Review and Analysis: ‘Misquoting Jesus’ by Bart D Ehrman

May 7, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Ehrman_Misquoting_Jesus_missions_scholarship

Consider my mind blown.

After reading the polarizing Zealot by Reza Aslan (review and analysis here), I decided to to check out one of the books mentioned in it, the equally controversial Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Change the BIble and Why by professor Bart D Ehrman. Whereas Zealot was focused on who the “historical Jesus” was likely to have been through an examination of the Bible and other sources, Misquoting Jesus is entirely about the text of the Bible itself, with the central argument being that it is an unreliable document given the changes, both accidental and intentional, that have been made to it over the centuries.

While I suspected that this was the case, Misquoting Jesus is nonetheless an eye-opening read that points out problems with the Bible in precise, easy-to-understand terms. I’m not sure what Ehrman’s position is now as a Christian, but he was one since a young age and had been dedicated to studying the Bible and its history. The problem was, the more he studied it, the more problems and inconsistencies he found with it. Initially, he believed scepticism of the Bible was a sign of weakness, a lack of faith. But then he realised: “eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.” Accordingly, this book is the culmination of more than 30 years of Ehrman’s academic endeavours.

As he said towards the end of the book, the more he studied the Bible the more he doubted it was the inerrant Word of God:

The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it.

He goes on to say that he eventually began seeing the New Testament as “a very human book”:

The New Testament as we have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book.

I had read similar assertions about the Bible before on many occasions, just as I have read defenses of the Bible by apologists who brush aside these so-called “human errors.” The main arguments put forward by the Bible defenders are:

- scribes who made copies of the Bible in ancient times were professionals who wanted to preserve the words as perfectly as possible
- authors of the Gospels tried their best to be truthful because it was important for them; they may have embellished or exaggerated or skewed things a little bit, but they did not make up the stories out of thin air
- any copying errors are minor and don’t affect the meaning of the text
- any translation errors are minor and don’t affect the meaning of the text, or that they have since been corrected in later versions
- variances in the different versions of the text are actually beneficial because it helps scholars determine which were later additions or changes

These arguments appear compelling on their own, and Misquoting Jesus is the first book I’ve read that tackles these “human errors” head on. As Ehrman points out, there are actually more differences among available Bible manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. While the vast majority of these are indeed inconsequential, there are enough problematic verses and sections to put not just many of the Bible’s most important teachings in doubt, but put the entire foundations of the Bible and Jesus’s divinity in jeopardy.

It’s a very compelling read I would recommend to anyone who has an interest in Christianity, the Bible, or religion in general, for I believe many of the issues pointed out by Ehrman probably apply to all ancient religions. The book is at its most fascinating when Ehrman goes directly to the heart of his thesis and points out specific passages and examples in the Bible where he claims significant changes were made. And more than just that, he explains why scholars are convinced these sections were changed, why people made the changes (whether accidental or intentional) and how it impacts the message of Christianity, both specifically in that particular instance and as a whole. It makes a lot of sense, and even if you question his conclusions it’s difficult to dismiss them outright.

Less interesting is the historical background, including a lengthy section on the various versions of the Bible throughout the ages. It gets a little dry at times, but it’s all relevant in painting the necessary background to understand the overall context of his arguments.

Anyway, I took down notes as I went through the book and I’ve boiled it down to a few key arguments:

1. The earliest copies of the Gospels are not the originals, meaning we don’t know how they have been changed

As Ehrman put it:

Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have the copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later — much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later.

For example, the first reasonably complete copy of Galatians is a papyrus called P46, which dates back to about 200CE, approximately 150 years after Paul wrote the letter.

2. The 27 books of the New Testament were not put together until the second half of the fourth century, and were not considered scripture until hundreds of years after that

Contrary to the understanding of many people, even Christians, the canon of the New Testament did not simply appear one the scene one day soon after the death of Jesus. The 27 books of the New Testament was actually not listed together, under the advice of the bishop of Alexandria, until nearly 300 years after the books themselves had been written, and the debate about which books should be included and excluded continued for decades, even centuries.

This is salient for a couple of reasons. First of all, it highlights the fact that there were many other writings about Jesus that were excluded from the New Testament. Why is that the case, and why did the books that did end up making it get selected? More on this in the next point.

Secondly, it shows that there was no easy consensus on which books ought to form the New Testament and in fact there were many competing forces — based on a wide range of varying beliefs — at work (more on this in the next point). One side won out in the end, but it certainly demonstrated that a lot of people — even back then, just a few hundred years after Jesus’s death — did not agree with what the Bible of today says.

3. Different Christian factions manipulated the text of the Bible to suit their needs and beliefs

According to Erhman, the second and third centuries were “rich in theological diversity among the early Christians. In fact, the theological diversity was so extensive that groups calling themselves Christians adhered to beliefs and practices that most Christians today would insist were not Christian at all.”

This is something I always suspected, but it was good to see Ehrman take this on with some clear examples. For instance,  there were the Gnostic Christians, who believed there were 12 gods, while other groups said 30 and another said 365! All of these groups — who had either adoptionistic, docetic and separatist views of the texts — claimed to be Christian and insisted their beliefs were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers. They may not have manipulated the texts to the extent that they say something that wasn’t there before, at least in part, but they occasionally altered them to say what they already believed to be true.

One prominent example of how this affected the Bible is the case of Christian philosopher-teacher Marcion, who was later declared to be a “heretic” because his teachings were at odds with Christian philosophies taught today. Marcion actually produced an actual “canon” of scripture himself, and this scripture was based on the life and teachings of the apostle Paul.

Crucially, Marcion believed that the God of Jesus was not the same god as the God of the Old Testament (ie, the God of the Jews). The God of the Old Testament was the one who created the world and called Israel to be his people, while the God of Jesus sent him into the world to save people from the wrathful vengeance of the Jewish creator God. It makes sense to me, considering how brutal the Old Testament God is compared to the peaceful, loving Jesus.

As such, Marcion “corrected” the eleven books of his scripture, containing a form of what is now the Gospel of Luke plus 10 Epistles, by editing out references to the Old Testament God. At the same time, interestingly, Marcion accused others of copying his books and adding bits and pieces to them to accommodate beliefs contrary to his (ie, that the Jewish God and the God of Jesus were one and the same).

And this type of behaviour was not uncommon back in the day, says Ehrman:

…Marcion’s attempt to make his sacred texts conform more closely to his teaching by actually changing them was not unprecedented. Both before and after him, copyists of the early Christian literature occasionally changed their texts to make them say what they were already thought to mean.

Notably, Ehrman claims that scribes associated with orthodox Christianity also not infrequently changed their texts, “sometimes in order to eliminate the possibility of their ‘misuse’ by Christians affirming heretical beliefs and sometimes to make them more amenable to the doctrines being espoused by Christians of their own persuasion.”

For instance, to emphasize Jesus’s divinity and his mother Mary’s virginity, the passages referring to him as the son of “Joseph, the husband of Mary” were changed to read “Joseph, to whom being betrothed the virgin Marty gave birth to Jesus.” See how Joseph is no longer Jesus’s father and isn’t even married to Mary?

There are many other examples throughout the book, some of which are contained in the variances in the four Gospels alone (remember, parts of Matthew and Luke are believed to have copied straight from Mark). There’s the different accounts of Jesus’s reaction to a leper, where one account described him as “angry,” an emotion he’s not supposed to show in that situation; there ‘s the variances in Jesus’s demeanour before and after his arrest and during his crucifixion, with the earlier account describing his anguish and agony and later accounts depicting calm and peace.

These could just be different interpretations of the language, or they could be a desire to “harmonize” the text — but either way they demonstrate diverting views about who Jesus really was.

4. Historical factors which led to changes and affected interpretations

Apart from theological differences, there were also plenty of social conflicts that affected the way the Bible was changed and interpreted. Ehrman goes into these in some detail, but I’ll just point them out briefly: the role of women in early Christian churches, the Christian opposition to Jews, and the Christian defense against attacks by pagan opponents.

For example, there are later documents associated with Paul’s churches, after his death, that there were disputes about the role women should play, and Ehrman argues that eventually there was an effort to suppress the role of women in churches altogether.

5. The scribes who made copies of the books of the Bible, at least in the early centuries, were far from professionals

According to Ehrman, the available evidence suggests that the earliest Christians copying the texts were doing so either for personal and/or communal use and were not, as some apologists suggest, “professionals” who did this kind of work for a living. These were simply “literate” people in their community who wanted to do so, and even the term “literate” was used liberally as it appeared some of them could barely read.

To be fair, Bible texts started being copied by professional scribes near the beginning of the fourth century, but for quite some time they were copied by non-professional scribes much more prone to making mistakes.

6. Copying mistakes were much more common than one would think

Apologist defenses claim that, even if there are copying mistakes, they are not so major that they would change the meaning of the text. I mean, how many mistakes can someone make when copying a text word for word, even if they’re not a professional? According to Ehrman, a lot.

Copying mistakes back then were much more common than people realize, and it’s not as simple as just missing a character or word here or there. Some characters look similar to other characters, but getting it wrong means a completely different word, and a completely different word can mean a completely different sentence. And that doesn’t even take into account that the boredom and fatigue of copying a lengthy and squashy text with tiny writing can occasionally mean missing complete lines or sections.

One new thing I learned was that ancient texts were written in what is called “scriptuo continua”, which is a form of writing with no punctuation, no distinction between upper and lower case, and no spaces to separate words. That’s insane to modern readers, but just imagine trying to decipher this post, for instance, with no spaces and no punctuation. To highlight the problem with scriptuo continua, Ehrman uses the example of “godisnowhere”. Now, is that “god is now here” or “god is nowhere?”

7. It’s virtually impossible to ascertain the words of the “original” text

You would think, with all the copies and partial copies of the Bible available today, that it would be easy to figure out what parts of the text were later additions and what parts were original. That’s at least the argument that has been made by Christian apologists. To some extent, that is true, but there is still no way to figure out what the original text was, even if we ignore the fact that no originals are even available.

For starters, there are just too many variances to reconcile. Ehrman notes that scholar John Mill from Oxford invested 30 years to access more than 100 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and found some 30,000 places of variation, not including minor ones such as those involving changes of word order.

But even if one were to go through all the available copies it is still impossible to determine what is original and what is added. I used to think all they had to do was find the oldest copy or whichever version that had the most copies, but it’s far from being that simple.

As Ehrman illustrates, just because there is more of one copy does not mean it is more reliable. If say a text was copied twice, into a superior Copy A and a crappy Copy B, but only Copy B would go on to be copied an additional 50 times. And if the original text is lost, we can’t simple assume that just because there is only one of Copy A and 51 of Copy B that the latter is the more accurate one.

And while the age of the manuscript does matter, it is not an absolute criterion. If there were two manuscripts, one from the 5th century and one for the 8th century, we cannot automatically assume the 5th century one is superior, because the 8th century one could have been copied from an even earlier version, say fro the 4th century. Further, “the earliest period of textual transmission was also the least controlled”, when the non-professional scribes were making lots of mistakes.

Another consideration is geographical range because different localities developed different kinds of textual traditions. There might be a thousand copies of one particular type of reading but all of the copies might have come from a single area where the same mistake kept being passed down, and so forth.

An additional layer of complexity comes when you throw in internal evidence such as the premise that scribes are more likely to correct what they take to be mistakes to harmonize passages they regard as contradictory. But as Ehrman states:+

There is no guarantee…that a scribe who tries to correct a mistake corrects it correctly. That is, by changing what he thinks is an error, he may in fact change it incorrectly, so now there are three forms of the text: the original, the error, and the incomplete attempt to resolve the error. Mistakes multiply and get repeated; sometimes they get corrected and sometimes they get compounded. And so it goes. For centuries.

The culmination of all these issues is summarised quite nicely below:

These mistake-ridden copies get copied; and the mistake-ridden copies of the copies get copied; and so on, down the line. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the original copy (or each of the original copies) ends up getting lost, or worn out, or destroyed. At some point, it is no longer possible to compare a copy with the original to make sure it is “correct”, even if someone has the bright idea of doing so…

8. Key sections or teachings of the Bible were added in by later scribes

In the book, Ehrman points out just two of “thousands of places” in which the manuscripts of the New Testament came to be changed by scribes. But boy, they are big changes.

(a) The woman taken in adultery

This is one of the best known stories, in which a woman who has committed adultery is brought before Jesus to test him, as the Law of Moses demands that she be stoned to death, contrary to Jesus’s preaching of love and forgiveness. And of course, Jesus silences them all by saying, “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”

As it turned out, this story was not originally in the Gospel of John and was in fact not originally part of any of the Gospels. Well, at least scholars think so because it was not in the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John, the writing style is very different to the rest of the text and includes words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel.

(b) The last 12 verses of Mark

This is one of the most controversial additions. Mark’s account is said to end with Mary Magdalene and two other women who arrive at Jesus’s tomb to find that the stone blocking the entrance has been rolled away, and are told by a man in a white robe to instruct the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. But the women are afraid and don’t tell anyone (which begs the question of how anyone knew about it in the first place).

The Gospel is supposed to end there, on a cliffhanger, but then someone else later adds, in another 12 verses, that Jesus actually appeared to Mary Magdalene and later to the other disciples. He upbraids them for failing to believe and then commissions them to proclaim his gospel “to the whole creation”, adding that those who “believe” will be “saved”, while those who do not “will be condemned.” Jesus is then taken up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.

According to Ehrman, the reasons for suspecting that the last 12 verses are an addition are “solid, almost indisputable”, having been absent from the oldest and best manuscripts, being of a different style, and using words and phrases not found elsewhere. Now, it is possible, as some scholars suggest, that the original ending of Mark was lost and “reformulated” later

To me, that allegation is just crazy. Ehrman is saying that the whole section about people seeing a resurrected Jesus in Mark was not part of the original text and was added in later. And it’s not just that, but also the popular image of Jesus seated at the right hand of God, and, you know, the whole thing about “believing” in Jesus for salvation and condemnation for everyone else. Isn’t that the whole foundation of Christianity?

There were some other major changes highlighted throughout the book:

(c) The “Trinity” doctrine

The book points to a “consolidated” edition of the Bible compiled by Erasmus in 1515, which is considered one of the most important versions of the Bible that was heavily relied on by later editions. Apart from the fact that this edition only relied on a handful of manuscripts that were produced relatively late in the medieval period, there was originally one crucial section missing: the so-called Johannine Comma (1 John 5: 7-8) — “there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one” – the only passage in the entire Bible that delineates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

However, Erasmus did not find this passage in his Greek manuscripts, which simply read: “There are three that bear witness: the spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.” There’s no mention of the Father, the Word and the Spirit. Apparently, Erasmus was berated by the theologians of his day, who accused him of trying to eliminate the Trinity doctrine, but Erasmus said he would only include the verse if they could find a Greek manuscript with it. Well, they did “find” one, made to order by copying a Latin text and translating it into Greek, which is why the Johannine Comma ended up still making it in the end.

(d) Jesus’s divinity 

One biblical scholar from the 17th and 18th centuries, Johann Wettstein, initially argued that “variant readings” of the Bible “can have no weakening effect on the trustworthiness or integrity of the scriptures” because it is a book bestowed upon by God. But later through his investigations Wettstein had a big change of heart when discovered that passages typically used to affirm Jesus’s divinity represented textual problems, and when these were resolved Jesus’s divinity was taken away. Examples include the aforementioned Johannine Comma and the reference to the “Church of God” in Acts 20:28, which was actually supposed to be “the Church of the Lord.” For Wettstein, the texts were altered for the purpose of incorporating Jesus’s divinity and he believed that the original wordings did not support the notion that Jesus was divine.

Other examples highlighted by Ehrman include Hebrew 2:9, in which most modern readings say that Jesus died “by the grace of God,” but the original text actually said he died “apart from God.” There are just so many of these little bits and pieces that, when added up, paint a rather compelling picture.

In fact, there was one group of Christians, the Ebionites, who believed that Jesus was not born of a virgin and was not himself divine, but was rather a “special, righteous man, whom God had chosen and placed in a special relationship to himself.”

(e) Jesus’s resurrection

Here are a couple of passages which cast doubt on the story of Jesus’s resurrection and subsequent return to heaven.

Luke 24:12

This passage depicts events that occurred just after Jesus was raised from the dead, in which Peter runs to the tomb and sees Jesus’s linen cloths. For similar reasons — the style and word use — scholars believe this was a later addition.

Luke 24:51

This passage says, in our current Bibles, that while Jesus was blessing his followers he “left them and was taken up into heaven.” According to earliest versions of the text, however, it never mentions heaven and simply says “he was removed from them.” That, in my opinion, is a pretty huge difference.

Conclusion

As you can see from this lengthy post, I was mesmerized by what Ehran had to say about the Bible in Misquoting Jesus. It’s a very different book to Zealot, but just as, if not more, compelling, largely because it contains more concrete arguments and less speculation. Together, the two books make some very powerful arguments about the nature of the Bible and even religion in general.

Neither book claims outright that the central arguments of the Bible are entirely false, but they do raise a lot of questions and doubts. And those doubts are not about what a wonderful person Jesus was, but rather, about the reliability of the Bible and the people who wrote it.

If anything, the very least Misquoting Jesus does is shatter the notion that the BIble is an inerrant book or the literal “Word of God.” Given the staggering number of errors, inconsistencies and uncertainties that have plagued the Bible for nearly two millennia, even suggestions that the Bible was “inspired” by God or “guided” by the Holy Spirit become untenable.

Moreover, I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong. For the reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.

You could still make the argument that God has perhaps been giving a guiding hand all this time to ensure that we eventually get his message right, but that’s stretching it a little far. Besides, according Ehrman every version of the Bible we have available today is still affected by many of the problems he points out in the book.

To his credit, Ehrman points out that the conclusions he has reached are by no means definitive, noting that “competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence.” This means that he could be wrong about some of his interpretations and assumptions (and I’m sure he has critics who argue so), but even if a fraction of them are right they still have a massive impact what the Bible says.

This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies…

He would conclude by saying that he came to realise that what the Bible scribes were doing was “not all that different from what each of us does every time we read a text.” I couldn’t agree more. Christian or otherwise, anyone who can keep an open mind should check out this book. It might change your mind, it might not; what’s important is that you ask yourself questions about your beliefs and the foundations upon which they are based.

4/5

Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

May 1, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Alright, alright, alright.

So I picked Sycamore Row almost at random for one of my reads this year, knowing it’s yet another John Grisham bestseller but with no idea that it’s his long-awaited direct sequel to his debut novel, A Time to Kill. I’m not as high on Grisham’s first book as most of his other fans, but I thought it was a provocative and fascinating look into law and race in the United States, particularly in the notoriously racist state of Mississippi. In that book (review here), young hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance was tasked with defending African-American Carl Lee Hailey for murdering two white men who raped, tortured and nearly killing his daughter. It was a bit of a grind, a typical first novel that’s a overlong and filled with a lot of (occasionally misguided) passion, but I also can’t deny that there’s a certain charm and resonance to it.

The 1996 film adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey as Brigance, Samuel L Jackson and Hailey, and had a supporting cast with big names such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt. As I said in my review, the film is “a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama.”

And now the sequel, Sycamore Row, brings back Brigance as the central character in a whole new trial, one that is completely different to its predecessor but also tackles race issues in America’s deep south. The story is set in 1989, several years after Brigance got Hailey off murder (oops, is that a spoiler?) but remains affected by its outcome. He got the notoriety he sought but not the financial or career advancements he had hoped, and he and his wife Carly remain locked in a battle with the insurers over their burnt-down house. Out of nowhere, Brigance receives a letter containing the will of a wealthy white man who leaves the vast majority of his sizable estate to his black maid at the expense of his children, and thus begins a mammoth civil suit for the loot.

I was impressed by Grisham’s decision to switch the arena from criminal to civil this time. Most legal dramas are about murder, violence and sinister plots — after all, these sound the most enticing — but here Grisham does an excellent job of turning a will contest into an engrossing case. There are many characters and subplots weaving in and out of the narrative — there’s Brigance, bound to his duty to act for the estate but salivating at the financial windfall from a long trial, and at the same time worried that his drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, is planning a return to legal practice; there’s Lettie Lang, the black maid and sudden but only potential millionaire, who has to deal with all the allegations against manipulation and misconduct of a frail old man while putting up with her deadbeat husband and family members leaching off her; there’s all the family members of the deceased, who hated him but would love some of his money to change their lives, AND all their lawyers, each angling for a slice of the lucrative pie; and of course, there’s the big mystery itself — why would the old man do what he did, if he did in fact know what he was doing?

Many of the old characters from A Time to Kill make a return, including Ozzie the town sheriff, former district attorney Rufus Buckley (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie), as well as hated divorce lawyer and Brigance ally Harry Rex (Oliver Platt in the film). It’s a testimony to the lasting power of A Time to Kill that I didn’t need much of a reminder to recall these characters I read about nearly three years ago. All of them, even the minor characters, are memorable and well-developed. I particularly liked the experienced lawyer Brigance found himself up against in the trial, Wade Lanier, who is a completely different breed to the despicable Buckley. Rather than creating yet another villain, Lanier is simply a formidable and respectable foe, someone who doesn’t mind resorting to dirty tricks but is never malicious or takes things personal.

Race is again the central theme of the book, as are the concepts of family and redemption, though this time Grisham takes a different angle. A Time to Kill was very black and white — those monsters deserved to die — but in Sycamore Row there are more shades of grey (there was even a section where Grisham questions the readers whether it was right for Hailey to have gotten off in A Time to Kill, irrespective of the injustice that was done to him). In the case of a will contest, Grisham asks why children should be obliged to look after a father who neglected them. But at the same time, why should a father leave his hard-earned money to children who wanted nothing to do with him? What is fair and what is just?

Those who have a keen interest in how the legal system works will also enjoy the painstaking nature in which Grisham goes through all the procedures leading up to the trial — even the tedious nitty gritty of it, from preliminary investigations to discovery, from pre-trial conferences to jury selection. It shows that Grisham is still passionate about the law, but on the downside more than two-thirds of the book elapses before the juicy stuff, the real trial, even begins.

It’s a long book at 464 pages for the hardcover edition, which probably means 700 pages or more for a regular paperback or large print edition. The strange thing for me when reading this book is that, despite all that happens throughout, it feels frustratingly flat, even at the supposed climax. It was as though Grisham was intentionally trying to avoid sensationalizing the story with a “slow-burn” narrative, one that plays on your emotions without being obvious about it. Part of the frustration probably comes from the feeling that you have a fairly good idea of how it is going to end, and roughly why it will end that way due to the obvious hints implanted in the story early on and along the way. Much like it was in A Time to Kill, you just know that the going will get tough and everything will appear lost before a rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I must also say that I didn’t really buy the ending, though I can’t explain why without divulging spoilers. Having said that, the final chapter steers the plot back towards more of a realistic and common sense conclusion, which at least mitigates some of the problems I had with it.

The result is a page-turner that falls short of being a compulsive page-turner. The novel keeps your interest because of the storyline and characters, but there’s also plenty of unnecessary padding. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t. There were a couple of times when I thought Grisham was trying to set something up for later, but the strand would never be resolved, leaving me wondering why he bothered sowing the seeds in the first place. I get the feeling that he or his editors could have easily pared back more pages to make it a smoother read.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Sycamore Row, I think it’s a superior novel to A Time to Kill. It’s not as compulsive, explosive or fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but I was still hooked into the story from the very first page and enjoyed reading it through to the end. It’s what Grisham fans have been hoping for ever since he penned A Time to Kill back in 1989 — a solid, emotionally satisfying sequel.

4/5

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Matthew McConaughey as Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)

PS: I read in an interview somewhere that there are talks for a film adaptation of Sycamore Row and Grisham is keen to have McConaughey and his smug face back as Brigance, notwithstanding the fact that the Oscar-winner is now 44 and nearly a decade older than the character.

Book Review: ’3096 Days’ by Natascha Kampusch

April 3, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I find long-term abduction stories fascinating. What kind of a person could do something so cruel to another human being? What kind of human being could live through such cruelty?

A few years back I read Alan Hall’s Monster (review here), a horrific investigative study into the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his biological daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years as a sex slave. Earlier this year I tackled Elizabeth Smart’s My Story (review here), the account of her harrowing 9-month abduction at the hands of a deranged couple in 2002.

After reading My Story I decided first-person accounts of such stories were probably best avoided as Smart’s book underwhelmed due to her weak writing, but I decided to ignore my own advice after coming across 3,096 Days, penned by another Austrian abductee, Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive from the ages of 10 and 18. After breezing through it in a few days, I now have to backtrack from what I said about first-person accounts, because 3,096 days is not just the best abduction book out there — it’s one of the best first-person true stories and finely written autobiographies I’ve ever read.

Natascha Kampusch was an unhappy, overweight and introverted 10-year-old who was on her way to school after a fight with her mother when she was tossed in a van by Wolfgang Priklopil, a mentally ill recluse who appeared polite and “normal” to locals. She would spend the majority of the next 3,096 days in a steel-enforced dungeon in Priklopil’s house that brought back memories of Josef Fritzl’s house of horrors. She would be starved, subjected to mental and physical abuse and torture, and living in constant fear of her bi-polar captor. By the time she was escaped, at age 18, Kampusch was a shell of a person, barely 40kg (despite being 175cm) and terrified of the free world she faced for the rest of her life.

This is a remarkable book. Kampusch’s writing is nothing short of amazing, considering she lost more than 8 of the most important years of her education. On the other hand, she spent a large proportion of her time in captivity reading, writing and educating herself, so in that sense it’s not surprising that she comes across as such a seasoned writer.

Some credit must go to her co-writer Heike Gronemeier and her English translator Jill Kreuer, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of the book is entirely her own words, because only she could describe — in tender, beautiful and heartfelt prose — the complex emotions she has towards her ordeal and her abductor whom she mostly calls “the kidnapper” in the book.

In many ways I found Kampusch’s writing almost Anne Frank-esque, not just in her observations and views on life but in the way her words manage to evoke a pure emotional response. Her descriptions are dramatic yet unpretentious, piercing yet comforting. I don’t know how she does it but there were so many passages where I found myself in awe of with her ability to hit the mark.

When I read Elizabeth Smart’s My Story, I complained about my inability to connect with her psyche and how the things she said often felt like “justifications” for her seemingly bizarre behaviour (such as squandering many obvious opportunities for escape) rather than “explanations” of why someone in her position might act that way. With Kampusch, it was the opposite. Even though she was criticized just as much as, if not more than, Smart for her behaviour, I understood where she was coming from perfectly. Had I not read her book, I too might have been baffled as to how she could go out with her kidnapper in public, and even on a ski trip, without reaching out for help. But after reading about the the depths of her fear and the grip Priklopil had over her, everything made sense.

Another impressive thing about 3,096 days is Kampusch’s insights into Priklopil, from his personality and mental illness to his upbringing and unnatural relationship with his mother. You can tell that despite everything he put her through, she had a special connection with him, and how could she not when he was the only person in her life, the only person she spoke to and interacted with, for 8.5 years? I was impressed with the way she saw him as not just an evil man (the way Smart saw her abductor), but as a complex person who could show kindness and vulnerability but also had a terrifying darkness that constantly threatened to overwhelm him. As she said, children who are ill-treated and abused by their parents and guardians still love them, and I suppose that goes some way towards explaining her feelings towards Priklopil and why she wept when she found out he had thrown himself under a train after she escaped.

I was also impressed with her refusal to accept that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, saying the label oversimplifies the complex relationship she had with her kidnapper. You can tell she has put a lot of intelligent thought, research and effort into analysing her ordeal and her emotions in the years since she was freed. Instead of trying to forget and put those eight years of her life behind her, which would have been impossible anyway, she is doing her best to make sense of this atrocious, meaningless crime committed against her.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to demean Smart or her experience. She had a completely different type of abductor and the period of her captivity was not so long that she could develop any positive feelings towards the perpetrators. But the contrast between the approach of the two books and the way their respective stories were told is stark, probably something akin comparing this the quality of the writing in this blog to that of the New Yorker.)

The only genuine fault I can find with the book is Kampusch’s refusal to talk about her sexual abuse at the hands of Priklopil. While she admitted in interviews that she was raped several times during her ordeal, in the book she sidestepped the issue by saying that there are some parts of her capture she wished to keep private (she did say that Priklopil chained her to his bed but mostly just wanted to cuddle). You can’t blame her for not wanting to talk about something like this, but the omission does spark concerns that perhaps Kampusch could be leaving other details out as well. It’s unfortunate because she already has so many doubters, many of whom believe she is hiding something. I can only repeat what I said in the case of Elizabeth Smart, which is unless you personally experience what they’ve gone through you have no idea how you’d react in the same situation.

Ultimately, I am certain that 3,096 Days will resonate with me for quite some time. It’s a fascinating read that’s harrowing and hard to stomach at times, but I found it contemplative, empathetic and truthful — in the sense that not everything in life is black or white, good or evil. It’s a testament to Natascha Kampusch’s courage, her strength, her intelligence, and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have come across this inspiring book.

5/5

PS: 3,096 Days has been adapted into a feature film of the same name. I’m not sure if I will watch it, but here’s the trailer anyway. There is also full documentary on Kampusch’s story on YouTube called 3,096 Days in Captivity.

Book Review: ‘Heaven is For Real’ by Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo

March 27, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

heaven

After having read Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander last year, my spiritual journey continues with Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This bestseller, which has a film adaptation coming to our screens soon, is written by conservative American writer Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, the little boy who supposedly went to heaven when he was 4 years old and came back to tell everyone about it.

It’s an easy book to read, and with just 163 pages, the type you could breeze through in a sitting or two (it took me three, which is pretty impressive by my standards). The writing is solid and builds suspense in a natural and unforced manner — largely through Colton’s medical ordeal which led to the alleged out-of-body experience, then through the bits and pieces of “heaven” he reveals to his family following his return. The story is told from the point of view of Todd, who shares his astonishment as his young son begins telling him things the 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have known (or so he says), including a miscarriage that had been hidden from him and the youthful appearance of a great grandfather he had never met.

The story is sold as nothing but a miracle of Biblical proportions, and the details of it as told by the Burpo family are certainly incredible. A lot of the stuff little Colton says are goosebump-inducing stuff (we’re talking Jesus and angels and Satan and the whole shebang), but the whole thing comes across as a little too neat and a little too packaged, which is no wonder why the book has polarized readers.

You see, the one crucial  thing I’ve withheld about the book is that Todd Burpo is a pastor who decided he was going to devote his life to God from the age of 13, and his whole family seems just as passionate about the Bible as him. Accordingly, unlike Proof of Heaven, which purposely avoided references to religion and heaven in a Biblical sense, Heaven is for Real is ALL ABOUT the Bible, and how Colton’s experience “proves” that the stories and descriptions of things in the Good Book are literally real. For example, when the Bible says Jesus sits on a throne in heaven, that’s exactly what it means, according to Colton, because that’s what he saw when he was there. When the Bible says Jesus sits “on the right hand of God,” it means he literally sits on God’s right hand side in heaven (like all the time?). And of course, Colton also saw Mary there with them because the Bible says that too. These are just a few of the plethora of such examples in the book.

Christians, especially those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, will love this book (and they do). It’s got a great story and an inspiring message at heart. Todd Burpo had been questioning his faith after a string of personal woes, from financial difficulties to broken bones and a cancer scare, and his mental and emotional state were in the dumps when his beloved little boy was hospitalised with a life-threatening condition. He got angry at God, but he also prayed and asked for a miracle, and God delivered, saving his little boy and restoring his faith forever. And with the way the book has been selling, it looks like the financial troubles have been obliterated too.

But for people who have a healthy scepticism of these types of claims, there are also plenty of ways to dismiss Heaven is for Real, with the most obvious being that the kid has clearly been indoctrinated from birth. His entire life up to that point revolved around his religion — his parents read him Bible stories every night, he goes to church all the time, he attends Sunday school every week. Even the movies they watch have Christian themes (eg, the Narnia series). Todd Burpo says his son talked about things in the Bible he couldn’t possibly have known, but that could be just parents underestimating their kids. I know I’m often amazed at some of the things my 2-year-old knows and says every day, wondering how the heck and where the heck he picked them up. Throw in a “leading questions”-type approach from the parents, a bit of wishful thinking and a touch of literary embellishment, and it’s not hard to conclude that little Colton was likely suffering from a wild imagination and a desire to please his parents, who had probably subconsciously encouraged him with their excited body language and readiness to believe whatever he said.

The kicker, which I forgot to mention, is that there was never any medical proof, or even suggestion, that Colton was medically “dead” during his surgery. How can someone have a near-death experience when they’re not actually close to death?

That said, I think being completely dismissive of the book is being unfair to the Burpos, who seem like wonderful people and devout Christians who genuinely believe what happened to them was a miracle. This is where being a pastor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could say it supports the view that he would not lie and that it makes perfect sense why God would want to reward a family like theirs for their faith, but on the other you could just write it off as a biased preacher hearing what he wanted to hear and skewing everything in the direction that matches his beliefs.

My view is somewhat mixed. Some of the things Colton says defy explanation, and even if you don’t believe he went to heaven you have to admit they are eerily compelling. However, out-of-body experiences, not just NDEs, are not uncommon phenomena (there’s a never-ending amount of literature out there for open-minded people who want to read it), and while most of them have both common and unique elements (such as Eben Alexander’s experience in Proof of Heaven), few come close to meetings with Jesus or corroborating the literal truth of the Bible.

What the literature suggests is that the afterlife, supposing there is one, is a subjective, almost tailor-made experience. People tend to see things and meet people that comfort them, even family members they haven’t met before or don’t remember meeting. Now, I can’t possibly know if little Colton had an out-of-body experience or just an awesome dream, but if we assume he did, could it be that what he saw, given his uber religious upbringing, are just the things that comfort him the most? The things that he would want to, or even expect to, see when he dies? I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it’s food for thought.

Anyway, Heaven is for Real was a fun read that has the potential to be a good or extremely awful movie. I actually enjoyed the first half, about the Burpo family’s struggles and Colton’s frightening health scare, than the second, when the Christian imagery started raining down on the pages and tedious chunks of Biblical verses began getting rolled out to match everything Colton was saying. Christians will say it proves the truth of heaven and the Bible, while non-believers will say it only proves the depths of human stupidity and naivete. Overall, it’s still a book I would recommend to people I think will appreciate it for what it is — a story that will make us think about the nature of life and asks us what we ultimately want to believe when we die.

3/5

PS: Here’s the trailer for the film, starring Greg Kinnear, scheduled for an April 16 release.

Book Review: ‘David and Goliath’ by Malcolm Gladwell

March 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

gladwell_david and goliath

Malcolm Gladwell is one massive brain, and he even looks a little like one. He takes interesting ideas, builds a line of argument, and develops the concept into fascinating, easy-to-read books that also happen to be page-turners. His latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which tackles our misconceptions of perceived advantages and disadvantages, is no different.

The book starts off with a clever take on the Biblical encounter between David and Goliath — you know, story about the little shepherd boy who defeats the massive, unstoppable giant warrior, presumably because he was infused with the power of God.  But oh no, Gladwell says. Contrary to what the Bible would want you to believe, David actually had all the advantages, with experts saying that his sling shot basically had the power and accuracy of a modern gun. Goliath, on the other hand, was large and immobile, and he was probably also nearly blind because of the condition that caused him to grow to such an enormous size.

That fun little introduction paves the way for many more examples to back up Gladwell’s theory that many of our preconceived notions about the world are wrong. In the ensuing chapters, Gladwell challenges the notions that smaller classes are better than bigger ones, that it is better to go to a top school than a mid-tier one, and that dyslexia is always a debilitating disadvantage to have. Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond? Does being nearly bombed in war make people more frightened or more courageous? Is the three-strike rule in crime prevention and punishment effective? These are just some of the questions he asks, and the answers he comes up with might surprise you.

One of the central pieces to his arguments is the inverted U-curve, which suggests that too much of a good thing will start generating diminishing returns, before eventually leading to negative returns. An example is the link between money and raising children. Being poor obviously makes it difficult to raise kids, and of course having more money will make it easier. But at some stage the richer you become the harder it will be to raise kids because they’re so comfortable and pampered that it’s almost impossible to motivate them to do anything.

As usual, Gladwell finds brilliant case studies with extensive research, humorous anecdotes and personal interviews to support his conclusions. He does oversimplify at times to make his point, but to his credit there are extensive notes and sources of further reading at the end of the book. I was also impressed with the breadth of topics he explores. As mentioned above, he considers things such as the Bible stories, the education system, dyslexia and crime prevention, but he goes even further as the book progresses, taking on the civil rights movement in the US, Northern Ireland and WWII. Some of the links are a little tenuous and I occasionally had to remind myself what the central argument of the book is about, but I guess that’s what happens when you try and fit everything under the same umbrella.

On the whole, this is another strong effort by Gladwell. I didn’t find it as engrossing as say Outliers, and I felt the David and Goliath story was such a fantastic start that the rest of the book felt weaker by comparison, but by the standards of any other book of the same genre this is an excellent read — friendly, informative, witty, well constructed and compelling.

4/5

PS: I was drawn to the book after watching Gladwell promote it on Jimmy Kimmel. Here’s the 2-part interview where he talks about the David and Goliath story and the benefits of dyslexia.

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