Posts Tagged ‘BIBLE’

Michael Parenti on Religion

July 5, 2010

Michael Parenti is the author of 23 books. He is one of America’s most prominent progressive public intellectuals.  His newest book published this year is: God and His Demons, a book for which I am very proud to have acted as the agent. It is a critical analysis of organized religion. He approaches it from a historical, political, sociological, and theological perspective. As always, the breadth of knowledge of the subject is remarkable and he pulls no punches.

Andy: A lot of people have said that this is a book advocating atheism, not unlike recent books by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But that isn’t quite what you are trying to do here, is it?

Michael: My book is not an atheistic diatribe against religion for the sake of showing how improbable and nonsensical religion might be. I do recognize that religion has played a real and powerful role in the human psyche and in history and society in general. And I note that there are religionists who have fought the good fight for social justice.  My quarrel is with the theocratic aggrandizers and their theological intolerance, dogmatism, violence, hypocrisy, and repression.

Andy: Michael,  your reputation is not as scholar of theology. But you engage in a considerable amount of analysis and exegesis on matters of theology. And it is clear that you have dug deeply into these subjects for this book.  Did you find this subject challenging? What new insights (incites) did you gain from studying this?

Michael: Reading the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, was a compelling and revelatory experience. Along with the beautiful and loving segments and phrases here and there are the horrendous passages and whole books filled with violence and cruelty, much of it perpetrated by the deity himself. The best case you can make against biblical devotion is the Bible itself.

Andy: You pretty much take to task all organized religions from a variety of angles. Are there any heroes in this subject? Any arch-villains? In the best of all worlds, is there any positive role that religion has to play?

Michael: There are some very wonderful people in the world of religion for whom doing God’s will is more than a matter of ritual and piety; it is a matter of serving humanity and working for social justice right here on Earth. The entire Social Gospel movement of the early part of the last century, the Catholic Workers movement, the whole liberation theology movement that swept most of Latin America and other countries before it was destroyed by Pope John Paul II and the CIA death squads— these heroes worked on the side of the poor and downtrodden, quite at variance with most of organized religion whose hierarchies historically allied themselves with the rich and the powerful. These latter readily qualify as the arch villains you inquire about.

Andy: You dedicated the book to Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar of the 16th Century who ended his career in religion by being burned at the stake. What is it that you admire about him?

 Michael: His remarkable honesty and deep insights. Not only did he not believe in the divinity of Christ and the virginity of Mary, he said as much – rather than spending a lifetime hypocritically mouthing  beliefs that he did not really hold. Bruno also believed that God was not a separate force apart from the material world but inhered in the existing cosmos, a very pantheistic viewpoint. He also believed in a heliocentric system rather than a geocentric one,  and correctly held that all stars were suns and our sun was a star—all this some 30 or 40 years before the telescope was invented. Most important of all he believed in love and tolerance, this above all is what people should have for each other.


Andy: Ok. Let’s talk about some issues that are in the news. You spend some time talking about the pedophile priests. But there have been a lot of developments since then. A new pope. Startling revelations about John Paul II (soon to be made a saint).  And a rather classic cover-up strategy. Thoughts?

Michael: People still do not know the vicious role that Pope John Paul II played in laying down a policy of cover-up and protection for the pedophile priests.  The cover-up continues today. The Church still refuses to hand over its records regarding sex crimes within the ranks of the clergy.  Please recall that I also talk about the Protestant pedophiles; it’s not a peculiarly Catholic problem. There are Baptist ministers and clergy of all denominations who prey upon the vulnerable. Such predators can be found in public youth agencies, Boy Scout clubs, day care centers, wherever they can acquire access to defenseless children. Pedophilia must be criminalized. As of now there is no cure for the child rapists—but the threat of imprisonment for long duration is the best deterrence.

Andy: Is there anything new that you want to say about the goings on in Israel and how it fits in with your understanding of religion?

Michael: I mentioned the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in my book only in passing. It might do well to point out that the Zionists have transformed the Old Testament from a theological text to a property deed which allows them to make claim to land that has been possessed by Palestinians for 500 years or more.


Andy: And Islamic Fundamentalism?

Michael: Islamic fundamentalism is as dogmatic and intolerant as Christian fundamentalism. The only difference is that the Christian fanatics are still struggling to take over this and other countries while the Islamic extremists already control a number of countries, for instance, Saudi Arabia.  And we can see once they gain state power what it is they are capable of doing.  The nightmare becomes a reality.


Beginnings: First Lines in Literature

April 25, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings, first lines in literature. Which ones are satisfying and what makes them so? And others, admired by all, that still just leave me cold. My friend Susan and I walk around Lake Merritt every day and talk about this. Susan is writing a novel, and we are having, uhh, differences of opinion on the subject of first lines. There is a bunch of material on the Internet about beginnings. Lists of the 100 best first lines in fiction. Advice to writers about how to construct a first line. Stuff like that.

Since I’m not a creative writer, I can’t dispense writing tips with any authority. As a literary agent though, I have to take beginnings seriously. For me, the first line is the most important sentence in the book. Editors are very busy people and receive stacks of manuscripts every day. If they get turned off by a clumsy first line, they are likely to cast a cold eye on the rest of the manuscript.

So here are a few of my random thoughts on this subject focusing on some illustrious examples.

“Call me Ishmael.” –  Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 This first line is always at the top of the list. The most famous first line in all of literature. So what’s so great about it, anyway? I thought about that today and decided that it was overrated, that it is one of those things that people think is great because everybody else thinks it’s great. It’s catchy. It’s different. But why would it lead me to read the rest of the book?  What if I wrote a book that began: “My name’s Andy”? I don’t think it would make the 100 best list of anything. Why didn’t Melville start with something like: “Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game.”? Think about it.  Tells a whole lot more about the story. It really is a better lead, —  wouldn’t you say?

But stay with me on this. Let’s dig a little deeper. Here is the second line in Moby Dick .“Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” Wow! Now that’s writing. Here we have a book that does more than tell a story. It has the boldness to tackle THE BIG QUESTION;  man’s struggle for truth in the face of an indifferent and inscrutable universe. I mean, duh! We are not in “chick lit” territory here. And this second line —- what would the critics call it? Understatement? Ironic foreshadowing? Because whatever this book is going to be about, you know it isn’t going to be about sailing a little to see the watery part of the world. Magnificent!


“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” —   The Bible  by God  (or was it King James? Or was it The Gideons?)



This is pretty good as far as beginnings go. I’m trying to think of a better one. The only thing I can come up with as an alternative is: “Call me Yahweh”. And that really doesn’t work as well. But when we think of the Bible as literature, we really think of the King James Version which, as the learned biblical exegetes will tell you, is a triumph of form over substance. Not an accurate translation at all.

Here is a literal translation of  The Book of Genesis  from the Young Literal Translation Bible:

“In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters.”

Not exactly something you expect to hear from the deep, rich voice of James Earl Jones. And can you imagine Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel with little yellow and black butterfly wings  “fluttering” on the face of the waters? I’ll stick with King James, thank you very much.


“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”.  — Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.


This famous beginning has really become a kind of joke, a metaphor for bad first lines. Just mention it at a cocktail party of literary snoots, and you will hear uncontrollable guffaws and belly laughs around the room. Honestly, I don’t think this is such a bad first line.  Maybe a little overwritten with some murky syntax; maybe a little bloated; maybe a little attenuated by the author’s sense of his own unmerited importance. But otherwise, not bad.    It sets up the scene pretty well. The reader really has a sense of where he is. And it gives us a pretty robust foreboding of what will follow.  Now let’s compare it to this famous first line:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from the swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

 I bet you can’t name that one.  It’s Finnegans Wake, you moron!   I bet you can’t tell me what it means. I bet Thomas F**king Pynchon couldn’t tell me what it means.  Try dropping that first line at the literary cocktail party. No snarky snickers with this one. The room will be silenced by the crushing weight of your gravitas.  And you might as well forget about your designs on that sexy assistant editor from Knopf wearing the black dress standing by the sushi platter. Because tonight you’ll be going home alone to the solitude of your bedroom,  Bub.


“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger


Oh yes. This is really sweet. I bet every modern writer has wished they could have thought of this beginning. And I suspect that many of them think of it still when they sit down staring at their blank page ready to begin their novel. By the way, gentle reader, if you know of any beginnings by great modern writers that are clearly derivative of this masterpiece, can you share it with other readers of this blog?


“In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. —  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon


This is my favorite. I won’t sully Gibbon’s gorgeous beginning with an impertinent comment. Gibbon’s language is commanding, lofty, elegant, and confident. Worthy of a work of such grandeur.   What is even more remarkable is that this level of writing continues over six volumes and 3000 pages. And look at the vocabulary, the syntax, the voice and the cadence. It is the quintessence of perfection. It has the faultless precision of Mozart and the epic splendor of Wagner.   I am in awe!

I’m going to leave this now.  But I don’t want this to be the last line. I would really like you readers to weigh in with your favorite first lines and why you love them.