Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just Down and Out

George’s Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is no doubt a well-written and interesting novel, suffering from some several flaws that hand over it like a miasma.  First and foremost, when the narrator reviews to Jews, any Jew, he simply called him “the Jew” as if that label says it all.  “The Jew” is nearly always devious, avaricious, and just plain unsavory.  Here is Orwell writing in the 1930s, catching the wave of anti-Semitism that would end in freight trains and gas chambers.  Reading such passage mar this book deeply.  But to be fair, he often makes sweeping generalization about nationalities, especially those from the south and east of Europe, no doubt as unsavory and easy to characterize in one word like “the Pole” as is “the Jew.”

When Orwell (or to be fair, his narrator) let’s go of these concerns, the book takes off.  The best sections involves the restaurants in Paris.  There, events take care of themselves, and there is not the cool detachment and prejudice guiding the flow of events.

But by the end, when the narrator joins homeless men in London,  the off putting detachment resumes, and we see the point of the novel.  The narrator is to become our inside man in the underbelly of society.  He is to show us how the men who live on tea and two slices exist.  But the air of detachment and singular lack of connection and warmth toward these poor men make the observations he makes cold and cruel.  One gets the feeling Orwell’s narrator cares as much about homeless men as the Jews.

This book could ruin a young person  who reads it at the wrong time in their formative years, or in a bad frame of mind (I know of one example).  This novel romanticizes poverty.  It makes the difficulties of life into a petty game.  There is nothing romantic about poverty.  It is a mean and difficult life.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rebbe Nachman's Sea of Meaning

Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan, which is published in several volumes by the Breslov Research Institute out of Jerusalem and Monsey, NY, is a well-done set of volumes, with the Hebrew and Aramaic on the one side of the page, and the English on the other.  Therefore, the reader can explore the complicated Hebrew wordplay that so much of the Rebbe’s teaching rests upon, and not lose their flavor in a loose translation.  In Rebbe Nachman’s world, so many things flow into the next, and a knowledge of the original languages in not only useful but necessary to get things right.  This volume will help you get there.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Jesus Sutras

Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity is a rousing work; Palmer is a cheerleader for the type of Taoist Christianity that he purports are expressed in the so- called Jesus Sutras, books written by Chinese Christians from the fifth century on.   

Palmer is very sure of his results, and is comfortable placing labels on documents.  He confidently calls some works liturgical, claiming they were used for Church services, with no outside evidence.  Even many of the Jesus Sutras themselves are of suspect provenance.  Most are believed to have been discovered in a cave in north-west China, but very many of the works translated here were purchased in antique shops in China and are now in private collections, mostly in Japan.

Although we cannot be confident about the conclusions Palmer reaches (he may well be overstepping the evidence in most cases; even the term Taoist Christians is difficult to support.  What does it mean?  Did the Christians consider themselves Taoist Christians?  Is it Palmer’s conclusion based on the content of their books?) his book offer a very clever view of how Christianity meshed with Chinese beliefs and customs.  As such, it offer an unusual and thought provoking perspective.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Too Much on The Mystical Plate

The idea behind God was in this Place and I, i did not know it is excellent.  Take the famous line from Jacob at Beth-el, and see how it has been interpreted throughout the ages by various Jewish worthies.  In the process, have them talk to Jacob in a kind of free form midrash, unshackled by time.  And since the writer is Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, add a bit a personal reflection and home grown stories.

All the elements are here, but the book never gets off the ground.  In juggling so many elements in so short a space, Kushner gets lost, and the book lacks a real sense of forward momentum or thrust.  This would have been a good idea for two, maybe even three books.  Kushner would have then allowed himself the luxury of exploring some of the very good themes he has laid down here and not fully explored.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Regional Christ: the folk saint Gaucho Gil

My article on Guachito Gil was published by the Montreal Review

T.S.Tsonchev does an admirable job as the editor of this fine journal.

This is part of the wider work I am writing about folk religion called: Great Tradition, Little Tradition: Popular Religion in the West and East.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How and Why Religions Live and Die

Philip Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity does everything a popular book on religious history should do: it takes our pedestrian notions about the history of a topic, in this case the Christian Church, and turns it on its ear.  The subtitle reveals the radical theme of the book: “The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia --- and How it Died.”  

Jenkins convincing shows how scholars have swallowed the prejudices of the western churches, (the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and the Orthodox Church) regarding the Churches of the East, all labeled heretical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  Unlike the west, where Christian Churches were sponsored by states, the loose confederation of Churches in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa grew independent of the West or state sponsorship (with some exceptions), and for the first thousand years of Christianity, were intellectually and numerically more important than Western Christianity.
What we see as the inevitability of Western Christianity, Jenkins tells us, is nothing more than historical prejudice and hindsight.  Christianity started as a Middle Eastern religion, and lost its historical heart with the coming of Islam and the slow disintegration of Eastern churches.  This course was not inevitable.

Jenkins also takes some interesting shots at established popular writers of Christianity like Pagels and Armstrong.  It is interesting to see scholars who have done so much to undermine traditional notions of Christian origins get undermined themselves!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Quiet American

The Quiet American is very much a Graham Greene novel.  It is a focused and tight narrative; Greene is completely in control of his materials, his organization, his tone and characters.  There is fluidity to the novel that makes it seem easy, quickly won, which is hard thing to accomplish.  We see all this in The Quiet American, and also get a wide glimpse of French Indochina just before the American’s took over the war from France.  So in this sense, the novel is a great marker of the changes American would endure in Vietnam in the years after its publication.

Greene does advance the end a bit quickly, as if he wanted to finish this novel and needed a device that doesn’t quite work.  For the reader, that speedy conclusion takes some of the edge of the work, making it a bit casual.  Greene wanted a happy ending but he did nothing to lay the ground work for this outcome.  So the end is a letdown.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Healer of Shattered Hearts


David J. Wolpe’s The Healer of Shattered Hearts: The Jewish View of God, covers a broad range of topics, but it’s overwhelming emphasis is to “rescue” the view of a personal God in Judaism.  Of course, he has great background material.  This is the biblical and rabbinical view of God, and it was only when Judaism began forays into formal mysticism and modernity that other views started to push out the personal God (making for odd disjunctures: a liturgy loaded with reference to a personal God, while most Jews no longer believer in such an entity.)

An admirable goal.  There is still a role for the personal God in Judaism.  Who is willing to give up the story of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah?  Who doesn’t want to conceive of a personal God, especially when we are in crisis or need?  

Unfortunately, Wolpe’s book just doesn’t rise up to the challenge.  There are interesting ideas here, like his concept of “normal mysticism” but the rest of the book is dominated by flat prose and ideas that are not quite gripping enough for the enormity of the ideas.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Skylight Illuminations

Skylight Illuminations is an imprint of Jewish Lights, and its mission is to bring radically abridged versions of holy texts to a wide audience, along with commentary by religious experts.  (I often wonder at the “orthodoxy” of such experts having mainly read Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s wonderful contributions to this series).

Jana Riess took on the daunting task of taking The Book of Mormon and reducing it by a tenth of its size.  She overwhelming chose portions that show key concepts in Mormonism, mainly long homilies by prophets.  She purposely left out the violence and war.  This seems like a bad choice.  If we are going to get a true slice of the Book of Mormon, then there should be representative portions of many styles.  To leave out the narrative aspects gives us a skewed look at the work.  Yet Riess did an admirable job presenting a difficult book to a general audience, and stuck to the mandate of Skylight Illuminations.  If you want to read portions of the Book of Mormon, get a feel for the text, this is a good place to go.

On a content note, I see the Book of Mormon as a curious mix of fantasy and wish-fulfillment.  First there is what I would call the historical problems of the book.  Certainly, events in the Hebrew bible are not true in a modern historical sense.  But there are a few places outside the bible where we can go to see that the religious and historical context of the book isn’t pure fantasy (like the Mesha Stone, the inscriptions at Tel Dan, the Baalam, Deir Alla oracles, and other places).  The stories told in the Hebrew bible have some grounding in a culture of a people called Israel.  Scholars will debate all aspects of what this people where and what their written record mean, but there is  hard evidence of their existence.  The Book of Mormon does not enjoy this grounding.  Not a single mainstream scholar has provided proof that the New World Hebrew culture chronicled in The Book of Mormon existed.  Not a single piece of archeological evidence from non-Mormon sources has come to light.  I see this as a major problem.

Next, there is the question of language.  The Book of Mormon was supposedly translated by Joseph Smith from an Egyptian language (if these were Israelite peoples, why this language?) and when he was finished, the gold plates were returned to the angel Moroni.  So, there goes the possibility examining the original text.   As we know from other books, works of translation are full of problems.  The suspect state of the translation, and the lack of an original, does not give The Book of Mormon the solid grounding that the Hebrew Bible has.  We can’t see the seams of the book, the layers of authorship, and the changes in the flow of language over the centuries.  All we have is Joseph Smith’s somewhat tedious version of King James  English.

So, respectfully, this book is a hard sell for me.  Certainly, people can and should believe what they want, and be left alone.  Mormonism is interesting to study as an American event, and as a part of a set of ideas about the lost tribes of Israel that was common in the 19th century. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amos Oz Scenes from Village Life

Amos Oz’s most recent novel, Scenes from Village Life, is filled with tense and evocative chapters, each strung to the next, about the daily life of characters in the fictional town of Tel Ilan.  The book is filled with details about the days of early Zionism, the promise of agrarian Hebrew-ness, and how in various ways, that dream has run its course, or less charitably, is dead.  Now, life in this Israeli town is dominated by various unstated dreads and the feeling that life may change so much as to be not worth living.

Oz creates tense work filled with range and interest.  But I found the final chapter a disappointing end to the novel. Oz had been threading a nice line between surreal reality and naturalism, only to fall off the cliff into pure surrealism in the last chapter.  I find it difficult to explain the move, or why this chapter was necessarily.  It was as if Oz was left with nothing more to say about contemporary Israel, and needed to provide us with an unnecessary fairy tale that is out of place in tone and style with the rest of the work.