The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss

Read: 9 August, 2017

The central argument of the book is that, while there were some periods of actual persecution of Christians in the early centuries, they were very few. Most of the martyrdom accounts we have are unsubstantiated, or refer to prosecution (where Christians were breaking laws that were not drawn or enforced with Christians specifically in mind).

And this matters because it is the narrative of martyrdom that excuses horrifically callous behaviour. Specifically, the fudging between disagreement and persecution. If Christians are always and have always been under attack from worldly forces, and people wanting to get gay-married is an attack on Christianity, then the Christian fight against gay marriage becomes a fight of self-defence.

I would also add, though Moss doesn’t, that there is also a fudging between chosen martyrdom and imposed martyrdom. Part of the veneration of martyrs also promises greater heavenly reward for greater earthly suffering, which is the logic used by people like Mother Teresa in denying palliative care to terminal patients. By increasing their suffering in their last days – without their consent (informed or otherwise) – Mother Teresa sought to purify their souls.

The book does have some weaker moments, such as when Moss hitches much of her argument against the reality of persecution in the earliest period on the fact that the group in question was not yet called Christians (largely around p.130-134). Which is just an argument from semantics, and not particularly useful.

But for the most part, Moss constructs her arguments well, She also strikes a good balance between being readable and being informative.

I think that much of this book will appeal to the “New Atheist” types, who will make much of the occasional ‘gotcha’ sound bites. I also think it’s a valuable (though perhaps uncomfortable) read for Christians who currently believe that early Christians were persecuted, especially if they believe that this persecution has been ongoing. This book won’t hold any hands, though, so I suspect that most readers from this group will simply dismiss it.

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Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Read: 30 January, 2017

“It was a dark and stormy night.” 

I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

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Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Read: 22 July, 2015

Anyone who has been following my book reviews for a while knows that I am rather fascinated by Christian fundamentalism, particularly of the Quiverfull variety. So far, I’ve covered Kathryn Joyce’s groundbreaking Quiverfull, as well as the Duggars’ (who popularized the movement through their reality show on the TLC channel) 20 and Counting. I also regularly read blogs like Love, Joy, FeminismBroken DaughtersDefeating the Dragons, and Cynthia Jeub’s new blog. And, of course, Vyckie Garrison’s No Longer Quivering that started it all.

There’s a sideshow aspect to my fascination, I suppose, because the lifestyle and beliefs really are weird. But far more than that, I think I feel so attracted to these narratives is because of how familiar they are. When I read Garrison’s early posts, I could see her brain working the way mine works, her conclusions trending in the same directions. Had I been exposed to fundamentalist Christianity at certain points of my life, I’m pretty sure that I could have – that I would have fallen into the same traps. So when I read these accounts, it’s with the relief of a narrow miss, and perhaps an inoculation.

In any case, all this is just to say that I was very intrigued when I heard about Devoted, and I ordered it through my library immediately.

The book follows Rachel Walker, the second daughter and currently eldest in-house, of a family with eleven children. She is responsible for cooking, laundry, cleaning, teaching, and caring for her younger siblings. She is a mom in all but status – a mom to an industrial-sized family. Things start to change for Rachel when a miscarriage throws her mother into a terrible depression just as Lauren comes back to town.

I really enjoyed Devoted. At first, I wasn’t too sure about Rachel. I was glad that she wasn’t a transplanted feminist, nor does her epiphany processes seem too easy. She just seemed so very immature, and I worried that it might be due to Mathieu’s poor writing. About a quarter of the way through, however, I realized that quite the opposite was the case. Rachel was immature because of course she was, she has been sheltered her entire life, denied all opportunity to form thoughts of her own. Once she starts thinking, however, she develops beautifully, and it’s wonderful to see that process. Mathieu handles it exquisitely.

I really enjoyed the depictions of both Lauren and Mark. It would have been very easy to have them there to serve the purpose of progressing Rachel – Lauren could have said all the right things, Mark could have swept her off her feet. In the hands of a lesser writer, that’s exactly what would have happened.

But Lauren is flawed, and she is still going through the same process as Rachel, albeit farther along and on a different path. And that’s the best part of her character – that she and Rachel are growing differently, coming to different conclusions, yet they are able to learn together and support each other. Seeing Rachel assert herself and firmly explain to Lauren that she can’t go from being under her father’s protection to being under Lauren’s protection was wonderful and very moving.

I enjoyed the little games Rachel plays with Mark, and his efforts to be conscientious despite her needs being so alien to him. (SPOILERS: I was also very glad that they never kissed or entered into any kind of relationship – I didn’t feel that Rachel was really ready for that yet, even by the end, and it would have seemed somewhat predatory for Mark to approach her in that way while she remains still so innocent and child-like. Developing their friendship, allowing Rachel to learn that it’s okay to be around boys, to be friends with boys, struck just the right tone.)

Rachel’s experiences are, to use her word, complicated, but Mathieu wisely didn’t make them horrific, though I do think she could have covered the good times a little more – Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism makes a point of talking about her family’s closeness, her good memories, to balance the bad, and Devoted didn’t really have any of that. Apart from Ruth, it didn’t really seem like Rachel had any attachment to her siblings, not even the little ones. I think it would have made her decision to leave her family more painful, and her initial depression more relatable. But that is my only complaint in a book full of great characterization.

I really enjoyed Devoted. Mathieu made a lot of great choices, and I really had the feeling that I was getting to know the characters – to the point of being a little sad when the book was over because I wouldn’t get to be in their lives any more. She’s managed to provide a lovely companion piece for Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull.

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Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Read: 29 June 2015

As with Starship TroopersStranger offers up a buffet of thoughts and philosophies, provoking quite a bit of introspection, if not agreement. The premise of the novel is that a human born and raised on Mars is brought back to earth, juxtaposing human (mainly North American, but there are smatterings of Islam) culture to the fictional Martian way of thinking. Much of the difference, it seems, stems from humans having two biological sexes, while the Martians have only one.

The problem, the same problem I had with Starship Troopers, is that some pretty awful things are presented as Truth, delivered by characters who are set up all-knowing (or close enough) Truth Tellers, without even so much as the balance of a dissenting voice. In Starship Troopers, what stood out the most for me was the proposition that we could solve our social ills by reinstating corporal punishment (from babyhood and into adulthood). Here, my big issue had to do with the novel’s attitudes toward women.

Women are treated rather atrociously throughout the novel. There are brief moments where Heinlein seems close to acknowledging this, such as when he has Jill bristle at being called “little lady” by Digby (and Harshaw underlines the point by bringing it up again, mocking Digby by using the term himself). This comes so close to being a condemnation of the casual infantilizing of women that was so common in the 50s and 60s. The problem is that Digby is far from the only character who does this (and his “crime” seems to be more the awkward repetition of the phrase, rather than its use in the first place). Throughout the novel, women are referred to as “little girl” (and equivalent terms), and generally treated like some odd cross between child and servant.

But the true shocker is when Jill claims that, 9 times out of 10, women are at least partially to blame if they get raped. This is presented as instructional, teaching Mike (the “man from Mars”) about The Way Things Are, and the statement is never challenged. It is simply dropped as a logical and accurate observation, one that anyone other than a cultural newborn like Mike would know, if they gave it any thought.

Even once we get to the nest stage of the novel, where Mike becomes a messiah figure leading his disciples in what is presented as a perfect human state, when the male and female characters are at their most equal, the banter still reveals deep prejudices. As do the assumptions made by the characters, and how many of the duties are arranged (it is women who do the bulk of the “service” work, such as running Harshaw’s bath).

The problem, as with the issue of corporal punishment in Starship Troopers, is that Heinlein presents himself as a philosophical forward thinker, capable of seeing through the cultural prejudices that blind most people. And yet, when it comes to certain issues, he seems just as unwilling to consider alternatives as anyone else.

The issue of homosexuality in Strangers (and in Heinlein’s broader body of work) is a much more complicated discussion. On the surface, Strangers seems as indisposed to challenge the social mores of the 50s and 60s with regards to homosexuality as it is with regards to women.

There main pull-quotes are:

  1. Jill is very concerned that Mike, being from genderless Mars, might not know not to accept advances from gay men, so she issues a rule against it. She is relieved that Mike chooses men for his inner circle who are very masculine (and women who are very feminine), emphasizing both her ideal of sexual binarism and her distaste for homosexuality.
  2. When Mike allows Jill to see women through a man’s eyes – as sexual objects – she is relieved to find that she goes back to viewing women in a non-sexual way once she sees them through her own eyes again. The narrator says that “to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much.” While the argument might be made that this is all from Jill’s perspective, a remnant of her somewhat conservative upbringing, the view is never challenged (even though Jill’s views in other areas are being challenged in nearly every scene in which she appears – first by Harshaw, then by Mike).
  3. When Ben tells Harshaw of his visit to the nest, he is forced to admit that, in the nest, men kiss men. This, he assures Harshaw, is “not a pansy gesture.” Harshaw then talks about the Kiss of Brotherhood, and a fair amount of effort is put into reassuring themselves and the reader that there is nothing homosexual about the expressions of physical intimacy between men in the context of Water Brothers.

But then there are hints of a more accepting perspective. Jill is no Lesbian, we are assured, yet her Kiss of Brotherhood with Patty is described as “greedy.” Not only that, but men are expressing physical intimacy with each other, and frequently doing so while completely naked. Like I said, it’s a complicated issue, and one that I don’t feel prepared to parse out. I did manage to find a good article on Strange Horizons that tackles the issue. 

My final complaint about the novel is that Harshaw feels far too much like an author insert. He is an outsider, a prime mover, and he is a dispenser of wisdom through nearly the whole book. His role is almost exclusively to drop down into the other characters’ lives, tell them everything they’ve been doing wrong, deliver snippets of great wisdom, and swoop back into the sky. Pages upon pages are devoted to his rants, and all the other characters fawn over his superior logic and wisdom. At one point, a character exclaims that Harshaw is the only person to be capable of groking Mike’s mysteries without first having learned to speak Martian. It’s not until the very end that he is taken by surprise, and then it’s only to pump up Mike’s own specialness and to set Harshaw up as his spiritual successor.

The novel feels rather uneven, divided into two (arguably three) very clear parts that struggle to fit together as a whole. Still, I found the novel very interesting and thought-provoking, despite its flaws.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick

Read: 26 March, 2014

I first saw Blade Runner as a child and absolutely loved it – mostly, at the time, because I had a rather large Indiana Jones-fueled crush on Harrison Ford. Seeing the movie many times over the years, I came to love it for all sorts of other reasons in addition to Hunkison Ford.

Yet, for some reason, I didn’t get to reading Do Androids Dream until just now.

I really enjoyed it. It’s pretty obvious where Blade Runner got its material from, yet the two are still sufficiently different that reading Androids felt like a fresh experience.

I found the book to be very thought-provoking, and the first 2/3, especially, really impressed me. It got a bit weird toward the end (as one reviewer put it, it takes Deckard about five pages to buy a goat, but he falls in love in a single sentence), but I found the ideas compelling enough to continue despite what seemed to be something of a narrative falling apart.

The society is very dated, with of course a stay-at-home wife. But at the same time, she’s given a depression – a real depression, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the experience described in such a spot-on way. It’s an odd sort of mix, an acknowledgement that the societal norm is harmful without ever coming close to suggesting that an alternative might be possible (I mean the expectation that married women stay at home, not the choice to do so).

It’s a short book, quickly read, but packed tight with ideas.

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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Read: 6 March, 2014

Mists of Avalon retells the story of King Arthur and his knights, but from the perspectives of the women in the story – Guinevere (called Gwenhwyfar), Mogana le Fey (called Morgaine), and others.

I loved how complex the characters were, and how seamless their transition as they grow older and change their opinions. I loved the religious discussions and the tug-o-war between old and new. I loved getting to hear all the familiar King Arthur stories, but from the perspectives of characters who had always seemed to be on the outside.

It was a long book, and it took a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. I found it exciting and interesting and wonderful and so totally “up my alley.”

I highly recommend this book for its complex and nuanced look at life, religion, gender, sexuality, and so much else.

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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 Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

Read: 16 December, 2013

Given the title, I’d hoped that The Happy Atheist would be more about Atheism (something like Raising Freethinkers for adults, perhaps). Unfortunately, it was more in line with The God Delusion and God Is Not Great. The book is, for the most part, an attack on religion and religious thinking.

Of course, it’s PZ Myers, so it was still a lot of fun to read. The book reads a lot like Myers’s blog, Pharyngula. There’s no real structure, just a thought per post-length chapter. There were some very interesting ones, such as his classic “Courtier’s Reply.”

While many of the chapters were fairly standard fair for atheist writing about religion, there were some real gems. “The Proper Reverence Due Those Who Have Gone Before” and “Niobrara” were particularly wonderful. Had the whole book been more along those lines, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

If you enjoyed The God Delusion, you will probably enjoy this. PZ Myers has an entertaining writing style and is always thought-provoking. If you’ve been there and would rather have a bit more meat, it may be worthwhile waiting for something else.

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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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Hexslinger #1: A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

Read: 23 November, 2013

When I read the description of A Book of Tongues at the store, I knew I had to get it. Gay cowboy wizards involved with ancient Mesoamerican gods? What’s not to like!

Unfortunately, I just could not get into it. All the elements of a book I’d really like are there, and I found it full of great ideas, but the execution just fell flat. The narrative style was inconsistent, slipping back and forth between modern and Cowboyese. I also noticed several errors – wrong grammatical use, wrong diction, etc – that made the book a hard slog. And while it’s clear that a lot of research was done in the writing of the book, there were a few anachronisms that I found rather jarring (such as one character’s use of the term “glory hole,” which was not used in its present sexual context until much later).

The feverish quality of the narrative meant that I could never get a grasp on the characters – something that’s necessary for me to care what happens next. The entire book read like the weird dream/trance sequences that I always skim through.

All in all, I find myself very disappointed. I love creative magic systems and I just can’t get enough of books that incorporate mythology into their narrative, but A Book of Tongues just did not do it for me.

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