Book Review: Good Omens


Author: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Narrator: Martin Jarvis
Other books read by the same authors:

Pratchett:

Gaiman:

Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2009 [originally published in 1990]
Summary/Review:

Several years ago, I read Good Omens, and hearing the buzz about the new tv series adaptation, I thought it was worth revisiting this book in audio format, charmingly narrated by Martin Jarvis.  This was the first book I read by either author at the time of my previous reading.  It is no less than a satirical fantasy about the Apocalypse.  More specifically, satire of the religious beliefs around the End Times mixed with satire about quirky, middle-class English life (the biggest flaw of this book is that it can get bogged down in the “quirky, middle-class English life” bit, past the point of being funny).

The main characters of the book are the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who have formed a partnership over the eons due to their both liking humanity for their own reasons, and thus wishing to avoid the end of the world.  Early in the novel, the son of Satan is born, and due to a mix-up by the Satanic nuns at the hospital, the baby is mixed up with another baby.  11 years later, when the Apocalypse is too begin, the child groomed to be an Anti-Christ is an ordinary boy, while Satan’s actual son is Adam Young of the Oxfordshire village of Lower Tadfield.

The plot shifts among  several characters. Aziraphale and Crowley trying to sort out the mix-up without getting in trouble with their Higher Ups (and Lower Downs, I suppose for Crowley?). Adam and his gang of friends Them get into esoteric mischief as Adam becomes aware of his powers.  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – War, Death, Famine, and Pollution (who took over from Pestilence after the invention of penicillin) assemble and ride, picking up some Hell’s Angels along the way who give themselves names of things that annoy them. And Anathema Device is a witch who knows everything that will happen because she is the descendant of Agnes Nutter, a 17th century witch who wrote a book of accurate, but highly specific predictions. She is brought together with Newton Pulsifer, a nerdy bloke who seems to stumble into becoming one of the last Witchfinders for a paycheck.

A lot of it’s corny, and as I’ve said, sometimes the jokes are belabored.  Nonetheless, it’s a clever and funny work of two of the great fantasy writers of our age.

My original review from 2004:

A very silly book about the Apocalypse run amok. Sometimes the tongue-in-cheek writing style got a bit annoying, but there were always some clever bits to redeem it. While mostly a parody of Apocalyptical legend, there is also a strong undertone about good & evil and faith in a higher being. For all the comic cynicism, the message about God here is surprisingly positive.

Favorite Passages:

It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes. This is broadly true. But Heaven has the best choreographers


Crowley thought for a bit. “You must have had records,” he said. “There are always records. Everyone has records these days.” He glanced proudly at Aziraphale. “It was one of my better ideas.”

(As someone who works in archives and records management, I’m particularly amused that a demon invented records.)


The small alien walked past the car.

“C02 level up 0.5 percent,” it rasped, giving him a meaningful look. “You do know you could find yourself charged with being a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism, don’t you?”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 28


Hit Parade :: The Feat. Don’t Fail Me Now Edition

The history of the “featured artist” credit on number one singles.

To The Best of Our Knowledge :: Jeff Kripal at the Edge of Belief

Unconventional thoughts about religion, science, and the paranormal.  Not that I necessarily endorse this, but it’s interesting to hear something outside of the typical.

Back Story :: Elementary, Mr. President

Robert Bork, Benjamin Spock, and Sherlock Holmes and their ties to American history.

Planet Money :: Yes in My Backyard

The radical and controversial solution to America’s housing crisis: building new housing in existing neighborhoods!

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 18


Radiolab :: Match Made in Marrow

A story about how faith and science are in conflict, but how people who disagree can come together in dialogue (and still disagree).

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Disney Parks

An overlooked aspect of the Disney theme park experience: sound design.

30 for 30 Podcasts :: Hoodies Up

Trayvon Martin was murdered during a broadcast of the NBA All-Star Game.  Five weeks later, his hometown team the Miami Heat posed for a photo with their hoodies up.  This is the story of that photo and the rebirth of athlete activism.

WBUR News :: An ‘Underground World’: This Urban Tent Community Is Dangerous For Heroin Users

A scene from the opiod crisis with a visit to a hidden tent community in the Boston region.

Fresh Air :: Priest Responds To Gang Members’ ‘Lethal Absence Of Hope’ With Jobs, And Love

An interview with Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries and how to care for children in gangs.  You can also read my review of his book Tattoos on the Heart.

Book Review: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now by John Crossan


Author: John Crossan
TitleGod and empire : Jesus against Rome, then and now
Publication Info: [San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
Summary/Review:

This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year.  The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today.  Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality.  Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence.  This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
Favorite Passages:

As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.

As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).

I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.

It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.

Recommended books:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan , The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart, and Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Rating: ****

Book Review: Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Keating


Author: Thomas Keating
TitleContemplative Prayer
Publication Info: [Louisville] : Sounds True, 1995

Summary/Review:

Several years ago I attended a retreat where I learned about contemplative prayer.  I found this guide by one of the major proponents of contemplative prayer, Thomas Keating, narrated by Keating himself and decided to listen to is as a refresher.  Keating begins by discussing the human condition and psychological development from early childhood.  He discusses programs that people use to seek happiness but concludes that the limitless human heart may only be filled by God.  He relates that “fear of God” does not mean the emotion of fear, but trust, reverence, and passion for God.

Centering prayer is laying aside all thought so we can open ourselves to God.   There are three aspects to this kind of prayers:

  1. a sacred word – repeated unchanging throughout prayer and important to disregarding thoughts
  2. a comfortable position but not too comfortable so you don’t fall asleep
  3. 20 minutes of time – one may only end up with 1-2 minutes of quiet, but it is quality not quantity

Rating: ***

 

Book Review: Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler


Author and Narrator: Bruce Feiler
TitleWalking the Bible
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2005)

Summary/Review:

So, I read and reviewed the book Where God Was Born without realizing that it was a sequel to a previous journey until the author responded to my review on Twitter (oops!).   This journey goes to the places of the five books of Moses in Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.  Feiler summarizes the stories of patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Jacob,  Joseph, and Moses alongside his own travel adventure.  He depicts his personal religious journey as desire to be at the exact places being replaced by an understanding of the symbolism of the land. Feiler also engages in dialogue with many people Jewish and Islam about the differences between Jewish scripture and Quran. No matter what order you read them in, these two books are terrific companions to anyone’s spiritual journey.
Rating: ***1/2

 

 

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk


Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler


Author:Bruce Feiler
TitleWhere God Was Born
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2005)
ISBN: 9780060888572
Summary/Review:

Feiler’s book is a unique combination of travelogue, history, theology, and personal growth.  Feiler documents his journeys to Israel, Iraq, and Iran to visit the sites of places mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures.  There’s a lot of interesting discussion of the Israelites and the connection to land, but how the religion was born only once they were taken from the land.  There are also hints that the Babylonian captivity was not as bad as depicted in the bible.  Feiler also has an interesting take on David, the flawed hero, who spent many years as a bandit and even collaborated with the enemies of Israel. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the book is when he worships with a Jewish community in Iran who have a surprising amount of religious freedom, something Feiler traces back to the Persian king Cyrus who liberated the Israelites from captivity.  He also traces Zoroastrian influences to the Abrahamic religions to this period.  In the end, Feiler finds in the Bible a blueprint for religious tolerance and understanding that could be followed today.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: When spiritual but not religious is not enough by Lillian Daniel


AuthorLillian Daniel
TitleWhen spiritual but not religious is not enough : seeing god in surprising places, even the church
Publication Info: New York, NY : Jericho Books, 2013.
ISBN:  9781455523085
Summary/Review: A Christian minister writes several essays about contemporary religious life, challenging people to go beyond seeing God in sunsets and waterfalls and seeking out God in the flawed human beings in the community around them.  Daniel is wise and humorous and at times sounds like a cranky old person (I looked at her author photo, she’s not), but always with the underlying goal of startling the reader into taking their relationship to God and community to a higher plane.
Favorite Passages:

“When you witness suffering and declare yourself to have achieved salvation in the religion of gratitude, you have fallen way short of what God would have you do, no matter what religion you are called to.

And by the way, while I think God does want us to feel gratitude, I do not think God particularly wants us to feel lucky.  I think God wants us to witness pain and suffering and rather than feeling lucky, God wants us to get angry and want to do something about it.

The civil rights movement didn’t happen because people felt lucky.  The hungry don’t get fed, the homeless don’t get sheltered, and the world doesn’t change because people are who are doing okay feel lucky.  We need more.” – p. 9

“At one point, the whole world was safe for animals.  Now their territory is constricted.  Human beings control so much of the landscape and we have huge areas where animals rarely go — schools, hospitals, stores, churches.  So I like to think of the sight of an animal in the airport as a special gift.  We get a glimpse of nature in a sterile place.  We get a dose of animal instinct in a place where we all have to behave ourselves.  It’s as odd as hearing a dog bark in church, and just as wonderful.” – p. 137

“I don’t want to choose.  The church has plenty of tents staked out on the battlegrounds of who Jesus is, and why it matters.  I pitch my tent in the field of mystery, and have yet to nail it down.” – p. 161

“I’m tired of playing by that dull and pedestrian set of rules, which has everything to do with a litigious, factoid-hungry culture and nothing to do with following Jesus.  I don’t come to church for evidence or for a closing argument.  I come to experience the presence of God, to sense the mystery of things eternal, and to learn a way of life that makes no sense to those stuck sniffing around for proof.” – p. 166

“I believe that there really is a connection between who we were raised to be and who we are now. It might bot be a straight line, but you cannot connect the dots.  God works through all kinds of religious communities at different points in our lives.

No spiritual home is all good or all bad. So give thanks for the small and tender blessings of every place that has never been our spiritual home, and for lessons you have learned.”  – p. 182

Recommended books:The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, and Pray All Ways: A Book for Daily Worship Using All Your Senses by Edward M. Hays.
Rating: ***

Book Review: God After Darwin by John F. Haught


Author: John F. Haught
Title: God After Darwin
Publication Info: Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 2000.
ISBN: 0813367239
Summary/Review: This is a complicated book which I didn’t thoroughly comprehend so I may not be able to justice to it in a review.  Nevertheless, it tackles an issue near and dear to me that is how to reconcile the theory of evolution with belief in God.  I like the approach that puts aside the false dichotomy of science versus religion even if I don’t understand the science and biology behind it.  There’s definitely a core idea that faith should be challenged to be deeper by the truth of evolution rather than denying the science or creating something like intelligent design.  Definitely a work worth rereading.

Recommended booksQuarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion by John Polkinghorne and Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall.
Rating: **