Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bible Quartet

Even if you're not a religious person you should really read the Bible. It is arguably the most important book out there and is very likely the best book ever, even if you don't believe a word of it. It has everything:  history and myth,  uptightness  and eroticism, rules to live by and habits best to avoid, genocidal super villains and divinely infused superheroes, acts of mercy and despicable crimes,  tragedy and unintended comedy, miraculous births and the walking dead, psychology, espionage, deus ex machinae, poetry, a possible UFO abduction, and blood and guts galore. What other book can give you so much?

We, modern readers, have a bit of a problem reading it nonetheless, because we cannot directly relate with the names and places and many of the characters that are in there; Nebuchadnezzar could easily be the name of an evil character in a science fiction novel. Also, the prose is not like what we used to nowadays. So, there's  somewhat of a hurdle to be overcome and thus we need a bit of help and patience to get going.

What I will call loosely the Bible Quartet could be your ticket and I review it here.

The Good Book

The Good Book by David Plotz is the account of Mr. Plotz's first encounter with the Bible. He is of Jewish background and had been acquainted with the Bible before but only in passing. He tells us all the unexpected things one can find when one really commits himself to read the Bible from cover to cover for the first time and without no extra layer of material or interpretation. The result is a very enjoyable book which puts forth many of the apparent inconsistencies and funniness that's in there. For those who have not read the actual holy texts, the good book can work has to crash course on the contents of the Bible. Around the middle he takes a break and goes archaeological digging at Israel and he shares us that as well. He stops his reading at the end of the Old Testament, but that's not the end of his book. He finishes by giving us reasons why we should read the Bible and with what we really want to know: what impact it had on him. He delivers by describing the changes in him  both intellectually and spiritually. As an added bonus, we have an appendix with the best (and worst) parts of the Bible in list form. Thoroughly recommended but seriously consider a second reading of the Bible, this time with  with interpretation, for you might be missing out by staying just with the anecdotal.

Five stars

The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs is also secular Jew. He began to suspect that he might be missing on something by not being as religious as he could be, so he set up a challenge for himself.   What he attempted and achieved in this book is to live by the Bible for a year. The challenge was to be the "ultimate fundamentalist" following all the rules he could find simultaneously: no picking and choosing allowed. Early on, he takes a very wise decision in consulting experts on difficult or ambiguous rules. This gives us insight about how some of the difficult portions have been resolved for practical life. Also to his credit, Mr. Jacobs sticks to his commitment no matter how difficult or awkward it is for him at times. As with his other books, his wife gives him plenty of support, challenge and humor. Like Plotz, Mr. Jacobs gives us his insights at the end of the book, but these are less satisfying as he is more sparse. This may be because throughout the book he gives his feelings and experiences in real time, which leaves not much for later reflection. This is the book that finally pushed me to read Bible in its entirety. Also highly recommended.

Four stars

The Year of Living Like Jesus by Edward G Dobson

Of the four this is the oddest in more than one aspect. In no way this is a bad thing. First off, Dobson is the only fully fledged Christian of the group, an evangelical pastor nonetheless. He was inspired by Jacobs's book and attempted to do likewise, but with a Jesus flavor. Consider for a moment what it would take to be like Jesus for a one year. Ready? I expected Dobson to take a smooth ready set road, but he surprises by taking another viewpoint and going cross-country. He starts one direction taking the outward aspects first giving us a day by day account of his occurrences very much like Jacobs, and working from there. Midway through though, his circumstances change and he adapts the project. On the second half, he draws more from his previous experiences and preaching  giving us real life examples and how they relate to Jesus's teachings while providing his own take on trying to follow Him. As with the others, he goes beyond his comfort zone and commendably tries out new aspects of living his faith. Like the others too, he's very honest about giving us his failures. His stories and experiences makes this book worth more than one reading.

Three stars

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

In Roose's case, he was a liberal atheist to begin with. He was associated with Mr. Jacobs and decided to take on a challenge to his own. He attempted to take a semester on Liberty University, "America's holiest University", passing himself as one of the flock. From start to finish, this poses a quandary as he longs to disclose himself to the fine people he meets, studies and lives with, but cannot do so without ruining his project. To allay suspicion he joins in as many activities as possible and live the fullest Liberty experience as he can. The result for us, is that we get to know the ordinary life of a Liberty student without having to enroll. Towards the end of the semester circumstances turn serious as he unintendedly becomes a focus of attention in one, if not the most, important event of Liberty's history. This book is more internally reflexive than the other three as the author wrests with conflicting emotions. As I see it, this is because in the other three cases, the projects are mostly in the open. In this one, he has no one on site to fully share, except us. If you have more than a passing interest in Liberty, The Unlikely Disciple is the book for you.

Three stars

Other recommended books:

  • Asimov's guide to the Bible
  • The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus (available also on Librivox)


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