Book Review: ‘A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions’ by John Dickson

January 25, 2015 in Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews by pacejmiller

spectator's guide

My dear Christian friend has been giving me religious-themed books as gifts for years, not so much as a tool to convert me but more as a friendly nudge in my ongoing spiritual journey. His latest present, decidedly in more neutral territory, is A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions by John Dickson, an Aussie Christian minister and religious historian who has written more than a dozen books.

Having read more pro-Christianity and anti-Christianity literature than most sane people, I found this book to be an excellent and insightful experience that achieves its central aim — to educate people about the world’s five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism (even though Sikhism, as I shockingly discovered, is actually more widely practiced than Judaism).

It would be natural, of course, to be sceptical of a Christian writer setting out to “introduce” readers to a book about four other religions, though unlike the furore sparked by Reza Aslan’s Zealot a couple of years ago, Dickson’s book barely caused a ripple when it was first released in 2004. Like Aslan, however, Dickson is a bonda fide historian with the credentials to back it up (he’s an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University), AND he tries really really hard to maintain a neutral stance in this book. If anything, he could be criticised as too cautious in his approach, as he sometimes goes overboard in defending himself to forthcoming doubters about his Christian background.

On the whole, however, Dickson does an enviable job of laying out the history and fundamental beliefs of the five major religions with fairness and respect. He starts with Hinduism because it’s the oldest, and ends the youngest of the five, Islam, which he spends perhaps a little too much time in defending — though to be fair, the defense needs to be placed in context because the book was written in the aftermath of 9/11.

The ideas and terms, especially those in Buddhism, are sometimes difficult to grasp, though for the most part they are described as simply as possible. The book is, after all, merely an “introduction” (it’s only about 240 pages),  so those interested in any particular religion are encouraged to conduct further research.  Most helpful is the summary section at the end of each chapter, where Dickson would boil everything about the religion down to a couple of pages of bullet points. A great cheat sheet for anyone doing an exam on the religions.

Another strength of the book is that it is not, at least on its face, proselytizing any religion in particular. Each religion is given roughly equal treatment, with the focus being on what the converts believe about their religion as opposed to whether the religion itself stands up to historical scrutiny. The message Dickson sends in the book, as summarised in a rather unnecessary final chapter, is that religions are not “all the same,” and that each religion deserves to be respected on its own merits. For me personally, I found the tone of the final chapter a little condescending, as though readers can’t make up their own minds from reading the rest of the book, but perhaps it might strike a chord with some of the agnostics out there.

The subtle way Dickson promotes Christianity in this book is by making readers read between the lines (and look, it wouldn’t be fair for a Christian minister to not even try, even if it’s subconsciously). By contrasting the religions against each other, Dickson highlights the unique nature of Christianity in that it is the religion with the most “witnesses” and the most  down-to-earth foundation, and that the Bible is probably the “reliable” religious text of the big five religions. When pitted against Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism look airy-fairy, Judaism seems archaic, and Islam is just all based on the words of a single man. There are lots of fundamental questions about all religions, but when framed in this way, Christianity appears to have the least. It doesn’t necessarily make Christianity a “truer” religion, but the book at least sows a couple seeds in that field.

I don’t want to suggest that this book is not balanced because it is — and much more so than I had anticipated. I’d recommend it to anyone with an open mind about religion and wanting to learn about the basics of the big five. It hasn’t turned me into a religious expert, but at least I now have a better grasp of general knowledge stuff like the differences in the central beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists and the ideological split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

4/5

I’m back, and the lesson is to be prepared for anything

January 21, 2015 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing by pacejmiller

buried-boxes

Every time there is an extended hiatus on this blog I feel the urge to explain.

This time, the excuse is simple and honest. Shortly after my last post I had to head back to Australia again — less than a month following my previous visit — to prepare the family home for lease. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing with very little time to prepare and a lot of things to do, and yet it did not deter me from fantasizing about all the “free time” I was going to have over the one-week stay without having to worry about work or looking after the kids.

In my mind, the list of things to do in Sydney was long:

– catch up with the many friends I didn’t get to see last time;

– catch up on some much-needed sleep;

– kick start my exercise regime with jogs and workouts day and night;

– do copious amounts of reading on my barely-used Kindle every night;

– watch some movies blocking up my backlog;

– rekindle my relationship with my Playstation Portable following a 3-year break;

– eat lots of Aussie food I miss and have plenty of great Aussie coffee; and

– maybe do a little bit of packing and some ancillary stuff required before you lease out a property.

Instead, what I did that whole week, from about 6 or 7am to midnight or later each day, was:

– pack.

That was about it. It was probably the most brutally exhausting stretch of my life — and certainly the most physically demanding — since the worst of my lawyer days.

The lesson to be taken out of the experience is to never expect anything and to be prepared for everything. For instance, I had been ready to write up a storm upon my return last week, but of course my decimated immune system offered feeble protection against a crazy-ass virus. The illness kept me in a zombie-like state for the first couple of days during the incubation period and a couple of nights ago went full Walking Dead on me. Debilitating shit it was indeed.

I’m no close to 100% yet but at least I’m finally back to a semi-functional state. There’s a lot to be done, so I suppose I should get moving. Unexpected stuff happens all the time, so we should treat every day like it’s our last. OK, maybe not literally, but constantly striving for a goal ought to be a goal in itself.

PS: The one good thing about everything that has happened is that I got to watch four movies on the two plane rides.

Hello, 2015

January 1, 2015 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing by pacejmiller

new-year-eve-2015-sydney-australia-photos

Well here we are. Another New Year. 2015. They just go by so quickly, don’t they?

For some reason, the most apt thing I can think of to say in this post comes from, like most apt things, Seinfeld. Instead of what Jerry said about birthdays, however, I’d like to tweak it to make it apply to New Years.

Well, New Years are merely symbolic of how another year’s gone by and how little we’ve grown. No matter how desperate we are that someday a better self will emerge, with each New Year’s fireworks display we know it’s not to be. That for the rest of our sad, wretched, pathetic lives, this is who we are to the bitter end – inevitably, irrevocably. Happy New Year? No such thing.

Don’t get me wrong. 2014 was a great year. A fulfilling year in terms of getting fit, getting healthy, spending time with family, watching loads of movies (around 160 by my count!!!) and TV series, and reading about 3/4 of the number of books I intended to get through (15/20).

In terms of what I really wanted to get done, and have been saying so for more than a couple of years — ie, writing — well…it was a disappointment once again. I did a little more than previous years but still nowhere near as much as I wanted.

Some of the issues can’t be helped, but much of the problem is the usual laziness and lack of motivation, fear of starting something, fear of finishing something, fear of it being no good, fear of having to do too much to fix things up, etc etc.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past year it’s that waiting till you’re fully ready and in the mood to do something never works. Because there’s always an excuse — unexpected, made up or otherwise — to hold you back. Like exercise, which I have pretty much gotten the hang of now, writing needs to be a habit. You need to do it even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to.

So that’s my only real goal of the year. To make writing (non-work or blog related, that is) a habit. If not daily then at least 3-5 times a week. I think I can manage that. I made a pact with a friend to get something done by the end of 2015 and the clock’s already ticking. A little more discipline at work will help, but I think I’m ready for the challenge.

PS: I still want to read at least 15 books this year, watch 100+ movies and continue improving my all aspects of my health, from taking my vitamins to exercising regularly and cleaning up my gruesome diet.

Getting back on track, ever so slowly

December 23, 2014 in Blogging, On Writing by pacejmiller

rail-track

It’s been a long time since my last post. I knew it wouldn’t be a while, but as usual, I did not expect it to be this long. There was the planned overseas trip that was expectedly hectic, and my mind has not been in the right place after the tragic events at Martin Place last week, which unfolded as we were preparing for our flight back. You hear of terrible tragedies almost every day, but sometimes it takes a personal connection to really make it seem real. In this case, Martin Place siege hit too close to home, and it really shook me up.

The subsequent atrocities in Pakistan and then Cairns really had me in an emotional rut, but it was the physical exhaustion — from the trip, the flight, and the sick, restless toddler upon our return — more than anything that prevented me from feeling the urge to write again. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The urge was there, but the energy was not.

And so for the first few days I was half in battle mode, trying to simply get through the day — be it work or home duties — with tremendous inefficiency, and half in zoning-out mode, staring at whatever mundane stupidity the computer screen had to offer.

Slowly but surely, however, I’m getting my mojo back. I restarted on my Pacers blogging yesterday and blogged again today. I got back into my exercise routine as well and will start watching my diet again after I stuff my face at a couple of celebratory meals I can’t avoid. None of this seemingly has anything to do with my writing, but I tell you: it’s all connected. I need to be in optimal condition — mentally and physically — for writing to commence.

As for my unofficial, two-month, split NaNoWriMo project…well, there’s always next year. I do plan to start again shortly, but any plan of completing something substantial before the end of the year is unlikely. I’ve reached a stage where I am beginning to realise that maybe I should just stop writing about intending to write, and just bloody write.

PS: One thing I have done reasonably well this year is keep up with my movie reviews. I have a couple of reviews coming up, and hopefully not that many movies left to watch before I can do my best of and worst of list for 2014.

Setting (realistic) daily goals

August 13, 2014 in Blogging, On Writing by pacejmiller

checklist1

About 10 days ago, I posted about taking a new approach to my writing, and that’s to treat every single day as a challenge. So far, it has worked out OK. I’ve been more efficient, but still nowhere near as effective as I want to be.

Part of the problem is that the extent to which I challenge myself can vary greatly on a day-to-day basis. Some days I feel pumped and challenge myself to do a lot. Other days I’m not in the mood and I challenge myself to do very little.

And so I’ve come up with a second prong to my strategy, and that’s to set (realistic) goals every day. Back in the day when I was busy working at The Place That Shall Not Be Named, writing daily task lists was my favourite thing to do. I loved writing down everything that needed to be accomplished and then enjoying the sense of accomplishment as I ticked them off one by one. To some extent it did help me become more organized because there was often so much to do that I felt completely swamped, but usually it was so I could tick things off a list and feel good about myself.

I need to bring that back. From now, I will write up a list every morning of the things I should complete for the day. I usually set extremely unrealistic goals for myself, so I’m going to try and slowly build it up, like a workout (you can’t start off with the heavy weights, you know).

Will report back on that works out.

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