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Book Review: A Brief Eternity (Paul Beaumont, 2013)

A Brief Eternity (Paul Beaumont, 2013) [amazon]

Oh dear, where to start with this one? I seriously considered titling this post “I think I have a new favourite book!” This book was almost everything I wanted it to be and more; it’s a gripping read and I could barely put it down; it’s thoughtfully and respectfully written and deals with serious issues while also being laugh-out-loud hilarious; basically, this book is more or less what you’d get if someone intentionally wrote a book that ticked all of my boxes (even the boxes I myself wasn’t aware of). It goes without saying that your mileage may vary, since I think I’m pretty much the ideal audience for a book like this and therefore I’m inclined to be biased in its favour and/or to overlook its flaws, but I absolutely loved it and recommend it unequivocally and as enthusiastically as possible.

Let’s get the disclaimers and disclosures out of the way: I have no affiliation with the author or publisher, and stand to benefit in no way from advertising this book. In point of fact I only read it because it showed up in Amazon’s recommendations for me (kudos, Amazon!), looked vaguely interesting enough that I clicked through for more information, and had an introduction written by Dan Barker (whose work I admire and whose opinion I respect). Barker I have met, though only once and that briefly; that said, if I encounter him again I’d love to have a conversation with him about this book. What all of this adds up to, essentially, is that I knew next to nothing about this book going in, but thought odds were decent that I’d like it.

I’m going to attempt to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, because I don’t want to ruin anybody’s potential enjoyment of the book and I do think it may be better to go in with minimal information (with regard to worldbuilding as well as plot; more on this later), but that makes it very difficult to discuss in any detail so I’ll try to keep things vague where possible and mark the serious ones if I can.

I think the easiest way to sum up what this book is is to say that it’s a dystopia set in the afterlife. (Or, put another way, it’s what you get if you cross Left Behind with god Is Not Great.) What if the Rapture sects of fundamentalist Christianity had it right?

I think Beaumont basically thought that would be interesting to explore, and decided to start from there and fill out the worldbuilding that would be necessary to explore the moral dimensions of that worldview. And, for what it’s worth, I think he did a great job with that worldbuilding work, though that was probably made easier by the fact that he was deliberately doing inconsistent worldbuilding and expecting the reader to pick up on the inconsistencies along with the characters (how often do you read a book that wants you to notice inconsistencies in the setting?). Considering Poe’s Law it’s probably not saying much to say this, but I never got the impression Beaumont was creating a strawman instead of working from actual religious beliefs, either.

In a way, then, it’s no surprise I loved this book. After all, it’s basically just Bible/religion spitefic and I tend to enjoy that sort of thing in most fandoms that interest me.

The protagonist, Jerry, is a sort of nonreligious/atheist everyman who more or less accidentally gets taken up in the Rapture. Most of the book follows him as he tries to adapt to life in a very physical Heaven, and his inability to fail to notice the niggling problems everywhere and that not everyone is as happy as they appear (physical suffering is gone, but emotional suffering seems to be alive and well). While in Heaven Jerry is able to meet all sorts of people with different perspectives (guided by a man named Bob, who is essentially the Virgil to Jerry’s Dante and provides the exposition we can’t be shown), though he’s bothered by the fact everyone except him seems to have been very religious and eventually discovers the existence of Hell.  There are also quite a few chapters from the perspective of Jerry’s girlfriend Rachael (though not nearly as many as Jerry gets), a secular non-observant Jew, who was left behind on Earth which apparently became combined with Hell. (One of my few disappointments with the book is that, because it focused on the dystopian nature of Heaven and Jerry’s adventures there, we didn’t get to see nearly as much of Hell and the interesting side characters inhabiting it as I would have liked.)

As he learns more and more about the situation in which he’s found himself, and is unable to reconcile himself with the fundamental injustice of heaven and hell (and the fact he can’t be happy in heaven while so many people he loves are suffering), Jerry attempts a legal gambit to free first Rachael and then everyone from Hell.

I found the characters very well-written and relatable, and their reactions to situations entirely understandable (though there were some very uncomfortable moments, such as when we’re faced with learning all of the Jews ended up in hell and see them struggling to deal with it; that said, as someone who is nominally Jewish myself, I didn’t think it was insensitively or offensively handled and it easily could have been. The book also shows the fates of believers in other religions which turned out to be false in this particular fictional universe, such as the Mormons and Muslims, and I thought it had an interesting take on their reactions and didn’t feel contrived.)

[SPOILER WARNING: HEREIN I COMMENT ON THE ENDING]

I found the ending a bit disappointing, in all honesty, though I’m not necessarily sure another ending would have felt authentic. I’m still mulling over whether I think the ending is a positive one; I can’t decide whether it qualifies as a Pyrrhic victory for the antagonists (is there a less clunky term for this?), or if they just won outright and the ending amounts to Jerry and Rachael admitting as much and giving up. I’m going to have to think on that some more (I think the most positive take on it I can come up with right now is that, given the circumstances that led to the events of the book, it’s impossible that Jerry and Rachael could be alone in their resistance; they’re ordinary people in the best possible sense, and therefore there have to be more where they came from to continue the fight).

That said, it’s certainly a realistic ending given the preceding setup, and as such might be preferable to one in which the protagonists’ attempts at resistance had been more successful. It could have been worse, though: it could have been “He loved Big Brother.”. The fact I’ve brought that in as comparison should speak for itself though, I think.

[END SPOILER WARNING]

It’s a pretty short book, and combined with how gripping it can be it ends up being a very quick read. (Though I’ll admit that when I did have to put it down, I often had just as difficult a time getting myself to pick it up again because I was so full of anxiety about what was going to happen to these characters next. That has to be a mark of good writing.)

If this sounds like the sort of thing you’d like, at all, GO READ IT NOW. You can thank me later.

*I will add the caveat that I have no idea what this book would be like for a reader who doesn’t agree ideologically with the author; I’d love to hear from religious people who’ve read it, if any of you happen to be reading my blog for some reason I can’t comprehend. I don’t think there would necessarily be big disagreements as long as such a reader is sympathetic to humanistic ethics irrespective of supernaturalistic beliefs…

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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Mitchell Recommends: Steve Reads Christian Apologetics

Here is the link to Steve’s youtube channel, and the specific playlists for the apologetics series can be found here. (No affiliation)

Steve Shives has a series on youtube called “An Atheist Reads”, in which he examines works of Christian apologetics and criticises them (or rants about them). While I don’t always agree with 100% of what he says, the vast majority of his criticisms are spot-on and I really enjoy listening to him do this. It’s certainly much more pleasant than reading the apologetic works would be. I’ve found that Steve does a good job of presenting the arguments the books are making while he criticises them; he definitely doesn’t quotemine or strawman, and while it’s obviously not the same as reading the books yourself it’s still a very good way to get a sense of what they argue. The snark and anger make it bearable, and he is very thorough. He’s also usually very good on sexism and gender issues.

I’ll admit this certainly isn’t for everybody – the videos can be rather dry most of the time, and if you don’t have a preexisting interest in the subject I suspect they may bore you. But if it does sound like something you’d be interested in, you should definitely check him out; if you have the time for it, his videos are well worth watching (or at least listening to; while watching will allow you to see some hilarious facial expressions, and he usually displays the text of quotes as he’s discussing them, you can get all of the substantive content auditorally).

(For the record, I was originally made aware of these videos by Daniel Fincke at Camels With Hammers, some time ago)

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Thinking about “Theology”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Price’s lectures and podcasts recently, largely for entertainment purposes, but in so doing I’ve been led by him to think about some semantic distinctions that are well worth making. This is going to be a pedantic essay, and probably a very boring one, so consider yourself warned.

Really, the question I want to attempt to answer here is, how can I simultaneously agree with the sentiment expressed by Richard Dawkins and those like him that “theology isn’t even a subject at all”, or with Hector Avalos, whose book The End of Biblical Studies [amazon] quite convincingly argues that academic biblical studies as currently practised are most often not undertaken in good faith (or, to put it another way, involve too much “good faith”), and simultaneously find value in the kind of study that Price does?

The answer I’ve come to is that I think a distinction needs to be drawn between “doing theology” and “studying theology”. (I told you this was going to be a semantic argument!)

By this I mean that a distinction needs to be drawn between theology as a form of religious praxis, or a first-order engagement with the ideas (e.g. theorising about the nature of gods and supernatural entities from the standpoint that such things exist), and the study of theology as a second-order engagement with these ideas (looking at the thinking of various people as they do theology from a first-order level, and trying to parse out the kinds of distinctions they are drawing and what it says about how people think about religious ideas). The latter is what I think Price does (and, for that matter, so does Avalos), and it seems clear to me that that can have value from, e.g., an anthropological or sociological perspective, in understanding the history and development of belief systems, and so on. In a world which is populated in majority by believers, understanding these kinds of thought can be an important tool in attempting to navigate such a world. The former, meanwhile, is the type of thing derided by Dawkins et al, and I can simultaneously agree with this – when there is no evidence such beings exist at all, there can obviously be no value in attempting to make statements about their nature. So in that sense, I agree that theology is not a subject. Or in the terms I’ve proposed, “doing theology” in the first-order sense is futile, but “studying theology” in the second-order sense can be deeply useful.

Of course, there is also a sense in which even “studying theology” is of limited use – in some ways I do think Avalos is right when he argues in The End of Biblical Studies that even this is largely a leisure pursuit for privileged intellectuals. I am not sure I agree with him that it is as equally pointless (outside of personal gratification) as solving sudoku puzzles – as I said earlier, in navigating a world filled with religious people, understanding religious thought is not useless. But that does not necessarily mean, at the same time, that it is important to dig into long-buried minutia which are almost completely irrelevant to modern believers unless you are somebody like me (or, presumably, like Bob Price) who enjoys overanalysing things.

I’m not sure if I have a conclusive point to make after saying all of this, except that I think the “doing/studying” distinction is a useful one to keep in mind. Or to put it another way, the distinction between a “theologian” and a “scholar of theology”.

And if you do happen to be interested in listening to Bob Price analysing the minutia of Biblical history and Christian thought, The Human Bible is a great place to start.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple (Kevin Roose, 2009)

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University [Amazon]

It has been a few years since I read this and I am largely writing this review from memory, but I think this is an important book and it affected me enough that it deserves a review.

First things first: some background information for context. Liberty University you have probably heard of, the fundagelical* bible college founded by the late Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia (lovely name; who said Meaningful Names were only for fiction?). In certain circles it’s rather infamous, along with several similar institutions including Patrick Henry College and Oral Roberts University. Richard Dawkins, in a 2006 talk at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg [youtube], upon being informed that nearby Liberty University teaches young-earth creationism, memorably said this: “I would advise any students of Liberty University currently here to leave and go to a proper university.” (I am aware Dawkins has made and, it seems, will inevitably continue to make many problematic remarks and seems incapable of understanding feminism among other things, so I hesitate in promoting him, but his books on biology are still quite good and I do still appreciate many of his remarks on religion).

The Unlikely Disciple is a memoir by up-and-coming investigative journalist Kevin Roose (for my word, definitely a career to watch – see also this recent article of his), who as an undergraduate at Brown University decided to take a semester off to attend Liberty University “undercover” and report on his experiences there (as far as I know he went into it knowing he was going to write this book). In the introduction, Roose describes his own religious background – he was raised a Quaker and attended Quaker schools prior to university, though (my words, not his) it was largely a wishy-washy agnosticism; religion did not play a large role in his life and he says he never really thought about the question of the existence of god(s). This is very familiar to me – I was raised Jewish but attended a Quaker school myself, and in both contexts religion was largely unconcerned with belief and focused instead on practice (and for what it’s worth I still genuinely love Quaker Meeting and go occasionally even though I do not identify as Quaker). Growing up I genuinely had no idea there were people who actually thought religious stories were true; I assumed they were a sort of collective-fiction (think Santa Claus) with which everyone played along for cultural solidarity. While I will not presume to speak for Roose, I think he may have come from a similar place (though I think Roose’s views on sociopolitical issues were much better formed by that age compared to me, while my views on religion had solidified by then and his seem to have remained nebulous).

Roose describes his initial idea for this endeavour as “a domestic study-abroad”, which I found to be a really interesting way of thinking about it – he rightly points out that the differences between the leftist culture he grew up in and the Christian-dominionist Religious Right are far greater than those between it and, say, Europe. He approached this very much with the goal of immersing himself in an unfamiliar and “foreign” culture to try to get a better understanding of them (in my opinion he did this a bit too well, honestly; I’ll get more into that later).

Roose also holds the dubious honour of having been the last person to interview Jerry Falwell before the latter’s death in 2007 (though it was a very softball interview for the Liberty University student paper and, therefore, very thin on content), an experience which he discusses in the book.

I found this book both deeply fascinating and deeply troubling. Roose writes well and does a very good job of letting the reader see inside his head, which is necessary to this sort of book. I doubt everyone experiences this book the same way I did, but for me it was very easy to project emotionally into Roose and get a visceral impression of what he had gone through (perhaps because, as I said earlier, of those similarities of background I share with him). That said, I know I could never have done what Roose has done. The sheer amount of effort he had to go to to maintain his façade as a conservative fundagelical* Christian (which included lots of study of the bible and attempts to inject it and various other Jesusy things into his everyday conversation), struggling to pass his creationism classes by regurgitating what he was taught even as he knew it was bullshit, being forced by necessity to be accepting of homophobia and to express homophobic views despite his closeness with a pair of lesbian aunts, and so on would have utterly broken me emotionally and I have no idea how he did it (though I won’t say he came out unscathed; more on that later).

What I found troubling (and I think Roose did as well) was watching the way this immersion in the culture of the Christian Right affected him. While reading through the book it was almost palpably visible how some of those ideas were seeping into him (most notably, his growing acceptance of homophobia; not that he became homophobic himself, but through increased exposure he found that hearing those sentiments expressed offended him less and less as time went on). Similarly, some of the religious ideas seem to have seeped in – he says he was thoroughly agnostic at the start, while at the end of the book he says he is now 70% convinced of god’s existence and continues the practice of praying (out of habit and because he found it a useful mental exercise, is my impression, but it’s unclear). Reading through the book was like watching this change happen in real time, and Roose seemed powerless to fight it even as he clearly wanted to (particularly on the homophobia issue). “Fake it until you make it” is an effective way to brainwash people, seems the core message (though it is not the one Roose took from it). And this was after a single semester; it is easy to see how this experience moulds people and why certain segments of the Religious Right are so fanatical about raising their children in a Christian bubble. Much as I don’t like to admit it, the people who set up and maintain these institutions know what they are doing and are very good at it (so I must reluctantly part ways with Hanlon’s razor here).

The book flowed easily and was a quick read (my hardcover edition is just over 300 pages and the font not particularly small), I think I finished it in only two or three sittings over a period of a few days, but I was left feeling incredibly drained emotionally at the end of it. I would not be exaggerating at all if I called it a depressing read – since I read it I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and was definitely in the midst of a depressive episode when I read it, and in retrospect it’s easy to see that it exacerbated my symptoms. Roose claimed that he set out on this project in an attempt to better understand the humanity of his political opponents, which is an admirable goal and one I think he accomplished well, but the predominant narrative I see in his book is not that but rather one of an intelligent and empathetic young man being reluctantly beaten down by a relentless mental onslaught (Nietzsche was right – if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you).

The Unlikely Disciple is a profoundly thought-provoking work and leaves me in awe of Roose’s journalistic integrity and courage. However, I do recommend some caution in reading it – at the very least, it isn’t pleasant. YMMV.

*I use the word fundagelical partly because the distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical has never been particularly clear to me. And also partly because it sounds funny.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in mitchell

 

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