Sunday, April 22, 2007

Quickie Book Reviews

Four interesting books for you to check into next time you're at the book store and looking for something to challenge your synapses.

John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now
You can tell from the title that Crossan, one of the more iconoclastic theological scholars, has an agenda of linking Jesus' mission and opposition to empire with what's going on in the Middle East, and he's not shy about it. From his perspective, Jesus preached a message of peace in opposition to empire that resonates today, and he tracks that message through his readings of the Bible. His whacking of Revelations is worth the price of admission. On the downside, he, like the Catholic he is, sees a Paul whose ties to Jesus never really existed but prospered because Jesus' family and followers in Jerusalem were wiped out by the Romans, replacing the original mission and vision with Paul's epileptic dreams. Well, I guess that says more about my religious beliefs than you needed to know. Anyway, you'll get a good tour of the history of Jesus' time and the role Caesars and empire played in everything we read in the New Testament, all with Crossan's usual verve. You'll definitely finish it thinking.

Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies
Again, another title that tells the story. Page is frequently cute in his writing here, and not always in a good way, but his thesis is worth pursuing. I've written here before about complexity theory and the way it will rewrite how we think about the world by the time it's done. Page takes the same view, only he's much more credentialed and experienced in explaining it. Through a sometimes labored but always on point application of complexity findings to his research, he manages to prove his overriding view that diversity outperforms centralized authority and action and rides it to several interesting examples. It won't be that new to "wisdom of crowds" readers, for much the same reason, but carries more scientific proof. He may have written the book that brings it all home to a broader public. It'd be a shame if others get it read before you do.

Jerome M. Segal, Joseph's Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible
Our traditional reading of the Bible is that it's been passed down from God to us and that God is this inerrant force for a consistent morality from which we get our rules or we'd all act like a bunch of drunk frat boys. But what if you were someone from another planet who dropped down and read the Bible cold, without all the cultural baggage? Would you get the same story? Probably not. Read from the perspective of an outsider, the Bible is more a story of both God and humans learning how to interact and what rules should apply. God whacks humans regularly, has to be talked out of killing innocents, screws with people simply because they didn't get it the way his whims carried him at the moment, as in, Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it so for that he never makes it to the Promised Land after all he's done for God??? Okay. Segal's point is that there is an independent morality by which God is even limited and the role of many Biblical heroes was to point it all out on behalf of humans, who come off far better than our traditions allow. A challenging book, interesting, demands you accept the Bible as more or less consciously literature, a big stretch. But you'll learn stuff even if you never buy it for real. I mean, accept it for real. Buying it would be okay.

Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words
Bunch of books out there on Lincoln and his speeches right now and on how the great man developed his style and approach. The latest doesn't actually focus on any particular one, like Gettysburg, the first or second inaugural, Cooper's Union. Wilson's take is to look at all of them and how his life and habits got him to them, how he learned to write, how he consistently jotted little notes down for later use, how he wrote and rewrote, how he got them to the proper audiences in the days before PR took off. The idea that he could fire off the Gettysburg Address on a train going up to the battlefield isn't completely wrong, but it jettisons so much of the process, previous thought, and ties to past utterances as to be simplistic. (And, yes, wrong.) A good overview of the man, his times and wisdom, as well as the role that words can play in pulling a nation together in its toughest times. Wilson wrote the previously well-received Honor's Voice on Lincoln's early life. This is a very worthy follow-up. As you'll see as you browse the store.