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Religion

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Title: A Case of Conscience
Author: James Blish
Year: 1958

I generally enjoy religion as a theme in science fiction, counting A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr, as one of my favourite novels in this category. I often find it interesting to explore the religiosity of the main character in such novels, which made me happy when I began reading A Case of Conscience by James Blish. The story is about a Jesuit priest who is part of a scientific delegation of four people to the beautiful world of Lithia. Their mission is to investigate and provide enough information to be able to judge what status to ascribe Lithia and its population.

The other members of the group have fairly practical views of the aliens and their world, but father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has something completely different in mind. He has spent much time together with the Lithians and is convinced that this world is the work of Satan. The world and its society is perfect, yet there is no concept of God, sin and other religious themes. In short, it is Eden before the Fall of Man. Some things on Lithia do indeed seem strange and Ruiz-Sanchez asks questions which are hard to answer. Things are further complicated when Ruiz-Sanchez is offered a gift by the Lithians he hardly can refuse: a beautiful vessel containing a fertilised Lithian egg.

I feel that the basic concept of this story is adequate to write a novel, but perhaps the original novella is better. The novel consists of two parts, which feel a little bit disconnected, even though Ruiz-Sanchez’ moral and religious questions tie everything together. On the positive side, James Blish never lets go of the reader. He constantly bombards one with action, interesting philosophical points or interesting setting (such as the Shelter Economy of Earth, the sequel to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War). The language is adequate, but not excellent. In short, it is a novel which is, in many ways, entertaining to read, but lacks something genuinely outstanding. Three and a half snails to James Blish and his A Case of Conscience.

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Title: Paradise Lost
Author: John Milton
Year: 1674

I find it somewhat difficult to approach texts held in very high esteem by a lot of people, especially if the work is considered a classic of some kind. On the positive side it can be said that these works often have at least some sort of merit that makes them worthwhile, even though that aspect might not tally well with my own preferences. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most highly esteemed works in the English language, which made me tremble a little before reading it. Would my taste be in line with legions of scholars, readers and critics?

It turned out I had no reason to worry. I have read the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. I bought it because I thought extensive comments would be needed in order to understand anything at all (as in some Shakespeare I have read, a good guide is essential). This proved not to be the case. Paradise Lost is written in iambic pentameter, familiar to me since studying Macbeth. The verse is somewhat tricky and the grammatical composition is ofter far from obvious, but I still felt that this text is something that is possible to read without much help. More than that, it is enjoyable to read, even when missing most of the good bits because of sheer ignorance.

The story is taken from Genesis. Satan has rebelled against heaven, and, defeated, has been cast down to hell, where he plans his revenge on God. Knowing that he cannot win outright war against an omnipotent power, he sets about corrupting one of God’s creations, mankind. He persuades Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, leading to her and Adam’s expulsion from Paradise.

There are many interesting aspects of this epic poem, many more than I care to note here. On the whole, the poem is extremely well composed in every imaginable way. Reading  critique on the poem afterwards further deepened this impression. Everything seems to have a meaning, from the composition of the verse to the choice of words. I find it somewhat troublesome that the comments in the footnotes are a bit too scarce and about the wrong things; I would have liked to have more on what I just mentioned (technical details) rather than explanations of the grammar. I read most of the poem aloud and it sounds nice as well.

All of these positive things were to be expected. However, I did not expect Paradise Lost to be truly interesting when it comes to actual content, but it was. Following Satan’s soliloquies and the discussions of Adam, Eve and the angels is intriguing. There are many accurate and thought-provoking portrayals of human nature, something that sounds like a cliché, but is true in this case. Also, they feel relevant today, more than three centuries later, because they are indeed discussions of the essence of being human.

I feel I should spend more time on Paradise Lost than I have done so far, but it shall have to wait. I have other things on my mind at the moment. Still, this Norton Critical Edition contains many essays and musing on the text, so it will be easy to know where to look for more next time (I did not read all of the essays this time around). I am very impressed by Milton thus far, much more impressed than by Shakespeare. It feels good to be able to appreciate a genuine classic straight away, but I still feel that the true greatness lies beyond my understanding at the moment, so four tentative snails will have to do for John Milton and Paradise Lost.

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Title: The Bible
Part: New Testamet
Author: Various
Translator: Bibelkommissionen (1973-2000)
Year: 45-140 AD

Having read the Koran, I moved on to reading the Bible. Admittedly, I had begun with the Old Testament earlier than that, but after losing my copy of the text, I had to borrow another from a friend before continuing. It took me roughly two months (not including breaks) to read the Old Testament and about one month to listen to an audio version of the New Testament. My impressions are mixed, but in general, it has been fairly tiresome, but not without glimpses of light. Large parts of the Old Testament are extremely boring, but on the whole, the text can at least be said to be rewarding in some ways. Occasionally, it is beautiful and inspiring.

I have decided to review the Bible in two posts, because the two parts are very different indeed. This review covers the New Testament.

Compared with the Old Testament, I expected more from the New Testament, simply because it is written much later and that theology evolved much between the two books. In this regard, I was not disappointed, because in almost every way, the New Testament is more acceptable to the modern reader. Still, it is not as nicely written as the best parts of the Old Testament. On the whole, the New Testament suffers from the same ill as the Old Testament in that it makes use of much repetition and rumination. Yes, Jesus was great, but he does not become greater the more times it is written. Also, having four gospels telling more or less the same story is a bit boring. Of course there are differences, but not salient enough to make it interesting to a layman such as myself. I am a bit surprised to find many passages explicitly defining the subordinate state of women, but apart from that, the New Testament was much as I expected it to be.

My main purpose for reading the Bible in the first place was to better understand Christianity and Christians, and the New Testament serves this purpose fairly well (again compared to the Old Testament). This is true not only because the text reveals much about the religion itself, but also because reading it kept my mind focusing on the subject for many hours. I still cannot say that I am satisfied, so I really ought to speak to someone with more understanding. Still, reading the Bible is one step on the road, a step I have now completed.

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Title: The Bible
Part: Old Testament
Author: Various
Translator: Bibelkommissionen (1973-2000)
Year: 12th century BC – 2nd century BC

Having read the Koran, I moved on to reading the Bible. Admittedly, I had begun with the Old Testament earlier than that, but after losing my copy of the text, I had to borrow another from a friend before continuing. It took me roughly two months (not including breaks) to read the Old Testament and about one month to listen to an audio version of the New Testament. My impressions are mixed, but in general, it has been fairly tiresome, but not without glimpses of light. Large parts of the Old Testament are extremely boring, but on the whole, the text can at least be said to be rewarding in some ways. Occasionally, it is beautiful and inspiring.

I have decided to review the Bible in two posts, because the two parts are very different indeed. This review covers the Old Testament.

It surprised me at first how little space the stories I knew beforehand required. I always imagined that they were shorter versions of longer stories, but most of the tales I was familiar with from the Old Testament were from Genesis and Exodus. These stories are action packed and on every page some momentous event takes place. This is entertaining and interesting, thumbs up. However, the pace slows down drastically after Genesis and the text falls into a very dark abyss of repetitive instructions about rituals and sacrifice. This is boring beyond words. Spending six pages describing how to handle various kinds of leprosy simply is not a good read. Also, way too many words are spent on meticulous detail. How broad was the Ark? How many soldiers did king so and so have? What was the exact sequence of battles in this war? This dwelling on detail kills all enthusiasm and interest for the actual content of the stories told.

This improves after a while, when shorter, more concise books make their appearance. Some of them return to the ruminative style described above, detailing the conquests of kings. Others, such as Ecclesiastes, Job and Sirach, are more poetical and at times even beautiful. Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most interesting of the three. Without these books, the Old Testament would have been unbearable. In themselves, they are not brilliant, but they are still good enough to significantly raise the average level of all the books.

As for the actual content of the Old Testament, it is mostly abominable. As in the Koran, it is often just a matter of defining “us” (i.e. those who believe in god, god’s people and so forth) and stating what will happen to “them” (i.e. those who do not believe in god, the heathens). Genocide, murder of innocent civilians, sacking and razing of cities all seem to be acceptable as long as they are done in the name of god. The part where the Israelites have spared the lives of women and children in an enemy city, but is ordered to return to kill all of them, as was god’s original instruction, makes me extremely puzzled. I see nothing at all in this that would constitute a healthy foundation for any world view whatsoever. To make any sense today, most such reference to the Old Testament would have to be very, very symbolic indeed. The focus on subordination also makes me feel a bit queasy.

To summarise, I dislike the Old Testament for the same reasons that I disliked the Koran. The style is much too repetitive, dwells too much on detail and depicts boring events (war, building of temples, rituals). Still, parts of the Old Testament are worthwhile on their own, either for the content or fer the form. Regardless of all this, I still believe it was a good idea to read the Bible, if for nothing else, then to better understand the parts of Western culture derived from it. Hopefully, I will be able to post my review of the New Testament tomorrow, stay tuned.

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The Koran

Title: The Koran
Original title: القرآن
Author: Muhammad
Translator: K. V. Zetterstéen
Year: 610-629

As some sort of introductory disclaimer, I would like to point out that my reading of the Koran was conducted in a spirit of curiosity and inquiry. I simply wanted to know what the book was about, and what was actually said in it. Therefore, this review will cover the Koran as any other book, so this review should not be interpreted as commenting on things external to the book. In other words, this is not a review of the religion Islam, but it is a review of the book as perceived by a secular westerner such as myself.

First and foremost, the version I have is very beautiful. The cover image can be seen above, but gives little credit to the wonderful blending of green and gold on the real book. The text itself is also neatly presented. However, the language of my Swedish translation is very archaic, which at first made the reading cumbersome. It only took me a short while to get into the flow of it and begin to appreciate the language instead of despising it. Some sentences are truly adorable, but I do not know if the translator K. V. Zetterstéen should take credit for this or not.

As for the content, I am afraid that I do not like the Koran very much.. To begin with, it is extremely repetitive, both in language usage and content. Sometimes, the same sentence or paragraph will appear many times in different chapters, but more often, very similar phrases will recur. If was dogmatic, I could have summarised the book in just a couple of sentences: Those who reject Allah will burn in hell for eternity, those who are faithful to Allah will rejoice in paradise, and Allah is omnipotent. The essence of these three sentences are reiterated many, many hundreds of times in the Koran and become rather tiresome to read after a while.

However, since I am not very dogmatic, I intend to focus on other things instead. The structure of the text is rather odd. Since no certain information prevails on which order the chapters were written, they have been put roughly in order of length (there are minor exceptions, though). This makes the reading of the Koran more enjoyable as pages go by. The shorter chapters towards the end are often interesting, more to the point and also sport a more attractive language.

Concerning the moral of the text, I am horrified by some passages, but rather impressed by others. At times, the language describing what will happen to the unbelievers is horrible, which also applies to certain passages describing what should be done to unbelievers. I know that there are many interpretations of these; some claim that the Koran only advocates violence in self-defence or that all people are really Muslims (so therefore, the most terrible things mentioned in the Koran really does not apply to most people), but that is not how it appears to me in this translation. On the other hand, the message of alms, of helping the poor and of respecting other people is honourable and something I quite like.

To sum things up, I do not regret that I read the Koran, because it really does not do not to have read such an important text. It bears much resemblance with the Old Testament in that both seem to be about clearly dividing people into us (the believers) and them (the unbelievers), and then stating what will happen to the two groups and provide tales to convince the reader to join the correct one. However, the style of reiteration and dwelling on topics dwelt on a hundred times before in other chapters, make it fairly tiresome to read. The Koran is interesting, but it is presented in a style I do not like at all.

Further reading
USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts (containing, among other things, three English translations of the text)

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Title: The God Delusion
Author: Richard Dawkins
Narrator: Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward
Year: 2006

Beginning with a book titled The God Delusion, by now famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, is rather different from starting with most other books in that the reader probably has a deeply rooted opinion about the book even before reading the first line. I knew a bit about the author and I read the book because I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about and whether he really is so assertive as some say. I should say from the outset that I am an atheist myself and that I expected no great surprises from the book.

In short, the title summarises the content fairly well: the book is about why the notion of God (and religion in general) is a delusion. Of course, he uses several chapters to discuss related matters and manages to cover many things including why he thinks it important to spread the word. I think the structure is straightforward, and using it, the author manages to explain his standpoint.

While mentioning that I am in the process of reading the book, many people have asked me what purpose the book has, is it perhaps to make converts and stamp out religion? Oh, yes, it is indeed, although that sounds overly militant to my Swedish mind (it is sometimes, too), because Sweden is a rather secular country and even if we have many religious people, it is not a prominent issue in politics, which is not true for the United States. Writing The God Delusion from a Swedish point of view would be overkill, but addressing a much larger and much more religious American population, Dawkins has a clear goal in mind.

To me, and most people I know who are religious, religion is something private and not something used to impose opinions on others. What Dawkins targets mostly is the extremists, such as pro-life (sic!) activists murdering abortion doctors or creationists wanting to use Genesis as the preferred way of explaining to small children how the world and humanity came about. Regarding these matters, I agree a hundred percent with the author.

Much time is spent on explaining things I think obvious (but of course is not for everyone, so this is not necessarily something bad for another reader than myself), such as why fundamentalism is wrong or how basic of evolution theory works. However, he also presents well-put arguments I have not thought of or heard before. Let me give you an example when it comes to interpreting scripture literally of metaphorically when using it as moral guide.

Dawkins argues that our sense of morality cannot possibly be derived from the Bible (or the Koran or whatever), because in constructing values which have any bearing at all on modern society, one has to pick and choose what to take metaphorically (for instance, some things God does in the Old Testament is absolutely abominable to me if interpreted literally). The bottom line is of course that one needs some sense of morals in order to be able to choose what ports to use, and scripture itself of course not be a guide to itself, since it is not clear what is to be taken literally.

Although many people have said so, I do not find the author’s style excessively aggressive or rude (remember that his intention is to convince people), at least in the earlier chapters. His argumentation is clear, based on sound logic and without much rancour. Later on, when he sets out to comment religion itself (instead of presenting why evolution is so neat), the tone gets harsher, and excessively so at times. He uses some derisive irony that is absolutely unnecessary and only manages to make me skeptical, not about what he says, but how. Thomas H. Huxley might have been Charles Darwin’s bulldog, but saying that Richard Dawkins is his rottweiler is exaggerating and not taking the century difference between the two proponents of evolutionary theory into account.

I feel that I have to comment what I believe about the core question, because reading a book makes one think, regardless of in which direction your opinion might go. For the most part, I agree with what Dawkins says, but I am one of those soft-hearted persons who does not like to tread on other people when I do not have to (I hate it even then, in fact). Perhaps I think so because I live in a society which is comparatively free from religious extremism and I do not encounter it on a daily (or even yearly) basis. Perhaps my opinion would have differed if that changed.

What I do not agree with, however, is his argument that a tool (which I think religion can be, just like philosophy, albeit less based on reason) is useless if it is not true. Let me for a moment assume that God does not exist. In that case, I would still feel that there might be a conceivable point in being religious, because it might benefit one personally in some way, and thus I do not feel it is my right to trespass and intrude on other people personal territory. Bear in mind that I expect the previous argument to be valid the other way around, too, which is why I think most of what the author says is valid.

Do I recommend The God Delusion? That depends very much on what you want to get from it. If you are religious and interested in challenging your world view, you should probably give it a try. If you are somewhere in the middle (agnostic, for instance), I definitely think you should read it (he even has a chapter dedicated to you). If you are an atheist, do not bother as long as you do not enjoy debating with creationists, because in that case The God Delusion is indeed fuel on your fire. Personally, I am glad that I read the book, but since I belong to the last group mentioned above and not very interested in arguing with religious people, I cannot give the book more than three and a half snails.

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The Boondock Saints



Title: The Boondock Saints
Directed by:
Troy Duffy
Written by:
Troy Duffy
Year: 1999

The Boondock Saints is a film I have heard much about before actually watching it. The story revolves around a pair of Irish, catholic twin brothers, who set out on the quest to cleanse New York City from crime by way of vigilantism. The film is fast-paced and witty, utilising many innovative tricks to catch the attention of the watcher and I enjoyed the film in many ways.

This movie feels fresh and not quite like any other I have seen, which is very nice indeed. I can see similarities between The Boondock Saints and Pulp Fiction, both in the handling of chronology (one often watches the effects of a scene before the scene itself) and in the type of humour. I would say that the differences prevail over the similarities, though, and for instance, I would say that the quintessence of the story in The Boondock Saints is much more serious and challenging.

I cannot really put my finger on why I do not think that this film ought to get a higher grade, but I am fairly certain that it should not. Perhaps the story is lacking in depth, the directing not adept enough or the theme not interesting enough, but I cannot pinpoint my reasonss more accurately than that. Everything else is brilliant, though, and I heartily love many aspects of the film, especially the characters (both the twins and the FBI agent). Perhaps I will review my decision later if I happen to see The Boondock Saints again, something I certainly will not shun away from if the opportunity presents itself.

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Titel: Foucault’s Pendulum
Originalets titel: Il pendolo di Foucault
Författare: Umberto Eco
Översättare: William Weaver
Utgivningsår: 1988
Recenserad: 2007-03-02
Status: N/A

Jag har fått Foucault’s Pendulum av Umberto Eco beskriven för mig som om det vore en intelligent version av The Da Vinci Code. Så här efteråt kan jag säga att det ligger lite i det påståendet, även om det inte alls håller fullt ut och låter betydligt mer elitistiskt än vad jag själv föredrar att vara i det här läget. Foucault’s Pendulum handlar om konspirationsteorier på ungefär samma område som Dan Browns bok (tempelriddarna, exempelvis), men gör det på ett helt annat sätt. Om jag ska hårdra det extremt, så kan Umberto Eco skriva böcker, men har inga idéer och med Dan Brown är det tvärtom. Nu är det väldigt elakt mot båda författarna, men jag tycker att i alla fall Dan Brown förtjänar det.

Huvudpersonen Casaubon arbetar på ett litet förlag och tillsammans med arbetskamraterna och vännerna Belbo och Diotallevi försöker de sälja böcker om bland annat det ockulta. De blir mer och mer intresserade av tempelriddarna och tillsammans hittar de på en storslagen plan där de använder all fantasi de har för att uppfinna världens mest omfattande konspirationsteori. Snart visar det sig dock att planen kanske inte bara existerar i deras fantasi och att de själva sitter på information som kan vara livsfarlig.

Jag gillar Foucault’s Pendulum, men den är samtidigt inte riktigt helt vad jag hade velat ha. Min önskan hade varit en bok som innehåller Dan Browns fantasieggande idéer, men författade av någon annan. Umberto Eco är som redan nämnts mycket bättre på att skriva böcker, men hans idéer räcker inte riktigt för att jag ska bli alldeles till mig. Istället lämnar boken känslan av att det skulle kunna ha varit så mycket bättre. Samtidigt känner jag att jag måste ge den ett bättre betyg än The Da Vinci Code, mest för att jag är rätt säker på att jag kommer att ha ett mer bestående intryck av den här och att det är mer än bara en tillfällig fantasiberg-och-dalbana. Fyra sniglar till Foucault’s Pendulum.

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Titel: The Power and the Glory
Författare: Graham Greene
Utgivningsår: 1940
Recenserad: 2007-02-24
Status: N/A

The Power and the Glory är den andra boken jag läser av Graham Greene efter hans smått fantastiska premiär i min litteraturvärld i och med Our Man in Havana. Böckerna är dock inte alls speciellt lika varandra och jag ser egentligen ingen poäng alls i att jämföra dem. The Power and the Glory handlar om en man kallad ”the whisky priest”, en präst som försöker hitta sin väg både genom yttre och inre labyrinter av problem. De yttre utgörs av mexikanska regeringens försök att undertrycka religiös tro i landet. Alla präster lever farligt och många av de som inte flytt över gränsen har blivit arkebuserade. Inom sig vet prästen om att han inte är något helgon och kämpar hela tiden med att förstå sin själv och sitt eget förhållande till värden och Gud.

Den här romanen är väldigt originell och liknar ingenting jag läst tidigare, vilket gör att den är svår att betygsätta och bedöma. Det finns flera aspekter jag verkligen gillar, framförallt porträtteringen av prästen. Språket är bra men inte magnifikt. Dock spelar det inte så stor roll, eftersom det är vad som sägs som är det intressanta i den här boken. Författaren belyser olika paradoxer och problem i kristendomen ur många synvinklar och använder prästen och hans omgivning som ett verktyg för detta. Nu ska ni inte tro att han gör detta med ett enbart kritiskt öga, utan boken är full av exempel på där prästen gör betydligt mer nytta än vad han själv vet om eller anser sig förtjäna.

Avslutningsvis är the Power and the Glory en riktigt bra bok som har ett intressant innehåll. Jag måste dock påpeka att jag inte riktigt fastnade för den ytliga handlingen, vilket gjorde att det dröjde ett bra tag innan jag alls tyckte att boken var något att ha. Jag tycker inte att den är det mästerverk många andra verkar tycka (se recensioner på Amazon.com, till exempel. Graham Greene befäster ändå sin position som författare jag vill läsa mer av, så ni kan nog se det som en rekommendation från min sida.

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