Book Club: A Conversation With Alexandra And Maria

Maria Popova, the host of our second Book Club, recently sat down with Alexandra Horowitz for a wide-ranging discussion of her latest book, On Looking:


 
Maria introduces it:

For the inaugural Dish Book Club podcast, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alexandra to discuss her wonderful tapestry of perspectives on everyday life, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. Our conversation, itself a winding walk through psychology, literature, and the perplexities of modern life, ranges from Alice in Wonderland to dog cognition. At the heart of the discussion lies an exploration of how to end the tyranny of productivity (“I don’t mean to be testifying against productivity per se,” says Horowitz, “but I do see that it’s certainly mindless, the way that we approach there being only one route to living one’s life.”) and learn to live with presence (“I value the moments in my life that are productive, certainly, but only the ones that are productive and also present.”) Please enjoy.

If you don’t have time to listen to the whole 40-minute recording, we will be sampling the best parts throughout the weekend. In this clip, Maria and Alexandra discuss how the book might help counteract the perils of a mind too focused on productivity:


 
If you enjoyed any part of the conversation, send us your thoughts at bookclub@andrewsullivan.com. Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. And don’t forget to check out Brain Pickings, Maria’s fantastic blog, and subscribe to it here if you like what you read. We sure do.

Book Club: Sensing Too Much, Ctd

A reader responds to the email from the parent of two sons with sensory processing disorder:

horowitz-onlookingAs a well-functioning but diagnosed older person on the autism spectrum, taking a walk is an annoying and frustrating event. I friggin’ notice everything. I have to force myself not to read every word in every ad, identify the make and model of every car I pass by, peek around to see what that sound was – even though I know it was just a car door closing or a skateboarder in the distance. It doesn’t ever, ever stop.

That said, taking these walks with Alexandra Horowitz and her guests in On Looking got me out of my head. Getting out of my own head doesn’t happen enough, even when reading insightful books. Now, when I walk, I remember some of the wisdom of her experts’ knowledge and I look for those things. I think, What am I smelling? I look at the annoying signs and instead of repeating the words over and over until I see another annoying sign, I look at the typeface. I force myself to focus. On building materials, on rocks, on asphalt even.

In some small sense, I’ve become a better autistic. Or at least a calmer walker.

Maria Popova, who is hosting the Book Club, responds to the reader:

I love this. It reminds me of a favorite passage from the book:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of orwell-2information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

The challenge this reader articulates, and a challenge for many on the autism spectrum, is that of being unable to turn off precisely those myriad external stimuli that the average person automatically misses. But what’s interesting is that over the past decade, growing bodies of research have shed light on the autistic mind as not lesser but different.

Perhaps one of its great advantages, and a key point of difference, is exactly this wide lens of attention coupled with narrow focus on each of the many things attended to – a fusion of what’s an either-or proposition for the nonautistic person. At its most acute, this advantage can manifest as anything from intricately detailed visual lists of everyday objects to mathematical genius. Autism advocate and pioneering animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has spoken about this beautifully in her TED talk and her introduction to the book Drawing Autism.

For the rest of us, though, missing “the vast majority of what is happening” is undoubtedly a survival strategy. I tried to imagine, biking through the city today, what it would be like if I paid attention to everything simultaneously – listened to every bird and every siren and every rushing executive yelling on her cell phone, looked at every storefront and every redhead and every fleeting reflection in a car window. I’d crash instantly – both literally and figuratively.

Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. Maria and Alexandra just recorded a short conversation over various aspects of On Looking, so stay tuned.

Book Club: Looking With New Eyes

What have you discovered in your daily routine since reading On Looking, our second Book Club selection? Our host, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, posed that question to Dish readers earlier this week:

Perhaps the greatest gift of a book club is that we get to share our private realities around a common point of interest – the book – and in the process enrich the collective experience. With that in mind, what is one facet of your day or aspect of your usual daily routine – your apartment, your commute, your dog walk route – that On Looking helped you see with new eyes?

Let us know by emailing bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and we’ll post the most interesting observations and photos. Buy the book here (or here for your Kindle) if you haven’t already. Karen Carlson was looking for “a quick, light, purely fun read” when she picked up the book last summer:

And it was a fun read, very much so – but it also sent me scurrying to google horowitz-onlooking Clochan na bhFomharach, a volcanic formation in Northern Ireland consisting of thousands of columns of basalt pushed out of the ground. And that’s just in a footnote. … “Minerals and Biomass,” her walk with geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is when I got curious about volcanic leftovers in Northern Ireland. …

What surprised me most was how enchanted I was by the second chapter: “Muchness,” guided by the expert eyes of Horowitz’ 19-month-old son. I’m fairly immune to the charms of children, but this was engaging and informative. Horowitz is trained in cognitive science and teaches animal behavior at Barnard, and here she weaves nuggets from developmental psychology in to explain her son’s adoption of a standpipe as a pet, and his reaction to shadows.

She adds, “This book was just the break I wanted: an almanac of captivating anecdotes which will stick with me – and who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a walk, myself.” That’s what we’re hoping some readers will do. And that’s just what Ambre Nicolson, also inspired by “Muchness,” decided to do with her own toddler. An excerpt from their sojourn around Cape Town:

14h00: “Beep beep!”

My son, like Alexandra’s, is head over heels for any form of wheeled transport. Within the first 30m of our journey he has pointed out a red bus, several taxis, a bicycle and a shiny bookclub-beagle-trblack motorbike. Later in our journey he will be stopped, spellbound for almost 10 minutes, by the sight of a reversing garbage truck. While my son loves cars, it has been shown that spending too much time in one leaves kids without a healthy sense of connection to place. American urban researcher Bruce Appleyard has shown that kids who have a “windshield perspective” are less able to accurately draw a map of where they live, whereas kids who walked or biked could produce accurate and detailed maps of their communities.

15h00: A bench, a well and a pond

He stops only long enough to take off his shoes before continuing into the gardens to try and climb a tree, throw sticks into the pond, scale a bench and scurry under it in search of another squirrel. When I see he’s trying to climb onto the edge of the old well, the bottom of which is a long way down and strewn with evil smelling rubbish I am quick to intervene.

At the same time I remember a recent Atlantic article written by Hanna Rosin, “The Overprotected Kid”, in which she shows how harmful it is for children never to exercise their risk taking skills. I decide the least I can do is show him the hazard. He stares into the darkness of the well for a couple of seconds before solemnly throwing his stick into the depths. Not long after that his pace starts to slow, followed by him halting, mid-stride, and reaching both arms up to me. Universal toddler code for “This walk is now finished.”

Kim West, a teacher, also related to On Looking:

Everyday, when my dog and I go for a walk, we travel the same route. Because I already know the way, sometimes I’m impatient, mostly because I’m bored. After reading Horowitz’s book, I have learned to enjoy our walks by slowing down, and pausing in the ordinary. When caught up in the frame of mind of going from one destination to another (home to the park, then back home again) it was easy for me to forget that for my dog, every walk is an adventure with different smells along the way.orwell-2

It made me realize that as a content expert, and a teacher with many years of experience, sometimes my lessons are just like my walks. I forget that because I already know the way, for my students learning can still be a new adventure. This reminds me to find the joy in the ordinary experience of learning: what did I first think and feel when I was introduced to this topic? Why does that matter? How can I make the experience that I once had as fulfilling and exhilarating for my students?

Now, when creating my road map, I don’t just think about the content. I think about what my students and I do and why that matters.

The book also inspired Belinda Farrell to slow down and open her eyes:

The specifics of the walks aren’t really important, but what this book made me think about was the quality of my own walking. Often I walk with a purpose: I am going somewhere. I walk up hills because I want the sense of achievement from reaching the top coupled with the reward of an amazing view. I walk to exercise, swiftly and with little care about where I’m going. I walk with earphones in my ear, listening to my own soundtrack and not the soundtrack of the world outside. Reading this book made me think of the pleasure of walking for the sake of walking, for the pleasure of the walk itself. I’d forgotten how much that could be a voyage of discovery.

Follow the whole Book Club discussion here.

Book Club: Sensing Too Much

A reader emailed prior to Maria’s intro today:

Afternoon! I am finding On Looking fascinating in so many ways! Two of my children werehorowitz-onlooking diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (along with Aspergers) and it is difficult for them not to notice everything. Hypersensitive to noise means they hear things that most of us have learned to filter out – same goes for light, touch, smell and taste. Like most people with SPD, their diagnosis came after years of extremely picky eating, complaints about scratchy clothing seams and tags and silky linings in coats, refusing to see movies at the theater and, in our case, having one of them bolt and get lost at an amusement park when he sensed the fireworks were about to start (even though we were on our way out of the park).

Living with my boys means that the rest of us are forced to take note of what we hadn’t. Often we realize just how much we are missing with our so-called properly functioning sensory system. True, they often find themselves with what can only be described as a traffic jam of sensory input in their brains (and that often leads to scenes that are not pretty), but they also notice first when the spring peeper frogs are awake, that the water system needs salt, that Daddy is home (in a Prius), and that the night-light bulbs are about to burn out.

bookclub-beagle-trWe prefer the word “challenge” rather than “disorder” when talking about their Aspergers and sensory issues because while it can be overwhelming at times and even debilitating, it is who they are. And we kid that they can use their powers for good rather than evil! Their powers of sensory observation sometimes astound and add layers to the ordinary that would otherwise have been totally missed. Coupled with what I have read so far in On Looking, I can’t see any journey being ordinary again.

The Dish has covered sensory processing disorders before – here and here. By the way, a reminder of Maria’s appeal to readers earlier today:

Perhaps the greatest gift of a book club is that we get to share our private realities around a common point of interest – the book – and in the process enrich the collective experience. With that in mind, what is one facet of your day or aspect of your usual daily routine – your apartment, your commute, your dog walk route – that On Looking helped you see with new eyes?

Email your personal observations – and photos when relevant – to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and we’ll pick the most interesting ones to post. And we’ll be discussing On Looking for up to the whole month of June, so you still have plenty of time to buy the book and join the conversation.

Book Club: How Do You Look At Your World Differently Now?

Maria Popova, the host of our second Book Club, starts the discussion by posing a challenge to readers:

“Reality,” Philip K. Dick wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go horowitz-onlookingaway.” There are two reasons I chose Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes for the Dish book club. Besides being a masterwork of storytelling bridging science and everyday life, it also reminds us – subtly, elegantly, yet unequivocally – that what we call “reality” is a highly edited picture of the world, projected through the lens of our beliefs, our biases, our baggage, and our experientially conditioned selective attention. It’s a point especially poignant today as we go through our lives worshiping at the altar of productivity, often at the expense of presence. After all, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And under the modern condition, we spend the overwhelming bulk of them in the trance of our routines, showing up for our daily lives but being, in a rather significant way, absent from them – the very tendency against which Alan Watts admonished half a century ago when he began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West.

What Horowitz does is peel back precisely those cognitive curtains that obscure from view the richness of our everyday reality. When I first wrote about On Looking last fall, I knew it was the kind of book that stays with you for a lifetime, but this awareness was rooted mostly in intellectual appreciation. I didn’t anticipate just how profoundly those eleven perspectives bookclub-beagle-trwould change the way I experience and inhabit my day-to-day life, from the parallel-universe ecosystem of wildlife in my tiny backyard to the remarkable invisible choreography of swiftly navigating a crowded New York City sidewalk while a hundred strangers do just the same.

Perhaps the greatest gift of a book club is that we get to share our private realities around a common point of interest – the book – and in the process enrich the collective experience. With that in mind, what is one facet of your day or aspect of your usual daily routine – your apartment, your commute, your dog walk route – that On Looking helped you see with new eyes?

Email your personal observations – and photos when relevant – to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and we’ll pick the most interesting ones to post. And we’ll be discussing On Looking for up to the whole month of June, so you still have plenty of time to buy the book and join the conversation. Also, if you haven’t already, check out Maria’s inimitable blog, Brain Pickings, and subscribe to it here if you like what you read.

Book Club #2: “On Looking,” Hosted By Maria Popova

[Updated and re-posted from earlier this week]

When I asked Maria Popova of Brain Pickings which book she’d like to pick for our second book, her eyes widened a little. They do that a lot. It didn’t take long for her to settle on Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (alternatively subtitled “A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation”). In her work as a professor of cognitive science at Barnard, Horowitz is “currently testing the olfactory acuity of the domestic dog, through experiments in natural settings, and examining dog-human dyadic play behavior.” From the publisher’s description of the book Maria chose:

From the author of the giant #1 New York Times bestseller Inside Of A Dog comes an equally smart, delightful, and startling exploration of how we perceive and discover our world. Alexandra horowitz-onlookingHorowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary—to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.”

On Looking is structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, with experts on a diverse range of subjects, including an urban sociologist, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. She also walks with a child and a dog to see the world as they perceive it. What they see, how they see it, and why most of us do not see the same things reveal the startling power of human attention and the cognitive aspects of what it means to be an expert observer.

On Looking is nutrition for the considered life, serving as a provocative response to our relentlessly virtual consciousness. So turn off the phone and other electronic devices and be in the real world—where strangers communicate by geometry as they walk toward one another, where sounds reveal shadows, where posture can display humility, and the underside of a leaf unveils a Lilliputian universe—where, indeed, there are worlds within worlds within worlds.

From Maria’s extensively excerpted review:

[Horowitz’s] approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing orwell-2attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city. …

It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages.  In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

It struck all of us as a great book to enter summer with, as we get outside more and try to turn down the digital noise in our heads. Less dense than the Ehrman book, it also covers a whole variety of ways of looking at the world – geology, physics, and the genius of dogs – ways many readers might be interested in or knowledgeable about. And, yes, it’s not about religion. I know that’s a niche topic. This one is literally everything on your block.

We’ll do the second Book Club exactly as we did the first – beginning the reader discussion, guided by Maria, after Memorial Day weekend. As with the Erhman book on early Christianity, the author will also show up at the end of the discussion, like Marshall MacLuhan, to tell us that we know nothing of her work. So buy the book through this link and get cracking. (The public library link is here.) We’ll start the conversation as summer begins.

Update from a reader:

I was very eager to join in the first book club because I adore the Dish community and knew that the discussion would be lively entertaining and I would definitely learn a thing or two. I have to admit I was disappointed by the first choice, How Jesus Became God. As a working mom I have limited time for reading not related to my profession so I couldn’t justify taking the time to read a book that didn’t spark my interest when I have so many waiting in my Kindle queue.

So I am one happy happy girl today because you have picked a book I was planning to read this summer! Thanks, and as a demonstration of my commitment, I am going to start today during recess.

Book Club #2: “On Looking,” Hosted By Maria Popova

When I asked Maria Popova of Brain Pickings which book she’d like to pick for our second book club, her eyes widened a little. They do that a lot. It didn’t take long for her to settle on Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (alternatively subtitled “A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation”). In her work as a professor of cognitive science at Barnard, Horowitz is “currently testing the olfactory acuity of the domestic dog, through experiments in natural settings, and examining dog-human dyadic play behavior.” From the publisher’s description of the book Maria chose:

From the author of the giant #1 New York Times bestseller Inside Of A Dog comes an equally smart, delightful, and startling exploration of how we perceive and discover our world. Alexandra horowitz-onlookingHorowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary—to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.”

On Looking is structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, with experts on a diverse range of subjects, including an urban sociologist, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. She also walks with a child and a dog to see the world as they perceive it. What they see, how they see it, and why most of us do not see the same things reveal the startling power of human attention and the cognitive aspects of what it means to be an expert observer.

On Looking is nutrition for the considered life, serving as a provocative response to our relentlessly virtual consciousness. So turn off the phone and other electronic devices and be in the real world—where strangers communicate by geometry as they walk toward one another, where sounds reveal shadows, where posture can display humility, and the underside of a leaf unveils a Lilliputian universe—where, indeed, there are worlds within worlds within worlds.

From Maria’s extensively excerpted review:

[Horowitz’s] approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing orwell-2attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city. …

It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages.  In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

It struck all of us as a great book to enter summer with, as we get outside more and try to turn down the digital noise in our heads. Less dense than the Ehrman book, it also covers a whole variety of ways of looking at the world – geology, physics, and the genius of dogs – ways many readers might be interested in or knowledgeable about. And, yes, it’s not about religion. I know that’s a niche topic. This one is literally everything on your block.

We’ll do the second Book Club exactly as we did the first – beginning the reader discussion, guided by Maria, after Memorial Day weekend. As with the Erhman book on early Christianity, the author will also show up at the end of the discussion, like Marshall MacLuhan, to tell us that we know nothing of her work. So buy the book through this link and get cracking. We’ll start the conversation as summer begins.

Book Club: Was There An Empty Tomb?

Resurrection

A reader challenges a part of Ehrman’s book we haven’t discussed yet:

Reading your thoughts and the reader responses so far, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ehrman’s claim, in Chapter Four, that Jesus most likely wasn’t given a proper burial, meaning there was no tomb for his resurrection to leave empty – nor an actual body left to be resurrected, as theological orthodoxy would seem to demand. An excerpt from this chapter was recently featured on The Daily Beast, in which Ehrman makes this explicit: “Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised.” And clearly, as Ehrman shows in his book, the “empty tomb” features prominently in Christian apologetics on this issue. The idea that Jesus really was buried allows Christians to ask, “Well, then what did happen to Jesus’ body?” If he wasn’t eaten by dogs, then we need to somehow account for his body, which people certainly would have been looking for after his followers started saying he was raised from the dead. Or so the argument goes.

bookclub-beagle-trAs it happens, the chapter on this issue by Craig Evans in the evangelical response to Ehrman’s book was the one I actually found perhaps most persuasive, and your readers should be aware of it. Evans cites a variety of ancient texts – including passages from Philo, Josephus, and Roman legal documents – that give us good reasons to think Roman authorities were tolerant of Jewish religious customs. It would take too long to go through all of Evans’ evidence, but their cumulative force is striking, and he makes clear that his argument especially concerns what the Romans allowed in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, where religious demands for performing certain rites, like the burial of the dead, would have been especially forceful (Jews in other places, such as Alexandria, seemed to fare worse).

Even Ehrman’s own book unwittingly offers evidence for this. Recall the account he gives of Pontius Pilate erecting images of the Roman emperor in Jerusalem, which violated Jewish beliefs about “graven images.” What happened after the Jewish uproar over this? They were removed.

Evans also makes clear that tolerance for Jewish burial customs extended, in various circumstances, to those who were crucified. Most interestingly, in my view, is the archaeological evidence he marshals on this point.

He walks the reader through examples we have of tombs and (more frequently) ossuaries containing the remnants of those crucified or nails of the kind used in crucifixions covered in calcium, meaning they were once in human bones. In short, not everyone who was crucified, and certainly not all Jews, were simply left for the wild dogs or carrion birds to eat. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist at Ehrman’s own UNC-Chapel Hill, who summarizes the matter this way:

Gospel account of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

And speaking of Joseph of Arimathea, Evans argues that even that story has some real credence. Because the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council, delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities, they would have been responsible for arranging a proper burial. So whether or not Joseph actually existed, the broad outline of the story he figures in is, according to Evans, reasonably consonant with the customs of the day.

Lastly, Ehrman makes a big deal of the fact that in the early creed Paul cites in his first letter to the how-jesus-became-godCorinthians, it merely says “And he was buried” rather than “And he was buried in a tomb.” When I read Ehrman’s book, I couldn’t understand quite why that mattered. Being buried implies a tomb, or a grave of some kind, but regardless being buried is not the same as being left to the dogs. Evans makes exactly the same point. And as for the supposed lack of symmetry in the creed – the line corresponding to the one just mentioned says “And he appeared to Cephas,” which leads Ehrman to think Joseph should be noted as the one who buried Jesus – Evans makes the reasonable point that naming who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection would be a far more important detail to include than the name of who buried Jesus, so the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Of course, maybe Joseph wasn’t named because that particular tradition arose later, but even if it did, the lack of knowing exactly who buried Jesus does nothing to alter the other contextual evidence that leads Evans to argue that it wouldn’t have been unusual for Jesus, a Jew in Jerusalem, to be given a proper burial.

Overall, then, this is one point where my layman reading of both sides of the argument makes me lean toward Ehrman’s evangelical critics.

Agreed. Another critical point worth reiterating in this context: perhaps the most striking thing in the book is that Ehrman explicitly states he has changed his mind as to when the belief in Jesus’ divinity arose. He used to think it came about decades later, but is now convinced by the evidence that the resurrection was a very early Christian belief. So the empty tomb is a real possibility and the resurrection was claimed by the earliest Christians. Sometimes religious beliefs are weakened by historical evidence; but sometimes they are actually strengthened.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and please try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: The Resurrection Of Jesus by Piero Della Francesca.)

Book Club: Apocalypse Then

A reader writes:

Beyond all the crap about resurrection, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who predicted the end of the world would come very soon, probably in his own lifetime. And that realization colors how I view Jesus’ most important message.

I am not a Christian. But my religious identity has nothing to do with belief (what do I know?) and everything to do with the way I live my life. The only parts of the New Testament that I admire are Jesus’ parables and his teachings. Leave your family. Give up material things and live in poverty. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t show off or try to be better than others. This is radical stuff – a lifestyle I respect, but am too cowardly and weak to pursue. Therefore, I do not call myself a Christian, because I cannot live up to Jesus’ commands. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t live like Jesus (i.e. a vagabond) has no right to call himself a Christian.

So a big thought hit me hard: Jesus’ unique and radical teachings only make sense because he was an apocalyptic preacher. Leave your family and pay no attention to tomorrow because the world is about to end. In the context of the end of the world, it all makes sense. Of course you should abandon material things; they’re all about to be wiped away.

So now I’m left with this conundrum: Jesus’ teachings only work against a background of imminent destruction. AND, obviously, the world did not end. Does that then invalidate his teaching? Without the apocalypse at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, aren’t we badly misinterpreting what he really meant?

We’re certainly avoiding a rather obvious point: one of Jesus’ most emphatic predictions in his lifetime was wrong. Dead wrong. Now you can try and elide this by insisting that he didn’t put a date on the end of the world, but that ignores the urgency of his warnings. Does that invalidate Jesus’ teaching, as my reader suggests? Well, the first thing to say is that Christianity spread rapidly even as its main prediction turned out to be wrong. And, as Ehrman notes, it seems that the reality of the belief in the resurrection is what galvanized and sustained this religious movement after its guru’s untimely and dishonorable death. The resurrection occluded the failed prophesy.

how-jesus-became-godDoes that in turn render the radicalism of Jesus’ calls for total poverty, homelessness and suffering less powerful? I’d say it makes them more powerful. They become less a last-minute preparation for the end-times than a deeper and more radical critique of worldliness in all its forms. They become less a means to an end, and more an end in themselves. And Jesus taught these things, in the Gospels, without constantly referring to them as mere end-times necessities. Power over others is to be foresaken as an eternal truth about human life; wealth is an obstacle to happiness; what matters at all times is being present to others and to God, not running around with this goal or that; forgiving makes you happier than bearing grudges; revenge only perpetuates the cycle of hatred, rather than breaking it. All of these counter-intuitive ideas are our true destiny as humans if we can only master them. They are the only sure means to internal and external peace.

Now, of course, other religious traditions speak of similar things. You can see in Buddhism, for example, the insight that possessions hurt rather than help. You can see in Taoism the wisdom of letting go, of seeking peace by striving for less. And all of these impulses – which contradict what we now understand as our evolutionary nature – transcend “the restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” This profound insight – the early Christians believed – didn’t come from within us, but somehow from above us. And a person who walks this Bronzino-Christ-Nicewalk is indeed living as close to divinity as human beings can get.

This insight is perhaps encapsulated by the word logos, a form of divine wisdom about how to be happy and at peace through the law of love; and it is easy to see why Jesus’ life and example came to seem to his subsequent followers an incarnation of this logos, which of course is eternal. And Jesus’ decision to embrace his own torture and death with stunning equanimity and compassion represented the pinnacle of that divine achievement. How many of us could forgive those driving nails into our body? How many would stand by and say nothing when we are accused of something we never did? The Passion narrative is crafted to show how deeply Jesus walked the walk. It is by giving that we receive. It is by forgiving that we can be forgiven. Even in extremis. We will all die some day – which is our own looming apocalypse. And the only true way of grappling with that is through Christ’s logos.

Another reader:

I want to ask, (1) can a believer truly be open to evidence that Jesus, perhaps at one part of his life, said and believed things very different from what we normally attribute to him, and (2) can one – can a Christian – be open to the idea that, in these early beliefs at least, Jesus was wrong?

Take the body of assertions from Chapter 3 [in Ehrman’s book] about Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher.

I have heard such descriptions of John the Baptist and Jesus previously, but this is perhaps the first time when the sheer weight of these statements hit home. Ehrman’s evidence – supported by his criteria of independent attestation and dissimilarity – helped me to appreciate just how often the texts focus, as a whole, on judgment, on punishment, on reversals of ultimate fortune, and especially on a rhetoric of fear (and joy) in the face of an imminent end.  This vision of Jesus’ early and perhaps entire ministry seems as well founded as anything in the book.

But if you accept that we can indeed have a sense of what Jesus said and what Jesus meant by his apocalyptical proclamations – if we can get a sense of what these word meant in their historical and textual context – then how can this not have an effect on what one thinks of Jesus?

Sheep and goats; burning and wailing; shame and sinfulness; and the righteousness of new and better judgment: these are words that embody, for me, not an abiding love of humanity, but a mainly a hatred of sin. They do not promise to redeem creation, but rather revel in visions of un-creation, of joyous destruction.  These pronouncements do not so much love justice as much they enjoy imagining the punishment of injustice.  In loving God, this Jesus hates the world.

As a historical fact and a textual interpretation, this reading may be correct or incorrect.  But what if, on the whole, it seems right? What can one, as a Christian, do with these words and feelings?

We can balance them, I’d say, by other words and feelings, and see what was truly radical and new in Jesus’ teaching about how to live and die independently of the apocalyptic vision. But we cannot ignore that side completely. Jesus, Christian believe, was both fully human and fully divine. The human part was bound up in the culture and history of his time, its apocalyptic background, and its roots in Jewish scripture. The divine part escaped that. To believe in the Incarnation requires one to accept both, and to live with a Jesus we will never fully master and never totally understand.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words.)

Update from a reader:

It seems to me a big reason Christianity spread after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is that his followers began to reexamine his apocalyptic predictions in light of their post-Pentecost experiences. They understood “the age to come” to have actually begun – an age defined by the upside-down Kingdom Jesus had announced in his teachings, in which the last were now first, the greatest were those who served, and Jesus – not the Caesar whose government had put him to death – was Lord. The apocalyptic signs were all around them: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2).

They had no reason to disbelieve Jesus on account of his prophecies not coming true; they were now living in the new age he had predicted would come.

Another:

Enjoying this thread. There are other interpretations of Jesus’ prophetic “mistake” about the literal end of the whole world, which does seem like a pretty big paradox for literalists. Instead, lots of the end times prophecies/symbolism make sense when interpreted as applying to the ~70CE Jewish rebellion against Roman hegemony and consequent destruction of the Temple and massive slaughter of the population of Jerusalem, followed by Nero’s persecution of the early Christians. This lines up nicely with the modern dating of the texts in the New Testament (soon after the historical events), and means we can end the idiotic game of deciding which contemporary political figures are candidates for the role of anti-Christ (though that game is too popular to end anytime soon).

Another:

Wow – great insights from the readers! “In loving God Jesus hates the world.” Strong stuff, and not to be dismissed lightly, since it has remained one pole of the dialectic that has driven Christianity from the outset. The “little apocalypse” of Jerusalem’s fall to Titus solves part of the problem, but it does not really reach the deeper issue, if Christ is speaking to mankind and not just the Jews. The response that the Pentecost renders immediate the new age is intriguing, but it cannot resolve the other great failed prophecy stated in the kerugma – the declaration of the Christian’s faith reduced to its essence: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Paul, the architect of the Church, understood Christ’s return to be imminent, like the prophecy of the apocalypse. Like the reader who suggests, correctly in my view, that Christ’s preaching of radical divestiture is made within the context of apocalypse, Paul preaches that his congregations must live their lives not in anticipation of Christ’s return, but live them in preparation for his return – tomorrow. As Christians, we can rationalize, but that path leads nowhere, I think. Best perhaps to focus on the here and now.

Book Club: Relating To Resurrection

A reader writes:

Something in How Jesus Became God that resonated personally was the discussion in Chapter Five regarding After-Death Communications as an explanation for the visions of the resurrected Christ that some disciples received.  Our son was born with a severe heart defect and had to undergo open-heart surgery at age two.  We were told there was a 90% chance of his survival.  Two days after the surgery, he suffered heart failure in the ICU.  We went through several weeks of alternating between hope and despair as to what could be done for him, bookclub-beagle-trincluding receiving a heart transplant, but eventually we had to decide to remove all life support. He died in our arms, slowly, hour by hour, as we watched his vital signs decline to nothingness.

Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced anything so emotionally tortuous.  We both fell into depressions, and in my case I began to experience dreams that I was being visited by my son.  What was exceedingly real about these dreams was the physical sense of holding him in my arms, his cheek next to mine, listening to him babble.  A tremendous sense of contentment flooded over me, knowing that he was alive.  I would wake up at peace, and it would take five or more minutes for me to understand I was back in a different world of pain and sorrow.  These dreams persisted for a few months and then stopped entirely.

I’m not a believer in an afterlife, but I am a believer that experiences such as these could convince anyone that someone close to them who had died tragically and unexpectedly, was alive in a real sense – not here on earth, but in heaven (if they believed heaven exists).  This could have happened to any number of Christ’s followers, and it was a very short step for them to then exalt Jesus as being at the right hand of the Father, since his disciples had spent three extremely intense years speculating that this unique and remarkable man could very well be the promised Son of Man, or even the Son of God.

My own effort to explain how I view the Resurrection of Jesus is in my last post in the Book Club here. But I also have personal experiences that are similar to my readers, and I wrote about them at length in my book about Pietro_lorenzetti,_compianto_(dettaglio)_basilica_inferiore_di_assisi_(1310-1329)surviving the plague of AIDS, Love Undetectable. I was diagnosed with HIV six weeks after one of my closest friends at the time had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had kept it a secret, until one afternoon he asked to meet me at the fountain in Dupont Circle, where he told me his diagnosis as I told him mine. The coincidence had us both smiling. We were already both Catholics and both writers and both gay in a terrifying era very different from today. But from that moment on, we bonded even more deeply, and over the next two years, I and his other close friends took care of him as he slowly slipped away from us. I saw him turn into a walking skeleton; I saw him pound the floor in pain; I saw him wracked by intense and unremitting fevers; I saw his breath literally taken away from him; I saw as cancer lesions speckled his body and advanced relentlessly toward his lungs; I saw the unspeakable shock and pain of his family; I listened to his voice, racked with fear and pain, over the phone at night; and I was entrusted with the details of his funeral. Watching my dear friend die at 31 of an agonizing disease will never leave me. And I will always, somewhere deep down, feel in some ways guilty for having lived, while he died.

But after his death, I felt his presence strongly at times. He appeared to me in symbols – like the sea-gulls that flew over the bay where we had released his ashes, or one gull that kept recurring in my life on the Cape and elsewhere as an almost sacred sign of his presence. He appeared to me in my dreams – and in one unforgettable one, I didn’t at first recognize him.

He was Patrick and yet no longer Patrick. His tormented shell of a body, racked by slow starvation and countless lesions, was now resplendent. His face was clear, his body more luminous than in life, all flaws removed. And he was happy. Weeks would then pass and I would suddenly be arrested by a sense of his presence – on the sidewalk, reading a book, sleeping on the beach. I cannot fully explain this, although a modern mind can always analyze it from the perspective of grief, survivor guilt, wish-fulfillment, and the like. And over time, Patrick’s presence diminished. But I experienced it as very, very real for as long as it lasted.

So, yes, I can indeed see the disciples having similar experiences – and they have been attested to in countless other lives as well, in studies and surveys over the years, as Ehrman notes. I infer from mine that Patrick is alive and well, and that one day, we will be together again. Perhaps at that fountain in Dupont Circle. And we will be laughing. And happy. And free from death and the fear of death. That is my faith. And I believe it was the faith of the disciples as well. It is what I mean by resurrection.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: Pietro Lorenzetti from the basilica in Assisi.)