2018 When Are You Reading Challenge

I’ve decided to join a reading challenge! This challenge, called When Are You Reading?, is to read a book set in each of the following time periods for a total of 12 books. Since I’m joining this half way through the year and I belong to 3 book groups, so I don’t always seek books written in certain time periods, below is what I have come up with for 2018 so far.  I have written reviews about a few of these books, but not all. Some of my reviews are not even online, so I will post them as separate blog posts. Meanwhile, everything I have read can be found  on Goodreads.

The complete challenge will include 12 books from the following eras:
Pre 1500 Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (NF)
• 1600-1699
1700-1799 Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon (currently reading) (F)
1900-1919 My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (F)
1920-1939 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (F),  Before We Were Yours by Lisa
Wingate (F)
1940-1959 Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir… by Chester Nez, Judith Schiess Avila
1980-1999 Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar (F)
2000-Present The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (NF)
South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby (F)
The Future The Wanderers by Meg Lowery (F)


Book Review: “Zealot: The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

Review written on Jan. 24, 2018 in my personal journal; now posting for reading challenge When Have You Read 2018.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Rating: 4 stars
Finished Reading: January 24, 2018

Zealot, by Reza Aslan, is the author’s quest to find the historical Jesus (as opposed to the divine). Who was Jesus really? What was his life like? What were his beliefs? What did he actually say and do? Who were the people that influenced him and that he influenced? These are questions explored in the book.

Aslan was born in Iran into a secular Muslim family, but attended an evangelical Christian camp as an impressionable adolescent, where he embraced Jesus as his savior wholeheartedly. With age, he became less zealous and more circumspect about religion in general. The author’s note on the back flap of the book says that he is “an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions.” He has written about Islam and about God in the modern world.

I would attend Bible Study if a book like this was used. In fact, I went to many passages in my Bible that he quoted in Zealot, in order to see the wording and context.
Jesus of Nazareth in fact did exist. Was he born through immaculate conception? No. (But then, I’ve never believed this anyway.) Did he literally rise from the dead? Probably not. (I don’t believe this either.) So why is he the center of one of the largest faiths in the world?

It’s important to understand that, with our modern obsession about history and facts, “history” as we see it today was an unknown concept in Biblical times. History wasn’t about facts, but rather about revealing truths. People were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant. This is why it is folly to take the Bible literally, word for word, as the “Word of God.”

Israel at that time was ruled by despotic and often cruel leaders of the Roman empire. Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jews, centered around the holy Temple. The Temple had several courtyards, into which were admitted increasingly select groups of people. Only the high priests could enter the very heart of the Temple. The priests were often allies of the Roman emperors under whom they served, and they also were exclusive, rich, powerful, and not particularly interested in the poor, except the taxes they could get from them. Under these conditions, it was no wonder that the Jewish people were fervently hoping and waiting for the true Messiah.

In the Old Testament, there are several criteria laid out which would point to the real messiah. Jesus of Nazareth did not meet any of these criteria – in the end, instead of becoming the ruler “on the throne of David,” he was executed through crucifixion without having achieved any change in the power structure of Jerusalem. Moreover, Jesus was only one of many such “messiahs” that preached throughout the countryside.

Jesus came from the small village of Nazareth, an insignificant hamlet of poor farmers unworthy of even a dot on the maps of the day. He was a peasant, most likely illiterate like most people then. The idea that he was born in Bethlehem is most likely untrue, which is explained in the narrative. Historical records indicate that he had several brothers and probably some sisters (although females were unworthy of mention and not counted in the census). One of his younger brothers was James, who becomes his principle disciple and after Jesus’ death takes leadership of his movement.james bro of Jesus.jpgA close examination of the gospels by religious scholars have led to discussions and disputes as to which passages are more likely true and which are more likely made up. The gospel of Luke seems to be the most fantastical of the four gospels. John was written quite a bit later and takes bits from the other gospels and from the teachings of Paul. We are thus left with Mark and Matthew to decipher the truth.
matthew mark luke john
John the Baptist led his own movement, and Jesus most likely was a member of that movement. The Bible says that he was baptized by John the Baptist. When he died, various of his disciples went out to preach on their own. In fact, there were many men who claimed themselves to be the messiah. Most were executed and forgotten. Jesus was not.

The “miracles” he performed were probably his most famous and convincing acts. Most of the men who could perform miracles (such as healing the sick) charged for their services; only Jesus did this for free. That attracted many to approach him. The author does not say whether Jesus performed actual “miracles.” I was interested in knowing what exactly he did to heal people, but there are no historical records other than what is written in the gospels and by other religious writers of that time.jesus-healing-the-sick
The prophecies of the Old Testament (i.e. those that were written down) and oral prophecies were scattered and caused confusion, which is why the New Testament gospel writers invented a narrative that fit with the messiah prophecies that were known to them. It was sort of like a couple of old Jews studying the Talmud, arguing about this point or that – they can go on for hours. They find it a worthy exercise. Perhaps the faithful of those times did something similar.

In fact, the author points out, OT prophets such as Micah, Amos and others were in fact making veiled criticisms of their current king and political order in their narratives, such as wishful thinking about what a good leader should be. But on one thing they all agreed: THE MESSIAH WOULD BE A HUMAN BEING, NOT DIVINE.

The transformation of Jesus from a mere man to a divine being, the literal Son of God largely came from Paul, a Diaspora Jew who spoke Greek. He preached to both Jews and gentiles and invented his own narrative to exalt Jesus as the promised messiah. For the people in the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, calling Jesus the “Son of God” was bestowing a regal title; but for Paul, it was a literal description: Jesus was God’s son. This transformation did not come easily or without conflict. The Jerusalem Jews who were Jesus’ followers found out about Paul’s revisionist teachings and they were considered so bizarre that James called him to Jerusalem to perform a ritual in the Temple recanting his false teachings. Paul apparently did undergo this ritual to appease James, but it was already too late.


Photo from the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ

The discord between the two groups [the remnants of the Twelve vs. the Greek-speaking Jews] resulted in the emergence of two distinct and competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion: one championed by Jesus’ brother, James; the other promoted by the former Pharisee, Paul. …it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today. (p. 171)

When Jesus was crucified, over his head was placed a sign which read “bandit.” All of those crucified had an identifying plaque such as this, to indicate their crime under Roman law as a deterrent to others. “Bandit” didn’t have the connotation it does today. It signified “revolutionary” or “zealot.” Jesus was not the meek and mild personage some portray. Although he was not a believer in violence per se, he realized its necessity in some cases to rid society of despots.


His condemnation and crucifixion apparently happened shortly after he entered the Temple and famously overturned the tables of the money lenders. These people were essentially salesmen, vendors who had been situating themselves and their wares inside the outer courtyard of the Temple for ages. It was not illegal nor violated Jewish law.


Jesus Removing the Moneylenders From the Temple by James Edwin McConnell 

Jesus’ anger and outrageous act in doing this brought him to the attention of Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler in Jerusalem at that time. Pilate was not conflicted about condemning Jesus as the Bible would have us believe. He had Jesus brought in front of him to answer the question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” but Jesus’ answer didn’t really matter. He was summarily dismissed and sent to be crucified.

To piece together a truly historical narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, scholars today use passages from the Bible, especially those that recur among different writers, and the historical details of society at that time. This is what Zealot attempts to do. I learned a lot from this book but by no means were all my questions answered. Historical facts about Jesus are sketchy and thus we are left with questions. Perhaps the answers to those questions can only be answered through our faith.


All images downloaded from Google Images, except book cover, which was downloaded from Goodreads.com.

Notes on “South Pole Station” by Ashley Shelby

I am blogging my notes on books in order to participate in a reading challenge called When Are You Reading 2018. This is not a book review. My “notes” on books usually are more like rambling thoughts. I wrote this in my journal on May 17, 2018:

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby
Finished reading: May 16, 2018
South Pole Station
I hate extreme cold weather and therefore am sort of fascinated by the kind of people who would choose to work in Antarctica, when even in the summer, the temperature hovers around -40°F. I wrote some notes, (POSSIBLE SPOILERS) most of which are quotes:

p. 121 “Metaphorically, all research is a long walk.”

p. 122 “The urge to jump affirms the urge to live.” This is called the high-place phenomenon, when we experience a strange urge to jump overboard or off a high place when we look down. It is the brain’s misinterpretation of the instinctual safety signal.

p. 179 Sal gets upset when Cooper asks how the universe started. Sal’s answer concludes with “That may work in art, Cooper, but that doesn’t work in the real world.”
This is an insult; although she didn’t take it as such, I did. It’s this attitude by scientists, politicians and others who see art as outside the real world. Of course, the imagination figures into the creation of art, but what art is IS part of the real world.

p. 298 (Chapter narrated by Frank Pavano) “Democrats…would…dig into my past and reveal the plagiarism charges…It was part of the narrative, and that the mainstream media’s refusal to allow me, a man of faith, to be “born again” would only increase the public’s support. Again and again, the media underestimated the importance of the lost lamb to the churchgoing American.” (Emphasis mine.)

At first, I agreed with the idea that “intelligent design” scientists should have equal opportunity to research funding – why not? If they’re wrong, the research will show it. But in the chapter on Pavano (pp. 282-300), in which manipulation invades the scientific method, part of the “Plan” was to manipulate the data if it didn’t support their hypotheses (and their political agenda). So perhaps the South Pole scientists were right to refuse to cooperate with a researcher supposedly sent in the name of science to the South Pole to do research to support the conclusion that “intelligent design” (i.e. a universe created by God) is correct.

At the end of the book, I was surprised to find out that Sal’s hypothesis about the universe being made up of membranes which occasionally run into each other and create new universes, was proven wrong; he did not believe in the Big Bang theory. Yet ultimately his research supports the “inflationary” theory of most other scientists. He, as a ethical scientist, owned up to this and did not try to manipulate the data. Anyway, I was surprised because his hypothesis sounded plausible to me and I thought perhaps in the last 15 years or so, when I have not kept up with prevailing scientific theories about the origin of the universe, this idea of “branes” might be correct. Isn’t that like string theory?

WPC: Journaling for Growth

WordPress’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge this week is about Growth: In this first week of the year, many people anticipate beginnings, changes, and opportunities for growth. Share with us an image that evokes this spirit of change and newness — [such as] an empty journal waiting to be filled. Growth is very personal, and I encourage you to interpret this as literally or as broadly as you like.

Jen H., who is hosting the WPC this week, also includes this quote in her post about growth:
“Our growth depends not on how many experiences we devour, but on how many we digest.” — Ralph W. Sockman

Thinking about growth this way reminds me of my favorite Christmas present this year, which was a new travel journal!

20180103_134941Our daughter gave it to me in anticipation of our upcoming trip to Tanzania at the beginning of February. She knows I always keep a journal when I travel (and use as the basis for my travel blog posts), but this one has a different focus entirely. I usually do my journal chronologically, but this journal encourages an entirely new set of parameters. There are pages for me to write, or draw, or tape something, on every conceivable topic. Here’s a sample page:travel journal page

There are pages to write or draw, etc., impressions to record using all five senses, as well as pages about the people, culture, etc., but all in a state of mindfulness. The first several pages gives some instruction on how to practice mindfulness, especially through meditation. I plan to use this as a vehicle for growth this year.

Experiences are great opportunities for growth, and working on this journal in a unique and mindful  way will allow my travel experience to be richer.

After I come back, maybe I will post some of the completed pages from this journal!