Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review Of Proof Of Heaven

This book is one of many NDE (Near Death Experience) bestsellers in the recent past, including: Heaven Is For Real, 90 Minutes In Heaven, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and, how can we forget, Sylvia Browne’s Life on the Other Side: A Psychic's Tour of the Afterlife (this last one is a joke, but only half mine). ‘Heaven’ in the title of Proof Of Heaven isn’t the traditional concept of heaven, and it isn’t a traditional Christian message, which might lend it more credibility since it isn’t as predictable. In the end, I always think the real-life stories that alternate in these books with the NDE vision are often as interesting, or more so, than the ‘visit’ to the after-life.

NDE’s are fascinating as psychological, not necessarily preternatural, events; and they are especially interesting as poetic/artistic language expressing a person’s deepest desires and darkest fears (“They should have sent a poet!”-- I only have minor doubts from time to time about the complete honesty and veracity of these accounts. As we all know, when you’re using words for something that is ‘beyond explanation’, like most of reality, it’s easy to embellish, exaggerate, offer post factum interpretation, and otherwise explain and apply rather than tell. In other words (see, I do it too), if it don’t fit, you MAKE it fit. Into the brain, that is.

Now, I’ll be honest, the nagging thought has fluttered against me many times that Dr. Alexander is fabricating a lot of his NDE because he wants to comfort people with something ‘tangible’ they can hold on to when they lose loved ones. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’d make it all up to sell a book, but… that is how religions are born. For the record, I think he’s being honest, but I know too well the meaning of Nietzsche’s words, “He who does not know how to tell a lie, does not know what the truth is” to think that it is not beyond any man—who, like in the case of Alexander, clearly wants to give others hope beyond this life—to fudge on a few details, or artificially tie up loose ends to make the story more ‘tell-able’. This is actually a fairly normal practice when it comes to retelling one’s dreams, and is known in psychoanalysis as “secondary revision.”

As far as having a credible, reputable, sane person write their story of something nearly unbelievable that happened to them, you couldn’t have picked someone better than Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon with lots of experience. He has taught at Duke University Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the University of Virginia Medical School. He was a former agnostic, and skeptic with regard to NDE’s. When he speaks, people listen. Including Oprah, may she live forever.

The ‘proof’ from his title comes from the fact that he truly believes the E. coli bacteria that caused his meningitis shut down most of his brain, especially the parts that could have enabled him to have dreams or thinking of any kind. He states, “My doctors have told me that according to all the brain tests they were doing, there was no way that any of the functions including vision, hearing, emotion, memory, language, or logic could possibly have been intact.” This becomes the lynchpin for his assertion that “true thought is pre-physical”, and consciousness transcends the brain and is not reliant on it. His evidence is more anecdotal here, but he is very, very passionate about stating this belief. Almost too passionate, maybe even desperate. Do you ever get that feeling that someone is trying to convince themselves more than you? But, then again, it’s hard to dismiss his plea for understanding when he alleges that he believes this experience was as real, and as dear to his heart, as anything in this terrestrial plane, including, I’m assuming, his love for his wife and children.

But here’s the crux of the whole tale: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” And, “All is well.” Now, who can possibly have a problem with that takeaway? He says “Love is the basis of everything…it is the reality of realities.” Yes. If people could really believe that, there’d probably be less problems in the world. Imagine if people truly realized they were part of it all, and harm/good done to another is harm/good done to one’s self. And, for what it’s worth, the new world that entertained Alexander’s in his vision/dream/experience was beautiful, if a little boring sounding at time for personalities like mine. Now, for those looking for rest from a life they’ve found to be fatiguing and jading, in this ‘heaven’ they would be able to sleep well for millennia. The other pros to this kind of story being told: Alexander’s family says that he is more ‘present’ now with them than he has ever been, he encourages people with his story to believe that there is hope and the best is yet to come, and his foundation/organization at seems to want to encourage dialogue and critical thought in and between religious-scientific communities. He wants to use his story to do some good in the world. And maybe start a new religion. Which sort-of concerns me. But…other than that…

Not as a rebuttal to Alexander’s testimony, though it may unhinge some of his conclusions about his experience, I have assembled a narrative comparison between statements in Alexander’s book, and Christopher Bache’s Dark Night, Early Dawn, a work about trans-personal psychology and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Bache describes experiences in states responsibly and safely induced by psychedelics, NDE’s, and meditative practices; and the comparisons between some of his personal accounts in the book which he achieved by the use of psychedelics, and Alexander’s account are extraordinary. This, I believe, serves to illustrate that a person need not be brain-dead or literally ‘out of body’ to experience an ecstatic, revelatory ‘journey’ which provides sensory-cognitive stimulation that feels very, very real and profound. See the Narrative Comparison at the end of this review.

I truly believe we all need a sense of our connectedness and indispensability in the cosmos, to feel loved “dearly and forever”; and this book, I’m sure, provides that for many. However, I think that message is available to us in many different manifestations. It would be a pity if the only way to feel a ‘part of it all’ and really be presently mindful and joyful in life would be to die and see the afterlife, or read a book about someone who did. Also, there still is the matter of faith and self-affirmation that we need to help us appreciate the opportunity that life is and every moment in it. Do we loathe our lives, our selves, so much that we’re so anxious to cash it in for what comes next? It sounds so ungrateful. According to every religion, isn’t there a reason we’re here in the first place? And as far as pure materialism goes, there’s nowhere else to be! Let’s not blow it, or one day we’ll be looking back regretting we wasted it wishing we were somewhere else.

Narrative Comparisons From Dark Night, Early Dawn by Christopher Bache, and Proof Of Heaven by Eben Alexander.


 Primordial portal

I was first taken back to the primordial beginning before creation and there experienced human evolution in the context of a larger cosmic agenda. (218)

At the time, I might have called it ‘primordial’…as if I had regressed back to some state of being from the very beginnings of life, as far back, perhaps, as the primitive bacteria that, unbeknownst to me, had taken over my brain and shut it down. (28)

Loss of boundaries

Early on I had the experience of the dissolution of boundaries. I was experiencing the physical world, and everywhere boundaries were melting away. [I kept saying] “No boundaries. No boundaries anywhere.” There was not even a real boundary separating the physical and nonphysical dimensions of existence, and I experienced the worlds of matter and spirit as a seamless whole. (67)

I didn’t have a body—not one that I was aware of anyway. I was simply…there, in this place of pulsing, pounding darkness…I was simply a lone point of awareness in a timeless red-brown sea…There was no difference between ‘me’ and the half-creepy, half-familiar element that surrounded me. (29, 30, 31)

Just as my awareness was both individual and yet at the same time completely unified with the universe, so also did the boundaries of what I experienced as my ‘self’ at times contract, and at other times expand to include all that exists throughout eternity. The blurring of the boundary between my awareness and the realm around me went so far at times that I became the entire universe. (160)

Thought-environment control

I discovered, much to my surprise, that the experiential field within the circle was responsive to my thoughts. (67)

I slowly discovered [that] to know and be able to think of something is all one needs in order to move toward it. To think…was to make it appear, and to long for higher worlds was to bring myself there. (70)

Light and unifying being

I was brought to an encounter with a unified energy field underlying all physical existence. I was confronting an enormous field of blindingly bright, incredibly intense energy. Though the energy was not difficult to look at, experiencing it was extremely intense and carried with it a sense of ultimate encounter. This energy was the single energy that comprised all existence. (67-68)

Something had appeared in the darkness…it radiated fine filaments of white-gold light, and as it did so the darkness around me began to splinter and break apart…you could not look at anything in that world at all, for the word at itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else. (39, 46)

Choice in multiple dimensions

Choice governed all experience. Different beings who were all part of Being Itself had simply chosen these manifold experiences. (68)

Free will is of central importance for our function in the earthly realm: a function that, we will all one day discover, serves the much higher role of allowing our ascendance in the timeless alternate dimension. We—the spiritual beings currently inhabiting our evolutionarily developed mortal brains and bodies…make the real choices. (84)

Higher awareness then, limited clarity now

I simply can’t yet fit the understandings I had into my ordinary, smaller mind. This does not lead me to question or doubt my experience. Even though I have lost large sections of the experience, I retain an unshakable epistemological certainty that this knowing was of a higher order than any knowing I am capable of in my ordinary consciousness. (69)

The problem is finding a frame of reference. The only categories I have available to me are simplistic approximations that can give only a vague sense of it. (72)

The experience I’m struggling to give you the vaguest, most completely unsatisfying picture of, was the single most real experience of my life. (41)

My awareness was larger now. So large, it seemed to take in the entire universe. (95)

It was all so real…almost too real to be real, if that makes any sense. (126)

Now that I’m back here in the earthly realm, I have to process it through my limited physical body and brain. (49)

Conveying that knowledge now is rather like being a chimpanzee, becoming human for a single day...and then returning to one’s chimp friends and trying to tell them what it was like. (83)

It’s like trying to write a novel with only half the alphabet. (72)


Nostalgic return

I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of homecoming and felt fully the tragedy of having forgotten this dimension for so long. (69)

You don’t know the place. Or at least you think you don’t. But as you look around, something pulls at you, and you realize that a part of yourself…does remember the place after all, and is rejoicing at being back there again. (39)

On the day that the doors of Heaven were closed to me [in the NDE], I felt a sense of sadness unlike any I’d ever known. (102)

Multi-universe and being

It explained that we had left time…[I] felt like time was simply one of the many creative experiments of the multidimensional universe I was being shown. (70)

I saw the abundance of life throughout the countless universes…I saw that there are countless higher dimensions, but that the only way to know these dimensions is to enter and experience them directly…The world of time and space in which we move in this terrestrial realm is tightly and intricately meshed within these higher worlds. (48)

Love as center of universe

Behind creation lies a LOVE of extraordinary proportions, and all of existence is an expression of this love. The intelligence of the universe’s design is equally matched by the depth of love that inspired it. (70)

Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything…This is the realities of realities. (71)

You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. (41)

Truth as harmony in being

I learned by becoming what I was knowing. I discovered the universe not by knowing it from the outside, but by turning to that level in my being where I was that thing. (74)

It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it—without joining with it in some mysterious way. (44)

I feel it, laid into my very being. (49)

Speechless communication

[A Presence] communed with me and ‘spoke’ to me in messages that were only sometimes put into words. It was explaining to me what I was experiencing not so much with words as with direct illumination. (274)

Without using words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. (40)

Each time I silently posed one of these questions, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. [These answers came] in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. (46)

Freedom from existential limits and rules

This being was setting us free, placing absolutely no limits on our creative abilities. (274)

“You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief. It was like being handed the rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review Of Divergent

This is so totally about a fight club for kids. Deal with it. What is it with novels like this, in the same vein as Hunger Games, that make the reader so blood-thirsty to watch children fight? I don’t know, but it’s wooooorrrrkkkking! Probably deep inside we all wish we had what it took to take a punch as a kid, and deliver a wallop back. Or maybe we all long to test our mettle against the hard earth or against the deeper scarring scratch-test of human aggression. That question, “Do I have what it takes” doesn’t merely haunt us, but it inspires us to take on new challenges and develop our raw potential. To that end, the author pushes the characters farther than the reader is often willing to go, but it all ends well. Sort of.

Thankfully, this story goes beyond the theme of kids studying to crush a trachea with a single throat-chop. The mental-spiritual survival, and not mere kill-power, of young people is probably closest to the author’s intention in character/plot development. Much in the same way that the kids in the narrative are run through rigorous training and testing to toughen them up physically and mentally, so the reader is sent through the rigors of self-doubt, constantly prodded with internal questions about one’s deepest fears and preparedness for crisis. Roth wrote the book while studying exposure therapy in the treatment of phobias. Figures. In a very real sense, this book is a form of mild exposure therapy, and the case may be made that the protagonists’ drills in fear stamina and resignation to panic may actually help the reader to understand and form new coping mechanisms with their own fears as they ‘witness’ so many other stories about how others overcame their fear. Her material is solid. The Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick by David Carbonell (2004) specifically directs a person to explore their fear, overexpose themselves to it, and ultimately vanquish it by a tactic Roth illustrates in the book time and time again: resigning to, and fully experiencing, the fear episode. It’s counter-intuitive, but—damn it—it works! Provided the fear is confronted in a safe environment, Roth states that the brain can actually ‘re-wire’ itself to disarm the mind’s overreacting fear response. Now that’s a lesson I want my kids to learn.

Imaginative fiction is a gladiatorial arena for fictional personas, and they ‘literarily’ fight to the death of all that is false and evanescent, and what survives is unshakable and can be counted on. The characters are placed in simulated scenarios where their life is threatened, or they lose those they love, or they suffer to the furthest degree of their pain-threshold. The plot oozes with moral themes and practical tools young people can put to immediate use in their lives: Facing your fears, considering your strengths and weaknesses, liking you for you, understanding others’ strengths and weaknesses, facing rejection, asking good questions about motives—why people think and behave differently than you do, and the power of choice in every situation, to name a few. At some point a child is old enough to learn that the baby kitty they dropped off at the animal clinic for peeing all over the house was not being sent to another happy home, but rather, the paper they signed at the time of drop-off was a queue for lethal injections; and it’s at that ripe age (which is NOT my kids’ ages just yet) that parents should seriously consider encouraging their children to read this sort of literature. That is, if you’re running short on pain-and-fear simulators, then this book can function as a mild simulation for youth to see how certain ideas and values play out in fantasy worlds, which, by the way, may not be as far away from our time as we might like to think.

Roth, in the conversation with the author at the back of the Katherine Tegan Books edition, states that she likes her characters to have a quality of ‘agency’—“they take charge of their lives in environments that make it hard for them to do so.” Beatrice, the protagonist in focus, is, according to Roth, “always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior”, much like people in the real world create new possibilities and ‘move the plot along’ in their life story. In his book titled Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, author Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi states something very similar, “Our best moment usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” There’s no room or time to hope things get better…‘better and worse’ are personal decisions we make on how to interpret and experience the impersonal world. It’s an Agent thing.

The religious overtones of the book are especially intriguing. The Abnegation faction has many parallels to religious people (which, for what it’s worth, I think the author happens to be), and this association is pretty much spelled out in a couple of places. Abnegation types are selfless, deeply committed to their values and the perpetuation of those values, and produce people with strong wills, if not a very bright head. Erudite, the intellectual faction, constantly bucks Abnegation’s mindless acceptance of traditional values (Roth was also studying the fascinating and deeply disturbing Milgram Experiment, and tendencies towards austerity and self-debasement which they force on society at the cost of comfort and prosperity. This sets up the inevitable conflict between factions which makes for a nice ramp-up in the last quarter of the book.

The message is solid: no one can make you into something they want you to be. Labels don’t define you. You are free to choose. And you don’t have to choose between honesty, selflessness, peace, intelligence or bravery. Be them all in the best way you can. It was perfectly stated by Four—one of the characters Roth admits is one of her most 3-dimensional and relatable, and one you can imagine being friends with outside of the book—“‘I think we’ve made a mistake,’ he said. ‘We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that. I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.’” This sentiment, of how to live beyond labels, will ultimately, I assume, come to a head in the other books in the form of a courage to endure living factionless, and, consequently, often alone. Sometimes the high value placed on community requires one to deny and live apart from a community, so-called, that is destructive or suppressive of the lives and desires of its constituents. Tris’ words near the end closes this part of the series nicely and lifts our expectations to a more advanced revolt in her future against communal conformity, “I am no longer Tris, the selfless; or Tris, the brave. I suppose that now, I must become more than either.” Good form!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review of 50 Shades Of Grey

First, my synopsis. Anastasia is a nice, smart, simple girl finishing college and working at a hardware store who is seduced by Christian Grey, a powerful, young magnate who is disgustingly rich, invidiously charming (which pisses me off…because I’m not), and is brain-injuringly attractive—which, let’s be honest, if he weren’t, this book would never have been read by anyone…not even me. Dude’s every girl’s Mr. McDreamypantsandsocks. When he finally woos her, he reveals a passion of his: a BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) playroom. You should have seen her face. He wants a relationship with her that makes her his submissive, and him her dominant, and he wants this relationship to extend to all areas of their lives, not merely sexual, as long as they are together. This scares her, but he slowly warms her up to the idea, and she begins to interact with him with an understanding that it will be temporary. As it turns out—and this is the KEY, the author’s stroke of genius that keeps women reading—he’s been abused as a child, and she feels sorry for him and somehow excuses away his selfishness as a sort of handicap—much easier to excuse, remember, because he so hot that nuns pour their holy water on him to boil the hell out of it. So, Anastasia decides she’s going to do this whole ‘weird’ thing with him because she thinks there’s hope for their relationship, which never existed apart from the fact that, as I mentioned before, he was so hot that she needed to peel his clothes off with a spatula. Finally she ends up realizing he is not going to be over his wanting-to-spank-her-hard anytime soon; and she ultimately gets offended enough after an especially hard spanking (literally), and depressed enough after the especially hard spanking (again, literally), that she determines he doesn’t really love her, and she leaves him. After the especially hard spanking. Again. Literally.

Okay, I laugh, but all you haters have to keep in mind that this book was numero uno on the NY Times bestsellers list for 30 weeks, has been translated into over 50 languages, the trilogy have sold over 35 million copies in the United States alone, and over 70 million copies worldwide, setting the record as the fastest selling paperback of all time, and this writer that people castigate as being inept and amateur made $95 mil last year. We have to keep in mind that this writer, though her fanbase is now mostly middle-aged women (she was mid-forties when she wrote it), began writing the series as a friggin fan-fiction (unauthorized spin-off stories) on the internet for the Twilight saga. Her characters were even named Bella and Edward for the good Lard’s sake! She removed them from the site after complaints about the eroticism, and posted them on her own 50 shades website before publishing. That’s how they started, but there was a HUGE demand obviously for this kind of writing, or it never would have made it anywhere. So when a Sir Salmon Rushdie, may he live forever, says about the book, "I've never read anything so badly written that got published. It made 'Twilight' look like 'War and Peace’”, I respond with a, “Hey, Rushdie’s reading 50 Shades? I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”

As far as the whole message of the book, apart from the obvious ‘kink’ factor, I would say James is wanting to leave readers with a warning to, simply put, be careful who you give your heart too. Intimacy without trust is fun while it lasts, but ultimately love is about mutual care and concern for each other. If you play, you’ll pay. A quote in the book is sent to Anastasia from Christian, taken from Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks…” That’s the overt message that James would like to be credited for ‘teaching’. But, c’mon, we all know this isn’t meant to be read as a warning. This is a titillating ride, and the stop at the end, though it ends with grief and loneliness, is but an invitation to get back in line and ride it again. The meta-message, even beyond the author’s conscious, intended moral seems more to be this: risky relationships and edgy sex are fun while they last, so don’t be a wuss. Honey, bite that juicy apple! You’ll survive to tell your story, and maybe make $95 mil in the process. Maybe. Or you’ll just ruin the rest of your earth-weary life and call every man you meet a pig.

The religious community and many conservatives have made quite a stink about it, but I’m not sure it’s warranted. Even the Jews put an entire book of erotica in their Hebrew Scriptures to show their support for the genre, which also happens to be in the Christian Canon—Song Of Solomon, which is very graphic and sexually explicit when all the metaphors and meanings are parsed out. And as far as scenes or descriptions that some may find offensive, we need to keep in mind that nearly every single one of us will put up with any number of offensive themes and images in movies, shows, books, and other media to enjoy a good thrill or a transporting drama. My concern would be more related to the cause of the hype surrounding this book, and the reason why so many singles, mothers, and wives feel so bored with their existences that a ‘desperate housewife’ mentality is starting to appear fairly common. I think it’s okay to try new things and explore ways to spice up one’s love life, but while reading this book it became startling clear that this Christian character was extremely selfish in all ways, and completely and utterly devalued and dominated this girl. The ONLY reason she stuck around was because it was fun and he was…did I mention this?... so hot you could cauterize a machine-gunned extremity on his abs. Too far?

So often girls complain about guys who are only seeking trophy-wives for their own self-aggrandizement. With this book, guys have the opportunity to reverse the accusation: there are girls whose wettest dream is to be objectified by guys who seek to make them their trophies. Kind of sad, but that’s what the success of this book might indicate. Or not.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review Of Zealot by Reza Aslan

It was Freud who stated, “Every religion bears the imprint of the times in which it arose.” With the same understanding Aslan sets out to make the case that the orthodox Christian religion as we know it was mostly developed by Hellenized (Rome-assimilated) Jews who had radically reinterpreted and revised the words and stories told about Jesus of Nazareth to fit a spiritualized ideology that would give the disenfranchised and crushed Jews hope, while being more palatable to a Roman world-audience. The way Aslan sees it, Jesus was a man, a Jew, who began a resistance against Rome, but ultimately failed and was crucified; but his noble deeds, along with a grain of scandal about his resurrection, renewed the Jewish confidence in their religion enough to convince others like Paul that there was enough unrealized potential in the old ideas, assuming some editorial work, to inspire new generations.

It doesn’t matter how you piece the Bible puzzle together…there are plenty of extra/missing pieces either way. Aslan breaks apart the orthodox Christian jigsaw, reshuffles the pieces, and then reassembles following his new picture-on-the-box of Jesus as man and Jewish revolutionary. And he doesn’t do a bad job at all. There still seem to be pieces left over (like Jesus stating “my kingdom is not of this world”, Jn 18:36), which Aslan does his level-best at explaining away, but not nearly so many leftover pieces as would completely and utterly allay the concerns of evangelical Christians. The apologist William Lang Craig’s brazen flippancy may have betrayed more concern than he’d like to admit when he said that there was nothing new in Aslan’s work that hasn’t already been disproven long ago. Looks like someone told Craig one too many times that the other kids are ‘just jealous’.

The Author’s Note and Introduction in the book does a fantastic job of laying out the author’s basic claims, and will probably be satisfying to a person wondering what the big deal about this book is (of course, you have to see the video to really understand the author’s recent rise in notoriety: If a person is mildly open to his thesis, or insanely opposed enough to slurp his errors like blood, the rest of the book delivers the goods as well. At the end of his introduction Aslan even throws a bone to people of faith who can’t swallow his premise, “The quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest.” That would have been nice, but then he goes on to say, somewhat contradictorily, “But in the end, [Jesus as man and revolutionary] is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means. Everything else is a matter of faith.” Sounds pretty, but it’s mildly patronizing when you really look at it. It’s tantamount to a ‘too-bad-so-sad’ sort of concession for his believing critics. I guess he figured they don’t like him anyway.

As a whole, it was good. I liked it. The first sentence of the book was killer. No, really. “The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak.” Yesssssss. Throughout the work Aslan employs compelling historical analysis, but he really drives his best points home with good storytelling. Here, in history, was a people faced with impossible odds, who courageously managed to keep their noses above water to survive the brutal conditions of human oppression at the hands of the ‘civilized’ Romans. In Aslan’s view, this brave struggle is too often eclipsed by Christianity’s concept of a Divine Messiah who can’t ‘really’ die and is actually God himself. He believes it dilutes the story of frail and mortal people bravely taking risks and hazarding their families, life, and welfare for principles like freedom and faith. Jesus as God is not a hero. He is, well, God. He can’t quite feel the despair that humans feel, no matter how theology tries to ‘save’ his humanity from his all-invading divinity. He can’t quite be overpowered as humans can, can’t experience self-doubt, can’t wrestle with personal guilt, and can’t quite waver on the fence between good and evil. Granted, by billions, the story of Jesus as God is important for its own obvious reasons, or how could it have swallowed whole this other failed Jewish messiah that was part of the end of an age? But you have to admit, Aslan has a point. No matter where you stand on the religious/irreligious spectrum, we all can admit that narratives of the painful groping of humankind to find the light, resist evil, act bravely, and love deeply need to be told out from under the shadow of a “God-fixes-all-our-problems” sort of a bully-theology (‘bully-ology’?).

One of the most important keys to understanding Aslan’s premise is really securing in your mind the chronology of events and zeitgeist as he presents them. Here they are, having been regurgitated by my brain with the most significant events and ideas as I understood them. 

Regarding the political history of the Jews:

1.       There were a lot of people claiming to be messiah back in the day. Jesus was only one of many. Palestine was awash in apocalyptic expectation and messianic fervor.
2.       Rome was constantly suppressing rebellions, and crucifying the movement’s leaders as an example. Jesus was a zealot who had admirable political aspirations, but whose courageous strategy to free Rome ultimately failed. He was known as a miracle worker (as were others), made himself out to be a political deliverer (the Messiah), but was crucified as state criminal in 30-33 CE.  Something happened (which the author doesn’t scrutinize) which caused the disciples to believe he had resurrected.
3.       In 66 A.D. the Jews, under the command of the temple captain Eleazar, revolted against Rome, and actually won Jerusalem back for a time (4 years!).
4.       Rome dispatched a band of soldiers, but it wasn’t large enough, so they were quickly defeated, which boosted Jewish morale.
5.       Nero sent Vespasian and his son Titus in 68 CE to overthrow the revolt once and for all. He quickly subdued surrounding areas and they surrounded Jerusalem with 60,000 men.
6.       News of Nero’s suicide reached Vespasian, who forthwith left with his army to lay claim to the throne.
7.       With Vespasian as the new emperor, he sent his son Titus to take Jerusalem.
8.       Jerusalem had been fighting amongst itself in a series of small civil wars with several leaders claiming to be the new messiah.
9.       Titus took his time, re-conquered surrounding areas that unhinged during the confusion between Roman emperors. He laid siege to Jerusalem and waited. People weakened and starved, died in the streets, and many resorted to cannibalism.
10.   Titus finally came in swiftly and burned Jerusalem to the bloody ground. Temple and everything. 3 years later the nearby fortress of Masada was finally taken. The Jews were made an example of for other cultures that contemplated rebellion. The point was not a victory of the Empire over a people, but a ‘victory over a god’. Jews were now the eternal enemy of Rome. By the year 135 CE, Jerusalem ceased to exist in all official Roman documents.
11.   The Jews did not blame God for their downfall, but they blamed their selfish leaders, the Zealots, Sicarii, so-called prophets and messiahs. “They were the ones responsible for the Roman onslaught. They were the ones God had abandoned. In the years to come, the Jews would begin to distance themselves as much as possible from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome. They would not altogether abandon their apocalyptic expectations…[but they] would be compelled by circumstance and by fear of Roman reprisal to develop an interpretation of Judaism that eschewed nationalism. They would come to view the Holy Land in more transcendental terms, fostering a messianic theology that rejected overt political ambitions, as acts of piety and the study of the law took the place of Temple sacrifices in the life of the observant Jew” (69).

Regarding the ideological history of the Jews:

1.       After the death of Jesus the zealot, James and Paul had been busy at work building up the story of Jesus resurrection and establishing Christianity. James stayed closely to a high valuation of Jewish custom with the new ideas, while Paul preferred to leave behind most Jewish custom. James and the Jewish leaders/apostles butted heads with Paul, and seemed to dominate church growth…until the destruction of Jerusalem.
2.       Paul writes his first epistle, 48 CE.
3.       Stories of Jesus circulated until about 50 CE, when some may have been written down in what is referred to as ‘Q’ (German Quelle= “source”). There is no literal Q source, but it is a hypothetical document assembled in the minds of modern scholars who have gathered what they think are similar sounding passages in Matthew and Luke.
4.       First Gospel (Mark) isn’t actually written until 70-71 CE, after the deflating defeat of the Jewish revolt. Matthew and Luke written around 90-100 CE. Gospel of John isn’t written until 100-120 CE and is heavily influenced by St. Paul. All gospels scrub their stories of any notion of Jesus as political messiah. They reinterpret Jesus as spiritual messiah to make it more palatable for surviving, Hellenized Jews, and for the Roman Empire.
5.       The Council of Nicaea in 313 CE sanctions/declares orthodox Christian doctrines.
6.       Council of bishops in Hippo Regius (modern-day Algeria) declare in 398 CE what documents comprise the Christian New Testament cannon.

The message Aslan hammers into the reader’s skull: Jesus was a man. He was a Jewish freedom-fighter. The Jesus-as-God story came later as a survival tactic of many Jews trying to preserve and reinterpret their national identity for their new situation, and it thrived because it blended with Greek philosophical ideas. “It was only natural for the Gospel writers to distance themselves from the Jewish independence movement by erasing, as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus, and to adapt Jesus’ words and actions to the new political situation in which they found themselves.”

Aslan may have been right after all, though little he knew, in his throw-out at the end of the introduction. What a person chooses to believe is a matter of faith. Aslan may not have quite succeeded in banishing all doubt from the believers mind regarding the Pauline Christ, yet it was a landslide victory in terms of MAKING the believer use his faith. The Christian apologists who assert that their ideas are completely reasonable and ‘believe-easy’, thinking to make fools of their detractors and those who wrestle with intellectual difficulties regarding Biblical doctrines, have been served. Have they not read their own Bible? “The righteous shall live by their faith.”