Last month in my review of Islam for the Western Mind: Understanding Muhammad and the Koran I compared its author William Henry Drummond to a geriatric college professor, who despite being intellectually gifted and erudite, had lost the vigor of his youth and now performs as a third-rate lecturer. Using a similar kind of analogy, reading Harold Bloom’s 2005 Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine is much like taking one of those upper division college courses, usually in your selected major. If you haven’t taken all the introductory courses beforehand, the brilliant, demanding yet engaging professor will probably leave you scratching your head and wondering how on earth did I get myself into this mess. His book is good, but if you want to get the most out of it, I would suggest getting a few of the “prelims” out of the way, (but more about that later). Bloom has been studying and teaching the Western Cannon of thought and literature for over 60 years. Therefore, when he turns his gifted and well-read mind to the task of analyzing the personality of God just as he would with a character in a Shakespearean play, you have better done your reading. Otherwise, Bloom will probably leave you in the dust.
Bloom, the Stirling Professor of Humanities at Yale, is the author of countless books including The Book of J, The Western Cannon and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Similar to Jack Miles in God: A Biography, in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine Bloom analyzes the personality of God and the manifestations thereof, as depicted in a wide range of sacred scriptures including the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, the Talmud as well as the esoteric writings associated with the Jewish Kabbalah. Drawing as well from his deep knowledge of Milton, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and Freud; Bloom compares and contrasts the moody, jealous, militaristic and sometimes anthropomorphized Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible with the aloof yet loving God the Father of the New Testament. Bloom a secular Jew with a confessed”Gnostic” streak, also discusses the subtle and perhaps not so subtle differences between the historical Joshua of Nazareth versus the theological Jesus the Christ. I was intrigued by his parallels between the New Testament’s depiction of a somewhat removed but still loving God the Father with the Kabbalahists’ mythology of the Divine’s withdrawal from the physical realm as a consequence of the universe’s creation.Unfortunately Bloom eventually he lost me with his detour into finer points of esoteric Jewish thought associated with the Kabbalah. Fortunately, I thought Bloom redeemed himself towards the end of the book, especially with his concluding chapter addressing the underlying differences between Judaism and Christianity as well as his musings on the future of the three monotheistic faiths.
Over the last few years I’ve reviewed a number of books on religion. Sometimes, when reviewing a book of an introductory nature I might encourage readers while it might be fine to start with an entry-level text, it would be unwise to end one’s studies with such a book. With Bloom’s book, I would give the opposite advice. Arguably, while it might be fine to conclude one’s studies with his book, I would not start with Jesus and Yahweh. Instead, do a little preparatory research. Otherwise, you might feel like you’re in an upper-division college class without any prelims under your belt. Speaking of which, here’s a reading list of some books I’ve come across over the years. These might provide helpful introductory material for Bloom’s book.
- God: A Biography by Jack Miles -Miles, like Bloom analyzes God much like a literary critic would analyze a character in a work of fiction. This is one of my all time favorite books on religion and I highly recommend it.
- Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman- A great introduction to modern Biblical scholarship. Also recommended.
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong and Jews, God and History by Max Dimont- These two books should provide the proper historical context for the material discussed in Bloom’s book.
- How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity by N. T. Wright and Jesus: A New Vision by Marcus Borg – Just several books among many which in my opinion provide a valuable diversity of views when it comes to the historical and theological portraits of Jesus discussed in Bloom’s book.
- The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas both by Elaine Pagels- Since Bloom mentions the Gospel of Thomas as well as gnosticism in general, these two books by Pagels might be helpful.
- Genesis: A Living Conversation by Bill Moyers- In this companion book to the excellent PBS series from the 90’s, a number of intelligent and diverse individuals share their interpretations of the first book of the Bible. In my opinion a good lead-in to Bloom’s book.
- Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction by Joseph Dan- If I hadn’t read Dan’s book earlier in the year I would have been completely lost while reading the last third of Bloom’s book. Thanks to Dan I was only partially lost.
- Lastly, Bloom has an incredible passion for Shakespeare, and understandably, Jesus and Yahweh contains numerous references to the Bard’s characters. At a minimum, read Hamlet and King Lear. Plus maybe The Tempest.
- Lastly, read a little mythology. I would suggest Mythology by Edith Hamilton
While the above reading list might look a little overwhelming, the books overall are a pretty readable lot and can be found in most libraries and bookstores. While it might seem a bit absurd to read so many books just to gain a better understanding of just one book, I think in this rare case it might be worth it. So, if you wanna really prepare for Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh, reading these books could be a huge help. How’s that for a reading challenge ?