HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 30, 2007
Two Intriguing Books on Religion

John R. Guthrie
TheChickasawPlum.com


The Harlot by The Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch

Tawdry sex, extreme violence, and epic scandal!

“The stories you are about to read are some of the most violent and sexually explicit in
all of western literature. They are tales of human passion in all its infinite variety:
adultery, seduction, incest, rape, mutilation, assassination, torture, sacrifice, and murder.
And yet every one of these stories is drawn directly from the pages of the Holy Bible.”

With these challenging phrases Jonathan Kirsch introduces a work that manages to be both scholarly and intriguing.

I met the author when he was doing a reading from this work at Antioch University Los Angeles. My impression is of a man of considerable brilliance and a commanding knowledge of his areas of expertise (he is also an intellectual property attorney), yet with no element of pompousness.

His technique in this work is to take a given Bible story, then expand on it, retelling the story in a contemporary fictionalized style. He then provides expository material that provides context.

This work has something to offer every thoughtful person who finds religions and religious history interesting, be they believer or skeptic.  In retelling and explaining the tale of the prostitute Tamar (Genesis 38) for instance, she is characterized, as one who through “playing the harlot…saves the tribe of Judah—and thus the Jewish people—from obliteration.”

Kirsch states that, "The Bible is a map of the human heart, and no secret chamber or hidden passage is left out."  The Harlot by The Side of the Road provides a fascinating guided tour of that territory.

Ballantine Books: 416 pages


God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor Stenger

Can scientific methodology obviate the God of the Abrahamic faiths?

Through means simple and elaborate, the author speaks convincingly to the proposition that scientific methodology clearly indicates the lack of a Judaeo-Christian-Islamist type Deity. His evidence begins with straightforward syllogistic logic, e.g. (p. 22):

1. Probably if God were to exist, there would be good objective evidence for his existence.
2. But there is no good objective evidence for his existence.
3. Therefore probably God does not exist.

Stenger also looks at interesting and reputable studies such as STEP (Study from the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), noting that no reputable and properly controlled study indicates benefits to the sick from intercessory payer. Stenger also provides a lucid explanation caged in the language of physics as to why it is not needful that at some point in the history of the universe order had to be imparted from without—i.e. from a Christian, Jewish or Islamic type God.

As Stenger rather handily demolishes one after another of the arguments for the presence of such a God, one must ultimately asks the question, “Why bother? Why should it matter to the rationalist if religionists of the Abrahamic persuasion choose to believe fantastical things?” No one seems to fret over the existence of religions such as Summum; started in Utah by an ex-Mormon, Summum focuses on pyramids, moderately kinky sex and the sacrament of home-made wine. Certainly its tenets are as improbable as many of the beliefs of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. The problem is that many Christians who believe preposterous things are working diligently in this country to impose them on the rest of us, to effect marginalization or worse for those of us who don’t parrot t heir beliefs (Google “Christian Dominionism” for example, and take a tour through the Tunnel of Horrors these saints propose).

Victor Stenger’s God the Failed Hypothesis is a worthwhile read. I heard him speak at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood on July 15th. He proved to be an engaging and curmudgeonly 72-year-old, i.e. probably old enough too not worry about his funding getting cut off. For all his learnedness and wit, though, he apparently has not learned the truism that even most Southern Baptist pastors have learned: Keep it, questions and all, to 50 minutes, a maxim that should even apply to Jesus Christ should he return.

Victor Stenger is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado.
   
Prometheus Books: 294 pages


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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