Thursday, December 13, 2018

Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy Kindle Edition by Alan Dershowitz (Bombardier Books)

Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy by [Dershowitz, Alan]

In Trumped Up Professor Dershowitz demonstrates beyond any doubt that he is a man of both letters and principles. Commercially, that may prove to be the undoing of the book since the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum will find plenty to condemn. But that is exactly why this book is so important. Dershowitz has refused to buy into the binary politics that have paralyzed public debate and, in so doing, threaten democracy itself.

As you would expect from a professor of law at Harvard, the writing is superb. It is concise and clear and you don’t need a Harvard degree to understand it. Dershowitz deftly avoids the jargon of both academia and political extremism. Perhaps most refreshingly, he studiously avoids the weasel words and phrases (e.g., “experts say,” “mainstream opinion,” etc.) that have destructively diluted the authenticity of political dialogue and debate today.

In discussing “corrupt motive”, for example, Dershowitz concludes, “Anglo-American law is based on precedent. What happens today can be used tomorrow. So beware of creating precedents that lie around like loaded weapons in the hands of overzealous or politically motivated prosecutors.” Simple, concise, and clear.

By definition words are imprecise. Unlike oxygen and sunshine, they are a human convention. A skillful writer or orator can use the wiggle room that always exist in their meaning to promote a position that is strongly supported, but not entirely conclusive. We can’t expect anyone of the professor’s lingual skills not to utilize those skills any more than we can expect a MLB outfielder to intentionally drop a fly ball now and again to prove he is human. But while Dershowitz races up to the warning track in a few cases he always pulls up. It would be unfair, I think, to characterize anything in this book as distorted or misleading.

My only reservation about the book is that it doesn’t always stay within the lines of its title. While he covers the criminalization of political differences in depth, he does get sidetracked from time to time in his defense of Israel and, for example, the role of Keith Ellison on the Democratic National Committee, and his past disagreements with people like John Flannery and Noam Chomsky. His positions are well-reasoned and important expansions of the public record. I only worry that they will draw attention away from the primary theme of the book.

That is to be expected from a man of principle, however. The man has the fortitude it takes for constancy. And, in the end, I applaud the professor for both his passion and his courage.

At 193 pages it is a quick read. I highly recommend it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God Kindle Edition by Paul Copan and, Matt Flannagan (Baker Books)

Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God by [Copan, Paul, Flannagan, Matt]

Copan and Flannagan argue that God didn't really command genocide. And they marshal some intriguing evidence in favor of this thesis. To begin with, they note that only a minority of the biblical texts that reference the occupation direct the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The majority direct the Israelites to drive the Canaanites out of the land. This suggests that the primary focus is to dispossess the Canaanites of land rather than to wipe them out. As for the texts which do refer to mass killing (e.g. Deut. 20:16-17a; Josh. 6:21), Copan and Flannagan argue that these passages are best interpreted as hyperbolic war rhetoric (i.e. exaggeration for effect) and they provide multiple examples from ANE literature to make their point. Finally, they point out that a careful reading of Joshua and Judges shows that the Canaanites remain very much in the land, with no sense of irony, even after they are supposedly eradicated. In short, if we read the text as a unified work of a capable editor who would have been aware of glaring inconsistencies, we should conclude that the hyperbole thesis is confirmed by the texts themselves.

Of course, even if the texts don't depict genocide, they do portray the Israelites as forcing the Canaanites off the land and killing at least some non-combatants in the process. While this still is a problem, it certainly appears more tractable than outright genocide.

But a more tractable problem is still a problem. Is there more that can be said? Indeed, there is. Copan and Flannagan argue vigorously that the Canaanites were squatters on land that was really the property of the Israelites. Moreover, the Canaanites were grossly sinful -- engaging in acts like child sacrifice and temple prostitution -- and despite this sin, God tolerated them on the land for four centuries before he sent his armies.

As for the killing of non-combatants, many ethicists recognize there are conditions where this type of killing can be morally justified. Copan and Flannagan argue in accord with a divine command theory of ethical obligation that under the right conditions, God will utter a command which creates the obligation to undertake actions like the killing of non-combatants which would be morally censured under regular conditions.

*Let's begin with the positives*

Copan and Flannagan take their time in developing their case. They clearly intended Did God Really Command Genocide? to be a definitive work in the field. And the careful and systematic way that they develop their case gives the book a lot of added value. For example, Copan and Flannagan defend Nicholas Wolterstorff's appropriation theory of biblical inspiration according to which God appropriates human discourse into his divine canon. I have long been a proponent of Wolterstorff's theory and I am heartened to see it clearly articulated and defended here.

I also appreciated the material on divine command ethics. With the exception of intelligent design, there is probably no topic in philosophy of religion more maligned and misunderstood than divine command ethics. Not only do Copan and Flannagan defend a divine command theory of ethics (which they rightly point out is a theory of ethical obligation rather than, as is often supposed, ethical valuation), but they also deploy it effectively in service of their own argument.

Copan and Flannagan are also excellent and vigorous interlocutors for critics of their thesis. For example, in chapter 16 they spend ten pages (197-207) critiquing the four arguments I present in my 2009 paper "Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive." I intend to offer a response to their critique in the future: to attempt to do so here would quickly derail the review. But suffice it to say that their critiques are clearly stated, strongly argued, and at times even humorous (see, for example the underwear drawer discussion on the top of page 202). And this same level of analytic acumen is on display throughout the book.

I am also impressed with the multidisciplinary approach of the authors as they range from biblical studies to theology to philosophy of religion to history, metaethics, international law and beyond.

Finally, I was largely in agreement with part 4 where Copan and Flannagan take on several issues pertaining to religion and violence.

To sum up the positives, Did God Really Command Genocide? is an impressive work of sweeping scope and multidisciplinary focus and stands as one of the most important works yet published on the topic of the Bible and violence. Whether you agree with their main thesis and method or not (and as you will see, I don't), this is nonetheless a must-read for those interested in the topic.

*Do Copan and Flannagan defend ethnic cleansing?*

It is now time to move to critique. I will begin by arguing that Copan and Flannagan's thesis constitutes ethnic cleansing.

To start, let's return to the above-mentioned point that the predominant witness of the taking of Canaan is a dispossession, i.e. the Canaanites are driven out of the land. That may not be genocide, but it sure does look like ethnic cleansing. Consider the following scenario:

Blue Invasion: One ethnic, cultural and/or religious group -- let's call them "the Blues" -- invades the territory where another group -- we'll call them "the Reds" -- have been living for centuries. The Blues invade with the intention of driving the Reds out of the region in question whilst killing any Reds that remain behind.

Does the Blue Invasion constitute an ethnic cleansing? Yes, it does. Indeed, it is a textbook example. According to William Schabas, the term "ethnic cleansing" first appeared in the Yugoslav press in the early 1980s to describe attempts to achieve "ethnically clean territories" within the region of Kosovo (Schabas, Genocide in International Law, 189-90) The term entered international law a decade later to describe policies that are intended to achieve ethnic homogeneity within a particular region, often by the programmatic use of various means including intimidation and murder (190). Note that military assaults and civilian killings are common tools to create terror and force the resident population to vacate the land.

Keep in mind as well that the category of "ethnicity" is construed broadly (as noted above in the Blue Invasion scenario) to encompass specific cultural and religious groups. Imagine, for example, that conservative Muslims in Egypt forcibly sought to remove all Coptic Christians from Egypt by seizure of property, threats of violence, and killing of Coptic Christians that remained. This act would properly be described as an instance of ethnic cleansing, even if the primary grounds for expulsion is Christian religious identification rather than ethnicity per se.

Set against this backdrop the invasion of Canaan as Copan and Flannagan defend it is a clear and unambiguous instance of ethnic cleansing. And this is a serious problem for them. Defending God from the charge of genocide is a muted victory at best if you end up pleading down to the lesser charge of ethnic cleansing.

In fairness to them, Copan and Flannagan refuse to plead the defendant to a lesser charge. While noting that scholar Philip Jenkins describes the Canaanite invasion as a form of ethnic cleansing, they retort that it "would be better termed `moral cleansing'-or more specifically, long-awaited moral judgment on a wicked people whose time had finally come (Gen. 15:16)." (277)

So far as I can see, this response is empty. After all, perpetrators of ethnic cleansing commonly defend their actions as tantamount to a "moral cleansing" and a proper "moral judgment" on the "wicked people" that they are dispossessing. This is to be expected since some sort of legal and/or moral ground is required to justify this kind of radical action including the suspension of property rights, the non-targeting of non-combatants, etc.

To sum up, rather than deny the obvious, it seems to me that Copan and Flannagan ought to concede that they are defending ethnic cleansing, just so long as God commands it.

*Killing the least of these*

Like I said, ethnic cleansing may be less horrifying than genocide, but for most people it remains a horrifying prospect nonetheless. And that certainly applies to Copan and Flannagan's understanding of the Canaanite occupation. On this view, the Canaanites have been living in the land of Canaan for centuries when the Israelites approach in an ANE campaign of divinely sourced shock and awe and announce their intention to drive out the Canaanites and seize land that is properly theirs.

As a result, thousands of people are forced to flee the only lives they've ever known, setting off into the desert with what they can carry. In extreme conditions like this, the handicapped, the sick, the widows, and the elderly, are most likely to be left behind, along with the occasional child who is separated from his/her desperate family. And what happens to these desperate folk on the margins of society who are left behind? They are to be hacked apart by the advancing Israelite armies. Copan and Flannagan acknowledge as much when they quote Kenneth Kitchen: "as in the south, the Hebrew force defeated the opposition; captured their towns, killed rulers and less mobile inhabitants...." (89, emphasis added; Cf. 105-6) (Indeed, if the Canaanites really are as wicked as we are to believe, then one could expect a disproportionately high number of the most vulnerable to be left behind to face Israelite swords.)

By the way, why does Kitchen opt for the clinical phrase "less mobile inhabitants" rather than noting that we're talking about the handicapped, the sick, the widows, the elderly, and the occasional child? To this reader, that choice of phrasing is reminiscent of the pro-choice defender's description of a fetus as "uterine contents." In other words, technically accurate and strategically chosen to keep one's emotional distance from the act.

Perhaps that is the same reason that Copan and Flannagan are keen to avoid the term "ethnic cleansing." Many of us have a sense of the horror of ethnic cleansing based on contemporary reports from places like Kosovo and Sudan, and it is to Copan and Flannagan's advantage to keep such gritty images as far away as possible.

I, on the other hand, think that any proper moral consideration of this book's thesis needs to begin with those images. Listen carefully to Copan and Flannagan's proposal, and you find that the occupation of Canaan included the disproportionate slaughter of the very groups that Jesus would later refer to as the least of these.

*From ethnic cleansing to genocide*

Do Copan and Flannagan succeed in saving the texts from genocide? This seems doubtful to me. The problem is that Copan and Flannagan's focus on killing vs. dispossessing Canaanites misses the crucial point that the real crime of genocide per se is neither killing nor dispossessing individuals but rather undertaking acts with the intent of destroying a particular ethnic, religious and/or cultural identity. That's why acts like prevention of births and forced transfer of children are genocidal acts, precisely because they focus on the destruction of the identity, irrespective of whether any individual is killed, maimed, or mentally harmed.

For example, imagine if rather than engage in a campaign of killing Tutsis in Rwanda, Hutus had, unbeknownst to the Tutsis, instead sterilized them in their sleep. Even if the Tutsis never discovered what happened to them and never suffered (beyond the great pain of being unable to conceive), this attempt to eradicate their ethnic identity would constitute a genocide against the Tutsi people. Consequently, any discussion of the relative ratio of mass killing to forced dispossession and deportation misses the point: if there is an intent to destroy a particular ethnic, religious and/or cultural identity, then the act is still genocide.

On the Copan-Flannagan reading do God and the Israelites undertake actions to eliminate Canaanite religio-cultural identity? Indeed, they do. Those actions include threats and public acts designed to terrorize the population, aggressive military invasion, destruction of all artifacts of Canaanite culture in herem destruction, a programmatic attempt to drive the Canaanites away from their homes, markets, temples, and cities and out into the desert, and the killing of all Canaanite civilians that remain behind. If there is one thing clear in the Deuteronomic history (at least on the Copan-Flannagan reading), it is that God wants to destroy Canaanite culture and identity and the Israelites attempt to carry out that desire to the full extent of their abilities.

To sum up, even if the Copan-Flannagan reading is defensible, it leaves us with the double whammy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It would seem that their answer to the book's central question should, in fact, be "yes, God did command genocide."

*Why not just accept that this was a justified genocide?*

I understand that Copan and Flannagan have a strong motivation to deny that their reading is genocidal given the powerful emotional force of the term and its association with contemporary and modern moral atrocities that have imprinted themselves on our collective consciousness.

However, it seems to me that it would be more consistent for Copan and Flannagan to concede that they accept genocide, albeit under the appropriate conditions secured by the divine command. Indeed, a divine command may not even be necessary. Consider the following passage where Copan and Flannagan affirm Richard Swinburne's point that in some cases mass killing (perhaps even genocidal mass killing) could be undertaken to protect the wider population:

"many people would think it justified to kill people who had an infectious lethal disease and refused to be kept isolated from the rest of the population. Those who think that an infection that leads to spiritual death is as bad an evil as one that leads to natural death will think that there are reasons (though not of course adequate reasons) for the Israelites to kill the Canaanites even without a divine command." (212)

Now this is an unflinching defense of the conditions for genocide straight-up, no pained legal hair-splitting and no divine command required! Lest you think I'm being sarcastic, rest assured I am not. Indeed, I readily concede the point that one can envision scenarios under which genocide might be warranted, and Swinburne helps us to see one of them.

Let's take Swinburne's lethal disease example and run with it. Imagine if all the members of an ethnic, religious, and/or cultural group were infected with a deadly virus like Ebola and they were intent on infecting the wider population. Moreover, there were no way practically to restrain them from doing so. Finally, imagine that their reckless, destructive actions were driven by aspects of their religion or cultural identity. Under those circumstances, it is possible that a genocide of this infectious, malevolent group might be justified.

This may be possible but are there real world examples of this kind of rationale? Indeed, there are. In fact, these rationales are relatively common in world history. (For a sobering survey, see David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martins Press, 2012).) Consider, for example, the case of Adolf Hitler. (Yes, I've chosen to use a Nazi example: Godwin's law is proved once again!) In 1919 Adolf Hitler penned a pivotal letter outlining to the German population the threat that he believed was posed by the Jews. Hitler warned that "In his effects and consequences [the Jew] is like a racial tuberculosis of the nations."

If the Jews really did present a seriously dangerous infection, then one could arguably defend the most radical option of extermination to protect the greater number of human beings.

Before I get lynched, allow me to point out the obvious: the burden of proof is upon any would-be apologist for genocide to provide evidence -- presumably very powerful, indeed all-but-irrefutable evidence -- that this population poses a real threat. Needless to say, Hitler and his hooked-cross cronies offered no evidence to justify genocide beyond their own anti-Semitic, hate-filled nationalistic rhetoric. Consequently we categorically repudiate his noxious claim that Jews were a tuberculosis and instead we consign Hitler to the ignominy he so richly deserves.

But what about the Canaanites? What reason do Copan and Flannagan offer to believe that the Canaanites presented a racial (or religio-cultural) tuberculosis threat to the Jews, one which required a response as distressingly extreme as ethnic cleansing and genocide?

Copan and Flannagan provide an answer in chapter 19 "The Role of Miracles and the Command to Kill Canaanites." You can probably guess how this argument proceeds: God allowed the Israelites to experience extraordinary miracles (beginning with the Exodus) which served to corroborate the divine will to kill Canaanites.

Throughout the book Copan and Flannagan seek to explain why the divine commands for holy war recorded in the Deuteronomic history are not genocidal and, more broadly, how they could be morally defensible. The problem is that they never address the glaring question: why think God ever uttered these commands as they are recorded?

*Why think this happened...?*

In order to appreciate the knotty nature of this historical question, consider how evangelical apologists typically press the importance of history, particularly as it regards the resurrection of Jesus. Evangelical apologists are keen to argue that New Testament documents (e.g. the creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) bring us to within years of the purported events themselves. (As an introduction to this literature one might begin with Paul Copan's treatment of the resurrection in Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (Chalice Press, 2007), 116 ff.)

The contrast with the Deuteronomic history could hardly be greater for here the gap between event and report shifts from years (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) or decades (as in the Synoptic gospels) to centuries. Philip Jenkins explains:

"Even by the most optimistic estimates, J [According to the Documentary Hypothesis "J" is the Yahwist source, one of four sources that comprise the Torah] would not have been written down until 900 or 850. Deuteronomy itself did not take its final form until five hundred years after the massacre of King Sihon and his subjects. That book's authors were as far removed from the conquest as we today are from the time of Martin Luther or Christopher Columbus. Any approach to Deuteronomy or Joshua has to read it in the context of around 700 BCE, or even later, not of 1200." (Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne, 20011), 53-54, emphasis added.)

Think about that: the proximity of the events narrated in the Deuteronomic history to the final form of the texts is equivalent to the distance from Christopher Columbus to today! Given that the period covered by the narrative occurred centuries earlier than the final form of the Deuteronomic history, one would think Copan and Flannagan would be centrally concerned with the historical question: Do we have a historical ground to think these events occurred? Instead, Copan and Flannagan appear to accept the basic historical veracity of the Deuteronomic history in much the same way they would accept the reliability of the Gospels and Acts.

To put it mildly, this is puzzling, all the more so when you consider that the material that Copan and Flannagan accept as historical presents us with such intractable moral problems. Given that the texts in question present us with instances of divinely commanded ethnic cleansing and genocide, why remain committed to reading them as fundamentally historical?

*Literary motifs, imperial ideology and history*

Copan and Flannagan's commitment to a historical reading is even more puzzling when you consider just how many concessions they make along the way. Consider this excerpt where they acknowledge the presence of ancient near eastern literary motifs. For example, on page 97 they note that ancient standards for relaying history were highly stylized and included many literary motifs which are not germane to history writing today. Once we understand them in those terms, Copan and Flannagan assume that we ought not interpret them as relaying literal past events. For example, Copan and Flannagan concede that the descriptions of Yahweh hurtling hailstones down on Israel's enemies and extending the battle day so that they can achieve victory both parallel other ANE accounts in which other deities hurtle objects from the sky and extend the day to achieve battle victory. The clear conclusion they draw is that it would be mistaken to conclude that these passages in fact describe literal events that occurred in the past. That does indeed appear to be a reasonable conclusion.

But then why not apply the same reasoning to the other instances in which deities command their people to slaughter entire populations in battle? Consider the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) which relays an account of the god Chemosh commanding the Moabites to go into battle against the Israelites. If the parallels of extended days and divinely hurled celestial objects are to be read as literary motifs of a battle, why not the same of the parallel accounts of both Chemosh and Yahweh commanding their followers to engage in religious herem warfare?

Consider as well that Copan and Flannagan also concede that one can detect ideological assumptions driving the composition and formation of the text. For example, they observe that Joshua 9-12 reveals "the same imperialistic ideology as other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts." (98) This raises yet another problem. After all, generally when we detect that an imperialistic ideology has shaped the telling of a narrative, that fact provides grounds to question the narrative. To be sure, this doesn't entail that the narrative is necessarily untrustworthy or deceptive. But it does raise a caveat, all the more so when the narrative invokes the will of a national or tribal deity to justify radical actions like genocide and ethnic cleansing. So why not adopt a critical approach to the narrative and its recounting of Israel's national history?

This leaves me perplexed: given that Copan and Flannagan recognize the presence of hyperbole, literary motifs, and imperialistic ideology in the text, why don't they extend their modified reading to the very passages that describe Yahweh commanding herem warfare in the first place?

*What kind of (inspired) literature is this?*

It is at this point that Nicholas Wolterstorff's appropriation theory of biblical inspiration becomes helpful. If we detect in the Deuteronomic history evidence of hyperbole, literary motifs, and imperialistic ideology, then (according to Wolterstorff's theory) this is because these are the kinds of texts that God sovereignly appropriated into his canon of scripture. It would seem that many evangelicals assume without argument that God wouldn't appropriate this kind of literature. However, we need to be very careful about assuming a priori what kind of literature God would have appropriated, and to what end he might have appropriated it.

With this in mind, it is an open question as to whether, for example, God might have sovereignly appropriated into the Deuteronomic history texts that include errant descriptions of the divine nature and will. The really interesting thing is that Copan and Flannagan already concede there are errant depictions of God of just this kind. After all, they affirm the imprecatory psalms as part of scripture even as they repudiate the moral perspective of the imprecatory psalmist. To begin with, they quote William Lane Craig who critiques a dictation view of scriptural inspiration based on the presence of ignoble moral aptitudes in the scriptural writers:

"There are also elements in Scripture that express the emotions and anxieties and the depression of the human authors, and it seems implausible to attribute those to God's dictation. These seem rather to be genuine human emotions that are being expressed." (Cited in 21)

Copan and Flannagan then go on to note that Craig applies the point to the imprecatory psalms:

"An example he [Craig] gives are the so-called imprecatory (or prayer-curse) psalms. Psalm 137 is a psalm written while in exile in Babylon: `By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs" (vv. 1-2). The psalm ends with a startling statement: "Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" (vv. 8-9). Craig argues that this runs contrary to what Jesus said about loving our enemies, concluding that it is hard to think of this as something that is dictated by God rather than a genuine expression of the Psalmist's anger and indignation of those who opposed God." (22)

As Craig, Copan and Flannagan all note, the imprecatory psalmist makes false statements about God. For example, in Psalm 37:13 the psalmist declares that God delights in the destruction of the wicked. This contradicts the claim of Ezekiel 18:23 -- to say nothing of the life and teaching of Jesus himself -- that God takes no such pleasure.

Given that Copan and Flannagan are willing to recognize that God sovereignly appropriated passages into the imprecatory psalms which make false theological claims about God, why not consider that the Deuteronomic history itself makes false statements about God? Of course, one might well ask why God would include such literature in his canon. However, I can think of great reasons to include the imprecatory psalms -- for example, they are a record of real human experience and emotion with which we can identify and from which we need to be transformed. I see no reason that aspects of the Deuteronomic history cannot serve a similar function. Indeed, if there is one thing clear in the history of Israel, it is that Israel is often a stumbling exemplar that provides a mirror to the human condition generally. In that respect, the open question is just how far Israel stumbled, and what we can learn from it.


As I draw things to a close, let me note that it is an unparalleled defense of divinely commanded ethnic cleansing and genocide. And if that sounds like damning with faint praise, I suppose it is. As much as I admire Copan and Flannagan as scholars, I cannot help but be disappointed in their decision to commit their formidable acumen to defending such a bloody and unnecessary thesis.

Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him ,Hardcover(Barker Books )

The polls didn't give Trump much of a chance to become president. Yet he is now what some describe as the most powerful man in the world. How did that happen? Having read a biography about Trump, I was well aware of his character. I was shocked when I found out that Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white evangelicalism. (Loc 1260/2679) How did that happen?

Mansfield has done an excellent job of explaining how Trump was elected and the particular role of the conservative Christians in that accomplishment. He identifies the anger of Christians, feeling that the country they knew was slipping away. They wanted change at almost any cost. Trump won them over by promising to give their country back to them. (Loc 1282/2679) He won over Christian leaders by promising to abolish the Johnson Amendment, the law restricting pastors from speaking openly on political issues or endorsing candidates from the pulpit. (Loc 1314/2679)

Conservative Christians were so desperate for political power and change that they were willing to overlook Trump's lack of experience, his foul language, his bullying business practices, his disrespect and lack of compassion for the marginalized, his lack of familiarity with what it meant to be a Christian, his public boasts of marital infidelity, and his offensive behavior in general. (Loc 92/2679) Mansfield writes that Christian leaders were “interested in allying themselves to power at any moral cost.” (Loc 241/2679) Other believed God had called and would use an immoral Trump much as God had used an immoral Cyrus in the Old Testament. (Loc 1944/2679)

Mansfield explores the spirituality of Trump and covers the great influence of Norman Vincent Peale in the distant past and Paula White in the recent past. Mansfield is direct on criticizing Trump's claim to be a Christian, noting his lack of knowledge of Christians things and his lack of moral character. (Loc 337/2679)

Mansfield also explains that conservative Christians have now wed themselves to Trump. They are responsible for putting Trump in the White House. They took a risk and now they must reconcile what the Trump administration becomes to what they believe about God and truth. (Loc 1490/2679) Mansfield also writes of the prophetic voice that must come from Christian leaders as Trump will need spiritual counsel.

Those Christian who voted for Trump need to read this book to understand the ramifications of their choice. Those who did not vote for Trump need to read this book to understand how we got to this place in American history.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Shock Therapy: Psychology, Precarity and Well-Being in Postsocialist Russia. Tomas Matza. Duke University Press. 2018.

In Shock Therapy: Psychology, Precarity and Well-Being in Postsocialist Russia,Thomas Matza offers an ethnographic account that explores the rise of psychotherapy in post-socialist Russia. Through in-depth interviews and observations of psychotherapists working in different institutions across the country, Matza not only probes deeply into their practice and perspectives, but also gives a human face to Russian experiences of flux and transition.

Since Russia’s tumultuous transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s, the country has grappled with economic, political and cultural challenges, which have frequently been the focus of academic studies. Tomas Matza’s examination of psychotherapy in Russia offers a novel vantage point from which to understand the stories of individual Russians who have faced these challenges. The book’s title, Shock Therapy, is a play on the neoliberal reforms that have happened in that transition, in which, as Alena V. Ledeneva put it, there was ‘too much shock, and too little therapy’.

In the 1990s, Russia experienced a psychology boom, which gave rise to a proliferation of treatment options and increased demand from Russians. A broad range of people became involved in providing psychotherapy and, as Matza puts it, their work offers a means to understand what Russians thought of ‘the self, the other, emotions, disorder, healing, and potential’ at a time of transformation. Matza’s ethnographic study brings a nuanced lens to view post-socialist Russia, showing that the ‘neoliberal governmentality’ is not the only factor in the rise of psychotherapy. Instead, there are other rationales and aims which should be taken into account, such as the humanisation of doctor-patient relations, the de-medicalisation of care and a shift from ‘patient’ to ‘client’, amongst other goals.

Matza, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted fieldwork with psychotherapists on and off between 2005 and 2013 in St Petersburg. Matza undertook fieldwork through varied means: observing psychotherapy sessions, listening to psychotherapy radio phone-ins and reversing roles with practitioners, thereby giving them a seat to discuss their lives. Fieldwork took place in a variety of settings too, creating striking contrasts for readers, such as that between the commercial psychological camps (given the alias ‘ReGeneration’ in the book) for affluent children learning self-management techniques and state services (Psycho-Pedagogical Medico-Social centres, or PPMS), overwhelmed by demand from children whose families were often troubled by issues relating to alcoholism, suicide, divorce and abuse. The approaches to the children of the centres are starkly opposed: ReGeneration using psychology as a positive means for helping children reach their potential, with PPMS approaching the child ‘as a kind of machine in crisis whose function must be improved’. The reader feels like there is a tale of two Russias here.

First encountering Russia in 1994, Matza’s long relationship with the country is clear, with personal experiences infused throughout the book. These experiences and the vivid case studies give balance to a text that is heavily anchored in the theories of the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Rancière as well as other powerhouses. The peppering of these in the book helps position Matza’s ideas and gives the foundations for him to build his own unique understanding of the subject matter, though it does reduce accessibility for lay readers.

Matza’s study is heavily situated in the perspectives of the psychotherapy practitioners he interviews. These interviews enable him to probe deeply into their motivations. Matza explains that one psychotherapist joined the profession in response to the ‘unravelling’ of the world around them in the 1990s, with psychotherapy offering ‘mooring, and eventually, a professional identity’. On the other hand, there are some psychotherapists who are ‘uninterested in anything but earning more money through therapy’, according to one of Matza’s interviewees. Meanwhile, psychologists working in the ReGeneration camps with the children of elites viewed themselves as social reformers. Their ‘civilising concern’ (Matza’s description) comes from their view that if they can alter the behaviour of the young elite clientele for the better through lessons of emotional interdependence, empathy, civility and personal responsibility, then Russia as a country can benefit. The more the reader learns about the entrenched problems of Russia, however, the more this civilising mission can feel quixotic. Matza also points out that the ReGeneration psychologists’ intended values for their clients was defined in a subtractive way: clear what they are against (a version of the Soviet past and the style of the current Russian elites), but not what they were for.

When thinking about the care of a client, most would picture there to be only one vulnerable person in the practitioner/client relationship. In Matza’s concept of ‘precarious care’, both practitioner and client are vulnerable. In the PPMS centres visited by the author, practitioners were in fragile positions as they were working with meagre financial support, snowed under by burdensome administration and anxious about harsh inspections. A major reason for the latter two is the audit culture instigated by the reforms of Vladimir Putin, which can be roughly distilled to audits, standardisation and systemisation. These manifest themselves in measurability, an overly bureaucratic culture and the treatment of citizens as consumers. One example of the overly bureaucratic culture recounted by Matza is that if staff of the PPMS centre go beyond their legally mandated duty to protect children, they face reprimand from senior management, for whom the PPMS centre’s work was primarily ‘a matter of results and protocols’. Admirably, this does not deter PPMS staff from finding ways to work around this: for example, the development of a collaboration with a ‘sister organisation’ affiliated with local police to meet on a monthly basis in order to share data of clients the PPMS centre first encounters, thus enabling the sister organisation to make best use of its limited time with those clients. However, these positive stories from the PPMS centre are rare and the audit culture, coupled with the jottings of Matza’s observations of cases, make for melancholy reading:

Case: Eight-year old boy. Fears. Bad self-image. Screams at school and can’t be restrained. Parent advice sought. Practitioner was unable to help. Dispatched to another school.

Not all of Matza’s material came from on-site interviews. A radio show hosted by a psychologist provides fertile ground for further understanding issues in contemporary Russia. One particularly striking debate mediated by the host, Mikhail Labkovsky, focused on inter-generational relations. Public transport is an arena for clashes between generations, where older people called the show to vent their fury that younger riders refuse to give up seats on the metro. Younger callers responded over the air by insisting that they were entitled to a seat as they had paid for it and were irked by the rudeness of their elders. This debate displays a telling clash of conceptions of citizenship: social custom versus consumer models.

This debate took place in the shadow of neoliberal reforms to replace elderly benefits such as free metro rides with meagre cash payments. One elderly caller linked the ‘boorish behaviour’ of youths on transport to alterations to benefits and the attitudes of the upper echelons of government: ‘attitudes to the elderly are administered from the top, that’s why we have this atmosphere in society’. The chapter on the radio show is a particularly insightful one in comparison to the rest of the book, as due to the democratic nature of the radio phone-in, Matza has unbridled access to the views of those seeking psychotherapeutic help – more so than in other areas of his fieldwork.

Shock Therapy dissembles the many layers of psychotherapists’ personalities and practice with rigour, making poignant and nuanced observations about the state of contemporary Russia. The book could benefit from more coverage of the perspective of clients, who for most of the book are passive and often voiceless. Matza nonetheless acknowledges that there are limitations to his access to such perspectives, particularly of those in PPMS care. Given the time span of the fieldwork and theoretical literature surveyed, Shock Therapy is an achievement of conciseness. The role reversal of putting psychotherapists on the couch means that Matza is not only able to probe deep into the phenomena of psychotherapy, but also give a human face to the flux of post-socialist Russia.

Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. Ann Laura Stoler. Duke University Press. 2016.

How do colonial histories remain active forces shaping the conditions and most urgent issues of the present? In Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times, Ann Laura Stoler utilises ‘duress’ as a category of domination as the prism through which to analysis how imperial traces continue to impact on relations of exploitation in the contemporary moment. Ed

Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our Times is a timely book. It can be read as both a work of postcolonial analysis and a methodological guide to conceptual history. Ann Laura Stoler’s willingness to wrestle uneasy mercurial modern terminologies into valuable approaches to the histories of imperial formations is refreshing and exemplary.

Modern political discourse is inflected by threats and nostalgia: on the left and on the right, values appear under assault and facile apocalyptic defeatism obfuscates further debate. Stoler’s emphasis on the term ‘duress’ as a historical category of domination that looms over contemporary power dynamics is therefore a valuable contribution to the conceptual vocabulary of today’s politics. While other authors might struggle with the ambivalence of the term, Stoler exploits the elusive nature of ‘duress’ in order to rummage through the ruins of what modernity has deemed untimely.

For Stoler, duress is ‘a relation to a condition, a pressure exerted, a troubled condition […] it may manifest in a weakened constitution and attenuated capacity to bear its weight’. In the context of postcolonial studies, then, duress ‘is a relationship of actualized and anticipated violence’, pointing the reader towards a more subtle observation throughout the work: the threat of violence as a form of lingering power. A consistently able use of this term allows Stoler to take a point that has obsessed many historians further than most of the existing scholarship: historicised understandings of imperial sovereignty are better equipped than ideas of nation states to explain contemporary forms of exploitation and manifestations of resentment.

In her introduction, Stoler sees the exploration of duress as a way of mapping forms of occlusion – or the hidden – in traditional histories of empire, in order to address often invisible, overturned or neglected perspectives as the imperial origins of state dynamics and international relations are brought to the surface. Chapter Two deals with the failure to use the rhetoric of empire in discussions about Palestine. Chapters Three and Four constitute an assessment of the forgotten practice of punishment through colony-formation and the omission of discussions around this and other colonial practices from French history. Chapter Five explores the banality of modern uses of terms such as ‘benevolent empire’ and expands on the importance of using a historicised model of imperial sovereignty. Chapter Six pushes the Enlightenment links between knowledge and ideas of empire past the frontiers of the beginning of the nineteenth century to show how insecurity about the nature of information remains a central weakness in the modern state apparatus. Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine address the ways in which latent racism lies at the core of the modern idea of the French state and therefore appears to many as ‘common sense’. If this manifests itself politically today in the effervescent popularity of the Front National in France, it remains generally neglected in public discussion. Stoler uses her acute understanding of French politics and history in several chapters to show how her concepts can help us understand the woodwork supporting today’s political pillars.

Perhaps Stoler’s most outstanding contribution is her ability to show how much the notion of ‘newness’ – the idea that the leading conditions behind modern phenomena lack historical precedents – influences academic and public discussion of today’s problems. Scholars have argued this point at length: Antony Anghie suggests twentieth-century sovereignty was created ‘and improvised’ out of the colonial encounter, while Linda Gregerson portrays the formation of the nation as part of the retroactive logic of empire. But Stoler has managed to show how temporality – or rather the ‘uneven temporal sedimentation’ of empire – provides us with precedents that give a better historical context for addressing the problems of our time: waste lands, toxic dumping and the formation of ghettos are all the result of the logic of empire. In stark contrast with the liberal idea of the state, this logic relies on the threat of violence and porous borders of sovereignty to define rights.

Just how pertinent this logic is can be seen in the transferability of Stoler’s book to the most problematic political dimensions of 2017. Stoler’s discussion of nineteenth-century agricultural colonies as spaces that reveal how ‘being at risk and a risk is a fuzzier political line than most colonial stories would allow’ provides a precedent for today’s refugee camps. The common reading of the inequalities brought about by the economic crisis of 2008 as divided between the risk-makers who have the resources to shelter themselves from the risk they create and those who can only suffer through them is understood as reproducing the logic of empire, whereby nations ‘operate as states of exception that vigilantly produce exceptions to their principles and exemptions to their laws’. Hannah Arendt’s idea that imperial formations give rise to a ‘wild confusion of historical terminology’ can be best understood when considering the transformation of contested space and the problematic definitions of sovereignty in the face of historical contingency: ‘what happens to the threshold of transformation when unfinished development projects are put to other use […] when Soviet military camps are abandoned and remade as the Ukrainian-Polish borderlands?’

Book reviewers often attempt to review the book they wish the author had written. Throughout this work, Stoler demonstrates her understanding of the criteria behind today’s historiography – exemplified by her awareness of how and why both Michel Foucault and Edward Said’s contributions to the discussion on Palestine went largely ignored due to the political thorniness of the issue. If Stoler spends time engaging with the ways in which today’s perceptions have been shaped, this reader cannot help but wish more emphasis had gone into the historical formation of different ideas of imperial sovereignty themselves. The chapters that assess modern political discourse often suffer from an overreliance on a singular historical theory of imperial sovereignty that would benefit from more nuanced national contextualisation. This difference in opinion is merely one of emphasis. Nonetheless, Duress provides a great laboratory of ideas for scholars and for a public willing to engage with a deeply creative interpretation of modern politics.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 Audio CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged by Ian Black (Author), Michael Page (Narrator) (Tantor Audio / Allen Lane/ Penguin Books/ Grove Press/ Atlantic Monthly Press)

Several people have criticized the supposed anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli bias of author. There is no doubt that Ian Black favors the Palestinians, and his positions are clear throughout the book. However this does does not deter from the significant value of Black's book.He makes use of a wide variety of sources, from Jews, Arabs, and others, and he certainly criticizes the Palestinians when appropriate. What is valuable about the book is that it takes into account so many aspects of the conflict, with their many ramifications, and uses deep and broad research and reading to support this conclusions. So, the author has a point of view, and at times it made me shake my head critically, but Black does a good job in illuminating the conflict. Even those who know quite a bit about the conflict and how it has developed over time, will learn from this book. The writing is fluid and interesting. A strength of the book is that Black makes use of fiction and poetry from Palestinians and Jews, which enriches his narrative. A book worth reading, even if you disagree with Ian Black's specific arguments or his general point of view.

In Enemies and Neighbors, Ian Black, who has spent over three decades covering events in the Middle East and is currently a fellow at the London School of Economics, offers a major new history of the Arab-Zionist conflict from 1917 to today.

Laying the historical groundwork in the final decades of the Ottoman Era, when the first Zionist settlers arrived in the Holy Land, Black draws on a wide range of sources-from declassified documents to oral histories to his own vivid on-the-ground reporting-to recreate the major milestones in the most polarizing conflict of the modern age from both sides. In the third year of World War I, the seed was planted for an inevitable clash: Jerusalem Governor Izzat Pasha surrendered to British troops and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued a fateful document sympathizing with the establishment of "a national home for the Jewish people." The chronicle takes us through the Arab rebellion of the 1930s; the long shadow of the Nazi Holocaust; the war of 1948-culminating in Israel's independence and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe); the "cursed victory" of the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Palestinian re-awakening; the first and second Intifadas; the Oslo Accords; and other failed peace negotiations and continued violence up to 2017.

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain) Hardcover – February 20, 2018 by David Cannadine (Allen Lane/ Viking/ Penguin Books)

Rule Britannia! This book is the ninth in the Penguin History of Great Britain series. The author is Dr. David Cannadine a British scholar who is currently teaching at Princeton. The author begins his long account with the Union of England, Scotland and Wales in the dawn of the nineteenth century. This century was the greatest in the history of the British Empire. Among the accomplishments of these island people were:
a. The vast extension of the British Empire and the settlement of New Zealand,. Australia, Canada, the West Indies and the establishment of British rule in the vast subcontinent nation of India.
b. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 leaving Great Britain as the greatest European power. Heroes such as Wellington the Iron Duke and Lord Nelson emerged from the long conflict with France from 1783 to 1815 (discounting the short lived Peace of Amiens in 1802)
c. Much of the book is taken up with intricate details of party battles in the House of Commons between Whigs, Tories and Liberals. The political stars of the century were Disraeli the Conservative Tory and William Gladstone the great liberal leader.
d. Incomes and standard of living improved but their was still widespread poverty, disease and social unrest in the land. Long sections of the book deal with the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Charter agitation for better wages and voting rights for common people.
e. Home rule for Ireland and the Irish potato family of the hungry 1840s caused much pain and suffering for everyone from politicians in London to starving children in Ireland.
f. A century of religious conflict. Growing division between doubt and belief with the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.
g. A literary flowering of the novel and poetry. Great novelists such as Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins and Jane Austen published their works,. Poetry is led by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Byron and later Tennyson and Matthew Arnold.
h. The century began with George III on the Throne followed by George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837-1801
I. Slavery is ended in the British Empire
j. Wars included the War of 1814 vs. the United Sates, Opium Wars in China, conflict in Afghanistan, The Crimean War, the Boer War and several colonial conflicts.
This just hits the highlights of this very detailed history book! I enjoyed the chapter on the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the progress in many areas made by the British nation. Well done by an outstanding historian!

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain) Hardcover – February 20, 2018 by David Cannadine (Allen Lane/ Viking/ Penguin Books)

This is an excellent general history, covering the whole period, including the imperial realm, including reasonably well woven chunks of cultural material as well. Perhaps the most consistent theme is how feeble the great imperial dynamic was -- various governments consistently tried to run the empire on the cheap, and vainly tried to discourage new acquisitions. This is not exactly what one is taught in post-colonial rhetoric. An interesting perspective.

There are some strange lapses -- for instance, Queen Victoria is hardly mentioned at all, which, even if she was not as politically powerful as previous kings and queens, is pretty bizarre for the Victorian Era. Her son gets more text space, for some reason, as we head into the 1900s. Some of the political manoeuvering (and his is a very top-down view) is pretty tedious as the century grinds on (I really got bored around 1900-1906 when we have to deal with a series of Salisburys and Roseburys and such). At some point a decision was made not to have any quotations, which means that the text is univocal, and as such, ends up being earnest but frankly dull. This is not Simon Schama or other high rollers.

Cannadine has a personal tic which is very irritating -- (he puts equivocations into parentheses, and repeats them again and again, for instance on whether Russia was ever a real threat to India (or perhaps not?) -- and so on. There is a slight lack of editing here and there -- he repeats the same information without variation from time to time. I only caught one typo (1800 for 1700 on page 98), which these days is pretty good.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this as the best recent general history. For fun, I'd head to the source of all evil himself, Lytton Strachey.

Friday, November 9, 2018

My Library of America ( Library of America)

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A plop on the doormat and Volume 177 in the Library of America is in the house: Edmund Wilson’s writings from the 1930s and 1940s, including Classics and Commercials, The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow. There is something appropriate and even – without wanting to be corny about it – moving about seeing Wilson take his place in the Library of America. The Library was his idea: he lobbied hard for non-academic, reader-friendly editions of American classic writers, in ‘complete and compact’ form. ‘It is absurd that our most read and studied writers should not be available in their entirety in any convenient form,’ he argued. The project was modelled on the French Pléiade, and it shows, in the conception, the look and feel of the books and in the beautiful quality of the binding and printing. The Library has filled its mission admirably and most of America’s acknowledged great writers are represented. (The omissions smack of rows over royalties and copyright: no Ernest Hemingway, no Emily Dickinson, no Marianne Moore.) Some have even argued that the brief has been stretched too far. Wilson’s canonisation came after those of Charles Brockden Brown, H.P. Lovecraft, James Weldon Johnson, George Kaufman, William Bartram and Theodore Roosevelt. He might not have been too chuffed about that.

I am an abject fan of the Library. I own, I find, ten of its volumes: three of Parkman, one each of Henry James, Adams, Baldwin, Frost and Stevens, the new Wilson, and an anthology of writing about baseball. The books are lovely, lovely objects. They are about the nicest books I have. American books are in general printed to much higher standards than British books. (Ask publishers about that, and they always say that it’s to do with economies of scale: five times as big an audience equals higher print runs equals lower costs equals the possibility to make nicer books. So they say.) The Library takes that tendency about as far as it will go: it’s hard not to take the volumes down from the shelves and stroke them, like a Bond villain fondling a cat.

What is really hard, though, is to read them. The books are so gorgeous, so marmoreal, that I find them unreadable. Not unreadable in the Pierre Bourdieu/Edward Bulwer-Lytton sense, and not unreadable in theory – I want to read them, I really do. It’s just that in practice, I don’t. I once got about a quarter of the way through Parkman’s Oregon Trail and have made two or three failed attempts on Adams’s novel Democracy, but never made it more than about five pages in. Apart from that, it’s been a total bust. As for the Pléiade, my record of ownership is fairly strong, but equally unblemished by actual reading. I have six volumes: three of Proust, two of Simenon, and one of Taoist philosophy (don’t ask). If pressed, I would say that the Pléiade volumes are theoretically more readable, or less not-readable, than the Library of America; something to do with the sexily diminutive format. This is pure theory, however. In practice they are both equally easy to not-read.

That makes 16 volumes of beautifully produced and entirely unread great writing. What is it about these amazingly gorgeous books that makes one not want to read them? Perhaps it’s to do with having a palate corrupted by paperbacks. I buy more hardbacks now that they’re cheaper – sales figures suggest lots of us do – but in my head I still think that the paperback is somehow the real form of a book. It has a cheapness and democratic availability, and it doesn’t matter if you drop it in the bath or lose it or discover that it’s been ‘borrowed’. I can’t shake off the sense that a hardback is a slightly over-posh relative of a real book. Also, there’s the sheer density of matter in these LoA/Pléiade volumes: a thousand pages a pop. This makes them very good value – the Simenon was cheaper than buying the equivalent volumes in paperback – but when you’re reading them there’s a demoralising sense that, as they say when you flunk a driving test, you’re ‘failing to make due progress’.

A paperback is a paperback; the collected writings of a writer, any writer, have the air of belonging to Culture in the abstract. That’s off-putting. With cheap and cheerful editions it seems natural to move around from the latest overpraised tripe to masterpieces you should have read years ago. This might be one reason classics publishing has so thrived in paperback. Penguin Classics (for whom I briefly worked, I should declare) is, in terms of overall sales and the ability to keep books in print indefinitely, the most successful publishing list in the world. Part of that must be to do with a sense that the books are easy to pick up and put down; literally and metaphorically, not too heavy.

There’s a risk that memorialising writers, consigning them to Culture, is a way of ignoring them. It would be interesting to hear a view about that from the man who observed in 1943, of the time after the end of the First World War, that ‘the shadow of Big Business that had oppressed American culture in our childhood seemed finally to be passing away.’ ‘Finally’ might, with the benefit of hindsight, have been premature. But Wilson had a lot to say about a lot of things, and he was right more often than he was wrong. One of the legacies of the Civil War, he thought, was that ‘whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country, it is always to liberate somebody.’ As for Library of America Volume 177, he’d have loved the actual book. Given his way of tackling writers by starting at the beginning and carrying straight on through, he might even have read it.

Alexander Hamilton: Writings (LOA #129) (Library of America Founders Collection) Hardcover – October 15, 2001 by Alexander Hamilton (Author), Joanne B. Freeman (Editor) (Library of America)

Whether lamenting the paucity of power in revolutionary-era Congress or asking a friend to find him a wife in Carolina, founding father Alexander Hamilton was earnest, passionate and articulate. In Hamilton: Writings, Joanne B. Freeman (Affairs of Honor), assistant history professor at Yale, has assembled 170 letters, essays, reports and speeches from 1769 to 1804. Describing himself as "[c]old in my professions, warm in my friendships," Hamilton indeed exhibits a range of expression, emotion and restraint. Extensive wartime correspondence, 51 contributions to The Federalist, the famous speech to the Constitutional Convention, courtship letters and many more items will interest all fans of American history.The latest in the Library of America series arranges Hamilton's writings in chronological order. The text consists of more than 170 letters, speeches, essays, reports, and memoranda written between 1769 and 1804, including all of Hamilton's material presented in The Federalist. This additionally sports several conflicting eyewitness accounts of Hamilton's lethal duel with Aaron Burr. .

Alexander Hamilton, the subject of Lin-Manuel Miranda's smash hit Broadway musical, comes to life in his own words in this critically acclaimed collection, which also includes conflicting eyewitness accounts of the duel with Aaron Burr that led to his death. One of the most vivid, influential, and controversial figures of the founding of America, Hamilton was an unusually prolific and vigorous writer. As a military aide to George Washington, critic of the Articles of Confederation, proponent of ratification of the Constitution, first Secretary of the Treasury, and leader of the Federalist Party, Hamilton devoted himself to the creation of a militarily and economically powerful American nation guided by a strong, energetic republican government. His public and private writings demonstrate the perceptive intelligence, confident advocacy, driving ambition, and profound concern for honor and reputation that contributed both to his astonishing rise to fame and to his tragic early death.

Arranged chronologically, this volume contains more than 170 letters, speeches, pamphlets, essays, reports, and memoranda written between 1769 and 1804. Included are all fifty-one of Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist, as well as subsequent writings calling for a broad construction of federal power; his famous speech to the Constitutional Convention, which gave rise to accusations that he favored monarchy; and early writings supporting the Revolutionary cause and a stronger central government. His detailed reports as Secretary of the Treasury on the public credit, a national bank, and the encouragement of manufactures present a forward-looking vision of a country transformed by the power of financial markets, centralized banking, and industrial development.
Hamilton’s sometimes flawed political judgment is revealed in the “Reynolds Pamphlet,” in which he confessed to adultery in order to defend himself against accusations of corrupt conduct, as well as in his self-destructive pamphlet attack on John Adams during the 1800 presidential campaign. An extensive selection of private letters illuminates Hamilton’s complex relationship with George Washington, his deep affection for his wife and children, his mounting fears during the 1790s regarding the Jeffersonian opposition and the French Revolution, and his profound distrust of Aaron Burr. 

LIBRARY OF AMERICA is an independent nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1979 to preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, America’s best and most significant writing. The Library of America series includes more than 300 volumes to date, authoritative editions that average 1,000 pages in length, feature cloth covers, sewn bindings, and ribbon markers, and are printed on premium acid-free paper that will last for centuries.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (The American South) Paperback – October 29, 2002 by Christopher Metress (University of Virginia Press)

An excellent retelling of an event that changed the course of American history.

There have been thousands of people lynched in the United States over the past centuries. Not all of them are remembered. Not all the victims have names. We have let them slide into obscurity, even though at the time there were photographs, newspaper articles, journals, and even post cards celebrating these deaths.

Emmet Till was a young boy, barely a teenager, who was living in Mississippi in the early 50s, sent there from Chicago to be "safe." While there he made the mistake of breaking one of the many rules that Negroes (the term used in the 50s for African Americans) had to follow in order to be slightly more safe from violence done by whites.

He was tortured and lynched by a gang of white men (yes, grown adults attacking a young boy); his body was then chained to an industrial fan and thrown into the river. He was found and his family held a funeral for this boy who had done nothing more serious than be full of life.

What made the difference was a combination of things. His funeral was open casket. The photographs of his tortured body were printed in many newspapers and magazines. And finally America had enough of open season on African Americans. This was, I think, a seminal moment in the civil rights movement: the awareness that there were these people among us, Americans living in America, who were cruelly treated, marginalized, and silenced; this book recounts the moment when the story broke free to the larger public mind.

There was a trial (an all-white jury, defense team, and judge), and the accused were found NOT guilty; later, these same men confessed they had done it to a magazine, afforded protection from prosecution by the constitutional guarantees of no double jeopardy.

But in the larger trial by the American public, the men were guilty, and there was a a sea change. Lynching was brought to light in the minds of the American public. Lynching was no longer something that could be done with public approval. Its victims were no longer nameless and faceless.

The story is told by means of newspaper and magazine clippings. There is a narrative stringing it together, but it is mostly direct quotes from the contemporary accounts.

The Nation's Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America by James D. Drake ( University of Virginia Press)

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Founding era was the willingness of so many Americans to believe that their shaky young republic was somehow destined to dominate North America. James Drake explains why people with only the haziest ideas of the continent's geography could have found this proposition plausible, and shows how, in acting on their convictions, they positioned the United States to realize a vision that was far more improbable than they dreamed. This elegantly argued, graceful, and rewarding book invites us not only to reimagine the American Revolutionary impulse, but to reassess the nature of the nation it created.In The Nation’s Nature, James Drake untangles the critical and complex process by which free Americans imagined the United States stretching from sea to sea long before it actually did. He makes a convincing case that this continental vision was critical to the Americans’ success at breaking up the British Empire in 1776 and launching their own eleven years later. Along the way, he proves that it is possible to trace the evolution of a nation’s collective imagination in jargon-free prose that is actually fun to read.Geographers have begun to ask whether continents are any longer a viable category of analysis, while the new field of global history has challenged the idea that the story of this nation can be contained between the seas. In this moment of geographic turbulence, we are suddenly liberated from the tyranny of continental presumptions and encouraged to reimagine ourselves in a less landlocked manner. Drake's book comes as a gift at this critical time."

The Themes That Bind Us: Simplifying U.S. Supreme Court Cases for the Social Studies Classroom Paperback – August 1, 2018 by Gretchen Oltman (Author), Johnna L. Graff and, Cynthia Wood Maddux (Rowman & Littlefield )

Teaching U.S. Supreme Court cases can be a daunting task for any social studies teacher, but this book can ease that process. Carefully aligned with the NCSS’ Ten Themes, this teacher’s guide provides thirty-two high-interest U.S. Supreme Court cases edited to a more reader-friendly format while retaining the original verbiage. Features of each chapter include pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading questions, as well as teaching extensions to help students better understand the stories behind the cases, the intricacies of the laws involved, and the effects of the Court’s decisions on American life. This book provides any teacher with viable, useable case law to fit any historical timeframe or unit of study.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

God to different Religions: God in the Qur’an, by Jack Miles. Knopf. 256 pages. $26.95. Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, by Jack Miles. Vintage. 368 pages. $16.95. God: A Biography, by Jack Miles. Vintage. 446 pages. $17.95.

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Who was God speaking to when he said “Let there be light”? There was nobody to hear him, no spouse, no servants, not even a “mythic animal,” wrote Jack Miles in God: A Biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. God was “as yet unmade by any history.” He needed an interlocutor: when he shaped an image of himself in clay, God grew as dependent on his creation as it was on him. “Where are you?” God called out to Adam and Eve as he strolled in the garden.

An agnostic, ex-Jesuit book critic and professor of religion, Miles, in a new mode of biblical literalism, read the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, from beginning to end to see how God’s character developed over the narrative. Just as one might study the character of Hamlet in Shakespeare, Miles aspired to meet God as the protagonist of a great literary classic. If it sounds anthropomorphizing, it was—yet Miles, who trained in Near Eastern languages at Harvard, the Hebrew University, and the Pontifical Gregorian University, strove to be faithful to what is there on the page. In the 1980s and 1990s, a constellation of critics were reading the Bible as literature—Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Frank Kermode, and Robert Alter among them—at an intellectual moment when both God and the author were considered dead. Miles’s elegantly simple idea to write a “theography,” a word not enshrined in dictionaries, felt revelatory and new. In 2001, he followed this success with Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, a reading of God’s continuing biography in the New Testament, and he has now completed a trilogy of the monotheisms with God in the Qur’an. Seeking to understand the character of the divine protagonist as it changes over the course of the three scriptures, Miles begins from the premise that the deity of Judaism and Christianity is the same God of Islam, the same celestial presiding over the three Abrahamic faiths. In his final installment, Miles shows how the Qur’anic God revises and corrects his earlier portrayal, an endeavor in line with the common Muslim view that Islam is the perfection of the three monotheisms: the newest and best version. Yet this also means that, with the conclusion of Miles’s series, God demands edits on the story as the theographer has told it so far.

What emerged in God: A Biography was a deity riven with contradictions, an Almighty who seemed, terrifyingly, to act first and think after. Theography, it turned out, was like a kind of divine psychoanalysis. One could picture Miles as therapist, his patient reclining on a sofa made from clouds. God told humankind to be fruitful and multiply, yet he swiftly became full of rage and regret at how we proliferated unchecked. He drowned his creation, only to regret it. When the survivors of the flood offered him grilled meat, “the Lord smelled the pleasing smell and said to himself, ‘Never again will I curse the earth because of human beings,’” as the enigmatic voice that seems to know the creator’s inner thoughts narrates in Genesis. Drawn into battle on behalf of the Israelites in Pharaoh’s Egypt, God was transformed by war. He became a violent extremist, Miles wrote, butchering his chosen people and “terrorizing the very sky.” In Exodus, God became more interested in law and order; he gave Moses the Commandments and defined himself by his justice. Yet by the Book of Numbers, God and the Israelites, bound together in the covenant, had begun to complain about each other incessantly. God was irritable, “impossible to please,” as Miles put it, and so were the Israelites, made as they had been in his image.

Crow Teaching Qabil (Cain) How to Bury His Brother, from Qisas al-Anbiya (Tales of the Prophets) of Ishaq b. Ibrahim al-Nayshaburi
© Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Edwin Binney, 3rd Collection of Turkish Art at the Harvard Art Museums

In historical scholarship, the inconsistencies in God’s behavior as it is portrayed in the Bible are often explained as traces of the multiple authors behind the texts. For theography, the contradictions are instead evidence of what Miles called divine inner conflict. As polytheism gave way to monotheism, the One accrued the personalities of the gods he encompassed: from benevolent Mesopotamian deities, to the Canaanite warrior Baal, to Tiamat, the serpent of chaos. The same bipolar God would have to create and destroy—raising, for the first time, the problem of evil that the innocent, suffering Job so pitifully invokes. For Miles, monotheism became “the story of a single God struggling with himself,” the divided image we are condemned to replicate in our daily lives. With the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of Israel to Babylon, Miles wrote, God seemed to enter a crisis. The Israelites were violating the covenant he had made with Abraham; God’s forgiveness seemed to undermine his authority. Worse, it began to appear as though many of God’s prophecies had not come to pass. It was then that God first began to maintain his inscrutability, insisting, in the Book of Isaiah, on what Miles described as “mystery rather than power as the source of his holiness.” After appearing to lose a bet with Satan, God thunders at Job in the whirlwind, but after that, he never again speaks in the Tanakh. In Miles’s reading, Job reduced God to silence.

Trapped within his own contradictions, God devised an astonishing way out, according to the second book, Christ, which was published only a few weeks after 9/11. Empires have come and gone, and yet Israel is still under subjugation, now by the Romans. If the omnipotent God cannot liberate his chosen people, nor claim that oppression is his will, “then he must admit defeat,” Miles wrote. “On the terms by which, starting at his victory over Pharaoh, he himself has defined his divinity, he has failed.” But God, after all, has the power to redefine the terms: if he cannot beat the enemy, “God may declare that he has no enemies,” that he loves all men equally, and urge men to do the same. This is easy for God to do, surrounded by well-behaved cherubim, yet less so for man—and so God descends to earth in human form to show us the way. In Christ, Miles portrayed Jesus not as a historical rebel but as the Tanakh’s God incarnate, and read the New Testament as his continuing biography. For a minor disobedience involving a certain fruit, God had cursed his creation and invited death into the world. Arriving in the body of a Nazarene peasant, with a pacifist temperament so different from his usual self, God will, in the words of St. Paul, reconcile the world to himself. He will defeat man’s true enemy, not other men but Satan—death itself. In Christ, Miles captured anew the strangeness of a suicidal god, determined to go to earth to kill himself.

God, in other words, disarmed himself; the deity who hungered for meat became the sacrificial lamb. The lawgiver became a criminal, taking on the crown of king of the Jews when he knew that, under Roman law, to usurp sovereignty was a capital offense. When, after three nights in the tomb, Jesus triumphed over death, it was a double redemption for both “human hope and divine honor,” Miles wrote. According to the Gospel of Luke, the risen Christ encountered two men along the road and narrated to them his story. “Starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.” In his resurrected cadaver, God embarked upon his own project of autotheography.

In the final book of Miles’s trinity, God essentially informs the theographer that he has gotten much of the story wrong. Retreating from the magisterial scope of his earlier work, in God in the Qur’an Miles does not strive to elucidate the Islamic scriptures from start to finish but rather to present a “modest” comparison of material shared between the Qur’an and the Bible.* While Yahweh began as a character without a history, Allah is here a deity with a deep past, who is making sure we get the record straight. In the Qur’an, God himself speaks in the first person, directly to the Prophet Mohammed, or via his angel Jibril (Gabriel). In the passages Miles chooses, we see God issuing corrections and revisions to the narrative. Whereas the Bible uses literary devices of suspense, in the Qur’an God assumes we know the stories already: rather than retelling them in full, God edits and intervenes, distilling the lessons to be drawn.

* According to one tally, Judeo-Christian figures appear in 1,453 verses of the Qur’an, or about a quarter of the text.
When God created man in his own image, it was, Miles wrote in his first book, “an unmistakable invitation to make some sense of God in human terms.” Here, it seems, the invitation has been revoked. There is no Imago Dei in the Qur’an: humankind is less grandiose than that, created “from dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot, then from a morsel.” God the editor is telling us, according to Miles, you’re not me. Whereas Yahweh experienced events unfolding in human time—he acts and reacts, regrets, learns—Allah removes himself from dank temporality, and speaks of the now, the past, and the hereafter all at once. The Qur’an is not ordered in a narrative sequence, but rather in an almost mathematical way, by the length of its chapters (from longest to shortest), confounding any attempt to glean character development across time. It soon becomes apparent that God in the Islamic scriptures essentially rejects the project of theography, insisting on his unknowability at every turn. Yet Miles never quite speaks to this, and the theographer persists in his quest to meet a personified Allah on the page.

In the Qur’an’s counternarratives, Noah has a disbelieving son who refuses to board the Ark, and Pharaoh dies a Muslim. And the idol of the golden calf, made of melted jewelry? It could actually bleat, God informs us. In the Tanakh, when Cain, jealous that God seemed to prefer his brother’s sacrifice, killed Abel, Yahweh was stunned to see his first human corpse. “What have you done?” he cried out to Cain, and neither seemed to know what to do next. Yet in the fifth sura of the Qur’an, Allah is hardly surprised: “God sent a raven clawing out the earth to show him how he might bury the corpse of his brother.” The famed story here becomes a lesson on proper funeral practices. Yahweh may have cursed Cain, but Allah emerges as less vengeful and more compassionate. Whereas Yahweh seemed to Miles “a work of self-creation still in progress,” Allah is understood as wizened and decisive, “more certain in advance of the universal and permanent significance of all that He says and does.” Miles writes that God as Allah is “no longer reckless, unpredictable, barely moral, highly emotional,” showing his non-Muslim readers that, in many ways, the Islamic God that emerges will be more recognizable to them than Yahweh.

One of God’s most significant edits in the Qur’an comes in the story of Jesus. God never failed his creation; there was no crisis, no need for the drama of the cross, nor any sacrificial god-lamb. God does not share his divinity with anyone; Jesus was only a mortal prophet in the lineage extending from Adam, Abraham, and Moses, to Mohammed, the final messenger. God makes a major revision in that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. Placing the blame not on the Romans but on Jews who had broken the covenant, God reveals that he foiled their plot: “They killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them.” It may be that Jesus was carried down before he died, or that another man was there in his place, as Muslim commentators have speculated, but whatever happened, Miles writes, it “radically undercuts the Christian celebration of Jesus as the sacrificial ‘Lamb of God,’ dying that others may have eternal life.” Still, the Qur’anic narrative possesses an enchantment of its own. When the Virgin Mary goes into labor beneath a palm tree, alone with no one to help her, in her agony Jesus speaks to her from inside the womb: “Shake towards you the trunk of the palm and it will drop down on you dates soft and ripe.”

In Miles’s first two books, the point of doing a character study of God was ultimately the sense of epiphany that comes with seeing the scriptures, grindingly familiar to us for centuries, in an entirely new light. But in his latest, Miles has a new objective. Even before we have heard the voice of Allah, or of any Muslim authors, we hear Newt Gingrich, inveighing against jihadi terrorism: from an ax-wielding Afghan refugee in Germany, to the bodies run over by ­Islamic State–driven trucks, to the forty-nine dead at an Orlando nightclub. “I undertook this book in early 2017 in the aftermath of an American presidential election heavily impacted by continuing ‘jihadi’ attacks all over the world,” Miles writes, swerving from the timelessness of his earlier works. He opens with the theme of religious violence

only because—for you, my readers, and for me as well—terrorism by Muslims invoking the Qur’an and crying Allahu akbar has moved that unwelcome subject to the front of our minds.

Miles begins by highlighting acts of God’s violence in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, in order to show that “it would be a mistake . . . to regard any and every Muslim as a terrorist-in-waiting simply because he or she honors the Qur’an as sacred scripture.” Adopting an us-versus-them tone, he creates the effect of a book written in wartime, calling for peace.

In an odd, orientalizing thought experiment, Miles exhorts his non-Muslim readers to picture themselves Muslim:

Step into the mosque of your imagination, and as you bow down and touch your forehead to the floor saying, “God is greater,” or as you hear others saying those words in Arabic, you remember . . .

that when God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise, He warned them that Satan would tempt them. (In the Bible, no such warning is given.)

that when they succumbed to temptation but then quickly repented, He forgave them and explained that after a lifetime on Earth . . . they could return to Paradise. (No such forgiveness or distant hope is proffered in the Bible.)

Miles continues in this mode for several bullet points, cataloguing the ways God appears more merciful and compassionate in the Qur’an. “Far be it from me to bash the Bible. The Bible is my scripture. The Qur’an is theirs,” he writes.

In writing this little italicized meditation, I hope only that by exercising your imagination just this much, you may find it a little easier to trust the Muslim next door, thinking of him as someone whose religion, after all, may not be so wildly unreasonable that someone holding to it could not be a trusted friend.

If Miles’s goal is to show non-Muslim readers how much common ground there is between the three Abrahamic faiths, it is a perplexing decision to insist on comparing “Yahweh” and “Allah.” Leaving the names untranslated transforms the one Almighty into two exotic literary characters. (In Christ, Miles never refers to the Christian God as “Kyrios” or “Theos” from the Greek.) Miles maintains that he likes this effect of making the familiar “strange.” Yet given his deeper mission, it seems imperative that in the very language he uses Miles should continue to demonstrate that his protagonist is the one and the same God. Instead, Miles treats a foreign “Allah” the way a well-meaning American might treat the Muslim next door.

It is an attempt to humanize what some might see as the enemy, yet by doing so it hardens the stereotypes on which demonization thrives. Part of the problem here is the absence of Muslim voices. Within the bounds of Miles’s project, he need not summon outside references, historical or literary, to read the divine character of Allah off the page. Beyond a scattered handful of translators and commentators, the only Muslim author mentioned is the inescapable Rumi. Yet the absence of Muslim literary voices becomes glaring when Miles finds room to bring in Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Seamus ­Heaney, Rudyard Kipling, Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Leonard Cohen, and even the 1997 film Titanic. Miles draws frequently on John Milton to shed light on Satan in the Qur’an, without mentioning any of the venerable Muslim critics, such as Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, who have studied Milton for the same purpose. In Miles’s afterword, when he mires himself in the thorny, unanswerable question of whether the Qur’an is actually the revealed word of God, to explore why we follow some new messiahs and prophets but not others, he discusses sci-fi cults and imagines a religion forming around Philip K. Dick called Dickianity.

The larger issue is a flawed assumption that seeps into the book and paralyzes it: that the Qur’an cannot be read as literature. “Muslims do not regard the Qur’an as literature,” Miles wrote in his book on the Hebrew Bible. “It occupies, for them, a metaphysical niche all its own.” Though he seeks acquaintance with his divine protagonist, Miles is held back by a fear of anthropomorphizing the Muslim God. He doesn’t dare play therapist. Afraid of the violence he seems so preoccupied by, Miles becomes modest because he is tiptoeing around Muslim rage: “I invite you to join me in nothing more threatening than a comparative reading,” he writes. His approach becomes apotropaic: guarding against and appeasing wrath, both human and divine. The conclusions he draws are inoffensive: for example, Yahweh seems more interested in human fertility, and Allah seems to care more that we worship him and him alone. And yet, politics intrudes on God in the Qur’an in uncomfortable ways. In answering the question of what Allah thinks of human nakedness, Miles feels compelled to refer to Abu Ghraib.

Was 9/11 another crisis in the life of God? In the weeks following the attacks, sales of the Qur’an skyrocketed. The book that first descended to earth on what is called Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, was now on the American bestseller lists. “Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran,” the philosopher Thomas Carlyle remarked in 1841. Whereas Carlyle found it “a wearisome confused jumble,” Miles frames it more delicately as having “little initial literary appeal.” But with the war on terror under way, Americans were reading the Qur’an as a patriotic duty, and doing so in two ways. Much like their medieval counterparts, who saw the Qur’an as the ravings of a man demonically possessed, the American war hawks mined it for evidence that Islam is a “very evil” religion, in the words of the evangelical preacher Franklin Graham. The peaceniks read it for proof that Muslims are just like “us,” and issued calls for interfaith dialogue. In the grip of a perceived clash of monotheisms, the idea was commonly invoked that, if only we could read each other’s scriptures and see how they connect, we might begin to solve religious hatred and intolerance.

Miles, now identifying as “a practicing Episcopalian,” is propelled by a similar peacenik sense of duty. (He has also become the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions, a six-volume, 4,448-page compendium of religious texts first published in 2014 that promotes an ethic of scriptural literacy.) In the spirit of pluralism, Miles reminds us that, ultimately, we have no idea which of the Abrahamic testaments is truly the word of God: it is, he says, something that will only be revealed at the End of Days. Miles writes:

While we wait patiently for Elijah or Allah or Jesus or whoever to arrive and adjudicate all such disputes, we don’t want to be perpetually on guard that the guy next door may kill us if we don’t kill him first. So, let’s instead get to know him well enough to live with him in peace; and if that means getting to know his scriptures and his God, let’s take the time to do that too.

Rather than entering mosques of the imagination, or conjuring abstract neighbors, Miles might have welcomed centuries’ worth of eminent Muslim intellectuals, theologians, poets, and critics, and ventured with them beyond the limited parts of the Qur’an that overlap with the Tanakh and the New Testament. This would have deepened Miles’s portrait, freed the theographer from our hysteric news cycle, and even shown how God himself appears to weigh in on the question of whether we can read his word as a literary text. In 1947, decades before Alter and Kermode’s Literary Guide to the Bible came on the scene, a debate raged at Cairo University over a PhD thesis that approached the Qur’an as literature. Accused of “crimes against the Qur’an” in a controversy that played out in the pages of Egyptian newspapers and in heated letters to King Farouk, the student, Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah, and his supervisor, Amin al-Khuli, argued that the Qur’an itself invites us to approach it in a literary mode. At several moments, God throws down a literary gauntlet: we should just try to author something like his verses.

If you are in doubt about what We have sent down unto Our servant, then produce a surah like it, and call your witnesses apart from God if you are truthful. (2:23)

Say, “If mankind and the jinn banded together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were assistants to each other. (17:88)

In defense of his student, al-Khuli argued that literary criticism is the only means we have to try to comprehend this i’jaz, the “inimitability” of the Qur’an. Famously theorized in the eleventh century by al-Baqillani and the Persian grammarian al-Jurjani, the doctrine of inimitability tried to capture what makes the Qur’an so different from all other texts. What was that spellbinding effect the rhythm of the Arabic seemed to have on its listeners, even unbelievers? It was deeply poetic yet bore no relation to previously known meters, as if floating in from another world. Al-Baqillani argued that the Qur’an, neither poetry nor prose, was an entirely new literary genre, an idea prominently taken up in the mid-1920s by the towering Egyptian critic Taha Hussein. Because the Qur’an was so recognizably its own genre, the many false prophets and pretenders that emerged as competitors to Mohammed did so by imitating its unique literary form, rather than its narratives or the information it contained. The ninth-century poet Ibrahim al-Nazzam saw it as one of God’s miracles that, by imposing a sort of divine writer’s block, he had made it impossible for humans to ever author anything like the Qur’an.

It was the eloquence of the Qur’an, and the recognition of its supremacy compared with all other texts, al-Khuli argued, that first led Arabia to accept the message of Islam. “The literary method should, therefore, supersede any other religio-theological, philosophical, ethical, mystical or judicial approach,” wrote the Egyptian theologian and dissident Nasr Abu Zayd in a 2003 essay on the Cairo University debates. The author of numerous works on Qur’anic interpretation, Abu Zayd found himself persecuted by the Mubarak-era judiciary; in a sensational 1995 trial, he was declared an apostate and forced into exile. Yet until his death in 2010, Abu Zayd continued to argue compellingly that literary criticism does not denigrate the divinity of the Qur’an. After all, he wrote, the word of God descended into human language and “respected the rules” of our grammar and syntax. We must strive to understand it with the tools at hand. In the late 1980s, the Pakistani scholar Muntasir Mir showed how God in the Qur’an flexes a panoply of literary devices, from anastrophe, anaphora, and epenthesis to zeugma.

Whether or not one considers the Qur’an or the Bible to be divine, the act of interpretation, as Abu Zayd argued, is always human. (Except that one time when, along the road, the risen Christ parsed the scriptures.) It is our loss that Miles felt he couldn’t treat the Qur’an more trenchantly as a work of art, as Muslims have done for centuries. What Miles inaugurated, the method of theography, remains a brilliant way to try to meet an inimitable protagonist, even if it is, like all the best literary endeavors, an attempt at the impossible. Literary criticism remains an essential way to interpret sacred texts, in their complexity and idiosyncrasy, without having to make any claims about what their believers believe—an approach ever more urgent in the age of the Muslim ban. We might have supposed God’s biography unfolded in the clouds, distant from us. Yet with the conclusion of his trilogy, Miles has shown us, perhaps inadvertently, how—ever since God switched on the lights and created his combative human interlocutors—human politics, from the archaic to the present, fills many chapters of the divine memoir.