Thursday, January 23, 2014

Memoirs of a Georgetown Freshman: Joining the President's House Association

Part I: First Semester

Part II: The Blizzard of January 1994

After having classes canceled for a week, and being snowed-in without electricity, classes finally resumed on Monday, January 24th.

By this time, I had decided that I was going to take part in the fraternity rush period that was set to start that week, and I planned on joining the President's House Association, a non-Greek organization whose members I had been getting to know.  Besides having no national Greek organization, the main difference between PHA and the other fraternities was that the members had to vote unanimously for you to get in.  If even one person voted no, you were out.  This was highly intimidating to me and my friends who were interested in joining, but for me especially because I was very shy and really didn't know that many of the members - just a handful who were in the music program.  Going over to "hang out" in the PHA house - something a lot of hopefuls did - was too intimidating for me, so other than attending the weekly PHA devotions (yes, you read that right...PHA wasn't the only fraternity on Georgetown's campus who held weekly devotions), I never really spent much time in the house, among the members, before rush week. 

The black, cloth awning was added years after I graduated, as a way to keep people from climbing out the second floor windows onto the flat, concrete awning that is hidden by the black part.  My room was one of those rooms over the awning on the second floor, on the right.  One year, I went onto the awning in my towel after a shower, in the winter, to wave at people as a joke, and someone locked the window on me.  I think there was a picture in the house scrapbook of me, on the awning, dodging snowballs in my towel.  

I think that first week back, PHA held its so-called Formal Rush Party (there was an Informal gathering in the fall, which I think I did not attend), and this was an opportunity for all those interested in joining to come and meet people and mingle and learn about the house.  I recall impressing a group of members by playing the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the house baby grand piano (yes, the house had a baby grand).  However, without even realizing it, I distinguished myself much more fully in a different way.

One of the members - Todd - who fancied himself a comedian and the house joker, was going around with a video camera and recording and "interviewing" all the potential candidates.  The idea was actually a good one, because (as I would later find out) when it came time to vote, a lot of members didn't know who the person was they were actually voting on.  So being able to watch a video with all the people's faces was a good way to remind people who was who.

When Todd and his cameraman (I think the cameraman was either Chris or another guy everyone called Guano) came up to me, Todd asked me why I had come to the rush party.  I was thrown for a loop because it seemed like a dumb question with an obvious answer.  So, in my nervous, shy way, I blurted out: "Because I want to be a PHA!"  Well, duh!

Afterward, I felt like I had blown my opportunity, like a beauty pageant contestant who flubs her big question.  I wished I had been able to think of something funny or clever to say instead of sounding desperate to get in.  However, I later found out that my comment had gone over pretty well when everyone watched the video at the voting meeting.  If he wants in that badly, let him in! "Because I want to be a PHA" became a sort of slogan that people repeated for the remaining four years I spent at Georgetown.

On the night of voting, me and my friends stayed up all night in Anderson Hall waiting for "the call" telling us to come downstairs to learn our fate.  The PHA voting meeting always took all night, as a matter of course, so it was probably about 4:30 in the morning when the calls finally came, one by one.  As each call came, the guy who was summoned left the room, never to return.

I was the last man standing.  Everyone got called before me and I was left alone in a gradually-sinking depression in the room.  Finally, the phone rang and I was told to come downstairs.  All the PHA's were there in the lobby, but they all noticeably ignored me as I walked down the stairs.  I was quietly ushered into a side room with Raymond, one of the upperclassmen music majors - he was the PHA who knew me best at that time.  He tried to pretend that I had been voted out, but I could tell it was all a set-up.  He finally pulled out a PHA letter shirt and put it over my head and welcomed me into the fold.

I'm not ashamed to admit it was one of the proudest moments of my young life.

My four years as a PHA at Georgetown totally changed my life.  I've always been proud of the fact that, as of 1997 when I graduated, I was the only PHA in the organization's history to win all three major house awards: Most Talented (sophomore year), Most Spirited (junior year), and Most Outstanding (senior year).  I don't know if that "record" still stands or not, and certainly no one else ever cared, but it still meant something to me.

Sophomore year house picture.  I'm in the dead center, looking somber as hell.  Somehow, I though we were doing a "serious picture," even though I was OBVIOUSLY the only one under that delusion.

Senior year, with our "Lil' Sisses."  I'm squatting on the right.  My wife is standing in front of the window on the left, two people up from the dork (Matt) in the cowboy hat.

My graduating PHA class.  Me and Mike are on the right, Sammy is on the left, and John is third from left.  Those three are the guys I waited with that night in Anderson Hall, along with Brian, who graduated before us (and, sadly, died a few years back).  The other two in this picture are Jason and Phil.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book Report: Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg

Christian literacy means not simply the ability to recognize biblical and Christian words, but also to understand them.

Marcus Borg is my favorite Christian scholar and writer.  To me, he's a modern-day Christian Bodhisattva.  Just reading his books gives me a sense of peace and tranquility.  He's also a brilliant scholar of the bible and the historical Jesus.  Unlike many academic biblical scholars, however, he's also a Christian theologian.  I had the pleasure of hearing him preach one Sunday morning in Lexington, Kentucky, a few years back.

Anyway, in Speaking Christian, Borg addresses a topic that has been close to my own heart for a long time: namely, the problem with how we understand the words and phrases of Christianity. Words like salvation, grace, mercy, eternal life, sacrifice, even God.

Stating that "Christian language needs to be set free, released, reclaimed from its captivity to its conventional modern meanings," Borg looks at a number of common Christian words, phrases, biblical passages, and theological notions, and provides first the common, widely-understood meaning, then explains how this meaning has been distorted from the traditional, biblical meaning.    
He argues effectively that literalism is a modern development within Christianity, a hard reaction to the widening of human knowledge during and after the Enlightenment, yet also, paradoxically-enough, influenced by the Enlightenment.  Specifically, he notes that the Enlightenment "has led to an identification of truth with factuality," the notion that statements are either "factually true or they aren't true at all."

In recapturing the meaning of Christian words and phrase, Borg uses what he calls a "historical-metaphorical" method (as opposed to a "literal-factual" method) which places "biblical and Christian language in their ancient historical contexts."

So, for instance, Borg argues that when modern Christians talk about "believing in Jesus," what they mean is believing in a set of propositions about Jesus - that he was God's son, born of a virgin, that he died for our sins, that he was resurrected on the third day, and so on.  The traditional, biblical, and pre-modern meaning of "believing in Jesus," however, did not involve accepting a set of propositional statements.  Instead, Borg demonstrates, it meant to belove Jesus, to commit oneself to Jesus, to trust Jesus.  Similarly, "believing in God," for Christians, meant beloving God, being faithful to God, being one with God as known through Jesus.  

I have long been familiar with the basic thesis of this book, with the notion that biblical language is widely misunderstood within mainstream modern Christianity.  I've been involved, specifically, in a number of conversations and debates over the years about the definition of God.  Both my religious and non-religious friends have always been frustrated with my perspective that fits neither of their preconceived notions about what God is.  Believers and non-believers alike tend to describe God the same way, basically as "the Old Man in the Sky." The difference is whether they accept that image (a believer) or reject it (an atheist).  I've long believed that both parties are wrong, that both perspectives represent a basic distortion of the biblical God.  It's not that many writers of the Bible didn't view God as a supernatural entity living above the sky, but the overall biblical perspective of God is much richer, more broad, not nearly so one-sided.  It was refreshing to find a book written by an eminent scholar (my favorite, no less!) that addresses the subject specifically, and the more general subject of misunderstood Christian language.

I highly recommend this book to Christians who seek a deeper spirituality and a deeper understanding of Christian language, the bible, and God as known through Jesus.    

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Memoirs of a Georgetown Freshman: The Blizzard of January 1994

Read about first semester here.

My girlfriend and I got back to Georgetown over the weekend of January 15th.  A wicked cold front had moved in that day and the temperatures fell to below zero, which is pretty unusual for central Kentucky, even in January.

On Sunday, however, it warmed back up, but that brought predictions of snow, though the predictions were all over the map as to how much we were actually going to receive.  I remember looking out the window late that Sunday night and seeing heavy snow falling in huge flakes and thinking that if it kept up like that for long, we'd get a lot of snow.

On Monday morning, I woke up to what was, basically, the most snow I'd ever seen in my life. We ended up with about 18 inches, and just a few miles north of us in Scott County there was a band of snowfall that reached up to two feet in depth.  In Louisville, which is about an hour west of Georgetown, a record was set for the most snow in a 24-hour period - nearly 16 inches - and it all fell in about 8 hours.  Lexington, which is just 10 or 15 miles south of Georgetown, "only" got about a foot of snow.  All of this snow fell on top of about a quarter-inch of ice.

This is an image from Louisville on that Monday, taken from The Courier-Journal

This once-in-a-generation snowfall was then followed immediately by another arctic cold front that swept sub-zero temperatures back into the region.  Tuesday reached -17 in Lexington, and on Thursday it was -20.  Shelbyville, which is about 45-minutes west of Georgetown, broke the all-time lowest temperature on record for the entire state of Kentucky, registering -37 on that Wednesday.  Remember, these were actual temperatures, not windchill factors.

The entire city of Georgetown was essentially shut down the entire week.  Classes were canceled all week and we were basically all snowed in.  I'm not sure what it's like there today, but in 1994, Georgetown (both college and town) didn't really have any snow-removal equipment - certainly none that could tackle a snowfall that heavy, with ice underneath it.  I can explicitly remember noticing, in front of Anderson Hall, that there was no way to discern where the grass ended and the street began.  It was just a rolling hill of snow as far as the eye could see.  

That first day was really fun and exciting.  We knew it'd be at least a few days before classes resumed, and we were all feeling like 4th-graders on a snow day.  There was a huge snowball fight in the quad - the area of South Campus where all the fraternity and sorority houses were - and I recall that being one of the most enjoyable moments of my entire freshman year.

Picture this scene with a foot-and-a-half of snow and 100 college students playing like children.

Unfortunately, once the arctic temperatures hit the next day, the whole thing quickly became a nightmare.  We all began developing a serious case of cabin fever, and this was drastically complicated by the fact that, due to these never-before-seen temperatures, the generator on campus became overloaded and essentially broke down.  In addition to having no air conditioning, the heat in Anderson Hall never worked very well either, but it stopped entirely that week.  I specifically remember waking up one of those mornings and the temperature in my dorm room was in the 50's.  There was also no hot water.  Additionally, the cafeteria was forced to serve cold cuts and other non-cooked food, all on paper plates.  Even I-75, that runs right past Georgetown, was shut down all week except to emergency vehicles.

A few lucky souls, who owned big 4-wheel drive trucks, were able to make grocery runs (and I think a few really lucky ones actually went and stayed at a hotel), but the majority of us were stuck living like the Donner Party.

It finally started "warming" up towards the end of the week, and the Interstate re-opened, I think, on Thursday, or maybe Friday morning.  My girlfriend and I were so stir-crazy we decided that we were going to drive home to Cincinnati, knowing that it wasn't nearly so bad up there, and figuring that the Interstate must be okay since they had re-opened it.  I literally had to dig my car out of the snow - the drifts were up over the hood.

Making that drive turned out to be a horrible mistake.  I was only 18 and didn't have much experience driving on bad roads anyway, and to this day, those were just about the most treacherous roads I have ever driven on.  The problem was that in some spots, the lanes were clear and wet, so you'd get going 50 or 55 miles per hour, only to reach a spot where the lanes were totally snow or ice covered.  Underneath every overpass the road was a sheet of ice, and there were these enormous, hardened humps of ice in the roadway that you had to dodge like landmines. I've never seen anything like those ice humps since.  Big rigs were all over the place running down on your bumper and passing too close, and it was simply one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.  Thankfully, once we got 30 or 40 miles northward, everything cleared up and it was fine the rest of the way into Cincinnati.

We spent that weekend recovering, and fortunately the roads were all fine into Georgetown by Sunday.  The semester finally resumed, a week late, on Monday the 24th.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Memoirs of a Georgetown Freshman: First Semester

In August of 1993, my parents moved from Cincinnati to Houston, and I arrived at the doorstep of Anderson Hall at Georgetown College in rural central Kentucky.  I was 18.

I will never forget how bizarre it was, after my parents helped me move my stuff in, to say goodbye to them and have them leave without me.  I was with my girlfriend (who was also an arriving freshman) and her parents, and I remember everyone crying as we said goodbye.  We arrived about a week or so before classes started because Georgetown had a week-long freshmen orientation, so we didn't immediately start class.  Instead it was a series of seminars, picnics, and other various events, and getting to know a ton of new people.

Because of that, those first few days had an extraordinarily surreal feeling about them - as though we were just at a summer camp that would be ending in a few days and we'd be going home.  In high school, we had attended several week-long summer camps with our church youth group, and I can remember specifically saying to my girlfriend that this felt just like that - like we were doing this thing for a week, and then we'd be going home.  I remember marveling at the notion that I was going to be living among these new strangers for the next four years and would very likely develop lifelong friendships with at least a few of them.

Anderson Hall at that time had no air conditioning.  Like every year in Kentucky in August, it was broiling and humid, with daily temperatures in the upper 80's and low 90's.  For instance, according to the records, August 25, 1993 saw a high of 91 degrees with a maximum humidity of 97.

The only fan I had thought to purchase was a clip-on desk fan.

I'm pretty sure the third window from the ground, just to the right of that red drain pipe (left side of the image) was my room.  But it might have been the one on the left of the drain pipe, behind the tree.
Every night for those first few weeks was like sleeping in soup.  I would toss and turn and sweat all night and wake up with wet sheets and pillow.  It was pure misery, made worse by the fact that I was sleeping in a room with a total stranger who I suspected might murder me in the middle of the night.  Thankfully he didn't.

But that was another bizarre and surreal thing that I can still distinctly remember: meeting my roommate for the first time and realizing that I was going to live with this person and sleep 6 feet away from him every night.  That's just not something you experience very often.  Thankfully we got along fine and he wasn't crazy.  

Classes finally began and the routine of school quickly overcame the feeling that my girlfriend and I were just at another temporary summer camp.  I was a music major and discovered that there was another freshman music major living right next door to me, and a third down the hallway.  Mike and Sammy and I quickly became friends, together with Mike's roommate, John.

I was a really good student that first semester.  I studied all the time and literally practiced the piano so much that my piano professor encouraged me to get out of the practice room every now and then and enjoy college life more.  It was my best semester of college, academically: the only "B" I got that semester was in Speech, because, basically, I couldn't give a speech without being a nervous wreck.

The Nunnelley Music Building.  Those gabled windows at the top peek out of tiny little practice rooms.  I practically lived in this building that first semester.
Unfortunately, I couldn't perform on the piano in front of people without being a nervous wreck either, and I remember giving my first required semester recital that year and being so nervous beforehand that I nearly puked.  Unfortunately, that would only get worse as time passed.

Anderson Hall was a real dump.  Not only was it not air-conditioned, but there also were no curtains on the shower stalls and no doors on the toilet stalls.  No joke.  I think I did #2 in Anderson Hall once that whole first semester, and that was in the middle of the night one time when I got the urge and figured no one would come in.  Otherwise, I used a third floor bathroom in the student center, or used a quiet bathroom in the music building.  It was annoying having to take a walk across campus when nature called.

Also, in addition to having no curtains on the shower stalls, there were also only two stalls out of six that actually ran hot water. The icing on the cake was that all the football players lived in the building too, so it was highly intimidating for a little white-ass freshman pencil-neck music major.  Like my friend Mike.  But for me also.

Since I was a music major, I became involved with Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, which was an honorary music fraternity.  Me and my music major friends all joined and got our pins and attended meetings.  Our faculty adviser was one of the music professors - Mr. Whitfield.  Even though he lived in a really nice home in an upscale, gated neighborhood in Scott County, he drove this little piece of crap car that me and Mike used to refer to as the "Shitfield-mobile."  

Anyway, it was through Phi Mu Alpha that I got to know a few other music majors, namely two upperclassmen named Keith and Raymond.  Both of these guys were also in the same social fraternity, a non-Greek organization called PHA (President's House Association: so-named because the brothers originally lived in a house that had once belonged to a college president), and they got me and all my music major friends interested in joining.  The fraternity rush period wasn't until January, but I started considering that, maybe, perhaps, I might rush.  I had arrived at Georgetown thinking there was no chance in hell I would be in a social fraternity.  An honorary fraternity, like Phi Mu Alpha, was fine.  But not a social fraternity where you lived in a fraternity house and what-not.  I think my general Southern Baptist moralistic background made me suspicious of fraternal life, even on the campus of a Southern Baptist college.

Our chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia went defunct right after we were initiated.  I don't remember why, but I think it was because of a general lack of interest, or nobody wanted to pay dues, or something.  Maybe they all took one look at the new initiates and decided it wasn't worth continuing the tradition.  

But whatever the reason, it had served its purpose in helping me to get to know some upperclassmen.  Those guys would later help me get voted into PHA.

Because my parents had moved to Houston that summer, "going home for the weekend" meant going to my girlfriend's house in Cincinnati - which we did pretty much every weekend that first semester.  Later in college, I would complain about people who went home every weekend, but as first semester freshmen, we didn't really have much to do on the weekends and we liked the comfort of going home and being taken care of for a few days.  We were 18 and we were "adults," but just barely.

For Thanksgiving, I flew home to Houston, which turned out to be the only time I went to Houston for Thanksgiving during my four years at Georgetown.  Even though I've flown many times since then, and that was not the first time I had flown, I can still remember that Thanksgiving flight for some reason: specifically, I remember the airport being packed to the gills, and I had a middle seat on the flight and felt wedged like a sardine.  I also remember being uneasy because in recent months I had started getting interested in reading books about the pilots and planes of the First World War, and I realized for the first time that maybe I knew a little too much about planes and what makes them work....and not work.  I remember it was an unseasonably cold Thanksgiving in Houston that year, which surprised me because I had, naturally, been expecting mild weather.  

My girlfriend and I made it through our first finals week, and got initiated into the Georgetown tradition of Finals Brunch, where they would open the cafeteria at midnight on the night before the first day of finals so you could take a break from studying and eat.  I always loved Finals Brunch because they served breakfast foods, which was the only cafeteria meal that was edible.

I flew to Houston for Christmas, where I basked in the ability to wear shorts in late December.  It was 70 degrees on New Year's Day that year, and 70 again on the day I flew back to Cincinnati (around January 14) to meet my girlfriend before returning back to Georgetown (classes were set to resume on Monday the 17th).  I remember not wearing a coat to the airport that morning.  When I landed in Cincinnati, it was in the 20's and I was freezing.  

But that was nothing.  The change in weather for me was about to get way more dramatic.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Report: Watership Down by Richard Adams

Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!

The phrase above is written in Lapine - a fictional rabbit language in the book Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  Strangely enough, after reading the book, you can read that phrase and know exactly what it means.

A continuous bestseller since it was first published in the early 1970's, I first heard of this novel, strangely enough, playing trivia at Buffalo Wild Wings.  I distinctly remember a question that asked something like: "This novel about talking rabbits was made into a 1978 animated film."  Four possibilities were given.  I got the answer wrong, and was shocked to discover that the correct answer was "Watership Down," because that did not, in any way, shape, or form, sound like the title to a book about rabbits who could talk.  I suppose I was thinking of something military or sci-fi akin to "Blackhawk Down," although I had no idea what a "watership" was.  Aren't all ships "water" ships?

Anyway, the next time I came across this book was while watching my favorite TV show, Lost.  In one of the episodes, Sawyer is reading Watership Down, with the cover and title clearly visible.

The third time was just recently when reading White Fire, the latest Agent Pendergast novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  In it, a character tells another character to read Watership Down.

After that, I decided the third time's a charm, so I bought the book and read it.

Turns out, "Watership Down" is the name of a hillside in rural England.  A bit like "Churchill Downs."

Anyway, as noted above, this book is about the adventures of a group of talking rabbits in rural England.  It's technically a children's book, but the writing style is more for adults than kids, and adults are certainly the ones who have made it a best-seller for 40 years.

The author claims that the book was inspired by a very long story he told his daughters during a car trip one day, and he asserts that he did not intend the story to be allegorical in the way that, for instance, Animal Farm by George Orwell is allegorical.

However, most people who have read this book over the years, myself included, can see some distinct allegorical components within the adventures of the rabbits.

To describe the story briefly, a group of rabbits led by a buck named Hazel learns that their warren is about to be destroyed by men building a neighborhood.  As such, they set out on a sort of Odyssey-like adventure across rural England, searching for a new place to settle down, dodging dangers along the way.  They eventually find a perfect place on Watership Down, but then get involved in a war with a neighboring warren that culminates in a final battle for supremacy and survival.

The book took me a bit of time to really get into, and even after I got into it, it bogged me down in a few places.  There are countless descriptions of mundane things like traveling through the woods, grazing, "passing hraka" (which is Lapine for defecating), and sitting around planning things.  In that sense, it reminded me a bit of the long, dull passages in Lord of the Rings where all they do for pages and pages at a time is walk through the woods.

Additionally, you practically have to have a PhD in botany, with an emphasis on the flora and fauna of rural England, to understand a lot of the descriptive passages.  The author's knowledge of all the plants and animals of his country is overwhelming at times.  "They were coming to a thicket of juniper and dog roses, tangled at ground level with nettles and trails of bryony on which the berries were now beginning to ripen and turn red."

Despite these criticisms, I really loved this book by the end of it, and even shed a little tear at the Epilogue.  Adams develops the rabbit characters quite well and you feel a closeness and kinship with them - like you are part of the warren, sharing in their adventures and dangers.  You definitely root for these characters and despise their enemies.

The author also works in various words of the Lapine language so that you know exactly what the rabbits are talking about when they refer to the dangers of a hrududu, or when they stop to listen for the sounds of nearby elil.  It gives a charming sort of aspect to the characters.

Finally, the rabbit community has a very well-developed mythology, akin to a rabbit religion (the sun, named Lord Frith, is their god), and they love to tell stories about their rabbit heroes of old.  These stories are a nice touch, a sort of break from the action as all the rabbits hunker down deep in the burrow to listen to the troubadour rabbit tell his tales of the great rabbit prince El-hrairrah and his partner Rabscuttle.

In the end, despite what Richard Adams has said, you can't help but feel that the story is allegorical in many ways, a long metaphor for human life, with its drive for survival, comfort, and blessings, the reality of good and evil, heroes and villains, lovers and fighters.  Even the religion of the rabbits seems in many ways allegorical - like humans, they have gods built in their own image, whose attributes are all the best of what rabbits hold dear - trickery, speed, cunning, intelligence, etc.  It reminded me of an old notion attributed to the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who argued that if horses had gods, they'd look like divine horses.  As such, human gods are pretty much just divine humans.  So too, rabbit gods are divine rabbits.

Anyway, despite the slow pace of the book and the descriptive passages that are sometimes overdone, I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading a modern classic.

P.S. Silflay hraka, u embleer rah! is a phrase one of the rabbits yells near the end of the book, and it means, basically, "Graze on droppings, you stinking king!"  Don't worry, the narrator of the novel kindly translates everything the rabbits say into English, and only writes words occasionally in Lapine :)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Report: Zealot by Reza Aslan

Zealot is the latest in a very long line of books by various religious scholars on the life of the historical Jesus.  Because it received a lot of attention in the press, it has very quickly become one of the best-selling such books of all time.

Like all books about the historical Jesus, Zealot attempts to draw a portrait of what the Jesus of history was really like, stripped of later theological language and images.  Where did he come from? What motivated him?  What was the core of his message?  How did he perceive himself and his own place in history?  What was he like, as an individual?  In short, books about the historical Jesus are biographies written by historians, not religious books written by theologians.

Aslan does a masterful job of setting the historical context of Jesus's life and times in first century Palestine.  Of all the books I've read about the historical Jesus, I don't think any other writer has built the historical context quite as well, or quite as deeply, as Aslan does.  I'd go so far as to call it brilliant.  It is definitely the best thing about the book.  The first six chapters are essentially a brief primer on Jewish life, culture, and religion from roughly 50 years prior to Jesus's life, through about 50 years after his death, with a specific focus on all the "messiahs" who came and went during that time.  First century Palestine was literally "awash in messianic energy" and this is vital to understanding who Jesus was and how his followers understood him.

As the title implies, Aslan's main argument is that Jesus was motivated by the Jewish notion of zeal - which he defines as "a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master...and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God." This, according to Aslan, is what lay at the core of Jesus's personal philosophy and theology - a zealous devotion to God and to, ultimately, ridding the Jewish homeland of its Roman overlords.

The majority of Aslan's arguments are in keeping with mainstream Christian scholarship of the last thirty years.  There is nothing particularly new or ground-breaking for someone (like me) who is fairly well-read on this subject.  However, for someone reading their first book on the historical Jesus, Zealot is a treasure-trove of information written with a very readable style.  I can hardly think of a better place to start a study of the historical Jesus.  One of the book's strengths is that it reads a bit like a novel, so there is no need to fear a dry, scholarly treatise with this book.

Ultimately, I only had a few quibbles with Aslan's arguments. For instance, while he agrees that there is no evidence that Jesus ever advocated armed rebellion against Rome, he argues that Jesus was not the pacifist that he is commonly portrayed to have been.  He states that when Jesus said "love your enemies," he meant that in a purely Jewish context; i.e., love your Jewish enemies, but you can hate foreign or non-Jewish enemies all you want.

While I can agree that Jesus was much more fanatical than modern Christians like to imagine, I don't think the evidence suggests that Jesus excluded non-Jews from his worldview.  In fact, I think the evidence is overwhelming of exactly the opposite.  It is undoubtedly true that Jesus, like most Palestinian Jews of his day, avoided the impurities associated with non-Jews, but I think the evidence is strong that Jesus ultimately viewed his message as being for everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike.  Ultimately, I don't think Jesus was as militant as Aslan implies.  I think he viewed the "Kingdom of God" as something that all people would take part in.

The only other significant quibble relates to how Aslan makes his arguments.  He tends to make strong assertions, as though he is stating a widely-accepted fact, when in reality most conclusions about the historical Jesus (whether Aslan's or anyone else's) are up for debate.  There are also a few times when he draws conclusions on what I think is very sketchy evidence, but most of those examples relate to his narration of events after Jesus's life - events involving the early Christian communities.  
All in all, Zealot is a worthwhile book to pick up if you are interested in the historical Jesus.  If you've read books like this before, you won't necessarily find anything new or earth-shattering, but the historical detail about first century Palestine, alone, will make the book worthwhile.  And if you're new to this subject, Zealot is a good place to start.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

2013 Reading List

2013 proved to be a banner year for me and my books.  After having had several years in a row of relatively low outputs (20 books read in 2012 and a dismal 18 in 2011), I finished 46.5 books this year (the half-book will be explained below).  That's the most I've finished in a single year since 2005, when I completed 48 (I was also unemployed for the first 6 months of that year, and living alone).

The daily routine that I developed after my heart attack played a vital role in my reading, I think.  I developed a regular habit of reading in the morning after waking up, exercising, having lunch, then getting ready for work.  Most nights, I also would read to unwind before going to bed after work. 

So, let's get to it.  Italicized titles are non-fiction books.  Books with an asterisk (*) are nominees for Book of the Year.  Book of the Year will be revealed at the end of the post.  (I know you can't wait!) 


The Rosetta Key – William Dietrich

This was the second book in the Ethan Gage series, which is set during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the Middle East.  It's an adventure book and I only kind of liked the first one (which I finished in December of 2012).  Still, I gave book two a try and it wasn't much better.  I didn't continue with the series afterward.  

The Eye of the Tiger – Wilbur Smith

11/22/63* – Stephen King

This book, about a time traveler who attempts to stop the Kennedy assassination, is hands down the best Stephen King book I've ever read.  I've always had a love-hate relationship with Stephen King and have only read a handful of his books.  I've started three or four others and never finished them.  I've never really loved any book by him that I've read.  But this one was an exception.  

Boy’s Life – Robert McCammon

Collapse – Jared Diamond

Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental scientist, and this is a book that analyzes the causes of various societal collapses over the centuries, and then applies that to our own modern society.  Very illuminating if you're into that sort of thing.  A bit disturbing too.  I came to realize, after reading this book, just how easily a society can collapse when its population overtaxes its resources.  

Usher’s Passing – Robert McCammon

One of McCammon's earlier books from the 1980's, this book re-imagines Edgar Allen Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" as a real event, and essentially tells the story of the Usher family up through the present day.  

The Hangman’s Daughter – Oliver Potzsch

A book written in German, I read the English translation.  It's set in the 1600's in Germany and is a mystery book.  As the title implies, the main character is the town executioner.  It's the first in a series, which I intend to continue with.  

The Last Camel Died at Noon – Elizabeth Peters

This is sixth book in the Amelia Peabody series, which is a sort of fireside mystery series about a married team of British Egyptologists around the turn of the last century.  It's like humorous Agatha Christie set in 1890's Egypt.  I really loved this series at first, but I've started losing interest in it.  Not sure if I will continue with it beyond this book.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard

This is an old adventure novel that was actually referred to in the above Elizabeth Peters book, and it piqued my curiosity so I found a free Kindle copy and read it.  It was written in the late 1800's and, as the title suggests, it's a story about the search for the mythical mines of King Solomon.  As 19th century British adventure fiction goes, it was pretty good. 

Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King – Joyce Tyldesley

It’s So Easy (And Other Lies)* – Duff McKagan

Loved this book, which is a memoir about Guns n' Roses by the band's bassist.  Surprisingly well-written.

1356 – Bernard Cornwell

Slash – Slash

I figured since I read Duff's book, I should read Slash's too.  His was ghost-written, and you could tell.  Still, it was interesting to see a different take on a lot of the same stories. 

The Girl Next Door – Jack Ketchum

A disturbing novel based on a true story about a girl in foster care who is abused to death.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

Relic* – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Before reading the latest installment of the Agent Pendergast series by Preston and Child (which was set to come out at the end of 2013), I decided this year to re-read all the previous Pendergast novels, as well as 2012's installment, which I owned but had not yet read.  Relic was the first of the bunch, and it was nice to revisit this book again after so many years.  I think I first read this book around 1996 or so.

Reliquary – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The Places that Scare You – Pema Chodron

One of my favorite Buddhist writers, this was a book read after my heart attack.

The Cabinet of Curiosities* – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Of all the Pendergast novels, this is probably the best.

Still Life With Crows – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Brimstone – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Dance of Death – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The Book of the Dead – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World – John Shelby Spong

Spong is one of my favorite progressive Christian writers and this book is a sort of handbook to go along with reading various books of the Bible.  There is a chapter devoted to each of the 66 books of the Bible, giving the historical background and a brief analysis of what the book is about.

Gin O’Clock – @Queen_UK

This book was written by an anonymous Twitter user who goes by the name @Queen_UK.  It's a parody account of Queen Elizabeth with more than a million followers.  I think she (or he?) is funny as hell, so I read her book.

The Wheel of Darkness – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Cemetery Dance – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Fever Dream – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Cold Vengeance – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Paul & Jesus – James D. Tabor

Two Graves – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

This was the last of the Pendergast books, published in 2012, but this was my first time reading it.  It was the third of a 3-book series, and it was, hands down, the worst Pendergast novel of the bunch.  It was like someone other than Preston and Child wrote the book.  I gave it 1-star in my Amazon review, and would have given it 0 if that had been an option.

Pirates of Barbary – Adrian Tinniswood

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

This was a re-read that I had started shortly before my heart attack, abandoned afterwards, and then came back to later in the year.

I Travel By Night – Robert McCammon

The Night Boat – Robert McCammon

An early McCammon book, this one was awful.  In fact, I would go so far as to say this might be the most plodding, clumsy, and poorly-written novel I've ever read.  I read somewhere that, for a long time, McCammon refused to let his publisher re-publish some of his early novels because he hated them, and after reading this one (which was only republished in Kindle format), I can see why.  I only finished it out of loyalty to him.

The Ghost Writer – John Harwood

This was a unique story about an Australian man who slowly uncovers his mother's mysterious and violent past in England, largely through reading short stories written by his grandmother decades earlier, and through corresponding with a pen pal in England.  A good Halloween read.  

Before I Go To Sleep* – S.J. Watson

This is another good Halloween read about a woman with short term memory loss that basically causes her to forget everything from one day to the next.  She wakes up every morning with no idea who she is, makes new memories throughout the day, then forgets everything again when she sleeps.

Written through her perspective, she slowly uncovers some disturbing secrets about her life before the accident that caused her amnesia.  This was a very cleverly-conceived book and is very suspenseful.

The Insanity of God – Nik Ripken 

This is the half-book that I read.  I quit almost exactly halfway through because I just couldn't go on.  This book was written under a pen name by a missionary who was associated with my college when I attended there back in the 1990's, and an old college friend of mine suggested it to me.

I quit halfway through because the book was just too out in left field for me.  It represented intense evangelical Christian perspectives, with a specific focus on the persecution of Christians in war-torn non-Christian countries.  There is a certain brand of evangelical Christian that just LOVES this sort of thing.  I personally can't stand it.  

There were also a number of reports in the book of supposed miracles that I personally found absurd.  For instance, the author claimed to have literally and physically heard the voice of God speaking to him in the back of a cheese factory when he was a teenager.  Others may marvel at such testimony; my reaction is to simply assume that when a person hears voices, they need psychiatric help.

Killing the Kordovas – Kathryn Lively

Koko – Peter Straub

This was the first Peter Straub book I had ever read.  It was a very long book set in the early 1980's about a group of Vietnam vets trying to chase down one of their old comrades, who they suspect is a murderer.  It was sort of a psychological thriller.  If focuses a lot on the mental strain many veterans of Vietnam suffered through.

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease – Caldwell Esselstyn

This book is written by a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who advocates an ultra low-fat, plant-based diet to, as the title suggests, prevent and reverse heart disease.  I haven't adopted his diet, which I think is totally unrealistic and hyper-restrictive, but I have altered some of my eating habits based on insights from his studies.

‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King

It might be obvious by now that I read a lot of suspense and horror writers this year.  After searching online for recommendations for a classic horror novel, I decided to give this old King book a try.  Unlike 11/22/63, this was typical King fare.  Okay, but not great, way too slow-paced, and too far out in supernatural left field to actually be scary.

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic – John Shelby Spong

An insightful analysis of the Gospel of John for a mainstream reading audience.  I think Spong stretches it a bit on some things, but overall this was an illuminating look at a gospel that has probably had a more important impact on Christian theology than any other single book of the Bible.

White Fire – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

This was the latest installment of the Pendergast series.  THANKFULLY, the boys returned to normal form in this book and left the travesty of Two Graves behind them.  Seriously have no idea what they were thinking on that book.

Fin Gall – James L. Nelson

I read several books by this author years ago, but he hadn't really published anything in about 10 years, until this book, which is set in Viking-era Ireland (800's A.D.).  It's sort of like a Bernard Cornwell historical adventure book, but not quite that good.

Zealot* – Reza Aslan

This is a controversial best-seller about the historical Jesus.  I intend to make a whole blog post about this book, so I won't go further other than to say it was excellent.

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn 

Flynn's most recent book, called Gone Girl, has made her a hot author right now.  I haven't read Gone Girl - I decided instead to start with her first novel.  It was about a Chicago journalist who goes back to her Missouri hometown to investigate a serial killer.  It was a short, gritty psychological thriller and although it took me some time to get used to her blunt writing style, I enjoyed this one.


Now it's time to name the annual Serene Musings Book of the Year for 2013.  Last year's winner was Robert McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird.  McCammon, in fact, has won two years in a row.  Swan Song took this coveted award in 2011.

Here are the nominees for 2013, in no particular order:

Before I Go To Sleep
The Cabinet of Curiosities 
It's So Easy (And Other Lies)

And the winner is.........

There really was never a competition this year.  I finished this book the second week of January and no other book I read after that really came close to capturing me the way this one did.  I absolutely devoured this novel.

If you want to buy yourself a copy, use this link and I'll get a commission:

You can find the Serene Musings Book of the Year list at the bottom of the main page.