Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels is a book about vanished Christianities. The religion (and Bible) we know today took centuries to solidify and be codified into regulated Catholic practice. For a long time, there were a variety of groups, all calling themselves Christians, who believed a number of different things about this man Jesus. We might never have known the full extent of this variety were it not for the discovery in 1945 of some ancient texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, that had otherwise been completely suppressed.
What does the Gospel of Thomas say that is so dangerous? Essentially, it says the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, and to find it you must turn into yourself rather than to an orthodox clergy. Imagine a Christianity where Jesus is a more accessible role model, in the sense that any of us can become like him, or even surpass him, in becoming one in spirit with the Father. This is the promise of some of the suppressed books of early Christendom. If that sounds like heresy, it’s only because those who defined it as heresy won. A Buddha-like Jesus was appealing to many, but it presented a number of problems to the young and struggling Church. If anyone can claim equality with Jesus, how are unity and order to be maintained? How is one to distinguish charlatans from holy men? Best to draw the line at one Christ and be done. Of the four “approved” Gospels that got into the Bible, Pagels makes the point that one, the book of John, can be read as an explicit polemic against the Gospel of Thomas.
Final score: John 1, Thomas 0.
This book is built around the very human stories of the engineers (we’ve heard enough about the astronauts) who built a machine that took men to the moon and back. In less than eight years, they built a great big machine that took people to the surface of the moon and back. The authors have a real flair for digging into the details that make the stories and the people come to life, underscoring this is how it really happened. All engineers should read this book; it’s immensely entertaining, but it’s also a real sourcebook of stories about how to get extraordinarily complex engineering projects done on time and on budget. Caldwell Johnson, one of the lead designers of the Apollo vehicle, sums it up well:
After a while, you really become appalled that you’ve gotten yourself involved in the thing. At first, it’s an academic exercise. And then the first thing you know, there’s people building these things, and they are really getting ready to do it, and you start thinking: Have I made a real bad judgment somewhere, and the damn thing is just not going to work at all?
Star Chamber reference: July 21, 2000.
This is the first of Horne’s trilogy about Franco-German mischief; the other two are about the World Wars. I hadn’t realized how much the Franco-Prussian war set up World War I. If the French are to be chastised for their harsh terms at Versailles in 1918, then the Prussians must answer for what they squeezed out of Paris in 1871. The triumphant unification of Germany actually happened at Versailles even as France was on the verge of surrender. The subsequent removal of so much territory in Alsace and Lorraine virtually guaranteed future conflict. Even an unphilosophical reader must feel a certain poignancy when pondering the endless misery that was being sown for future generations. Furthermore, the Paris Commune that followed the capitulation taught Karl Marx important lessons that were later applied with great success by Lenin. I didn’t know much about French nineteenth century history, but this weird little war is so singular it makes a compelling read.
A good read, filled with an obligingly weird cast of characters. There is something deeply appealing about a bruising, trash-talking pro tour for Scrabble heads. The author, Stefan Fatsis, goes native and eventually becomes an expert player himself as he tells his story. I like the part where he’s talking to the former world champ, Joel Sherman, who’s complaining that Scrabble should be more popular than chess, because it’s more accessible. Millions of people could watch, he whines. “Watch what?” replies Fatsis, “watch you play TREHALA, and then run for their dictionaries?” (Rambles reference: April 27, 2002)
Hard to believe now, but the French army was widely considered the greatest in the world at the beginning of 1940. It is painful and eye-opening to see how quickly it was punctured, deflated, and slashed to ribbons by a smaller but infinitely better armed and trained German force in May and June of that year. This book paints an excellent picture of how inferior doctrine (static defense as opposed to fast-moving armor attacks) can absolutely wreck an army. Poor France. She lost so many men in World War I and then learned all the wrong lessons as a result.
Given America’s problematic relationship with Muslims, I wanted to learn more about Islam. Karen Armstrong’s book filled the bill nicely. It’s a readable and sympathetic view of Islam. Armstrong goes out of her way to correct many of the negative biases that Western readers bring to the topic. She points out that fundamentalism, for example, shows up in every religion, and is almost everywhere violent and a distortion of the basic faith. She also does a good job describing the rise of secular society in the West as a slow and thoroughly disruptive process (think of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation). Secularism was later forced onto colonies of the West at breakneck speed in a superficial way. Backlash was inevitable… and is obviously still ongoing. I appreciated the altitude she gave to the topic; it’s helped me view current events in a more historical light.
Naipaul writes unflinching and often unflattering stories about his travels in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This book was written in the late 1970s, around the time the Shah was deposed and the American embassy in Tehran was overrun by student radicals. Despite its age, the book feels like it could have been written last year. Naipaul’s directness on this thorny topic is refreshing: he describes a populist Islam that is unsurpassed at seduction but weak at construction. Again and again he hears magical faith being prescribed as the cure for all ills, particularly those imposed by external forces of Westernization. Since Islam defines itself as a religion that also encompasses politics, economics, and law, its cultural scope in an Islamic country is almost boundless.