The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

July 4, 2012 at 19:25 (Book Reviews, English Language, Historical, Literature, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , )

5/10

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been somewhat misrepresented of late, not least due to its immense impact upon so many authors and storytellers. But it is not a manual of story structure, nor an analysis of such; nor even is Campbell’s monomyth a blueprint for fictional writing. Campbell’s promise to distill and analyse the stories told across the world and through history is neither a scientific survey nor even a chronological view of the progression of literary heroes. Far too specific (and occasionally frustratingly myopic) to be very scientific, Campbell appears mostly as a somewhat slavish echo of Freud, and obsesses over a narrow selection of stories that apparently support his conclusions most convincingly.

His chapters (and the stages of the heroic journey that they describe) are peculiar things: vague and elusive enough to apply readily to the handful of stories he uses as examples, but strict enough to bear out some stern conclusions, and some strangely ubiquitous and overwhelming ideas about the universal human psyche.

“…the way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man…”

-The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In spite of its popularity, it is not an easy book to read. It consists of three types of writing: firstly, there are lofty and grandiloquent rhapsodies about the transcendent universal mind, and the evolution of the dream world, all of it very Freudian and fuzzy. Secondly, there are immense recapitulations and quotations of ancient and classical and modern stories, cleverly and neatly clipped and trimmed into the shape Campbell wishes for them to appear. Finally, there are occasional gems of insight, and throwaway lines nested within the reams of clunky, unattractive scholarly mess; not axioms, necessarily, nor even well-developed enough to be theories. These flickers of interpretation are often interesting, but seldom revelatory and never poignant enough to make up for the waffling that goes on all around them.

This book is as much a comparison of world religions as it is a survey of myth and mythology. It frequently feels like Campbell is ill-informed about everything except his incredibly bold assertions, and that he is simply making things up. It would be hoped that if he was, then he would write something a little more interesting. Largely uninformative, needlessly esoteric, and depressingly reliant upon early twentieth century psychology, this book does not deserve its reputation, although it might deserve a few hours’ attention from patient readers.

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To Own a Dragon, by Donald Miller

June 3, 2012 at 18:46 (Biography, Book Reviews, Comedy, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

7/10

Is…that a moustache? It looks like a wheat field, but…no, that’s definitely a moustache. As uncomfortably close as anyone might wish to get to a stranger’s moustache, but a moustache nonetheless. A soul patch, maybe, but certainly a subset of the moustache species.

Putting aside (with difficulty) the brazen cover art, To Own a Dragon might be the first book Donald Miller has written as a grown-up. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. One of the reasons his previous books (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, etc.) were so brilliant, so re-readable and heartfelt, was because they had an unquenchable air of rebellion about them. They were emphatically not written by a stodgy old know-it-all. They were not preachy because it was impossible to imagine a preacher scrabbling around beneath a hippy van in a sunbleached corner of Arizona. They were written by a fellow who listened to Ani DiFranco.

“In the end, women are really attracted to guys who have their crap together. I doubt there are many women enamored (sic) by the idea of living in a box under a bridge, sucking on a bouillon cube while her man reads Emerson. This is probably not what the old ovaries are pining for.”

-To Own a Dragon

In To Own a Dragon Miller has noticeably matured, and seems to have shed some of the rambling artist along the way. His voice and his authority are clearer, and for perhaps the first time he writes with the weight of experience (rather than the rather novel concept of emphasising his weight of inexperience that so characterised his earlier books).

This makes To Own a Dragon a little less funny than it might have been, but does not necessarily make it more profound. It is simply a different tone for a different subject, and while it can be compared just a little less favourably than its predacessors, it is a valuable book with some excellent theology and wise principles to live by laid out in a gentle and very appealing way.

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The Documentary Hypothesis, by Umberto Cassuto

December 18, 2011 at 17:20 (Book Reviews, Bronze Age, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Theology) (, , , )

7/10

There is very little in The Documentary Hypothesis that is particularly groundbreaking. Cassuto does not really present any unique research, but takes a very simple and deliberate approach. His setting forth of the Hypothesis as a metaphorical “structure” held up by certain pillars could certainly be seen as overly simplistic or even childish, but despite his crustiness his earnest desire does seem to be for plain-speaking, and a dislike for over-convolution. For the layman reader, the pillar approach is very helpful, and although this book is probably not the final word on the composition of the Old Testament, it sets out a convincing case.

“This is a case not of inconsistency, but of a general statement followed by a detailed account, which is a customary literary device of the Torah.”

-The Documentary Hypothesis

Although written (obviously) from a Jewish perspective, Cassuto is floridly literate when it comes to explaining the purposes behind the divergences in the biblical text. He is very aware of the poetry in the biblical narrative, and presents several extremely convincing possible explanations for the various names of God used, or for the existence of overlapping narratives. It is very important to realise while reading Cassuto’s lectures that he is writing conjecturally; that there cannot be empirical proof in his support or against him; but that where there is corroboration, he will display it proudly. Likewise, where proponents of the Hypothesis have offered up corroboration, he will not prove that it cannot have been (for that is impossible); only that there is no reason to insist upon it.

Finally, although there are probably better books that give a more balanced view of the cases for and against the Documentary Hypothesis (for this is most definitely a refutation) as a prerequisite to more general books on biblical hermeneutics (for instance, The New Testament and the People of God), this book is excellent and useful.

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A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis

August 11, 2011 at 15:55 (Biography, Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Theology) (, , , )

5/10

This is neither a book nor even a devotional tract. It’s a pamphlet: the afterword is around the same length as the actual text. It is a chapter, broken off abruptly almost as quickly as it began. Lewis charts his thoughts following the death of his wife through some truly dark valleys and some surprisingly heady heights, with very little in the way of explanation between each and the other. There is theology and philosophy, but in the roughest of stages, harsh and unedited and contradictory. It is not a book about a man losing his faith, but it is a book that is much more about the man than about the faith.

“For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appall me.”

-A Grief Observed

Lewis’ ready wit and charming voice survive, though in somewhat of a dishevelled state, like meeting a dazzling performer backstage once the curtain has fallen, and finding him just a little more unshaven than when on the stage, and with a glass of gin in his hand. By no objective criteria could this be called a particularly good book, though it is interesting to read. It is badly structured and sometimes difficult to follow. No: it is easy to follow, but difficult to see the precise direction Lewis has taken between paragraph breaks. He veers and leaps erratically, and follows an interior logic or intuition that is not always shared with the reader.

If this is not a good book, then it is certainly an interesting, engaging and informative piece, and could even prove useful as a devotional tract. It is like opening the Book of Job at random and reading scattered verses from the page, or like reading the Twitter updates of someone particularly literate and wise. A pleasant book to have with one on a lazy afternoon, a train journey, or something of that sort.

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Happy are you Poor, by Thomas Dubay

July 29, 2011 at 01:27 (Book Reviews, Poorly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

2/10

There is a lot of praise that could be offered for this book, and an awful lot of bad things that could be said about it. Frankly, it is indigestible, unlikeable and supercilious; and though it does say quite a few very true (and by necessity unpopular) things, the air of pomposity and the snooty attitude poisons it quite badly. The old adage about eating the meat and spitting out the bones seems made for this book, but after Dubay’s pedantry washes over the reader for the umpteenth time, the metaphor loses some power; and eating skinny, bone-filled food gets tiresome after a while.

Dubay has a frustrating tendency to reassure readers that he isn’t the one to tell them what the spiritual poverty looks like in their personal circumstances, only to do exactly that (usually followed by a choice example of this saint or that mystic, who was effortlessly able to show us all up and do things right). His overarching argument appears to at odds with his general methodology, and after a few chapters of this sort of thing it all starts to feel rather cynical.

“The saints actually are the best examples we have of biblical exegesis.”

-Happy are you Poor

At the same time, the book is hard to criticise because it does point out several incredibly valuable scriptural principles, commands and recommendations that any serious Christian reader would do well to note. It is just a pity that Dubay’s lamentation in the first few pages that nobody else writes about this subject is (largely) true. The world is badly in need of a book on poverty of spirit and freedom from materialism that is realistic where he is fantastic, winsome where he is condemning, helpful where he waxes philosophical and (dare it be said?) relevant where he drifts off into storytales about saints ritually abusing themselves.

The most incongruous section of this troublesome book comes from his final chapter, “Joy”, which flies in the face of his melodramatic litanies of men and women who seemed not to be seeking the joy of the Lord, but instead physical pain and discomfort. In a spectacularly Orwellian twist, Dubay seems to imply that only through abject misery and self-mutilation can any form of happiness be found. This and many of the examples included in this book are highly questionable, and readers will wonder loudly how compatible they are with the joy that he so readily proclaims. Yet it must be said that to many, even the slighest morsel of meat in this book, in amidst the bones, might stave off spiritual starvation and point towards the sort of New Testament Christianity that is so unfashionable in the world, uncomfortable to the flesh, and vital for a relationship with Jesus.

Perhaps there is a filleted edition out there somewhere…

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Heretics, by G. K. Chesterton

June 19, 2011 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

9/10

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is a very funny man, which certainly comes in handy when he takes it upon himself to scathe and blister his peers. His denouncement of their heresies begins as piecemeal accusations and isolated comments on extremely idiomatic character traits and specific published works, but does come to some coherent sense by the end of the book, when it becomes apparent that neither Shaw nor Kipling nor the Yellow Press are his true targets; and the entire work coalesces into a remarkable study of humanism and the realisation that the train is blowing full steam ahead towards “progress” – without any real idea what it left behind, or what the “progress” actually is.

Chesterton offers some wonderful insights into the redeeming qualities of dogma, religion, ritual and several other dirty words that he rehabilitates so eloquently as to build a swift and beautiful case for common sense and the re-evaluation of fundamental questions of what is good and pure and true–and why.

The book does lose some of its flair and excitement towards the second half, but chiefly because Chesterton populates his examples and his case studies initially with timeless writers and thinkers, and later with figures and entities personally aggravating (or known) to him, but less significant for the rest of us. Despite this, he retains his wit and his penchant for the surprising paradoxical proverb until the end, and provides an excellent complementary volume to Orthodoxy, operating magnificently as either a stand-alone or companion piece.

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Passion for Jesus, by Mike Bickle

May 22, 2011 at 11:56 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

9/10

Part autobiography and partly a treatise based on Psalm 27:4, this updated version of Bickle’s best-known book is occasionally repetitive, frequently digressive, but almost constantly simple, provocative and honest. Readers will find Bickle’s compulsive list-making distracting, but valuable for later reference. There are frequent and ready allusions to other books Bickle has written, and a rote-like regularity with which he belabours a hand full of key phrases. This book is written more than anything for regular and bite-sized reminders of key gospel doctrines, and while it does form a largely coherent train of thought, its foremost purpose is neither systematic nor comprehensive, but foundational and zealous.

Theologically Bickle remains orthodox throughout, although some of his more florid language does justify his regular asides, in which he is forced to repeatedly clarify some more esoteric passages. The chapters are thick with biblical citations and even the occasional third-party scholar or teacher, although this book is certainly a devotional rather than a scholarly tract. This book is essential for understanding Bickle’s general understanding of theology (and christology in particular), and an absolute prerequisite to reading his other writings.

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The New Testament and the People of God, by N. T. Wright

May 10, 2011 at 14:14 (Book Reviews, Classical, Historical, Theology) (, , , , , , )

8/10

N. T. Wright’s first objective in this book seems to be the teaching of a course on how to study literature, whether ancient or modern. His intent is to rebuild biblical hermeneutics from the ground up; consequently, he has very little to say about the New Testament or the people of God for the first few hundred pages. He is intentionally exhaustive for the duration of this foundational discourse, which means he meticulously retravels the same ground repeatedly, hammering away at any protrusions and making trebly sure that he has left no stone unturned. The proclivity to dreariness is plain; but it would be impossible to argue that Wright has been at all pedantic or redundant in his efforts. He earns deserved commendation for his attention to detail, though not necessarily his readers’ affections.

Despite Wright’s willingness to address issues of controversy (he is remarkably dogged, for instance, in his prosecution of the Q Source of the synoptics, or in his denunciations of both hyper-literalism and some bastions of postmodernism), it is noticeable that he makes a sterling effort to have this book treated firstly and foremostly as an academic work, not (in its primary sense) as a theological treatise. He makes surprisingly few attempts to address avenues of even key theological importance (the historicity of the biblical and extra-biblical books, or more particularly the veracity of any of these) preferring to view the whole from his chosen eyrie of textual criticism and historic anthropology. Of course, that is his chosen subject: not whether Jesus was who he said he was, but what Jesus actually said, and what people in the first few centuries believed that he said. His subject in its entirety is the painting of a series of beliefs, as if from outside; and while he accomplishes this so readily, it is a little perplexing to see what is essentially a thorough and hefty commentary on the New Testament, so bereft of personal feeling, in the mould of the great biblical commentators of the past. Any reader expecting to find the Wright of Simply Christian or Surprised by Hope will leave slightly puzzled.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this book is that although Wright makes perfect sense, and builds a comprehensive, utterly coherant and very clever picture of the early church; although he sets up hypotheses like dominoes and builds a deeply interesting hermeneutical structure, there are no moments where he appears to score decisive victories against his detractors or against other schools of thought. The proximate scholar, he will occasionally confess that he naturally feels inclined to disagree with so-and-so (Koestner is a frequent target); but he seldom sketches out and convincingly demolishes other schools of thought. When he does so, it is usually a single opposing viewpoint that he treats, and then only because it intrudes across his chosen path. Some of the vim and vigour of an old-time pamphleteer is missing here: as is the readiness to forward not only his own agenda, but his readiness to defend it to the death.

For these weaknesses, the book’s occasional timidity and its slightly sanitised feel of a scholar’s shelf-book, The New Testament and the People of God is a majestic piece of work, and its methodology and conclusions deucedly tempting. Wright describes the early church with all the familiarity of one who has lived in their midst, and all of the humility of a man who hasn’t. His methodology and reading of Old and New Testaments is neat and well-trimmed, and makes a frightening amount of sense, and his understanding of the manifold genres of ancient writing–and their meanings, interpretations and intentions–is second to none, and an indispensible tool for the biblical scholar.

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God is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

April 21, 2011 at 14:43 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

8/10

There is an irony about this book, in the way that it presents itself and the final impression it leaves. Prothero’s chief intent is to strike a blow against the ill-informed syncretists, who neither know about the differences between the religions of the world, nor care. He paints with dazzling colours, and writes like an art admirer locked up with bread and water in the Louvre. But that is really where the problem lies. For all his enthusiasm, and his denigration of those unscholarly plebs who know nothing of the vivid shades of Islam, or the fragile beauty in such-and-such a cult of Hinduism, is the enthusiasm and the scorn of a scholar.

Prothero himself claims, time and time again until it has taken the form of a mantra, that to look at religion as a dogmatic pursuit, or a scholarly thing, or even as an experiential phenomenon, is to shackle oneself with the bonds of Western Thought–or the bonds of whatever our preconceptions might be. How terribly unfortunate, then, that he himself is unable to truly tackle that thing that truly separates the religions from each other: not philosophies or disparate ways to differing ends (although his acknowledgement that different religions seek after different things is poignant and well developed), but monopoly. These are not beautiful paintings, each different from the other as a Picasso is different from a marble sculpture or a Rembrandt; but wild things, and though they may be beautiful by standards and by standards, they will not coexist. His own blind spot is his inability to see religion as anything other than a unique (always unique; and at least he manages that!) thing to be admired, as a pastime or a momentary distraction. Even as a subject for a lifetime of teaching.

He fails to grasp perhaps the most important part of his own titular statement: that God is not the same entity to any of the adherants he describes; but that these groups do not only differ in drastic ways; they despise the philosophies of one another.

He makes admission occasionally, such as when he mentions that Buddhism, at its root, considers the dogmatic worship of a god to be precisely the sort of kharmic pain that must be purged from the world; that Islam will never countenance the same equality with God that Christ did not consider to be robbery. The most welcoming and flexible religions in his structure can only bend unto the point where they encounter another’s rigidity, and their own willingness to flex becomes inflexibility. One can hardly expect a tired old professor of comparative religion to starkly admit irreconcilable vitriol as the only commonality between the subjects of his classes, but without this admission, his honest attempt to show off a collection of jewels that all sparkle with equal and different beauty comes off as a sham once the surface of his study is scratched.

Despite its manifest theological and philosophical failings, this is a good entry-level guide to comparative religion, and if Prothero’s own likes and dislikes are worn somewhat on his sleeve, then at least he makes an effort to play fair with all concerned, and writes like a professor ought to write: the faintest touch of good-humour, businesslike without brusqueness, and with the warranted assurance that even if he isn’t the ideal man to save your soul, at least he has a fair idea about what everone else is doing to save theirs.

It must be added that, while Prothero is a fastidious scholar and presents a fair and balanced view of each of the religions he studies (as a Professor at Boston University, one would expect nothing less), he occasionally makes mistakes that are downright embarrassing; seemingly minor errors that a layman might pass off as theological quibbling, yet which in his position he ought to recognise as gross errors of earth-shaking magnitude. It would not seem a “minor error”, for instance, for a Jewish reader reading Prothero’s earnest assertion that Abraham never entered the Promised Land of Caanan. While these errors seem to be few and far between, the fact that they are present at all does a great deal of damage to Prothero’s credibility.

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The Knowledge of the Holy, by A. W. Tozer

April 14, 2011 at 13:39 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

8/10

Extremely stiffly written, with very little charm or interpersonality, which certainly made this rather hard to read. Not quite the earth-shaking book that its reputation suggests; and yet the simple fact that Tozer is such an influential author and his ideas so widely disseminated and commonly quoted throughout Twentieth Century Christianity might explain why his book seemed rather basic.

The chief flags being waved here are the deity of Christ, the unapproachable holiness of God, the easy cohabitation of the Lord’s attributes and an heroic attempt to explain God’s transcendence. All manifestly worthy subject matter, and while Tozer does not explain his thoughts on any of his subject in great depth, he is clear and bold in asserting his beliefs.

No reader ought to expect to “understand the attributes of God” after reading this, but one ought to at least understand what those attributes are, and even hearing the subtitles of each chapter in this book for the first time will do wonders for any Christian’s theology.

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