World Religions & Cultures

 

General & Tribal

 

The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion Towards a More Authentic Faith, Marcus Borg

*** “Who is he Arguing With?”

 

This is my fifth Borg (not counting Star Trek), and in each he comes across as a likeable person. A conservative NT scholar once told me John Crossan would make the perfect next-door neighbor; one gets the feeling Borg (Crossan's Jesus Seminar colleague) would also cheerfully lend a cup of sugar or the weed-eater in the name of the Lord. He explains himself with a fetching simplicity and naturalness that are all the more attractive for the long, serious study that clearly lies behind his ideas.

As for his main argument, that God is both transcendent and imminent, I do not know whom he is trying to convince. I not only grew up in evangelical churches, I have attended hundreds of them around the world, and found the imminence of God both taught and (often) experienced. God did not seem that far away to me in church -- sometimes dangerously close. Borg's experience might have been different -- though he couches his story in such subjective terms that one wonders if he did not merely misunderstand, or misremember. It seems to me Borg is not arguing with orthodoxy, but with the cold embers of an old deism that may have nested down in some Lutheran church on the plains, or else in his own imagination. My main critique of Borg is that he offers too many false choices. Here, too, his device is to compare wrong, even heretical, views that he took for orthodoxy in childhood with present educated opinions.

"Panentheism" is an interesting term, and I am glad to know the distinction Borg makes between his own position and pantheism. But I am not sure what it really adds to the Christian tradition: God is more than the world, sure, and closer than our brother -- "in him we live and move and have our breath." But what does it mean to say that Pol Pott, say, was "part of God?" I still don't see what such language means, or how it can be verified.

As a student of world religions, I do not always find "spirit" to be the nectar of the gods. Often the shaman who is (as the Chinese say) the most "ling," the most connected in the spirit world, is the most deeply involved in misogeny, human sacrifice, and political oppression.

Borg promotes the idea of a "spiritual resurrection." After N.T. Wright's rebuttal in The Resurrection of the Son of God, it is hard to imagine the bones of that argument coming together again.

I take my shots at Jesus Seminar scholarship in general, and at Borg's naive concept of "spirit" in particular, in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could; I won't repeat that here. Suffice to say, I think the weight of the historical evidence, fairly considered, suggests that the "Jesus of history" is the Christ of orthodox Christianity.

Nor do I find Borg's discussion of politics helpful. About half of American spending is done by government, which also regulates the rest half to death (ask any contractor!) Borg talks as if "individualistic" Americans barely have a government. He invokes the authority of the prophets to increase government spending, never mind that OT social compassion was the duty of individuals, not the state. One might argue that the religious right, in its fight against the social injustice of abortion, and private support of the poor, sick, and marginalized (yes, conservative churches often do that, too), often does act in the tradition of the prophets.

Obviously, I found a lot to criticize. But I also found a fair amount that was helpful. Borg's discussion of images of salvation in the Bible does provide helpful balance to the usual evangelical emphasis, for example. I found many arguments unpersuasive, but Borg seems the kind of person you can argue the whole evening with, then part friends.

 

 

Spiritual Tourist, Mick Brown

**** “Some Who Wander, Are Lost!”

 

As a person who takes spirituality seriously, I found The Spiritual Tourist a fascinating romp through the occult playgrounds of the world, east and west.  Some praise Brown for taking a proper "middle path" between faith and reason.  I found, on the contrary, that he was often frivolously gullible where clarity of thought was demanded, and obtusely boneheaded where reason really might encourage faith, were he willing to dig a little deeper.  (Well, a lot deeper.)  Nevertheless, most of the book is an enlightening and entertaining journey. (Those who would like to see a more thorough expose of Sai Baba, might also enjoy the somewhat sensationalist but fascinating Avatar of Night.)

As one reads through Brown's accounts of eastern gurus, and also books like Philip Johnson's Intellectuals, which tell the stories of Western Humanist gurus (whom Johnson compares unfavorably to witchdoctors) like Sartre, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Marx, it is easy to get the impression that religion is a racket.  You find a few good people in it -- Confucius, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Francis -- but even they are driven to some pretty strange conclusions by their beliefs (an enlightened master would be someone who would drink alcohol or urine with equal equanimity?). . . and they are least likely to do miracles or make extreme claims.  Except one, that is, who is the most sagely of all (the best sages call him their sage), yet makes the most remarkable claims and revealed the greatest power.  Brown conflates this guru with Baba, but I cannot think of two people who are more different.  Nor do his miracles at all resemble Baba's silly and sub-natural conjuring tricks.

I am a very skeptical person by nature.  I have been a follower of that guru for 25 years, and have been studying comparative religion for 14.  I find Buddha attractive, the Bhagavad Gita, Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi clever, I see Marx' point, and admire Tolstoy, and have like Brown interviewed a few modern gurus as well.  But it never entered my head that these gurus were any more than mortal; and nothing Brown said suggested that to me, either. The more I see of most of this crowd, the more startling and absolute the contrast with this other guru seems to become.  There is one moment in Spiritual Pilgrims when Brown meets an old Indian scholar who is a follower of Sai Baba.  He admits himself "baffled" by the records of that other guru.  "If he did not exist, then it is a miracle that someone could have made up a story like this," he says.  The people of his own time said the same: "No one ever spoke as this man," "No one ever did the things he did."

Brown does not follow this lead, but taking a naive and simplistic approach to faith and reason, still inclined to wander, comes to a fusion conclusion somewhere between Buddha and Voltaire.  Each of us must save ourselves.  All right.  But can we really do that?  Do we love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves?  Is life without God a party?  How does death fit into the grand tour?  Can we waterski the River Styx?  Hang glide from the Pearly Gates?  Even Indian tradition, that teaches the gods themselves cannot change karma, encouraged bathing in the Ganges, worship of gurus, and sacrifice, because people felt inside themselves they could not cover their own karma, but needed help.  Brown's problem seems to be he is a tourist, and has not yet become serious about looking for ultimate truth.

 

The Nature of the Gods, Marcus Cicero

**** “Questions that still haven’t gone away”

 

I began reading the Stoics to get background on St. Paul's evangelistic sermon in Athens (Acts 17), in which Stoics and Epicureans are among his partners in dialogue, but am finding these folks fascinating in their own right. Cicero and Seneca were in the thick of messy imperial politics, which takes some of the gloss off their otherwise attractive (at least in Seneca's case) maxims and ideals; as with Aristotle, you want to ask, "If education is the key to virtue, how did this wise man teach such a ruthless thug as Nero / Alexander?"

The Nature of the Gods was, in any case, great for my study. A Stoic, an Epicurean, and a skeptic who moonlights as a priest (!) meet in a private home to debate the reality and nature of God and the gods. No punchline here -- each disputant takes the time to develope his arguments in detail, in often lively prose. Often the debate about "faith" and "reason," myth and history, design and accident, seems surprisingly contemporary. The book also helped me make sense of Paul's line of argument in Acts, and by implication the success of Christianity. Thoughtful Romans were looking for a God they could believe in; I can almost imagine that Paul put his brief together after reading Book II, and parts of Book III, of Cicero's work.

The tone is civil, cosmopolitan, literate, with frequent quotations from the poets and references to mythology. (Which no one present takes seriously -- except metaphorically.)

Some of the skeptical parts of Book III also still bite. Why does God allow the wicked to prosper, and the good to perish? The ancients are still worth reading, not in a condescending way as primitive philosophy and bad science, but appreciated for their insights into fundamental questions, and even for some good guesses about Nature. (Cicero knows earth is much smaller than the sun, and round, for example -- though the Stoics think it round IN PART because sphericity is the ideal shape! Strict diets not being a priority in the ancient world.)

 

 

Deep River, Shusako Endo

**** “Deep, but a bit murky”

 

This is a story about loneliness, isolation and misunderstanding. It is a story about five Japanese, strangers to one another, who travel to India in search of something -- not quite sure of what.

Endo is also addressing, in story as people like Huston Smith have in essay, one of the great questions of our time: "How do the religions of mankind fit together?" The title of the book refers to the Ganges River, which as Endo describes is full of filth. The edition I read, ironically, featured a clear mountain spring on the cover.  Endo's work has the merit, over Smith's famous descriptions of human religions, that it takes the surface ugliness and filth of religion seriously.  At the same time, the depths of the book remain somewhat murky, as in fact does the question about religions, and the existence and character of God.

I was on my first and only visit to India during the period Endo describes in this novel. We were in New Delhi at the time, when the city became a war zone between Hindus and Sikhs. Afte the battle died down, I remember seeing a sign strung across a major thoroughfare: "We thank our Hindu brothers who saved the lives of their Sikh brothers." Clearly, the Good Samaritans of this world are not limited to one tradition -- that is why Jesus made his hero a Samaritan. Endo, in effect, retells Jesus famous story, at a place and time that adds a great deal of drama and suggestive meaning to the telling.

Endo does not appear to be aware of the best and most orthodox Christian solution to how faith traditions fit together, unfortunately. Like Smith and most modern writers, he never considers what I call the "fulfillment model." Jesus said, "I have not come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. . . I have come to fulfill." Great Christian thinkers like Paul, Clement, Origin, Augustine, Dante, Chesterton, and Lewis, have applied this approach to non-Christian cultures and come up with some amazing insights. In the context of Hinduism, I wish in particular Endo had read J. N. Farquhar's The Crown of Hinduism. That might have helped him see that the more one understands and loves the good things in Hindu (or Japanese or American) culture, the more one sees how Jesus becomes a "fount of living water" that deepens the holiest, and purifies the murkiest, of every stream of human spirituality.

 

Rene Girard and Myth: An Introduction, Richard Golsan

“A Man of One Idea, and that idea Enlightening”

 

Having read Scapegoat, and leafed through a couple other of Girard's works, I found this book a readable and concise introduction to Girard's ideas.  (Or idea, or complex of insights.) Readability helps, because frankly, I don't find Girard always that easy to follow, though worth the attempt.  Golsan offers a somewhat chronological overview of mimetic theory, leading from Girard's observations of the nature of desire in literature, (chapter 1) following the bouncing ball into myth (chapter 3) and the history of sacrifice and scapegoating that supposedly undergirds it. (chapter 2) Chapter four is entitled "The Bible: Antidote to Violence," and clearly lays out what is probably the most controversial aspect of Girardian theory.  Appropriately, given the questions these sections are bound to raise, the following chapter discusses "Girard's Critics and the Girardians." (In a pretty even-handed way.) Having outlined his topic, Golsan wisely breaks the flow of exposition and ends the body of his book with a long, eloquent interview of his subject.  A 28 page appendix then offers Girard's analysis of a South African snake myth, no doubt as a sample of goods on offer.

I found each of the main chapters illuminating, though I did not read much of the appendix. Girard's theory of human violence does, I think, shed valuable light on human history, literature, mythology, and the Gospels. I have found myself reading events -- such as the attempt to scapegoat the Jewish state after 9-11 -- in its light. I don't think Girard's theory should be spread too thin -- the Gospels help us "demystify sacrificial violence," it is true, but they also help us to many other things, and both share and diverge from myth in other ways as well. But this book helped me get an overview of a fascinating and most important theory. I also discovered, in the interview, that Girard is capable of both humility and a sly wit that I found delightful. His way of dealing with feminist critics is a hoot -- he must have been quite a ladies' man.

 

The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimm’s Magic Fairy Tales, Ronald Murphy

***** “A Link in a Long Chain of Grace”

 

It was while reading the story of Jorinda and Joringal, a tale not mentioned in this book, that I began to wonder about the spirituality of the Brothers Grimm. Jorinda, a beautiful maiden, is transformed into a nightinggale and taken captive in a castle by a witch. One day, her lover, a shepherd, finds a red flower with a drop of dew in the center of it. When he touches the witch with with the flower, it deprives her of her evil power, and Joringal's beloved is set free. I had to wonder: "Did the Grimms know they were talking about Jesus?" Murphy answered this question for me: they did, indeed.

 

If I were going to pick a word to describe the overall impression the author gives me, I think it would be "kindly." At first I sometimes got the feeling I was listening in on someone else's conversation: Murphy forgets his readers and his partners in academic dialogue are strangers, and need to be introduced. But once everyone is seated for discussion, Murphy is generous not only to the Grimms (he sometimes tells how good a writer Wilhelm is, when he should be showing), he treats other scholars with respect (not a universal habit in academia), and describes the ironic skepticism or sexual crudities of rival versions of these tales without downplaying those approaches, yet bringing out the special depth of the Grimm's mythical imagination and spiritual feeling.

 

The main subjects of this book are Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cindarella, and Sleeping Beauty. (But don't overlook Appendix A, a closer look at Wilhelm Grimm's New Testament, or Appendix C, the story of the Cross and the Christmas tree. It was the star on top of the latter that furnished the fifth star for this rating.)

 

The story Murphy tells is one link in a chain of grace that goes back thousands of years. Early Christian thinkers saw classical philosophy and myth as a "tutor" to bring the Western world to Christ. Dante and Michaelangelo picked up on the same theme in the Middle Ages. G. K. Chesterton described how, as a child, he learned reason and morality, and intimations of spiritual truth, from fairy tales, naming some of the stories in this book, but without talking about Christianity in particular. Later he wrote a book, Everlasting Man, in which he described pagan mythology in similar sympathetic terms. This is the book that helped C. S. Lewis, who would become the most influential Christian writer of the 20th Century, to conclude that the Gospel was the answer to the question, "Where have all the hints of Paganism been fulfilled?" Later Lewis brought the story full circle with his own redemptive fairy tales, the Chronicles of Narnia. So the story Murphy tells is of interest historically, as well as for the remarkable light it sheds on our favorite fairy tales. It is one link in a chain of grace that no man on earth can fully know.

 

For those interested in the bigger picture, let me recommend some good books: City of God (Augustine); Contra Celsus (Origin); Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy (Chesterton); Eternity in Their Hearts (Don Richardson); Jesus Through the Centuries (Jaroslav Pelikan); The Crown of Hinduism (J.N.Farquhar); and Discovery of Genesis. (with reservations - see my Amazon review.) Also, of course, my own books, Jesus and the Religions of Man, and True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.

 

My four year old boy spied the cover of this book, with its picture of Snow White and the owl, raven, and dove, and asked for an explanation. "The prince came and kissed Snow White and she came back to life," I told him. "Is (the prince) God?" He asked. Murphy shows that the Brothers Grimm still have the power to solicit deep spiritual questions from people of all ages.

 

 

Peace Child, Don Richardson

***** “Truth Wilder Than Fiction”

 

How does one preach a Gospel of peace to a people who idealize betrayal? Cannibals and headhunters, the Sawi of New Guinea little fit the old image of "noble savages." At the same time, Richardson describes them not merely as savages, noble or otherwise, but as individuals whom he invites us to know and recognize as fellow human beings. He gives a picture of them not only as headhunters, but also as naturalists, linguists, and myth-makers.

Richardson is an excellent story-teller. In this story, of course, he is one of the protagonists. He and his wife believed themselves called to bring the Gospel to the Sawi people. Richardson is an actor in this drama, potential recipient of the action of crocodiles, tropical disease, and natives, and also (he believes)agent of God's grace. No second-hand outline of history, here we can read the spiritual story of one of the thousands of tongues and tribes and races of man, as it happens.

One of the central questions of our time is how universal truth relates to the heritage of each culture. No evangelical has done more to help Christians understand the Biblical answer than Don Richardson. Richardson introduces the concept of "redemptive analogies" in this book. This is the idea that God has prepared the cultures of the world for the Gospel by planting seeds of truth in them. (A concept developed by John and Paul, Clement, Augustine, G.K.Chesterton, and C.S.Lewis.) He tells the story of how the Gospel changed the Sawi culture from within. Peace Child is thus both a wonderful true story, and also introduces a paradigm-shifting mind-blowing concept of the first order. This is a great "missions" book, but I also recommend it to non-Christians who are trying to understand how the Christian revelation relates to other cultures. (And also those who just want to understand tribal cultures.)

Don Richardson discusses redemptive analogies in passing again in his even more thrilling story, Lords of the Earth. Then he extends his argument, or story, in Eternity in Their Hearts -- and in my opinion, you can hardly say you have considered Christianity until you have read that book.

I have also written a couple books applying the same principles to the great Asian civilizations. The first, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, discusses the Gospel and Chinese art, faith, philosophy, and language. In the second, Jesus and the Religions of Man, I show how Jesus both fulfills and challenges the ideals of Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Marxist, and Muslim faiths. This book is due July 2000, and is available through Amazon.

 

 

Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson

***** “Read it!  Give it to Friends!” 

 

The thesis of this book is that God has prepared the cultures of the world for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This idea may sound bizarre to many people. But since I first read the book about seventeen years ago, I have found confirmation on three levels. First, Scriptural. Richardson's idea of "redemptive analogies" indirectly echoes the teaching of Jesus that he came "to fulfill" rather than to "do away with" the (Jewish) Law, and, more directly, the approach the apostles John and Paul in speaking to Greeks about the divine "Logos," or about altars "to an unknown God." Second, historical. In Augustine's City of God, Christ was preached as a fulfillment of the truest elements in Greco-Roman culture in the early church. This is in fact a large part of "How the West Was Won" to Christ, and a large part of the East, as well.

 

The third form of confirmation was psychological, from the mouths of skeptics. Humanist Huston Smith complains of Christianity that "If God is a God of love, it seems most unlikely that he would not have revealed himself to his other children as well." Buddhist Thich Naht Hanh agrees: "Sharing does not mean wanting others to abandon their spiritual roots. . . People cannot be happy if they are rootless." Both are quite right, as far as they go. But Richardson shows that God has revealed himself to "all his children" by planting a root for the Gospel within each culture, so when we call people to Christ, we call them to the deepest truths within their own cultures. I remember the first time I visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China, 16 years ago. Who was this "Heaven" whom the Chinese worshiped? Why did the emperor come once a year, just like the high priest in Israel, to sacrifice for the sins of the people? As I stood in the most sacred spot in China, it seemed as if a Voice spoke to my heart. "Do you think I just came to China with the missionaries? No. I have been here all along. I made China."

 

Many years of research in China confirmed this to me. Among the tribal cultures of southern China and Taiwan, the Polynesians, and China itself, I came across many examples that confirmed Richardson's thesis. Later, I wrote a book called True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and spoke around the Pacific Rim on the subject.  People in the audience often pointed out further examples of this thesis.

 

Eternity in Their Hearts has been tremendously influential among missionaries. But I think it is a book that everyone should read, including non-Christians who ask questions like those of Smith and Hahn. Read the book, and pass it on to a friend.

 

If you are interested in a more philosophical approach to the issue, try Chesterton's Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy.  "Redemptive analogies" are also a latent theme of many of C.S.Lewis' books: Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, Pilgrims Regress, and most intriguing of all, Till We Have Faces.

 

I've also just finished writing a book called Jesus and the Religions of Man.  The book is not exclusively about redemptive analogies; mainly, it is a general argument for the Christian faith.  But if you're interested in learning more about how persistent and coherent the idea of God is in the pagan cultures of the world, you'll find some interesting examples in there.  I also give more examples of redemptive analogies that center on the person of Jesus and on his work on the cross.  Many of these come from the more civilized cultures of Asia, and also Marxist, psychologist, feminist, and tribal sub-cultures of Western civilization.

 

“Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yamonamo Indian’s Story, Mark Ritchie

***** Tighten Your Seatbelt, You’re in for a Ride”

 

I received this book in the mail one day earlier this month, and finished it by about the same time the next day -- despite the fact that I had three 90 minute college classes to teach, and needed to prepare for a trip to Taiwan. It was that good, and that awful.

I had devoured a good chunk of the book by the time I turned on my computer and learned the terrible news from New York. I kept reading; there seemed to be a connection. The book is an absolutely mind-blower of a story, but if we were to translate the events it describes into a thesis, one sub-point of that thesis would be: "Mass murder and sincere spirituality are not mutually exclusive, by any means." As Ritchie put it, "(Ex-shaman and Yamomamo Indian Shoefoot) has no problem understanding the Columbine High School massacre or any other killing spree. The spirits of anger and hatred that own and drive a person are spirits he has known personally." It occured to me that we have the same choice as confronts the "converted" village in this book: to seek justice with mercy and caution, and danger to ourselves, or to pass on forgiveness and descend to the level of our enemies. While in Taiwan, I was asked to speak about the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and found myself wishing I'd brought the book along. Jungleman puts so many things so well.

This is not a book you want to read your children to sleep by. It might not even work for your church (still less, coven) book-of-the-month club. Besides being full of violence, its message will be a challenge to skeptics and those who are attracted to the occult. But anyone who is untouched by it, by the pain, beauty, pathos, irony, and danger of being human that it reveals, of living in a spiritual jungle as responsible beings, must have a heart of stone. Jungleman reminds us that before a person is a "native" and subject of anthropological study, he is a human being -- and that "social scientists" and missionaries forget their common humanity and responsibility to Yai Pada, the Great Spirit, at their own peril. As a student of world religions who has written a bit about the occult in Asian traditions and the idea of God in Asian belief systems, I found a great deal that was a priori credible in this inside description of the Yanomamo culture, though of course I have no means of vouching for the specific accuracy of the events it records.

Mark Ritchie's earlier book, God in the Pits, is also worth a read, though it is not as mind-blowning as this book. I also recommend Peace Child, by Don Richardson, which comes close to resembling Spirit of the Rainforest, though more conventional in approach, it is also a remarkable true story of a stone-age tribe that meets Jesus.

 

Comparative Religion: A History, Eric Sharpe

***** “Magisterial and Judicious”

 

This is one of those books that, the more you know about the subject coming in, the more you learn. I had read or at least recognized a large enough minority of the figures Sharpe describes so that all the new names didn't quite overwhelm me. (It would help if he wouldn't assume his readers know all the European languages, though -- how would he like having Japanese and Chinese thrown at him in important footnotes and even the text?)

In some ways, this is a very straight-forward history of comparative religion. Sharpe begins with a few ancients, a few missionaries, and Enlightenment precursors, then plunges into early theories about fetishes, totems, animism, and the "evolution of religions" schools of the late 19th Century. His discussion of The Golden Bough, of Fraser, and all the rest of that era, is excellent. I also appreciate his fair and judicious take on Andrew Lang and the "high god" phenomena -- which confuses a lot of moderns. [...]. He takes a chapter out to describe the early psychology of religions school, centered around James and a few other Americans.

In later chapters, Sharpe veers off to discuss Freud's zany horror-flick theory of the origins of religion, and (with deservedly more respect) Jung's interest in and influence on comparative religion. He talks a bit about structuralism, diffusion of cultures, and more about phenomenology. In each case, he tells the history of the movement -- and almost always offers reasonable and temperate evaluations. He has, perhaps, learned from John Farquhar, because in some ways his approach is very like Farquhar's in The Crown of Hinduism -- he finds something of value even in conflicting takes on religion.

Sharpe knew the subject deeply. I am sure I will find this book invaluable as I continue a research project I am conducting on the relationship between Chinese philosophy and Christianity.

I do have a few criticisms. Like many autobiographies, the book sort of dies towards the end, spreading out like a river into its delta. His description of the Tokyo conference is confusing -- who said what, exactly?

I disagree with Sharpe's view that the Bible uniformly views other religions as "the work of fallen angels or other evil spirits;" and am developing a response to that view.

I also missed a few names. Where was James Legge, the single greatest Western sinologist of all times? In general, Sharpe was weak on East Asia -- he plays to his strength usually, which was India. And where were Girard or Stark? Maybe they were just acquiring fame when Sharpe wrote this book -- discussion of their ideas would have been more interesting than the in-house politics that Sharpe ends with.

All in all, though, I strongly recommend this book. Sharpe is sympathetic, kind, and wise, and I'm sure this magisterial treatment will be of help to people in many different fields.

 

 

Christianity and World Religions, Paul Tillich

***** “Full of Interesting Ideas”

 

This is my first direct acquaintance with Paul Tillich. I found this book extremely thoughtful and interesting. It is quite short, just ninety pages or so, but concentrated: on dwarf stars, you get more matter per teaspoon than in a herd of elephants; so here with abstract thought, compressed and weighty compared to more glib discussions. The book is not hard to read, however.

 

Tillich argues as follows. First, he defines religion and "quasi-religions" such as liberal humanism and Marxism: "the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern . . . " He differentiates "religions of the spirit," such as original Christianity, Buddhism, and liberalism, from "legally organized religions," such as Medieval Catholicism, Islam, and later secular faiths. He fairly and, I think, accurately differentiates between the kind of discrimination between faiths that follows from an affirmation of the truth of one's own, from various forms of more absolute denial. He follows this question through Christian history in an interesting way, arguing that the dominant Christian approach is not to absolutely repudiate non-Christian beliefs, as is commonly thought. "They did not reject them unambiguously and of course they did not accept them unambiguously . . . they acknowledged the preparatory character of these religions and tried to show how their inner dynamics" should send pagans to Christ. I have been studying this question for some years, and while I believe in God and the whole nine yards, and I'm not sure exactly what Tillich believed, I think on this point he was quite right, and insightful. (Like the Church fathers ,I have gone further and suggested in my books -- Jesus and the Religions of Man, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture -- that God in some way seems to have prepared world cultures for the Gospel.) Tillich traces the various competing solutions to the question of how Christianity relates to other faiths to modern times, and his own contemporaries. He offers names, but few details.

 

Another point that Tillich emphasizes is that "religions of the spirit" tend to lose their character when they come into contact with more authoritarian beliefs, not so much because they lose the military contest, as that they "fight fire with fire," and become too much like their opponents. His examples here are Islam and Communism. I think he is right that that is a danger, though I don't think the danger is absolute, or that it may never be necessary in fact to take up arms in defense of a free society. But he puts the problem well.

 

In the following chapter, Tillich discusses the encounter between Christianity and Buddhism. I think he underestimates the success of Christian missions and overestimates the importance of Buddhism to East Asian cultures (on art, for example). But that is a part of his tendancy to speak in big generalizations.

 

Tillich closes with a chapter called "Christianity judging itself in the light of its encounter with the World Religions." Here he speaks of Christianity as the "negation of religion," and of Christ as a "symbol." He suggests a hope that Christianity will become, rather than an independent, self-enclosed religion, a "center of crystallization for all positive religious elements after they have been subjected to the criteria implied in this center." I agree with the general concept, though I am not sure I agree with what Tillich sees as the "center" of Christian faith. (I am also skeptical about the "wisdom" with which Tillich claims in this chapter that Islam has dealt with "primitive peoples." See V. S. Naiphaul.) Tillich argues "not conversion, but dialogue." Then on the very last page, when I'm hoping he will explain what he thinks people should base future faith upon, Tillich peters out into rather confused metaphors about the "depths" of a religion, a "point" of time that "breaks through (the) particularity" of a given religion and "elevates" it to freedom. I'm not at all sure what he means by that. But there are many interesting thoughts in this grand sweep of a little book, and I found it well worth reading.

 

 

Buddhism

 

Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, Marcus Borg

*** “One Hand Claps” 

 

Marcus Borg may be the most reasonable member of the Jesus Seminar. His books on the "historical Jesus," while I think deeply mistaken (as I explain in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could), do demonstrate intelligence, learning, and often worthwhile insight into one of the traditions he compares in this book. Since he does not claim to be a Buddha scholar, it might seem reasonable to cut him some slack. After all, many of the quotes he gives from Jesus and Buddha do sound similiar. And there is no denying either the charm of Borg's gentle approach, or of many of the quotes themselves.

However, Borg's approach is amateurish and naive, making his conclusions deeply misleading.

To begin with, Borg stacks the deck. He does not compare Buddha's teachings on the evils of making love to one's wife (in the sutra called "Defeat") with similar passages from Jesus, or Jesus' confrontations with political critics with similar problems encountered by Buddha, because such parallels do not exist. Borg only selects points that enhance his argument. But Borg admits that, so perhaps we can let it slide.

More seriously, really Borg does not compare Jesus and Buddha at all. He compares a whittled-down selection of Jesus sayings, written within a few short years of the Master's life, with a vast library of Buddha material written by all kinds of people over several hundred years. At one point he says, "One might even say that becoming a bodhisattva is the goal of the fully developed Christian life." Never mind that this Mahayana concept only appeared half a millennia after Buddha! Such comparisons are worse than meaningless. If I sifted 150 years of Marxist tradition, I could easily find sayings that parallel passages in the Gospels -- but setting them side by side would not mean that the real Marx taught his disciples to turn the other cheek.

Why does Borg not compare the historical Jesus to the historical Buddha? The real reason, aside from the fact that he is admittedly an "amateur" on Buddha, may be that our earliest sources are too remote from Siddhartha to be sure what he was like. In the Dharmapadda, Buddha appears as a kind, gentle thinker like the present Dalai Lama. In other sutras, he is a hippy who leaves home in search of a better commune. Elsewhere he brags like the vain Bagwan Rajneesh: "I am the Tathagata, the teacher of gods and men, omniscient and endowed with all powers." The various Buddha materials do not come from the same century, let alone the same man. Borg is trying to clap pretty solid historical materials (Jesus in the Gospels) against empty air (sutras that do not in fact come from Buddha at all).

The critic who replies that the ministry of Buddha was longer, so more materials would be available for his life, is just missing the point. After a few centuries of oral tradition and free creation of new sutras, in a culture that did not (like the Jews or Chinese) emphasize historicity, it is hard to figure out from the resulting libaries of material what Buddha actually said, or even was. The same is simply not the case with 1st Century writings by Jewish followers of Jesus, written within the natural life-spans of his first disciples, that show strong internal and external markings of basic historical accuracy. (As even the JS often admits.)

Thirdly, some of the parallels here seem to owe more to similarity of wording than intent. While the Gospel may call a Christian to "hate" his family in the sense of putting God first, Jesus' early disciples do not seem to have left spouse or offspring, as Buddha taught his disciples to do. By "salvation" Buddha means freedom from rebirth, while Jesus means a new birth from Heaven.

What is left of these parallels? Probably "compassion" was important both to Jesus and to Buddha. But from the 1st Century, Christians have not only admitted, but insisted, that moral truth, what C. S. Lewis called the "tao" (following Confucius), is universal. Of course Buddha taught kindness; what else would anyone with a conscience teach? But such a beautiful source of Buddhist compassion as the Dharmapadda contains no hint that Buddha did any miracles. There is little historical evidence that he was a "person of the spirit" in that sense.

Several reviewers say this book is not for scholars. Actually, some of the quotes in it may intrigue anyone. But no one with integrity, scholar or layman, should read too much into such forced parallels.

Marcus Borg ought to know better. His arguments about
"people of the spirit" should rest on serious scholarship. In a sense, though, Borg does truth a service, by showing how far afield one needs to go to find parallels to the Gospel story, and how weak those parallels prove, when tested critically.

 

 

Freedom in Exile: Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

***** “Funny, Fascinating, Frank – but not always accurate“

 

This is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. It's like seeing history through the eyes of a very thoughtful Forrest Gump, a slightly detached observer, who observes and records what he sees in the people around him; Mao, Nehru, Zhou Enlai. It is full of humorous details: how the Dalai Lama slid on the polished floor of his palace, the mice that came to eat the offerings in his room, how he had the footmen make toy models of tanks and airplanes out of bread dough. He has a great sense of humor and of beauty.

I found several anamolies in this account, however. For example, the Dalai Lama expresses shock at the suggestion that a Tibetan might try to assassinate him. The idea "showed how little understanding the Chinese had of the Tibetan character." "The idea of killing any living creature is anathema to Buddhists." Yet according to his mother (in Dalai Lama, My Son) his own father may have been victim of assassination. (By a Tibetan.) On the position of women in Tibetan society, too, the Dalai Lama gives a positive spin at odds with the accessment of his Mother. Again, he claims that Tibetan society has "always been highly tolerant" and that "a number of Christian missions were admitted without hindrance." In fact, a number of Christians were killed by Tibetan Buddhists, and their churches burnt to the ground. Repeatedly, the Dalai Lama encourages the myth of Tibetan pacifism. But in a prior incarnation, (if the theory be believed) he originally gained power by inviting foreign invasion and precipitating civil war.

The depiction of Chinese-Tibetan relations before the modern era is also one-sided and unreliable. In fact, the Chinese suffered a great deal under the thumb of Tibetan lamas during the Yuan Dynasty; surely he ought to be aware of that history.

For the informed reader, such errors need not detract much from the story. One does not expect a patriot to be objective about the tragic and cruel destruction of his homeland. Maybe the Dalai Lama is just naive. He was fooled by Mao, and still seems oddly upbeat about "pure" Marxism. I would say such errors remind us that he is only human. But he is a remarkable human, with a touching and well-told story that deserves to be read.

The Four Noble Truths, The Dalai Lama

**** “The Dalai Lama is a Pretty Good Teacher”

 

As a Christian trying to understand Buddhism better, I found this a clear and concise introduction to the central philosophy of Buddhism, with a strong humanistic emphasis. (Very different from the grass-roots Buddhist spirituality I have seen in Asia.) The Dalai Lama shows that he is not only a statesman and a leader, but also a teacher, scholar, and (most of all) a kind person. Often he amazes me with his honesty, even doubts.

This little book covers a lot of ground, and uses a lot of abstract nouns and very few anecdotes in the process, so it takes concentration to read. I found his discussion of the third noble truth, emptiness, frustrating. I kept waiting for him to define exactly what he meant by "empty" "intrinsic existence" and "unreal" in the Madhyamaka school he follows, but I felt he never really explained how his idea of emptiness differed from the common sense observation that everything in life changes. I wrote in the margin on page 107, "'Nothing lasts.' Have we got any further than this yet?" because I found his explanation vague and extremely broad, so broad the Dalai Lama almost seemed at times to be defining me as a Buddhist. But otherwise most of his explanations, and his discussions of the various schools, were clear and helpful.

The book ends with a rather simple but touching essay on kindness. For those who would like another perspective on self-love and compassion, try John Piper's Enjoying God: the Confessions of a Christian Hedonist, or C. S. Lewis' Four Loves.

 

Dhammapada, Eknath Easwaran

**** “Many Thoughtful Words”

The Dhammapada possesses a rare quality: the critical reader finds the text he prepares to appraise, evaluating him instead.  "Better than a speech of a thousand vain words is one thoughtful word that brings peace to the mind."  "Like a flower, full of color but lacking in fragrance, are the words of those who do not practice what they preach."  "More than those who hate you, an undisciplined mind does greater harm."  "There is no fire like lust. . . " Of the books I have read in Indian religion, as a Christian, I find this the most spiritually challenging in that regard.

I read the text first, and the introduction afterwards.  I thought later it might be good to go through the text twice before the introduction.  While Easwaran gives an eloquent explanation of and apologetic for the Buddha's teachings, he says little about this sutra. While the Dhammapada speaks extremely well for itself, I would have liked to know more about its origin, how it places in the body of Buddhist literature, and a few other explanations.  Especially, what exactly did the author mean by "selfish attachments?"  Did he think there was another kind?

One thing that stood out for me in this text was the contrast it showed with later Buddhism. At one point, Easwaran writes, "The joy in (Buddha's) message is the joy of knowing he has found a way for everyone, not just great sages . . . "  The text, however, speaks of the wise looking "upon the suffering multitude as from a mountaintop," and repeatedly stresses the difficulty of obtaining nirvana.  It stresses the necessity of raising yourself "by your own efforts," of "cutting down the whole forest" of desire, and of going it alone, if need be, like an elephant in the woods.  How easy Buddha's followers themselves found these teachings can be seen from the later history of monasticism, tantra, Pure Land, and Zen, which incrementally brought back so much that Buddha got rid of.  I found myself wondering, after reading this text, if anyone has ever lived up to these teachings -- any more than to the Sermon on the Mount, to which it is often compared.  (Though it reminded me more of Proverbs or James -- a clue, perhaps, to its origin.)  This contrast makes it is a comfort to me that, contrary to the parallels Easwaran attempts, the early Christians were historians, the Sermon on the Mount is not the whole of their message, and the rest of what they say shows that, in the end, we do not need to save ourselves.

While I disagree with the Buddha's teachings on attachments, karma, reincarnation, and self-salvation, there are many wise sayings in this text that a Christian, as well as a Buddhist, may find worthy of meditation.

 

Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Naht Hanh

**** “Christ and Buddha are the same, especially Buddha”

 

I give Thich four stars not because I think he knows much about Jesus, nor because I think he has tried very hard to understand, but because he gives a winning explanation of Buddhism. (Especially in the philosophical and moral form Westerners are most likely to find attractive.) Many of his insights are of value to anyone, including Christians, particularly in regard to mindfulness. There is a great deal of psychological truth to be found here, though I sometimes doubt the author's commitment to ultimate truth about reality.

Such doubts pull at me from the text of this book. "For a Buddhist to be attached to any doctrine, even a Buddhist one, is to betray the Buddha." Yet Thich never seems to question own "non-doctrinal" doctrines, including this one. Thich defines his beliefs as "insights" as opposed to "doctrines," and seems to embrace them all the more tightly. Perhaps that is the advantage of calling them "insights." If I say "I believe x," one can argue with that, but if I say, "I see x," no further argument is possible.

Thich also habitually interprets Christian Scripture in a way that radically changes its meaning. "Be still and know that I am God," comes to mean, not awareness of the Creator who made us, as to the Psalmist, but the opposite, an erasing of boundaries between Creator and created. When Jesus said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," Thich similarly takes the bite out of his words: "The I in his statement is life itself." In fact, of course, when Jesus said "I," he meant himself, as do we all. But Thich is not willing to face Jesus on his own terms, so there is a continuous undercurrent of spin-doctoring whenever Thich opens the Gospels. He even has the gall to rebuke the Pope for misunderstanding Christianity in saying that Jesus is "unique" and "the one mediator between God and man." Actually, of course, it is Thich who misunderstand Jesus' words on the subject, with cold premeditation. Thich is attached to his doctrine of non-attachment, so he cannot take Christianity as is, but reduces it to one of Buddha's 80,000 paths to nirvana. That is a perennial temptations of monism. But the Dalai Lama, who seems more willing to allow the other to be other, seems more truly open-minded to me.

I agree with Thich that no mortal has a "monopoly on the truth." I think it is simplistic however to say that people "kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs." People murder for all kinds of reasons, sometimes because they have no faith, sometimes because they have faith in the wrong thing, sometimes because they have the wrong kind of faith in the right thing. Let us not squelch our desire for truth with such sweeping and simplistic generalizations. I think Thich understands the words of Buddha, from a particular point of view, fairly well. But if we are really going to gain from one another's viewpoints, I think we need to listen to the words of Christ more forthrightly than Thich shows to have done here.  In the end, Thich's version of Jesus is no more honest to the Gospels than the outlandish stories of Jesus going to the Himalayas to learn magic. G. K. Chesterton once remarked on Buddhists making the two teachings equal, "especially Buddhism."  He noted, by contrast: "An open mind, like an open mouth, is meant to be closed on something solid." I don't fault Thich for being closed-minded, but I do fault him for not realizing it, and for closing his mind without really considering Jesus' claim to be the solid Truth whose acts in history are the goal of human seeking.  I would also dispute his assumption that Christianity has no "roots" in Asian culture.  In fact, (and I know this will sound absurd to most people) I argue that its roots go much deeper into many Asian cultures than Buddhism.

 

Zhuan Falun, Li Hongzhi

* “Would you buy a used car from this man?”

 

The followers of Fa Lun Gong I have met have seemed nice, (though I don't recall that their skin was "delicate and reddish white"), and it is unfortunate that the Chinese government has treated them with such cruelty.  I don't want to insult or belittle their beliefs, and I certainly respect their fervency.  But to be honest, Master Li strikes me as a religious huckster, selling a typical hodge-podge of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk beliefs, who happened to snag a winning ticket in the lottery of fame.

There is no sign that he suffers from a confidence problem.  "At present, I am the only person genuinely teaching qigong towards high levels," he claims.  He leaks amazing secrets: "I made a careful investigation once and found that humankind has undergone complete annihilation eighty-one times."  He claims he "eliminated" a threatening rival in the qigong business, presumably by psychic power.  But I found little of merit in the book -- not that I read every word -- and nothing to make even more modest claims credible. Master Li says a word in favor of kindness now and then, but nothing profound or challenging, such as you might expect from Confucius or Gandhi.  He offers no deep psychological insights, philosophical clarity, scientific knowledge, or even Zhuang Zi - style stories (Such as the Chinese guru I studied for my MA liked to tell), as far as I could see. One comment he made did ring true, however: "Nowadays, sham qigong, phony qigong, and those people possessed by spirits have all made up something at will to deceive people, and their number exceeds that of genuine qigong practices by many times."

There seems to be a big divide among Asian gurus between the honest and wise, who do not claim any miracles, (the present Dalai Lama even admits he has never so much as seen a miracle) and this other sort, who have nothing to offer but stories, and a few psychic benefits that tend to spring up in their wake. But can olives grow on a thistle bush?  When it comes to spiritual matters, stories are no substitute for character.  Reading Zhuan Fa Lun gave me grave reservations about that of Li Hongzhi.

In a recent book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, I spent two chapters discussing the differences between "miracles" and "magic."  Master Li confirms my objections to the latter category in a striking manner, and I'll probably quote from it in the next edition.  This is a fairly interesting book, if what you want is to get a hang of the more devious sort of Chinese folk religion.

 

Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, Roger Kamenetz

**** “A little naïve, but a poignant, well-told story”

 

This is a good story. The author is like a "straight man" who brings out the flavor of the humorous, eccentric, and poignant personalities with whom he interacts, like rice that gives curry flavor. The overlapping themes of this book, refugee peoples meeting and finding commonality, Jewish intellectuals seeking to join universal truths to particular traditions, mysticism and the search for meaning, are individually interesting even for someone (like myself) who is neither Jewish nor Buddhist. ("I am human, and nothing human is strange to me" -- my excuse for giving my two bits.) The themes also blend well into a fascinating narrative.

There were points at which I wished the author had thought to ask more probing questions. For example, the spokesman for the Tibetan government said that if people mix religion and politics, they are the greatest enemy of their own religion. One would have liked to have someone ask him how this applies to the idea of the Dalai Lama, which has traditionally been about as close a fusion of church and state as you can get.  Kamenetz also accepts the usual black hat -- white hat stereotype of the relationship between Tibet and China.  In that long dance, however, it has often been the Tibetans who trod on Chinese feet, rather than the other way around.

One rabbi compares the Tibetan kuten, or spirit medium, to the Old Testament prophet. To me, having seen videos of possession in the Tibetan and Chinese traditions, and spirit possession itself in the Chinese tradition, this seems a facile and mistaken comparison. But such parallels add to the story Kamenetz is telling, and he accepts them with little, if any, critical examination. Perhaps one problem is he does not know the orthodox tradition well.

Allen Ginsburg sarcastically notes, at one point, that in Asia "They have the intelligence to realize there's no God." Kamenetz is fair-minded enough to find this "insulting." But here again, a little more knowledge of Asian religion would have been helpful. Ginsburg was even more wrong than he was rude. Hardly a country in Asia lacks a strong tradition of a High God like Yahweh in many ways.

That's a problem with spiritual tours of this sort.  One needs to be leery of generalizations about Asian religion made by anyone who has not learned the languages and lived among the people for a long time.  Otherwise what you meet is not the other religion itself, but your own culture's projections of the good or bad it would like to see in "the other."

I enjoyed this book for the light it shed on contemporary Jewish thinking, and for the story itself.  But when I want to know what Tibetan Buddhists think, I read the Dalai Lama. Or better yet, I sometimes suspect, his mother.

 

The Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother’s Autobiography, Diki Tsering

**** “An Interesting and Honest (except title) Book”

 

If you're looking for an in-depth portrait of the Dalai Lama as a child, you will probably be disappointed here.  This is not the story of "Dalai Lama, My Son," but of the mother.  The first almost half of the book tells of her youth and married life in Ambo, or Qinghai Province. A few pages in the middle do describe the Dalai Lama's early character leading to his selection.  From there on, his mother refers to him as "His Holiness" and says little about him, but tells her personal and family story after fate plunged them into politics.

I did enjoy the book, though, especially the first part.  I've lived and traveled in the Himalayan foothills of southern China.  Reading the author's description of her family's life style -- celebrations, marriage, story telling, being snowed in during winter -- made me want to go back and see more.  (Later, I did take a taxi to a town a few miles downhill – a short distance outside of the capital of modern Qinghai Province – beautiful mountain territory, with few Tibetans now, unfortunately.) 

A famous missionary doctor, Dr. Paul Brand, once said his ideal lifestyle, apart from a need for modern medicine, would be that of an Indian villager. This account of the Tibetan lifestyle, and my own travels through the minority areas of Yunnan Province, confirm how much that is human and natural we lose in our surrender to technology: rhythms of the seasons, traditions, the hard pleasure of sowing and reaping, and what it means to depend on family and community.

The later part of the book is interesting sometimes, but is a bit like the story of a pawn who wanders onto a chessboard by mistake and gets moved around by both sides without quite knowing what is going on.

Despite the quarrel below, there is little about what Westerners call Buddhism in this book. What most Asians call Buddhism is a mixture of polytheism, various superstitions, practical concern about evil spirits, and a cycle of annual festivals, with priests occupying a respected but mostly ceremonial position. One of the most surprising things about this very open and simple account is that the Dalai Lama's mother is allowed to speak as a typical Asian in this respect.

In fact, there may be more about ghosts here than about the author's most famous son. Tsering blamed them for the loss of four of her children (out of sixteen), and did not seem embarrassed by the odd character of the stories she told. Her stories set me thinking. One of the foundational myths of Tibetan Buddhism is the tale of how the monk Phadmasambhava conquered the demons of Tibet, and having conquered them, put them to work for the forces of good. Tsering's experiences with ghosts might cause some to reconsider the relative merits of the "tolerant" Buddhist approach and the more confrontational Christian approach to powers and principalities. One also wonders, of course, what relationship these spirits bare to the diseases that marred the lifestyle of such peasants.

 

Chinese & Japanese Religions

 

 

The Analects, Confucius

**** The Brilliance of Humility”

 

If, when you think of "eastern philosophy," your heart goes pitter-patter for esoteric revelations from Ascended Masters, stories of Jesus practicing magic in Tibet as a youngster, or even the mind-expanding wit of Zhuang Zi, you may find Confucius boringly prosaic. His wisdom lies in a different direction, and is more subtle. The Analects is like a bowl of Chinese dumplings, or at their most flavorful dim sum, that you pick out one at a time and learn the taste and value of. Few of his sayings are brilliant, but rather the kind of mundane and kindly profundity that the war-weary China of the late Zhou found so filling. In modern China, too, I have found that Confucius is very popular, probably more popular than the witty Lao Zi.

Confucius said his teachings were connected by a single thread. While a disciple gave a slightly different solution, the thread I suggest you follow through this otherwise rather disjointed collection of teachings and observations is humility. By that I don't mean self-abnegation or loss of individuality in the collective, but an ability to see clearly in all directions -- above, towards superiors (ultimately God), below, compassion for the needy, within, ("To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge") and without, to take an interest in the world around you. (Confucius became China's "first teacher" because he himself was "eager to learn.") To me, this kind of integrated humility is the starting point for any worthwhile philosophy of life.

The Analects can also be of value to people interested in the critical study of the New Testament, by the way.  This book greatly resembles the Gospels in terms of genre. Both consist of sayings and actions of a teacher who traveled with a band of disciples, as recorded by the early community of followers. Few scholars doubt the historical character of the Analects, while controversy about the Gospels makes headlines on a regular basis. It is interesting to me that the same internal arguments scholars like Creel and Lau use to prove the Analects, apply even more strongly to the Gospels. If you do read the two sets of documents together, you might try the further experiment of comparing Confucius' ideal person, sage or "Savior" as Confucian scholar Chen Jingpan describes him, to the central character of the Gospels. Remember that Mencius said a sage would appear once every 500 years, and Confucius lived in500 B.C. As a Christian I respect Confucius not only as a great moral teacher, but also sometimes think he might have been a kind of prophet.

Five stars for Confucius; one lost in translation.  Soothill seems accurate, as far as I can tell, and the price is right, but his language is a bit archaic at times.  Also, be sure to get aversion with notes.

 

The Religions of China: Confucianism and Taoism Described and Compared with Christianity, James Legge

**** “The Conclusions of a Great Scholar”

 

Several weeks ago I stood on the site of the palace of Hong Xiuquan, the moderately mad school-teacher who attempted to fuse Christian, Confucian, and Chinese folk ideals to overthrow the Qing Dynasty a hundred fifty years ago. To the right of the replica of Hong's old reading desk were written, in beautiful script, these words: "The tiger runs a thousand li and returns to the land of the swallow," and on the left, "The dragon flies to the ninth heaven and revives the dynasty of Yao and Xun." (Ideal ancient eemperors like Kings David or Arthur.) Clearly Hong saw the Biblical God not as doing away with Chinese ideals, but as bringing them to fruition.

The desire to reconcile the "need for roots" (as Simone Weil put it) with truth that is universal, is one of the key problems of modern life. James Legge, one of the greatest China scholars, believed Jesus could be the bridge between East and West.

This book is interesting for several reasons. The cousin of Hong Xiuquan, Hong Rengan, was a friend of James Legge. When Hong was named (nominal) head of the rebel government, he laid plans for sweeping reform of Chinese society to make it both a modern, prosperous state -- and the land of the sparrow, a China, like that of Yao and Xun, under the rule of Heaven.

Aside from the small role Legge played in Chinese history, he knew ancient Chinese thought remarkably well. His translations of ancient Confucian and Taoist texts are a century and a half old now, but several are still standard works. While some scholars dislike his faith, or complain of his less than eloquent style, even one fan of the Book of Changes admits his translations are "never wrong." He was a precise scholar with a remarkable grasp of Chinese thought. Legge was also honest as a winter rain in Scotland. His clear, meat-and-potatoes (or dumpling and soy sauce) approach remains a pretty good introduction to Chinese religions. (Apart from folk religion.)

In this book, Legge describes the two "native" faiths of China, and gives his thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and Chinese culture. Like Matteo Ricci, he is less familiar with, and sympathetic towards, the Buddhist tradition. He doesn't care for folk Taoism either, though he appreciates the Dao Dejing some.  Recently, a Chinese philosopher has called Lao Zi a "prophet of God" who foretold the coming of Christ.  Legge is too cautious for that. But he does say, "The more that a man possesses the Christian spirit, the more anxious will he be to do justice to every other system of religion," and he tries to be fair.

Like Ricci, Hong, and even the great Kang Xi emperor, Legge believes the ancient Chinese worshipped the same God as He whom Christians pray to.  For Legge, too, acceptance of the Gospel would not mean rejecting ancient Chinese culture, but affirming its highest ideals -- including worship of the God that Yao and Shun believed in.

Legge was born before the concept of being "politically correct" occurred to most Europeans, and it shows. He does not much care for Buddhism. (It was rather corrupt in his day.) He argues, in his straightforward but undiplomatic way, that Christianity is "superior" to even the best teachings of traditional Chinese culture. I prefer to describe the relationship in terms of completion, rather than comparison.  (True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.)  But even some secular Chinese historians admit that missionaries of Legge's era did (in imitation of Jesus) an enormous amount of good in China, in education, medicine, raising the status of women. How could they have brought reform if they didn't have what they thought a worthy form on whom to model progress?

Anyway, Legge found great delight in Chinese culture.  He certainly earned a right to his opinions.  For anyone interested in China, Christianity, or comparative religion, this old book is worth tracking down.

 

The Lost Sutras of Jesus, Thomas Moore

** “Weak Introduction to a Fascinating Topic”

 

If the improbable, romantic history of Christianity in China doesn't convince you that "truth can be stranger than fiction," what can? Last year I visited the lovely stone pagoda outside of Xian, what remains of the oldest Christian complex in China, where an ancient stone telling the story of the first Christians was found four hundred years ago. Poetic Chinese Nestorian texts blending Buddhism and Christianity were later discovered in caves hundreds of miles towards Afghanistan along the Silk Road. After the long hike to China, the participants in this early meeting of East and West deserve two things: a thoughtful and informed introduction, and the chance to speak for themselves.

Riegert and Moore provide the latter, but not the former. The second half of this book consists mostly of exerts from the various discovered texts. These are fascinating and often beautiful; sometimes leaning towards Gospel, sometimes towards dharma, at times agreeing with both, occasionally with neither. I have a copy of the Nestorian scroll; difficult Chinese, for me at least, but the translation here seems fairly plausible. While it might be too much to hope for a copy of the original in this popular treatment, I wish they had at least said where they obtained their tranlations. They are quite different from those in Palmer and another available on-line, but no explanation is given of where they came from.

The texts are fascinating, poetic, and often beautiful. By contrast, Riegert and Moore might have written the introductions in a couple afternoons, and drummed up the research for them in a few days. It is not clear that the authors knew a lot about China, or Nestorian Christianity(making them sound like members of the Jesus Seminar), though it is obvious they were fond of Buddhism.

One of the book's key errors appears culpable. The authors claim to be offering "1300 year old scrolls" from China. No hint is dropped that the texts they offer might differ in character. But in fact, the Nestorian stone is 1250 years old; the scrolls are more recent. (According to Palmer. The authors do not argue with him; they just fudge the distinction between the stone and the scrolls. As I recall, Samuel Moffett, whom the authors quote, also points out that the stone reveals a more orthodox Christianity than later scrolls.) The authors are either simplistic, or disingenuous, to confuse later syncretism with the first Chinese Christian text, which appear pretty orthodox.

While I think his enthusiasm for karma and other dubious ideas is naive (see my review in Books and Culture
), Martin Palmer's The Jesus Sutras is a better and more interesting book. (Perhaps because it was written for love, while I rather suspect this short, artsy little volume of having been written for money.) There is room for more books on the subject, but I hope the next person who takes it on will approach the interchange of syncretism, dharma, and Gospel, with deeper and more critical thought.

 

 

The Jesus Sutras: Recovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, Martin Palmer

“In the Beginning was the Tao”

 

Martin Palmer has packed three or four interesting books into one moderately-sized volume. First, there is the Indiana Jones-like story of how he discovered the oldest church in China, a Nestorian site that dates to the 7th Century and was apparently a center of the earliest Chinese Christianity. (X marks the spot.) Second, he and his colleagues give translations of a series of early Chinese Nestorian writings, from the famous Nestorian stele (8th Century) to later, more syncretistic works. Third, there is Palmer's reconstruction of the history of what he calls "Taoist Christianity." And finally, there are his own, always enthusiastic and interesting, but sometimes debatable, views on East, West, and how the twain might meet.

I found the combination a great deal of fun. Palmer's good cheer is infectious and understandable: he has done a clever and romantic piece of detective work. The translated Scriptures contain many striking images, and I am thrilled, as a student of the interaction between the West and China, to have these resources together, and translated into pithy English. (Though I wish he'd included the Chinese as well.) The book is, furthermore, physically lovely.

Palmer's analysis of the Nestorian church and its relation to Western Christianity is probably the weakest link in the book. He has a bit of a grudge against Western Christianity. He improbably ascribes much of what he finds attractive among Chinese Nestorianism to influence from Jainism, of all things, though the same qualities can be found in early Western Christianity. He seems to imagine the Nestorians as ecologists based on a shaky interpretation of a single Chinese character (zhen), and supposes them free of the original sin of believing in original sin, based on equally scanty evidence. (Even while one modern Chinese philosopher writes enviously of how that concept helped create Western freedom.) Nor does he notice that in one respect, the Nestorians fell far short of Western Christian tradition: they seem to have preferred buttering up emperors to rebuking them -- no Ambrose, Solzhenitsyn, or Wang Mingdao here. (The doctrine of karma didn't seem to help, as these texts show: the poor are poor because of past crimes, the emperor is powerful because of past virtue.)

Two other points may be worth mentioning. First, there is an important difference between the approach Jing Jing, the author of the Nestorian stele, took in the 8th Century, and the later "Jesus Sutras" translated in earlier chapters. The first is in my opinion an orthodox attempt to contextualize Christian thought in Asian terms, like what Matteo Ricci would do later, except that while Ricci identified with Confucianists, Jing Jing related Christianity to Buddhist and Taoist thought, or at least images. Some later sutras, by contrast, are a mish-mash of images and beliefs from the various traditions. Palmer seems to prefer the latter; I prefer the former.

Second, the word "Tao" needs some explanation. Palmer is right to call the Chinese Nestorians "Taoist Christians." But really, all Chinese Christians are "Taoist." This for the simple reason that "Tao" means "the Way," and philosophically, something pretty close to "Logos." The term does not belong to Taoists -- every school of Chinese thinkers use it, beginning with Confucius. And so the Bible reads in Chinese, "In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God" -- referring to Jesus. Furthermore, many Chinese Christian thinkers -- Lin Yutang, John Wu, Yuan Zhimin -- have felt the teachings of Lao Zi were in fact a pretty good introduction to Jesus. I think so, too.

 

God’s Chinese Son: The Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Jonathan Spence

**** “Brigham Young’s Younger Brother?” 

A young school teacher in a small Chinese town fails an exam, has a breakdown, reads a Christian tract, tries to conquer China under the impression that he is God's second son (after Jesus), and almost overthrows the Qing Dynasty.  If you ever doubted that "fact is stranger than fiction," read this story.

God's Chinese Son is one of several histories of the Taiping Rebellion I read in grad school. My personal favorite was Vincent Shih's The Taiping Ideology (which related TP thought to Confucianism, the ancient worship of Heaven, and prior ideological revolutions.  Shih was also the only "major" historian who didn't clumsily mistake TP for a "form of Christianity," for which I was grateful.)  But probably Spence gave the best overall introduction to the movement.  I found this book fairly lively, and was fascinated by his description of popular religion in Southern China. (Which may seem familiar in Taiwan or Fujian to this day.)

Spence makes a perfunctory attempt to justify his cheeky title by linking Hong to Jesus in the introduction. This attempt falls flat, in my opinion: Spence doesn't appear to know much about NT Christianity.  A better comparison, I think, would be to Mormonism.  I found eighteen similarities between the two movements, and my professor, a Qing historian, told me that in his classes on Qing history, Mormon students often noticed some of these things as well.  I would also argue that the TP movement had more in common with Islam and Marxism than with NT Christianity.

One benefit of learning about the Tai Ping Rebellion (and other such movements in China) is that it helps one understand the modern Chinese reaction to Fa Lun Gong. Actually, there are quite a few sects in modern China that show revolutionary potential, that the government has tried to suppress -- a traditional function of government in China. Ironically, of course, the Marxist government itself came to power in a similar way, and with similar goals, as the TP. So this is a good book to begin understanding a neglected, but very influential, element of Chinese history and culture. The TP story also provides an interesting parallel to the modern spread of Christianity in China. ("Western religion" does better in China when it's not being preached by Westerners.) Finally, God's Chinese Son is a remarkable though tragic story in and of itself, and as one reviewer said, it ought to be better known.

 

**** Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its own Lost Generation, Michael Zilenzinger

 

“Unfair, but true”

 

Having lived in Japan for five or six years (and other countries in East Asia longer), Michael Zielenziger appears to me to show signs of severe culture shock. I've seen it in the eyes of stir-crazy Westerners in Japan and China (including both tourists and residents of many years) and myself at times, to some extent. Reviewers who call him "racist" or "ethnophobic" are I think missing the point. The book is unbalanced, unfair, he is stacking the deck something fierce, he may lack a fundamental love of Japan -- but he is also being honest, and reporting "true truth," as philosopher Francis Schaeffer used to call it.

The description is first-rate -- the young men (mostly) who shut themselves in their rooms, the young ladies who line up thousands deep to shell out huge sums for a designer bag, as if to buy themselves an identity, the conformity and social pressures of political and corporate ant hills.

Not all Japan is like that. I lived in a smaller city on Kyushu Island, where my in-laws are blue-color workers, family people who work hard and enjoy hot springs, Karoake, picking tangerines (mikan-gari) and eating at restaurants on hill sides with tatami matts and green tea. There is still an art and a beauty to much of Japanese life. As difficult as I found living in Japan, I also found a great deal to admire; and while I agree that Japanese architecture is spiritually deadening, horrendously ugly and monotonous, and every city in Japan is horrendous on a large scale, a great deal of beauty still pervades the lives of most Japanese on a small scale. Zielenziger appears to have become deeply depressed in Japan, as many do; and lacking a fundamental connection to the Japanese people -- family, for example -- he goes overboard.

But the book is still well worth reading. One book does not need to present all truth to present important aspects of it. Reading Shutting Out the Sun gave me renewed compassion for the Japanese people, living so often in such narrow worlds. While it is true that Korea faces its own problems, as does every country, the fundamental metaphor of this book -- a people locked away in their room -- rings true.

Unlike many reviewers, I think Zielenziger's point about the role of religion in Japan -- or lack thereof --
This is the story of a man wandering through a dream-world -- or perhaps, out of our world of dreams. (Macdonald's story puts an interesting spin on the ancient Chinese riddle.) Whether dream or awakening, you may have to wander for a while before you get your bearings. The whole book works a strange magic on the susceptible reader, but it may take me a few more journeys to figure it out very well.

 

 

Communism

 

Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke

***** “Deep and Prophetically Eloquent “

 

In Life of Johnson, Boswell brings up the name of Johnson's one-time sparing partner, Edmund Burke.  Johnson, being quite sick, and not given to easy praise, admits, "Yes, Burke is an extraordinary man."  Boswell tries to coax a more quotable reply, and Johnson, who thought argument the sole end of conversation, finally noted, "That fellow calls forth all my powers.  Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me."

Reflections on the Revolution in France should not be a killer read for most, but is difficult in spots.  Many of the sentences are long and complex, written in an age when thought and rhetoric had not yet been corroded by sound bites.  Some of the topics may seem a bit obscure now.  But this is undoubtedly a great book, by a great man, thinking lucidly and passionately about great issues.  It is indeed a work of great intellectual power.  At the same time, it is also a work of moral passion, balance, and foresight, often eloquently and sometimes simply expressed.

Much of it is also remarkably timely.  Not only did Burke seem to anticipate the extremes to which the French Revolution was tending, the great Marxist revolutions of our times also often greatly resemble his remarks.  "It is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one."  "Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle."  "Criminal means once tolerated are soon preferred. . . Justifying perfidy and murder for the public benefit, public benefit will soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end."  Examples could be multiplied.  Reading the book, the subsequent history not only of communism, but also of progressive social cults in the West, becomes more comprehensible.

I prefer to think of Burke primarily in moral or spiritual terms, rather than political.  Burke remarks, anticipating Rank and Becker and preempting Marx's silly economic heresy, (and anticipating Marxist personality cults) "Man is by his constitution a religious animal."  One of the attractive things about Burke to me is his non-sectarian faith; he spoke from a viewpoint C. S. Lewis later described as "Mere Christianity."  Some of his insights also parallel those of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius.  What the two men shared was intellectual acuity combined with humility that expressed itself as a willingness to sit at the feet of teachers of the past.  "We know that we have made no discoveries; and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality."  That is one pole within the orthodox Christian approach to morality; God has "placed eternity in our hearts;" the Tao is universal, as Lewis argued.

Burke's argument may go too far at times; surely some of the changes wrought by the French Revolution were for the good, and there is something to be said for the moral passion of the revolutionary.  And not every paragraph is interesting to me.  Still, overall, the balance and sanity of this book remain not just as a monument to the powers of its author, but as useful resource to anyone who thinks about the relation of power and morality.  Solomon said, "Pride comes before a fall."  This book is, in some ways, a prophetic and wise meditation on the social consequences of that deep truth.

 

Communism Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

*** “A Dark Spiritual Classic”

 

Written by Marx and Engels as a tract to stimulate the workers of Europe (in particular) to revolution, Communist Manifesto is more readable than many of Marx' other works, its style simpler and more lively.  At times the rhetoric rises to the level of eloquent.  As one of the most influential works in human history, it seems to me any person who wishes to understand the modern world will want to be somewhat familiar with its contents.

It is true Marx did not predict revolution in "backwards" countries like Russia and China, but rather in countries like America and Germany.  The fact that he made such prophecies at all shows how little his doctrines had to do with science; that they failed (at the time) shows his weaknesses as a religious oracle.  But that is the category to which this work belongs: Marx is a religious revolutionary in the tradition of Mohammed and Hong Xiuquan, the Monkey King's assault on Heaven, or Promethius' war on the gods.  (He wrote about the latter in his doctoral dissertation.)  That 150 years later society has come to resemble a few of his prophecies (though others not at all) hardly qualifies him as a respectable co-founder of social science, unless we admit that all social science is quackery and mumbo-jumbo. (Which may be arguable.)

What Marxist revolutionaries captured of Marx was not so much his economic plan (which had already proven in error) but his spirit, shown more explicitly here than in his more "scholarly works."  The great Marxist revolutionaries did not copy Marx to the letter in terms of economic programs -- how could they?  Nor in revolutionary strategy -- what did he know of the future?  But even when they ignored the political program Marx lays out, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Guzman, and others, were near carbon copies of their Master as revealed in terms of psychology -- ruthless, unwilling to allow disagreement, ready to "abolish all morality, all eternal truths, all religion," a spectre of collective self-justifying cruelty that would haunt not just Europe, but the world.  I often wonder, reading works by Marx, how stolid academic Marxists can overlook the most obvious and truly influential element in Marx' writings: his hatred.  It is that hatred that makes this one of the less wearisome of Marx's works to read, because it is fairly short.

 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

***** “This makes up for the shoe-banging incident”

Ivan Shukhov is a soldier, trademan, and prisoner in Stalin's Gulag.  One Day is the chronicle of a single, more-or-less successful winter day of his term in prison.  Ivan awakens, eats slop, runs errands for other prisoners to supplement that slop, and works with his team to build a wall.  Among his fellow prisoners Solzhenitsyn has placed individual representatives of the various types that inhabited the Gulag: members of inconvenient nationalities, intellectuals, communist hacks (unflatteringly incarnated in the parasitical figure of Fetiukov), a few genuine criminals, and an evangelical Christian named Alyosha.  (If the views of the latter on suffering seem a bit different from those you hear from American Christians, especially of the health-and-wealth variety, so much the worse for us, perhaps.)

In this, his first published work, Solzhenitsyn revealed the brilliance of a great Russian novelist.  Human nature is tested by the most adverse conditions and comes alive. Ironically, tyranical policies often did have the positive effect both in Russia and in China, of breaking down barriers between intellectuals and the plebes to reveal the common humanity of both -- in the end, to the sorrow of the regime.  One subtle and ironic example of Solzhenitsyn's realism is the pleasure his presumable "enemy of the working class" hero finds even in work in a Siberian slave labor camp.

While First Circle is my favorite of Solzhenitsyn's books, and Gulag is one of the most powerful works of our time, One Day is a small gem, a perfectly realized portrait.  Actually it is not a picture of slave labor, or even communism; like all great literature, it is about life itself, and what it means to be a moral being.  For an interesting contrast to Solzhenitsyn's bitterly ironic but ultimately life-affirming chronicle, read One Day in tandem with The Plague, written by fellow Nobel Prize lauriette Albert Camus.  Camus' novel about a town that has become prisoner to bubonic plague takes place in a larger camp, but in my opinion a smaller universe, than the world of Ivan Denisovich, still less of Alyosha.

Khrushchev may have threatened us over Cuba, and banged his shoe on the table in the UN, but he also permitted publication of this novel.  Here's to his health, wherever he is.

(After-note: see my review of The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn’s story of, in part, how this book was published.)

 

In God’s Underground, Richard Wurmbrand

***** “Saints are human, too

 

Mystic.  Philosopher. Loving husband.  Worried father.  Proud member of the Jewish race. Creature with nerve ending that ache when you hit them and who hungers when you starve him.  Social being who hallucinates apart from human voices, and hungers for sex and companionship as well as food.  Martyr who stands up to tyrants and warns them to repent. Lutheran pastor with a weakness for jokes.  Richard Wurmbrand may have been a "voice of the martyrs," but after reading this sensitive, deeply honest autobiography, what impresses me the most is the degree to which his voice is also the voice of humankind.  I found it challenging to see how, as a well-read Christian in tough times who faces all the temptations I do, he integrated the various facets of his humanity with his faith.

In a literal sense, faith made Wurmbrand a free-thinker.  Embracing a religion that fits the full complexity of life, miracles as well as madness, and sharing a broad and often painful experience with a knowledge of several spiritual traditions, he was free to think on many questions and come to unexpected conclusions both whimsical and sober.  There are many modern names that could be added to the list of heroes of the faith of Hebrews 11. Wurmbrand tells us some of their stories, including his own.

 

Hinduism

 

 

Avatar of Night, Tal Brooke

**** “A bit hyped, but a gripping story”

 

The last thing you can say about this book is that it is boring.  Tal Brooke has a lively style, and an imagination to match.  In fact, for the first few dozen pages, I was afraid I had purchased something like a tour guide to India by a Christian Archie Bunker suffering the after-effects of too many trips on LSD.  The book begins with Brooke's arrival in India, and he doesn't have a kind word to say about anyone or anything that catches his hyperactive glance.  But apparently these semi-psychedelic rages are his way of describing jet lag and culture shock.  When he arrives at Sai Baba's compound, the book finds a more even keel as an imaginative and insightful narrative of his experiences with Sai Baba and those around him.  He still may let his imagination get away from him at times, but it's a very good read from then on.

As for the debate about Sai Baba, it doesn't seem hard to me figure out.  A devotee below claims that "Readers who have never seen Baba" might be deceived by Brooke's slanders. Well, pictures and videos of Baba are abundant, in this book and elsewhere.  Compare the photo of the straight-talking missionaries on page 261 who brought Brooke to Jesus, with one of Baba.  Pictures can be worth a thousand words.  Tell me honestly: would you buy a used car from this man?

The reviewer below who makes allowance for Brooke and "understands" his diatribes against Baba and his lapse back into "fundamentalism," seems to me to be taking a more peculiar position than the devotee who simply called him a liar.  If the bare facts Tal Brooke relates in this book are true, no matter about his sometimes bizarre speculations, then Sai Baba is a pervert who deceives and abuses his followers.

How does the picture Tal Brooke paints of Sai Baba relate to mainstream Hinduism or Buddhism?  In some ways, Baba is a fair representative of the esoteric occult tradition of these two religions.  Certainly it does not follow that all Hindu or Buddhist teachers are abusive as he is.  I think Christians need to be careful about finding the devil behind every bush -- much of this stuff may indeed be explained in terms of general principles of psychology and trickery.  But of course, the definition of the devil is "the deceiver," so that only means he may be carrying out his deception on various levels.  In my new book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, relying on my own research of Buddhist sects and other Asian religions, I argue that the relationship between magic and miracles is very much what the Bible says it is; more complex that Brooke describes, but certainly a dualistic contest between the holy and the unholy, rather than a monistic merging of all faiths.  What Brooke says about Sai Baba fits into the overall pattern pretty well, so I don't find his suspicions misplaced.  I only suggest that Christian readers read the book with caution, and make a clear separation between what Brooke observes and what he supposes.  Of course for non-Christian readers, an open mind and a heart that is searching for truth will also be helpful.

 

How to Know God, Deepak Chopra

** “How to Escape God”

 

Chopra is a skillful writer who has read (well, skimmed) widely. But he should have called this book, "How to get away from God." Here are some of the dodges he uses:

1. "One bald fact stands at the beginning of any search for God. He leaves no footprints in the material world." This statement sets the tone for the immense subjective dogmatism of the book. But that which you decide at the beginning of your search should not be called a "fact," but a "prejudice." Before you agree on this point too quickly, read Creator and the Cosmos, by astronomer Hugh Ross.

2. Chopra treats both Christianity and science as a bird searching for twigs for his own nest treats the nests of other birds. He retells the story of Adam and Eve casting serpent as hero and God as villain; in the process overlooking all the profound subtleties and psychological insights of the passage. He shamelessly misrepresents Christianity: "None of the kings of Israel is punished for going to war." (False.) "Jesus is adamantly opposed to war." (He never said so.) "Christianity was too new to be lawful." (No, it was too exclusive; there were lots of new religions, then as now.) "In the Bible one finds such verses as, "Seek ye the kingdom of heaven within." (Uh, no, one doesn't.)

3. Chopra freely picks and chooses from science as well. He waves the words "science" and "quantum physics" before the readers like magic wands. But like Rajneesh, who called intellect "the chief villain," and Muktananda, who promised to liberate his followers from "impossible webs of intellect," Chopra believes we create our own reality, and it shows in his science as well.

The art in sophistry is to get your victims to believe because it is absurd: to seduce the clever into thinking themselves wise (and thus becoming fools) through confusing paradox with ordinary nonsense. This is an art, because if you say things too directly ("Jesus was a Hindu. The Jews chose extermination.") the paradox deflates into parody, and the spell snaps. Chopra, more than Walsch, is a master of inflated, high-sounding, ego-massaging argument, but many of his ideas reduce to such things. If you want true paradox, as well as refreshment after all this sophistry, try G. K. Chesterton, Lao Zi, the Prayer of St. Francis, or the Beatitudes.

4. Chopra grossly confuses the categories of miracle and magic. (See my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, for an empirical discussion of the differences.)

5. Chopra is a naive about modern guruism, meditation, and the various gurus. For more critical views, see Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown, Avatar of Night by Tal Brooke, or Truth and Social Reform and (best of all) The World of Gurus, by Indian thinker Vishal Mangalwadi.

6. Chopra also passes over real common ground between Hinduism and Christianity. One strong element in the ancient Rig Veda is the theme of sacrifice, of God who is also man who will sacrifice Himself. (With a great deal of very interesting prophetic detail. Again, see Jesus and the Religions of Man.) If Chopra wanted to join the two religions, he missed a good chance here. But of course he wants Christianity to evolve into his idea of Hinduism, not the other way around.

Unlike Chopra, I do not claim to be an expert on God. But of two things I am certain: that in His essential nature, the true God is good. And that the path to God at every stage, for saint as much as sinner, begins in humility. As Jesus said, "No one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless he becomes as a little child." Let me suggest a few books by people who came to God as children, and really met him.  By Searching, by Isobel Kuhn; Confessions, by Augustine; and Goforth of China, by Rosalin Goforth. I also recommend John Piper's Enjoying God: The Confessions of a Christian Hedonist.

 

The Crown of Hinduism, J.N. Farquhar

 

***** “How do Religions Relate?”

 

I originally reviewed this book from Japan, and can't alter the review. Someone at Amazon suggested I review it again, so here goes.

I gave an outline of the book, and my evaluation of it, in the original review. Since then, other reviewers have taken both Farquhar and myself to task. This is not only a bad book about Hinduism, they say, it's bad scholarship, "insidious," and propagates "myths."

No doubt Farquhar, like all scholars, and all people, was a product of his times. His easy acceptance of the application of evolution to the phenomena of religion dates him -- which is no real criticism. Sometimes his terminology of "superiority" grates on the modern, Western ear.

But he was an honest man, a serious, careful scholar, and makes an argument in this book that is worth considering.

Eric Sharpe, an India specialist, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney, was probably the foremost academic student of Farquhar. If Sharpe was a partisan, he hid it well -- he also served as secretary of the International Association for the History of Religions.

Sharpe wrote: "The quality of Farquhar's own work was uniformly high . . . he was able as a missionary to combine close, accurate and sympathetic study of a particular non-Christian tradition with a distinctively Christian theological interpretation of it, without losing his grip on either."

If you're open to that, and if you can put up with strong affirmation and criticism of a non-Western tradition, combined with an unembarrassedly Christian conclusion, and don't mind a few signposts of an earlier era of thought, read this book. One of the advantages of this approach is that Farquhar doesn't shirk from looking at either side of the Hindu tradition, and is passionate about loving what is healthy, and opposing what is harmful -- centered his synthesis on Christ. No need for Indians to take this personally -- I'm sure he'd offer mixed reviews of our contemporary Western culture, as well. Ultimately what he is doing is not so foreign to modern sensibilities -- he is searching for what biologist EO Wilson called "Consilience." If he reconciles the truths of different schools of Hinduism in Christ, why not fairly consider his argument?

 

 

The Crown of Hinduism, J.N. Farquhar

***** “Magisterial and Deeply Persuasive”

 

Anyone who is interested in how the religious traditions of humanity relate to one another -- one of the major questions of our time -- ought to make it a priority to read this book. Farquhar gives a sweeping and illuminating introduction to Hinduism. But that is just the beginning. Sensational without being sensationalistic, he offers a steady accumulation of evidence and quotes and facts that adds up to an argument for the role Jesus can, ought to, and even ninety years ago (when this book was published) had begun to play as the "crown" of the Hindu tradition. If you think Indian tradition can stand on its own, or if you think Hinduism is nothing but the work of demons, you should read this book and carefully consider what the author has to say. "One feels haunted by symbol and suggestion . . . The missionary who fails to acknowledge the presence of these right ideas . . . does not deserve to get the ear of the educated classes." This man does deserve our ear.

In systematic fashion, the author discusses the relatively cheerful Vedic religion. He describes the traditional Hindu family, and how gender roles became fixed. He explains the moral underpinnings and the effects of the theory of karma on Hindu society. He discusses the theory behind caste, and how it arose. In chapter six, he explains the relationship between the self and the universal consciousness, and the rise of different schools of thought from the time of the Upanishads. In the next chapter, "The Yellow Robe," the author describes Hindu asceticism and monasticism, and the ideas behind self-torture and renunciation. Chapter eight explains the role of idols in Hindu worship. The next chapter describes major sects. Chapter ten shows how the idea of avatars became popular. Finally, chapter eleven summarizes the author's argument. His conclusion, strikes with a great deal of force by this time, as he has laid the foundation for it and given examples, with a great deal of detail and quotations from thoughtful Hindus, throughout the book. "Christ provides the fulfillment of each of the highest aspirations and aims of Hinduism. . . Every true motive. . . finds in Him fullest exercise in work for the downtrodden, the ignorant, the sick, and the sinful. . . He is the Crown of the faith of India."

If that statement bothers you, read the book, and see if you can find a better interpretation for the facts he presents.

A couple books to make the picture complete would be Vishal Mangalwadi's The World of the Gurus, and Christ in Ancient Vedas, or the material in my new book on the same subject.

 

Modern Religious Movements in India, J. N. Farquhar

***** “Jesus in India“

 

J. N. Farquhar, one of a remarkable breed of missionary scholars, has here written the history of how "Hinduism" emerged from the confluence of traditional religion and the Gospel in modern India. He accomplishes this by describing key thinkers and religious organizations up to the date at which he wrote (early in the 20th Century), and showing what each borrowed from Christian teaching, and what each left on the table. The people and groups whose stories he tells include such important figures as Ram Mohan Ray and the Brahma Samaj, the Deva Samaj, Sayananda, Parahamsa, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, the infamous Madame Blavantsky and the Theosophist Society, and others more obscure, not only in Hinduism, but also in Islam and Sikhism. (There is, unfortunately, not much about Gandhi yet.) As a passionate Christian, Farquhar is not writing "neutral" history, whatever that is, but is continuing his argument (as in Crown of Hinduism) that Christ completes what was lacking in Indian religion. That does not mean he is unjust; he is in fact honest and fair-minded, looks for good to balance whatever criticism he offers, and never thrashing anyone who doesn't appear to deserve it. But he also says what he really thinks. "Vivekanda has no historical conscience whatsoever." "(Ramakrishna) impressed all who came in contact with him as a most sincere soul, as a God-intoxicated man, but what distinguished his message . . . was his defense of everything Hindu and his theory that all religions are true." "The depths to which Mrs. Blavatsky habitually descends in defending Hinduism will hardly be believed. There is scarcely an exploded doctrine, scarcely a superstitious observance, which she has not defended with the silliest and most shameful arguments." Yet even in the "indescribable rubbish" of Theosophical teachings Farquhar found a few things of value.

J. N. Farquhar was, in short, a gentleman and a scholar. If you want to understand the amorphous set of doctrines and practices that make up modern "Hinduism," you'll want to read primary sources, of course, Indian classics and works by modern interpreters, but this book and Crown of Hinduism are excellent places to go for a fair but engaged overview. I also recommend an equally passionate by a modern Indian Christian, Vishal Mangalwadi, called World of the Gurus. Mangalwadi describes more recent Indian gurus, like Sai Baba and the Bagwan Rajneesh.

Some people claim Jesus went to India as a young man. Farquhar makes short work of that claim (also see Per Beskow's Strange Tales about Jesus), but he also makes it clear that in a difference sense, one might say that Jesus did come to the subcontinent later on, and participated deeply in the founding of the modern Indian civilization.

 

Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with the Truth, Mohandas Gandhi

***** “Meet Gandhi, the man”

 

Unlike a couple readers below, I was pleasantly surprised to find this a very readable and well-written story.  I felt like I was meeting the great reformer in person, with no interpreters or spin doctors between us.

Gandhi surprised me with his transparency. He honestly expresses doubts about (or limited awareness of) God, his own weaknesses, and the mistreatment of women in Hinduism. He frankly relates quarrels with his wife ("numerous bickerings" that end in peace, with the wife the victor -- I wonder about that part, though) and that his son disagreed with his ascetic lifestyle.  I gave this book five stars not because I agree with all of Gandhi's ideas, but because he explains them well, the stories he tells are so interesting, because the search for truth is what life is all about, and because Gandhi is one of the great figures of the 20th Century.

A couple years ago I did a research paper on the young Mao Zedong.  One thing that surprised me here was to find that, despite their very different attitudes about violence, the fathers of the world's two biggest modern states shared much in common.  Both agreed that "the life of labor is the only life worth living," and founded communes with friends as young men.  Both strengthened themselves through ascetic self-disciplines.  Both were men of contemplation and action.  Both shared an ambivalent relation to the party that was the vehicle of their success, yet were also masters at the use of power.  Both freed their countries from foreign domination over many decades, by use of dialectic strategy and an appeal to the peasants.

Gandhi was a man of ideas and of action, and also I think of passion, despite his philosophical commitment to "desirelessness."  I found the book engaging on all three levels, though I also was disappointed that it ended without relating later actions in the history of India's movement towards independence.

Gandhi seemed to live with a great deal of guilt, which he relates to the death of his father, revealed in his attitude towards sex and eating.  "Renunciation without aversion is not lasting," he quotes a pundit.  He seemed to feel life itself was occasion for guilt.  "Man cannot for a moment live without committing outward himsa, destruction of life."  In this regard, of course, Gandhi and Mao were opposites, the latter embracing an ideology that encouraged him to locate guilt in the other, the former one by which he took on the guilt of others.

As a Christian, one of the most interesting parts of the book was his visit to the temple to Kali.  He was horrified by the animal sacrifices he saw.  "To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being," he noted.  "I must go through more self-purification and sacrifice, before I can hope to save these lambs . . . ." He said he prayed constantly that "some great spirit" of a person would bring an end to these "immoral" sacrifices.  Yet the people doing the sacrifices were themselves looking for a solution to the same problem of guilt that haunted Gandhi, as well as Tolstoy, his hero.

This shows that the wisdom of Gandhi was not all the wisdom of India, still less of humanity. The Rig Veda says that sacrifice is "the mainstay of the world" and the only way to find forgiveness of sins.  It spoke of a God who would sacrifice himself for the sins of the people, in prophetic imagery remarkably similar to the events recorded in the Gospels.  And, when Jesus died, animals were no longer sacrificed.  I wonder if it ever occurred to Gandhi that his prayer for lambs (not to mention guilt-ridden people) had already been answered at the cross?

 

Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening, Mary Lutyens

**** “A Very Interesting Story”

 

This is a remarkable and strange story, told by a person close to Krishnamurti. A young man is taken from his family in India (seemingly at random) and trained to be a "world teacher" of Theosophy. After several years of traveling around the world, having fun with his friends, meditating, and developing doubts, he has an intense and torturous mystical experience. He comes to the conclusion that the only salvation is that we find within ourselves, and strikes out on his own.

I can see why the Dalai Lama likes Krishnamurti. His own autobiography tells a story that is similiar in many respects -- a lonely young god-king who finds himself, but also shows an attractively human side along the way. (In the D. L.'s case, he tinkered with watches rather than cars.)

The author knew Krishnamurti when both were young, and she was in love with him. She's evidently still in love, yet manages to tell Krishnamurti's story in an honest manner, including faults and errors as well as a bit of hero-worship. While I sympathized with him and found him an attractive human being in some ways, I can't say I came away admiring K quite as much as the author clearly does. As a youth, he seemed to me (being bourgois at heart) like a lonely and mixed up young man who needed a real job and a real family more than anything. After a long, slow build-up, K's mystic experience is described in painful detail. Like Mohammed gurus like Muktananda and Sai Baba, it was a painful and bizarre experience that even the principles thought might involve evil spirits. But then the story takes an unexpected twist. Rather than launching jihad, or founding an ashram with himself as God, K sets out to teach the world that God -- or "life" -- is no more (or not much more) his monopoly than that of anyone else.

Given Occam's razor, where should we slice? The author gives little reason to assume that K's grand pronouncements at this stage are true. She points out, for example, that after his experience, he was still capable of accusing her, falsely, of having an affair with a married man. Nor do the "un-dogmas" given in this book, at least, strike me as extraordinarily deep. Truth is "unconditioned" and "pathless," organized creeds are "crystalized" and "dead." "There is neither good nor evil. Good is that of which you are afraid; evil is that of which you are not afraid." These are cliches in some circles, and strike me as the kind of sophism that is just iconoclastic enough to seem profound to mild intellectual rebels. One can only be called bold for questioning one's own dogmas, not those of someone else.

Many of K's ideas given here appear to me to have been influenced by the Dharmapada and Zen Buddhism. People couldn't live with such an individual self-help form of Buddhism 2600 years ago. The author seems to show (see what happens to the other characters in the book) that they can't live with it today, either. (Even if self-salvation "works" -- or is the highest goal -- which I doubt, especially the latter.) Tell myself, "I am one of the strong ones. I can save myself." Or is that my pride speaking? Which means, I am most lost of all? K himself seemed to entertain similar doubts, at least early on. His mystic experience may have assured him, while I, frankly, was left wondering why.

This book is mainly the story of K's early life, not his teachings, however. It is a well-told and touching story. It gives an inside view of the Theosophy society, and portrays the main characters with sympathy and, most the time, kindness. (Sometimes to the point of naivitee.)

 

Death of a Guru, Rabi Maharaj

***** “A Fascinating Pilgrimage”

 

Death of a Guru is not a systematic argument against Hinduism, despite the impression you might get from some of the reviewers below.  Rather, it is the story of the author's conversion from Krishna to Christ, a spiritual biography with zip, drama, and controversy. The only systematic part of the book is the (very helpful) glossary of Hindu terms in the back.

Admittedly, Rabi gives a very negative view of India and Hinduism. I would also recommend Gandhi's Autobiography, for a very different and equally interesting picture, yet which I do not think negates anything in this book.  Another gripping autobiography that follows the same track as Rabi, in India itself, is Tal Brooke's Avatar of Night.

My fields are East Asian religions and Marxism; I'm not an expert on Hinduism. But a lot of what Rabi says rings true as far as how developed monist philosophy filters down to the common folks.  At the same time, I am sure there are things in Indian culture that a Christian can affirm as well. I have just finished writing a book called Jesus and the Religions of Man.  In that book, I discuss briefly the idea of God in Indian culture. I also discuss some very startling verses in the Rig Veda that seem to point to the death of Christ on the cross.  I think people on both sides of the "review debate" below will find these passages of interest.

No doubt there are other positive features and "redemptive analogies" within Indian culture. As Christians, I believe we should affirm all aspects of truth.  Rabi's story presents a particular challenge to those who would say that all religions lead up the same mountain. It is natural that some reviewers find it upsetting; but I think Rabi give many important aspects of the truth here.

 

The World of the Gurus, Vishal Mangalwadi

***** “Eye-Opening and Suggestive”

 

For a lover of books who wants to know more from a critical thinker about modern Indian religion, for me finding this book was like a fisherman finding the river where the steelhead go for conventions. Useful facts and ideas are packed head-to-tail here, so open the book with a pen handy, so you can mark where you want to cast your line on the next visit.

Mangalwadi begins by describing the historical background from which the modern concept of guruism developed. The next four parts, which make up the bulk of the book, describe eight or so gurus and the organizations they set up, including the Divine Light Mission, Hare Krishna, T.M., Sai Baba, Muktananda, and Rajneesh. He balances a succinct discussion of each school's philosophy with the personal and moral (or, often, immoral) practices of its gurus. There may be some troubling passages here for anyone who assumes that since monistic gurus rely upon "direct revelation" from a unified source of being, they therefore cannot conflict, and also for those who think that if you sense an aura of love around a person, he or she therefore has your best interests at heart. While Vishal did not engage in mere sniping, and looked for the good in the gurus he described, I appreciated his concern for social justice and for truth that did often reveal itself in honest criticism. I recommend this book to anyone who is attracted to the teachings of the Hindu gurus, and also to Christians who want to know more about the various schools of Hindu thought.

I also found his depiction of Jesus in the last chapter as the Sanatan Sadguru a fitting and suggestive finish. Unlike the Krishna devotee below, I did not find any problems with this book's understanding of Christian theology. His description of Jesus as the Sanatan Sadguru is in line with the "fulfillment" model of Christian philosophy as expounded by Paul, John, Augustine, and modern authors such as G.K.Chesterton, C.S.Lewis, and Don Richardson.

A book I just wrote, Jesus and the Religions of Man, takes a similar approach in regard to elements within Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Humanist and Marxist thought. I also previously wrote a book about "how Jesus fulfills the Chinese culture." Whether you agree with this approach or not, it is both orthodox and has empirical justification. I think Mangalwadi's approach is worth considering.

 

Crash Course on the New Age, Elliot Miller

**** “Fair, informative, but a little dated” 

 

Elliot Miller does a good job of giving an overview of the New Age movement. While the book needs up-dating, I certainly found it a helpful and sane introduction to the movement from an American point of view. (I tend to approach New Age thinking more from the point of view of Asian religions, so many of the names he brought up were new to me.) He is fairly objective, and does well to give all sides of the matter, but does not leave any doubt where his loyalties lie. (Jesus -- the Gospel version.) He finds things to praise in the New Age movement, as well as things to criticize in some Christian critiques of it. (A discussion of Constance Cumbey's simplistic attacks on the movement fills a chapter, but there too he is balanced enough to point out the good as well as the bad that her attacks accomplished.) Miller describes the movement, its influence on politics and science, and channeling and other forms of the occult within that movement, without settling for "one size fits all" answers. (i.e., "The devil is taking over over the world," as if he didn't have it already.) Miller shows a breadth of thinking wide enough to engage New Agers on a variety of topics, though I don't see all of his arguments as equally valid. The appendix in which he tells his own story may be the most interesting part of the book.

 

Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India, Rajeshekar

* “Short, Rambling, and Poorly Written”

As a person who has long been interested in Asian minorities, I was looking forward to reading this book and learning about the Indian untouchables.  Unfortunately, the book is very short (about fifty pages, if you don't count the prefaces and appendixes) and even so, the author keeps saying the same thing over and over.  He never does quite get around to giving a very clear picture of the Dalits.  Nor do I feel certain that what he does say is very reliable, since he has not defined his terms well or otherwise shown himself capable of making an objectively satisfying argument.  For example, he repeatedly claims that the Hindu Scriptures justify racial oppression.  I keep waiting for him to quote them and prove his point, but he never does.

The present edition also makes attempts to relate the untouchables of India to the plight of African Americans.  American injustice is of course a worthwhile topic.  But as the author is not an authority on it, and as it not the subject I wanted to learn about when I ordered the book, I would rather the editors tell us more about the Dalits before making parallels with other races.  Nor did I find the author's attacks on Indian Marxists or Mahatma Gandhi persuasive or relevant.

I have no fondness for Brahmidic Hinduism, and I don't doubt that the untouchables of India have been and perhaps still are terribly oppressed.  I wish the author well in his attempts to obtain justice for his people.  I suggest he find a writer who can make the case for his people more clearly and persuasively, however.  In the meanwhile, if anyone knows of a really good book on the topic, I would like to hear about it.

 

Am I a Hindu?  A Hindu Primer, Viswanathan

*** “Gandhi Would Approve”

 

This is an easy-reading primer on all aspects of Hindu tradition and thought. The author appears to have been deeply influenced by the thinking of Gandhi. Like Gandhi, he is often up-front about what he doesn't like in Hinduism, and they are the same things -- "Don't you think (Manu's) statements about women are outright nonsense?" (the son asks, the father does not dispute it); "the caste system is a disgrace to Hinduism." He tries to be open-minded and relate his ideas to science. He puts a lot of emphasis on the Bhagavad Gita. He tries to assimilate or at least acknowledge the good points in other religions within his understanding of Hinduism. (He actually proposes that Jesus' death on the cross cleansed his immediate followers of karma.) At the same time, he also makes some major mistakes about Christianity; nor am I sure I agree with his understanding of the Dao Dejing. In all these regards, his approach resembles that of Gandhi, whom he also refers to quite often.

The book is broken into manageable but rather disordered topic-bites, giving a pointalistic portrait of the subject. It's well-written, though the editing could be improved. The "Father-Son" format is hard to swallow, since the author seems to assume that his audience knows a lot about other religions and nothing about Hinduism. (Is this the first time the subject has come up?) But it allows the author to cover the subjects that he thinks will be of interest to most readers.

As a Christian who studies comparative religion I found this book helpful as a popular and thoughtful modern defense of Hinduism. I just read an even better book on the same subject, however, called the Crown of Hinduism. The author, a missionary in India about ninety years ago, granted many of Viswanathan's main premises -- that the communal search for truth is progressive, that there is something worthwhile in all religions, that you catch more flies with honey. And he explained the various aspects of Hinduism extremely well. But in the search for a modern integration of Indian traditions, he came to a radically different, and powerfully argued, though controversial, conclusion. (Hint: the title refers to Jesus.) If you are open to considering the relationship between Hinduism and other religions from a wise and informed Christian perspective, I recommend that book as well.

 

Conversations with God, Neale Walsch

** “Hinduism on the Cheap“

 

There is nothing "uncommon" about the dialogue in this book. Over the past several years I've read and heard the channeled revelations and apocryphal Gospels of a good number of religious innovators like Mr. Walsch. His teachings show the typical limits of such literature. Unlike, say, Joseph Smith, who preached about Pilgrims on the moon, Walsch was smart enough to avoid dishing out many hard facts, but some of the few he did give, he got wrong. And the philosophy he tried to build around them is a watered-down version of all the most harmful religious theories of the last several thousand years.

What Walsch appears to be trying to write is a Socratic primer for people raised in the Christian faith who would like to convert to Eastern thought but find the Bible getting in their way. Apparently he thinks if he inserts enough, "Thus saith the Lord" at the head of enough 90s New Age cliches, his readers will fall on their faces before their bedroom mirrors and confess, "I am God."  But even when he lobs his "God" softball question after softball question, his smart-aleck "God" seldom hits the ball out of the infield of mushy monistic psychobabble. We are all gods.  Suffering and evil are in our minds. There is no such thing as wrong. You are the most marvelous thing in creation; it was your parents who dragged you down.  Listen to your feelings; you are the authority for all truth.  Hell is ignorance.  The church is lying.  Sex is wonderful; go out and have as much of it as you like.

"Conversations with God" is Hinduism on the cheap (reincarnation, but no karmic debt, moral binds, or caste obligations), or Zen Buddhism for weekend mystics. It's nothing we haven't heard from every New Age guru and pop psychologist in the last three decades, from Jim Jones to Bagwan Rajneesh and Shirley MacClaine. We even someone else is to blame, Christianity is the opiate of the people, etc. . .

Walsch's God is clueless about the true history of both Western and Asian religions, has no mature and balanced philosophy of rules and freedom, and appears to have gotten most his ideas about the Bible from Humanist Society comic books. His version of how the Gospels took shape, that the New Testament writers "never saw Jesus in their lives" but wrote stories "passed down from elder to elder" proves the man knows nothing about the early church. Even modern critics, though they seldom put it in so many words, admit that the Gospels must have taken form within the lifespan of Jesus' original followers.

Who was Walsch really channeling? The whole routine has come to sound familiar. "God never said anything nasty about death. Just do what you like! Take a bite! You will not die, but will be as gods, and know good and evil."  Sometimes I wonder if the devil is really so unimaginative.

 

Rig Veda, An Anthology of 108 Hymns

 

*** “A Fair Selection of a Fascinating Book”

 

Don't pay any attention to the person below who thinks O'Flaherty should have translated the Rig Veda according to its "spiritual" meaning. As the oldest Hindu scripture, and as a book that contains a lot of symbol and mystery, people have been inclined for millenia to read things into this set of poems . . . caste, reincarnation, later ideas about God. O'Flaherty seems to be doing her best to offer an honest selection of what the authors really intended, to "get out" what they put in -- though of course following her own interests to some extent.

In this selection, you find creation poems, a fair but managable set of poems on sacrifice (which I believe is the dominant theme of the larger work), poems to Agni, Soma, Inda, Veruna, and other gods, and some thematic choices, on death and women, for examples. The text is readable, though some of the footnoting seems a bit pedantic.

As a Christian interested in comparative religion, I find the Rig Veda very interesting. J. N. Farqurhar argues, in The Crown of Hinduism, that the Veda is actually closer to Christianity than to modern Hinduism in some ways, in that 1) The early idea of Varuna, as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, and identified with the Law, is more like Yahweh than the conception of Brahman that appears in the Upanishads. 2) The theme of sacrifice. 3) The Vedic idea of heaven. 4) The unambiguous assumption that the world is a good place. 5) More social and family freedom than was allowed in the more rigid caste system that followed. Some modern Indian Christians have said that the Vedic sacrificial ceremonies bare an uncanny resemblance to the death of Jesus on the cross. I found partial confirmation of some of these ideas here, though of course O'Flaherty did not select her poems to illustrate them!

As for the person who gives the book low marks because it contains no Sanskrit, that seems rather selfish to me. It is not fair to condemn a writer who wants to reach a general audience and keep the price down, who has lavished so much loving scholarship on her work, on that score.

 

The Upanishads

***** “Brilliant.  It is True?”

 

The Upanishads are a remarkable collection of mystical literature that represent a turning point in Indian thought. Eswaran tranlates the most famous of them into strikingly simple and resonant language. "Freed from sin, as a snake sheds its sin, They see the Supreme Lord, who lives in all." "As the sun, who is the eye of the world, Cannot be tainted by the defects in our eyes. . . So the one self, dwelling in all, cannot be tainted by the evils of the world." "The tree of Eternity has its roots above and its branches on earth below. Its pure root is Brahman the immortal From whom all the worlds draw their life. . . "

Each of the main Upanishads is given a short and helpful introduction, then followed by a few pages of notes. The text as a whole is again bracketed by eloquent essays by Easwaran and Michael Nagler, who make helpful comparisons to Augustine, Pascal, Gandhi, the Rig Veda, the Gita, and Einstein, building bridges to readers of various traditions and interests. All in all, Easwaran has gone the extra mile to help his readers comprehends the message of the Upanishads, as he understands it.

It may be that clarity is sometimes achieved at the cost of strict accuracy. Eswaran admits "simplifying" the text in certain ways -- cutting what he thinks repetitive, using "Lord of Love" dozens of times to translate a term that in a note toward the end he admits means "God-self-energy." I lost a little confidence in the translation after reading that. Also, he translates "atman" as "Self," a term some people seem to think is not quite right. So while I enjoyed this version, I plan to compare it to others for scholarly purposes.

Nagler made a few comments both on the Upanishads and on Christianity that made me question his clarity of vision a bit. His claim that, aside from Augustine, "the shapers of early Christianity" believed there was "no high task of self-sacrifice left for people to perform," seemed an odd thing to say of a religion whose primary texts are full of advice like, "Take up your cross and follow me," and "Make your life a living sacrifice," and whose early followers have been blamed for being too eager for martyrdom.

Given the fact that some experience the "I am that" state yet reject it as an illusion, should we believe what the mystics experienced as true? What social, psychological, and moral affect did the "inward turn" that this text represents have on Indian society? One feels a bit crass or, well, unenlightened, to pose doubtful such questions in the face of such beautiful poetry. But I think they are also worth posing. Anyone who would like to consider these questions from the point of view of a knowledgeable and fair-minded Christian, read The Crown of Hinduism, by F. N. Farquhar, or the more critical (and passionate) books by Indian social reformer, Vishal Mangalwadi, such as Truth and Social Justice or The World of Gurus.

 

In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India

* “Bold Ideas, Lots of Ideas, Few Facts”

 

The editors appear to have put a lot of money into this book: it is attractively designed and illustrated. The authors put a lot of writing into it; it rambles on forever. Now if only someone added a dash of critical thought . . .

The authors appear to think they will convince their readers of their central contentions by pure repetition. (What scares me is, it actually seems to have worked, judging by some of the reviews below.) The book is top-heavy with claims but weak in evidence: basically a series of loosely connected mantras and nice pictures. As a Christian, I admit I'm a tough audience, but I am also intensely interested in "first things" and find some of the Rg Veda very interesting. (A book the authors talk a lot about; but never seem to quite get around to quoting.) My advice is, buy the Penguin selection of the Veda, and hope that someone with a better grasp of the facts and of logical persuasion finds a publisher as generous as this one and goes over the territory a little more carefully.

For those interested in how Hinduism relates to Christianity, and the Vedic religion relates to later Hindu faiths, I just read a wonderful old book, by a guy who put more thought and fact into a page than these guys put in a chapter.  It's available on Amazon, and it's called the Crown of Hinduism.

 

Islam

 

 

Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women, Miriam Adeney

 

**** “Fair, Compassionate, and Honest“ 

 

I am not sure what book the critics below have been reading, but it is hard to believe it was this one. The most recent reviewer has nothing at all to say about the book. Another complains that Adeney has "cherry-picked" problems in Islamic societies: "I can also list all the ills in the Western society and blame it on Christianity . . . " But Adeney specifically admits that "Muslims are appalled at Western family life," with good reason, and that "millions" of Muslim women enjoy loving families. So who is this critic arguing with? (As for the critic's claim that Christianity had nothing to do with the high status of women in "Christendom," see my Jesus and the Religions of Man for detailed evidence to the contrary.)

A third critic calls Daughters of Islam "misleading and offensive because it "generalizes" Muslim women by telling "a few sad stories and makes it seem that all Muslim women are oppressed, stupid, and in need of God." This is ridiculous. Miriam Adeney has got to be about the last person on earth
to portray Muslim women as "stupid." "Oppressed?" Again, she explicitly denies this is true of "all" Muslim women; but who can honestly deny that it is true of many? A 1988 UN survey of the status of women around the world that made no explicit reference to religion, yet the countries it found had the lowest status for women were mostly Muslim. It is one thing to decry over-generalizations; another to pretend that generalizations have no force at all.

Daughters of Islam
is an honest book written by a kind and personable anthropologist. It's primary audience is Christians who want to "reach Muslim women for Christ," as they put it. The book is well-written and engaging, full of lively stories. The author does not begin with ideology, but from the grass-roots, with stories, with people whose lives she describes. Miriam Adeney is the last thing in the world from an ideologue, but she does think Muslim women can profit from meeting Jesus. If that offends you, it may take a special effort to be sure the book you read is actually the one she wrote.

 

 

 

Islam: A Concise History, Karen Armstrong

** “Quakers in a Hurry”

 

The core of this book is a competent, moderately well-written (but never eloquent) account of the central events, figures and movements of Islamic history.  Take the word "short" in the subtitle seriously, rather than by analogy to H. G. Well's infamously long "Outline of History."  The book is 180 scrawny pages.  Despite the length, or lack thereof, and the vast history it presumes to abbreviate, Armstrong does seem to manage to cover the most critical happenings in a concise manner.

 

The main stylistic problem I found was that the book tends to become top-heavy with names and Arabic words.  Armstrong introduces terms, then uses them on another page, maybe three in a sentence.  In the early going you begin to wonder if, by the end, the whole book won't be in Arabic.

 

Several readers have commented on Armstrong's agenda.  She wants to prove that Islam is not inherently uncivilized or dangerous.  Every religion allows for a variety of interpretations, and the best way to read Islam is in terms of the brotherly, open lifestyles that she proves Mohammed and his early followers followed.

 

Actually, she doesn't prove this, or anything else, not having room for serious argument in this "short history."  She claims it.  We're apparently supposed to deduce that she knows what she's talking about from the fact that she's famous, and that there are a lot of references in the back of the book.  (We're left to find out for ourselves that not all of them agree with her thesis.)  If one could parody the message of the book as, "Islam is Quakerism in a hurry," then one can summarize her style by saying Armstrong is a "historian in a hurry."

 

Armstrong argues that the pernicious idea that Islam is a religion of war, is based on a "stereotypical and distorted image of Islam" that is actually a reflection of Western vice.  "It was when Christians instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world that Islam was described as an inherently violent and intolerant faith."  Oddly, however, it was also described that way before the Crusades -- which is why the Crusades were launched in the first place, in frank imitation of Muslim Jihad.  (See Pope Urban's speech in The First Crusade, edited by Edward Peters.)  Is Armstrong suggesting, as some mystical fans of quantum physics have, that sometimes result precedes cause?  At times Armstrong's selection of facts and interpretation of them borders on overt dishonest.  Many of the evils she

puts down to later imperialists -- such as making it a capital offense to criticize Mohammed -- were in fact initiated by the prophet himself.  Armstrong should have known that if she read the books she recommends in her bibliography.  (See, in particular, Rodinson's Mohammed. 

 

While Armstrong's post-hoc, self-indulgent arguments verge on the inane at times, fortunately most of the book is straight history.  (Though sometimes even there Armstrong oversimplifies terribly.)  You might find it useful, as an outline, if you supplement it with a books that cover specific aspects of Islamic history in more depth and honesty.  A few I'd recommend are Jihad, by Paul Fregosi, (really amazing), the Crusades Through Arab Eyes, (for the Muslim side), and God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam. There's a interesting chapter in the Oxford History of Islam on Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, though even more than Armstrong, the authors of that book tend to look the other way when Muslims are doing things that would reinforce the alleged "stereotypes." I'd also like to find a good history of Islam in India, if anyone has any recommendations.

 

 

 

A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Eric Bickerton

**** “A Useful, Fair-minded reference”

 

If you want clarity, balance, and documentation on the Arab-Israeli conflict during the 20th Century, this is a very useful resource. It contains dozens of documents from both sides and the middle: the speeches of political leaders, peace treaties, letters, political declarations, UN agreements. If you want numbers -- population figures, finances, maps,-- and words from the mouths of the chief statesmen, along with a systematic if somewhat dry narrative of the political events that have shaped modern ME history, this book gives a very good overview.  I have found it extremely useful in discussing the subject with friends.

If, however, you're looking for Lawrence of Arabia, as some of the reviewers below appear to have been, well, there's always Hollywood video.

 

Oxford History of Islam, John Esposito

*** “White-washes history”

 

This is a beautiful book with a lot of lovely pictures and illustrations, and a great deal of useful and interesting information. I appreciated learning more about sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The chapter on the context between Aristotilian philosophy and Arabic theology was interesting. I also learned a lot from the chapter on Islam and Christianity, which generally seemed fairly balanced. This rather hefty volume helped fill a large hole in my historical knowledge, and I am sure I will continue to find it a useful resource.

I have two major complaints, however. First, I bought the book hoping to learn more about the history of Islam, the religion. While I appreciate the fact that the editor chose to tell us about art and law and economics too, it often seemed like the history of Islam, the religion, got drowned out the somewhat accidental details of Islam, the civilization.

In particular, I came to the text with questions such as, "How did Islam spread? What motivated those who spread it? How did the teachings and example Mohammed, in particular, affect human history?" These seem like reasonable questions to ask of an "Oxford History of Islam." But there was almost nothing about Mohammed in the book. (Fortunately, I had just read Maxime Rodinson's Mohammed, which is a good supplement to that portion of the book.) While the authors gave a great deal of information around the edges of other great expansionist periods in Islamic history, some kind of scholarly miopia seemed to prevent them from getting to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to know, for example, if the frequent claim that Indonesia became Muslim peacefully were true. Bruce Lawrence, in his chapter on Islam in Southeast Asia, hardly addressed the question of how the islands became Muslim, except, for example, in the following subordinate clause of one sentence: "Although the actual Islamic conquest of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit took place in 1478, . . . "

That brings me to my second complaint. On page 352, there is a photo of a tomb, identified as that of Tamerlane. "His majestic blue-domed tomb epitomizes the splendor of Timurid architecture," the caption reads. When I read that, and leafed through the index for further references, I had to wonder: what kind of history of Islam is it that, in 750 pages, cannot find room for a single clear sentence about the greatest Muslim conquerer of all -- and less for his millions of victims? It is like writing a history of communism and only noting, in passing, that a fellow named Stalin inspired a new movement in socialist realist painting. (Granted, however, that the tyrants of yesteryear had much better taste in art.)

Similarly, Lawrence seems to completely whitewash the thousand-year history of the Islamic assault on India, that Durant describes as "probably the bloodiest story in human history." Sultan Mahmud, the text merely notes, "not only pillaged and destroyed; he also built and rebuilt." (As, of course, did Stalin.)

It is said that history is written by the winners. The authors seem to want to prove that aphorism. Mohammed's own cruel career is glossed over a few pages. Tamerlane is memorialized with a pretty tomb, his victims ignored. Nehemia Levtizion seems to blame the Ethopians for putting up too good a fight, therefore bringing jihad down on themselves. (As opposed to other tribes that were simply swallowed.) Another writer calls the Medieval Europeans "xenophobic," and the European idea that Islam is violent is treated as a prejudice. Muslim armies had just conquered two thirds of the Christian world, launched attacks against Rome and Constantinople, and into France. If two out of three of your children had been kidnapped by a neighbor, would it be fair to call you "paranoid" if you locked your doors at night? (Or even in the day?) (See Jihad for more details.)

One author mentions an Islamic attrocity -- discreetly, so as not to embarrass anyone -- then marches on to the dogmatic but question-begging conclusion, "The contest is over political authority even when it is framed as a contest over religious truth." How, in a religion that does not distinguish between mosque and state, is one to tell the difference? And can we really generalize about what made Muslim conquerers tick in this way? From what sources?

Ira Lapidus is more frank, and suggests perhaps a bit more sympathy with the victims, in her description of the tyrannical Ottoman empire and its "divinely given mission to conquer the world." Again, I would have appreciated more details on exactly how the Ottomans formulated and explained their ideology, and how they related it to the Qu'ran and the career of Mohammed. But at least she does mention the "losers."

The book probably does deserve the five stars, in some respects. But I am getting tired of this habit of scholars whitewashing inhumanity and painting a pretty picture on top. I felt like giving it one star, in protest. But a lot of good scholarship and artistry went into the text as well, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge that.

 

Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Century Paul Fregossi

***** “Gloriously Romantic and Unabashedly Partisan”

 

Jihad is not a work of scholarship, thank goodness. To see why I think this a virtue, compare what the Oxford History of Islam (edited by John Esposito, whom one critic below recommends in place of Fregosi) says about the Muslim conqueror, Tamerlane. On page 352 of Esposito's book, there is a picture of Tamerlane's tomb. "His majestic blue-domed tomb epitomizes the splendor of Timurid architecture," the caption reads. That's about all you get in 700 plus pages. Here's Fregosi, on the other hand: "Constantinople was, however, saved for another half century thanks to the intrusion of another massacrer of men, women, and children even viler than Bajazet: the Mongol Timurlane, Muslim ruler of Samarkand, who on his career of conquest across Asia . . . (left) huge piles of decapitated heads as a memento of his visit."

If you think tiles more important than human beings, Esposito is the man for you, by all means. Personally, I found it refreshing to come across a historian who has less to say about art than about people.

Still, the two volumes can be read as complementary. The Oxford authors admit, for example, (let the critics below take note) that at the heart of the Ottoman theology was a "divinely given mission to conquer the world." Esposito tends to look the other way while the killing is going on, as if out of politeness, while Fregosi thinks we should take a long, hard look at what happened, and figure out why.

The book may sound depressing. I bought it from duty. But I found myself reading it for pleasure, though skipping some of the worst parts

Jihad is good reading. Fregosi sprinkles the text with poignant anecdotes and poetic lines. "If I have to choose, I prefer to be a camel-driver in Africa rather than a swineherd in Castile." "Behold the furthest limits of Andalusia which I have trampled underfoot." "If thou wilt not this day help thy children the Christians, at least do not help those dogs the Turks." He gives tongue-in-cheek asides on the important in history of wine, women, and song. (Though sometimes repeats his favorite lines a bit too often -- "cherchez la femme" in particular.) Best of all, he knows that a story needs a hero -- and there is real-life material enough in this book for several great movies.

Fregosi follows the method of Solzhenitsyn of passion directed into sardonic anger. He is not as good as Solzhenitsyn, of course. This is not great literature; just a good book, a romance in the old sense, and a vital piece of history.

It is also about as politically incorrect as you can get. This is not only because the author portrays Mohammed as a bloody tyrant. (Accurately. See Rodinson's biography for details.) Nor is it because he describes jihad, in the military sense, as an Islamic dogma. (Contrary to the reviewer below, even Oxford agrees, defining jihad, at least for "Muslim exoterists," as "war of Islamic expansion.") Worst of all, he dares to suggest that, while "Christians" often fail to act like Christ, the fundamentals of Christianity and Islam are radically different, and that Jesus had a better idea than Mohammed.

I can understand why Muslims, and some sensitive Westerners, would find this offensive. Proposing that in their essentials, religions actually differ, and that those differences really affect human history, is to many Western liberals like saying the sky is purple. I suggest that those who believe that Islam is essentially a tolerant and peaceful religion work to bring about a situation in which free religious debate becomes possible even in places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and persecution of people of other faiths, and den
igration of women, become a lot rarer in the Muslim world.

 

The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature, Talif Khalidi

***** “Fascinating Varieties of Jesus-Spin”

 

This book is a collection of sayings and stories attributed to Jesus in the Muslim community, mostly in the first few centuries of the Islamic Empire. Many are just plain fascinating. Some take the form of "Jesus said" followed by some quotable moral lesson that makes Jesus sound like a teacher of eternal truth, like Confucius. Some prop up Quranic orthodoxy and sound more like Mohammed than Jesus ("Women are the ropes of Satan"). One would even fit perfectly into the Dao Dejing ("If people appoint you as their heads, be like their tales"), but then some Chinese philosophers say Lao Zi and Jesus share that idea in common, anyway. Sometimes I even spot a touch of what could be Zhuang Zi.  But in quite a few others, the Jesus of the Gospels appears, healing, doing acts of compassion, offering forgiveness, speaking in words that challenge, even bringing people back to life. (There are some very odd twists to these stories!) Often even the sayings that do not sound like Jesus (which is most of them) are elegant and noteworthy. I didn't find the work as a whole much more revisionist or self-serving than, say, your average Jesus Seminar Gospel. And it sure beats the hard-core Muslim Gospel of Barnabas or the stories of Jesus going off to Tibet and studying magic and Advetic philosophy.

I read the text itself first, then the introduction, and that seemed the best way to do it. Better let "Jesus," or the scholars who invent or rewrite sayings by him rather, speak for themselves. But the Khalidi's introduction and explanations are lucid, insightful and helpful. This is a classy bit of scholarship.

Edward Said, in his review on the back cover, seems to see this book as an answer to those who make "bellicose and false claims about the clash of civilizations," an obvious jab at Samuel Huntington. I don't think the book is any such thing, nor does Khalidi seem to present it as such. Europeans who called themselves Christians did not see any conflict between singing the psalms of David, and persecuted David's descendents, even on the same day. (July 15, 1099, for example.) Even less does the fact that Mohammed called Jesus "breath of God" nullify the centuries-long war of conquest he launched against his neighbors, or the fact that in many Muslim lands today, a Muslim who chooses to go beyond what the Qur'an allows in regard to Jesus, will be in danger of his life. In fact, the limits of that orthodoxy are defined in many passages of this book. One should not confuse literary influence with religious tolerance.

At the same time, this book reminds us that Islam allowed for more than one prophet, and that the character and teaching of one alternative, anyway, did balance the tone and substance of the other to some extent. Some of the sayings of Jesus in this Gospel ("The folds of heaven are empty of the rich;" "If you desire to devote yourselves entirely to God. . . be kind to those who are unkind to you;") could even be read as a rebuke to that prophet who set out to conquer the world for Allah with a sword -- or followers who seek to do the same with more high-tech weapons today.

 

Islam and the West, Bernard Lewis

***** “Mature and Readable Scholarship”

 

Overall, I enjoyed this book. Lewis knows his stuff, and how to teach it. In that regard, the contrast between him and Said seems to me like the contrast between a craftsman who does his job, and the office politician. Lewis understands Middle Eastern cultures thoroughly, he expresses his ideas clearly, and (it seems to me) is committed to telling the truth, honestly and fairly.

Islam and the West is, of course, a broad topic, and the book is only 200 pages, with some repetition from other works, I think, so I was sometimes disappointed in Lewis' choice of topics. The book is primarily a history of intellectual understandings, and secondarily a reply to Said's attacks. It is not a political history of the two civilizations, though it gives a bit of that history. (Paul Fregosi's Jihad is the most enlightening book I've read on the military aspect of the relationship.) Lewis shows how the West became interested in Islam from the Middle Ages, and how Islam much later developed an interest in the other direction. He discusses Gibbon, colonialism, Islamic factions, and how Christians, Jews, and Muslims have seen one another. He also offers an eloquent appeal for honest and free historical study of other cultures. As a student of Asian cultures, I appreciated the way he emphasizes the need to understand other worldviews as they understand themselves, rather than projecting our categories onto them. His tone is sometimes ironic, but not, in my opinion, indulgently so. Said mostly deserves the drubbing (verbal smart bombs) he takes, though Lewis may be a touch thorough. (But with less collateral damage than Said's sweeping invective.)

Lewis asks why Westerners have studied other cultures, and gives several answers (beyond the power grab Said suggests): spiritual links to the Middle East, fear of jihad, the prestige of Arab science.

I would add another. It seems to me Dr. Lewis is weakest when he talks about Christianity. He assumes that Christianity claims exclusive truth in the same sense as Islam. But a further reason that the West studied Islam I think derives from differences between the two faiths. Missionaries like Matteo Ricci and James Legge were often at the forefront of Western understanding of Asian cultures, and even today Christian missionaries translate the Bible into thousands of remote languages. I think this has to do with the Christian idea of the "word become flesh." In Christianity, God affirmed other cultures and languages by the incarnation, and underlined it with the miracle of Pentacost. This is quite different from the Muslim idea of the Koran writen in heaven in "pure Arabic," which can never be translated, and made a huge difference in the thought of people like Justin, Origin, Augustine, and Ricci.

Lewis misunderstands why Christians reject Mohammed, I think. The difference between the two faiths, and the reason Christians mistrust Mohammed, is not just that one is earlier and one is later. Rather, we feel that Mohammed conforms to a type familiar in our scriptures, the "false prophet" or "anti-Christ:" the union of unscrupulous power with pretensions to divine authority. Lewis does Islam and Christianity the courtesy of taking both seriously, however, and that is enormously refreshing.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf

***** “Fair, lively, and full of surprises”

 

I ordered several books on the Crusades for a research project I conducted last year, and this may have been the most interesting. Maalouf describes the book as a "true life novel," and he does indeed succeed in depicting the characters, European and Middle Eastern, in all their bumbling, hopeful, fractitious, murderous, and occasionally heroic or far-seeing humanity. The main body of the book is divided into six parts entitled "invasion," "occupation," "riposte," "victory," "reprieve," and "expulsion," and each section is full of freshly personal details. In part this is the story of a religious invasion and its repulsion, in part, of the education of a group of European semi-barbarians, and in part, a mixing of two cultures both with something to learn from the other.

At the end is added an interesting epilogue in which Maalouf offers lessons to be learned, about pluralism and prosperity and about openness to ideas from other societies. As a scholar of East Asia, I immediately recognized in his arguments the contrary stories of Japan and China in the 20th Century.

No one should take this book as the story of the Crusades; Maalouf is in part trying to balance the more common "Western" viewpoint. He begins the story with the "invasion" of the "Franj;" but of course that invasion was, from the point of view of the Franks, a counter-offensive. But within the limits the author has set, this is an excellent, helpful and fascinating piece of historical reconstruction.

 

 

The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim calls for Reform in her Faith, Irshad Manji

 

***** “Caught Between Two Worlds”

 

 

I enjoyed this book, and came to respect the author. Mind you, it was different from what I expected. For one thing, Irshad Manji turned out to have more in common with me than I expected -- she grew up in Richmond, just up the road a couple hours, and in many ways seems more a Northwesterner than a "Muslim" in her outlook.

Manji is not a scholar, as many negative reviewers below point out. But she also does not fit easily into anyone's easy stereotypes or set caricatures, the same reviewers to the contrary. (My own caricatures of lesbians and journalists took blows.) It seems to me this book is the record of a sincere and passionate search for truth. She's a good writer, with great stories to tell. She's read a lot -- I often found her citing sources I'd stumbled across in obscure places -- and asked a lot of brash questions.

Admittedly, her position does seem incoherent. What part of Islam does she believe? God? Apparently, but that would make her a theist, unless Mohammed is His prophet. It's not at all clear she thinks he is. I certainly don't, which is why I'm not a Muslim. But you begin wondering if the only reason she calls herself a Muslim is so she can write books like this one -- either that, or out of the more respectable desire to maintain ties with some she loves.

Some seem offended by her views. Understandably. "To this day, Muslims use the white man as a weapon of mass distraction -- a distraction from the fact that we've never needed the 'oppressive' West to oppress our own." "Those who wish to flog women on the flimsiest of charges can get the necessary backup from the Koran . . . Then again, those who seek equality can find succor, too." (She flirts a bit with that kind of relativism at times, but usually pulls away from it at the last second.) "What else aren't we Muslims telling ourselves so we can keep surfing on sympathy and subsisting on victimhood?" "Despite obscenely overstuffed money vaults and a whole lot of land to spare, the Saudis won't take in Palestinians as citizens. They will, however, broadcast telethons to raise millions for the financing of suicide bombers."

Maybe the best way to understand Manji is as a second-generation child of immigrants. It is hard under the best of circumstances to fit between two cultures. When your parents' culture seems at war with the world, and the culture you grow up in itself faces the challenge of clashing tradition and modernism, and if to boot you add a domestic tyrant like Manji's father seems to have been, this is the sort of thing that can result -- more Canadian bacon than Kehbab, but plenty of spice and a fair chunk of meat, too. I hope she continues to search, and finds what she's truly looking for.

 

 

 

**** “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” Azar Nafisi

 

“Reading Lolita in Tehran in Ohio on Tape”

 

I avoided this book for fear of voyeurism. Abuse of children, or the artful justification of it in even an attenuated form, is not something I want to encourage, and I assumed the point of the title was, ¨How paradoxical to be reading something so naughty with veils over our faces!¨

Fortunately that was wrong. Nafisi seems rather to be using a story about the exploitation of one girl, as a literary doorway into a society in which all girls are treated badly. That was what I was hoping for, in finally picking up the CD of this book (which I listened to while driving through Amish country in Ohio!) -- to learn more about life in Iran from a sensitive critic of the regime.

Overall, the book is good enough. Nafisi's descriptions of her students, and the other characters, are acute. You do come to understand what life is like for women in the most radical Islamic countries -- at least for women educated to think like Westerners.

But at the same time, I didn't always get the feeling of getting inside the thought processes of another culture, here. Nafisi does not always seem to mediate a general view of life for women in Iran, but more of ¨what an American forced to live among Islamic Leninists¨ (see Naipaul) would feel. Her description of Islam is so uniformly negative, one does not much get inside the head of its proponents -- unlike with Naipaul.

My other complaint was that the book dragged at times. The author has descriptive talent, but sometimes lets it get away from her. Sometimes Nafisi gives the readers too much interior dialogue -- read with a rather gloomy seriousness, in the CD version.

All in all, while good, I'd probably prefer a shorter version of this book. Maybe a printed version, which one can skip forward at times, would in this case be preferable.

 

 

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, V. S. Naipaul

**** “Observant, truthful, but a bit incoherent”

 

Beyond Belief is the well-written but somewhat rambling story of the author's revisit to four non-Arab Muslim countries (Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia). Naipaul says in the preface, "This is not a book of opinion." In my view, that's too bad, because it needs some central idea to give the interesting stories it tells cohesiveness and heart. Even when Naipaul does give opinions, while he expresses them with iconoclasm and a bit of eloquence, they lack as ideas.

Probably the most important theme of the book is how Muslims of other cultures look up to Arab culture and down on their own. Naipaul describes the attitude he meets that makes invaders into heroes and encourages cultural self-loathing as a "dreadful mangling of history." The consequences are, perhaps, worst in "feudal" Pakistan. The pictures he paints should make any Western liberal rethink the doctrine that all religions must, by definition, be created equal; your heart cries for the women, in particular, locked indoors for a lifetime.

But instead of exploring the relationship between Mohammed and modern Islam, Naipaul cops out by generalizing (in a half-hearted way) about "revealed religion," Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But in essence, I think Islam shares more affinity with Marxism and other revolutionary religions. Naipaul seems to pick up on some of those similarities, but doesn't follow the clues to their source. (In Mohammed and Marx.)

Beyond Belief is about the need for roots -- connections with ancestors, traditions, and land. However, Naipaul sometimes seems to forget that people also have a need for truth -- for universals that transcends the particular.

Naipaul's assumed contrast between the "converted" and those whose religion is an organic growth from local traditions, while partly true, is largely a false dichotomy. He forgets that Islam was almost as iconoclastic in regard to Arab culture as it is towards other cultures. The alternative is for universal truth to find roots in local traditions. (That is the topic of my research. Jesus, by contrast to Mohammed, said he came to "fulfill," not "abolish," Jewish culture. In the space of a single generation, Christianity went from being Jewish to being a Mediterranean religion. Lately I have been researching how Indian and Chinese intellectuals have begun to describe the Gospel as the fulfillment of thousands of years of Asian culture in a way that reinvigorates, rather than suppresses, those traditions. In Japan, by contrast, with its embrace of cold modernity, I find a sterile conformity like that Naipaul decries in Muslim countries.) The question this book should raise is how the particular can be saved, and enhanced, within the universal -- of finding universals that encourages fitting expression of all that is most human.

Not only his religious, but also his political thought needs deeper study. He describes the "religious state" in which "religion was not a matter of private conscience" as one full of "simple roguery." Perhaps because his subject is Islam, and his background Hindu, he seems to have in mind two simple alternatives -- a false dichotomy between a religion that is entirely private (sanyassi) and one that takes over the state. (As Mohammed did.) He does not consider the possibility of politics informed and enriched by a faith that is nevertheless kept distinct from the state.

As my first taste of Naipaul, I enjoyed the book. I found the stories invigorating, timely, and disturbing. But I don't agree with whatever literary theory of is responsible for the book's lack of coherence and systematic thought. Naipaul picks up pieces of truth here and there, and examines them with scrupulous honesty, but seems afraid to synthesize a system (at least here) or offer solutions, for fear of rigidity or forced conformity. Perhaps that is what the title of the book means, that he thinks ideas too dangerous to deal in? I put the book down hoping next time Naipaul will go beyond unbelief and tell us what he thinks, but looking forward to reading him again, in any case.

 

Secrets of the Koran, Don Richardson

**** “Courageous and Frank”

 

Over the past few years, we have been seen Islam described by as a religion of peace, twisted into uncongenially violent shapes by fanatics like Osama bin Laden. The Koran teaches kindness, peace, and justice. Mohammed was a reformer in the great monotheistic Western tradition.

If difficulties with this view present themselves, they can be dealt with. One solution is to simply ignore contrary evidence. A photograph in the Oxford History of Islam shows the lovely blue-domed tomb of Timur, which, the caption explains, "epitomizes the splendor of Timurid architecture." The actual architecture taste of Timur, one of history's bloodiest conquerors, ran to hills of skulls. But the Oxford history, edited by Middle Eastern studies superstar John Esposito, says nothing of the victims of Timur's conquests. Esposito's gorgeous display of academic fluff likewise sanitizes Mohammed's wars of aggression, offering mere paragraphs on the military campaigns that gave Islam a history. (The reviewer below is, unfortunately, quite wrong: cruel tyrants often do success. And in most of the world, Islam spread by violence.)

Others "put (Islamic violence) into perspective" by pointing out that theory and practice diverge in Christianity "as well." Karen Armstrong's popular books on Islam combine a gleeful airing of dirty Christian laundry with an almost surreal cultural relativism. Mohammed did pillage caravans, she admits. But raiding was only a "sort of national sport in Arabia," "a rough and ready means of redistributing resources." Mohammed massacred 800 unarmed Jewish men, true, but it would be a "mistake" to judge him by the "standards of our own time." Nor should we be so foolish as to think mass murder indicated "hostility towards Jews in general," for anti-semitism "is a Christian vice." In fact, the massacre of Qurayzah can be seen almost as an act of pacifism, intended to "bring hostilities to an end as soon as possible." Furthermore, if one ignores assassinations after the fact, Mohammed conquered Mecca "without shedding a drop of blood," and thus "single-handedly . . . brought peace to war-torn Arabia." (Never mind that Egypt, Persia, Byzantine, and India shortly found united Arab armies at their gates.)

Secrets of the Koran emphatically eschews such machinations. The Koran claims to be a universal revelation, Richardson reasons, and therefore must be held to a high standard. Revelation, to be taken seriously, must by definition rise above history and culture. "It does not excuse Mohammed to say, `that sort of thing was Arab custom.' Surely God sends his prophets not to conform to human folly but to replace folly with wisdom."

Richardson is frank and astringent in his criticism. Mohammed was a scoundrel, Osama bin Laden's "instructor for violence," who "redefines (heaven) as an enormous God-owned bordello in the sky."

Aside from such occasional jabs, Richardson assaults the post-modern ear with three fundamental heresies. First, religions are not created equal. Second, the problem with Islam is not poverty (the reviewer below who says people attack Muslims because they are "poor and illiterate" must be joking -- has he heard of oil?), Western imperialism or Israel, but no more and no less than Mohammed and that book of his. (With, he counts, 108 "war verses.") Finally, however ambivalent Old Testament Jewish or Medieval Christian history may appear, the "winsome Christ" does, after all, offers a better solution.

Angry and fearful critics of Islam are nothing new. What is unusual about Secrets of the Koran is the character of its author. It is difficult to imagine Patrick Buchanan or Le Pen reducing an unknown tribal language to writing for the first time, or risking their lives to save a critically-ill headhunter in the swamps of New Guinea, as Richardson has done. Richardson does not smash idols merely to hear the shards tinkle (or to make money, as another reviewer claims), but in defense of a positive vision of a humane Gospel and liberal society.

Europe, Richardson thinks, stands in danger of throwing away the victory Charles Martel won at Tours over invading Moorish troops 1300 years ago by allowing immigration from Muslim countries to swamp the West. Ideas have consequences. As long as Islam is based on the Koran and the life of Mohammed, those who follow it cannot consistently advocate a liberal society, respect for women, and religious freedom. While the particular doomsday-scenario Richardson suggests for the "auto-geniciding continent" of Europe may be far-fetched, the question he places on the table -- whether an Islamified West will retain liberal values - is worth considering, as some cities in Western Europe now witness more Muslim than non-Muslim births.

The answer depends on whether Islam is seen as an evolving tradition, or a set of beliefs with a consistent and more-or-less permanent character. As a Bible-believing evangelical, Richardson underplays the power of culture to mold faith. But if it "takes one to know one," a person who emphasizes the importance of Scripture and religious founders may be in a better position to catch the true drift (or lack thereof) of Koranic orthodoxy, and its effect on serious Muslims, than scholars who see Scriptures as "living documents," limitlessly subject to enlightened reinterpretation.

Richardson's tone itself is not always so winsome. Many may find it hard to distinguish between his frank criticism and what journalists call an "attack" on Islam. There is a tension between his approach here and in earlier works for which he does not apologize.

But to me the opposite approach, that of Armstrong and Esposito, seems the greater puzzle. In the abstract, we all find rape, torture, mass-murder, and child-abuse despicable. Most would even agree a culture (or church) that affirms such acts is badly perverted. Yet when a powerful man like Mohammed does such things, we bend into prezzles to turn the other cheek. (Not always our own.) It is wise to befriend Muslim neighbors, and wrong to offend them gratuitously. But the modern ideas of tolerance and relativism," like other forms of cheap grace, do not make us bodhisattvas, however we may preen for the idol-carver's chisel. Let us beware lest they instead transform us into quislings, praising the tombs of tyrants, and forgetting the unmarked graves of their victims.

One connecting link between Richardson's earlier books and Secrets of the Koran is thus courage. A man who took his wife and baby into a jungle to call cannibals to repentance, now points his finger at one of the most powerful men in history, honored by a billion followers, and says, "J'accuse!" Taking the side of victims against an oppressor (whose spiritual vitality is still on the wax) takes guts. Secrets of the Koran reveals moxie, and also suggests that Richardson has not lost his talent for "thinking outside the box."

Yet I have to wonder. If even cannibals and headhunters were "betrayed to good" through divine truths in their cultures, and if awareness of God was almost universal among primitive tribes, how could Islam, alone among creeds, manage to completely shut out His voice? If indeed it did?

An elderly Chinese pastor long imprisoned for his faith once told me, "There is a lot we Christians can learn from the communists." If he could say that about an atheistic regime inspired by so vitriolic a spirit as that of Karl Marx, whose disciples tortured him and took him from his family, why should Islam be safe against the redemptive grace described in Richardson's earlier works?

Richardson admits that Muslims do worship God, however imperfectly they understand Him. In addition, he notes that the Koran points (in a confused way) to the Bible and to Jesus as "Messiah" and "Breath of God." Tarif Khallidi, director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Cambridge, showed (in a book of that name) how "the Muslim Jesus" cared for the poor, modeled humility and forgiveness, and even raised a woman who was dead and in hell from the grave to find salvation. The Koran itself not only affirms the unity of God, but also the sinlessness, miraculous powers, and divine nature of Jesus. Is it not possible that such a prophet may help reform and mellow Muslim theology from within, even allow Muslims to rethink their theology?

Richardson's portrait of a warlike, totalitarian, misogenist ideology whose inner logic sets it upon world conquest will likely prove too bracing for an "auto-genociding" liberalism, harsh even to the ears of missionaries raised on ideas of "contextualization" and "building bridges" derived from Richardson's earlier works. Neither the bourgeois respectability Gibbon spoke of that attends saying all religions are equally true, the avant garde respectability of calling equally false, nor the political respectability of finding them equally useful, is likely for a person who points out differences between religions to the advantage of Christianity. Even many Christians would prefer to "preach Jesus" and let God take care of dross in other religious cultures - lest we find the tables turned and our own sins exposed. Scholars who associate Islam with the kindly face of an amiable Arab colleague, lovely Medieval mosques, or the philosophy or medical discoveries of an Avicenna or Averroes, may also reasonably object to reducing Islamic tradition to the two sharp points of Mohammed and a few objectionable sayings.

But truth is sacred; on this, orthodox theists of all kinds agree. We need to speak truth, so help us God, to claim to walk in the path of all true prophets, and of our Lord. For this reason, frank concern about the nature of orthodox Islam, such as Richardson expresses, deserves I think a respectful place at the table. At the same time, as Allah is in heaven, can we not pray that His Peace Child will, in the end, speak the last word into our troubled times?

 

 

Mohammed, Maxime Rodinson

**** “Good bio of one mean dude”

 

If you are looking for an opinionated but fair-minded sketch of the prophet Mohammed in the context of his times, by a historian who is not out to portray his subject as the devil incarnate, but is still gamely willing to relate events and interpret them in a straightforward way that might lose him his head in some countries -- this could be the book for you. This book is lively, surprisingly balanced for a work by a Marxist, keeps the tangents short and sweet, and strikes me as generally judicious history. I don't share the author's materialism, and sometimes his attitude strikes me as a bit patronizing and cynical. But the story is well-told and insightful. And even when the author may be (in my view) wrong, his error usually consists of useful insights that are spread too thin.

Politicians, the media, and academics have been diligently trying to persuade us, of late, that Islam is a religion of peace. The terrorists are "traitors to their faith," which is "good and peaceful."

Mr. Rodinson does not set out specifically to tear down this viewpoint. He does warn, in his straightforward way, that "Muslims have every right not to read the book or to aquaint themselves with the ideas of a non-Muslim, but if they do so, they must expect to find things put forward there which are blasphemous to them." But later he notes disapprovingly of Christian critics that "the accounts given of (Mohammed) by his disciples were taken and twisted to make a hideous portrait of a cruel and lascivious individual, steeped in every kind of viciousness and crime. . . " This comment comes towards the end of the book. He seemed not to have noticed that in the previous 200 pages, he had painted a very similar portrait. It appears, strangely enough, that the facts themselves may have something to do with the "image." But read the book for yourself, and tell me if Mohammed was a good man or bad.

 

Islam Unveiled, Robert Spencer

“Good Questions, Preliminary Answers”

 

Spencer asks some good questions here, and has read widely enough, and is bold and honest enough, to come up with fairly reasonable answers. I've read many books on Islam, and found this one pretty good; I learned a fair amount from it.

If the key to thinking clearly is to figure out what questions to ask, Spencer gets us off to a good start, because he asks excellent questions. The titles of his chapters summarize the ground he covers: "Is Islam a religion of peace?" "Does Islam respect human rights?" "Does Islam respect women?" "Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy?" "Can Islam be secularized and made compatible with the Western pluralistic framework?" "Can science and culture flourish under Islam?" "The crusades: Christian and Muslim." "Is Islam Tolerant of Non-Muslims?" and finally, "Does the West really have nothing to fear from Islam?"

The answers Spencer gives to all these questions, if I had to chose a single word, would be "No." But he is fairly nuanced about it, and admits repeatedly that Islamic history sometimes offers better examples, and that many Muslims are shooting for something better.

One weakness of Spencer's approach is that he seems to rely mostly on second-hand research, rather than deep personal familiarity with the culture of Islam. Fortunately, he has read a lot on both sides, (including some of my favorite "subversive" writers, like Bat Y'eor and Paul Fregosi), and is generally well-informed.

Only, and here's a second major weakness, Spenser almost invariably compares Islam to Christianity. I am a Christian myself, but since Islam has had long interaction with Hinduism, Judaism, animism, and now communism, in other words the "borders of Islam are bloody" (as Huntington put it) on other fronts as well, I wish he'd varied his examples a bit.

A final weakness of this book is that the interaction between Islam and Christianity is so complex, and there are so many villains on both sides, (also some heros) that Spenser's argument for real religious difference between Islam and the West seems to weaken from attrition. He explains that the teachings and personalities of Jesus and Mohammed are radically different (which they are, and it is nice to see someone be honest about the crimes of the latter). Yet Spenser concedes (in effect) that Christians have often acted more like Mohameed than like Jesus. This begs for a bit of social theory to complement the history and theology. Could we not explain the problems in modern Islam in terms of civilizational stress (like Bernard Lewis), demographics (like Samuel Huntington) or "scape-goating" (following Rene Girard), as easily as by the religious differences between the two systems? Didn't the Japanese, Chinese, and West act very much the same way when subjected to similar social pressures?

Actually, I think Spenser could have considered these rival theories and borrowed what is useful and true in each of them, and still take the real differences between Islam and Christianity into account. He might have used Vishal Mangalwadi's arguments and others on the social influence of Biblical thinking. Girard's idea of scapegoating could have been helpful here, too, explaining Mohammed, and those who justify him, and the scapegoating of Israel, pretty well. I do think, ultimately, that the Muslim world is to a large extent controlled by Koranic orthodoxy. It also seems to me that the West itself was also heavily influenced by Islamic jihad ideas during the Middle Ages. Spenser needs more theory to unify the facts, rather than just saying, "Here these Muslims did this, and there they did that."

Spencer seems an honest man, and wrestles with the Koran and Bible what I would call a fair manner, dealing with verses that contradict his theory as well as those that support it. It is refreshing to see anyone eschew relativism, and take the differences in religions seriously. While his analysis could be improved, Islam Unveiled is a good place to go for the right questions, and to begin finding some reasonable answers.

 

 

The Truth About Mohammed: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, Robert Spencer

 

**** “Not a Pretty Picture”

 

Having recently written a book with a similar title ([[ASIN:0736922121 The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Challenges to God and Christianity]), I may be overly indulgent towards Spencer, perhaps out of a desire to justify my own vices. But an astonishing amount of lying goes on when it comes to religion. French literary critic and anthropologist Rene Girard explained a good bit of that dishonesty years ago when he noted that society tends to cover up its origins in collective violence. While Spenser doesn't frame his story of Mohammed and the religion he founded in those terms, Girard's theory (accessible on-line in an article he wrote in First Things magazine) does I think put early Islam in its proper context.

Aside from Spencer's courage in writing it, this book is good for several reasons: (1) He relentlessly examines the acts of Mohammed from early Muslim sources; (2) The book is frank without being sensationalistic; (2) Spenser shows good judgement, overall, in his choice of material and his evaluation of it; (4) He covers the main events in the life of Mohammed clearly; (5) At the same time he also shows how modern cruelties are justified by reference to the practice of The Prophet.

Doctrine does not determine how people act, but this book reveals just how foolish it is to deny (as some do) how deep the influence can be. Spenser recognizes that people of all faiths are capable of both cruelty and kindness; but the example the founder sets does make an enormous difference. (As to those who try to equate the Christian and Muslim records, see my article "Can Jesus Save Islam?" in Touchstone Magazine -- also available on-line.)

I do have a couple criticisms. First, one question Spenser doesn't resolve is whether the very telling hadith he cites are representative. (There seems to be quite a large amount.) Second, I question Spenser's sub-title -- I would describe Communism or Naziism as even more intolerant religions, and there are conventionally supernatural faiths (like the Tai Ping movement in China) quite as violent and intolerant as Islam. Third, I don't think Spenser offers very promising solutions to the problems he outlines. Simply telling Muslims not to rely on Mohammed so much probably won't do it. Might as well go whole hog and suggest they worship God in reference to the teachings of a less problematic prophet -- already tens of thousands of Muslims have come to believe in Jesus in jihad-bit countries like Iran and Algeria.

 

 

Light in the Shadow of Jihad, Ravi Zacharius

** “Preaching to the Choir, about the Choir”

 

Light in the Shadow of Jihad is eloquent and seemingly heart-felt sermon, but short on substance, it seemed to me.  Zacharius' main points are that relativism is unhelpful in meeting the needs of modern man, and unprincipled absolutism -- a la bin Laden -- is no good either.  It's also kind of a patriotic crie de couer.  All right.  Rousing, but not that enlightening. But maybe that's because I've heard the sermon before.

I tend to agree with most of what Zacharius says. But from the title I thought I might learn something about Islam here. I did not. The book is primarily about relativism. Zacharius is from India, but he seems to know more about Western philosophy than about non-Western religions, which is a pity, because Americans do need to learn about other religions from a prophetic, rather than uncritically affirming or denying, perspective. If that is what you are looking for, I recommend Paul Fregosi (Jihad), Maxime Rodinson (Mohammed), Bernard Lewis, V.S. Naipaul, or Peter Partner (God of Battles) for an honest and more informed look at Islam. I also highly recommend the works of Vishal Mangalwadi, another Indian Christian who writes with passion, but also it seems to me broader knowledge of other religions.  If you want an eloquent sermon on the errors of relativism, this book may meet your need, however.

 

Judaism

 

Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, Roger Kamenetz

**** “A little naïve, but a poignant, well-told story”

 

This is a good story. The author is like a "straight man" who brings out the flavor of the humorous, eccentric, and poignant personalities with whom he interacts, like rice that gives curry flavor. The overlapping themes of this book, refugee peoples meeting and finding commonality, Jewish intellectuals seeking to join universal truths to particular traditions, mysticism and the search for meaning, are individually interesting even for someone (like myself) who is neither Jewish nor Buddhist. ("I am human, and nothing human is strange to me" -- my excuse for giving my two bits.) The themes also blend well into a fascinating narrative.

There were points at which I wished the author had thought to ask more probing questions. For example, the spokesman for the Tibetan government said that if people mix religion and politics, they are the greatest enemy of their own religion. One would have liked to have someone ask him how this applies to the idea of the Dalai Lama, which has traditionally been about as close a fusion of church and state as you can get.  Kamenetz also accepts the usual black hat -- white hat stereotype of the relationship between Tibet and China.  In that long dance, however, it has often been the Tibetans who trod on Chinese feet, rather than the other way around.

One rabbi compares the Tibetan kuten, or spirit medium, to the Old Testament prophet. To me, having seen videos of possession in the Tibetan and Chinese traditions, and spirit possession itself in the Chinese tradition, this seems a facile and mistaken comparison. But such parallels add to the story Kamenetz is telling, and he accepts them with little, if any, critical examination. Perhaps one problem is he does not know the orthodox tradition well.

Allen Ginsburg sarcastically notes, at one point, that in Asia "They have the intelligence to realize there's no God." Kamenetz is fair-minded enough to find this "insulting." But here again, a little more knowledge of Asian religion would have been helpful. Ginsburg was even more wrong than he was rude. Hardly a country in Asia lacks a strong tradition of a High God like Yahweh in many ways.

That's a problem with spiritual tours of this sort.  One needs to be leery of generalizations about Asian religion made by anyone who has not learned the languages and lived among the people for a long time.  Otherwise what you meet is not the other religion itself, but your own culture's projections of the good or bad it would like to see in "the other."

I enjoyed this book for the light it shed on contemporary Jewish thinking, and for the story itself.  But when I want to know what Tibetan Buddhists think, I read the Dalai Lama. Or better yet, I sometimes suspect, his mother.

 

Mormonism

 

 

No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie

 

***** “An Excellent Biography”

 

You may get the impression, from many reviews below, that "No Man" is a work of angry polemic, "twisted" and "fabricated" with hardly a word of "positive information" about Joseph Smith. It did not seem that way to me. Brodie's tone seemed far more judicious and moderate than that of most critics, and her research extensive and thoughtfully sifted.

If you expect a white horse, a zebra's dark stripes will surprise you, but if you look for a black horse, his white stripes will likely catch your eye. My impression of Joseph Smith was pretty negative, before reading this book, which may be why it seemed more positive to me than to many Mormon readers. I had noticed parallels between Smith and "religious revolutionaries" like Mohammed and Karl Marx; Brodie persuaded me though that unlike them, he was not a violent man by nature. I knew Smith manipulated women, and (like Mohammed) quoted God to justify hoarding them; Brodie showed that he also seemed to really care for his (first) wife, and defer to her at times. From the Book of Mormon, and one rather wild sermon, I got the impression that Smith completely lacked literary talent; Brodie again argued me wrong. ("Now he was developing into a preacher of uncommon talent.") All in all, while I still think him a scoundrel, Brodie forced me to modify my prior impression of Joseph Smith in a more positive direction.

It is human nature to make excuses for successful tyrants: criticism of Marx or Mohammed usually draws the same ire as many reviews below display. Brodie is mildly affected by this weakness. Brodie tells of disreputable deeds, or quotes words that sound a bit mad, then follows with a paragraph that says in effect, "Boys will be boys," insisting on (and arguing for) Smith's greatness despite such contrary evidence. But for her, the facts seem to come first; interpretation is kept distinct. All in all, she has written a fascinating, readable, and fairly believable work of historical narrative.

And what a story she has to tell! If you doubt truth can be wilder than fiction, ponder this tale of the "peep stone" artist who invented a theology, founded cities, recreated polygamy and polytheism almost from scratch, wrote an alternate history of the Americas and persuaded twenty million people to believe it, and died in a shootout with a lynch mob, leaving dozens of grieving widows.

While Brodie shows that Smith was not inherently violent, the story does confirm other commonalities that struck me when I studied Marxism, Islam, and the Tai Ping Rebellion in China. She describes Smith's theology as a "potpourri" of influences; true of the ideological genius of Mohammed and Marx as well. She relates the evolution of Smith's thinking on economic "communism." Parallels between Smith's "revelations" about the use and control of women, and those of Mohammed and the Chinese visionary, Hong Xiuquan, also emerge. Lyman Wight's description of unbelievers as "devils, infernal hob-goblins, and ghosts" is also closely paralleled by the dehumanizing language of the Cultural Revolution and the Tai Ping movement.  

 

 

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer

**** “Weekend Warrior Halfway up Everest”

 

I'm reasonably fit: I hike, I jog sometimes. Yet I get the impression, from Krakauer's earlier book, Into Thin Air, that he would not advise me to climb Mount Everest, and from Into the Wild, that he might warn me against living off the land in Alaska.

Krakauer is reasonably fit, intellectually. He's passionate, curious, and a great story-teller. He has studied early Mormonism, and the fanatics whose murders he chronicles, quite well, despite complaints by mainstream Mormons below.  (What else can they say? "Official" Mormonism is a strange hybrid: the classic 19th Century blend of guns, girls, gods, and snake oil, evolving in the direction of orthodoxy, but required by corporate necessity to deny both the pagan nature of the original, and the radical nature of changes required.)

The story is bloodcurdling and somber, and fits with Krakauer's other books well. Why do people do crazy things? What weakness besets mortal man, betraying us to unnatural risks and unnecessary deaths? Are we mad, or is it the logic of the human situation that drives us to it?  There's a bit of Shakespeare in Krakauer.  The fact that the stories he tells are true-life, makes it all the more interesting.

But religion is even more complex and dangerous than ice falls or grizzly bears.  Krakauer tries fitfully to parlay his knowledge of Mormonism into an assault on the summit of larger religions, about which he demonstrates little knowledge.  To assume that all religions are like the one you happen to study, is the ultimate Weekend Warrior fallacy: "Climb one mountain, and you've climbed them all."

My view is that study of "fundamentalist" Mormonism does shed light on "revolutionary religions": "classical" Mormonism, Islam, Marxism, Peoples' Temple.  It is of less value in trying to understand Advetic or Buddhist thinking, (though there are similar cults in Asia) and only confuses the issue in dealing with Confucianism or Christianity.

When Krakauer yields to the impulse to generalize, he often gets it badly wrong.  He assumes that religious faith is by definition blind, unrelated to evidence.  But most religions in fact offer evidence, good or bad, for their claims.  Christian thinkers, including first-rate scholars, never tire of explaining that reason supports faith.  Krakauer has obviously never come across any of those explanations, or the evidence given to back it up.

"There are some ten thousand extant religious sects -- each with its own cosmology, each with its own answer for the meaning of life and death.  Most assert that the other 9,999 not only have it completely wrong, but are instruments of evil, besides."

This is theology with a butcher's knife.  In fact, most religions do NOT claim all the others are "completely wrong."  Buddhists agree with Hindus about reincarnation and karma.  Islam affirms Jesus as a prophet.  Christianity accepts the Jewish Bible, and affirms Muslim faith in God, Taoist faith in the power of the weak, Confucian love of kindness and loyalty, and much that is valuable in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Actually, it is atheism that assumes all religions are mainly wrong about the most important facts.

"The impetus for most fundamentalist movements . . . is a yearning to return to the mythical order and perfection of the original church."

Perhaps.  But doesn't it matter if the "original church" was founded by a polygamist who conquered the Arabian peninsula with the sword, a treasure-hunting con man, a monk who withdraws from society, or a person who healed the sick, forgave his enemies, and died for his disciples?  Joseph Smith was a scoundrel; that doesn't mean Confucius, Buddha, or St. John were.  Defining fundamentalism as "return to the original" does not join, it divides, religions, because the originals differed.

It is vital in our day to try to understand religions both respectfully and honesty.  I think Krakauer tries to do this, in regard to Joseph Smith and latter-day imitators.  He does not, however, squarely face the vast, uber-alpine chasms and icefalls that separate the specificities of human religions.  Understandably, perhaps, since to question the convention that all religions are basically the same has become the ultimate heresy.  But isn't that all the more recent to go after it?  Krakauer climbs a minor peak in the Utah Rockies, and gets a touch of altitude sickness.  If he wants to challenge the truly Himalayan fallacies of our day, he should chuck the relativistic cliches and other a priori dogmas like so many bags of twinkies, and go into serious intellectual training.

Still, within these limitations, this dramatic, passionate, and tragic tale fascinates, taught me a lot about Mormonism, and, like Krakauer's other books, gave me a great deal of food for thought.

 

 

Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing up in Polygamy, Dorothy Solomon

*** “A Partially-Examined Life”

 

Dorothy Solomon has lived what most Americans would take to be an odd life, growing up 28th of 48 children in an "old-fashioned" polygamist Mormon family. While the family story involves incest, lies, and murder, she portrays her father (stallion of the herd) as a kind and capable, if overwhelmed, man of medicine.  Solomon is a moderately good writer.  But she has not found a way to give this complex story a simple plot; it therefore meanders a bit, and the black hats and the white hats tend to get mixed, as do narrative threads.

All in all, I found the story interesting, and I think most readers will, too.  As a student of world religions, I also found it worth my while as fodder for larger questions Solomon leaves unexamined.  One thing that interests me here is of course the relationship between religion and sex.  Westerners tend to think of polygamy as odd, forgetting that throughout history, and in most cultures, it was normal for rich men, at least.  Curious, that Joseph Smith should reintroduce polytheism and polygamy at the very same moment.  As I showed in my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man
, history has seen many sexual revolutions, from which society recovers more often than it gains; what is more odd is the staying power of our own long and fruitful experiment with monogamy, under the influence of the New Testament.

Another question that I find interesting here, is the relationship between faith and morality in general.  Contrary to some reviewers below, I find her portrait of her father fairly realistic. "There are bad people in every religion," yes, but there are also bad ideas, which corrupt even kindly people, or cause them to do unintended harm.  Like Gorbachev-era communism, modern Mormonism is the seldom-remarked story of predatory belief mellowed over time, taken up by men and women who took to heart the ideals abusive leaders mouthed, and mellowed or explained away the oppressive means by which they got there.  (While followers of more kindly gurus water down the holiness of their leaders.)  But the modern world seems too cowardly to honestly examine the differences between religions. We prefer to talk vaguely of "fundamentalists" and "liberals," as if all religions in their purest form taught the same thing! Solomon does not open this can of worms, either, or explain why she remains a Mormon.  To a large extent, her life thus remains in part the story of an unexamined life.  But I am grateful she was bold enough to share as much as she did.