Books Archive

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Midway Reflections

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index.

BibleHaving completed the Pentateuch and the Historical Books, I figured I would take a hiatus this week on doing actual reviews, and instead pause to reflect on this project thus far. (In fact, as I'll announce in my next post, I'm creating a print version of this series, and this post began as the afterword to the first volume of that collection.)

It's rather interesting reading the Bible anew. When I was still a Christian, the preconception that colored my interpretation of the Bible the most was believing that it was divinely inspired in its entirety. This led to a couple other preconceptions - that everything in the Bible was true, and that the Bible was a coherent work, with a unified message and theme throughout. I never believed in an overly literal interpretation - I knew that the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis couldn't have been true on that simplistic level of believing the universe was created in six actual twenty four hour days, but I believed that there still had to be some truth to the story, and that perhaps it was an allegory or a figurative story. And I believed that the Bible was free of contradictions - anything that seemed like a contradiction must have been a misunderstanding on my part.

But once you abandon that first preconception, all those other expectations about the Bible fall away, and you can begin to read it for what it is - an amalgamation and collection of different legends, stories, oral histories, and other writings from a wide range of authors over the span of centuries. I'm going to repeat myself here, and quote something I wrote in my summary at the conclusion of Chronicles. And while this passage was specifically about Chronicles, it is largely applicable to all the books I've read so far.

...there are multiple levels of interpretation when reading these stories. One is as a skeptic, thinking of the people who believe these stories literally, and seeing all the reasons why they couldn't be true. But moving past that and ignoring those problems, I can try to read this as I would other mythology, and try to see it through the eyes of the people who wrote it, and what it says about their mindset. Perhaps what I find the most interesting level, however, is trying to discern the kernels of truth, and how these stories could have developed. There is real evidence for some of these kings and some of these events, so we can be pretty sure that some of this did actually happen. But then there's the Chronicler's interpretive gloss on the whole thing, trying to rationalize why it all happened. And then there's some myth and legend added to it all as well.

And when you take each book on its own, without trying to force it into some larger narrative that's supposed to tie the whole Bible together, you can appreciate the message that each particular writer/editor was trying to convey.

Taken all together, the books of the Bible are a bit of a mixed bag. There are some parts that really are quite good, but then other parts that are boring, tedious, or even offensive to a modern reader. And then there are all the 'scars' in the books that have come from combining multiple previous sources. But given the Bible's nature as a collection of only loosely related books, that's to be expected.

With all that said, I have to admit to being a bit surprised at my younger self for reading the Bible so credulously my first time through. I'm going to repeat myself again, this time from my summary at the conclusion of Deuteronomy.

I can also say that I almost feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I'd read through the entire Bible once before, but that it didn't shake my faith. As I described above, it seems obvious to me now that the Bible isn't a divinely inspired book, and that it doesn't present a particularly praise-worthy god. I wonder just how I could overlook all those problems the first time I read it. Perhaps it's because I was younger, and hadn't really learned to read critically, yet. Perhaps it was the indoctrination and the fear of God, and not wanting to question the reliability of the Bible out of fear that I'd be punished or end up in Hell.

I started this project without a clear idea in my mind of how exactly I was going to approach the summaries of each book. I suppose I began from a more adversarial position, looking for the flaws in the books. And while those are still clear and I'll continue to point out some of them in the coming reviews, as this project has progressed, my focus has shifted to trying to enjoy the books the same way I would any other mythology.

Next week will be back to the normal reviews, starting on the book of Job.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Books, A Year in Review - 2013, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsAs has become my yearly tradition, every October I take some time to examine the books I've read over the past year (see previous reviews for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, 2012). It all started with an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. (Yes, this is the fifth time I've copied that sentence verbatim). A more recent poll by YouGov and Huffington Post seems to be pretty consistent, so it doesn't seem that Americans' reading habits have changed much in the past few years (here's another one from Pew).

As usual, this review will come in two parts. This first part will take a look at my personal reading habits (meaning it probably won't interest too many people), while the second part will provide short reviews of each book that I've read.

Here are all the books I read in the last year, sorted by topic (not the order in which I read them).

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

  1. Wild Jack
  2. The Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles, Book I)
  3. The Celestial Globe (The Kronos Chronicles, Book II)
  4. The Jewel of the Kalderash (The Kronos Chronicles, Book III)
  5. Stardust
  6. The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again
  7. Uglies (The Uglies, Book I)
  8. Pretties (The Uglies, Book II)
  9. Specials (The Uglies, Book III)
  10. Extras (The Uglies, Book IV)

Adult Fiction

  1. Tribulation Force (Left Behind, Book II)


  1. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version (partial)

Light Non-Fiction

  1. Around Pottstown (Postcard History Series)
  2. Wichita Falls (Images of America)
  3. Feynman
  4. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas


  1. Night
  2. Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man
  3. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature
  4. The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory of Evolution
  5. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy

That's 21 books altogether, but with 4 of those being comic or picture books (the light non-fiction), that's a bit less than I normally read in a year (since I've been keeping track, my yearly totals have been 13, 25, 19, 21, 23, & 22 - mostly 'real' books). I think this is in large part due to my project of trying to read and blog about the entire Bible. I wrote about this in the entry, Friday Bible Blogging - 1 Chronicles 1 to 1 Chronicles 10:

A somewhat surprising aspect is the way this has cut into my other reading. It's not that I devote a tremendous amount of time each week to reading the Bible and don't have any time left for other books. Rather, when I have a bit of spare time, instead of picking up a good book that I'd enjoy reading and get sucked into, I feel obligated to catch up on my Bible reading. So, I'll either procrastinate and watch TV instead, or read just enough to get caught up and then feel burnt out on reading. In effect, I devote less time overall to reading now than I did when I wasn't reading the Bible, and my yearly book "consumption" has suffered noticeably.

I think I might have found a rhythm, though, getting my Bible reading done weekend mornings, leaving me the rest of the week to read good books. Hopefully I'll be back to a normal pace next year.

As usual, I tend to read quite a bit of young adult fiction. And as usual, this is due to receiving book recommendations from my teenage daughter.

My Carl Zimmer drought has now extended into its second year, but I still read his blog, The Loom, and his other online articles on a regular basis, so I'm not going through withdraws.

I only read one book from this list, and it was one I'd already read (The Hobbit), so I don't get to check off any more of those. There are a few of those on my nightstand, though, so maybe I'll get a few more done this coming year.

I put that 'partial' note after the New Oxford Annotated Bible because I'm only partway through. As part of my Friday Bible Blogging series, I've read right around a quarter of the Bible. At this rate, it'll take me a few more years to finish.

Like I almost always say in these entries, I definitely need to expand my reading habits. My non-fiction reading tends to be very science heavy. I did read a couple history books this year, but they were picture books, so even though they were interesting, I could still do better (technically, The Darwin Experience was also mostly history, but with a strong connection to the history of biology). And all of my fiction reading this year fell into sci-fi/fantasy (yes, I'm counting Tribulation Force as fantasy). But, I'm already doing better on that this coming year - I just started on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Part II, where I'll post my reviews for each book, is still a few weeks out, so stay tuned.

Updated 2013-11-19: I completely forgot about one of the books I'd read, Self-Made Man, so I've added it and fixed the totals to account for it. It's not that it was a forgettable book, but just my general absent-mindedness and not keeping my list of books I've read up to date. Speaking of, I better go update the list with the last book I read and the one I'm reading right now, To Kill a Mockingbird and Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction.

Update 2013-12-06: Part II is finally here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Update - New Edition!

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI've published a second edition to my book, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays ($4.99 from LuLu). To paraphrase from my own review* of the book, this book is a collection of essays I wrote during and after my 'deconversion' from Christianity. I kept it to a length that should be informative without being overwhelming (~100 pages), so it could be a good primer on non-belief. I've given copies of the first edition to several friends, all of whom have said it was interesting. Obviously, you wouldn't expect friends to tell you your book was horrible, but one of them even went out and bought 10 copies of it so that he could give it away to other people.

This second edition adds two new essays that I thought filled some holes. The first of those additions is actually a review of the book, More Than a Carpenter. It was a nice way to address many of the arguments that Christian apologists actually use. The second addition was an essay on Standards of Evidence for Religion. Since I had the opportunity, I also fixed typos and made several small revisions throughout the book, but nothing that would have merited a new edition on its own.

In all honesty, I think this is a decent book to introduce people to atheism, and I think everybody should rush out and buy a dozen copies. (Well, metaphorically rush out. You can only buy the book online from Lulu or Apple's iBooks.)

Just in case you missed the other links to purchase this book, here's one you can't miss:
Buy the Book - Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays

All of the essays in this book are available for free on this site, in my Religious Essays section, incorporating all the changes made for the second print edition. So, you can read it all for free if you want to. I just think a print copy is nice (not to mention a great gift).

*That's not as pretentious as it sounds. I was reviewing all of the books I'd read that year, and threw that one in among many.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review - The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb was very interesting. As the title states, it was the complete Book of Genesis illustrated as a graphic novel by the noted artist, R. Crumb. Crumb took a bit of artistic license in creating his own translation, but it was basically a synthesis of the translations of Robert Alter and the King James bible, and stayed true to what most people would recognize as Biblical passages.

I won't use this space to comment on the actual Book of Gensis. If you're interested in my take on that, read some of the entries in my Friday Bible Blogging series. Rather, I'll comment on Crumb's work. The actual text of Genesis isn't particularly detailed, so to illustrate the entire book took a bit of interpretation on Crumb's part. For example, how did God go about creating everything ex nihlo? What were the tones and expressions people used when speaking? What did all those people look like (particularly the long begat sections)? Seeing Crumb's illustrations along with the text added a new dimension to the stories (though of course, a new dimension that can color your interpretation).

Since this is a graphic novel and thus the pictures are hugely important, here's one example of an illustration from the book, from the massacre of Noah's flood (note that I took a photo of the book with my phone, then touched it up on a computer, but there's only so much touch up I could do).

Noah's Flood from The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

And here's another, from when Jacob stole Esau's blessing from their father, Isaac (the distortion from the camera and the page not being flat are more pronounced in this picture).

Esau's Stolen Blessing from The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

I know that I had read some people making a big deal of the entire book being illustrated, including some of the more risque parts like Noah having sex with his daughters, but rest assured that this isn't pornography. There was cartoon nudity, but nothing I'd have a problem with my teenage daughter seeing.

At the end of the book, there was a commentary section, where Crumb wrote a paragraph or two on each of the chapters. Crumb's no professional Biblical scholar, but this section was interesting, none the less. He brought up an idea I hadn't heard before. I mentioned it already in the entry, Friday Bible Blogging - Genesis 11 to Genesis 20, so I'll just repeat what I wrote there, "when I read the notes in the back of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, I learned of an interesting if somewhat questionable interpretation of this story and of Sarah's barrenness. As put forth by Savina J. Teubal in her book, Sarah The Priestess, these are vestiges of a prior tradition. Sarah was a priestess in a matriarchal tradition. She was childless not because of infertility, but because priestesses were barred from having children. Further, her marriages with the kings they visited with were a type of hieros gamos, or sacred marriage. According to Teubal, these stories were modified as authority was transferred to a patriarchal tradition. You can read more about that theory, along with other interpretations, at My Jewish Learning - Sarah in the Bible."

If you have the time, this is an interesting way to read the Book of Genesis.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review - The Magic of Reality

I really wanted to like Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, and parts of it I did, but in other parts I was disappointed.

The good - Richard Dawkins has a knack for coming up with really good, easy to understand explanations for difficult subjects. For example, in the chapter on 'Who was the first person?', he asked the reader to imagine a stack of photos starting with your mother, then grandmother, then great grandmother, and on and on. Each photo would look pretty similar to the one that came before it, but also a little bit different. Go back far enough, and you'll find an ancestor that no longer looks human, but at no point would any photos look terribly different from those around them. In other words, if you picked photos thousands of generations apart, you'd be able to say that there had definitely been change, but going through photo by photo you'd never be able to pinpoint a generation where one species became another. I also liked his explanation of orbits. It's the same explanation I've used to explain it to people. Imagine a canon on top of a tower, with the canon aimed parallel to the ground. When you fire it, the canon ball will go some distance before hitting the ground. Fire it faster, and the ball will go farther before hitting the ground. But remember that the Earth is curved, and that it's curving away from the path of the cannonball. So, the faster the ball is initially fired, the more you'll notice that curvature, making it take longer for the ball to hit the ground than if the world were flat. Fire the ball fast enough, and even though it will always be falling, the curved path it takes will match the curve of the earth, and it'll never actually hit the earth (ignoring air resistance). That's an orbit.

The bad - After skimming through the Amazon reviews, it appears that I'm in the minority on this, but I just didn't like the illustrations. Many were collage-like. The drawings of people especially were rather ugly in my opinion. After reading something like Carl Zimmer's The Tangled Bank and seeing all the wonderful illustrations and photos in that book, you realize just how much better this book could have been with better visuals. Just as an example, here's one of the pictures from the book. (Note that I took the picture with my phone, then adjusted the skew and colors on my computer, so apologies for the less than optimum quality. But the distorted looking face is not due to my manipulations - that's how it actually looks in the book.)

Illustration from The Magic of Reality

After reading Dawkins' previous book, The Greatest Show on Earth, and then this one, it seems like he really does have an axe to grind with religion. Now, as anyone who reads this blog will know, I'm no fan of religion myself, but I also recognize that there's a time and place for everything. I rather like the idea that Dawkins compared the actual explanations for how things work to mythical explanations (including myths from the Bible). But I think he should have stopped there. When he specifically denounced religious stories, those sections crossed over from being The Magic of Reality into The God Delusion for Kids. Just to show what I mean, here's an excerpt. Dawkins had just introduced the reader to the Cherry Tree Carol, a story of Jesus commanding a cherry tree to lower its branches to provide Mary with its cherries.

You won't find the cherry-tree story in any ancient holy book. Nobody, literally nobody who is at all knowledgeable or well educated, thinks it is anything but fiction. Plenty of people think the water-into-wine story is true, but everybody agrees that the cherry-tree story is fiction. The cherry-tree story was made up only about 500 years ago. The water-into-wine story is older. It appears in one of the four gospels of the Christian religion (the Gospel of John: none of the other three, as it happens), but there is no reason to believe it is anything but a made-up story - just one made up a few centuries earlier than the one about the cherry tree. All four of the gospels, by the way, were written long after the events that they purport to describe, and not one of them by an eye witness. It is safe to conclude that the water-into-wine story is pure fiction, just like the cherry-tree story.

It's not that I disagree with Dawkins on this point, or that I think children should be shielded from discussions of religion, it's just that I think it was wandering a bit too far from the main focus of this book. For an example of a book that I think spent just the right amount of effort debunking religion without straying too far from the far more interesting true story, consider Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True.

My final criticism involves wondering just who this book is for. Of course, the explicitly anti-religious sections will turn off many people, but even for the more open minded, I'm not sure this book is attractive enough to convince them to read it. The Amazon description states in part that it's for "readers of all ages," so I assume it's for teenagers and adults, especially those that don't yet understand all the phenomena it explains. But I'm not sure how many of those people will actually read the book. I practically begged my wife and daughter to read even just one chapter from the book so that I could get their take on it, since they're almost exactly the target demographic. But I couldn't convince either one to do so. Granted, that's only a sample size of two, but I fear this book will be more preaching to the choir than expanding scientific understanding to the masses.

But like I wrote before, the good parts are very good. So, if you're interested at all in the world around you but don't remember all the lessons from your school science classes, this is probably a good book to read.

Updated 2013-02-04 Modified parenthetical note about illustration to make it clear that I haven't distorted the image.


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