Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

Read: 24 February, 2014

Berg re-imagines the story of Jesus’s birth from the perspective of his parents – following them from the moment they met until Joseph’s death.

I picked up the book because I’ve enjoyed similar attempts to re-tell such a well-known story in the past, such as Lamb, or Testament. I find it an interesting exercise with a lot of potential. Handmaid, however, is absolutely terrible.

Firstly, there’s the writing quality. Some reviews describe Berg’s writing as “poetic,” by which I assume they mean “full of purple prose and stilted faux-historical dialogue.” If that’s the case, then yes, it’s very “poetic.”

The plot of the book shows that while Berg has probably picked up her Bible a few times, she’s done very little research besides. For example, when the angel comes to Joseph, it tells him that Mary’s son will be fulfilling the prophecy of Emmanuel, born of a virgin (p.97), except that there’s no such prophecy. The whole thing is based on a wonky translation in Greek – which Joseph had no reason to be familiar with in the first place – and a bibliomantic search to shoe-horn “prophecies” into a text after the fact. It’s one of Matthew’s most well known errors, and Berg should have known that. At the very least, she might have just skipped over it and avoided looking the fool.

She also follow’s Luke’s narrative and sends the family to Bethlehem for a census. This makes no sense in the gospel account anyway, since a census strives to document a population’s current positions, not their positions at birth. The premise is absurd. Then Berg makes it all the more absurd by having Joseph and Mary go all the way to Bethlehem for the supposed census, give birth, and then immediately leave for the circumcision in Jerusalem, without the census ever actually taking place.

This also means that Joseph puts a woman who has literally just given birth – mere hours earlier – onto a donkey’s back for an 8km walk. And when they finally arrive at their destination, Mary is “sore from the ride” (p.126). Not from giving birth, but from riding a donkey.

I don’t know if Berg has children of her own, but if she does, she clearly hasn’t let that experience temper her theology. Jesus is, of course, a calm newborn who “cried rarely: only to show his want for food” (p.132). That’s pretty typical for a newborn, first of all. But also, crying is a baby’s last resort when it’s hungry. I dislike it when books so blindly promote this idea of crying as a feeding cue because babies left to starve until they have to resort to crying are often too upset by that point to be able to actually nurse. Many women who wish to breastfeed and don’t know any better give up because their babies just won’t stop crying long enough to nurse – all because of this media image of only taking crying as a hunger cue. As a feminist, it really bugged me that Berg so casually and uncritically furthers that image.

Then there’s Joseph. Despite multiple angelic visitations, and all sorts of strangers – including the Magi – pointing out that Jesus is the messiah (something which has had disturbingly little impact in the fortunes or lives of his family), he still firmly believes that Jesus’s father was a Roman soldier. Further, he forced a woman so close to her due date to accompany him on a long journey – knowing that it would be painful for her and potentially disastrous if she went into labour – because he didn’t trust her enough to leave her alone at home (p.130). This is abusive behaviour, by the way. Then, with a newborn in tow – a mere few hours old! – he forces his family on even more journeys for no reason other than to avoid his personal discomfort that a few shepherds stopped by to see a new baby. Surely, Joseph must have known how precarious newborn lives are, how easily and how quickly they can die. His selfishness is absolutely astounding.

The whole book is trash, a little piece of theological masturbation for people who, I guess, really don’t want literature to challenge them. Thankfully, the book is blessedly short and the font very large, so it’s quickly over with.

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The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Read: 12 December, 2013

The Forty Rules of Love is a twofer, alternating between the stories of Ella (a housewife in her late 30s who comes to understand that the routine of her life has failed to make her happy) and Shams of Tabriz (a 13th century Sufi mystic).

Because the story has a lot to say about religion, (the titular rules being of a mystically divine nature, rather than the more mundane love between people), I wanted to discuss it in some more depth. Of course, that means spoilers. You’ve been warned. The spoiler-free version is this: I found the book somewhat shallow, which is fine except that it was posing as a book with depth. Worse yet, the ‘lessons’ of the book are what I would consider harmful – albeit in keeping with what I know of mysticism, and precisely the reason why I’ve never been a huge fan of mysticism.

***SPOILERS****

For a book that is supposed to be entirely about love, the word is never defined. Shams talks about loving everyone, but that’s clearly a very different kind of love from the one that he feels for his friend Rumi.

Moving into more personal territory, Shams talks about wanting an equal companion (and specifically claims not to want a disciple). Yet what we find is the opposite. Shams brings everything to his relationship with Rumi, and Rumi is greatly changed by their friendship. Shams, on the other hand, doesn’t change at all. Their relationship is precisely that between a master and a disciple.

The same thing happens on the Ella/Aziz front. Ella becomes enamoured with an author and comes to him seeking guidances. Though Aziz is not famous (yet?), the relationship has all the markings of a fantasy between a fan and an artist. Ella wants from the relationship, and she takes. She takes the life lessons, she takes the status, she takes the pleasure of the “greater person” condescending to give her attention. But what does she give in return? She never really seems to understand Aziz, so what is Aziz getting from the relationship except for, maybe, the headiness of uninformed adoration?

In both relationships, one party (Aziz and Shams) is a Manic Pixie Dream Lover. He appears, he seems inhuman/superior, he transforms the person who loves him, and then he dies so that the transformed person can now be an adult rather than being trapped as a disciple forever. Shams and Aziz are nothing more than objects of epiphany for Rumi and Ella.

This is not love. Love is reciprocal. This is, at best, infatuation.

I found Shams to be something of a hypocrite. He chides a scholar by saying: “A man with many opinions but no questions! There’s something wrong with that” (p.256). Yet Shams himself begins the book complete with his 40 rules, and spends his entire time lecturing others for not knowing God in the correct way.

Worse yet, while he’s there arguing with the scholar and telling him that he’s doing religion wrong, he tells him that: “What we need is sincere self-examination. Not being on the watch for the faults of others” (p.257). If I want to be as generous as possible, Shams does occasionally start to act in one way and then stop himself (though this is always through the eyes of others, so we get no real evidence of internal conflict). Even so, though, he is certainly quick to criticise others.

There’s also some contradictions in the talk about destiny. The term is discussed, and Shams explained that “destiny doesn’t mean that your life has been strictly predetermined. Therefore, to leave everything to fate and to not actively contribute to the music of the universe is a sign of sheer ignorance” (p.221). That’s lovely, and the image that follows of a musical ensemble is quite nice, yet Shams himself walks out to his death. It is predetermined (Rumi dreams of it before he even meets Shams), and Shams does nothing to prevent it.

Further, Shams says: “God is a meticulous clockmaker. So precise is His order that everything on earth happens in its own time. Neither a minute late nor a minute early. And for everyone without exception, the clock works accurately. For each there is a time to love and a time to die” (p.333). This appears to be quite close to what people mean when they talk about destiny. I am unclear about the distinction that Shams is trying to make.

Oprah-isms

No offence intended to Oprah herself, but I’ve coined the term “Oprah-ism.” It refers to a form of superficial spirituality where ideas are presented as having great depth, but they are actually either common sense or meaningless platitudes.

We get this when Rumi says, in a lecture, that suffering brings us closer to God (p.107). Rightfully so, a beggar with leprosy in the crowd starts to wonder what a man like Rumi can possibly know about suffering (a belief that is still around and causes a great deal of harm).

It’s true that Shams later convinces Rumi to actually meet some plebs, not to mention all the character assassination he does so that Rumi loses a lot of the status he’d always had (yet Rumi is still wealthy, and wealth makes a huge difference). But Rumi never explicitly renounces his position that suffering brings us closer to God. In fact, a perfectly possible interpretation would be that his original stance was correct but that he, himself, had not suffered enough to be close to God (enter Shams to give him a few minor encounters).

In other words, the conclusion in the story is not that Rumi was wrong to advocate on behalf of suffering, but rather that Rumi himself had not benefited from a sufficient amount of suffering.

Shams also goes on about submission. He says that: “Submission does not mean being weak or passive. It leads to neither fatalism nor capitulation. Just the opposite. True power resides in submission – a power that comes from within. Those who submit to the divine essence of life will live in unperturbed tranquillity and peace even when the whole wide world goes through turbulence after turbulence” (p.292). As with the argument about suffering, this fixation on submission has led to much harm. As is, the rule applies quite easily to the master telling the slave that “no, no, you are the one with the power, because there’s power in submission!” This is a very real and present issue, as we see fundamentalist Christians telling women that they are the ones with the power if they dress conservatively, eschew education, and stay home having as many babies as possible.

Shams says that: “The midwife knows that when there is no pain, the way for the baby cannot be opened and the mother cannot give birth. Likewise, for a new Self to be born, hardship is necessary. Just as clay needs to go through intense heat to become strong, Love can only be perfected in pain” (p.86). I’m sure abusers would love to have this one in their arsenal. Come on, baby, you know I’m just beating you up for your own spiritual development!

The fact that Shams and Rumi tell people that suffering and submission are wonderful without ever telling people not to cause suffering or to enforce submission makes these philosophies perfect examples of what I mean by Oprah-ism.

Aziz tells Ella that “all religious wars were in essence a ‘linguistic problem'” (p.159). Shams agrees: “Most of the problems of the world stem from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstandings” (p.66). I do agree with Shams that a lot of conflicts stem from misunderstandings. But Aziz’s statement is just naive.

I used to agree with it. That all religions are trying to know God and that they are just getting hung up on the little details. If believers would just stop arguing for a minute and actually listen – really listen – they’d discover that they’re all really on the same page. It’s the only way for people to believe that their version of religious Truth is right without being arrogant towards sincere believers who disagree.

While the idea certainly makes for more pleasant inter-faith dialogue, it simply is not true. There are real, and significant, differences between faiths. To gloss over, say, the centrality of redemptive sacrifice in Christianity so that the Christian and the Muslim can hang out together without hackles raised may make for good neighbours but it makes for terrible theology. To make Aziz’s idea work, you have to strip religious of so many of their tenants that what is left would be unrecognisable by most believers.

On a few occasions, a distinction is made between the heart and the head. Shams says: “The Path to the Truth is a labor of the heart, not of the head. Make your heart your primary guide! Not your mind. Meet, challenge, and ultimately prevail over your nafs [false ego] with your heart” (p.40). In another rule, he says: “Intellect ties people in knots and risks nothing, but love dissolves all tangles and risks everything. Intellect is always cautious and advises, ‘Beware too much ecstasy,’ whereas love says, ‘Oh, never mind! Take the plunge!’ Intellect does not easily break down, whereas love can effortlessly reduce itself to rubble. But treasures are hidden among ruins. A broken heart hides treasures” (p.66).

So what does this even mean? The distinction between the heart and the head is clearly not literal, so it would seem that Shams is making a ’emotion versus intellect’ argument. Yet what does it mean to prevail over your nafs if not that you must master and control baser impulses? When Baybars beats up Desert Rose, is he not acting in rage? Isn’t that using his heart? If he used his head, he might have understood that Desert Rose was largely a victim of circumstance, trapped in a situation she has no desire to be in. To deny one’s power to reason and use logic sounds like an astoundingly bad idea. After all, wouldn’t we need our intellect to distinguish between those emotions that are laudable and those that are nafs-y?

Philosophy I liked

Any time you get a large enough splattering of spiritualisms, you’re bound to get a few good ones. Here’s a few that I liked:

Aziz tells Ella: “I know you like to cook. Did you know that Shams says the world is a huge cauldron and something big is cooking in it? We don’t know what yet. Everything we do, feel, or think is an ingredient in that mixture. We need to ask ourselves what we are adding to the cauldron” (p.146). It’s a nice image, and a good way to think of our place in the world.

One of Shams’s rules reads: “Nothing should stand between yourself and God. Not imams, priests, rabbis, or any other custodians of moral or religious leadership. Not spiritual masters, not even your faith. Believe in your values and your rules, but never lord them over others. If you keep breaking other people’s hearts, whatever religious duty you perform is not good. Stay away from all sorts of idolatry, for they will blur your vision. Let God and only God be your guide. Learn the Truth, my friend, but be careful not to make a fetish out of your truths” (p.246). Now, of course, Shams breaks Kimya’s heart (and Rumi’s, and Aladdin’s, and Kerra’s), but the sentiment is a good one.

Overall, it was an interesting book and I did enjoy reading it, but it was far too superficial a treatment of the subject to really provide any meaty food for thought. I also found much that was objectionable (Rumi forbidding his wife from reading his books, for example – though he does eventually decide that girls just as good students as boys, he never allows his wife entrance to his library. Married women are not to have intellectual interests, apparently).

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Zealot by Reza Aslan

This review is a repost from my Bible Blog: CarpeScriptura.com

Read: 3 November, 2013

I posted my review of No god but God a few days ago [the review posted to my Bible Blog is different (in small-ish ways) from the one I posted here] because I feel it’s important to contextualize my discussion of ZealotNo god by God seems to be fairly unanimously considered awesome, with many reviewers saying that they use it as a reference. In fact, I read it after John Green said in a video that it was his recommended primer on Islam.

Yet I found many instances where Aslan was fudging. Either he slipped some piece of information in casually that really needed a more detailed treatment, or he’d use linguistic tricks to shift perception. I don’t want to repeat my whole review (you can go read it for yourself), but my point is that many of the complaints I’ve seen of Zealot are not at all unique to that book.

The Infamous Interview

A few months ago, Aslan did an interview with Lauren Green on Fox News. The interview is awful. Not to be too “Leftist,” but it pretty much encapsulates every complaint made of Fox News. It’s almost so extreme as to be a thing of beauty. Really, watch it, if you haven’t already:

Green’s awkwardness is very distracting, but a little fact checking reveals that Aslan doesn’t come out of this interview so well either.

As Matthew J. Franck points out, Aslan misrepresented his qualifications:

Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false.  Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.”

More importantly, Larry Hurtado points out that Aslan is a:

PhD in Sociology of Religion, and with his own marketing firm, and with a university connection in creative writing, but no training or demonstrated expertise in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, Roman history, or any of the subjects relevant to the book in question.

Green’s question of his qualifications to write this book was absolutely warranted, she just focused on a completely trivial and irrelevant reason. (Not that, of course, Aslan wouldn’t have the right to write this book or even be taken seriously, but the fact that he misrepresented his qualifications to lend himself additional authority is very concerning.)

This issue is in the book, as well. Within just a couple pages, we get:

…two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity… (p. xix-xx)

…two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history… (p. xx)

And then Aslan’s Acknowledgements page begins:

This book is the result of two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement…

Pro tip: If your Acknowledgements begin by mentioning all of your own hard work, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t remember ever seeing a purportedly scholarly book dwelling so much on all of the author’s hard work in putting together the research. It’s a distraction, completely irrelevant to the quality of the research, so why even mention it?

As an amateur Bible-enthusiast, I don’t have a lot of tools at my disposal to distinguish between good sources and bad sources. This kind of pontificating on one’s qualifications is a huge red flag.

The Book

Aslan is a fantastic writer. His use of language is extremely effective and he can, as they say, bring his subjects “to life.”

But his writing ability isn’t necessarily a good thing for his readers. As I pointed out in my review of No god but God, he uses subtle linguistic tricks to predispose his readers for/against certain ideas, and he does it so well that I find myself needing to read his books on constant high alert – reading slowly and making sure to note every single word.

It’s exhausting.

While I lack the expertise to judge most of Aslan’s assertions, my suspicions were raised early on when he states that “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition” (p.xxviii). Given that a large part of his argument rests on this fact, I felt that it warrants far more than just a throw-away line. And, as it turns out, the use was not nearly so clear-cut.

I found the construction of Aslan’s notes to be worrisome. Facts are stated outright throughout the book, often without attribution. The notes, rather than being proper end notes, just summarize the research Aslan did for each chapter, provide a little more discussion, and recommend further reading. That is not enough. I need to fact check his statements, and the format of the book does not, in most cases, facilitate that.

Even in cases where he uses a contemporary document to bolster his claims, he frequently fails to name the document (which might be Google-able). Instead, the notes simply refer me to journal articles hidden behind paywalls – something that most of his audience will obviously not have access to.

I was also concerned by how easily he shifts back and forth between dismissing the gospel accounts and reading into them to find a nuance that supports his claims, or using them to feed the biographical narrative. Often, there is no attempt to explain why some passages are apparently reliable and others aren’t. Even when there is an attempt at an explanation, it’s only say that obviously the gospel authors changed that bit because they were writing from a post-destruction vantage – circular reasoning at its finest.

But, like I said, I really do lack the expertise to give the content of the book any kind of real rebuttal. Instead, here are some reviews that I think make compelling counter-arguments and, at the very least, offer up food for thought:

Conclusion

Overall, it’s a fun read and I found the depictions of first century Palestine very informative. But without the pre-existing bank of knowledge to sort the wheat from the chaff, I’m very hesitant to absorb any of the information Aslan presents.

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The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible by J.R. Porter

Read: 2 May, 2013

As I’m blogging my way through reading the Bible, I’m always on the lookout for books that might help me understand the material on a less superficial level, and Porter’s book just happened to pop up in a search of my library’s catalogue.

Much of the content of the book is simply retelling the stories of the Bible, occasionally relating the information to outside sources (such as the writings of other Near Eastern cultures, archaeological finds, etc), though the “extra info” boxes that appear on nearly every page contained far more detailed discussions. Particularly in the portion of the book covering the New Testament, I was able to find quite a bit of food for thought.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, what really set this book apart was the illustrations. Every page has photographs of the relevant landscape or archaeological sites, diagrams, or paintings, and these were great fun to flip through.

Lastly, I quite enjoyed that Porter steps out of the scope of the Bible itself to, towards the end of the book, discuss Christian art and the development of beliefs in the early Church.

Though I do think that this would make a lovely coffee-table book, there were some pretty terrible editing issues, such as info boxes that end mid-sentence and a punctuation philosophy that borders on anarchism.

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Manners & Customs in the Bible, 3rd edition by Victor H. Matthews

Read: 6 April, 2013

In Manners & Customs, Matthews covers the major periods of biblical history, from the Ancestral Period down to the Intertestamental and New Testament Period. In each section, he covers some of the historical background of the period, such as what was going on politically both in Hebrew lands and nearby regions. This is followed with specific discussions of construction methods and styles, marriage customs, clothing and adornment, weapons and military technology, and more.

I found the text interesting, particularly in its range, though I was a bit disappointed by how heavily it relied on the books of the Bible for its sources – mainly because I’m also reading the Bible and thus have access to those same passages. What I wanted was more information on what other texts from the period and the archaeological evidence have to say. Though I suppose I might have been unreasonable given that the title of the book specifies that the manners and customs are in the Bible.

It also led to some issues where Matthews took the Bible at face value in the absence of any corroborating outside evidence, but he was using the same matter-of-fact voice he uses elsewhere when there is corroboration. So, for example, he talks about the exodus as a discrete event, as it’s presented in the Bible, without mentioning the possibility of a folk tradition that glomped together multiple migration events, or simply a cultural memory of Egyptian occupation.

All in all, I found it to be an interesting read. There are better introductions to “biblical times” resources, though I appreciated Matthews’ focus on domestic customs – even though I found these to be far more sparse than the title had led me to believe.

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Testament by Nino Ricci

Read: 25 June, 2009

If there was a historical figure of Jesus, who was he? Where did he come from and what did he really believe and preach? Ricci explores these questions by composing four new gospels. Although independent stories, and largely covering different points in Jesus’ life, there is some overlap and quite a few “ah ha! That explains it!” moments as events are told from different perspectives.

Testament imagines a human Jesus, a Jesus who is mythologized and divinized by followers who loved and depended on him and who were lost when he was suddenly ripped away from them. Jesus is also a presented as a complex individual who comes to mean different things to different people. Those around him struggle to understand him, to fit him into simplistic models, but of course these cannot accommodate real personalities (which tend to be multi-facetted and even contradictory).

I generally dislike books written from multiple perspectives. Invariably, the author’s own voice shows through, making each account too similar (minus the occasional superficial difference, such as the use of phonetic accenting). But in Testament, each narrator feels like a completely separate entity. They have their own interpretations of events and pay attention to only those details that are of interest to them. Mary’s story feels like a female, world-weary, and maternal narrator, while Mary Magdalene’s story feels like a love-struck, hero-worshipping young girl. The construction of psychically real characters is clearly Ricci’s strong suite.

Testament is a continuing story. By this I mean that while only four stories are actually told, there are many other characters throughout the novel who hint at having their own interesting perspective to talk about, their own stories. The book could easily have been far longer, but instead Ricci chose to merely hint at these other stories, to provide food for the reader’s imagination long after the novel itself has been finished.

A great deal of research clearly went into the writing of Testament. It was a fun little game for me to try to identify which theory Ricci was calling upon at any given moment. While I don’t personally agree with all of his choices, he did certainly manage to collate many diverse theories into a cohesive whole and, more importantly, a historically believable story.

I found this to be a very enjoyable read. Not only is in entertaining and interesting, it is also intellectual (as far as these things go). It is a book that feeds the brain without the reader even noticing and, as such, can easily be enjoyed on a number of different levels. It certainly ought to be required reading for all Atheists and doubters from a Christian tradition.

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Lamb by Christopher Moore

Thank you, Zeba, for the recommendation.

Read: 11 January, 2008

The story is written from the perspective of Biff, Jesus’s best friend. In the modern day, an angel raises Biff from the dead so that he can write a new gospel. It follows Jesus from the time Biff met him as a child up until their deaths. It shows us Jesus’s early training as a stonemason, his travels into the East, and his eventual ministry.

Lamb is an absolutely hilarious comedy about Jesus that, surprisingly, manages to remain almost completely inoffensive. I loved reading it. It was very funny with a writing style similar to Carl Hiaasen’s, but lacked Hiaasen’s flaws (like the awfully disappointing endings). It was clever where it needed to be, sensitive where it needed to be, and funny where it needed to be. The characterizations of Jesus, Biff, and Mary Magdalene were stunningly constructed.

There were two portions that I felt a little let down by. The first is when Biff and Jesus get to Calcutta and see a ritual dedicated to the goddess Kali. The scene was important to the story, but it felt dry. It was too descriptive, like an anthropological study. I do understand that it’s supposed to be horrifying, so the humour of the rest of the story would have been out of place. But it needed something different. Reading the Afterward, Moore mentions that he had learned about the ritual from Joseph Campbell, which goes a way to explain the tone of the passage. Unable to use his normal humour, Moor had resorted to Campbell’s more academic writing style.

I was also a little disappointed that the story skipped over much of Jesus’ ministry. The reason given in the book is that the real gospels already tell that story, but I would have liked to have heard Biff’s perspective. I understand that it would have been more difficult to write about that portion without offending people and without getting preachy, but the pacing just didn’t match up with the rest of the story. It felt like the last few chapters ended the book with a bit of a “plegh.”

These two complaints are very minor, though. The book was awesome and I highly recommend it for pretty much anyone. Having studied the New Testament a bit, I found a lot of references to theories about Jesus and a lot of jokes that asked for a certain familiarity with the Bible to get and my previous knowledge enriched my reading. But friends who had no previous interest or understanding found no difficulty in following the story. I also think that reasonable Christians won’t find it at odds with their faith. There’s something for everyone.

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