Saturday, December 14, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

One of my favorite tracks on The Bells of Dublin album by the Chieftains is “The Rebel Jesus” performed with Jackson Browne, the composer of the song. The song doesn’t celebrate the usual pieties of Christmas: the Prince of Peace, our Savior Sweet and Mild. Instead, it celebrates a different view of Jesus, one that the Gospel accounts hint at but don’t explicate. Jesus was a radical in politics, economics, and religion. I thought of this song as I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot. The song could serve as the theme song for the book. (Too bad only movies get theme songs; it could prove an interesting exercise for books.) 
Aslan’s thesis is straightforward: Jesus was out to overturn the Roman rule of Palestine and to overturn those Jews—primarily those in the cities and the priestly class—who corroborated with the Romans. Aslan begins by providing a detailed description of the political economy of Palestine around the time of Jesus. The picture is not a pretty one. The Romans ruled Palestine (Judea, Galilee, and the surrounding lands) with sword, fire, and crucifixion. They did so through the corroboration of those who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem. The result is one of the oldest and most common stories in history: the wealthy elites in the cities extract wealth from the countryside by force. As the countryside becomes impoverished, increasingly destitute peasants flood into the cities, desperate and poor. Those who lived in a small village like Nazareth in Galilee would have felt the weight of oppression imposed upon them by “the rich”. It was from this milieu that Jesus—and many other would-be messiahs and rebels—emerged. No one succeeded in overthrowing the Romans, and finally the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when a Jewish rebellion went too far in Roman eyes.
Aslan’s thesis is not new or especially unique. He’s not a Biblical scholar, but he has done his homework. He especially acknowledges the work of John Meir (Catholic priest and Biblical scholar), whose four-volume work, A Marginal Jew, explores the world of  Jesus and the nature of his mission as best as history can reconstruct it. And this is the problem: the writers of the four canonical Gospels did not write history. They wrote to establish grounds for faith well after Jesus’ death. Those seeking to look behind the curtain, starting back in the nineteenth century, have had to search other sources and speculate (as logically and coherently as possible) about the history (not Good News) of Jesus. Aslan brings this search up to date in a readily accessible work that assumes no Biblical scholarship on the part of the reader.
The book was a pleasant surprise for me. I thought that historical scholarship focused on the idea that Jesus was primarily concerned with the end time, the eschatological vision inherited primarily from the Book of Daniel and reflected in the Gospels and other NT works. Aslan argues instead that Jesus’ mission, as Jesus experienced it, was primarily one of earthly concerns, such as bringing "the Kingdom of God" into the world in which he lived and walked. Terms like “the Kingdom of God” and “the Son of Man” were as enigmatic then as they are now. What did Jesus mean by these terms? That still isn’t clear, but Aslan argues that these terms didn’t address the end of the world in the physical sense, but they intended to signal a restoration of the Jewish people to their political independence and to their dedication to God.
Aslan also enlightened me about the conflict between Paul and the Apostles in Jerusalem, Peter, John, and James, the brother of Jesus (and known as “the Just” for his considerate treatment of the poor). The Roman destruction of Jerusalem destroyed this apostolic contingent as well as the city itself and its inhabitants. That catastrophic event allowed Paul’s view—a very different view of Jesus and his calling from that held by the Peter, James, and John—to dominate the NT corpus and the theology of the nascent Church. Indeed, the destruction of Jerusalem had a profound effect on both the new Christian movement as well as the whole of Judaism.
I really enjoyed Aslan’s book. It gave me fresh insights into the most important and enigmatic person in Western Civilization. I assume that I’m not the only person who’s pondered the conflicting visions of Jesus found in the Gospels and the remainder of the NT. Did Jesus come to bring peace or a sword? Why did he create such a ruckus in the Temple? And what was the Temple all about with its High Priests and such? Was he against the family? Do we have to sell everything and give it to the poor? I could go on and on. I now know that in the NT we have a collection of writings from different times and places with different perspectives, even different perspectives within what we might otherwise think of as a single work (say a Gospel). It’s not neat and tidy; in fact, as the Jesus Movement becomes Christianity, the story only becomes messier. In the end, we’re far, far away from whatever Jesus said, did, and intended some 2000 years ago. But that’s true of any figure: Socrates, Mohammad, Buddha—take your pick. In the end, I believe that it’s what we do with any legacy—how we apply it now—that really counts. Yet better understanding of how these stories came to be—and how they’ve changed—gives us a new depth that should help guide us. Aslan’s book helps greatly in our quest to better understand the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. 

N.B. Aslan goes to all of the right places: UI Writers Workshop, Hamburg Inn, and the Jaipur Lit Festival. He knows how to pick-em! Looking forward to seeing him again in Jaipur. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Life by Jules Evans

Serendipity once again rode to my rescue in a chaotic Indian bookstore (actually, the pretty good Modern Book Centre here in Trivandrum). I spied Philosophy for Life, by an author unknown to me. A quick perusal of the TOC revealed that it addressed Stoicism, Epicureanism, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Skepticism, Cynicism, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and of course, the godfather of them all, Socrates. One can surmise from the all-star cast that it couldn’t help but to prove worthwhile. It did.
Evans tells an interesting story. His book isn’t just an exposition of ancient wisdom (for wisdom is the purpose of these philosophies and philosophers), but it relates each tradition to our world through his own story and those of others. Evans reports that as a young man he was plagued with anxiety and depression until he discovered Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), developed by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. Put simply, CBT attacks “stinkin’ thinkin’” (a term of art I borrow from elsewhere). Indeed, CBT, as Evans discovered, draws from the tradition of Stoicism. Stoicism addresses the veracity of our beliefs and the fundamental choices that we have about our emotional reactions to those beliefs (and the events that trigger those beliefs). The help that Evans received from CBT drew him into the world of ancient philosophy and an exploration of the way in which philosophy can become a way of life. Each chapter address a particular thinker or tradition, weaving together contemporary practitioners within that tradition with the original, helping to bring to life the value of each.
Evans not only provides very sound expositions of the basic tenants of each tradition and the contemporary manifestations of each, but he also provides sound critiques. Indeed, after going through this buffet of a book (and based on some earlier reading that I’ll detail below), one might want to treat each of these traditions as a course at a meal: each dish appropriate to a particular moment in life. Stoicism helps arm us against life’s tribulations, defeats, and losses. But should we remain a Stoic all of the time? It seems too harsh. Even the warriors who often draw upon it must need some break from its implicit asceticism. Epicureanism, on the other hand, with its appreciation of pleasure and desire to avoid pain and anxiety, seems the attitude to take when enjoying a glass of wine and a fine meal--savoring the moment, as Evans dubs it. It also counsels us not to worry about that which we cannot control.
Heraclitus teaches us to appreciate the flux of life; Protagoras the benefit of reminding ourselves of ideals through memorization and incantation. Skeptics teach us to question and doubt—what I might call the Missouri method: “Show me. I’m not buyin’ until you do.” Diogenes and the Cynics, surely the most far out of the traditions, teach us the value of street theatre and radical questioning.
Evans moves on to the Big Three of Ancient Philosophy: Plato, his student Aristotle, and the master of the whole tradition (and Plato’s teacher), Socrates. Plato compels us to consider justice and the proper order of things, while his more earthy student Aristotle teaches us about friendship, politics, and all manner of earthly (and metaphysical) concerns. Aristotle serves as an antidote the Epicurean and Stoic tendency to retreat from the public space. Finally, Socrates teaches us about the value of questioning and facing death.
This book serves as an excellent introduction to this ancient tradition. Evans’ critiques are thoughtful and balanced. He looks to take the fruit of that lies within rather than rejecting the whole because of any surface imperfection. Evans touches upon the tradition’s relationship with Buddhism and the Chinese traditions, something, especially concerning Buddhism, that I’d like to see further developed. (The similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism seem to me almost patent. Nassim Taleb touches on the issue in a footnote in Antifragile: “For those readers who wonder about the difference between Buddhism and Stoicism, I have a simple answer: A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says “f*** you” to fate”. (153). I think that this is a bit too simple, but it’s making the connection.)
Evans gratefully acknowledges those scholars whose work he draws upon for his examination of the ancient traditions. Some of them I’ve read and can recommend if you  want to dig deeper: Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life (and anything else by Hadot); Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics and Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions (her effort at an improved and expanded appreciation of the Stoic view of the emotions); Alain de Botton’s Consolations of the Philosophy (not limited to the ancients); and Richard Sorabji’s Gifford Lectures, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation.
Finally, Evans’ website is an excellent resource for further exploration of these issues.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Hannah Arendt": A Review of the film by Margarethe Von Trotta

At some point during my undergraduate days, I met (in a manner of speaking), a woman for whom I developed a great crush. Alas, she was much older than me. Indeed, I never met her in the flesh, only in her writings. I developed an intellectual crush on Hannah Arendt.

She was not easy to get along with. Pronouncements and judgments in her writings came down like thunderbolts. Greek and Latin, French and German: her sources were legion. I spent a lot of time puzzled by what she'd written to me (well, to everyone who read her books). She often left me dumbfounded by her assertions. "Where did she get that from?” I'd often ask myself. (Silently, of course. While not exactly secret lovers, I didn't want people hear me talking to her pages.)

It was only later that I read what became her most controversial and widely discussed book, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Her report on the Eichmann trial held in Jerusalem in 1960, which she wrote about for the New Yorker and then turned into the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, created a firestorm of controversy. It is this segment of Arendt's life that the Von Trotta film explores. 

Arendt made two points about Eichmann that raised the ire of some.First, her contention that Eichmann was not a man of radical evil (later, she concluded that evil was never radical, only good could be radical). Rather, he was a follower, a man who did not think. And for Arendt, a student of Martin Heidegger (a whole other issue alluded to in the film), thinking--really thinking--is the key to our humanity. Some complained the Arendt defended Eichmann and let him off; in fact, she didn't. Arendt clearly stated that he deserved the death penalty that he received. She sought to understand him, not to pardon him. From her experience of Eichmann, she coined the phrase that has remained with us, the "banality of evil". 

Arendt's second contention that created great controversy, especially among the Jewish community, was her claim that Jewish leaders too often corroborated with the Nazis in furthering Nazi schemes, hoping for a better result. But in the end, the Jewish efforts only made the Final Solution easier to conduct. The implication that the Jews were anything other than mere victims, that Jewish leadership could have taken steps to reduce the horror of the Shoah, raised deep resentments and recriminations against Arendt. In fact, Arendt was a German-Jewish refugee who had fled Germany shortly after Hitler's rise to power. She was intered in France by the Vichy government. She was lucky to have escaped and to have received a visa  to the U.S. She was also the author of the first major study of Nazism and Stalinism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Some close friends rejected her as a result of her publications about Eichmann. Some reviled her, although with Mary McCarthy as a close friend, she had a sharp-tongued defender on her side. 

This is not an action flick. It's about a philosopher who cared deeply about thinking and about politics in the 20th century. The film starts slowly, but it builds, and the scene near the end, where she lectures and defends her conclusions, proves well worth the wait. She had probed deeply into wounds that were still fresh and extremely painful, and she paid a high price for her willingness--even eagerness--to explore these issues. 

Arendt in her Manhattan apartment, 1971

I no longer hold the same degree of fascination with Arendt that I once had. Her conception of politics seems too remote and too grand for reality. But I still admire her deeply. (Her photo, as a lovely young woman, is one of those that I use for my screen saver, which consists of images of persons whom I admire.) Her conclusion about the banality of evil has been buttressed not only by history, but also by research such as that of Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment and Milgram's authority experiments. These lessons remind us that evil comes not only from the extraordinary, but from the otherwise normal, those who simply don't "think" about the moral consequences of their actions and who value loyalty to a group or leader above personal autonomy and respect for fellow humans. Historians have since suggested that Eichmann may not have been as naive or bland as she concluded. I don't think that she'd argue with a well-researched and considered reassessment of her conclusions about Eichmann the person. Unfortunately, few did the careful work and research into these issues at the time of the publication of her work. 

A younger Arendt, who graces my screen-saver

Her assessment of the Jewish leadership is another issue that history, through careful research and argument, must sort out. I don't know the current state of thinking on this issue. (For a fine assessment of the banality of evil motif and of Eichmann in particular, read this piece by Roger Berkowitz.)

This film reveals a philosopher of courage and determination. It also displays how hard we must work to overcome biases received from our group loyalties.We have to think (a form of work) to come to grips with our common humanity, in all its array of good and evil, fallibility and aspiration. In the end, this is the message of the film and of Arendt's work.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

We humans like to be scared, even in our reading. Ghost stories, tales of Gothic horror, thrillers—in all sorts of circumstances we like to have ourselves scared. But there is another form of fiction that we don’t normally categorize along these lines, but that I find really scary, or perhaps creepy is the right word. These are books that I recognize as revealing something to me in the now, something about me or my world. Those books that take what seems quite normal and then reveal that the situation harbors frightening consequences. Dystopias of the near future can do this very well. Think of the classics, Brave New World and 1984: what makes them so disturbing? Not any thrills in the plot line, but the familiarity they contain, the plausibility they reveal. Indeed, we can think of dystopian writers as the prophets of today—not in the mistaken sense of those who predict the future successfully. Quite the opposite: you don’t want the prophet’s vision to come to pass. The prophet—exemplified by the Old Testament messengers of God—foretells a future that will arrive if the people don’t turn away from the error of their current ways. A successful prophet’s vision of the future does not come to realization. The successful prophet turns the people away from disaster. Thus, we can label Orwell a successful prophet in the sense (or to the extent) that we don’t live in the world of 1984. (The NSA isn’t reading this, right, Big Bro?) In this century, writers of dystopian visions of the future serve as our prophets, and we must count Margaret Atwood among them. 

Oryx and Crake is the first of a trilogy of books set in the near future. (MaddAddam, published this fall, completes the trilogy.) Atwood sets the story in the near, recognizable future; a future with genetic engineering, gated and guarded compounds, and (continued) international sex trade. The tale deals with how one person, Snowman, once known as Jimmy, arrived at a Robinson Crusoe-like existence from that original, familiar setting. While surviving (one could hardly call it more than that) in this new world, the narration recounts the events that led him to his current circumstance. Crucial in the story are two others, the girl Oryx, first seen by Jimmy on a computer screen, and his friend Crake, a genius who rises quickly in the world of genetic engineering. 

Atwood writes from Snowman’s point of view, alternating between his current dire circumstances and the tale of his life that led him into this new world. Atwood persuasively captures a sense of alienated, somewhat nihilistic teenage boys who turn into alienated, somewhat nihilistic young men. This is one of those creepy aspects of the book. One can believe that a young Jimmy (young Snowman) and a young Crake (the nickname of his friend) exist in multitudes today. How do young men endowed with the awesome power of science, especially with the power of biology to alter life, deal with this power? Might they abuse it? When we think about gun violence, as we all too often must, we realize that we readily allow young males (nearly always the culprits) easy access to guns. Look what happens. What if we allow them access to the ability to create and alter life at the most basic levels? Do you feel comfortable with that thought? This part of the tale is as old as that of Victor Frankenstein, but today we have powers that Mary Shelley would never have dreamed of. Who was the greater threat: young Victor or his creation? 

Atwood also plays with the idea of abundance and scarcity, including the problem of jealousy and violence. Will this new world—perhaps not so brave as Shakespeare hoped and not so soporific as Huxley mocked—still engender violence and jealousy? Will the abundance of computer porn and accessible “sex workers”, along with genetic engineering, alleviate the violence created by male rivalry and quests for status? In this aspect of the book, the character of Oryx, a young woman brought to the world of Jimmy and Crake from the sex trade of south Asia, provides an enigmatic key. A wisp of a woman, she remains a mystery of sorts, even to the two men, Jimmy and Crake, with whom she becomes involved.

Atwood’s tale moves fast. Her imagination streams quickly from here to there in a light, deft prose that keeps the tale moving while describing this new world and the characters in it. Atwood doesn’t ruminate. She keeps the plot moving, but the lively pace of events allows Atwood to shine her high-intensity flashlight into as many aspects of these worlds as she can. She doesn’t need to explain; the spotlight of her imagination reveals enough.