Greatest. Tennis. Match. Ever. As a new father I have about 10 minutes to spare, so I’m going to blog about what’s been on my mind — last night’s EPIC Aussie Open Final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The two fighters went toe-to-toe like to heavyweight sluggers, absorbing killer blow after killer blow in read more
I just finished playing the third installment in the now-legendary God of War franchise brought to Sony’s PS3 by Santa Monica Studio. It was a rushed effort because I bought the game in Hong Kong for a friend, who was kind enough to allow me to “test” the game for him first. I’ve been a read more
[Note I have posted a new European Adventure Round-Up after my trips to Greece, Sweden and Denmark - see here] Well, I’m finally back. 20 days, 5 countries, 12 cities. It was pretty hectic, but also one of the best vacations of all time! I’ve also finally brought the Travel Diary up to date, and read more
I had no idea The Wolf of Wall Street was a comedy until it won the Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category at the recent Golden Globes. Leo DiCaprio plus Martin Scorcese usually equal serious, violent, gritty flicks like The Departed or Gangs of New York, but this time, they’ve teamed up to give us one of read more
After reading Reza Aslan’s controversial Zealot, which aims to separate the “Biblical Jesus” from the “historical Jesus”, I thought I would balance things out a little bit by reading Aussie John Dickson’s Simply Christianity, which is basically an annotated version of the Gospel of Luke.
The subtitle of Simply Christianity is Beyond Religion, which explains the rationale behind the book. In essence, Dickson says that a lot of people purposely avoid looking into Christianity because there are so many versions on offer, but to do so is missing the point of Christianity. The aim of the book, therefore, is to go beyond the dogma of religion, to peel back all the stuff that make people wary of religion, so that you can get to the core of what Christianity is all about.
To do so, Dickson chooses to present the Gospel of Luke in its entirety — minus the bits that are in contention among scholars — because it’s famous for Jesus’s relationship with “non-religious” people and is therefore easier to relate for his readers. Even though the author of Luke had not personally met Jesus he is believed to have interviewed people who had, but more importantly, he appears to be placing an emphasis on the “reliability” of his work, which was written for an individual by the name of Theophilus.
Each section of Luke’s Gospel is accompanied by Dickson’s personal notes and explanations to help clarify and emphasize the salient points of that particular section. It’s a lot easier that just reading Luke’s Gospel in isolation, that’s for sure. And at the end of the book there is about another 40 pages of “additional information” about the so-called “myths” on the reliability of the Gospels, the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’s coming, and counterarguments against claims that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead.
These notes at the back are not the core of the book, so the arguments are obviously quite brief and simplified. In the “myths” section, for example, Dickson tackles things like the myth of language translation, the myth of copying errors, lies and bias. He writes each of these off, one by one, with seemingly convincing arguments, but fails to consider the broader picture, such as the possibility that while certain passages in the Gospels were not originally intended to be outright lies, they may have been subsequently moulded and manipulated to suit a particular early Christian agenda.
There were also some factual discrepancies that leaped out at me. For instance in Zealot, Aslan says none of the Gospel writers knew Jesus in person, though Dickson says in Simply Christianity that the Gospels of Matthew and John appear to have been written by eyewitnesses who travelled and worked with Jesus for three years. How is it possible that both scholars are so confident in their version of events?
That said, the most compelling arguments for Christianity remain, being: Jesus most probably did have the power to heal the sick; and people who swore that Jesus rose from the dead refused to recant their testimonies despite torture and death. As Dickson said, it’s one thing to die for a belief, it’s another to die for something you know to be a lie. Of course, being able to heal and rise from the dead only prove Jesus is an amazing dude and not necessarily that he is exactly who the Bible says he is. By the way, why is the resurrection considered such a big deal when Jesus had already been bringing other dead people back to life? Isn’t raising other people from the dead just as impressive, if not more so, as raising yourself back from the dead?
Prior to this book, Dickson had written three previous books about Christianity that were bestsellers in Australia and the UK, so I thought there must be something about his writing that readers can relate to. He’s a good writer who employs solid analytic skills in trying to help readers make sense of the Bible, and importantly, he has a sense of humour about religion and often makes interesting analogies using modern culture and pop culture. It makes for an easy yet informative read, though at times his tone borders on patronizing, giving rise to a sneaking suspicion that he thinks most of his readers are not very bright or can’t think for themselves.
As with books of this kind, the arguments in Simply Christianity are obviously skewed in one direction, though the same can of course be said for books at the other end of the spectrum. If I hadn’t read some of the so-called “anti-Christian” books such as Zealot, I would think Dickson paints a pretty convincing case. But since I have, it becomes much easier to doubt some of the things he says. Further, I felt he had a tendency to gloss over, oversimplify or generalize certain aspects of the debate. For instance, in trying to bolster the believability of the Gospels, Dickson says that the Gospels of Mark and Luke were based on eyewitness information of people close to Jesus and are therefore analogous to us (the reader) interviewing him to write an essay about his wife. Actually, it’s not quite the same. For starters, we don’t know exactly who wrote the Gospels and even the earliest available versions are copies that may have already been manipulated from the originals. And secondly, his wife doesn’t claim to be the direct offspring of God.
Interestingly, Dickson confidently states near the start of the book that the best way to weigh the issues relating to the trustworthiness of the Gospels is just to read them. Well, I did and I have to admit it raised at least as many doubts as it quashed. Frankly, many parts of Luke’s Gospel, supposedly one of the more level headed ones, reads like a fairytale, with angels appearing in the sky and talking to people and Satan himself literally speaking to Jesus (whom by the way fasted in the desert for 40 days). And as for stories like Satan testing Jesus with the three temptations or claims that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was possessed by Satan — are these supposed to be eyewitness accounts? How could anyone believe this is an eyewitness account, let alone a reliable one?
Of course, none of this in any way negates the existence of God or the core belief of Christianity in that Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead, but it does suggest to me that anyone who claims the Bible is infallible and that it is the literal word of God probably hasn’t read it carefully enough. Indeed, most reasonable Christians will take these stories as parables where the literal truth is unimportant compared to the message it is trying to convey.
To conclude: Simply Christianity is a fairly fascinating and occasionally eye-opening read, though I have my doubts about its the ability to convert sceptics into believers. That said, the book could provide the catalyst for people who are sceptical about Christianity to research more about it. Whether they find themselves more convinced or less convinced as a result of that research is a whole other can of worms.
PS: At least I can say now that I’ve read a whole book of the Bible, and I actually understand it.
Released late last year, My Story is a first person account how 14-year-old Utah teen Elizabeth Smart was abducted by a perverted homeless preacher and his wife in 2002 and held as a sex slave for nine months. I vaguely remember reading about the abduction when it happened, though it wasn’t until she was rescued and details of her harrowing ordeal came to light that the story spread to international headlines. Her name came up again when she married a Scottish missionary in 2012, and I recall mentioning that she bore quite a resemblance to 24 actress Elisha Cuthbert.
What do you think?
There are many articles, several books and a TV movie about her story, but it has taken more than 10 years for Smart to build the courage to tell her story in her own words, with some help from the book’s other author, Chris Stewart, an American politician, author, and fellow devout Mormon.
When I began reading the book I did not know much about Smart, her abductors or the details of her captivity — I didn’t even know how long she had been held for. But if you would like to know a bit of the background, then here it is (skip if you prefer not to know): Smart was 14 years old when she was snatched from her Salt Lake home at knife-point by Brian David Mitchell, a homeless man who claims to be a prophet of God, in June 2002. She was led back to a small camp in the woods where she was made Mitchell’s “second wife” and forced to live with him and his first wife, Wanda Barzee. She was raped daily and repeatedly and went for days with little to no food or water. Initially she was chained to a tree, but later on she accompanied Mitchell and Barzee on little expeditions to the city. They then moved to San Diego, but a few months later returned to Utah, where she was eventually rescued by police.
While I applaud the attempt and Smart’s message of hope despite enduring what most of us can’t even begin to fathom, the truth is that My Story is not a great book. I had always thought that a true story is better when it comes straight from the mouth (or in this case, the fingers) of the person who actually experienced it, but this book has provided a perfect example of why that is not necessarily a good idea.
The content is all there, but the quality of the writing is lacking. I’m not in any way trying to blame poor Smart — she’s was just a girl when taken and not a professional writer, but Stewart, whom she collaborated with to bring the book to life, and the editor(s) of the book, should have done a better job of balancing out the narrative to make it a more engaging and compelling read. At times the narrative is chatty like this blog (with lots of exclamations! and comments in parenthesis), while other times it can read like a personal diary or a preacher’s sermon. Occasionally it becomes journalistic. The story would at times feel like Smart is telling it as though she’s back in the moment as an immature teenager, but then, without warning, she would seem removed from child herself and be telling the story from the present as a 25-year-old adult. The contrast is jarring, and if feels like you can almost tell which parts Smart wrote herself and which parts were added in or shaped by other writers and editors.
I also found it interesting, but not surprising considering Smart’s strict Mormon upbringing and beliefs, that some of the more gruesome aspects of Smart’s ordeal were self-censored and skimped over. For instance, she says that Mitchell forced her to engage in certain degrading acts against her will, but she doesn’t really suggest what they are. It’s not that I want to read all the disgusting details, but the decision to sanitise the story for the sake of protecting readers mutes the emotional power of the story .
It was also difficult to relate to Smart at times even though she was telling her own story. Part of it is because she is a very devout Mormon and had a strict and sheltered upbringing — which is why she did not come across as an “ordinary” 14-year-old American teenager and felt like someone much younger and more naive . But these are obviously not things she would say about herself. If you don’t keep her background firmly in mind, there is a risk that parts of her ordeal will feel incredible, perhaps even unbelievable. I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of occasions she could have easily escaped or sought help — including, most ridiculously, when they were confronted by a suspecting detective in public — but ended up doing nothing, even when she repeatedly emphasized that she did not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and absolutely loathed her evil captors.
I’m not doubting Smart’s credibility for one second, but hearing an explanation from a different voice might have made her actions, reactions and thoughts easier to understand. Instead, it sometimes felt like she was trying to justify why she acted a certain way, and I would have preferred a psychologist or medical expert to try and explain her behaviour, that is assuming it can be explained at all. In fact, it wasn’t until her rescue that I began to appreciate the gravity of the paralysing fear she felt in Mitchell’s presence during those nine months — and realised that perhaps until you go through something that traumatic yourself you don’t have the right to judge the reactions of others.
The final chapters after her rescue are the strongest parts of the book and provide more depth and insight into Smart’s character, her incredible resolve and the wondrous support of her family. Be warned though that as Smart is the narrator, her unwavering belief in God is a theme that appears continuously throughout the course of the book. Personally, I was impressed with how she could do that despite everything she has been through, though I can also understand if some readers find her unshakable conviction in her faith a little irritating.
Note that this not the only book you would read if you want to find out the entire Elizabeth Smart kidnapping story and is probably something better suited for people who already know a little about the case or have seen the TV movie or read about it elsewhere. There is very little information in these pages about who her abductors were and what happened during their subsequent trial, nor does it go into any of the drama in her household during her absence, including the suspicions against her family and manhunts for wrong suspects. It’s more of a blow-by-blow personal account of her nine months in captivity, and that’s it, with no real attempt to provide a comprehensive background or context before or after the events.
In the end, My Story came as advertised because it really is Elizabeth Smart’s story, flaws and all. It’s a terrifying story about overcoming unspeakable acts of cruelty and degradation, but it’s also tale of hope about coming up with the strength to move on with life when so many of the things you value are shattered and can never be recovered. The personal details of Smart’s harrowing ordeal will keep you flipping the pages, though I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that it was not a more captivating read.
Like everyone else, I found the title Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth too provocative to ignore. “Zealot” carries certain negative connotations, and the use of the word in the title is clearly by design, intended to stir up a shitstorm which it of course did upon its release.
But beneath all the controversy, Zealot is actually a fairly readable, robustly researched academic work that makes a strong case that the Biblical Jesus Christ is a very different person to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is probably already something a lot of non-Christians, and even some more liberal Christians believe, but what this book does is flesh out all the arguments through an analysis of historical documents and the Bible itself, stringing together a narrative that delves into how the religion of Christianity was created in the first place.
Zealot is written by Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who coincidentally shares the same name as the lion from CS Lewis’s Narnia books, which are allegedly veiled Christian stories where the lion is actually God! A lot has been made about the fact that Aslan is a Muslim who converted from Christianity and that he currently works as a creative writing teacher. Both are accurate but overblown because he is also a scholar of religions, someone who holds a PhD in the sociology of religions from the University of California. And really, all you have to do is read a few pages of Zealot to realize that this is not some fanciful creative writing project of some Muslim nut trying to destroy Christianity, but rather a thorough academic work from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, or at least projects that image anyway. The Da Vinci Code this is not.
Of course, this is not to say Aslan’s theories about the life of Jesus are correct or that he doesn’t have an agenda (of course he does, and I think it’s motivated by $$$ more than anything else), but most of the accusations that have been hurled his way are pretty embarrassing.
Contrary to some reviews I have read about the book, Zealot is not a straight, blow-by-blow chronological biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The first couple of chapters set up the all-important historical background that helps readers understand the type of world Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, after which each chapter of the book tackles a different aspect or period of Jesus’s life through analyses of the Bible and other historical records. The final chapters, which I found the most fascinating, deal with the resurrection, followed by how Christianity as we know it came into being.
Zealot is also not a piece of “historical fiction” as some have suggested. Granted, Aslan does occasionally delve into what can be described as “creative non-fiction” in some of his descriptions, but to say he is just making things up is a gross exaggeration. For the most part, the book is driven by critical analysis that points out what was likely and what was not likely based on what we know about that time today.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that Zealot is essentially an academic work that has been written with a wider audience in mind. There is accordingly a certain level of historical and religious detail and complexity in what Aslan writes, a lot of which would be difficult for the layman to follow, let alone fully comprehend.
It is a difficult book to get through at times because he blows through a lot of names of people and places very quickly, and people who don’t have at least a bit of knowledge about the Bible or this period of history could find most of it flying straight over their heads. Compounding the situation is that a lot of people back in those days have the exact same names, which means you might have to re-read certain sections if you want to fully understand all the details. I’ll admit I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.
Considering what a tough job it is explaining such a complicated part of history and the need to do it well, Aslan does about as well as you could have expected in keeping the narrative relatively simple and flowing. It is not easy to strike a balance between being comprehensive and informative against being readable and accessible, and I think the fluidity of the narrative and the confident voice with which the story is told is a testament to Aslan’s impressive knowledge of the subject.
The problem with Zealot is that the whole book is written under the presumption that Jesus was not, and couldnot have been divine, and the narrative is built entirely around the premise that the Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are two completely different people. What I mean by that is instead of analysing the available and reliable historical information to reach certain conclusions, Aslan appears to cherry pick parts the Bible and other ancient documents to back up his preconceived conclusion.
Another major problem, which Aslan highlights in the first few pages of the book, is that because there is insufficient information on certain details of Jesus’s life, he is often forced to make “educated guesses” on what was most likely under the circumstances. However, as he appears so self-assured about everything he says, it becomes difficult to distinguish between when he is making a statement based on irrefutable “facts” and when he is making a “guess”, which, even if ”educated”, could be biased or skewed so that he can reach certain conclusions that suit his agenda.
To get a clearer picture of how much guesswork was actually involved, you’ll have to rummage through the extensive notes section at the end of the book, which adds about another quarter to a third of the book’s overall length. I would hardly call this section compulsory reading because the majority of it is just additional sources for interested readers to explore. That said, there are some interesting bits in there that elaborate on a lot of the arguments Aslan makes throughout the book, though sometimes they actually undermine his theories by making you realise that there are equally convincing counterarguments.
Of course, if everything was as obvious as Aslan paints it to be, he wouldn’t need to write a book about it. I’m sure plenty of Christian scholars and apologists already have and will continue to poke holes in his so-called “facts” and “educated guesses”, which is simply something that comes with the territory when writing about stuff no one can really know about for sure.
On the whole, Zealot offers no earth-shattering revelations, but it is nevertheless a well-written book with a strong central argument. While not exactly a page turner because all the context and background it needs to constantly provide, readers interested in who the “historical Jesus” might have been should find it an educative and fascinating read.
Key arguments of the book
Aslan essentially summarises the central argument of Zealot in this paragraph: ”The firstcentury Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”
What he is saying is that the Bible is far from inerrant (as some loonies claim) and is likely skewed by evangelists with an agenda. He does a great job of providing the context in which the Biblical stories of Jesus came into being, explaining to readers that it was a very different world back then where 97% of people were illiterate and driven by superstitions. His analysis suggests that certain parts of the gospels were likely to have been completely made up by the writers or at least twisted to make Jesus’s life fall in line with Old Testament prophecies.
One technique Aslan employs is to compare and contrast the the gospels to show how the later gospels may have built on myths created by an earlier one. For example, he suggests that John the Baptist apparently once had a huge following as well, with some believing he was even greater than Jesus, but the gospels intentionally tried to lessen his influence and make it abundantly clear that, despite being a great man himself, John was nothing compared to Jesus. Aslan illustrates how through time, John goes from the one who baptizes Jesus to just bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity, when historical records suggest that Jesus likely began his ministry as just another one of John’s disciples and only built his own after John was arrested.
By the way, none of this suggests that Jesus is not who the Bible says he is. But what it does argue is that any suggestion that the Bible is an inerrant document is a joke, and that in reality it is a very flawed book driven by different agendas and plagued with historical and factual inaccuracies and contradictions.
So how did the documents that make up the Bible become this way? Aslan points the finger at Paul, a former Pharisee who never met Jesus when he was alive but inexplicably became a believer after a supposed miraculous meeting with a divine, post-resurrection Jesus, after which he started declaring himself greater than the 12 Apostles and as the one chosen by God to build a new religion.
According to Aslan, Paul (who is painted as a bit of a nutcase) had a different agenda and beliefs to the rest of the remaining members of the 12 Apostles and Jesus’s brother James, who advocated something much closer to what the real life (and non-divine) Jesus preached. Paul’s version of a divine Jesus was completely different and often contradictory to the Jesus who lived. It does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life and provides little insight into who the living Jesus was — nor did he seem to care.
The two sides actually battled bitterly over Jesus’s legacy, leading to the Apostles demanding that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings in 57CE. It was not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which destroyed just about all records of Jesus’s life and link to Judaism, that Paul’s side emerged victorious.
“The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexisting, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s (a firm indication that Paul’s Christ was likely his own creation).”
Aslan goes on to claim that the only writings about Jesus apart from the so-called Q document that existed in 70CE were the letters of Paul, which became the primary vehicle for the Christian movement and a heavy influence on the gospels. Tellingly, more than half the 27 books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. Two millennia later, as Aslan says, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”
To be fair to Aslan, he is reasonably objective when it comes to certain aspects of Jesus’s life that might suggest divinity. For example, he admits that there is ample historical evidence that Jesus healed the sick and performed “miracles.” Aslan does, however, place Jesus’s remarkable feats in context by pointing out that so-called miracle workers were very prevalent back in those days (in fact, there was an entire industry), with the only difference being that Jesus did not charge for his services.
On the pivotal question of the resurrection, Aslan is unable to answer definitively, saying that it is a “matter of faith,” though he argues what is clear is that if Jesus did rise from the dead he did not do so “according to the scriptures” (ie, it was not prophecized) as claimed in the Bible.
Aslan also concludes that the resurrection as described in the Bible is “not a historical event” because by the time these stories were written, six decades after the event, the evangelists had heard “just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.” The result, Aslan claims, is that the resurrection as described is not a historical event but “carefully crafted rebuttals.”
Having said that, Aslan also recognizes the wealth of evidence supporting the resurrection. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony,” Aslan admits in the book. As he points out, these people died not because they were asked to deny matters of faith, but because they were asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.
This may come as a disappointment to some readers hoping to find something that will challenge what are arguably the most incredible claims in the Bible, but full credit to Aslan for admitting that there is insufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that these miraculous things can be dismissed outright.
Some of the other arguments Aslan makes and “facts” he points out in Zealot include:
- The term “zealot”, in the context of Jesus’s time, is someone who believes in only the one truth god and no others. That’s the “zealot” he is referring to in the title of his book.
- Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.
- No one has ever seen the originals of the gospels and it is generally accepted that the gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) were not written by the people after which they have been named. Accordingly, it’s impossible to tell whether the copies (even the oldest one we have) that are in circulation now have been tampered with.
- People back in Jesus’s time did not have a sense of what the word “history” meant, meaning they were not documenting things for future generations, and what the writings meant was more important to whether they were factually accurate.
- 97% of people back in Jesus’s time (including possibly Jesus himself) were illiterate and prone to manipulation.
- “Messiah” did not necessarily mean “God” back in those days as the prophecies in the scriptures were not clear and were confusing and contradictory. There were in fact many messiahs throughout history and even just in Jesus’s time.
- The narrative of Jesus’s birth is riddled with problems and contradictions, including claims in a couple of the gospel that he was born in Bethlehem as opposed to the obscure village of Nazareth. Aslan says Jesus almost certainly had many brothers and sisters, which shoots a big hole in the Catholic claim that Mary was a virgin for life.
- Jesus started off as merely just another disciple of John the Baptist. Jesus’s earliest disciples only started following him after John was arrested.
- Contrary to claims, Jesus was in fact very aware of the political landscape. Aslan tears down the image of a Jesus who only cared about preaching the word of God. He claims that Jesus’s prophecies about being arrested, tortured and crucified could be seen as either made up by future generations or simply “predictable” because that’s what happened to every self-proclaiming messiah who dared to challenge Rome.
- Jesus’s so-called trial before Pontius Pilate was a complete fabrication as Pilate would have never given Jesus the time of day given that at least a dozen similar “trials” were conducted on the same day. Likely also to be a fabrication is the entire narrative from the Last Supper to Jesus’s arrest up until his crucifixion.
- The story that it was the Jews who wanted Jesus crucified made absolutely no sense. It was likely made up for a Roman audience and thus tried to shift the blame away from Rome, though as a result it has sparked 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.
- Jesus was crucified alongside other lestai, which Aslan claims actually means other revolutionaries like him, rather than the general “evildoers” used in Luke’s gospel because he was uncomfortable with its political implications.
- The truth is that Jesus was executed for sedition, not blasphemy for claiming he was divine as the gospels claim, as the laws state clearly that the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning, not crucifixion. Aslan says the “flagrant inaccuracies” of the procedures and rituals and traditions in Jesus’s trial and execution show a complete lack of understanding by the early evangelists.
- Jesus’s predictions about the the arrival of the Kingdom of God and a new world order never arrived. In fact, Aslan claims that ”Kingdom of God” back then did not mean “heaven” as we know it and actually referred to a Jewish realm on earth where people followed the rules of a deity as opposed to a human king. The suggestion is that Jesus wanted to crown himself “king” of the new order, but a king who will serve the people as opposed to the other way around.
- Jesus did not perceive himself in the way early church leaders did. He never openly referred to himself as messiah or the Son of God (he actually called himself, ambiguously, Son of Man), which in any case did not mean that he was literally God’s offspring but was instead the traditional designation for Israel’s kings. Even King David was called Son of God multiple times in the Bible.
- Stephen, the first person to be martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” and stoned to death for blasphemy, had never met Jesus, was never involved in his life, nor witnessed his death. In addition, Stephen was not a scribe or scholar and did not know the scriptures well, plus he preached to an uneducated and illiterate crowd.
- Luke attributed a long speech to Stephen which was likely to have been made up. Luke says Stephen looked up to the heavens and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which became a favourite image of the early Christian community — and that was how Jesus became God. As Aslan writes: ”One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is that last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.”
- The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including remnants of the 12 Apostles, clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, the ones who claimed Jesus was God. And it was their conflict that resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion, one led by Christian convert Paul and the other by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s version of the divine Jesus won out after the destruction of Jerusalem.
- The story of how Paul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, including his blinding and subsequent cure, is ”a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke, one of Paul’s young devotees,” Aslan contends, as Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus nearly a decade after the crucifixion.
- There are some great stories about the boy Jesus in the gnostic gospels, especially The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a petulant Jesus flaunts his magical powers by bringing clay birds to life or striking dead neighborhood kids who fail to show him deference.
The ideas in Zealot will be debated to death and I don’t have the requisite knowledge to throw in my two cents about what I think of Aslan’s arguments, as compelling as they are. At the end of the day, no one really knows, or else there wouldn’t be a whole market of books advocating and dissing the truth of Christianity. What Zealot does do very well, however, is provide an alternate version of events to the Bible and point out likely fallacies of the Holy Book, which Aslan paints — at the very least — as an unreliable or undependable account of historical events. Ultimately, what you believe about Jesus remains a matter of faith, though having said that, Zealot could go a long way in helping you make or prevent you from making that leap.
It could very well be that the first book I read in 2014 might be the best book I’ll read all year.
Stoner is an unusual book. It has a fairly “meh” title. It’s written by an American academic and poet by the name of John Williams, who only published four books during his career and died in 1994. It was first published in 1965 and enjoyed little, if any success. But now, after being reissued in 2006 by the New York Review Classics, it has become a bestseller, primarily through word of mouth (apparently after a French translation gained traction). It recently won the Waterstones’ book of the year for 2013, with celebrity endorsements coming from all directions, and it has been called by the New Yorker as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”
So what is it about this 50-year-old book that has everyone so excited? On its face, Stoner is simply a biography of the eponymous protagonist, William Stoner, focusing predominantly on the time he enters the University of Missouri as a student in 1910 and stretching until his death as a teacher there in 1956 (none of these are spoilers).
It’s difficult to find a less spectacular premise for a novel, and yet it is one of the most emotionally affecting books I have read in a long time. It’s also one of the most melancholic novels I’ve ever read. The tone is doused in melancholy. Drenched in melancholy. Steeped in it. But it’s not exactly depressing. There is a poignancy that is buried beneath the words and the pages that is beautiful, moving and painful.
Stoner is essentially the tragedy of William Stoner’s life, or rather, his failures from going through life without a sense of its meaning or purpose. It’s not a tragic life in that horrific things keep happening to Stoner — far from it. On paper, Stoner’s life is better than most people from that era, but there is an understated sadness about his forgotten existence. From the cold relationship with his farmer parents and his hastily entered marriage, to the touching but fractured relationship with his daughter and the doomed affair with his one true love, Stoner goes through life taking things as they come, never expecting things and seemingly accepting the hand dealt to him with stoicism and a quiet dignity. Teaching literature is his profession, and while he occasionally exhibits passion for it there is little enthusiasm or love. And yet, without it, Stoner wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
He is an odd but wonderfully constructed character — distant, almost removed from himself — but you understand who he is. He feels real; you feel like you know him. He accepts life for what it is, and yet he has a stubborn streak inside him that makes him difficult to grasp. I found myself rooting for Stoner, feeling the pain that he feels but doesn’t express, and longing for the happiness that eludes him.
The two main arcs in the novel that stood out for me were his relationships with wife Edith and his crippled university nemesis Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s relationship with Edith is so incredibly sad but masterfully depicted. She’s just a young and naive girl who married a stranger because she understood from her upbringing that it was her duty, and yet throughout the novel we watch her deteriorate into someone who silently and wrist-slittingly (though not literally) loathed her husband — who never mistreated her outwardly — in ways she could never explain in words. It breaks your heart; it broke mine many times.
The Lomax arc is a fascinating and exciting one about a bitter disagreement between two academics over a brilliant but arrogant and manipulative student. Both are biased in their own way, but neither see it; for Lomax, it becomes deeply personal, whereas for Stoner, it’s simply about principle. It’s an excellent insight into university politics and how a petty quarrel can develop into a lifelong feud.
I never thought I would be so mesmerized by a 1960s novel about the life of a bland university professor, and yet I could not stop turning the pages to see what would happen to Stoner next. I didn’t have the opportunity to read it in a single sitting, but it’s the kind of book that could pull you in and immerse you in its world. It’s a testament to William’s writing, which utilises clean, unpretentious prose that is deliberately lacking in exaggerated adjectives and manufactured melodrama. After reading a lot of modern novels where everything is stuffed down the reader’s throat, everything in Stoner comes across as subtle and nuanced, and it’s a delight.
I will conclude this review with what John Williams said about his own novel in a latter to his agent in 1963. When he was told by his agent not to get his hopes up over Stoner, Williams replied: ”I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a ‘bestseller’ or anything like that; but if it is handled right (there’s always that out) – that is, if it is not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher, as Butcher’s Crossing [his second novel] was treated as a ‘western’, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”
Finally, I’ve accomplished something I set out to do. 2013 was a big year of reading by my pathetic standards. As a father of two young’ uns working a full-time job plus freelancing on the side and loads of TV shows and movies to watch every night, reading time is hard to come by, but I set a goal to read 20 books last year and I did it, finishing with an overall total of 23.
It was a healthy diet of books for review I received from a trade publication, a lot of sports biographies (went through a binge phase), some recommendations, a few writing manuals and a few bestsellers. They were (in reverse chronological order): And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Housseini, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age by Stuart P Green, Party Time: Who Runs China and How by Rowan Callick, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Justice by Michael J Sandel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, The War for Late Night by Bill Carter, Cybercrime in the Greater China Region by Lennon Yao-chung Chang, Dream Team by Jack McCallum, Inferno by Dan Brown, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill, Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott, and Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (I had read the two books in the series the year before).
To avoid disappointment, my goal is to hit 20 books again for 2014, and I’ve already got a preliminary reading list at hand. This year I hope to get to more fiction and classics, and I intend to read a couple of fantasy and horror classics to get myself in the mood for my own fantasy novel. I’ve also dedicated some time to non-fiction as well as spiritual learning by setting aside a few pro-Christian and anti-Christian books, just to balance things out a little. There will likely be more additions as I receive them in the mail for review and other bestsellers and recommendations that come up throughout the year, but for now, this is (in no particular order) my reading list for 2014!
Stoner, John Williams
Simply Christianity, John Dickson
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan
Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman
My Story, Elizabeth Smart
Sycamore Row, John Grisham
Dracula, Bram Stoker
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
All That I Am, Anna Funder
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Magician, Raymond Feist
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
Dreams from My Father and/or The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama