God on Trial
by Peter Irons
I decided to take a break from my lengthy and slow going journey through Judt’s Postwar and check out God on Trial, a book on recent church-state separation cases that’s getting some good reviews. I was not disappointed; this is a fascinating book that deserves to be read by everyone interested in these cases.
Irons’s book takes a unique approach: rather than just describing these cases, he gets participants on both sides to give us some of their background and explain why they did what they did. It makes for interesting and illuminating reading. Irons discusses six cases: Mt Soledad cross case, the Texas football game prayer case, the two Ten Commandments cases from Kentucky and Texas, the California Pledge of Allegiance case, and the Dover ID case. He gets important participants in each trial to discuss their view of what happened. The one exception to this is the Dover trial, where the pro-ID person was not actually involved with the board until after the ID policy was in place. For each case, people on both sides of the issue run that gamut in terms of their explanations. We mostly get people who just felt the policy in question was wrong and that was the extent of it. There are some people who appear incredibly confused and didn’t appear to have thought about the issue at all. You also get instances of activists on either side, who are confident in their grasp of the history and law of the issue at hand. Predictably, you see two general opinions: the separationist side thinks religion shouldn’t be in government and the other side believes their freedom of religion and expression is being threatened. They aren’t all the fire-breathing atheists and Christian nation zealots that each side characterizes the other as on occasion.
Irons does an excellent job of describing each case, along with some interesting insights about them. The comments of participants in each case make for interesting reading on top of that. If you’re interested in these issues and want to have a good grasp of what actually happened and what the opposing sides believe, in their own words, I highly recommend checking out this book.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein
The fruit of my post asking for Science Fiction recommendations, I just finished up Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Filled with politics, humor, and irony, the book has made it on my (short) list of favorite novels.
I’m fairly sure most people reading this know what the book is about, so I’ll spare you that, except to say that it’s the story of a revolution on Earth’s penal colony on the Moon. The book is written from the point of view of one of the protagonists in a jarring grammatical style. It’s only noticeable for a couple of pages, then it becomes quite natural to read. Heinlein creates a fascinating world to place the story in; notably, polyandry is the norm and there really aren’t any laws of which to speak. The technological aspect of the book is also interesting, detailing the irreversible effects of life on the Moon, catapulting grain all the way to Earth, etc. The book rarely felt dated, a very impressive achievement. The book is very funny in spots; I kept cracking up when Mike, the sentient computer, kept calling another, less sophisticated, computer his “retarded child” and “idiot son.”
I told you I wasn’t good at fiction reviews. In any case, I really did like this book. It cracks my top five favorite books, but it didn’t have much to climb through. For the record, it’s currently 1984, Catcher in the Rye, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Clockwork Orange, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in that order). I just edges out Fahrenheit 451, though perhaps because I haven’t read that book in such a long time.
by Kurt Vonnegut
I somehow missed reading anything by Kurt Vonnegut in high school. I’ve wanted to since then, but my fiction reading is rather lackluster (there’s too much real information to learn to be bothered fake stuff), so I only just now got around to it. Overall, it was a decent book, but nothing too amazing.
I’m really not going to attempt any sort of review of the book. Literary criticism is not my thing. Oh, Billy watches a war documentary backwards! That’s like saying war is backwards! I’m fucking brilliant! It was a good book, though I can’t say I was a huge fan of the style. It’s unique (to me, at least) and interesting, but it didn’t really hook me. It has its funny and powerful moments, but I’m just not much of a fiction guy, so I wonder if I can truly appreciate it.
Like I said, no real review here. It was a good book and a nice break from nonfiction. I’m still going to read TMiaHM, but after that it’ll be back to nonfiction full time, I believe.
All The Shah’s Men
by Stephen Kinzer
This book tells the story of America’s first coup: overthrowing Mohammed Mossedegh and a struggling democracy and putting into place the autocratic Shah of Iran. The coup has had an undeniable impact on the history of the Middle East and American foreign policy. The book lives up to its subject and provides an engrossing account of the coup and some of its aftermath.
The story of the coup revolves around a British oil company: the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, known today as British Petroleum. The company had full control of Iran’s vast oil reserves and gave little back to the people of Iran. The Iranian workers used for lower level positions were housed in squalid ghettos and paid next to nothing. Little of the profit was paid to the country’s government. Mossedegh’s time in office was consumed with one issue: nationalizing AIOC. The British were bound and determined not to let this happen; they refused any compromise and displayed staggering arrogance and contempt for Iran. Despite this being the story of America’s coup, the fault lays to a large degree at the feet of the British. The Truman administration attempted to bring Mossedegh and Britain to a compromise numerous times, but it was rejected time and time again. The British, in turn, began (fruitlessly) pushing Truman’s administration to help them subvert Mossedegh’s government. During the conflict all British residents of Iran were expelled and aspirations of doing such a thing themselves ended. The Truman administration then left office and Eisenhower was elected. A much more aggressively anti-communist administration than Truman’s, they (particularly the Dulles brothers) signed on to Britain’s plans and carried out the coup.
The story is an interesting and complex one, far more so than the brief summary above. Kinzer makes connections to our current unpopularity in the Middle East, which is undoubtedly correct. Guessing what would have happened if the coup had not been carried out is difficult, but it would certainly be a different world. Would Iran be a stable democracy? Would they be friendly to the U.S.? We’ll never know.
Why I Am Not a Christian
by Bertrand Russell
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, but I’ve always put it on the back burner in favor of other books. Not to my surprise, I found it to be an interesting and enlightening read, both for its arguments against certain doctrines held today and as a window into the social and religious opinions of the mid-twentieth century.
The book opens with the essay from which the book draws its title. I’d already read this and defended it on this blog. It’s still a good read and the “where did God come from” response to the various first cause arguments for a god has a timeless force to it. As I said above, the book is also interesting for its commentary on mid-twentieth century social beliefs. Russell promotes and defends birth control quite vigorously. This seems odd in the current times, when birth control is ubiquitous and generally uncontroversial. Some of Russell’s views on child rearing and sexual practices among adults, while undoubtedly radical at the time, seem pedestrian. Some of those views haven’t aged well (particularly the child rearing ones), but others seem fairly normal. It’s certainly an indication of how far we’ve come.
The book concludes with an account of Russell’s appointment to a professorship at City College of New York and the subsequent controversy and dismissal. The judge’s ruling in the case is unfathomably stupid and it’s hard to imagine a more paradigmatic case of judicial activism. One wonders if the same kind of controversy could be summoned today; it seems doubtful, but you never know what would happen if an American university attempt to give, say, Richard Dawkins a position. In sum, the book is well worth a read and an interesting look at the mind of an amazing human being.
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins
by Burton Mack
Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel is a look at the world of Q and its impact on the origin of Christianity. Mack recounts the history leading up to Q’s “discovery,” its content and history of composition, the peculiarities of the group responsible for it, and finally the necessary revisions to our understanding of Christian origins.
If you’re not familiar with Burton Mack, he’s Biblical scholar who taught at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (long since retired, I believe). He’s definitely on the liberal edge of things and he brings a distinctly left-wing sensibility to his scholarship. In this book, he gives us a portrait of Jesus as a Cynic-like sage, not at all like the traditional portrait in the gospels. Of course, a Jesus figure that isn’t like the one portrayed in the gospels is nothing new. Biblical scholars have been coming up with historical Jesuses for at least a century. Schweitzer’s apocalyptic prophet, Crossan’s social revolutionary, etc. Q presents us with a new picture: a Cynic sage who bears no relation to the messiah of the gospels.
Q seems like something that should appeal to so-called “red-letter Christians,” those who try to emphasize what Jesus said, rather than the theology of the New Testament as a whole. Q is such a task on a radical scale. Taking the simple observation that Luke and Matthew share many sayings, scholars deduce a sayings source must have existed prior to composition of those two gospels. Pulling the sayings out of their gospel context puts them in a whole new light. Layers of composition emerge (that I find a little sketchier than the rest of this, but I’m hardly an expert) and we can pare down the sayings until we have an early core. This is where Jesus looks rather different than in the gospels. The line of authority from Jesus to the apostles to the early church is completely severed. Jesus appears to be a simple teacher of Cynic-like wisdom. Is this the actual historical Jesus? I must say, it’s the most convincing picture I’ve seen. The making of the rest of Christian mythology is traced through additions to Q and then its absorption into the other gospels.
Mack regards the revelation of Q to be earth-shattering. It’s hard to disagree that this is a massive revision of the gospel histories. Mack also wonders if Q will prompt a rethinking of our society’s myths (and wanders into some rather leftist social theory). Fourteen years later, we have good answer: nope. Q is still a relatively unknown theory of Biblical scholarship. Partially, this is because we don’t actually have a copy of Q. The Gospel of Thomas gives a glimpse of the genre, but we have no concrete evidence of Q, just the arguments of scholars based on careful readings of the gospels. Until we discover a copy, Q will have a limited impact. That’s too bad, because Q is an interesting document and Mack’s book does an excellent job of laying out just how important it may be.
Them: Adventures with Extremists
by Jon Ronson
This is another book about the weird people in our world, written before The Men Who Stare at Goats. Ronson chronicles his travels with extremists of various stripes: Islamic fundamentalists, David Icke, Alex Jones, the KKK, the Weavers, etc. A main theme throughout the book is Ronson’s search for the infamous Bilderberg group, who allegedly control the world from a small room.
The book is quite funny, considering the topics Ronson explores. Omar Bakri, the British Islamic fundamentalist Ronson followed for over a year, comes off as jovial clown. At times it seems like an act, but he nonetheless appears quite clueless. Others in the book come off sympathetically, like the Weavers. They certainly had (Randy seems to have become less extreme since Ruby Ridge) some insane ideas about the world, but Ruby Ridge was undoubtedly a tragedy and an overreach on the part of our government. On the more amusing side of things, David Icke is profiled and the question of whether the lizards who he believes control the world are actually Jews is raised. I have to say that I think Icke actually means 12-foot shape-shifting lizards from another dimension, as he insists. I realize code words are part and parcel of the conspiracy world, but that one really seems like a stretch. Most amusing is probably Alex Jones, the talk show host from Texas, whom I’ve mentioned before. His passionate and animated paranoia makes for entertaining reading. Jones’s and Ronson’s differing interpretations of the Bohemian Grove ceremony they both witnessed really illuminates how the extremists’ views of the world differ from more mainstream views. Ronson takes the “Cremation of Care” ceremony as a rather adolescent ritual symbolizing the discarding of worldly cares during a weekend retreat. Jones sees it as a satanic ritual centered around mock child sacrifice. One can certainly see where Jones’s view comes from, but it takes a lot of paranoia to come up with it.
As with the last book of Ronson’s I read, this one is well written and fun to read. Ronson does an admirable job not only chronicling the bizarre beliefs and antics of the people he profiles, but also humanizing them. Their beliefs do not deserve our sympathy, but it’s worthwhile to remember that they’re really not much different from the rest of us. They may have crazy ideas about the world, but we shouldn’t overestimate how dangerous they are.