Thursday, December 31, 2015

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (Book Review #100 of 2015)


A History of the Jews

The only way to get through massive volume like this quickly is to listen to it, which is what I did. You can discount all the negative reviews that say "just read a Bible!" because biblical history is only the first 15% of this book. Most Protestants have never read Maccabees and are generally unaware of the history of Israel between Micah and Matthew, making it hard to understand the contextual backdrop of the Gospels. Johnson comes from the Catholic tradition and almost assumes the reader has already read the Bible including the Apocrypha, so I think he gives the Maccabean and Hasamonean histories short shrift. Judah Maccabee surely is a more important figure even to modern Israel than it would appear in this book. Johnson does not claim to be a scholar but a "man of letters who writes history." I think that's a false cop-out.

The narrative of this book shows how the Jews have survived over the millennia. There is a remarkable ability to rally together around shared identity and the Torah. The Torah (and its formalization during Babylonian exile) gave the Jews a basis for Judaism. "Judaism created the Jews and not the other way around." The Jews gave the world "ethical monotheism," which was embraced and later copied by other religions. The Jews are ultimately survivors, the shared identity that binds them through the ages is the long list of persecutions. From a mixture of fighting for survival to adhering to the spirit of the Torah, the Jews have largely been industrious, increasing world GDP, contributing an untold number of scientists and philosophers, and being both a blessing and a curse to whatever land they inhabit. "The Jews believed they were a people of Providence, so they became a people of Providence."

Being such a wide and broad history (6,000 years or so), there is not much at which this book excels. The exception is the chronicling of the persecution and pogroms of Jews from the Seleucids of 175 B.C.to the Poles immediately after WWII. The dates, numbers killed, eyewitness accounts, etc. add detail to the theme of the book, that the Jews are ultimately a sojourning people under constant suspicion and threat. The Nazi Holocaust is chronicled well, yet succinct enough that it is not an entire book in its own right. The biggest weakness of the book, I think, may be the lack of emphasis on the diverse religious and political views of Jews throughout history, and especially as they immigrated en masse to Palestine in the 20th century.

I read Ari Shavit's My Promised Land immediately after this, and I think he does a much better job with 20th century history than did Johnson, though they are admittedly 25 years apart. I think Shavit would say Johnson painted the Jewish reoccupation of territory in a too favorable light and without the philosophical introspection that it warranted. Johnson also does not explain the evolving Jewish religious thought toward characters like Abraham and Isaac. I note that absence from what Bruce Feiler included in his book Abraham. There is a lack of explaining any particular rituals, holidays, or beliefs that currently unite the worldwide diaspora of Jews.

Critics have written that Johnson is writing as an outsider bringing his Western Christian and politically conservative lens, but all of us bring our own biases to our work, Johnson admits his own interest in the history up front. Compare this to historical works by Jews and those of other backgrounds to get a more complete picture. Others have pointed out many factual errors, like writing that Jesus was somehow a disciple of Hillel; it is odd that for a Christian Johnson does not stop to ponder the reason given in the Bible for the conversion of so many Jews to Christianity-- the resurrection. If anything, there are places where Johnson stretches to find parallels between Jewish history and that experienced by Christians in Jerusalem in the first century. I'd be curious to read Johnson's history of Christianity, which he completed before this work. I give it four stars out of five. For a detailed summary, read on.

Part 1 The Israelites
Genesis occurred around the time of Hammurabi. There is plenty of evidence, both from the names used in the Genesis narrative to tablets that seem to corroborate events or customs that we see in the Jacob and Esau story, that the events of Genesis took place at the earlier of dates preferred by many scholars today. Abraham would have been familiar with Akkadian law and the various Akkadian/Chaldean myths.

Sarah is the first person in history to be recorded laughing. Those details make the Genesis narrative unique. Women are treated differently and with more respect under the Torah and in Jewish tradition than in surrounding cultures. Combinations of 12 and 6 tribes are also found in other ancient literature. Shechem is mentioned as early as 19th century B.C.

There were large numbers of Israelites in Canaan. Egyptian history records struggles with the people of Shechem. Johnson cites researchers who believe Israelites or at least descendents of Abraham and cousins of those in Egypt controlled the Shechem territory during the time of the Exodus. One evidence is that there is no mention in Joshua of conquering Shechem, as if there was no need to. There are parallels of the Joseph story in Egyptian and other literatures (the Two Brothers tale). Johnson believes the Exodus took place in the 13th century and was completed by 1225 BC.

Johnson notes that even ancient Greek literature praises Moses, crediting him as an architect of culture and writing. Thus, ancient writers were convinced Moses was a real person. The Mosaic law of 1250 was markedly different from other laws of the period, the Torah being a mixture of both "ethical monotheism," scientific, and religious ritual. Life was held as more sacred, there was no capital punishment for property crime and cruelty was limited. Men were held accountable for crimes against others, differing from the Hammurabi code, for example. There are 216 commands and 265 prohibitions in the Torah. The other scientific aspects of Mosaic law are similar to Egyptian laws of the period, but the commands regarding leprosy and circumcision were unique. Mosaic monotheism is "more rational" than the pantheism and pluralism of surrounding communities-- how can nature be both God and subject to nature, as the surrounding Canaanite religions held? Archaeology confirms that the invading Israelites were inferior in technology to the native Canaanites, suggesting the period in Egypt was not a productive one, or their labors served others.

Part 2 Judaism
Another theme of the Old Testament (and the Gospels, goes unmentioned) is that the established government and the order of man is overturned. The younger over the older, the slave over the Pharaoh, the boy over the giant, etc. Johnson gives his opinion from scholars on when the Masoretic text was compiled. The Pentateuch was canonized during the Babylonian exile around 632 BC. Samaritans had a separate Pentateuch that might predate the others and the Jewish diaspora later compiled the Greek Septuagint. Johnson ignores anything relating to what we now call Biblical theology-- Jesus or the Messiah being found throughout the Old Testament. He roughly ignores any of the texts we know from the Gospels that Jews read an interpreted a Messiah from.

In 300 B.C. there were roughly 120,000 people in Jerusalem. There were Greek colonies in Palestine, and different reactions to the growing Greek influence-- Essenes (which fell into many categories), separatists in Qumran, Hellenistic Jews who compromised and adopted the Greek tongue and culture, etc. The diaspora learned Greek while zealots plotted the overthrow of the reigning Seleucids. Johnson writes that Maccabees (never accepted into the Jewish canon) was the "first martyrology." The achievement of independence under the Hashamoneans ironically led to cultural compromise, and after Rome marched into Jerusalem and massacred its inhabitants in 63 BC, Herod was installed and set up a secular state. He executed 46 members of the Sanhedrin, several members of his own family, and generally ruled with great cruelty. Still, he promoted the welfare state and did large acts of charity. Some acts of charity, like rebuilding the Samaritans' temple, was simply a poke in the eye of religious Jews. The Sadducees flourished under Herod's reign; he died 4 BC.

Johnson generally looks at Jewish history in the 1st century AD apart from Christian history. He questions the reliability of Josephus, or at least the various texts we have of his histories. 

Part 3 Messiah

Johnson then returns to Messianic ideas found in Jewish literature. Abraham Feiler quotes scholars claiming that Jews in the time of Jesus, including those in Qumran, looked to Abraham to be the Messiah. Johnson does not mention this, if he is aware of it. He claims Jesus was a "Jewish universalist" member of the Hillel school of thought, as opposed to the Shammai school. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_and_Shammai  Shammai was of the strict pharasaical letter-of-the-law position whereas Jesus clearly was more about the "spirit of the law." "Jesus invented Christianity and Paul preached it." But Johnson never lays out why any Jews would follow Jesus or be willing to die for the cause. There is no mention of the resurrection and its centrality to Christian beliefs. He cites historical evidence of Nero's hatred for the Jews and points out that the Jewish revolt of 66 AD was also a Jewish civil war. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the break between Jews and Christians was complete.

It was up to rabbis and synagogues thereafter to continue the religious faith. The Mishnah was compiled in those early centuries and the Talmud were compiled in the 4th century AD; the Babylonian Talmud was "more academic." Johnson notes that Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria separated the body and soul, which later made its way into Catholic teaching, but mainstream Judaism did not, rejecting the (false, IMO) dichotomy of secular and sacred. (Hence, the Jews had a better theology of work.) The Pharisees had "rejected salvery because all men were created equal." Philo emphasized community and social justice from the Torah, something that is prevalent in Jewish culture today. The Mishnah put great emphasis on justice, truth, and peace. Later, Maimonedes (died 1204 AD) wrote the first full commentary on the Mishnah, outlining thirteen principles of the Jewish faith particularly in regards to Moses and the Torah:  http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/332555/jewish/Maimonides-13-Principles-of-Faith.htm
One important tenet was that the Torah precedes God.
Johnson notes the battles for Jerusalem before forces of Islam conquer it in the 7th century.

Part 3 Cathedocracy
An interesting work I had not heard of was the Itinerary of Benjamin in Constaninople in 1168. (available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14981/14981-h/14981-h.htm). This work chronicled the Jewish condition found along Benjamin's travels, including the various religious and philosophical divisions. There were 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, a community that would last until the 20th century. There were many in Spain, like Maimonides, and many worked in banking or as merchants. In their various persecutions, Jews did well to preserve many scrolls and fragments because it was illegal in Jewish law to destroy objects with the name of God on them. Maimonedes brought "rationality to the Torah," and Johnson considers him part of the Rennaisance. Maimonedes wrote that the best way to spread the good of society was to spread the Torah, because the purpose of the Torah is to fulfill both body and spirit. Maimonedes likewise downplays messianic texts in the Old Testament. While rationality was spreading, so was the Kabbalah, which is "the search for God through irrational means." Johnson cites sources of persecution of Jews in various locales, writing that it was worst in Byzantium during the Crusades.

It was during this period that the "blood libel" was developed and utilized by the Catholic church to justify the persecution of the Jews. Johnson chronicles all of the major pogroms and expellations from the 1100s through the 1400s. Some leaders publicly forgave "Jew slayers." The sow became a symbol in Germany for the Jew. Martin Luther and others held that Jews knew the truth but willfully rejected it, thus intentionally joining with evil. 

Part 4 Ghetto
Begins with a look at life in Italy for Jews circa 1600s. Life in Protestant and Catholic lands was a bit different for Jews. In 1543, Luther released a 65,000 word antisemitic tract calling on people to burn Jewish homes and synagogues and confiscate their property. Calvin was more sympathetic, but Jews were still expelled from Calvinist territories. Johnson is skeptical that the Protestant work ethic fueled European growth, and notes that wherever Jews went their shops and commerce thrived and help boost international GDP. Jews became famous financiers of the Hapsburg's wars. But Johnson chronicles the ongoing torture in Poland and the massive death due to antisemitic ferver that was growing in Europe. (Jeff Goldberg recently published a piece in The Atlantic about the modern persecution Jews are again facing in Western Europe).

In the 1500s, Jews became more superstitious and apocalyptic. There became more emphasis on the Kabbalah, magic, and other twists. Zionism also began to form as an idea along with Messianic outlook. Several false messiahs creating cults arose. Johnson wwrites of the life of Sabbati Zevi, a kabbalist born in Smyrna (Izmir) who claimed to be the messiah. When Sabbatai migrated to Palestine, he converted Nathan of Gaza who furthered his campaign. Jewish rabbis threatened his kingdom in Palestine so he returned to Turkey and eventually converted to Islam before finally being exiled by the Sultan in 1673.

After a mass slaughter of Jews in Germany in 1648, many looked west both to England and New York (1664). Johnson speculates that Jews got their stereotype of being miserly because they were always threatened with confiscation. Therefore they put their wealth into jewels and other objects that were easy to transport. In the New World they became jewelers. Jews were only one percent of the population of 1701 but made up 12% of the trade. By 1752 Jews were known to pioneer economies of scale and being loss leaders, accepting cheaper substitutes to undercut their competitors. Being a worldwide diaspora lended itself to commercial intelligence. (How much of this is Johnson just stereotyping or guessing?)

Johnson pivots to other Jewish intellectuals like the biblical commentator and scientist Ibn Ezra, and the philospher Spinoza who was expelled by the Rabbis. Spinoza wrote that God cannot be as we think he is (because he is infinitely more and we cannot make him man). Johnson explores the rise of Hasidic Judaism and the tzadik. Tzadik/sadik means "righteous" or "faithful" and is used to describe people like Noah. Maimonedes said that "One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik."
As I understand it, tzadik emphasizes prayer for an internalized experience of righteousness, and Hasidic Jews are therefore found praying and swaying in order to generate religious fervor.

Moses Mendelssohn penned a first rational defense of Judaism while also translating the Torah to German in the late 1700s. This allowed Jews to argue their religion on rational terms and counter the Reformation claims that they were willfully joined with evil and sparked more interest in their religion. In the US, Jews were thriving under the new US Constitution where they were tolerated and allowed (after some legal restrictions early on) to build synagogues. The French Revolution put an end to Jewish hopes of rationality and tolerance winning the day as persecution broke out again. Johnson chronicles the 1806 attempt with Napolean to have a French-Jewish legal contract. That did not work out so well. Voltaire was antisemitic. When The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia in the 1900s and became popular, European Jews allegedly had a sense of impending doom. (Johnson returns to the influence of the Elders of Zion. It was required reading in Nazi-governed schools and was admittedly read and believed by several Arab rulers. I see its influence in Turkish media and popular opinion today.)

Part 5 Emancipation
In the 1790s, Isaac D'Israeli published a collection of essays titled The Curiosities of Literature, which saw eleven different editions and was widely read through the early 1800s. It was one of the first mass-produced works by a Jewish author and covered anecdotes on historical characters and various books. D'Israeli was the father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin D'Israeli, evidence that Jews had found an open door in England as well as America. The House of Rothschild's ascension in England in the 18th century is well-documented in other books (see Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money for one).

Jewish scholars elsewhere in Europe had more mixed results. Heine's verse and prose were required reading in German schools, yet hated all the same. Johnson has a particular ire for Heine's cousin Karl Marx. Marx's grandfather was a rabbi and Marx had rabbinical study habits-- studying only in books and not actually living or working in the factories he seemed so concern with. Johnson writes that Marx's theory was just "Jewish superstition," complete with illogical errors and mistakes. Marx's superstitions were antisemitic, and he remained largely ignorant or mistaken about Judaism even though Johnson believes he was clearly influenced by his via his family.

Johnson searches for a rational explanation as to why Jews became part of the political Left if the Socialist Left was antisemitic (as it very much turned out to be in Russia). Johnson surmises that it is because social justice is an important part of the Torah; a Torah containing a commanded jubilee and freeing of slaves brings to mind modern policies of redistribution (plenty of Christian economists will take issue with that comment, I know). Demographics also played a role, Jews living in ghettos and facing pogroms saw a short life expectancy and this influenced their desire to help those less fortunate. (I think Johnson is reaching for Rawlsian justice here...) The anti-communist czars and later Nazis were no friends of the Jews. Socialists and communists promised education, guaranteed income, and elevated status of women, all of which appeal to ideas in the Torah.

In the 1800s there were several writers looking at the history of the Jews in an effort to make them more appealing to the Gentiles, but angering the Jewish rabbis in doing so. Jews even adopted certain practices of Protestant Christian churches in Germany, like the singing and preaching styles. Christians might have also adopted some of the Jewish styles of preaching and handling Scripture. However, the struggle for Jewish civil rights led to more rational appeals and secularization which was important in the later zionist movement. The Maskils were Jews who sought to re-educate the populace, and they preferred Hebrew to the Yiddish language spoken by 11 million people by 1930.

Johnson notes that "mountain Jews" in the Caucasus trace their migration to 597 BC. In 1820 there were 4,000 Jews in the US and only seven states gave them legal status for acts such as voting. By 1860 there were 150,000. By 1920 there were over one million in New York alone. There were plenty of Jews in czarist Russia but they were registered, excluded from civil service, and faced persecution. In 1871 the first major pogrom in Russia occurred in Odessa and spread from there.

Mary Ann Evans, who used the penname George Eliot to publish several successful novels (like Silas Marner), published a work titled Daniel Deronda in 1876, in which the title character abandons his British life after discovering his Jewish identity. Johnson credits this novel with the widespread popularization of zionism. As pseudo-scientific anti-semitism rose in France and Germany, Jews began to abandon the hope of civil rights in Europe and began to look to zionism. Even a German Kaiser supported mass exodus to Palestine. Between 1870 and 1900 there were several attempts to start Jewish settlements in Palestine. Theodor Herzl was a Hungarian Jew who was influential. At one point Herzl championed a proposal to make British East Africa as a haven for Jews. (Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia has a good look at characters involved in zionism in the early 20th century, along with the opening chapters of Ari Shavit's My Promised Land.) While we may consider zionism to be of religious nature today, the first decades of zionism was largely secular; many of the first zionists were atheists. Rabbis were opposed to secular zionism. Johnson notes other famous Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century, among them were Freud and Einstein.

Part 6 Holocaust
WWI saw the breakup of the Ottoman Empire as well as Sykes-Picot and official rights of Jews to settle in Palestine under the British Mandate. There were by now colonies of Jews funded by the Rothschilds and others while receiving increasing help from new migrants with skills obtained abroad. The Balfour Declaration was problematic to Palestinian Arabs, in part because it left governance open to whoever had the majority. Arab pogroms and attacks on Jewish settlements led the British to simply restrict migration into Palestine. When the British increased the quota in 1934, the Arabs revolted. Eventually there was a 1937 pan-Arab agreement to prevent a Jewish state. Concerned Western Jews like Einstein criticized the zionist movement and feared the consequences of a Jewish state. Even British philosopher and humorist G.K. Chesterton was highly critical of the Jews.

Some secular Jews in Eastern Europe denied their Jewish identity. Many fought in the Soviet revolutions (Trotsky was a Jew). But this was forgotten as the Russian civil war took on an antisemitic bent and the Bolsheviks shut down Zionist movements and clamped down on migration. Bolsheviks popularized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Meanwhile, America was a bit more tolerant. Hollywood studios were owned by Jews (lending credence to the Protocol of the Elders?). All was not dandy, Henry Ford received a nod from Hitler in Mein Kampf for being antisemitic, and antisemitism rose during the Depression.

Johnson examines the peculiarities of Hitler's thinking. He thoroughly examines the Nazi position and proves that extermination of Jews was always one of the central tenets of Nazi thinking. Johnson chronicles the deportations, the disbelief in the West, and more. It is difficult to relive these years. The mass extermination campaign was halted in 1941 due to protest by German churches but begun again after the invasion of Russia. The worst the war went, the worse life became. Austrians were apparently more passionately antisemitic than Germans. Belgium and Holland offered resistance to the killing machine but tens of thousands were killed anyway. France had anti-semitic parties even before the war, some funded by the Nazis, claiming a conspiracy between England and the Jews to destroy France. (Sounds similar to some of their right-wing parties today.) Sadly, between 1942 and 1944 every Jewish synagogue in New York was desecrated and a survey found that Jews were seen as the biggest threat to America after the Germans in Japanese. Roosevelt did nothing, opting not to bomb Auschwitz when it was suggested, and not doing much before the war to grant more visas to Jews trying to flee. (As chronicled in Freedom from Fear, Hitler publicly stated he would give America as many Jews as they would, in his mind, foolishly take, seeing it as a way to undermine America.) By the end of the war there were six million dead; 250,000 still in camps. In 1945 there were continued antisemitic riots in Poland. There were few reparations ever made, most notably not by companies who profited off of Jewish slave labor. There were few apologies from churches, either in the West who did not demand greater action from Roosevelt or Congress, or from Germany where churches looked the other way even while smelling Jews burning in nearby death camps.

Part 7 Zion
"WWI made the Jewish state possible; WWII made it absolutely necessary." In 1947, the UN offered a proposal to divide Palestine between Arabs and Jews with separate states. The Arabs rejected this, and were left with the worse position of a UN mandated Israel in 1948. There were terror attacks on British bases in Palestine over support for Israel as well as anti-Jewish riots in England. The British government preferred to withdraw and let both sides fight it out. Truman, however, was more sympathetic to the Zionist position and the US was the first nation to recognize Israel. The Egyptians began bombing the night of the UN mandate. After heavy fighting and a brief truce, the Israelis got equipment and money and pushed back until a second truce was sign and an armistice in 1949.

Religious objections to a Jewish state included the belief that a messianic regathering to Palestine, rather than a secular one, was necessary first. There were further battles, more immigrants, the adoption of Hebrew in the army which furthered Hebrew as the official language, more immigrants, and the establishment of a secular democratic government dominated by the Labor Party whose founders had been among the first Jewish settlers under the British mandate. The seculars rejected the Torah as a basis for law, if otherwise they would not have secured the UN mandate.

Johnson writes that to Jews, the "raison d'être of the world is Israel." As the nation grew and more ancient land reconquered, the zionist project took an increasingly religious tone as eventually religious parties began to gain power (this is published in the late 1980s before that became an even larger problem). Maimonedes said that even though the Temple site was destroyed, God's shakayna glory was still there, so it was still appropriate to pray there. Hence, the retaking of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War was considered a key accomplishment. The "Wailing Wall" is the site closest to the Holy of Holies, so that is why Jews pilgrimage to pray there. (I personally found it awkward to pray there as a non-Jew when I visited.) Some rabbis argued it was best to begin rebuilding the temple in order to create religious ferver and repentance among the Jews which would then increase the odds of a prophet (messiah?) to rise up and consecrate it. (Johnson glosses over much of the brutality in the re-occupation of Palestine, the plight of the occupied territories, and modern Jewish guilt as chronicled in My Promised Land.)

Johnson classifies Israel itself as a "temple rebuilding project." Israel itself is a temple rebuilding project. "Anti-semitism always corrupts the society in which anti-semitism exists." The Marxist story of capitalist imperialism has its roots in the Marxist belief of antisemitism. To the Soviets, the Jewish state was just an outgrowth of "Jewish capitalism."
The USSR was ally to the Arab states at war with Israel, and many of the anti-semitic theories that exist today are a result of the Soviet propaganda machine after 1967, including a re-propogation of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion. Johnson talks often of Jewish contributions to society but neglects the vast number of Nobel Prize winners who were Jews. The West owes the Jews for their Torah and its emphasis on the sanctity of life and abstract ideas such as property rights. "The Jews believed they were a people of Providence, so they became a people of Providence."

Book of the Year, 2015, and a look ahead to 2016

Following this link should take you to my list of completed books this year. I have not finished reviews for the last few (it takes me a while to write my summaries).

Most of the books helped inform my decisions, change how I think about something, or influence how I work. There are a handful that I remember on a daily basis. If I had to choose just five to give someone, this might be the list. (Links are to my reviews.) I should revisit this list in 5-10 years and see if they still matter.

1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller - Maybe the best argument for the appeal of the Christian worldview I have ever read.

2. How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Will definitely improve your reading of the Bible and your ability not to misinterpret texts, or at least be more humble. 

3. Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Christians should practice Christian mindfulness. Meditation and prayer are a Christian discipline, and I find Kabat-Zinn's non-Christian personal practice to be something we can learn from. That said, I failed at my goal of improving in prayer and mindfulness this year.

4. Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill - This ought to be required reading for all Kentuckians, especially legislators.

5. Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick - This book challenged the way I parent and the way I think about the Gospel. I'm still not sure how I feel about it. On some points, I want to disagree, on other points I just don't want to submit.

In 2016, I will get back to reading and listening to more economics-related books. I will read several by Michael Lewis, maybe even complete that canon. At the beginning of the year I will read mostly Kentucky-related books as I observe the legislative session. I will read several books on ISIS. I will read several books written about Obama's presidency as well as works on or by candidates before November. I hope to read one or two fitness or weight training books. It is hard to do that if you're also working through biblical commentaries daily; such is life.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Cambridge History of Turkey Vol. 2 1453-1603 (Book Review #99 of 2015)

The Cambridge History of Turkey (Volume 2)

Cambridge History of Turkey.

Like Volume I, this book took me about a year to work through. Volume II was apparently completed after Volume III due to the complexity of the information within. It covers the period roughly from Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the accession of Ahmed I in 1603. Each of the 13 chapters is written by a different scholar (with Kate Fleet penning two) and the wealth of scholarly research and translation is impressive. There is so much ongoing work going through archives and books written by poets, accountants, travelers, etc. in Arabic, Persian, Old Turkish, Greek, and Romance languages and each author has incorporated the latest and the best together to put together a complete story.

You get to relive the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe (Rumeli), the wars with the Mamluks in Egypt and the campaigns against Shahs in Iran. The never-ending wars are matched by the ongoing palace rivalries and intrigues between vizirs, would-be heirs, and others. I had read Ernle Bradford's The Great Siege: Malta 1565 which was quite helpful to recount the workings of the Turkish navy and the careers of officers like Turgut Reis. The Cambridge History gives very short shrift to the battle for Malta and its consequences.

As an economist, I found the chapters by Colin Imber and Murat Çızakça dealing with the economy of the Ottoman state interesting. The wealthy could hoard their money into charities (vakif) to avoid taxation, but the trick was to continue to be generous and yet have enough to live off of. Vakifs are still plentiful in modern Turkey and it was interesting to make this historical connection.

Murat Çızakça carefully deems the Ottoman Empire's political economy as "proto-pseudo socialist" P. 262). It was not based on class warfare but the government could "choke" the mercantile class when the need arose by price controls or other means. Ones who the Sultan disliked were doomed to be butchers in Istanbul, consigning them to a sure life of poverty.
"The functions of Ottoman government were, in essence, to raise revenue with which to support the sultan's army and court, to conduct war and relations with foreign powers, to uphold law and order, and to support what the ruling elite regarded as the right religion. Most day-to-day public functions – for example, the construction and maintenance of mosques, education, wel-fare of the poor, the provision of a water supply in towns and the upkeep of bridges and cemeteries  – were the responsibility of  vakıfs (endowments of land or other sources of income used for the charitable purpose dei ned by the founder), established through the private beneficence of individuals" (p. 205). 

There was also an interesting practice of raising revenue by farming out taxation on land, which was sort of like selling bonds. The Ottoman government did not run massive deficits or have a need to borrow formally until after the period covered. Fascinatingly, the Ottoman's pursued a policy of reverse-mercantilism: "the Ottomans impeded exports and promoted imports in order to maximise the supply of goods available in their markets. Thus the export-promoting European mercantilism was matched perfectly by an import-promoting Ottoman system!" (p. 260).

Generally, the Ottoman empire followed the pattern of exclusive political arrangements and extractive economic institutions typical of a declining state in Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail. Besides the government, there were guilds who kept reins on prices and innovation. There was also the practice of the devşirme as Christian youth were rounded up to be sent off to train as janissaries, fierce fighters for the Ottomans who basically had nothing to lose but like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome became a powerful political force in their own right. "The constant possibility of a janissary rebellion was a permanent check on the sultan's freedom of action" (p. 217). Fukuyama credits the janissary recruitment as helping the empire survive-- creating a loyal class of people who cannot inherit the kingdom (like eunuchs elsewhere). Çızakça concludes that "ever since the seventeenth century , income per capita in the Ottoman Empire, and later in Turkey , declined consistently when compared with Western European countries. Such a long-term decline can only have been caused by a path dependency over centuries, for which I have here suggested the term Ottoman 'proto-pseudo-socialism.' The trend was reversed only after the 1980s when the Özal government introduced modern capitalism" (p. 275). (This is one of the few look-aheads in this volume).

The religious situation within the Empire was also interesting. The volume really does not deal with the minority populations nearly as much as it could or should have, as there were plenty of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Kurds of various stripes. "(T)he Ottomans granted religious freedom to Christians and Jews. Martin Luther confirmed this much discussed religious tolerance when he observed that the Turks granted religious freedom to all, while the pope did not" (p. 249). Gilles Veinstein wrote the chapter on religious institutions and policies.

"Many Christians and Jews must have found conversion a tempting prospect, for by accepting Islam they both improved their social status and lightened their tax load. Apart from the adolescents drafted for service in the army and the sultan's court (devşirme), the Ottoman government thus saw no need to resort to forced conversions" (p. 323). "No Ottoman sultan ever visited Mecca," (p.351) although many funds were given to helping maintain the kabaa and other structures. I found the chronicling of various cults and heresies within Islam to be interesting, including a popular one in 1527 which claimed the superiority of Jesus over Muhammad (p. 341). As Turkish became the preferred language, religious works and legal rulings had to be translated into Turkish. Battles with Iran were partly over Sunni-Shia conflict and partly over imperial pride. Religion was basically complicated.

"(T)he Ottoman world view remained essentially theo-centric, continuing to attribute ultimate agency and causation to God alone, who had created the world and continued to create the links of cause and ef ect within each of its parts as well as between them. Such theocentrism oftentimes supposedly denotes a pre-modern, and in particular pre-Enlighten-ment, outlook, as opposed to a modern view which takes human experience and reason as the ultimate means for the comprehension of the universe; the latter view is therefore called anthropocentric. However, the Ottoman world view was anthropocentric in a different way, as it viewed all intellectual activity , all human knowledge, as serving the ultimate goal of individual or collective salvation. Outside of ascetic world rejection, a path open only to a select few , the proper understanding and manipulation of phenomena within the created world were important as means to this end" (p. 456). 

There is a chapter on the visual arts and architecture, if you like that sort of thing. I always find the research into population estimates to be interesting. "According to Barkan, in 1520–35 Rumeli and the sultans' capital, Istanbul, supposedly had a population of almost six million, while Anatolia and certain territories called 'Arab', probably more or less equivalent to Greater Syria, were home to about 5.7 million. By this count, the Ottoman central provinces had a population of about 11–12 million people, with Istanbul, the largest city , amounting to about 400,000 inhabitants...Ankara was home to a population of approximately 25,000 men and women; the city's principal crafts involved the weaving, dyeing and finishing of angora wool" (p. 375-376).

Selim S. Kuru pens the final chapter on the literature of Rum (western Anatolia and the European territories). The poets of Rum, according to their biographers, were Muslim poets who composed in the constantly developing medium of the language of Rum, a particular form of Anatolian Turkish. It was a fresh language given voice through the pens of the poets of Rum and, from the last decades of the fifteenth century onwards, it was establishing itself as one of the most extensively used literary languages of the world. For the poets themselves, it was a source of pride and often of great material wealth" (p. 591-592).

Some of the Sultans fancied themselves as poets. What I found most interesting, and disturbing, was the prevalence of pederasty in the literary works of the period (p. 573-575). Pederasty was a feature of male Greek culture (see Charles Freeman's Egypt, Greece, and Rome), is found throughout Central Asia (think The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan), and is a well-hidden part of Turkish culture today. One example: "A poet from Baghdad with the pen-name Halili (1407–85) told his own love story in a verse narrative entitled  Fürkatname (The Book of Separation) (composed in 1461), in which he finds a true love of God during his trip to Rum through a worldly passion he had for a boy" (p. 573). I wonder if the roots are in Greek influence (exported eastward through Central Asia by Alexander the Great) and then brought westward again by the migration of Turks from the Central Asian steppe.

In all, I give the work 4 stars out of 5. It does a poor job of showing every day life of a Turkish citizen, be he farmer, herder, shopkeeper, or slave. Women, particularly those in the palace, are almost completely ignored. Some of the sources quoted that might also contain information about these things were quoted for their other uses-- like explaining trade with the Ottomans and such. Still, it is a must-read for anyone seriously interested about Turkey and its history. I look forward to reading Vol. III in 2016 before moving on to contemporary histories.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Quest for Meaning by Robert H. Kane (Book Review #98 of 2015)


Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience

I checked out this course because we're at a time when ISIL is beheading people who don't share their view of the truth and using rape and torture as a form of prayer while at the same time, biologist/atheist Richard Dawkins and others are writing that we can be certain that there is no God-- also a clear and exclusive truth claim. Both ISIL and Dawkins believe wholeheartedly that they are correct and all others are wrong, either infidels or idiots. As someone with a Christian worldview, I can respect others' rights ultimately because the Bible, on which I place great authority, says that all men are created in God's image. But to make the case that everyone should respect life like I do would require appeal to some sort of universally-held views. 

Over the past few years I've read some books by the New Atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens along with several other professing atheist physicists and biochemists who are searching for the beginning of the universe or life. I have yet to hear any of them respond with logical consistency to the question of on what basis they make their moral judgments about life if there is no such thing as universal truth, a soul, consequences, etc? If we are just a random collection of molecules who will be spread across the universe, and morality and human rights simply stories we tell ourselves to help us survive in the evolutionary process, then why is my choosing to scatter your (or anyone else's) atoms before you would choose to do so considered any worse than me burning firewood? Tim Keller (The Reason for God) writes that he's never met a moral relativist who is logically consistent.

Dr. Kane's series is his attempt to get at the question given our modern postmodern context. (Dr. Kane's own work, The Significance of Free Will, apparently utilizes physical science and philosophy to defend the incompatibility of free will and determinism.) His walk through the history of philosophy lowers my estimation of Durant's The History of Philosophy, which I recently reviewed. He does a much better job than Durant of showing the practical implications of each philosopher's work (admitting there are differences in the philosophers covered by the two authors). I highly recommend this series as informative and thought-provoking, but with a caveat-- it is deeply unsatisfying in its conclusion. Spoiler alert: His basic conclusion is that we need to keep an open mind and be less confident about what each of us sees as Truth while all striving to find common ground in the hope that we can all agree on at least a few things. Dr. Kane seems to say that if everyone approaches things with an "open mind" it will be enough to eliminate the problem of everyone arguing for his particular truth view. But what happens if we reach a conclusion about the Bible being valid through open-minded investigation? There are certainly some life-long Christian apologists with PhDs in philosophy and other fields who argue they reached their conclusion through open-minded investigation. So, I find the author's comments of "quest" ultimately unsatisfying. 4.5 stars out of 5. If interested in the full review, read below.

The first lecture asks the question: Where do values come from? Can we agree on "values" universally, and if so, why? Values must be defended with evidence if there are actually truths and absolutes. Kane is "concerned" by the rise of relativism and the even more radical subjectivism that seems to be winning the day. Can we make progress in philosophy without coming to a "final truth?" That's the challenge of philosophers through the ages.

Kane begins with the Axial Period of 800-300 BC when Confucious, Socrates, Aristotle, Zoroaster, the authors of the Uphanishads, Hebrew philosophers, and others roamed the earth. He returns to this period repeatedly to show the importance of ideas. He points to some commonality of values espoused by axial philosophers as coming close to universally-accepted truths, but a later lecture will point out that there are almost always a small culture somewhere who deviated in certain attitudes toward life.

Lecture 2 moves on to Aristotle and logic. Aristotle demanded causes and reasons. Teleology and the logos - meaning, purpose, and cause. Kane complains that the social sciences today present us with "too many values." There are three modern conditions that threaten the search for wisdom:
pluralism, uncertainty, and the "sunderings of modernity" (meaning the separation of fact from value).

In Lecture 3 he jumps ahead to 1600 AD where Leibniz draws on Aristotle's ideas of first principles and the application of reason. Philosophers seem to be developing theoretical explanations about how to live. In examining the Enlightenment, Charles-Michel de l'Épée is highlighted. l'Épée is (perhaps erroneously) credited by Ames as inventing or popularizing sign language for the deaf, who hitherto had been considered invalids who were not worth the trouble. The Enlightenment was primarily about "liberation through education," as espoused by many philosophers of the era. So, the Enlightment helped expand the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the West.

Lecture 4 examines the postmodern sundering of fact from value through Jean Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Both philosophers were of different schools yet argued that values were subjective. Both admitted there was no basis for telling someone "right" or "wrong" other than their own personal choice or preference. Russell was a positivist who came from the logical world of science and math, but he rejected logical positivism. Russell wrote that science could say nothing about ethics. Sartre, meanwhile, argued that values come from feelings. Our own personal experiences shape how we feel about things and therefore our values.

Kane then moves back in Lecture 5 to the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Spinoza's thoughts on value experiences. Spinoza wrote that values are a mix of both fact and personal experience, they are therefore both objective and subjective. From here we are challenged with the idea of being able to rise above subjectivity to see if there is a "fourth dimensional value" of life that everyone can agree upon-- a "God's eye view." The third dimensional values may tell us that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are universally important to people-- but your happiness might be less important to me, and I might therefore exploit you in order to make me happier. So, how do we rise above to determine, objectively, the rights of all? Modern relativism rejects that a fourth dimension of absolute universal truth can be found. (Which of course leads some to say "there are no absolutes," a statement which refutes itself.) The relativist's problem is that by saying there are no absolute values he has made an absolute judgement from the God's-eye view. The vulgar relativist is therefore confused-- he is doing what he claims cannot be done.

Lecture 6 unpacks David Hume, Adam Smith and their intellectual peers, the utilitarians. The challenge of modern ethical thinkers is to figure out how to get to the fourth dimension of universal absolutes for all without appealing to some religious authority or written text. David Hume and Adam Smith pursued a "sentimentalist" route-- beginning with the premise that all humans share common feelings and emotions. Kane rightly cites Smith's Treatise on Moral Sentiments. Smith recognized that the prosperity we enjoy collectively is a result of individuals pursuing their own self-interests and thus trading and cooperating, creating more wealth for all. But he relied on moral sentiments-- consciences -- to "curb market excess" as Kane puts it. This relies on a universal understanding that indulging in excess, violation of property rights, exploitation of others, etc.  Kane says that Mencius, a Chinese Confucian philosopher from the axial period wrote similarly, that man was inherently good and had a conscience; bad company is what corrupts good character.

The second route is the rationalist one put forth by Immanuel Kant, Leibniz, and Spinoza. Hume argued against the rationalists, arguing that reason alone cannot determine moral values. Interestingly, Hume is considered a relativist but takes axiomatically that there are certain virtues and vices. Hume's problem is with religious authorities determining what those are. But that makes Hume the arbiter of right and wrong in determining behavior, which leads us back to the same problem-- who decides? Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus, and Jeremy Bentham believed that "right" was whatever created the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But Kane rightly points out the silliness of trying to quantify everyone's utility, which is highly subjective. And one group or country might get a greater amount of utility exploiting another than both groups would have if they cooperated-- who's to say otherwise? 

The third option is the social contract espoused by Locke and Rousseau. Locke's philosophies obviously influenced the ideas behind and the language found in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and in the formation of the constitutional government found today. Locke's view was similar to Mencius', that man was not born depraved but environment and circumstances made him so. There are certain unalienable rights that all men have, and these are not surrendered to the state but rather need to be protected universally by the state.

Lecture 7 begins with the question- are these rights, virtues, and sentiments constant or might they have changed across eras and societies? Hume judged the virtues espoused by the clergy of his day as "monkish," and harmful. He had his own preferred values. As mentioned before, the Enlightenment looked to "liberation through education;" Hume and others above looked to "moral education" as a solution-- teaching virtues over vice. Again, who decides whether something is virtue or vice?  Hume seemed to believe in more sexual liberation than the Bible would, but what makes one right and the other wrong?

Kane examines the 20th century "explosion" in the study of anthropology, which in the early part of the century emphasized diversity and relativism-- the lack of universals constant through all societies and history. This created problems of logic for prosecuters at Nuremberg, who were prosecuting Nazi war criminals for violating apparently universal human rights-- but what if there is no such thing? Kane cites research showing some cultural universals both biologically and culturally:
- Helpless young
- division of labor and social roles between genders.
- taboos related to sex.
- rituals
- Courage and bravery valued
- self-control
- the idea of justice

The relativist response to these has pointed out that examples of how societies treated the universals above differ. They divide labor differently, some with slavery. Maybe some had matriarchal societies. Some rituals involved human sacrifice. Are any of these right just because they're universal?

George Pugh (1977) wrote The Biological Origin of Human Values. Pugh seems to argue that humans biologically respond to stimuli and have developed "social motives" for encouraging more pleasurable emotions and the survival of the species-- getting back to the universality of "sentiments." Pugh purported that there are universal social motives among which are:
- Need for admiration, love, sympathy.
- Need for community, and a sense of belonging.

But societies obviously can do the above with their own tribe but exploit others conversely; sentiment for your own tribe, while denying the other tribe's right to pursue its own. This leads to Lecture 8 and Immanuel Kant, who rejected the idea of universal sentiment. Kant illustrates the juxtoposition of theoretical inquisition as to what is moral with the practical application of choosing how we should now live. Kant appealed to reason, and argued that only rationalism can get us to that fourth dimension (Kane's term) of universal law-- only rationalism and reason can get us to rise above and see what is universally applicable. The philosopher Hegel was a critic of this idea. Kant wants there to be a universal right and wrong but doesn't acknowledge that some committing "wrongs" may be making a rational choice. Criminals may be evil but are not irrational (fast forward to economist Gary Becker), they have made a cost/benefit analysis of their choice in committing wrong.  Kane does deal with Kantian responses to his early critiques and he comes back to Kant's second idea in the next lexture.

Lecture 9 continues Kant whose "second idea" was to use humanity as a means and an end to moral law. That we all are universally autonomous humans means we should respect the autonomy of others. But why should we respect anyone else's autonomy? Kane returns to the utilitarians Bentham and Mill to critique Kant. Kant argued that the dealth penalty is right morally whether or not it deters crime. Whereas utilitarians argue that if it is not a deterrent (and studies show it perhaps isn't) then it should be abolished as immoral. But, as the same as the earlier lecture dealing with utility-- how do we measure utility or pleasure, and how do we compare one person's utility to another?

In Lecture 10, Kane looks more closely at the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke in light of evolutionary biology. Biologists and philosophers argue about the idea of social altruism and reciprocal altruism. Kane cites evidence that Darwin himself was concerned about the implications of the theory of natural selection on ethics. In a world where we are simply a sum of the survival of random mutations, what gives the final results any value? Darwin's theory, of course, was a reason behind many social Darwinists from the Rockefellers on down, along with a justification of many interested in eugenics. Kane presents John Rawls' (1971) "veil of ignorance." Rawls' first principle is that everyone is entitled to a certain basic set of rights, his second principle is that differences in income inequality should be limited so that everybody benefits. He examines various critiques of Rawls and how Rawls refined his philosophies.

In Lecture 11, we analyze Robert Nozick's (1974) libertarian critique of Rawls. Rawls' veil of ignorance assumes people are naturally risk-averse (which of course studies by behavioral economists have shown they actually are). Perhaps we might dare to take the chance of outrageous fortune knowing that the downside is incredible loss. Rawls (and Socialists) tend to assume any income inequality leads to an undermining of the freedoms that Rawls himself embraces. This is the critique of the state from Hobbes, Locke, etc.-- the more state you have to enforce equality, the more bureaucracy, the more inefficiency, and the more resources are needed which eventually can only come from coercion.  Rawls says that rights need to be "what reasonable people would agree upon," but this is also highly problematic-- who determines what or whom is reasonable? The majority? Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a worldwide true metanarrative as espoused by Lyotard. History is relative to the one who experiences it and there is no arching "theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values." Therefore, there can be no definition of "reasonable" that is necessary to agree with Rawls' conclusions.
This lecture illustrates the tension between shared values, individual freedom, and pluralism.


Dr. Kane is apparently a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre, and Kane's viewpoint is influenced heavily by MacIntyre's 1981 work After Virtue. The wikipedia entry on After Virtue is worth reading, wouldn't surprise me if Kane wrote bits himself:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Virtue
"MacIntyre provides a bleak view of the state of modern moral discourse, regarding it as failing to be rational, and failing to admit to being irrational. He claims that older forms of moral discourse were in better shape, particularly singling out Aristotle's moral philosophy as an exemplar. After Virtue is among the most important texts in the recent revival of virtue ethics...MacIntyre seeks to find an alternative to Nietzsche's philosophy and eventually concludes that only classic Aristotelian thought can hope to save Western humanity.

Lecture 12 examines MacIntyre's points and promotes a return to Aristotle and the axial period. MacIntyre wrote that society was in trouble because external motivations were trumping internal ones-- people do things not for the sake of doing them, but for the fame of having the next video to go "viral." As a Christian, I would say that people are devoid of a proper theology of work. As such, modern society has lost its sense of virtue, things are no longer seen as inherently good or worth doing, they're worth doing only for the external/fringe benefits. Again, but who determines what values are right and which deeds are worth doing?

Dr. Kane then turns to his own work (The Significance of Free Will) to preview his own personal conclusions; maybe he could have ended the course here, probably should have. He reminds the audience that this is a quest for meaning, a quest for ethics. Is Bloom wrong about openness leading to relativism? Kane believes openness leads to a "quest" which leads to "some universals," he thinks openness is not relativism, and all points of view are not equally valid. I wish he had talked about Aristotelian logic here and not all premises are valid nor do they all have valid conclusions. Dr. Kane seems to say that if everyone approaches things with an "open mind" it will be enough to eliminate the problem of everyone arguing for his particular truth view. But what happens if we reach a conclusion about the Bible being valid through open-minded investigation? There are certainly some life-long Christian apologists with PhDs in philosophy and other fields who argue they reached their conclusion through open-minded investigation. So, I find the author's comments of "quest" ultimately unsatisfying.

Lecture 14 returns to the Axial Period and "ancient ethics," like the "Golden Rule" found in Eastern, Greek, and Jewish philosophy. The Mosaic commandments that seem to be held similarly in most cultures universally. Kane seems to be comfortable with these as universals, and claims to have reached this conclusion from openness and pursuing truth about universals a la J.S. Mill. But it does not help the question as to why some ways of life are not acceptable or are even reprehensible. There are moral exceptions to each of the Ten Commandments, says Kane; it's necessary to lie sometimes, and even biblical characters do so on occassion without any condemnation from the author.

In Lecture 15, Dr. Kane seems to be out of his league as an amateur historian at some points. He cites Gandhi, for example, as the example of "lessons found in "non-violent movements." He makes a rule of using minimum force and argues for just warfare. Dr. Kane is apparently ignorant that Gandhi wrote Churchill a letter encouraging him to submit to Hitler's occupation and exploitation rather than fight. Gandhi was both naive and logically inconsistent on many things, so he's a problematic example. 

Tim Keller has a chapter in The Reason for God where he deals with the false dichotomy of private and public morality, particularly as it relates to judging politicans. Lecture 16 reminded me of this. Private morality are the rules and values that you argue for yourself and public morality is what you do with someone whose world view is different than yours. (Keller argues that a major appeal of the Christian worldview is that it allows one to have a high standard for one's self while also respecting those with different world views as being worthy of respect because of being made in God's image.) But whose private morality will be public?

Locke wrote that the role of state is to execute judgments so that there would not be ongoing vendettas in Shakespearean fashion. John Stuart Mill argued that all must simply avoid harming others in their actions to the extent possible. But who determines "reasonable avoidability?" Should the median voter determine morality, that seems to be how we argue it in the U.S. these days. Devlin (1959) argued that law without morality  “… destroys freedom of conscience and is the paved road to tyranny.” He appealed to the idea of a society's moral fabric (and this seems to jive with John Adams comments that our Constitution was written to govern a Christian people and could not work otherwise)-- morals matter. Devlin argued that the criminal law must respect and reinforce the moral norms of society in order to keep social order from unravelling. Hence, there is a "legal morality," norms and morals that are codified. It strikes me that this is precisely the argument many Christians were making about the Supreme Court's decision to legalize the recognition of same-sex marriages.

Dr. Kane then returns to the problem of children and education in Lecture 17. How do we teach values? He brings up the Columbine tragedy to drive home the importance of answering this question. The Josephson Institute's Six Pillars of Character are an example of one putting forth some virtues as uncontroversially universal: Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship. But it strikes me that "fairness" is used by some to justify behavior others find reprehensible.
Kane's lectures ignore any implication about beliefs in an afterlife or eternity. If an ISIS martyr believes he is more likely to go to heaven by raping a captive non-Islamic slave, then he will do so whether or not the rest of the world finds his act reprehensible. And then you have the dilemma of abortion, which Kane mentions. What is life and where does it begin? Drawing the line in the wrong place results in legally-defined murder being committed. (I will note that I heard atheist Sam Harris wrestle with the "when does life begin" issue recently, he squirms a bit at the thought that we might actually be taking viable life.)

Continuing on the theme of private/public morality, Kane returns to Plato in Lectures 18 and 19 to illustrate that politics cannot be isolated from ethics and standards of living. Plato's ideal Republic is made up of philosopher kings, not democratic vote. (We in the US forget that our Founders had similar ideas of governing "Gentlemen" who set aside self-interest for the good of the nation's posterity. Senators were not elected by popular vote in many states until the 20th century, and we still have an Electoral College). Kane is well aware of the principle-agent problem of democracy and lists other relevant critiques. Plato himself argued that democracy would cause a "loss of shared values," would lead to fads as officials sought after what was popular to get elected. Relevant to today, obviously. Socrates was put to death in a democracy (that point is more debatable).

From here, Kane invites the student to return to his "quest" for ethics and values by postulating a hypothetical "ecumenical retreat." Imagine if you could have representatives of all possible political and philosophical viewpoints locked together at a weekend in a cabin determined to hammer out common ground. That seems similar to Rawls' veil of ignorance. I'm not sure what the point of the exercise is other than acknowledging the "nobility" of the quest for universal principles we can all agree upon. Lecture 21 takes us to the post-modernists again. Does studying objective reality help us understand objective worth? Dignity and human rights are based on the idea of objective worth, so this is crucial. Postmodernists argue that we cannot know objective reality because we see everything through our own lens. 

Dr. Kane assembles a response to the postmodernists. Other people may have different perspectives on reality, but when you put them together you get a more complete picture of something that actually exists or happened. Police interrogate multiple witnesses with different versions, some facts may differ. But putting all perspectives together paints an event that actually happened. Dr. Kane then discusses the idea of love and value. Augustine said "to love me is to want me to be." If we want something to be, it must have objective worth. We agape love things we want to continue even though it doesn't provide any immediate benefits just for us.

How do we aspire to know if something has objective worth is the question of Lecture 23. What is truly praiseworthy? We need objective reality as the sum of all observations-- the mosaic of truth-- to determine worth. Can all beings praise the same things? No. But we must be able to appreciate the objective value of others and their ability to appreciate those things we cannot. I may not like art, but I can appreciate the objective value of another God-made person who can.

The final lecture is on religious belief in a pluralist age. The Renaissance saw the search for objective truth without appealing to religious authority because the religious views conflicted. "Religion is a theory of value, not just a theory of reality." What is sacred is related to objective worth. (But we humans obviously differ on what is "sacred," hence the need for these lectures.) Dr. Kane closes with the unfulfilling challenge to his audience to "Dare to aspire to know."

While his book(s) apparently include thoughts on evolutionary biology and synaptic responses to stimuli and what they mean for psychology, these lectures seem to be void of those. The lectures are engaging, his speaking is clear, and he seems sincerely passionate about this topic. I highly recommend them as an overview of philosophy and the logical conclusion that we cannot have human rights without objective truth. He downplays or ignores any role of afterlife belief on our behavior and on what objects we consider worthy. Such things are necessary to bring up in a world where the Islamic State holds sacred that which we consider profane, and vice-versa. 4 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Response from Rep. Andy Barr re: Syrian refugees

I received the following response to my letter to Rep. Andy Barr in regards to his vote to halt resettling of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere). I post without comment other than to point out his comment about having access to classified information in making his decisions (I still disagree with his vote):

Dear Mr. Tapp,

Thank you for contacting me regarding the President's plan to increase dramatically next year the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. I understand this issue is important to you and appreciate the time you took to contact me.

Since Syria's civil war began in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have left that war-torn country, seeking refuge in neighboring countries and another 7.6 million have been forced from their homes but remain displaced within Syria. This mass migration is the result of attacks against the indigenous population by President Bashar Assad's forces and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The exodus of Syrians from their home country has accelerated over the past year as it has become clear that the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. More than 744,000 refugees and migrants have escaped to Europe this year alone, according to the refugee agency of the United Nations.

Without question, this refugee crisis is a humanitarian tragedy of untold proportions and it warrants a global response. Most of the refugees have sought asylum in Europe or neighboring countries like Jordan. But the United States has also accepted many of these refugees. 

The United States has a long and proud history of providing safe haven for many of the world's most vulnerable refugees, and we take in a million legal immigrants every year, including refugees seeking asylum to escape persecution. Since the conflict began in Syria in 2011, in addition to accepting Syrian refugees, the United States has donated over $4.5 billion, more than any other country, making us the largest donor by far of humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians. So the United States takes a backseat to no other nation when it comes to fulfilling our humanitarian obligations. 

That said, Congress has an even greater obligation to look out for the interests of our own citizens, and we must not allow terrorists to exploit refugee resettlement to gain entry into the United States. The Obama Administration has announced plans to surge admissions of Syrian refugees into the United States by at least 10,000 over the course of this fiscal year. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, many national security experts have questioned the wisdom of this expanded refugee resettlement policy. 

We are all extremely saddened and outraged by the recent events in Paris--horrific, tragic acts for which ISIL has assumed responsibility. We know that so far, at least one of the attackers responsible for these brutal attacks was admitted into the European Union through Greece as a Syrian refugee, confirming intelligence reports that ISIL is embedding terrorists within groups of fleeing Syrian refugees. 

The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that Islamic terrorists have two basic goals: First, to enter the United States. And second, to carry out deadly attacks when they get here. ISIL terrorists have said repeatedly that "American blood is best, and we will taste it soon." I take them at their word, and believe they will use any means possible to enter the United States, including through our refugee programs, just as they did in Europe. 

This belief is well-informed. A recent report from the House Homeland Security Committee concluded that Islamist terrorists are determined to infiltrate refugee flows to enter the West. In addition to the Paris attacker who entered Europe through refugee flows, an international terrorism research organization published a bulletin in September warning that there were already a number of reported cases of ISIL infiltration of refugee routes. 

In addition, top U.S. counterterrorism officials have been warning for months that the intelligence on the ground in Syria is insufficient to thoroughly vet individuals traveling to the United States from the conflict zone. It is difficult to determine whether Syria asylum-seekers are who they claim to be or whether they have ties to terrorist groups. FBI Director James Comey testified in October to the Homeland Security Committee that "we can query our databases until the cows come home, but nothing will show up because we have no record of that person...You can only query what you have collected."

This unclassified information confirms what I learned in a recent classified briefing with Director Comey, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and top State Department officials in charge of our refugee programs. While I obviously cannot divulge the details of the classified briefing, I am permitted to say that as a result of that briefing, I have much less confidence in our ability to confidently screen refugees from the Syrian conflict zone. This also corroborates what U.S. Embassy personnel in Amman, Jordan told me during my visit to the Middle East in October. 

Given these security gaps, it is entirely appropriate and in the interest of our national security to pause the resettlement program until the nation's top security officials certify that the screening process meets the highest standards and that each individual refugee does not pose a security threat. Until there is a certification program in place that we can trust to prevent terrorist threats in the United States, the Administration's plan to surge Syrian refugees should be suspended. 

For these reasons, on November 19, I voted for and the House passed H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, by a strong bipartisan vote of 289-137. In addition to the security checks already conducted by the United States Immigration and Citizenship Services under existing law, this legislation would require a comprehensive background investigation of every refugee from Iraq or Syria before they can be admitted into the United States, and a certification that each does not pose a threat. Specifically, it requires the FBI Director to certify the integrity of the vetting process to make sure we are not inadvertently admitting individuals with terrorist ties or who pose a threat to the United States. It also requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, along with the FBI Director and the Director of National Intelligence, to certify to Congress that each refugee is not a security threat. Finally, the bill mandates that the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General independently assess refugee approvals in order to ensure that high-risk individuals do not slip through the cracks. This measure now awaits action in the Senate, where I am hopeful it will soon be considered. 

Ultimately, the refugee crisis will only be solved when President Obama shows leadership on the fundamental issue: articulating and executing a comprehensive strategy to dismantle and destroy ISIL. The failure of the Administration to develop and implement a coherent strategy to confront and destroy ISIL has made the refugee crisis worse. 

The best solution for these persecuted victims of the violence in Iraq and Syria would be to rid that region of ISIL terrorism. That is why I have co-sponsored an Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) that, unlike the AUMF requested by the President, confers upon the the Commander in Chief maximum flexibility to take the actions required to roll back the territorial gains of ISIL. This does not necessarily mean another extended ground war for the American military in the Middle East. But it does mean an expanded role for American special operators and our air campaign, which is presently averaging only 15 sorties a day in Iraq and Syria, as opposed to the 1,000 sorties a day during Operation Desert Storm and 800 sorties a day during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It also means satisfying Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi's request for more Train and Equip Funds for the Iraqi Army and additional direct assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. 

Reports from the refugee camps confirm that the vast majority of those fleeing Syria do not want to be resettled; instead they want to return to their homes in peace without threats to their safety or well-being. An open-ended resettlement program would take all of the indigenous anti-ISIL fighters out of that region, strengthening the terrorists' hold on their so-called caliphate. It would represent a stunning admission of defeat for the international coalition that moderate, displaced Syrians will never be able to return safely to their home country. 

So as we wait for the President to finally present a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIL, we must take every step possible to keep Americans safe. This includes a pause on the President's expanded refugee program.  

Monday, December 07, 2015

Commentaries on Genesis (Book Review #93 - 97 of 2015)

The last few months I have been co-"teaching" a Sunday school class in Genesis. While digging into the text myself, I consulted a few commentaries-- a couple of which I had picked up for almost nothing at a local library sale. I haven't found a great stand-alone commentary on Genesis. My preferred New Testament commentaries are the Baker Exegetical Commentaries, which I find both work the passage and are fair to a wide range of previous scholarship and can almost stand alone. Perspectives on Genesis vary so widely that it's hard to go with just one, like the Gospels, you need overlapping perspectives to get a better idea of the true/complete picture. I really need to read various theories on the compilation of the text, but I doubt I will reach anything conclusive. In addition to the commentaries, I read Bruce Feiler's Abraham, a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a history of translating the Epic and other Akkadian and Babylonian works, and the Genesis-related material in Paul Johnson's History of the Jews. I used an ESV with Strong's Concordance and D.A. Carson's new Zondervan NIV Study Bible for further insight (less helpful than you might expect). Also the Carson-edited 21st Century Commentary and Gordon Fee's How to Read the Bible for overviews. (The Carson commentary and the Study Bible have some really liberal/problematic comments that I might have to write about later.)

Below are the commentaries I used in the order I recommend them:

Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis
Allen P. Ross is an Episcopalian minister and theologian.
This is a great book for students. Each pericope begins with a theological overview, then shows an outline tree of the text, then an extended comment on exegeting the text in a few major points. The extended discussion includes highlighting Hebrew terms and offering others' ideas. Each pericope contains an extensive bibliography. I found Ross reprints quotes most often from Dods, Skinner, Brueggemann, von Rad, and Kidner. In addition, the book contains several appendices that hold thoughts on Genesis 1:1-3, the Hebrew word "create," the term "to visit," and other notes.

While I appreciate the focus on digging into what the text meant to the original audience, the downside is that he largely ignores any Christology and biblical theology. While exegeting each text for a Christian audience he mostly draws on themes about God and leaving Jesus absent. The best commentaries on Genesis are found in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, and these are completely ignored.  You can read Jesus between the lines, but he's largely explicitly absent until the end of Genesis as Ross is wrapping up looking forward to the Exodus. Where he inserts Christological thoughts, it's quoting the commentaries of others.

3 stars.

Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
Brueggemann is a United Church of Christ theologian who has published a host of works on Genesis. He is more eloquent in his wording and enthusiasm. He follows the promise of seed as the theme of the text, and includes Christian interpretations of passages. This allows him to show how our expectation of salvation is similar to the expectation of the promise of Abraham. He sometimes delves much deeper into Hebrew and its historic interpretation than Ross, and draws slightly more heavily on parallels to other Mesopotamian texts. In some cases, he gets carried away.

Example, in Genesis 49:
"But the narrative would not have our heads turned by the Egyptian honor. He does not die an Egyptian. He does not want to die an Egyptian. He most fears he will be buried in the wrong place as a son of the empire (v. 5). Both his acts, the binding of his heirs (chapter 48) and the provision for burial (49:28-33), are militantly Israelite acts. They reject and resist any accommodation to Egypt. The acts are intended to place the narrative and the family squarely in the current of the promise."

He opens the Joseph story with Romans 8:28-31 and looks at Paul's interpretations first.
"Christian interpretation of our Genesis text (when juxtaposed with that of Gal. 4) has two tasks: (a) to be clear that the Genesis narrative does not contain all of this typology but (b) that our Christian tradition has now chosen a certain lens through which to view the narrative. The test for the expositor is not to insist on the "original" meanings of the narrative, but to find the ways in which interpretation illuminates our human lot in the context of the gospel."

On Jacob's election, he maintains a good balance of Hebrew audience and Christian:
"Read with excessively Christian eyes, the temptation is to be too christological. Read with Jewish eyes, the temptation may be to be excessively Israelite."

Brueggemann also seems to assume the Documentary Hypothesis more than Ross, who only mentions the viewpoints on certain passages. He also skips over other important points in chasing his themes. He doesn't make a coherent outline of the text, and this book is not as well-referenced as the Ross commentary.

3 stars.

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Genesis Volumes I, II.
Kudos to the editors who compile these from dozens of ancient sources. The breadth of sources is amazing and the authors provide an introduction explaining the brief biography and context of the writer, if known. I have appreciated their work in both commentaries on The Gospel of Mark and now Genesis (a 2-volume work). Each passage is reprinted with a one-sentence summary of the major thought each of the ancient fathers had on the passage, and then the selected reprinting of their comments. We've been using The Gospel Project curriculum to walk through Genesis, and it incorporates quotes from this into its weekly lessons; it quotes pretty selectively. Many thoughts are too embarrassing to reprint in curriculum today, and the works have limited use outside their context.

It is interesting to read the thoughts from the writings and early sermons of early Christians, but early Christian thought was mostly/heavily allegorical through the 6th century. Augustine, Ambrose and Chrysostom are quoted probably the most heavily, Augustine more toward the beginning. Augustine's City of God is most known for his Genesis as allegory through a Christian lens, he finds more connections between Noah's Ark and Jesus than other commentators have dared. It's sometimes hard to dilineate between biblical theology and exegetical fallacy.

Ambrose, while a hero of biblical Christian orthodoxy, is also of the Alexandrian allegorical school. Ambrose claims that Benjamin is a type of the Apostle Paul, with the other brothers the other disciples. The 75 who go to Egypt represent the "number of forgiveness."

"Chrysostom preached 67 homilies on Genesis in the year 389, while he was a priest at Antioch, explaining the book verse by verse," as such he appears in about every section. Rather than an allegorical bent, Chrysostom is encouraging his congregation to imitate the morals of the characters in Genesis. Joseph, for example, sets an example to young believers to heed Paul's advice to Timothy not to let anyone look down on their youth. I learned from this work that Chrysostom baptised people naked, as a figure of returning to the innocence of Eden. (You don't hear that mentioned much these days.)

The book is interesting to see what early theology looked like. Augustine did not read much Greek, much less Hebrew, and most of the authors were unfamiliar with ancient Canaanite custom, writing from Gentile contexts. As such, the book is somewhat helpful in exegesis but not much. They have some apt observations on some passages, particularly dealing with suffering as many churches were, and illustrating where Christians living in the first few centuries can take inspiration from the faith of God's chosen people in Genesis.
3 stars.


I was unaware of Kass' biography until writing this review. It is the most interesting of the commentators
Kass' work is the work of one man who thinks he's quite smart, trying to decipher and interpret myth for a modern reader. He is trying to find what themes in Genesis endure throughout the story of mankind. "These stories are so powerful, not because they tell us what happened, but because they tell us what always happens."

Like the Robert Alter translation below (which Kass often cites approvingly), it is essentially one man's take on Genesis. Kass is attempting to cast a "philosophical light" on the text by reading it in a historical-critical fashion but either ignores or misses major points that others point out, or reaches very far for certain conclusions that he stretches any credulity. He stretches too far to fit the text ino his modern, Western philosophy. He misses the forest because of the trees. At some points, he includes items his students have "discovered" in papers they wrote for him, which would seem as insightful as someone telling you what the weather was like if you never bothered to look outside yourself.

Still, there is some value in a book like this. Kass is attempting to explore the philosophies underlying the Scripture. What do Genesis 3 and 34 teach us about the relationship between the sexes? What does the commentary from the descendents of Cain to the fall of Babel tell us about civilization and cities? How might this text have influenced later Jews and Greeks and their later philosophies?  While Ross and Brueggemann mention or cite some of the more critical works on Genesis, Kass actually explores their ideas. He gives some interesting information about Akkadian and Babylonian works in the first 10 chapters, for example. But, like the Brueggemann work he gets carried away in his own thoughts. Read other commentaries on Genesis to see what Kass misses, you'll wonder how he could write so much yet miss the obvious.

2 stars.

Genesis: Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter
Alter is a Hebrew professor at UC Berkeley. This is one man's translation of Genesis. You can read other translations to see how committees reached different ways of translating it, perhaps Alter felt rejected and needed to go it alone. Each page contains footnotes on key words and brief comments on ideas, mostly parallel ideas in other ancient texts. Several other commentaries (like Ross) deal with the Hebrew words individually, citing others as sources. Alter tries to go it alone, as though the ideas were all his own expertise.  Pretty audacious work, I don't recommend it as a stand-alone commentary.

1.5 stars.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

History of the Christian Church: "The Change" Podcast of the Week (11/29 - 12/5, 2015)

Lance Ralston does a good job with the History of the Christian Church ("Communio Sanctorum") podcast. He recently paused to do a four-part series on the impact of the Christian church on the world. It serves as a good answer to those who say "Christianity has led to nothing but violence and hatred."
Ralston walks through the historical documents outlining the cultural clash between Christianity and the brutal Roman world in which it was born. As Tim Keller points out in his excellent The Reason for God, the Roman world may have been more tolerant and pluralistic, but it was also more cruel-- women and children were treated with impunity, and death was something cheered by the masses. Before Christianity.

There would be no feminism if Christianity had not first elevated women. Ralston points out that Paul's commands to submit have to be understood in context, the commands for husbands to love and cherish their wives as their own bodies was foreign to Romans who could do as they pleased with their wives and property.

Romans used to abandon their unwanted babies in the hills, and it was Christians who adopted them because they were made in the image of God. Eventually, churches became the safe places to drop off unwanted children because parents knew Christians would raise them. 
While slavery is not condemned as an institution in the Bible, many slaves were "brothers" and were told they were equal in value to God as the Emperor. This, of course, had implications through the years for the development of democracy.
It was Christians who boycotted the Roman games because of their brutality and wanton killing (this has implications for those who watch football and MMA today). Constantine's abandonment of the cultural religion/tradition of the games is one evidence he had some heartfelt convictions.


You can find all 4 parts at the podcast website on iTunes. I recommend Part 3 and 4 as probably the best.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The most memorable day of 2015

Thursday was a day of unusual and somewhat unexpected events, in no particular order:

1. Filled up two cars of gas for 76 cents/gallon at Kroger.

2. Got a new tablet. Having used my current tablet for 1459 out of the last 1460 days, it was time.

3. Met my new Director.

4. Said goodbye to my old Director.

5. Ate pecan pie with chocolate chips. Also saw my first Big Red cake (which I did not eat).

6. Ate curried fish and mashed garlic cauliflower with avocado for dinner. Was fabulous.

7. Got a selfie with the current Governor. Our ties matched, bonus.




God is good all the time, but some days are just more memorable than others. Here's to you, 2015.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens (Book Review #93 of 2015)


The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Several years ago I met a man who helped Mother Theresa through Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, KY after she had visited with nuns working in Eastern KY (Appalachia). He told me this story: When they came to a set of stairs to the terminal, the man (noting she was rather frail) asked her if she'd rather use the elevator to which she declined by saying "If I give each step to the Lord, it's not difficult for me." I've always carried that story as an example of faith and an attitude of praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

But compare the man's story with one that Hitchens recounts from a worker with the Missionaries of Charity when the sisters were establishing a home for the poor in the Bronx, NY after the city sold them a building for a dollar. Mother Teresa abandoned the project because city ordinance required that an elevator be installed for use by the disabled, and this was unacceptable to her. In Teresa's world, the Christian is required to suffer when possible. One apologist criticizes Hitchens on this point http://www.catholicleague.org/hating-mother-teresa/ noting that the sisters had "pledged to carry the handicapped up the stairs, making moot the need for the elevator," but imagine women carrying 300 pound men in that way-- for what purpose? That would not be healthy either for the sisters or the homeless.

Teresa is quoted elsewhere as saying "“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ's Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”
An irony is that she allowed herself to be treated at a hospital when her health declined. Hitchens cites one example from Mother Teresa's conversation with a dying woman:
 "One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, 'You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.' And she joined her hands together and said, 'Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.'”

The sisters who worked for her did so in austere conditions, contracting tuberculosis and various other maladies while there was plenty of money available for plumbing and more hygenic conditions. When the local areas suffered flood and famine, none of the millions accumulated by Missionaries of Charity was spent on their relief. Medical organizations pointed out the pain the infirm in Teresa's facilities were experiencing because she did not practice basic sterilization of needles, to which she answered "there's no time." Hitchens doesn't state as such, but it would seem like Mother Teresa had poor theology either from Greek thought or Gnosticism that the body is somehow evil. This is contrary to Scripture, and I could point the interested reader to many works looking at this view (it pervades the West in the false secular-sacred dichotomy as well). Hitchens cites workers who reveal the cult-like mentality, Sisters believing they needed to live in such austere devotion and suffering in order to inherit eternal life, also contrary to the Gospel. In this interview, one former Sister writes of her time and how she has since changed her mind:
"I certainly now reject the notion that love demands the immolation of self for the beloved, though that’s something Mother Teresa seemed to believe all her life."

Hitchens is correct in that many of us view Calcutta as a poor and awful place because we see it through the pictures and footage of her clinics. He points out that the city is on par with some in Europe, and that Missionaries of Charity had millions sitting unused in bank accounts when they could have been used to improve the condition of the poor. But few people criticized her for these conditions. When cult leaders like David Koresh keep children in harsh conditions we respond with outrage and police force, but Mother Teresa faced no such outrage and was awarded with more money and a Nobel Prize.

Hitchens recounts Mother Teresa's appearances with various international criminals, tyrants, and others who were perhaps eager to improve their image. If the price was right, Mother Teresa would apparently travel anywhere. The most bizarre recounting came in Teresa's writing a letter to Judge Lance Ito requesting clemency on behalf of the junk bond salesman and convicted embezzler Charles Keating, who had donated a large sum to the Missionaries of Charity and allowed Teresa to use his private jet. Keating's donations came from his illicit gains in the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s. Hitchens publishes a letter written in response to Teresa from a prosecutor, which eloquently informs Teresa of Keating's crimes and makes the case (from a Christian worldview) that she consider giving the money back to the victims of Keating's crimes, which the prosecutor will help accomplish. Mother Teresa never replied. Hitchens thus compares Mother Teresa to a televangelist.

In the Catholic church it is apparently required that a miracle be certified in order for a mortal to be beatified as a "saint." For Teresa, the first miracle reportedly occurred in 1971 when a photographer filmed her working at the Home for the Dying where the light was poor. When they developed the film, they were surprised how clear the photos had turned out to be. The photographer credited the "miraculous" clear photos to the new film they were using, produced by Kodak.  But the maker of the documentary seized the moment to claim a miracle of divine light. Hitchens points out that this is a case where evidence of a miracle is denied by the photographer author of the miracle. After this book was published, Hitchens was called to testify against Teresa and her alleged miracles in Mother Teresa's beatification process (playing the role of "devil's advocate"). The Vatican did not agree with him.

Post-publication, Hitchens complained that Mother Teresa admitted to him that she was not a social worker, she was not interested in improving the lives of the poor but rather in expanding the number of Catholics. Once documentaries were made and awards were given, her story took on a life of its own and no one bothered to look into the truth. The author closes the book with a brief biographical into for context, how Teresa grew up in Albania and where the roots of her faith and theology were found. Hitchens largest beef is perhaps with Teresa's criticism of birth control and contraception, arguing that she should not comment on that which she has never experienced.

My problem with the book is twofold. First, Hitchens criticizes Mother Teresa for having an attitude on the poor and suffering that is different from his own. But why is hers incorrect and his correct? He could argue pretty easily that her theology does not match what is actually in the Bible, but that wouldn't get far as you could say that of much of Catholocism, and Hitchens doesn't believe the Bible is much more than literature. On what moral basis can Hitchens, who as an atheist believes morality is our own invention, argue that Mother Teresa is immoral or unethical?

Second, Hitchens lumps all Christian charity together in denouncing Mother Teresa. NY Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, who travels the world highlighting the work of various relief organizations, goes a different route in his writings-- noting that many of the world's great relief efforts are done by religiously-minded people who admonish Jesus teachings to love, feed, and clothe the poor. One has to read Hitchens' God is Not Great to get his greater beef with Christianity, Catholicism, and his belief that atheists can be just as compassionate, if not moreso. Having read that book, I found his arguments to be circular-- he has to borrow the Christian definitions of morality to argue his own positions that atheists like himself are more moral. Since he throws the baby out with the bathwater, I have to give him 3 stars out of 5. (Other commenters have pointed out simple mistakes of names and places that show maybe Hitchens was not on top of his game as he wrote it.) I learned a great deal from this book and always enjoy Hitchens' style.