Benjamin W. Goossen: How to Radicalize a Peaceful Minority

There is no better way to turn a religious minority against a nation than by maligning, detaining, and excluding them. While Donald Trump claims his ban on immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries will make Americans safer, history suggests that nativist policies will backfire. Consider the case of perhaps the world’s least likely national security threat: pacifist Mennonites.

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A poster for the 1941 Nazi propaganda film, “Village in the Red Storm,” depicting the suffering of German-speaking Mennonites in the Soviet Union, in which the protagonists valiantly give up their pacifism to fight for their race

Members of mistreated groups—whether Mennonites a century ago or Muslims today—can and sometimes do turn on hostile governments, often with alarming speed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, no one would have associated Mennonites, a small Christian group dedicated to nonviolence and charitable works, with hate speech or mass murder. At the time, most Mennonites lived peaceable existences in rural, German-speaking enclaves in Europe or North America.

When the First World War generated a global wave of anti-German and anti-pacifist sentiment, however, tens of thousands—especially those in Central and Eastern Europe—turned to militarist German nationalism.

The shift was as swift as it was shocking. “We have imbibed the notion of pacifism with our mothers’ milk,” a respected Russian Mennonite leader named Benjamin Unruh wrote in 1917. “It is a Mennonite dogma.” Yet by the Second World War, Unruh had become a prominent Nazi collaborator, aiding ethnic cleansing programs that deported Poles and murdered Jews to make way for “Aryan” Mennonites.

How could diehard pacifists turn their backs on the peaceful teachings of their faith?

Mennonites like Unruh, who had once considered violence an unforgivable sin, could be found in military units across Hitler’s empire, including on the killing fields of the Holocaust. Unruh’s own home community near Crimea—once a bastion of pacifist theology—became a model colony under Nazi occupation, generating propaganda for dispersion across the Third Reich and providing a pipeline for young men to join the radical Waffen-SS.

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A flag raising ceremony in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1942 on the occasion of a visit from Heinrich Himmler

Demonizing Muslim refugees today grants legitimacy to a violent fringe—one already on the lookout for recruits. These are the same tactics that, in the months before the Second World War, prompted a small number of disaffected Mennonites from places as diverse as Canada, Paraguay, Brazil, Poland, and the Netherlands—as well as my own hometown of Newton, Kansas—to travel to Germany to support Hitler’s war machine.

Most Mennonite congregations worldwide, even during the darkest days of the twentieth century, retained their pacifism. And today, the global church has taken steps to address its partial legacy of German racism. This history nevertheless demonstrates how individuals or communities can discard peace-loving traditions; by the height of Nazi expansion, one fourth of the world’s Mennonites lived in—and frequently praised—Hitler’s Germany.

Scapegoated by nativist politicians, members in Eastern Europe and sometimes beyond saw the Third Reich as a refuge from humiliation, deportation, torture, and travel bans. Despite the harrowing experiences of more than 100,000 Mennonites in the Soviet Union—where families faced civil war, famine, and ethnic cleansing—countries like the United States generally closed their borders to the destitute. Canada, which in 1917 had disenfranchised its entire Mennonite population, likewise banned refugees at various points during the 1920s and 1930s.

1930 propaganda image originally subtitled “A German Death Sentence” depicting the suffering of Mennonites and other German-speakers in the Soviet Union

Letters and diaries show how some pacifists, denigrated in the East and barred from the West, became radicalized. One man recalled the shame of imprisonment in communist Ukraine. “So, you’re a German?” a Bolshevik interrogator asked, before beating him senseless. Secret police particularly targeted Mennonites who had tried to emigrate, accusing them of “carrying out of counter-revolutionary fascist activities”—even though most initially had little enthusiasm, let alone contact, with Nazi Germany.

“I was no enemy of the Soviets,” another victim of wrongful arrest reported, “but now that I’ve come to know them, you’ll find I’m a true enemy. Now I’m a Hitlerite, a fascist unto death.”

Targeting immigrants and refugees from war-torn Muslim countries gives terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda exactly what they want. Just as twentieth-century governments across Europe and the Americas needlessly alienated their Mennonite subjects and excluded Mennonite migrants, President Trump’s grandstanding harms those among the world’s least threatening and most vulnerable populations, in turn making all of us less safe. This is how to radicalize a peaceful minority.

ChosenBen Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in May from Princeton University Press.

Lewis Glinert tells the story of Hebrew

Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.

The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is  extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.

GlinertIn an age where language is increasingly treated as a mere commodity—a ticket to a job or a mark of prestige—Hebrew is often described as a linguistic miracle. Can that really be so?

LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.

So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?

LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…

So one family revived Modern Hebrew?

LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).

“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?

LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.

If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?

LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.

What about Jesus and his disciples?

LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.

You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?

LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.

If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?

LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.

What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?

LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.

“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.

“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.

“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.

Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’

LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.

What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?

LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.

Thomas W. Laqueur: Ghosts and ghouls haunt the living with a message about life

LaqueurThere is, it would seem, no greater chasm than that which divides the living from the dead. We who still dwell on the side of life know this as we relegate the inert bodies of those so recently just like ourselves to the elements from which they came: earth or fire – ashes to ashes; air in the towers of the Zoroastrians; very occasionally, water. We do not just toss bodies over walls, whatever we might believe (or not believe) about a soul or an afterlife. We do it with care and with rituals: funeral and mourning. We do it because it is what humans do and have always done; it represents our entry into culture from nature. We live and have always lived with our dead. To do otherwise would be to expel the dead from the community of the living, to expunge them from history.

But, at the same time as we honour our dead, we generally also want to keep a certain distance. We expect them to leave us alone in our world and remain safely in theirs. When they don’t, it is a sign that something has gone very wrong. King Creon argues in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone that the rebel Polyneices should remain unburied as punishment for his crimes: ‘unwept, unsepulchered, a treasure to feast on for birds looking out for a dainty meal’. Had he had his way, the shade of Polyneices would undoubtedly have returned to berate the living for their scandalous neglect. Antigone’s voice is the one we – or, in any case, our better selves – hear. Care for the dead is among the ‘unwavering, unwritten customs of the gods … not some trifle of now or yesterday, but for all eternity’.

This brings us to Halloween, and to All Saints’ Day on 1 November, and All Souls’ the day after – the days when the boundaries between the living and the dead seem most likely to be breached. Why are these still the days of ghosts and goblins, ghouls and dancing skeletons?

Before we can answer, we need a taxonomy of the dead who have returned to our world: the revenants. Within this large family there are two genera: the fleshly and the ethereal. And within each genus there are many species. Among the fleshly, there are vampires, for example – archaeologists have dug up skeletons in Poland with bricks in their mouths put there, they think, by villagers determined to keep the vampires from coming back to devour them. Vampires seldom stray far from home, while the Norse draugr, a fleshy revenant, wanders far afield. A related Norse species, the haugbúar stays near its burrow, complains about the other inhabitants and affects the weather. The very corporeal Chinese walking dead travel great distances to be buried in a geomantically auspicious spot.

Within the genus of the ethereal revenant there are also many species: those that come back very soon after death to chide their friends for not giving them proper obsequies; the shade of Patroclus appears to Achilles in the Iliad under just these circumstance. Or ghosts such as Hamlet’s father, in full armour – a touch of the material – coming back to tell his son he’d been murdered. There are ghosts that give off foul vapours, and ghosts that strike people (although how they do that since they have no bodies is unclear).

One thing can be said about the whole family of revenants: they are generally not a cheery lot. They come back because something is wrong: some debt from life needs to be repaid or vengeance taken; or their bodies were insufficiently cared for; or their souls were ill-remembered. Friendly ghosts such as the cartoon character Casper are an extreme rarity. In monotheistic religions, God tends to keep a close watch on the boundaries of the other world and ghosts are rare; he draws the dead to him. Monotheistic religions tend to discourage traffic with the dead, which is called necromancy, a dangerous kind of magic. In religions without one god in charge, the revenant tends to proliferate.

But nowhere do they ever seem to go away. Not in the Age of Reason: James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) writes, ‘It is wonderful that 5,000 years have now elapsed … and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death.’ All sorts of good arguments are against it, ‘but all belief is for it’. Not in the 19th century either: Jeremy Bentham, the most rational of men and enemy of superstition, could not rid himself of a belief in ghosts.

Even today, Halloween encourages us to remember in a fuzzy sort of way the medieval custom of praying for the souls of the dead by name and asking the saints to speed them toward salvation. Back then, it was an occasion for any souls unhappy with efforts to help them to come back and complain. It was a time when the boundaries between the living and the dead seemed more porous. Few of us today think we can do much for the souls of the dead or that there is much border-crossing. But the ghosts of old and even new species of revenant, such as zombies – a whole other story – are still resonant. In part, this is because the revenant have gone inward; our guilt toward the dead in general, or someone in particular whom we might have wronged, makes itself vividly manifest in our minds. It is real even if we know it is not real.

In part, it is because we are all in some way haunted by the dead who are still part of us and of our lives. It is also because mortality remains so deeply strange and unbearable. Sigmund Freud gets this right. Reason is of little help. After tens of thousands of years, there has been little progress. In ‘hardly any other sphere,’ he writes in The Uncanny (1919), ‘has our thinking and feeling changed so little since primitive times or the old been so well preserved, under a thin veneer, as in our relation to death.’

Finally, to return to where we began, we wish our fellow creatures a good death and a peaceful rest within the community of the living because we need them among us. They remain part of the world as we imagine it. To be human is to care for the dead. But we also wish the dead and dying well in order to maintain the chasm between our world and theirs. The dead are primally dangerous; we need them to stay where they are, safely quarantined, in a parallel universe to ours.Aeon counter – do not remove

Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra

Lopez, Jr. In The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, Donald Lopez traces the many roles of what is perhaps the most famous of Buddhist historical texts, the Lotus Sutra.  Examining the history of the famous scripture that was composed in India in the first centuries of the Common Era, Lopez’s biography provides an engaging background to the enduring classic. Lopez recently took the time to answer some questions about his own early encounters with the text, and why its proclamations remain so important today.

What is the Lotus Sutra?

DL: The Lotus Sutra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist texts.  It is one of only three Buddhist works, among a vast canon, that is well known in the West by its English title (the other two being the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra). The Lotus Sutra was composed in India, and in the Sanskrit language, where its title is Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. This might be translated as the Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine. As I explain in the book, this title is rather “loaded” from a Buddhist perspective. It is not just a lotus (the traditional flower of Buddhism), but the white lotus, the best of lotuses. It does not just teach the dharma, the doctrine, but the true doctrine. As a sutra, or “discourse,” it is traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself.

Why is it so famous?

DL: Although composed in India, the Lotus Sutra became particularly important in China and Japan.  In terms of Buddhist doctrine, it is renowned for two powerful proclamations by the Buddha.  The first is that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment but one, that all beings in the universe will one day become buddhas. The second is that the Buddha did not die and pass into nirvana; in fact, his lifespan is immeasurable. The sutra is also famous for its parables, like the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was because of these parables that the Lotus Sutra became the first Buddhist text to be translated from Sanskrit into a European language (French). The Lotus Sutra has several dramatic scenes; perhaps the most famous is when a giant bejeweled stupa (a tomb of a buddha) emerges from the earth and a living buddha is found inside. Such scenes inspired hundreds of works of art across East Asia.  At the Dunhuang cave complex in China, scenes from the Lotus Sutra are found in some seventy-five caves.

What was your first encounter with the Lotus Sutra?

DL: When I was in college in the 1970s, a friend invited me over for a meeting with a Buddhist teacher. I was surprised to find not a monk in saffron robes but a white guy in a business suit. After a brief talk, he knelt down in front of a small altar that he had brought with him and started chanting something that I couldn’t understand. In retrospect, I realize that he was chanting in Japanese, saying Namu myoho renge kyo, “Homage to the Lotus Sutra.” He was likely a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, the “Orthodox Nichiren School of America.” The Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282) was the most famous of the many devotees of the Lotus Sutra in Japan. He is a central figure in the book.

This is the second book you have contributed to PUP’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.  How did you choose the Lotus Sutra and what is it about the text that lends itself to a reception history?

DL: My first book for the series was about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The famous version, first published in 1927, is an odd work. For example, it is not called the “book of the dead” in Tibetan; it is called Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing. It is not a translation of the entire work, and it includes all manner of rather eccentric prefaces, appendices, addenda, and notes by the editor, the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Because of its strange history, it was a perfect candidate for Lives of Great Religious Books, but it would have been unfortunate had it been the only Buddhist work in the series. The series editor, Fred Appel, thus agreed to include a second Buddhist text, and I chose the Lotus Sutra.

I chose it in part because of its great fame in the Buddhist world. I also chose it because it is obsessed with the question of how its teachings are received, making it an ideal candidate for a reception history. That obsession derives from the fact that although the Lotus Sutra purports to be the words of the historical Buddha, it is not. It was composed some four centuries after the Buddha’s death. It is thus the most famous of the Mahayana sutras, or “Great Vehicle” sutras, works that set forth a different vision of the Buddhist path. In order to have authority, however, they must claim to have been taught by the Buddha himself.

In researching the book, what did you find that was unexpected?

DL: The anonymous authors of the Lotus Sutra presented a radical re-vision of both the Buddhist path and of the person of the Buddha. They did this with remarkable skill; they were clearly monks who were deeply versed in traditional Buddhist doctrine but were also deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Buddhist tradition as it existed around the beginning of the Common Era. One of the things that I saw again and again in the text was a concern with legitimation. The authors were determined to portray their work as the words of the Buddha and thus have the Buddha constantly praise the Lotus Sutra, promising rewards to those who embrace it and punishments to those who reject it.

If you could write a second book about the Lotus Sutra, what would it be?

DL: Funny you should ask. One of the attractive features of the titles in the Lives of Great Religious Books series is their beautiful production and their compact size, only about 60,000 words. In researching the book, I found that there was much more that I wanted to say about the content of the sutra. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is fascinating in its own right; the Lotus Sutra is a masterpiece of Buddhist literature, but the mastery of its authors is not fully evident without knowing something of the historical and doctrinal background. Professor Jacqueline Stone of Princeton (a leading expert on the Lotus Sutra in Japan) and I will be writing a guide to the Lotus Sutra (also to be published by Princeton University Press). The goal of both books is to bring this remarkable text, already so famous in the Buddhist world, to a wider readership.

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He has contributed other books to the PUP Lives of Religious Book series with titles such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton). He is also the author of the book The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (with Robert E. Buswell, Jr.). Lopez currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

 

 

Michaela DeSoucey: Bastille Day Appetizers

Michaela DeSoucey

desoucey jacketAmid the current political disarray caused by the recent Brexit vote and the ongoing refugee crisis, questions of what determines national identity are hot-button issues in France, and across Europe. Claims to national solidarity and shared symbols of national collective identity often rise to the fore on holidays. These appeals to unique histories and cultural practices are not just internal appeals to common descent or principles; they allege uniqueness vis-à-vis others and can trigger zeal toward a sense of belonging and pride in particular places.

Today is Bastille Day in France – the day that commemorates the July 14th, 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, which proved a turning point for the oncoming French Revolution and the declaration of a monarch-less French Republic. On this day, people around France will fête the French nation with parties and meals shared with family and friends. What will they eat, to represent this day? Symbolically and substantively, foods can offer multiple identity-laden markers for people and for groups. Eating is one way people demonstrate their political sentiments of national belonging and togetherness. Here in the U.S., for example, we eat turkey on Thanksgiving and call things “as American as apple pie.” Politicians on the campaign trail go out of their ways to be seen eating down-to-earth and local specialties (which can sometimes result in infamy, such as being seen eating a slice of New York pizza with a fork and knife).

Cuisine has long been one of France’s greatest sources of domestic and international pride. One food valorized as a quintessential symbol of French identity on the national plate is foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been manually force-fed with a tube. Foie gras is also a target of critical opposition, fueled by international animal rights organizations who call its production process cruel and inhumane.

In my new book, Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, I explore how foie gras came to represent French national culture and identity – a multifaceted process and a form of claimsmaking that I call ‘gastronationalism’ – and, for better or worse, what ramifications this has had. My book argues that these sentiments have developed at least in part because people elsewhere have challenged its very existence. In the last few decades, foie gras has been held up by France’s cultural and political leaders as an endangered tradition, at risk from the winds of globalization, Europeanization, and American cultural influences.

Foie gras has come to play a role in gastronational visions of Frenchness within France, too. In fact, the knot connecting foie gras and French identity has been tied so tightly that foie gras has even become a symbol used by some xenophobic political extremists aiming to draw starker lines around what they consider legitimate citizenship. When I was in France a decade ago, one of the country’s largest foie gras producers, Labeyrie, was targeted by several ultra-nationalist groups who condemned the company for marketing some of its foie gras products as halal, meaning suitable for consumption by Muslims. Their base complaint was that by paying a required certification fee to a French mosque to use a halal label, Labeyrie was funding Islamic worship and “taking the risk of supporting Islamic terrorism.” More to their point, it was marketing foie gras in France to people who these groups see as decidedly not French.

After several boycott threats and protests outside its shops, Labeyrie temporarily stopped using a halal label. They reverted the following year and were again subject to ultra-nationalist denunciations. The company was then criticized by members of France’s Muslim community – an estimated 6-7 million people seen by consumer product firms as an emerging and profitable market demographic – for being vulnerable to the pressures of right-wing media, because the company’s website, advertisements, and e-shop no longer showed images of halal foie gras labels, even though the products remained available in retail stores.

Yet, even with recent upsurges of social turmoil around race and religion, not everyone is on board with such a xenophobic mindset. Halal foie gras is now available all the time at national supermarkets and chain stores, produced by several different companies. And, multiple news outlets have reported on the rise of halal foie gras consumption among Muslims, especially upwardly mobile ones, in France over the last decade. Quotes from community leaders attribute this rise to desire for belonging in the category of ‘French’ and indicate popular perceptions that consuming foie gras is a meaningful way to do that.

Food and eating are, and continue to be, important sites where broader conflicts over national culture and identities manifest. In countries increasingly affected by political discord, I see food continuing to communicate both social acceptance and rejection of others. And on national holidays like Bastille Day, foie gras will likely be consumed as part of what it means to celebrate one’s country, or, at the least, its rapidly receding past.

Michaela DeSoucey is assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. She is author of Contested Tastes.

Why read the Hebrew Bible? An interview with John Barton

barton the hebrew bible jacketUnderstanding the Hebrew Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature, human nature, covenant, creation narratives, ethics, ritual and purity. In The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, an invaluable reference book for students and teachers, John Barton outlines the endless reasons, beyond the religious, for studying The Hebrew Bible. Recently, Barton shared why this is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament.

Why should anyone be interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Many Jews or Christians have encountered it as all or part of their Bible, and are intrigued by it—it is, after all, a very long and complex work to have as one’s Scriptures. But the Hebrew Bible is part of Western culture, especially through its many translations—first into Greek and Latin, and then in more modern times into all European languages and, eventually, almost all the languages in the world. Western literature can’t be understood without knowing it, and it has stimulated and inspired huge numbers of people over many centuries, and infuriated others. No one can afford to ignore it.

How did you get interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Like many biblical scholars, I came to the Bible from a religious interest. I was planning to be ordained in the Church of England, and that meant studying theology; and at that time (in the 1960s) theology courses all involved the Hebrew Bible. But of all the subjects I studied, it was this that caught my interest most strongly, because of its mixture of literary, theological, historical, archaeological, and geographical themes, and its relation to other ancient literature from the classical and ancient Near Eastern world. A rabbi in ancient times said ‘Everything is in it’, and I have found that chimes with my own experience.

What is the difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament?

JB: In terms of content there is no difference—the books are the same, though Jews and Christians arrange them in a different way. Christians call them the Old Testament, since for them there is also a New Testament, and the Old Testament books preceded that. Jews generally call them simply ‘the Bible’, but sometimes the ‘Tanakh’, which is an acronym based on the initial letters of the three sections of the Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Torah, Nebiim, Ketuvim in Hebrew). Nowadays there is a suspicion that the Christian term ‘Old Testament’ could encourage anti-Semitism by implying that these books are ‘old’ in a derogatory sense, so the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ has been developed as a more neutral description that everyone can use.

How can I start reading the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Preferably not by beginning with Genesis and simply pressing on, since parts of the text are more accessible than others. I would distinguish prose from verse: in prose, I would read the books of Samuel, which contain much of the best prose narrative, followed by Genesis; and, in verse, the Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, which are both stylistically excellent and religiously profound.

Isn’t the Hebrew Bible a barbaric and brutal work?

JB: Parts of it describe brutalities—Joshua is probably the book most readers find chilling. But this is because it is the literature of a nation, not of a religious community, and it describes the history of that nation without glossing over its brutal aspects. The God who is encountered in the text is also sometimes presented as brutal and violent. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also presents a monotheistic idea of God, for the first time in world history; and it has a developed and humane social morality in which the underprivileged are meant to be cared for, and rulers are encouraged to rule justly and generously. The brutal episodes are a problem if we think that we are bound to approve of everything in the Bible, but if not, then we can see them as reflection on the whole of life, good and bad alike.

How can a work from such a remote culture still have anything to say to us today?

JB: Great texts speak across the centuries: think of Greek tragedy, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare. A lot of effort, and some background knowledge, are needed to get into an ancient text, and this book is meant to provide some of that knowledge. But most, at least, of the books of the Hebrew Bible repay the effort by having important things to say about human life, whether we agree with them or not. In the process we encounter an ancient culture that was in many ways highly distinctive in its world, and where people had thoughts, especially about God, that no one had had before.

How were the books of the Hebrew Bible selected?

JB: They weren’t. No one ever ruled on what was to be in the Bible until long after it was all settled anyway. We don’t know whether the books we have represent the majority of those that existed in ancient Israel, but they are the only ones that have survived (with a few exceptions, such as the books sometimes called the Apocrypha). The Hebrew Bible consists of all the literature we know of from Israel up till the second century BCE. There are many later books (various books of Enoch, the book of Jubilees), but they were never part of the Hebrew Bible.

How do we know that the Hebrew Bible really goes back to such ancient times—might it not have been totally corrupted over such a long time?

JB: We have no complete manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible before the eleventh century CE (the ‘Leningrad Codex’). But among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the second century BCE and the first century CE, there are substantial parts of almost all the biblical books. These differ from the Leningrad Codex in many points of detail, but they are quite obviously the same books, and hardly diverge in any major ways. This confirms that the Bible was transmitted carefully by scribes, at least from the second century BCE onwards. There is every reason to think that such care goes back even before that.

John Barton is the Oriel and Laing Professor Emeritus of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His many books include Reading the Old Testament; Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile; and The Nature of Biblical Criticism. His most recent book is The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion.

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Get Some R&R This Holiday Season (Read about Religion)

With the holiday season upon us, we’re busy decorating, planning out menus worthy of a 5-star restaurant, and worrying about gifts. But underneath the material chaos, many may be thinking more consciously of the holidays their families celebrate and their religious roots.

This holiday season, PUP has several books that explore major world religions and what they mean—and have meant throughout history.

Fk10560irst up is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins on December 6th of this year and ends on the 14th. The Love of God, published this Fall, takes readers on an exploration of one of the most essential aspects of Judaism—the love of God.

Delving into the origins of the concept and tracing its beginnings to the ancient institution of the covenant, Jon D. Levenson explains the love of God in Judaism as a profoundly personal two-way relationship, expressed in God’s love for the people of Israel. Levenson examines the ways in which this bond has endured through countless persecutions and tribulations. To read further on Levenson’s thoughts on his new book, check out his recent Q&A here.k10587

Not long after Hanukkah comes to an end this year, the celebration of the prophet’s birthday occurs on the 24th of December in the US. While there are mixed ideas of how to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday—celebrations can range from parades, decorations, readings, and food donations—others make it a time of quiet reflection and choose to fast or put aside more time to read the Koran.

The late Shahab Ahmed’s book, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, is a fascinating new look at Islam that challenges many preconceived notions. Ahmed re-imagines a new concept of the historical constitution of Islamic law while placing it in a philosophical, ethical, and political context. An important read for anyone looking to see the religion of Islam in a new and intriguing light.

The bk10688irth of Jesus Christ is a story Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with, but many who celebrate Christmas are unacquainted with other aspects of the Christian faith. George Marsden’s C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography takes readers on the journey that C.S. Lewis took from atheism to Anglicanism in his well-known book, Mere Christianity. Marsden delves into Lewis’s passionate defense of the Christian religion and explores how it correlates to Lewis’s Narnia books and other writings, describing why Lewis’s case for Christianity has endured for so long, continuing to cultivate both critics and fervent admirers to this day.

These three books are a wonderful way to take a break this holiday season (and every holiday season for that matter) and reflect on why we celebrate these holidays and what they say about our closely held traditions.

Bird Fact Friday – Birds protected by religious tradition in India

From page 20 of Birds of India:

The enlightened and benevolent attitudes of Hinduism and Buddhism towards wildlife have helped to conserve the rich natural heritage of the Indian subcontinent. India has a tradition of protection of all forms of animals dating back at least 3,000 years when the Rig Veda mentioned the right of animals to live. Sacred groves, village tanks, and temples where the hunting and killing of all forms of life is prohibited can be found throughout India.

Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives
Second edition
Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp & Tim Inskipp

IndiaThe best field guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent is now even better. Thoroughly revised, with 73 new plates and many others updated or repainted, the second edition of Birds of India now features all maps and text opposite the plates for quicker and easier reference. Newly identified species have been added, the text has been extensively revised, and all the maps are new. Comprehensive and definitive, this is the indispensable guide for anyone birding in this part of the world.

Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).