My Favorite Books

The Walking Drum
Ender's Game
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Curse of Chalion
The Name of the Wind
Chronicles of the Black Company
The Faded Sun Trilogy
The Tar-Aiym Krang

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Review: The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy

The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy by Mohamad Jebara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most of my life as a Preacher’s Kid, I have been interested in comparative theology and the story of how other religions come to understand their own scared scriptures. Toward that ideal, I have read english translations of many of the main scriptural texts for most world religions; however, being more at home within the Christian traditions, my ability to truly interpret and understand how these are received and implemented by the various practitioners. As a christian apologist, I am frequently working to provide context to many of the more problematic passages within my own text, so I am keenly aware of the need to know something of the context from which a sacred text emerged … and quite frankly, with respected to the Quran, I have only a limited understanding of that context (and there is plenty of fundamentalists proof texting on all sides to confuse the issue). To be clear, I do not speak any dialect of Arabic, nor do I have any depth in reading Quranic commentaries (with a passing exposure to the Hadiths). Quite frankly, the non-traditional organization of the Quran (by length instead of chronologically) make it even more susceptible to proof texting by proponents and opponents of the Muslim faith … so while I am not in a position to critique the accuracy of Jebara’s exposition on how the Quran can to be and how it should be interpreted, I had hoped that I might find a better appreciation for the text from an apologist and expert exegetist who has the background that I lack. I was not disappointed.

The book is organized in three (3) parts describing the environment into which the Quran was sent, how it was transmitted and received, and its evolution after the death of Muhammad, its principle recipient and herald. With a presumption that Jebara’s interpretations are correct, I found quite a lot to admire in professed purpose of the text, actually finding in it a lot of similarity to my own faith tradition … which is not too surprising given how much of that tradition is shared between the three (3) principle Abrahamic religions. One such shared focus in on that the author describes as a focus on “Blossoming” that has a direct correlation to the concept of “Flourishing” that I am more intimately familiar with. There is an expectation of ambiguity within the written archaic Arabic (without vowels) that permits multiple interpretations, a point supported by an anecdote where two students disagreed on a particular interpretation with Muhammad declaring that they were both correct. That makes it all the more heart breaking to see the state of relations between these faiths today that seems so far removed from the original intent of the revelations; in this case, the ambiguousness of the Arabic allowing certain fundamentalist interpretations for political purposes was briefly described in part III, but offers no specific critiques or solutions (despite some specific examples of where this form of error can be found today, the last 600 years or so of Islamic evolution is not covered at all).

The chapters and sections in this work are:

Part I: The Qur’an’s Roots
Chapter 1: DNA: Arabic Letters and Language
Chapter 2: Ancestry: Abrahamic Mindset
Chapter 3: Audience: Stagnant Seventh-Century Arabia

Part II: The Qur’an’s Growth
Chapter 4: Hanif: The Qur’an as Challenger and Awakener
Chapter 5: Muslim: The Qur’an Guiding Healing and repair
Chapter 6: Baqarah: The Qur’an Directing Lasting Impact

Part III: The Qur’an Legacy
Chapter 7: The Struggle for Custodianship
Chapter 8: The Race to Unlock the Qur’an’s Vision of Blossoming

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:

Derived from the Arabic concept for separating strands of raw flax and weaving them into a garment, the discipline of Tafsir was developed by Muhammad to help make the Qur’an accessible and relevant to popular audiences. The field today comprises thousands of volumes of commentary aiming to assist readers in making sense of the Qur’an to help improve their lives.

Life-saving wisdom therefore needed to be passed down from one generation to another in a more permanent manner. In the Qur’anic account, Adam’s grandson Enoch invented writing and thus earned his moniker Idris—“the great scribe” (a parallel to Shakespeare’s moniker “the Bard”).

Imam: literally, “a guide out of a dark cave back to the light” (11:17 and 46:12);

Blindly inheriting idols reflected how polytheism froze critical thinking. A stone statue might be designed to appear awe-inspiring, but its inherent lack of physical dynamism signified a stagnant worldview. The Qur’an repeatedly invokes the Arabic term for idol—sanam—literally, “frozen in time.”

The English term “prophet” suggests someone foretelling the future, yet Semitic prophets are more focused on recovering a precious heritage in order to chart a better future. The Nabi, the Semitic term for prophet, describes an unlikely source of water bubbling up in an unexpected location, like a desert spring.

To help his two sons (and their own progeny) serve as guides who help others emerge from darkness, Abraham builds with each of them a special sanctuary. In Jerusalem, he and Isaac together construct a “masjid”—literally, “a place of re-grounding”—with a parallel masjid erected with Ishmael at Mecca.

The Qur’an calls Jesus Al-Masih, the Messiah—literally, “the anointed one” or “the one who wipes away injustice.” Rather than adopting the Jewish framing of the messiah as a political redeemer, the Qur’anic understanding of the messiah is a reformer anointed by God to revive the theory of Abraham and the structure of Moses.

Around 200 CE, rabbis began developing the Pirke Avot, a collection of wisdom literature, and the Mishnah (“study via repetition”), a compiled set of commentaries clarifying Biblical scripture. A century later, they expanded the effort to launch a mega-project compiling Jewish oral tradition into a grand work known as the Talmud (“instruction”).

The Qur’an does not hesitate to retell biblical incidents with modifications—or to introduce entirely new vignettes around iconic biblical figures. As a book purposely not constructed around a formal narrative, the Qur’an leverages these allusions primarily to emphasize a moral value rather than reveal an origin story.

To understand the Qur’an, therefore, requires knowing whom it addresses. While its wisdom may be timeless, it was not revealed in a vacuum, but rather in a particular social and historical context to a particular set of people, constantly adapting to its evolving audiences in seventh-century Arabia.

The city’s talisman was its central cubed shrine, called the Ka‘bah (“the Nexus”), which designated Mecca as the capital city of Arabia. Built by the patriarch Abraham, the shrine contained 360 devotional statues, one for each of Arabia’s major tribes.

To deepen its intimate relationship with Muhammad while simultaneously propelling him forward, the Qur’an began addressing him directly with the verbal command Qul! Typically translated merely as “say,” the highly nuanced directive conveys the need for visible action: “Emerge to publicly proclaim!” And not simply to speak, but to explain by demonstrating so everyone can hear and see. Qul embodies the opposite of retreating under blankets or stagnating in self-reflection.

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

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Thursday, March 28, 2024

Review: The Big Four

The Big Four The Big Four by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book: **
Performance: ****

A Departure from the Usual Fare

This story was originally published as 12 short stories for “The Sketch” magazine and latter cobbled together with an overarching plot based upon a cabal of “The Big Four” (4) uber villains bent on world domination … with the elusive Number Four (4) being an English master of disguise showing up in most of the stories. The other three (3) are a Chinese master mind, a French scientist and an American tycoon. Considering these were written at a time when the author was struggling to write, these were actually pretty good … if you are not a stickler for how Poirot was previously portrayed (the style here is less criminal detective and more international espionage similar to the famous Sherlock vs Moriarty matchup) … or if you don’t particularly like short stories (I actually find these classic detective stories well suited for the short story format). The benefit of the short format is that each part almost stands on its own with just the conspiracy of The Big Four tying it all together … the disadvantage is that there is very little discernible plot movement until the very end which feels a little forced and not really all that clever … making this story a fairly average classic (not her best work) that is actually made much better with the solid audible narration.

I was given this free advance review/listener copy (ARC) audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

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Sunday, March 24, 2024

Review: Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling

Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling by Nijay K. Gupta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Today it can be difficult to understand how disruptive and transformative Christianity was when it first made the scene, given ubiquitous it is in western society today. To truly get of good feel for this, you need to know the context from which Christianity emerged. Dr Gupta helps to provide a general treatment of that context in Strange Religion, highlighting both the common perception of how religion was supposed to work then as well as providing the striking contrasts of christian worship that made adherents to that way “weird.” The book is divided into four (4) parts that logically progress from what the ancients expected from their religion and how they practiced it, to what they believed and how they behaved and lived … and where each of these were different for Christians AND why that difference might be considered dangerous. There are a few quotes from scripture to help illustrate a particular point, but IMHO it stops short of actually using prooftexting (the quotes are part of the support and not the foundation). If anything, I thought in many cases the author didn’t delve deeply enough to provide any surprising incites, but provides an excellent introduction that should prove helpful to anyone interesting in interpreting christian scripture … especially the epistles of St Paul.

The chapters and sections in this work are:


Part 1 Becoming Christian
1. Roman Religion and the Pax Deorum: Keeping Peace with the Gods
2. “Believers”: The First Christians and the Transformation of Religion
3. A Dangerous and Strange Religion: Christianity as a Superstition

Part 2 What the First Christian Believed
4. Believing the Unbelievable
5. Cult without Smoke and Blood: Strange Worship
6. Possessed by the Spirit of God
7. Beginning at the End of All Things: A Strange Reckoning of Time

Part 3 How the First Christians Worshiped
8. A House of Faith: The Family Practices of the Early Christians
9. A Priest-God and a Priestly People: Church as a Liturgical Community

Part 4 How the First Christians Lived
10. Dangerous Contact: Becoming Godlike
11. To Treat Allas Equal
12. The Christians Were Not Perfect

Strange Religion: Putting It All Together

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:
Ancient worshipers were generally not looking for nirvana or inner peace. They weren’t obsessed with heaven or the afterlife. They believed that the welfare of persons, families, and civilizations depended on the goodwill and favor of Mount Olympus. Humans offered the gods their sacrifices, prayers, respect, and devotion, and the gods graced them with health, safety, and sometimes wealth. This became a circle of benefaction.
In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, he comments that four specialists were assigned to provide triple-check accuracy when it came to religious rituals. One person would read the ritual formula out loud, another would perform the ritual, a third would be an observer to ensure perfect execution, and a fourth would be present to enforce silence.
About four hundred years earlier, Socrates was put on trial in the very same city, Athens, under the accusation that he corrupted the city’s youth with his teaching, was impious toward the protective deities of the city, and taught about new and strange gods.
A foreign cult coming into Roman territory could help prove itself as beneficial to the pax deorum if it was ancient and storied, supported by a long history of divine-human cooperation.
In 81 BCE, the Romans sought to punish purveyors of magical rites with the most severe repercussions. The Cornelian Law of Assassins (and Poisoners) explicitly condemned sorcerers and magicians to death by crucifixion or by being thrown to wild beasts. Any spell books had to be burned and the owners either exiled (if they were noblemen) or executed (if they were commoners).
Now, Christians were like Jews in the sense that they emerged out of Jewish religious concepts and practices. But one of the unique dynamics of early Christianity was that this group of people was not an identifiable ethnic group. Jews had a common heritage, land, and national history.
When the Romans were about to besiege a foreign city, they would perform a ritual known as evocatio (“calling forth”). Here, the Roman leader would stand at a distance from the city and invite the local patron deity to transfer their allegiance from the city to Rome. 
Worship (homage, prostration) is about power. It is about recognizing and reinforcing a hierarchy in the world. Let’s briefly look at the key Greek words that we can translate as “worship.” Proskuneō: to revere (most common) Latreuō: to worship (assuming a cultic context, service toward a god) Sebomai: to revere (popular in pagan literature) Douleuō: to submit to, serve a master. 
Roman religion was not about being “formed,” molded in the moral likeness of the gods. Roman religion was primarily about benefiting from what the gods could offer while at the same time avoiding any offense against them. 
But one scholar, Greg Beale, argues that this might be a kind of both/and wordplay. While the Israelites were at the bottom of the mountain worshiping a golden calf, with horns, Moses was in the presence of God, absorbing his divine radiance. Moses was becoming like God, shining with divine glory, while the people were becoming primitive like their idol. 
For example, Greek travel writer Pausanias recounts the story of a famous Greek athlete named Theagenes. After this hero died, his family had a bronze statue made to honor his life. Theagenes had a particular enemy who wanted to get back at him and did so by beating the statue. According to Pausanias, the statue fought back and killed the man. (Wait, it gets weirder.) The children of the murdered man took the statue to court. The court found it guilty and mandated a punishment of exile. 
The Holy Spirit gives for the good. Another clear distinctive of the Holy Spirit’s work is that it is all for the good. While most people at the time believed that the cosmos was populated by all manner of spirits, powers, ghosts, and phantasms, good and evil, vying for power, Christians believed that this one great Spirit of spirits is gracious and gives only to bless and build up. The Holy Spirit cannot be manipulated or channeled to harm. 
On average, Romans observed about four festivals a month. This is ironic because they often accused Jews of being lazy for taking a day off per week for their Sabbath observance while they themselves took off almost the same number of days per year. 
If religion was everything, then everything would be shaped by the will and the ways of the gods. If the gods didn’t care about mortals, then that would reflect on the value of humanity. And we have also seen that worshipers naturally emulate their gods (and, ironically, they end up creating gods in their own image). The bottom line is this: the behavior of the gods becomes the behavior of the humans; they are teachers and “lifestyle influencers,” whether they want to be or not.
I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#StrangeReligion #NetGalley

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Thursday, March 21, 2024

Review: METAL

METAL METAL by J.F. Lawrence
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book: **
Performance: ****

An Apocalyptic Military Fantasy

What happens if 7 of the most critical metals suddenly “rust” into nothing but “ash?” It was an interesting premise and the author infers that the story is based upon actual science … so let get this out of the way up front. The science doesn’t work like that; but it is the details of the science that trip up the plot, so it was relatively easy to give it a pass. What remains is a fairly decent military fantasy as the MC drives the almost non-stop action toward overcoming the contagion unleashed by a bioterrorist looking to “reset” humanity. The the primary plot is to figure out what the disease actually are (with a few head fakes thrown in) and then engineer a solution to save a world that has already burned down around them? Don't think about that too hard, you'll get a cramp. There is of course the requisite “hot” female spec ops character that drives this rather typical male fantasy, along with a few supporting characters to make this a character driven story … which also means we get a fair amount of navel gazing by the MC … but not enough to actually derail the fun. Unfortunately for me the low brow humor and 'good ole boy' euphemisms does get a bit old by the end. Still, with 14 hours of near nonstop action it’s worth a listen.

I was given this free advance review/listener copy (ARC) audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

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Sunday, March 17, 2024

Review: Wisdom of Solomon: (A Catholic Bible Commentary on the New Testament by Trusted Catholic Biblical Scholars - CCSS)

Wisdom of Solomon: (A Catholic Bible Commentary on the New Testament by Trusted Catholic Biblical Scholars - CCSS) Wisdom of Solomon: (A Catholic Bible Commentary on the New Testament by Trusted Catholic Biblical Scholars - CCSS) by Mark Giszczak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a Catholic commentary on the [apocryphal] Book of Wisdom [of Solomon], which is organized on the three parts of the scripture: The Book of Eschatology, The Book of Wisdom and the Book of History. This is preceded by an extensive Introduction covering the history, structure and form of this scripture (with a summary of important connections with the New Testament). Each part is further divided into pericopes with references to the Old Testament, New Testament, Catechism and Lectionary (where applicable) before a brief summary and verse by verse [roughly] commentary. Where possible (as cited in the Introduction) there is a reflection/application or a discussion on the connections with the Gospel/New Testament to end a section. The commentary itself is fairly straight forward with few surprises, but it does a decent job of providing context as well as textual analysis. The Book of Wisdom is not really something a lot of folks spent much time on; probably why there were not a lot of commentaries for it … so given all that we get here along with the excellent organization, this work gets top marks.

The chapters and sections in this work are:

Part 1. Life and Death (1:1-6-21)
- Love Righteousness (1:1-15)
- Ungodly Reasoning Wisdom (1:16-2:24)
- The Just and the Unjust Wisdom (3:1-4:20)
- The Judgement of the Ungodly and the Reward of the Righteous (5:1-23)
- Honor Wisdom (6:1-21)
Part 2. Solomon’s Pursuit of Wisdom (6:22-9:18)
- Solomon’s Quest for Wisdom (6:22-8:1)
- Solomon’s Love for Wisdom (8:2-21)
- Solomon’s Prayer for Wisdom (9:1-18)
Part 3. Book of History (10:1-19:22)
- Prologue: Wisdom from Adam to Moses (10:1-21)
- Water from the Rock versus River of Blood (11:1-14)
- Excursus: God’s Mercy toward Egyptians and Canaanites (11:15-12:27)
- Excursus: Against Idol Worship (13:1-15:19)
- Unappetizing Animals versus Delicious Quail (16:1-4)
- Lethal Creatures versus Saving Bronze Serpent (16:5-14)
- Storms of Wrath versus Manna from Heaven (16:15-29)
- Plague of Darkness versus Pillar of Light (17:1-18:4)
- Death of the Firstborn versus Israel’s Deliverance from Death (18:5-25)
- Drowning in the Sea versus Being Saved by the Sea (19:1-9)
- Epilogue: Summary and Doxology (19:10-22)

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:

In its essence, wisdom has three distinct yet related meanings: (1) God’s perfect knowledge, (2) the knowledge of causes that human beings can come to possess, and (3) the habitual seeking of knowledge with integrity of heart.

Since the Wisdom of Solomon owes a debt to Greek philosophy, it contains many unique doctrinal perspectives that are only latent in the other books of the Old Testament. These ideas resurface in the New Testament and are incorporated into Christian teaching.

The Wisdom of Solomon stands at the very end of the Old Testament era and on the cusp of the New. It is the last Old Testament book to be written. Its meditation on salvation history allows us to take a deep breath and look back on the Old Testament before proceeding to the New.

Building on the imagery of Isa 59:16–17, the author describes the Lord putting on battle armor to mete out punishment on the ungodly. Each piece of armor is given a metaphorical meaning: the armor is zeal; the breastplate is righteousness; the helmet is justice (Greek krisis, “judgment”); the shield is holiness; and the sword is wrath.

Wisdom will grant Solomon not only virtue or honor but two kinds of †immortality—a personal immortality of the soul, as presented earlier (1:15; 3:1, 4; 4:1), and an everlasting remembrance, in which his memory will be held in honor by those who come after him (compare Sir 39:9–11).

The final verse of the prayer highlights the powerful effects of wisdom: (1) setting right one’s path—giving humans a sure route to living for God; (2) teaching humanity—likely a reference to the law of Moses; and (3) saving humanity. James Reese explains that “Lady Wisdom is a personification of God’s saving grace at work in the world.”

The idea corresponds to the wider biblical theology of retribution, that “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). Wisdom’s view of retribution also corresponds to the legal version of this concept, the so-called lex talionis, the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exod 21:24), wherein legal penalties are designed to be proportionate and befitting.

Though Wisdom teaches that God’s immortal spirit is in all things, it does not teach †pantheism (that concept that the universe is God), but rather it reasserts the biblical teaching that the “breath of life” that sustains all creatures comes from God (Gen 2:7; Job 27:3; Ps 104:29–30; Eccles 12:7).

Wisdom counters that God did not want to hurt them but wanted to save them. The bronze serpent then was not an animal idol (although some Israelites later treated it as one, 2 Kings 18:4) but a token of deliverance or “sign of salvation” (Wis 16:6 NABRE).

Instead of receiving the Hebrews as honored guests, they enslaved them. To explain how terrible their wicked acts are, the author compares them to others, the despicable men of Sodom (Gen 19:1–11), a biblical comparison for emphasizing the gravity of a sin (Lam 4:6; Matt 10:15).

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

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Thursday, March 14, 2024

Review: Day After Infinity

Day After Infinity Day After Infinity by J.F. Lawrence
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book: ***
Performance: ****

Welcome to the Ryanverse

By the author’s own admission, this story was inspired by Taylor’s Bobiverse series … in fact, it was perhaps too derivative to stand on its own merits. Instead of a human consciousness downloaded into a virtual environment … the author keeps the meat sack and adds a rather irritating AI whose sarcastic humor was generally hit or miss for me. Add in a few nanites and the ability to clone so that you can ignore the inherent human frailties and you are ready to pilot your very own von Neumann probe that gives us our very own Theseus Boat debate … which seems silly when you consider how often cells replicate and die within the human body.

Regardless, the story opens in a quasi-dystopian future after an apocalyptic AI war where the MC (Ryan) basically sells himself to one of three (3) interstellar colony projects headed to Tau Ceti. Apparently, as a result of his previous stint as a medical experimental subject perfecting the cryofreeze tech, his nanites (controlled by his secondhand AI riding shotgun in his head) are super effective in regenerating damaged tissue (aka regeneration factor), making him a near perfect candidate to be a “failsafe” or backup crew member, despite his lowly status, young age and humble beginnings (because picking on the underdog is a tried and true method of building an empathic connection to the MC). What follows is a virtual torture fantasy i(aka training simulations) that is primary designed to show how tough Ryan is (and slowly “upgrade” his human parts until he becomes the Borg and foreshadow his future) making the first half a very slow start.

We come back to the Bobiverse plot in the second half and Murphy makes sure Ryan must pick up his role as a failsafe … and some of the science inconsistencies become more obvious … but as the action ramps if it is also easier to ignore them. This is also where we reintroduce the bad guy … a rogue/insane AI (come on … you had to see this coming right? ref the Ai war and the Bobiverse? There are a few interesting twists as the story follows what by now should be a fairly predictable plot so it was the narration that actually kept it entertaining (and where the frat boy AI … called AL … calmed down enough to be less aggravating). Of course … the emotional drama ramps up as well in order to make the finale pull on heartstrings … and hide the plot holes that would otherwise had be large enough to drive a truck through. For those who miss the Bobiverse, this is a fun diversion.

I was given this free advance review/listener copy (ARC) audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

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Sunday, March 10, 2024

Review: Holy Hell: A Case against Eternal Damnation

Holy Hell: A Case against Eternal Damnation Holy Hell: A Case against Eternal Damnation by Derek Ryan Kubilus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book that I have read recently that tries to present the case for universalism (all are saved). Unlike the first, which seemed to be drive more by frustration, anger and anxiety … this one was well reasoned and calm … primarily focused on the Love of God and what that should mean for us. So let’s get this out of the way first …

1) I am not a universalist.
2) I would love to be wrong.

The author makes some compelling points about the incompatibility of a loving God and the eternal torment of Hell … an idea that could be has never set easily with me. To make these points, the author combs through scripture to highlight where exegesis/interpretation was perhaps more ambiguous that commonly believed … and that approaching them from the viewpoint of the universal love of The Father should coach us more toward a universal concept than an exclusive or selective interpretation … including an in depth look at the nuances of the Kone Greek that helps support a position of universal salvation. The author also discusses why this can be difficult for people to accept … imagine salvation for the likes of Hitler or other historical monsters. We just seem to have this internal need to see evil punished simply for the sake of justice … and this is actually not very Christ like. All told, this is a book that I will need to continually come back to and reflect on each point … and hopefully continue to deepen my own understanding and faith even if I can’t always [completely] accept some of what I find here. After all … one of the guiding principles about funeral homilies that I was taught is that we (the Church), should never place the departed in either Heaven or Hell … but to trust in the mercy of our loving God to hold our loved ones as dearly as we do ourselves.

The chapters and sections in this work are:
Chapter 1 - Haunted by Hell
Chapter 2 - What We Talk About When We Talk About Hell
Chapter 3 - A Hell By Any Other Name
Chapter 4 - A Paddle In The Hands Of An Angry God
Chapter 5 - Breaking Out Of Baby Jail
Chapter 6 - The Bureaucracy Of The Afterlife
Chapter 7 - The Great Work
Chapter 8 - Protestant Purgatory
Chapter 9 - The Circles We Draw
Chapter 10 - Kicking And Screaming
Chapter 11 - A Generous Heresy

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:

It seems that ever since her founding, the church in every age and place has secretly relied on a pernicious, unstated, but almost universal fallacy: the idea that the authority of our leaders is directly proportional to the amount of certainty they can project.

By definition, an everlasting hell neither heals nor teaches. That’s actually the express purpose of this version of hell: that no reform is possible, that the debt can never be repaid. The pain of hell is specifically unredemptive. Rather, the pain exists for its own sake; its only intended purpose is to be felt by the one who is suffering forever and ever.

Whenever we pick up the Bible, read it, put it down and say, “That’s just what I thought,” we are probably in trouble.—Ellen F. Davis, The Art of Reading Scripture

It has become so common and overused that few of us really know what it means anymore. Yet any goldsmith or metallurgist worth their salt would know immediately what the term means and why it has nothing to do with eternal torture. “Fire and brimstone” is an idiom that refers to purification. To be exact, it references the refinement of gold or other precious metals.

A harrow is a heavy rake that is used to “distress” a field. A farmer drags it over their soil to break up the dirt and remove any rocks or roots that might get in the way of the plow. Some people use harrows to glean, to pick up any produce that the harvest left behind. “Harrow” is also an idiom. To “harrow” a person is to distress them, to shake them up. To “harrow” a city or a region is to lay siege to it, to invade with an overwhelming force. Likewise, the Harrowing of Hell was said to be when Christ laid siege to hell itself, shaking its gates, terrifying its devils, and gleaning lost souls.

“When you hear of sepulchres, do not think only of visible ones; your own heart is a sepulchre and a tomb. . . . Are you, yourself, not a Hell, a tomb, a sepulchre, a dead man toward God? . . . Well, then, the Lord comes into souls that seek after him, into the depths of the heart-Hell, and there he lays his command upon death, saying, ‘Bring out the imprisoned souls that are seeking after me!’”

If you read other Greek literature of the time, it becomes clear that aiōnios has never meant “eternal” as in “the forward advancement of time into infinity.”2 In its most literal sense, the word means “of the age” or “of the eon.”3 (We can still hear the shadows of this original meaning in some traditional Christian prayers that end with the line “unto the ages of ages. Amen.”) There is another Greek word, aidios, that really does mean eternal as we think of it, but that is not the word that is used here or anyplace else in the New Testament where punishment in the afterlife is concerned.

Kolasis, the Greek word for “punishment,” is primarily a horticultural term used in gardening, orchard keeping, and vine dressing. The most fundamental translation of the word is “pruning,” and it was only used by way of analogy to represent the punishment of a person. Just as a tree or a vine must be pruned in order to produce fruit more efficiently, so a person must suffer a kind of pruning for the sake of their own fruit.

However, there are two mistakes we can make here. The first is to imagine that the people who are outside of our circle don’t deserve our love, care, or attention, whether it’s because of something they’ve done, someplace they’re from, or just who they are. The second is to imagine that they don’t deserve God’s love, or that they are outside of God’s circle, for those same reasons.

Apokatastasis isn’t just about putting something back where it was; it’s about putting something back where it’s supposed to be. It’s not just a return to a previous state but a return to a rightful state, the state that it was supposed to have been in all along.

To be fair, the Greek word that is usually translated as “tormented,” basanizō, is used elsewhere as a synonym for torture or torment, as one might do to extract information from an enemy, but even that is a kind of linguistic analogy. The most fundamental meaning of the word is, again, metallurgical. It is the word for testing a substance against a touchstone to see whether it is gold.

To be a Christian universalist is not merely to believe that we are saved from hell itself—indeed, we all may experience something of the purgative flames of Gehenna—but it is also to believe that we are saved from the dread of hell, the dread we might feel on our own behalf and, indeed, the dread we might feel for the whole human race.

The first thing that clergy and other leaders can do immediately is to stop using hell as the default translation for words like Gehenna, Sheol, and Hades. By swapping in the original Greek or Hebrew word, we can introduce nuance to our sermons and Bible studies and elicit questions for further discussion.

We wonder why the reputation of our religion is so bad while we bend ourselves over backward trying to find ways to make the case that either (a) God hates some people so much that God tortures them forever and ever or (b) God is somehow so disinterested in humanity that God would allow us to stumble into hell the same way a child might stumble into traffic.

For us, the salvation of an individual soul will never be an emergency. That means we will never be tempted to compromise the ethics of Christ for the goal of creating more Christ followers. It means that we would rather allow someone to pass through this life rejecting Jesus than become the reason that they reject him.

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#HolyHell #NetGalley

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Thursday, March 7, 2024


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Performance: ***

My Name is Mayhem: * (78m)
They Sent a Boy: *** (56m)
The Burning Man: *** (53m)

Here we get the first three (3) short stories from the Johnny Mayhem pulp sci-fi sage originally published in Amazing Stories in the mid 1950s. As might be expected, the science has not aged well and the short story format doesn’t allow for much world building and/or character development … so the focus of the first story is basically our introduction to who is Johnny Mayhem … and after listening, I find it almost impossible to see how such an inept operative ever became a “legend.” Sure … there is the obvious mystery of a body hopping assassin (a la quantum leap) working to bring law and order to galactic chaos, all while fighting against a mysterious mind controlling alien (and yes … I see the oxymoronic plot here and yes, I understand this is pulp fiction, so it is supposed to be ridiculous). As a fan of old radio theatre broadcasts … there was so much nostalgia potential here that I jumped at the opportunity to preview the audible ...

I was disappointed. While the narration was decent/okay, it was not anywhere close to the quality of the old-timey radio shows; which quite frankly is the primary reason to listen to them. Missing that, the problems with the stories themselves were often difficult to overlook. After the first story … this was almost a DNF. Fortunately the new story was much better and more inline with what I was expecting when Mayhem jumps into the body of a young boy (complicating his assignment). The final short takes Mayhem into a prison on Mercury and was also fun and taken with the second, saved this book.

I was given this free advance review/listener copy (ARC) audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#TheManWhoSavedTheUniverse #TheAdventuresOfJohnnyMayhem #AudibleGiveawaysGoodRdsGrp

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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Review: Hell? No!: Why You Can Be Certain There Is No Such Place As Hell

Hell? No!: Why You Can Be Certain There Is No Such Place As Hell Hell? No!: Why You Can Be Certain There Is No Such Place As Hell by Rick Lannoye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book: ***
Performance: ***

An Ironic Tilt at Christian Neo-Fundamentalists

Neo-fundamentalists are rather famously known for their literal reading of select portions of scripture … which is exactly what happens here as well, just with a different selection. While I am very sympathetic to the concept here, the author’s support becomes problematic by the use of poor academic research and questionable exegesis. For example, in attempt to highlight the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism, we get a complete erroneous connection between the term and the word Farsi (aka Persian) … when in fact, it is known to be related to the Hebrew pārūš which is commonly interpreted as pious or separate. Then we get an introduction to Sheol, the early Hebrew concept of death and/or the grave, having two levels or compartments … a concept that was only developed in the apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple period (circa 200 BCE) showing the author has a tenuous grasp of how such concept actually evolve over time. In fact, the Book of Enoch divides Sheol into four levels … but this was conveniently ignored by the author. However, despite all of that, there is some truth behind the idea that the Jewish understanding of Sheol development through some syncretism with other world-views (such as Greek and Persian). In addition, there is no effort to actually separate potential legend/myth with actual practice … which is painfully clear in the treatment of Gehenna and its association with the tophet (of which there is no archaeological support in or around Jerusalem … which includes the valley of Hinnom). To be fair … a lot of the basic facts appear to be accurate, with just some of the minor details slightly off …

The problem here is that Christianity is an incredibly diverse religion, so using neo-fundamentalists as a proxy is just lazy and allows the author to completely ignore the centuries of tradition and debate within the early Church that actually does address many of these questions … in fact, even when some of these beliefs are referenced in his straw man arguments, they are so incredibly erroneous (ref: Limbo et al) that it is not surprising that any conclusions are based upon faulty theology … and this is extremely sad because many of the questions raised are good ones. This is all exacerbated by an extremely sarcastic (at times even mocking) and antagonistic presentation that is highly likely to put many readers immediately on the defensive. Frankly he ascribes way too much conspiracy level credit to the motivations of christian clergy to be taken seriously.

Finally … the narrative was often awkward and even irritating (with some incorrect pronunciations and slurred enunciation), making it difficult to dispassionately evaluate some of the silly antics and fallacies presented (IOW I was ROFLOL … a lot :-).

The chapters and sections in this work are:

Introduction (12:58)
Chapter 1 - Where Did Hell Come From? (1:35:40)
Chapter 2 - Why Heaven is Impossible If There is a Hell (59:19)
Chapter 3 - Did Jesus Believe in Hell? (1:19:03)
Chapter 3b - Did Jesus Believe in Hell? Part B (1:16:23)
Chapter 4 - Is Hell Necessary for the Sake of Justice? (56:59)
Chapter 5 - Why Didn’t God Keep Hell a Secret? (3:41)
Chapter 6 - Why Pascal Didn’t Wager for Ammit? (28:26)
Chapter 7 - What Evangelization Would Be Like Without Hell (10:52)
Chapter 8 - Why Hell Retards Morality (35:05)
Chapter 9 - The Day of Judgement (47:09)

I was given this free advance review/listener copy (ARC) audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#HellNo #FreeAudiobookCodes #KindleUnlimited

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My Ratings Explained ...

  • [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
  • [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
  • [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
  • [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
  • [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.