Reza Aslan’s book on Jesus, that Viral and the Origins of Anti-Semitism.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

The day after Reza Aslan was interviewed by Lauren Green on Fox News last July, Buzzfeed posted the 10 minute clip under the headline, Is this the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News has ever done? here.  So far it’s got over 4 million hits.

His book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was already a best seller, and there were some who suggested that Aslan was all too willing to go head to head with the intellectual giants at Fox to further fuel those sales. And that the 35% increase in sales that followed was all part of a carefully contrived plan.

Aslan's brilliant "Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth".

Aslan’s brilliant “Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth”.

All of which is to miss the point. It’s a brilliant book. The extensive and all-encompassing research that Aslan has done has all been distilled into a wonderfully accessible, page-turning narrative. We follow the people of Judea decade by decade, as they pass through a series of insurrections which produce a steady succession of Messiahs, all bent on wresting the promised land from greedy Roman hands.

The story he tells gets especially interesting when the Christian faction of Judaism splits after Jesus’ death.

On the one hand, there was Paul who sought to open up Christianity to allow gentiles join by insisting that faith was all you needed to be a follower of Christ. You were not in other words required to follow Jewish law.

And on the other there was Jesus’ brother James, who was head of the Jewish Christians based around the all important Temple in Jerusalem. They (continued to) define themselves by their strict adherence to the Law.

Paul’s indifference to Jewish Law quickly developed into outright hostility, and eventually he was summoned to Jerusalem and forced to humiliatingly recant. And that would have been that.

Except that it was precisely at this moment in time that the Romans finally tired of their constant insurrections, and the newly crowned emperor Vespasian sent his son, the future emperor Titus, to quash the Judeans once and for all.

The looted Menorah displayed in the Roman Forum.

The looted Menorah displayed in the Roman Forum.

Father and son were determined to make an example of the Judeans, and understood all too well that the Judeans and their peculiar, singular religion were one and the same. By the time their campaign was over in 74AD, the people and their religion were in tatters. And suddenly, Paul’s Hellenistic brand of Christianity became the only Jewish game in town.

Hence, as the gospels came to be written over the next few decades, Mark in 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 90s and John between 100-120AD,  the blame for Christ’s death shifted from the Romans to the Jewish priests of the temple.

As understandably, Christians tried to distance themselves from any suggestion of Jewishness, which could easily be met with execution. And equally, the people that Paul and his followers were now trying to convert, in their very un-Jewish way, were of course the Romans.

So for the next few centuries, Jews and Christians defined themselves in terms of the Other. The few Jews who had survived were living in exile in Babylon. And they defined themselves as those who continued to rigorously obey the (Jewish) Law. Whilst all around them, throughout the rest of the Roman Empire, Christians defined themselves as they who did not have to obey the Law. But could worship through faith alone.

So being Christian was expressed in your anti-Jewishness. And being Jewish, by your anti-Christian-ness.

Over time, they each came to denounce one another with increasing vitriol. And that very probably would have been that. But something extraordinary happened.

In 312 Constantine converted to Christianity. Incredibly, within barely a few decades, the whole of the Roman Empire had followed suit. It’s worth remembering that when Akhenaten tried something similar in 14th century BC Egypt, the priests there very nearly succeeded in erasing his name or any evidence of his existence from memory within a few years of his death.

Not only did the Roman Empire convert to Christianity almost over night (the Council of Nicea took place after all in 325), but the rest of the Western world to the North and East of the Roman Empire also converted. And so  the whole of Christendom, that is the whole of the Western world, were practicing a religion that had begun by being defined by its anti-Jewishness.

When Islam then rose up in the East, it was all too easy for the West to lump the few Jews that there were with the new Other, and to continue vilifying them accordingly.

All of which, as Aslan’s book so brilliantly illustrates, begins with that split in the very early church, between the Hellenistic followers of Christ under Paul, and the Jewish branch under James, in the soon to be sacked Jerusalem.

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Top 5 Reasons Not To Bother Seeing “The Great Gatsby”.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

5. Because it’s a Baz Luhrmann film. And Luhrmann doesn’t make films, he makes music videos. And they have a language all of their own.

With just three or four minutes to get your story across, you need to paint your characters in big bold primary colours and in oversized emotions. And everything has to be in short hand and reduced to its bare minimum, so that all of the story points can be understood, immediately. No shot ever lingers for more than a second and a half before it’s ruthless- and restlessly cut, and the next is busily inserted.

It’s breathless and, occasionally, exhilarating. But having to watch 90 minutes – or more – of all that is like being asked to read a novel in text speak. It gets wearying, very, very quickly.

4. Because, as the old Hollywood adage goes, the best books make the worst films and vice versa. And Gatsby, somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t aged a day. It’s majestic.

3. Because, and not withstanding the above, the 1974 version is actually pretty good. Penned by Francis Ford Coppola, it’s a tad reverential and tiptoes tentatively around its source. But what saves it is its casting. Robert Redford is perfect.

Everything that makes him so suspect as a performer renders him ideal for Fitzgerald’s nebulous, opaque anti-hero. And all of the conflicting emotions you experience when watching him are transferred on to the figure of Gatsby.

Robert Redford as Gatsby

Robert Redford as Gatsby

Redford is porn personified. You know that it’s all show, that there’s nothing there, there. Beneath the surface, or beyond that facade. That whenever anyone tries that hard to make it look natural, all you ever notice is all of that effort. And that there’s something faintly ridiculous about anyone that fixated with and happy about how they look.

And yet, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Which means, obviously, that you’re every bit as shallow as he is.

Until eventually, in a vain effort to justify your attraction, you find yourself asking, what if? What if there’s nothing wrong with mere surface? What if that’s all there is?

All of which of course is exactly what the novel is about.

2. Because it’s in 3D. Which is so five minutes ago dot com.

1. One word; Australia.

One more reason? Very well, here’s the trailer.

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Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Book “The Swerve” a Joy.


The Swerve

The title of  Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012, is a reference to what is arguably the single most extraordinary idea human beings have every had.

It charts the life of Poggio, a 15th century book hunter who chanced upon the only surviving copy of Lucretius’ justly famed poem De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature Of Things.

Aside from being a magnificent poem in its own right, it is also the most complete description we have of the philosophy of Epicurus, who Lucretius was a devout follower of.

Epicurus was a 4th century B.C Greek philosopher, who became increasingly convinced that we fail to live our lives to their fullest because we’re paralysed by our fear of death. Or more precisely, of what happens to us after. So he wrote, famously:

Where we are, death is not, Where death is, we are not.

The soul, he declared, is as mortal as the body. And whatever Gods there are would hardly be bothered one way or the other with what we mere mortals got up to here on Earth. He’d been able to arrive at these ideas because he himself had been a follower of the 5th century Athenian Democritus.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

If you cut bread up into smaller and smaller pieces, the Greeks had wondered, what happens? Can you chop it up indefinitely, into smaller and smaller bits of bread? Or is there a basic stuff, that can be chopped up no further?

It was from this that Democritus formulated his extraordinary idea; his atomic theory.

Not only is everything made up of atomic matter – atom is just Greek for indivisible. But absolutely everything in the universe is made up of the same basic atomic matter. Trees, people, the planets, sand, everything was and is made up of the same  stuff.

By convention hot, by convention cold. In reality, atoms and the void.

How on Earth do you look around you and logically conclude that everything in the universe is made up of the same, invisibly small but identically indivisible stuff?! Before microscopes or telescopes, and with nothing more than your mind and a few equally curious contemporaries to bounce ideas off of?

It took science over two thousand years to catch up with this idea. And it’s hardly Democritus’ fault if John Dalton then used the term “atom” in the 19th century to describe the wrong stuff.

Atoms can be divided. They have at their centre a nucleus, and that can be divided into protons and neutrons. And they in turn can be divided up into the quarks that form them. So we should have saved “atom” up and used it for what we now call “quarks”.

It’s Democritus’ atomic theory that banishes superstition from our lives by insisting that everything, even our souls, are material, and made up of the same, basic stuff.

But it also does something else. It describes a mechanistic universe, determined by universal laws. And a deterministic universe does not allow for free will. This troubled Epicurus hugely. And so he came up with a slight modification; the swerve.

Will In The World

Will In The World

Atoms do not come together because of the laws of gravity and motion, he said. Predictably in other words. They swerve. So matter is produced randomly. And it’s this that allows for free will.

The Swerve is Greenblatt’s follow up to his magisterial book on Shakespeare Will In The World. Which is not merely the best book on Shakespeare, but the only one you’ll ever need to read. And this is equally good.

It describes how the Middle Ages was transformed into the Renaissance. And it does so by giving us a window on 1st century B.C Rome – Lucretius was a contemporary of Cicero and Catullus, and was admired by Virgil and Ovid. And on 5th and 4th century B.C. Athens. Which is of course where the renaissance came from. And it manages to be effortlessly erudite and gloriously readable. Read it.

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Bob Dylan’s Triumphant Fourth Act Continues with “Tempest”.

First came the troubled and wondrously angry young man of the 1960s. Then there was the older and wiser and all too wounded solitary figure of the 70s. Then, even more remarkably, he re-emerged for a third incarnation with Oh Mercy in 89 and then with Time Out Of Mind.

And if that weren’t enough, he burst forth for a fourth time, back on to the scene and into relevance in the 00s with an explosion of activity.

Four albums (so far) with Love and Theft (01), Modern Times (06), Together Through Life (09) and now Tempest. The extraordinarily candid Chronicles Volume One (04).  Scorsese’s documentary. And of course the peerless Theme Time Radio Hours (see here for earlier review).

If you want to understand where his latest album Tempest is coming from, and how he arrived at it, you need to go back to Chronicles and its fourth chapter on “Oh Mercy”.

It had never occurred to me that, by the 1980s, Dylan might have been every bit as disappointed with what he’d been doing with himself for the previous fifteen years or so as his legion of fans were. Nobody, it transpires, was quite as disillusioned with the path that he’d chosen to go down than he himself was.

“There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him.”

He says at the beginning of the chapter and we don’t so much as follow him as he recalls where he was then. Rather we’re there with him, in real time, as he burrows deep inside in the hope of discovering the source of his turmoil.

” I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck…  I’m a ’60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days… in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion. I was what they called over the hill.”

Until all of a sudden, out of absolutely nowhere, he stumbles into a jazz joint and has one of those near-mythical, Joycean epiphanies. And to his astonishment, where he needs to be going, musically, and what he needs to do to get there are gloriously and crystal clear. And he begins the journey out of his self-sculpted Stygian gloom and back into the light.

“I had a gut feeling that I had created a new genre, a style that didn’t exist as of yet and one that would be entirely my own.”

It would take him years to get there, that much was clear.

“I wished I was at least twenty years younger, wished that I had just dropped on the scene all over again.”

But for the first time in years, he was palpably excited.

“I was anticipating the spring, looking forward to stepping out on the stage where I’d be entirely at once author, actor, prompter, stage manager, audience and critic combined. That would be different.”

In retrospect, the next couple of albums, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind were not so much the result of that new approach as they were stations on the way.

It was only with the current batch that that destination had truly been arrived at. And Tempest is the latest, and therefore the best example of where that was.

There’s a fascinating interview he gives with Mikal Gilmore in the September issue of Rolling Stone. You can get a taster of what’s in it here.

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50 Shades Of Grey, a Fabulous Blow For Feminism!!!

How sweet and honourable it is to live in this age of equality. A lot of snide remarks have been made about the quality of the prose employed in the 50 Shades series. And most of those have, surprise surprise, been proffered by men.

The world of literature has long been an enclave patrolled by men. What are they afraid of that they should so assiduously deny women entry there? Why shouldn’t they too sup with them there at the high table?

I congratulate E L James for taking one of the last bastions of male chauvinism and demanding that women be treated as equals there. And so, to that long and illustrious list of arenas where already this is true, we can now add the category of Carefully Marketed Airport Novel.

50 Shades is, impressively, every bit as resplendently unreadable as anything by Dan Brown. Each sentence seems to exist in a vacuum, related but peripherally to anything that came before or will follow after. Rather like the one I began this piece with above.

It’s as if a Martian were given the task of writing a book for humans, but instead of being allowed to visit Earth or in any way research what life on this planet consists of, all they were allowed to use as their basis for writing it was, well, a Dan Brown book.

Its plotting is as leaden as Jeffrey Archer’s, its prose as painful as John Grisham’s would later become, and it’s as cynically manufactured as anything produced by the conglomerate that is James Patterson.

Not only that, but it’s all of that all at once. E L James has managed to take all the most offensive traits from the most egregious male reprobates and fuse them all together in one fetid, faecal franchise.

Well I say, bravo. Here’s one more realm where women have now managed to sink every bit as low as their male counterparts.

They can now triumphantly litter their work-based banter with un-necessary expletives as thoughtlessly as any of their male colleagues. They proudly drown their weekends in an oblivion of alcohol, and are as comfortable urinating in public and caking the streets in vomit as they stagger home afterwards as the best of us.

And at long last, to tag rugby and Olympic boxing, they can add the producing of the most cynically conceived and ineptly written sub-soft porn. I hesitate to call it excrementally bad, as that at least suggests rejuvenation in the form of manure.

So congratulations. All we have to do now is to somehow get you girls in to the upper tiers of Wall Street and your journey will be complete. Well done. And welcome to the club.

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