Category Archives: Christianity

Old Books Reading Project: Toward Understanding Paul by Boyce W. Blackwelder

Last September in my review of Adam W. Miller’s 1946 edition of An Introduction to the New Testament I mentioned over the years I’d acquired several old books from book sales hosted by a small local religious college. One of those old books gathering dust in my personal library is Boyce W. Blackwelder’s Toward Understanding Paul. While not as old as Miller’s above mentioned book, nevertheless it was published in 1961, and to me that makes it an old book. With Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible sitting by my bed begging me to finally read it I figured now was as good a time as any to read an old book or two about the Bible. So one night I pulled Blackwelder’s book off the shelf and began reading it. After reading about half of it I grew bored set it aside. But a few weeks later I picked it back up and finished it in only a few sittings.

Toward Understanding Paul is short book, weighing in at just over 130 pages. I’m guessing it was written as college text, probably for introductory courses on the New Testament. Toward Understanding Paul at its heart is theologically conservative, probably evangelical. Therefore, Blackwelder stands firm on his belief Paul wrote all the epistles attributed to him, and was inspired by God as he wrote them. But it’s also important to note, according to Blackwelder Paul never considered his letters scripture. In the first century AD what Jews and early Christians called scripture was the Hebrew Bible. Only years later, would Paul’s letters, plus the Gospels, Acts and Revelation be treated as scripture by the early Church.

To those who are skeptical of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, preferring to believe that Paul experienced some sort of natural phenomenon like an epileptic seizure or fit of sunstroke, Blackwelder, firm in his faith points out it’s rare for such non supernatural experiences to bring out change that’s so permanent and profound.

He also believes Paul was eventually released from prison (more like house arrest) and embarked on yet another missionary journey, probably to Spain. Later, he was arrested and executed during the reign of Nero. Even though these events aren’t specifically mentioned in the New Testament.

With a number of these kind of old books in my personal library, you’ll probably see more books like Toward Understanding Paul featured on my blog. Plus, some of you might remember last year I posted a link to Tara Isabela Burton’s outstanding and thought-provoking Atlantic article “Study Theology Even If You Don’t Believe in God.” Inspired by her article I hope to read more books on religion and related subjects. And when I do, you’ll read about it here.

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About Time I Read It: Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill

Way back in 1995 I read a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization and it rocked my world. Cahill’s inspiring account of Irish monks in the Middle Ages working to preserve the West’s intellectual treasures against the ravages of barbarians easily made it one of my favorite books. As a writer and historian Cahill showed me history can be readable and therefore fun. From then on whenever I heard Cahill had written a new book I wanted to read it.

And I did. Over the years I’ve enjoyed his subsequent books The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter almost as much as How the Irish Saved Civilization. However, his 2006 book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me disappointed. Later, in my opinion he redeemed himself in 2013 with Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  I also enjoyed a pair of books that weren’t part of his above-mentioned Hinges of History series, namely A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green and the biography Pope John XXIII as part of the Penguin Lives. But one book eluded me. As big a Thomas Cahill junky as I am, I never got around to reading his Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. That is, until now.

Recently, during one of my Saturday trips to the public library I stumbled across a copy. Excited to find yet another one of those “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read” of course I borrowed it. Over the following days as I made my way through his 1999 book over my morning coffee I began to realize Desire of the Everlasting Hills, although not a bad book, didn’t blow me away like most of his others.

In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Cahill takes readers back to the birth of Christianity. Cahill begins by looking at ancient Palestine and environs. At the time of Jesus it was part of the Roman Empire and subject to its laws. Thanks to the conquests of Alexander, there was a great deal of Hellenic influence, with Greek being the widely spoken especially among Gentiles. Lastly, there were the Jews, heirs to hundreds of years of Jewish religious thought and culture. Out of this complex ancient environment Jesus arose and later, the Apostle Paul.  Paul, educated in Greek language, rhetoric and philosophy as well as Jewish thought and scriptures was the perfect man to bridge the gap between Gentile and Jew (or in his own words in I Corinthians “I am made All things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”) and taking what had been a local Jewish reform movement and putting it on a trajectory to become the world’s dominant religion. With, as Cahill makes a compelling case at the end of his book, Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on justice and compassion at its core.

By writing history book about Jesus, Paul and the birth of Christianity Cahill took on a thankless job. Theologically conservative Christians probably think he’s too liberal. On the other hand atheists, agnostics, skeptics and the like probably think he’s too Christian. I guess you can’t please everyone.

Like I said earlier, Desire of the Everlasting Hills isn’t my favorite Cahill book. Who knows, maybe after waiting so long to read it my expectations were too high. Not to sound like some expert some of the material he covered I’m already familiar with. But that’s OK. I’m still a huge fan of Cahill and considering his overall outstanding body of work, I’ll just live with it.

 

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Old Books Reading Project: An Introduction to the New Testament by Adam W. Miller

There’s nothing like holding an old book in your hands. You don’t even need to be a bibliophile to experience that special kind of feeling you get when hold a book that might be 50, 75 or even a hundred years old. If the book could talk, imagine the stories it could tell. Was it some young, wide-eyed student’s college text? Did it spend decades in the personal library of some distinguished and learned person? Or did it languish for years in some antiquarian bookstore?

Like I mentioned in an early post, over the years I’ve acquired several old books at book sales hosted by the small religious college down the road from me. One of those books happens to be Adam W. Miller’s An Introduction to the New Testament. Originally published in 1943, mine is a second edition printed in 1946. Its pages are well-worn but nevertheless thick and sturdy and thus feeling fully capable of surviving another 70 years. Since its loaded with passage underlines and peppered with notes, it looks to have once belonged a student. How it ultimately ended up at the college book sale after so many decades is anyone’s guess.

As its title would lead us to believe, Miller’s book is an introduction to the New Testament. According to its front page, at the time Miller was the Professor of New Testament at Anderson College and Seminary in Anderson, Indiana. (He must have been great guy because it looks like the college named its chapel in honor of him.) From what I can tell, Miller was a devout Christian of the biblically conservative persuasion and probably a member of, or affiliated in some way with of the Church of God denomination. Understandably he takes a more traditionalist approach to biblical scholarship. While he’s confident in his belief those scriptures are the product of divine inspiration, and even though he might disagree with more liberal scholars who are skeptical of the Bible’s divine origins – stressing instead how it was decidedly shaped over time by human hands – nevertheless Anderson is respectful of their scholarly views. To his credit Anderson shows you can disagree without being dismissive.

In what might be a surprise to some, or even many of you, I had fun reading Miller’s book. I found it introductory enough to serve as a nice review of stuff I’d covered years ago in my Intro to World Religions class or came across in my personal reading in the years since graduation. But introductory or not, I came away from Miller’s book with a deeper understanding of the Christian New Testament and learned more than a few things. (For one, I didn’t know even some conservative biblical scholars suspect one or two of the Pauline Epistles might have been cobbled together from multiple letters.)

I have a number of books like Miller’s in my personal library and after reading his Introduction the New Testament I’m inspired to start reading them. While I’m certainly not a man of  faith, for years I’ve had a strong interest in comparative religion, especially the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Plus, after reading Tara Isabella Burton’s compelling piece in The Atlantic “Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God” on the undervalued importance of theological studies I’m hoping in the future you’ll see more books like this one featured on my blog.

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About Time I Read It: God and His Demons by Michael Parenti

I was introduced to the writing of Michael Parenti a million years ago. During my freshman year in college the professor of my Introduction to American Politics class assigned four or five books to read and one of which was Parenti’s  Democracy for the Few. Impressed by Parenti’s radical approach to addressing the pressing political and social issues of the day, during my early post college years I went on to read a pair of his other books, namely The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race and Inventing Reality: The Politics of New Media. Then, as the years went by like many of us I lost much of of my youthful idealism and with it my hunger for the writing of Michael Parenti But like an old friend you slowly drifted away from but never forget, I always perked up whenever hearing he’d written something new.

In 2010 I learned he’d written yet another book, called God and His DemonsInstead taking on the evils of unchecked capitalism or modern-day imperialism Parenti turned his sights on the abuses of religion, especially how it’s used to fleece and control the unsuspecting masses. Since Parenti is a leftist critic of the prevailing political and social order, I was curious to see how he would approach the topic of religion. I mentally added God and His Demons to my To Be Read List (TBR) and like I did so many other books promptly forgot about it.

Then a few months ago I requested my public library add the book to its catalog of available Kindle books via Overdrive. Not long after submitting my request I received an email from the library letting me know they’d purchased a copy, and that copy was available for me to check out. I downloaded God and His Demons to my Kindle Paperwhite and promptly began reading it.

If one is to properly critique something, it’s best to define exactly what one is critiquing. With that in mind Parenti begins his book by looking at what we in the West consider God. According to him, God is seen as being one of two things. One, God viewed as some kind of impersonal, supernatural life force that governs or in some way provides order to the universe. On the other hand, others see God a personified being, not only anthropomorphized but also according to critics like Parenti prone to fits of jealousy, wrath and genocide (and the occasional loving father or deliverer from evil). From there Parenti goes on to show how throughout history many have used religion as a handy tool to oppress, enslave or manipulate.

Even though Parenti is an atheist I got the impression from reading this book his goal isn’t to attack religion per se, and certainly not all religious believers. I think he mainly wants to show how religion has been used by those in power to maintain control. In contrast to many critics of religion, his targets aren’t entirely the Abrahamic faiths of the West. In one of his later chapters he spends a great deal of time showing how the ruling Buddhist clerics of Tibet maintained their oppressive feudal control over the country’s peasantry before deposed by the Chinese.

While books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The End of Faith might have made headlines, God and his Demons never achieved the same level of notoriety. That seems unfair because it’s a worthy book in its own right and deserves to be read along the three above mentioned religious critiques. I’m not sure God and His Demons rank among the best books I’ve read this year, but I enjoyed it. And trust me, that’s never a bad thing.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Current Affairs, History

Conclave by Robert Harris

I love Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Since the rules state “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country” intrepid participants are inspired to read books representing the breadth of Europe. Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before on my blog, it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. (Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill.) Nothing against papal biographies, but I wondered if there were other books about or set in Vatican City that I could read for the European Reading Challenge.

As luck would have it, I found a solution. Thanks to my public library I learned British novelist Robert Harris has a new novel out and it’s set in of all places the Vatican. Excited the author of the outstanding alternate history novel Fatherland had turned his literary attention to the world of high-stakes Vatican politics excited me. So I grabbed a copy of Conclave and began reading it. After weathering a few distractions I eagerly ripped through it. I’m happy to say Conclave did not disappoint me. Ian Samson writing for the Guardian called the novel “unputdownable” and I’m tempted to agree because it’s one hell of a page turner.

Named after an assembly of cardinals who meet under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, Conclave begins with the somewhat mysterious death of a revered reformist pope and moves quickly to the quest to elect his successor. Sequestered from the outside world, the Conclave is rife with high drama and intrigue. Like any sizable voting assembly there are factions. Not only is there a rivalry  between conservative elements (called “Trads” for their traditionalist or Pre-Vatican II views) and progressives (some from Continental Europe and America sharing liberal outlooks with a few Liberation Theologians from Latin Americans) but there’s also blocks of cardinals representing Italian, Latin American, African and Anglophone interests. Just to make things even more interesting, a mysterious Cardinal arrives in Rome just in time for the Conclave. A Filipino with a long but unpublicized history of humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East, thanks to his secret elevation to Cardinal by the late Pope he too can vote in the Conclave.

Like any good page-turner, the story moves quickly and there’s no shortage of twists and turns. Conclave is one of those light, fast-paced pieces of contemporary fiction that’s entertaining as hell and a pleasure to read. So naturally, I have no problem recommending this wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa