Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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Kon Kon Kokon, vol.1 by Koge-Donbo

Read: 20 May, 2015

A friend was moving some time ago (an embarrassingly long time ago) and offloaded a bunch of books – including a rather large collection of manga. Of course, this all sat in a closet until my recent major purge effort. I’ve gotten rid of several dozens of books in the last few days, but there are some that I wanted to read quickly before giving them away. The manga, which only takes 20 minutes or so per book, seemed like something I could at least skim through before the collection passed on to its next owners.

I should probably preface this review by saying that I don’t generally read manga. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read manga before. So I’m sure that a lot of the conventions went right over my head, or maybe I just didn’t get it, I don’t know.

The description on the back of the book tells us that this is a story of a young man, Ren, who very desperately wants to be the Cool Guy in school. He is met by a fox-girl, Kokon, who claims that he saved her many years previously and she has now come to repay him.

So that’s the synopsis, and it’s perfectly fine. It has the potential to be interesting (which is why I picked the book out of the box to begin with). The problem is that these two plot points – Ren’s desire to be cool and Kokon’s desire to repay him – are mentioned over and over again on almost every page. With every new thing that happens, Ren freaks out that this will make him uncool, Kokon repeats her desire to repay him, things work out, Ren is gratified to learn that the awkward situation actually made him look cooler. Over and over again.

The story telling is far too hyperactive for my tastes. Every emotion is presented as extreme. Meeting someone new leads to an inner monologue of questions: “Who is she?? Where does she come from?? Will she find out that I’m secretly a total nerd?? Will meeting her make me look uncool??”

I can accept that some of this might be due to poor translation, but I suspect that it’s just bad storytelling.

The artwork is fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it isn’t terrible, either. The main problem I had was keeping the characters straight, since they all rather look alike.

I was intrigued by the concept of mythological creatures coming into a “real world” setting, but Kon Kon Kokon just fell flat for me.

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The Martian by Andy Weir

Read: 10 March, 2015

During a terrible storm that forced the rest of his team to evacuate from the planet, Mark Watney – botanist and mechanical engineer – is left completely alone and under-supplied on Mars.

This book is Robinson Crusoe in space, complete with the lists, the problems, and the lengthy descriptions of the solutions. And it was fascinating. I wasn’t following a lot of the math and science, but I never felt like that was a problem as the narrator led me through it, and I’ve learned quite a few new terms/concepts.

At the beginning, I felt like the characterization was suffering. Much of the narration is written in a “comm chatter” style, where characters relate facts rather than feelings or personality. So early on in the book, I felt like the characters who were being introduced were unmemorable and interchangeable. Even Mark himself was just a guy doing things on Mars – the things happening to him and the things he was doing were all interesting, but he was not. However, as the book progressed, I felt like I got to know him better. I came to see how he would respond to stressful situations, I got to see how he was coping with the loneliness and the stress. Even the side characters started to seem familiar, and I was surprised by how recognizable they became even though they received so little narrative time.

The pacing of the narrative is incredible. This was the first time in a very long time – at least since I became a parent – that I just put everything else aside and read a book for eight hours straight. I was on the edge of my seat. I even started to get a stomach ache at one point because I was so tense. It was riveting.

There were a few minor issues. The biggest, and the only one really worth mentioning, is that the narrative style was a little inconsistent. There were two main styles: The first were Mark’s first person logs, chronicling his activities on Mars. The second were the third person narratives of all the other characters, both on earth and the other team members still on the Hermes ship. That was fine, and a good decision, I thought. However, toward the end, I counted two third person narrative sections following Mark. In both situations, I could understand why the choice was made (the descriptions were of things that Mark wouldn’t have described in his own logs). However, I did find it jarring, since it was a break in the established patterned. I think those two sections could/should have been integrated somehow into Mark’s log.

When I finish a book, I like to go online and see what other people have said about it before I write my own review. By far the most confusing/amusing review I found gave the book 2/5 stars based on the complaint that “the main character just comes across like a complete nerd.” Okay, yes. He’s a nerd. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and an astronaut. He’s going to talk about math and science a lot, and he’s going to crack nerdy jokes. If you hate nerds, this probably isn’t the right book for you.

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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

Read: 6 June, 2014

Genghis Khan is frequently portrayed as a savage barbarian, the enemy of culture. Yet according to Weatherford, he gave power to his wives and daughters, and he installed a system of laws that were often quite progressive. In Weatherford’s narrative, it was the great Khan’s sons who initiated the Mongolian version of the “War on Women,” excising the mentions of their sisters’ deeds from the historical record, removing them from power, and collapsing the empire Genghis Khan had built. That is, until Manduhai saved it some 2-3 hundred years later.

I had already heard of Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess, but not have Manduhai, nor of the other ruling princesses and queens Weatherford mentions. I found their history extremely interesting, and I was glad to read a more nuanced account of Genghis Khan, as well. That being said, the Princesses Good / Princes Evil motif tried my patience.

I have also heard from someone who read Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that the princesses and queens who are so important and central to the history of the Mongol empire, are barely mentioned at all. I can’t confirm as I haven’t read it, but it just makes me angry that he would perpetuate the distinction between History and History With Women In It, even when those women take on masculine roles.

Same for his dismissive attitude toward those women who don’t cut quite an impressive figure as the hugely pregnant Manduhai riding into battle. For example, he describes the women of one period as “operat[ing] behind the scenes, making alliances, promoting heirs, fighting with co-wives and mothers-in-law, and pursuing the life of court ladies, who seemed so important to the political life of the moment but had minimal lasting significance on the rise and fall of empires” (p.126). As if putting someone on the throne could be dismissed as having “minimal lasting significance.”

The sense I got was that women were central and important when they ruled directly and rode into battle. Essentially, the influence of women matters only insomuch as it takes place within spheres that are so often considered masculine. This casual dismissal of “women’s work” irked me.

Still, it was an enjoyable and very readable book, and it was refreshing to see women discussed in relation to the Mongolian Empire (other than Borte). I wish that it could have been presented as more of a history with less opinion injection, but I haven’t seen another book that covers the same ground. I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.

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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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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Read: 3 January, 2014

In 19th century China, two girls sign a contract, vowing to be friends forever. One is a low born girl on her way up in social standing, while the other girl moves in the opposite direction.

The story is brutal. From the very beginning, with its graphic and squirm-inducing descriptions of foot-binding, the narrative winds through a woman’s life as she tries to negotiate the competing needs of her friendship and her duty.

Some reviewers on GoodReads complained that the story is very “small.” And it’s true, it’s a story that is firmly fixed in the women’s sphere. It tells of a friendship between two women, of learning to deal with their mothers-in-law, of having children, of losing children. It’s certainly no epic. But at the same time, it was good to read a story with a female protagonist who struggles to make her way in her female sphere without longing to be a man.

Never does Lily desire to leave her little women’s room, never does she take an interest in politics, never does she care about what goes on beyond her room’s lattice windows. The “adventure” of the story is entirely wrapped in Lily’s place as a woman.

I found it to be well-written, thought-provoking, interesting, and entirely heartbreaking. I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty sniffly for the last 40 pages or so.

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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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