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Tag Archives: Thomas Cahill

Dancing with Historian

How do ideas or people change the world? How long does it take for major changes in worldviews to take place?Desire of the Everlasting Hills

These questions are explored, in a circling manner, by Thomas Cahill in his book “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus,” (Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books Edition, 2001). This is the third in his Hinges of History series, preceded by “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and “The Gifts of the Jews,” both of which I’ve reviewed here.

Cahill is a marvelous historical writer, making the story of Western civilization and culture a fascinating one. But here he takes on a new task, that of interpreter of the basic writings of the New Testament, meaning the gospels and letters of St. Paul. While he does a good, workmanlike job of it, there are fewer of those sparkling “Aha!” moments than in his previous works.

He starts off well, setting the scene for the reader by a whirlwind review of the four hundred years or so before Jesus was born. Beginning with Alexander the Great and moving up to the Roman occupation of Judea, Cahill gives us a pretty clear picture of the world Jesus came into, including an important fact that we don’t often think about; in the ancient world, the warrior was the role model, the icon that the people looked up to and physical might, whether expressed individually or militarily, was the expected norm in world affairs.

It was into this worldview that the Prince of Peace came. The central part of the book explores the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, the Jesus of the apostle Paul and the Jesus of John’s gospel. While Cahill gives us some nifty wordplay here, his observations are not stunningly original and can be easily found in other sources. Honestly, based on the subtitle of the book, “The World Before and After Jesus,” I was expecting more of a survey of Western history after Jesus’ resurrection rather than a summary of the gospels and guesses about their authors.

But here’s my biggest disappointment with this book, and it’s a big one. The author never directly addresses the resurrection of Jesus. He briefly approaches the miracles, and in typical historian fashion leaves them alone with the statement that the witnesses certainly believed they happened. Yet the biggest, world-changing miracle of all he dances around, circling it warily lest he approach it directly and perhaps offend any scholars or skeptics in the audience. Cahill fails to play his biggest card in explaining why the world is a different place today. I’d even go as far as to say that without Jesus’ resurrection the subtitle of this book would be unnecessary.

What’s funny is that it seems fairly clear that Mr. Cahill is himself a believer. In the book’s final section he writes glowingly about how Christ’s true followers are making a difference in today’s world, focusing particularly on a little known Italian group called the Community of Sant’Egidio. Their efforts are truly worthy of the attention he pays them. Yet all the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul couldn’t have brought them into being  without the resurrection.

If Thomas Cahill didn’t understand this right from the start, I don’t know why he wrote this book.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Review

 

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The Circle of Life Is a Grind

That there is a cyclical aspect to existence can’t be denied. Day into night into day. Winter,

English: Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of M...

English: Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of Moses (detail 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spring,Summer,Fall. Birth, life and death. It’s the “Circle of Life” and it’s been glorified in children’s movies and other places over the years. But a circle is a closed figure, with no beginning and no end and if you’re inside the circle you are basically in a prison.

In Thomas Cahill’s book, “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels,” ( Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 1998) he shows us how the Western mind escaped from this prison.

The primeval human’s religion and worldview were so different from what we experience today that it’s very difficult for us to imagine how they saw their lives and world. The great wheel of life and death was truly a grinding wheel. There was no past, present or future as we view it, only an endless cycle. Every event has happened, is happening now and will happen again.

Further, there was no sense of the individual for humans at that time. There was only the “world of groups, tribes, and nations, in which all identity and validation comes only from solidarity with a larger entity.” There were no dreams of a better life for you or your family, only the class or archetypal group you were born into.

To the modern mind this is nearly incomprehensible. Haven’t humans always seen the world the way we see it? How could it be viewed any other way? But what is even more amazing is how our modern worldview came into being out of the mind-numbing repetition and the soul-nullifying class systems of the ancient world. According to Cahill, we can thank the Jews for our escape.

After a short course on the ancient Sumerian civilization, Cahill dives into the Old Testament to show us what these “gifts” are and how they came about. In particular, he focuses on the stories of Abraham, Moses and David. I won’t try to detail all the gifts he brings to light, but I will highlight the ones that he emphasizes.

It begins with Abraham, whose life would have been just fine had he remained within the circle of life and his own family group. But he hears the voice of God, promising him “something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.” Not only will Abraham become a father in his old age, but God will make of him a great nation. All he has to do is “go forth” into the unknown. So he does, right out of cyclical time and into linear time. Time now contains past, present and future and we now have the idea of history.

With Moses came new gifts, one of which changes religion forever. Ancient religions were not about spirituality. Far from it. Cahill describes them as “impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions.” Christian author Eugene Peterson characterizes these rituals as “impersonal, nonrelational, acquisitive religious technologies.” It was all about using the gods to get what you wanted. The gods really didn’t care that much about man, but they controlled things that man wanted, things like rain to ensure good crops, fertility for large families and plentiful herds, strength and good fortune for war and the blessings of good health. Man initiated his rituals to obtain these things. But the God of Abraham and Moses is different. He is the One who initiates contact with man.

In Moses’ case, God grabbed his attention via a burning bush that wasn’t consumed. When Moses turns aside to see this wonder, God begins speaking to him. Suddenly, religion isn’t only about manipulation anymore. God has initiated a relationship with man and He and Moses enter into an actual conversation. The Holy one invites Moses to take off his shoes and tells Moses His name. Then comes the part Moses wants nothing to do with: God has a job for him. He is to go back into Egypt and lead the people of Israel out of slavery. This endeavor leads to a close, personal relationship between God and man, an amazing and somewhat terrifying gift. It also leads to another gift, one of the greatest of all, the concept of liberation and freedom.

With David comes another gift, one that we moderns think of as self-evident: the sense of self, theof our interior life, our individual identity. This is something not found in ancient literature. But it is abundant in the book of Psalms. According to Cahill, “The Psalms, some of which were undoubtedly written in the tenth century (BC) by David himself, are a treasure trove of personal emotions from poets acutely attuned to their inner states.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Cahill sums it up this way: “We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.”

And they are the gifts of God.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Book Review

 

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Don’t Get Too Close!

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film)

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry I’ve been away from the old keyboard for a bit. About two weeks ago I came down with something like a head cold on steroids. Headache, sinus pressure, a small cough and the usual “Yuck!” By the time my wife and I would get home from work in the afternoons the only thing I would be good for was the couch. It hurt to think much less actually put thoughts to paper (or screen, as the case may be!)

But even when I’m sick, there is one thing I still can do. Read. So here’s a brief recap of what I’ve been reading since the last time I put fingers to plastic.

I finished the fourth book in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series, “Lost Souls,” in which we meet the third incarnation of Victor Frankenstein, Victor Immaculate. By far the worst of the three, he is even scarier because his views are the same as certain groups of very radical environmentalists today. You might think that there couldn’t be anything funny about this book, but you’d be wrong. Koontz’s pairing of characters and the situations he places them in bring forth some of the best dialog you’ll ever read. Trust me on this. The fifth and final book in the series, ” The Dead Town,” is ready and waiting for me to finish two other books I’m now reading.

One of which is Eugene Peterson”s “Eat This Book.” My Christian friends will recognize Peterson as the author of “The Message.” Some think “The Message” is another paraphrase of the Bible but it describes itself as a “contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language.” Now, in “Eat This Book,” Peterson discusses the best ways to read this amazing book called the Bible. He stresses that we should try to avoid “atomizing” it, chopping it down into little factoids or proof texts for our pet positions. He spends a lot of words exploring a type of spiritual reading called “lectio divina” which has come down to us from ancient Christians. It’s a wonderful, encouraging read.

Finally, I’m reading the second in Thomas Cahill’s “The Hinges of History” series, titled “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” I read his first volume “How the Irish Saved Civilization” last year and was completely charmed by it. This volume is equally well-written and fascinating. Even if you’re not a person of faith, you owe much to this bunch of desert dwellers. Without their beliefs and ideas, the way we view ourselves and our world would not be possible.

Well, that’s it for now. There are plenty of other books lined up for this year as well. I need to put together some sort of reading plan, but since organization has never been one of my strong suits I won’t promise anything. But I will promise to try to be better about getting to the keyboard. Once I’m feeling better.

Better spray your screen with Lysol for now.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, History, What I'm Reading

 

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Irish Cats and Scribes

From a ninth-century manuscript by an Irish scribal scholar, quoted in “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” by Thomas Cahill:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

„Pangur Bán“

„Pangur Bán“ (Photo credit: Михал Орела)

‘Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

 

‘Tis a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment for our mind.

 

“Gainst the wall he sets his eye,

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

 

So in peace our task we ply,

Pangur Ban my cat and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.

 

 
5 Comments

Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Old Books, Poetry

 

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