Book Ends

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It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

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Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

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Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

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In Saecula Saeculorum

SecularBible“The Hebrew Bible is a misreading waiting to happen.” Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible is a book containing much wisdom. My only real concern is that by having published it with a university press Berlinerblau may have inadvertently ensured that it would be read only by biblical scholars. Although yours truly was once such a credentialed scholar, I read The Secular Bible with its intriguing subtitle, Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, looming in my mind like a great raptor. This is an important book. With so very much of our lives heavily influenced by the Bible, eloquently argued by Berlinerblau, we have secularists who don’t know the Bible fighting the impossible battle to subvert it. The rationalizing, leveling influence, for the past two centuries, has come from the much castigated and discarded biblical scholar. Can I get an “Amen”?

Berlinerblau demonstrates unequivocally that we need Bible scholars and Qur’an scholars who know how to speak to their own traditions. Instead we have secularists who belittle and then wonder why the religious strike out. The pattern has repeated itself so many times that it defies reason that intelligent people would delude themselves that religion is a passing fancy. The Secular Bible argues what I’ve said time and again: if we want to avoid the dangers religion can bring, we must spend the resources to understand it. Instead we close departments and force those who know the field credibly well into unemployment. And we wonder why there’s a reaction.

“Self-critical religious intellectuals have never been much appreciated.” Instead we put the extremists on television so we can laugh at them or gape at their ability to do the unthinkable in the name of religion. Ironically, there are thousands of trained experts in the field, many of them languishing in un- or under-employment while towers crumble and mobs burst into violence. I do wonder what future generations will think of us. We have the resources handy, indeed, many of them willing to serve for a fraction of the cost of a business professor or basketball coach, but we choose to ignore them. As Berlinerblau states emphatically, we in the western world have the Bible so deeply ingrained that we can no longer even exegete all the ways in which it plays out in our society. If such influences were at work in a human body, we’d pay a doctor well to understand. Instead, we let the most foundational text in our society be used for duplicitous purposes while the simple reading of a book like The Secular Bible could save us all an eon of grief.