fantasy and a rather condescending attitude towards those who haven’t signed on to the skeptical view of the world. I am a regular listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and I enjoy it – except when they turn on the arrogance when talking about people who believe in things like religious revelation, alien visitation and the like. I can understand the attitude towards scammers – they deserve nothing but contempt – but there are people who take real comfort in their world view, regardless of how irrational it might be. Sagan addresses this as well in his book:

“All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.” 

He goes on later to say:

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many ways consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” 

So in other words, even if you know a lot, don’t be a know-it-all.

Sagan had a lifelong love of science and the wonders that scientists have performed. The world today, every part and parcel of it from that computer that you’re reading this on to the fact that you didn’t die before you were five years old, is attributable to the work of dedicated scientists trying to better understand the world. And that is the key message of this book: knowledge makes the world better. Science has performed wonders that aliens, witches and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have never been able to do.

A well-educated, rational populace is the greatest protection we have against tyranny, and it behooves every citizen to acquaint him or herself with the methods and principles that science uses. It is the greatest tool available to us if we want a better world. Yes, there will be missteps along the way, but the errors of science can – if we act out of clarity and reason – be repaired. Science is self-correcting.

Teach your children, encourage them to think critically about the world and no one will ever gain mastery over them. For an educated person is a free one. And if you can spread this kind of freedom, then perhaps Sagan can rest well.

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“We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours.”
-Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
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The Carl Sagan Portal
Carl Sagan at Wikipedia
The Demon-Haunted World at Wikiquote
The Demon-Haunted World at Amazon.com
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
The James Randi Educational Foundation

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Filed under Carl Sagan, pseudoscience, religion, science, skepticism