Category Archives: religion

Books about religion.

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

Review 06: Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This was the first Pratchett book I read, and I’m glad of it. While it has the humor and satire that is inherent in all of the Discworld books, it also has something else – something to say. It was evident, even from the first time I read this book, that Pratchett had put some real heavy thinking into it.

This book is, as the title suggests, about gods. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What keeps them moving? Ordinarily, gods don’t like this sort of question. People who think are not what gods look for in followers. Gods want people who believe. That’s where their power comes from. Gods with many believers are strong, great gods. Armies of priests and worshipers attend to their every needs, the sacrifices are plentiful and their dominion is vast. A great God wants for nothing.

A god with no believers, however, is a small god, a mindless thought blistering through the firmament, searching with single-minded fervor for one thing: a believer.

What happens, then, when a Great God finds out that, while he wasn’t looking, he lost all of his believers? That’s the thrust of this tale, the story of the Great God Om and how he became a tortoise for three years. It’s about the difference between what is real and what is believed in, and how much difference that can make at times. It’s about fundamental and trivial truths, and how to tell them apart. It’s about eagles and tortoises and how much they need each other.

Above all, it’s something of, in my opinion, a statement of faith. Many people ask me if I am religious, and I tell them no. That’s partly due to this book and the thinking that it made me do. Spiritual? Sure. Religious? No.

This is, as I said, the story of the Great God Om, who discovered, about 300 feet above the ground, that he had been a tortoise for the last three years. Before this mid-air revelation he had been just chewing at melons and wondering where the next lettuce patch was. Suddenly, all the self-awareness of a Great God was put into his head, as well as the knowledge that he was probably about to die. Om had intended to manifest as a bull or a pillar of fire – something much more majestic and Godly – but for some reason, that hadn’t worked. He had become a tortoise.

Now, in the presence of Brutha, a novice in the Church of the Great God Om, the god remembers who he was, and discovers that he’s in a lot of trouble.

The Church of the Great God Om. There’s something to talk about. Many people believe, upon reading it, that it’s an allegory for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The Omnian Church permits no heresy. It permits no sin, no disbelief. Violating the precepts of Om and His Prophets can lead to death, in a lingering and painful manner. The Quisition cannot be wrong, for was it not Om Himself who put suspicion into their minds? It’s a tactic that has been used by many religions over the years, often to justify acts that they know their god would not approve of.

I don’t believe that Pratchett was trying to take a stab at the Catholics in this book. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence that the Omnians and the Catholics bear a few points of similarity. A rigid hierarchy, for example. A penchant at one point or another for extracting confessions by any means necessary is another. It’s all very efficient and effective.

There’s a problem, though, as is pointed out by Brutha late in the book: if you beat a donkey with a stick long enough, the stick becomes all that the donkey believes in. At that point, neither gods nor believers benefit. The only people benefiting are those wielding the stick. Instead of becoming a tool for inspiration, the church becomes a tool for terror. People do not obey their god out of love – they obey their church out of fear.

This is the kind of church that could produce the Deacon Vorbis, head of the Exquisitors. He is one of those men who would turn the world on its back, just to see what would happen. He is everything that is wrong with the Church and, unfortunately, it seems that he is in line to be the Eighth Prophet.

In other words, Omnia is not a nice place to live. Its church is vast, its god is small, and neighboring nations want to take it down a few pegs. It’s up to Brutha and his God to change the course of history.

As I said, there was a lot of thought put into this novel, as well as Pratchett’s usual hidden research. For example, Brutha is called a “Great dumb ox” by his classmates, due to his size and apparent lack of intellect. The same epithet was thrown at Thomas Aquinas by his classmates, and he was canonized less than a century after his death. Like Aquinas, Brutha is not dumb. He is simply slow and careful in how he thinks, and his measured pace leads him far more surely to the truth than the hot-headed and passionate men who march with him.

Some people read this book as an attack on religion. Others see it as a defense of personal faith. I think Terry had a story to tell, and perhaps a point to make. The beauty of books such as these is that they can be whatever you want them to be. For me, it came as a kind of defense of gods. Humans, the book suggests, need gods. Now there is a growing atheist community out there who disagree with that idea, and I can definitely see where they’re coming from. As I’ve said many times, I’m not entirely sold on the god idea yet. But the gods that are rampant in the Discworld aren’t the kinds of gods that the atheists and the true believers fight over – the omnipotent creator of Everything. They are gods who are controlled by humans, who exist with humans in a kind of co-dependent relationship. Humans need gods, and gods need humans. In its way, this kind of theology makes gods more… realistic to me. I can’t say for sure whether a god or gods exist, but if they did, I think I could live with this kind of arrangement.

What this book definitely is, in any case, is good. Very good. If you haven’t read it, do so. If you have read it, do yourself a favor and read it again.

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“Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Laste the Godde Dies.
Ande this maye notte be noticed.”
– from the writings of the philosopher Abraxis, Small Gods
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Annotations for Small Gods
Small Gods at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Small Gods at Wikiquote
Small Gods at Amazon.com

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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, gods, humor, morality, religion, sins, Terry Pratchett, theology

Review 01: Good Omens


Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

For lovers of modern fantasy, there are two names that are on most people’s must-read lists: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common with this pair. Terry Pratchett writes the world-renowned Discworld series, a fantasy epic set on a flat world, which is supported by four elephants, who in turn are standing on a great turtle which swims through the emptiness of space. What started as a parody of the “sword and sandals” genre of fantasy, Discworld has become a mirror for our world, taking familiar ideas and giving them a sharp twist.

Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, gained fame with his groundbreaking comic book – sorry, graphic novel – series, Sandman. Over seventy-five issues, packed with mythological retellings, Shakespearian inspiration, love, Death, family, heartbreak and redemption, Sandman is still considered to be one of the most literary comics of the modern age.

Despite these superficial differences, however, their shared love of a good story makes them perfect for each other. Like chocolate and peanut butter, steak and eggs, hydrogen and oxygen, when you put two great things together, you get something that’s even better.

This book is about the End of the World. It begins with a birth, that of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness.

Also known as Adam Young.

With his birth, the inexorable wheels of Revelation begin to turn, the Horsemen start their long ride, and two immortals – a demon named Crowley and an angel named Aziraphael – find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make sure everything works out the way their respective sides want. Rivers of blood, skies of fire and the scything clean of all life in the world, that kind of thing.

Crowley and Aziraphael, for their parts, really don’t want the world to end. They’ve been walking it since it began about 6,000 years ago, and found that they quite like it, for all its flaws and problems. And despite their innate loyalty to their masters, they’ll do their best to try and stop its end.

It’s an outstanding book, one of my top five of all time. Not only is it roaringly funny, with outstanding characters and witty dialogue, but it has the kind of razor-sharp insight into human nature that can only come from Gaiman and Pratchett. Ostensibly good people act like utter bastards, and people we know to be bad by their very natures end up doing the right thing. There’s no clear-cut line between good and evil here, which is perhaps a lot more realistic than most end-of-the-world stories go. Also, very few end-of-the-world stories are quite as funny as this one.

Humor can be used for many purposes, but the most noble use of humor is to illuminate truths that we routinely ignore. When you read this book, you think about God and the Devil and everything in between – namely, us. What is the purpose of humanity in this benighted world, and what is our responsibility towards it? These are all questions that the characters have to deal with, and, of course, so do we.

While neither Gaiman nor Pratchett would claim to have an answer to that, they have a great ability to point us towards the question.

As I said, this is one of my top five of all time. I think I own three copies by now – one that’s been read to death, a hardcover edition with that weird M-25 illustration on the front, and a softcover signed by both Neil and Terry. This is my Precious, and I hope it’s buried with me someday.

So, as you may have guessed, I can’t recommend this book enough.

And now, a quote from the book:

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. ”
– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
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Neil Gaiman’s homepage
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman at Wikipedia
Good Omens at WikiQuote
Good Omens at Amazon.com

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Filed under angels, antichrist, apocalypse, Christianity, demons, fantasy, humor, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett