Tag Archives: religion

The Torah Codes by Ezra Barany

The Torah Codes by Ezra Barany: This was described to me as sort of a Jewish Da Vinci Code and, truth be told, that was enough to get me interested. Nathan discovers that his landlord is spying on him, his name (and several other things) are encoded in a certain book of the Torah, and several people are after him for some weird and vaguely religious reason. Okay, so maybe my synopsis isn’t a good sell, but the fact is that I plowed through this book in record time. Nathan is likable and often very funny, and the action kept me turning the pages. Do I believe prophecy is encoded in the Torah? Doesn’t matter. It was fun and crazy and I look forward to Barany’s next thriller.

Confession time: I did not read the essays in the appendix. I hear they’re quite good and well worth reading, but I was just in it for the story, not the religious speculation.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Don’t Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis

Don’t Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis (unabridged audiobook read by John Lee; 20 hours 20 min on 17 discs): Wow, this book is long. I mean, it’s interesting, but there’s so much information covering so vast a scope that reading it is like running a marathon. Each section covers a geographical region such as Africa or Western Europe, with the countries boasting the most well-documented mythologies getting the most treatment, such as Egypt, India, and Greece/Rome. Each section includes a timeline, a “who’s who” of gods and goddesses, relevant quotes, and answers to common questions like “was there really a Trojan War?” Though many comparisons are made, there is no separate section for Judeo-Christian mythology, having covered it in depth in his other book, Don’t Know Much About the Bible. Davis holds nothing back, describing a representative sample of each culture’s myths in (often hilarious) detail. For example, I was surprised (and kind of disgusted) by how many creation myths involved excrement and other bodily fluids of the gods, and laughed at the tales of the trickster god’s magical penis. The little asides and pop culture references were also often amusing. Though admittedly not meant to be a thorough compendium of mythology (and I would have loved for the “New World” section to have been much longer), it is certainly an excellent start. The writing is very accessible and has made me want to read more of the original myths, particularly the Norse and Egyptian tales. A word of warning, though: once you read the section on Egypt, you will never see the Washington Monument the same way ever again.

On the audio version: It’s always interesting to listen to the same people read vastly different books. Lee is an excellent narrator, with the added personal bonus of making me feel like the book was being read to me by Dawsey Adams. The two short myths at the back, specially recorded just for the audiobook, were fun and well worth listening to, even if the African one about the lion was kind of tragic.

The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster by Bobby Henderson

The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster by Bobby Henderson: It all began with a letter to the Kansas school board. The basic idea behind the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) is that religion should not be taught in science class. Intelligent Design Theory, which posits that an intelligent designer (not explicitly stated as God, but it is implied) is responsible for the way life and most other things have developed over time. Since the existence of such a designer can be neither proved nor disproved, it is not a valid hypothesis, but this doesn’t stop the ID advocates. Henderson’s argument is that if we’re going to give students “choices” and “teach the controversy,” they should also include the theory of FSMism, which has “scientific” explanations for everything from gravity to global warming, all of which is just as scientifically valid as ID. It also encourages carbohydrate consumption and non-murderous piracy. The whole thing is utterly ridiculous, of course, but that’s the whole point. If you are at all sensitive about religion, this is not the book for you. I got a couple giggles out of it, but most of the funniest material is already on the FSM website. Now only one question remains: have you been touched by His Noodly Appendage?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: There are several layers to this book. The outermost layer is a cross-country motorcycle trip Pirsig takes with his son, Chris. I probably enjoyed this part of the book the most, traveling vicariously through states I’ve never visited. Pirsig’s occasional descriptions of the scenery and people is refreshingly frank. The next layer is a series of talks Pirsig conducts in his head while riding the motorcycle. Most of this is a discussion of Quality. Since most of the book is spent describing this concept I won’t go into it here. The innermost layer is the life story of Phaedrus, a man whose past continually haunts Pirsig and serves as a backbone for his concept of Quality. Now that I’ve finished it, I don’t feel particularly enlightened. I think I may have gotten more out of this book had I read it when it first came out, or perhaps if I were at all familiar with the existing schools of philosophical thought. Having never read Aristotle or Socrates, I can’t say whether or not Pirsig’s arguments against them have any merit. My favorite parts were when he was less zen and more motorcycle maintenance, especially the course on Gumptionology 101. That made me smile. All in all, this isn’t the sort of book I could read for long stretches at a time, but rather something to dip into now and again. I’m glad to have read it, but I don’t think it’s something I would read again.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

What Makes Me a Muslim? by Catherine Petrini

What Makes Me A Muslim? by Catherine M. Petrini: Though aimed at elementary school children, this overview of the Muslim religion proved to be a pretty good primer for me as well. I wasn’t familiar with most of the holidays or the sheer diversity of practices in the global Muslim community. It’s always fascinating to see the vast differences in interpretation of the same book. Definitely recommended for explaining the basics of Islam to a small child (or an uninformed adult, like myself).

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins: I imagine this book rankles a lot of people. The mere title is sure to raise hackles, calling their cherished lifelong faith a delusion. But it’s not nearly as mean-spirited as the title may suggest. The book begins with an explanation of the difference between supernatural religion and Einsteinian religion. Einstein, though he often mentioned “God” did not actually believe in a personal, supernatural god. He was talking about the universe as a whole. Though not something to be worshipped, the same awe and reverence usually associated with religion is unquestionably felt by atheists.

Dawkins then proceeds to address large numbers of arguments for the existence of a personal creator-god. Most of his rebuttals against the creator-god boil down to this: if the universe is so complex that it must have been designed, then the designer must have been even more complex, and using that same logic, must therefore also have been designed. He also responds to famous arguments such as those from Thomas Aquinas and Pascal’s Wager.

The chapter “why there almost certainly is no God” goes through various probability-based arguments, most of which return to the fact that natural selection is not random chance but rather a series of tiny changes over thousands or even billions of years. With the exception of the very first spark of life, nothing just spontaneously appeared over the course of evolution. That initial spark is then argued for using the anthropic principle. This idea, when applied to the origin of life, is that we know that though the odds of all the conditions being just right for life are infinitesimal, we know that they are non-zero because we are alive to ask the question. I can’t refute it, but it’s a terribly unsatisfying argument.

Dawkins then moves on to address the roots of religion and morality in Darwinian terms. That is, if there is no god, why does religion pop up in all cultures? If there is no god, what’s the point in being good? Dawkins discusses both of these questions thoroughly and concisely.

After a chapter about why he is so hostile to religion and one equating childhood religious upbringing with child abuse (though he does believe that religious books should be taught as part of literature, just as the Greek myths are currently), Dawkins closes with a discussion of why we as human beings don’t actually need religion to be happy. Though religion has traditionally been expected to fill our needs for consolation and inspiration (among other things already addressed), there are plenty of other sources for these. The book ends with a revisit to the Einsteinian religion with various descriptions of the amazing, the mind-boggling, and the inspiring in our universe. The more we know, the more we yearn to know. Life is beautiful even without the supernatural.

This book has given me quite a lot to think about, some of it rather uncomfortable. I’m not going to get into my own personal beliefs in this review. I don’t agree 100% with everything Dawkins has to say, but I do believe this is an extremely important book and something people should read. It’s not that reading this will necessarily turn you into an atheist (though I suppose it might), but I do believe that one cannot really hold convictions without having considered thoughtful and concise arguments to the contrary. Otherwise it’s not a conviction at all, just mindless parroting of whatever you’ve been told. Even if this book doesn’t change your mind about anything, it should help you focus on why you believe what you do.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham

The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham: Rachel is the teenaged daughter of a rabbi in a cloistered Hasidic community. She’s quite the rebel: she gets a library card, reads romance novels, wears sheer stockings, goes out without a kerchief, and wants to wear a swimsuit while working as a lifeguard (as opposed to an ankle-length dress). This book would have been much less frustrating had the rest of the family been more sympathetic. Everyone was so spiteful and self-centered, ready to sell out their kin in an instant to make themselves look good in front of the neighbors. It was frankly sickening. The ending was moderately uplifting, but by that point I was so tired of the petty bickering that I was just ready for it to be over. It was interesting to learn a little bit about Orthodox Jewish customs, such as the various things they cannot do during Shabbat and their wedding rituals, but mostly I wanted to take everyone in this family by the shoulders and give them a good shake.

Note: All comments in this review refer exclusively to the characters and situations in this novel. None of my comments are meant to apply to Hasidic culture or the Jewish community in general.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Final Storm by Wayne Thomas Batson

The Final Storm by Wayne Thomas Batson: This is the third and final book in The Door Within trilogy, in which Aidan and company fight the evil Paragor for the last time. I have mixed feelings. Now, I accept that this trilogy could not have ended with a cop-out like “and then Aiden woke up snug in his bed”, but several of my questions were never answered, such as what happened to the green-eyed/undecided folks. The motives of Paragor’s followers are similarly unclear: he promises them power, and yet they obviously do nothing but serve his whims. Even Robby’s internal struggle, which is by far the most detailed, is pretty unrealistic. The characterization is often unconvincing to an adult, with several one-note personalities, but that is fairly common in children’s books. I would say that this trilogy would be good for Christian kids (since the idea of King Eliam doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you get the Jesus symbolism), but it’s awfully violent. This book in particular is nearly nonstop fighting and death told in graphic detail. In short, this trilogy was a fine diversion, but not something I would go out of my way to recommend.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer

Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer: I came away from this book with rather tepid feelings. It didn’t feel like it flowed very well from point to point, and each point made felt glossed over, with a couple of bare sentences with a footnote. Shermer’s survey of evolutionary biology was often unclear, but when he was in his element – that is, the psychology of belief and religiosity – the tone became smooth and easy to read. I especially liked his discussion of the evolution of morality and the Genesis revisit at the end. However, I found his discussion of logical fallacies fell flat, his responses to Intelligent Design arguments felt unsatisfying even to an evolutionist like myself, and he spent so much time referring to other books that I started to wonder what purpose there was in reading this one. I am not sure what the target audience of this book was, but I don’t think I was part of it. Still, I do want to pick up some of Shermer’s other works that fall closer to his own field of study.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Rise of the Wyrm Lord by Wayne Thomas Batson

The Rise of the Wyrm Lord (The Door Within Trilogy, Book 2) by Wayne Thomas Batson: Though the second book of a trilogy, it feels much more like a sequel, using the old formula or having another character revisit the experiences of the hero of the original. Here, this other character is Aidan’s friend and possible love interest Antoinette. Back in the real world, Aidan attempts to save his friend Robby while Antoinette searches for Robby’s Glimpse twin, a servant of the evil Paragor, to convert him as well.

In The Realm, there are three categories of people: those who follow King Eliam (good), those who follow Prince Paragor (bad), and the “undecided” people, which also includes good people who simply do not believe in the existence of The Realm at all. There is no explicit mention of hell, so it is unclear why it is so important for people to believe. What happens if you die while still in the undecided camp? Perhaps that will be addressed in the third and final installment. I hope so, because without that vital bit of information, the characters’ motivation is pretty arbitrary.

Anyway. This story is a lot more of the same stuff as The Door Within, so if you liked that one, you’ll like this one too. It was a bit more rushed and a lot more violent, and leaves you with a cliffhanger, almost as if the second and third books originally were meant as one big sequel that was too long for a single volume. I’ll be curious to see how it wraps up all its loose ends.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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