Tuesday 27 February 2024

Book Review: Strange Religion by Nijay K. Gupta

The book is split into 4 sections, with 12 chapters, an introduction, and a short conclusion. There are end notes at the back. The 4 sections are: Becoming Christian, What the First Christians Believed, How the First Christians Worshipped, and How the First Christians Lived.

I reviewed an advance reader copy, meaning it wasn’t in its final form. My copy had no illustrations, just captions where the illustrations should go. So I cannot comment on their quality, though there were a good number of them and they’re placed to illustrate interesting aspects of the text.

The author used a decent number of quotes from ancient texts in addition to numerous Old and New Testament quotes. He often tied things together with modern examples which I found a bit jarring but might help a general audience better understand the thought process of ancient peoples.

The book has some great aims and asks some excellent questions. These are questions that cannot be fully answered, as sources are limited, but it was frustrating at times how short the discussion was. The author might give a few possible answers but little or sometimes no reasoning on why these answers should be considered.

For example, in the 3rd chapter he questions why Romans would join the new Christian church when it was so radically different from what they were used to. He mentions 4 possibilities: the intriguing idea of monotheism, the promise of eternal life, that the new faith blended religion, philosophy and morality in a way others didn’t, and the concept of loving everyone. He mentions these but has no follow-up discussion about them and simply ends the chapter. Also strange is the absence of Christianity’s idea of equality as one of those possibilities. Many early adopters of Christianity were rich upper class women (women whose houses were gifted to the church to become buildings of worship upon their deaths). While upper class women had more agency than many in ancient Rome, the Christian faith gave them power over belief in ways other religions denied them. The author does cover the stratification of Roman society and how Christians tried to upend that with their idea of everyone being treated equally within the church in a later chapter, but he never posits this as a reason why lower class individuals might have joined the church in the first place. Even in his conclusion, when he again considers the question of what made Christianity so compelling, he neglects to mention it in favour of purely spiritual answers.

Despite my desire to see more discussion, the book is excellent at giving a good idea of how differently ancient peoples thought about concepts like religion. It was very useful learning how Greeks and Romans worshipped. I also appreciated learning more about how early Christian practice was different from the Jewish faith it sprang from. I highlighted numerous passages in the book that I thought were worth reflecting on. Christianity has changed a lot from those early years, so it was interesting seeing what the first Christians believed and how they followed Christ.

Consider this a great introduction to the topic of how early Christians practiced and how their worship and thought patterns differed from those of the people around them. It’s a fairly short, easy to read book that will give you a lot to think about.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Movie Review: Nine Days

Directed by Edson Oda, 2020
IMDb listing

Set in a realm that monitors people on earth and chooses souls to be sent there, one of the interviewers who had a bad experience on earth sorts through new candidates. But as he deals with the death of his favourite subject and a candidate with ideas different from the others’, he starts to question the criteria upon which he makes his judgement.

This is a strange but thoughtful movie about life and death and what we got out of those experiences. It’s a reminder to be in the moment, to appreciate what you have.

The interviewer, Will, played by Winston Duke, is an interesting character. He’s clearly upset that he has to replace one of his subjects and his experience on earth was apparently negative. It’s unclear what he’s looking for in his new subject, so there’s an interesting mix of souls trying to cater to what they think he wants and being true to themselves.

Emma, played by Zazie Beetz, does a brilliant job of showing how every moment is precious - even minor, otherwise forgettable ones. That if you really LOOK around you, you’ll see the good in the world. She questions the process and gets the most out of the time allotted.

It’s a thought-provoking film that had me crying in a few scenes.

There are a lot of unexplained aspects of the film, where this takes place for example. Expect to be moved by several scenes and left unsettled by the ending.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Reduced Attention Span

I know from posts I’ve seen online that a lot of people came out of the pandemic with a reduced attention span. I used to read for hours at a time, lost in the story. Now it sees like anytime I open a book it’s a real struggle to finish a chapter, a page, a paragraph. No matter how interesting the characters or plot, I have a hard time keeping my mind focused on what I’m doing. So many other things try to intrude. I’m reading more history books, which means I often pause to look up new information or other books being referenced to check out later. I’ve started forcing myself to sit still and read, but even then, chores, shopping lists, random thoughts intrude, making it hard to concentrate. And there’s always social media, that time sink that makes it feel like you’re connecting with the world when you’re really just becoming more and more isolated in your own private echo chamber.

I’m planning another research trip which is eating up the majority of my time. I haven’t been taking on many review requests as a result. Haven’t been reading much fiction at all. Last year I only read 28 books, 18 of which were fiction. Two of those were graphic novels, three more were Dante’s Divine Comedy (are those fiction? poetry? religious philosophy? not really sure). I keep thinking I can read on my trips, but the stress involved means I REALLY do not have the concentration required. So I’ve gravitated to watching more movies and TV shows.

I read an article recently by a professor lamenting that kids these days haven’t learned the skill of reading. That the instant gratification of social media has lowered attention spans and that schools haven’t focused on the skill that is sitting still and concentrating on a single task. I’m realizing that sitting still is a skill to be cultivated. And I think a lot of us have lost it.

I also think I need to prioritize pleasure reading more. Accomplishing tasks is great and research is wonderful, but all stress and no down time make for people who don’t handle the challenges of life very well. The world keeps telling us that we need to earn money from everything we do, that all our hobbies should be second or third jobs. I have found that when I review all the movies I watch I don’t enjoy them as much. There is real work involved in thinking critically about media. This blog started out as a way to market myself and my writing. I know how hard it is to find good media, and how hard it is to be seen, so for years this blog’s been about pointing out books and movies I thought were interesting and worth checking out.

So this blog’s been declining in terms of content. I post book reviews when I have them. I’ve got a religious book review coming soon, and a few science fiction books I’ve received advance reading copies of. This year will probably be another lean year. Hopefully I’ll have more time for leisure reading come autumn, after my trip.

I’m currently reading Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas, and it’s very tense. I’m enjoying it a lot. And managing to read a couple of chapters before my brain tells me to get back to research.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Shout-Out: Phoenix Rising by Ephie and Celia Risho

When a flying creature sets fire to their home, the people of Seabrook scramble. But for Amber, a twelve-year old daydreamer, it’s just the beginning. At the urging of mischievous pixies, she sets out in search for answers, only to find there’s far more going on than her sleepy village can handle. Evil wizards and their sinister plot begin to unfold before her the further she travels. What started out as a seemingly simple task quickly reveals a far greater challenge facing the entire kingdom. And time is running short. If she can’t figure it out soon enough, the entire coast will burn.

An epic coming-of-age fantasy adventure for young and old readers alike!

In “The Elementalists” fantasy books set, you will embark on an adventurous journey into a universe where ordinary teenagers discover incredible powers. Across four epic fantasy books, readers are taken into a world where magic is full of possibility, friendship is unbreakable, and courage glows in the face of challenges.