Review: Zealot

Leafing through this book in a bookstore, I was attracted by the dedication: “For my wife, Jennifer Jackley, and the entire Jackley clan, whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study”.  I had noticed that the author, Reza Aslan, had been born in Iran, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.  I thought: Here is a book about Jesus, written by someone who was born a Shia Muslim but is married to a Christian; this should be interesting!

Reza Aslan has written two other books with interesting titles: No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion.


Reza Aslan

The subtitle of Zealot is The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and what Mr Aslan does in this biography is to separate the ‘historical Jesus’ from the religious icon whom Christians adore as the son of God.  While there is no original research contained in this book, Mr Aslan draws on over one hundred and fifty other published books to reach his conclusions which are largely credible and interesting.  He paints a picture of life, culture, politics and religious practices in Palestine in the first century.  It is unlikely that He was a carpenter, but because of the minimal use of wood in most houses, He, like many others, was more likely a day laborer, a builder, a tekton, who may have worked in the rapidly growing, near-by city of Sepphoris.  Nazareth was, during Jesus lifetime, a town of about 1000 residents, mostly poor peasants and day laborers.  There is no evidence that a synagogue existed in Nazareth during Jesus life: the temple in Jerusalem was the religious focus for Jews in Palestine.  It is likely that the gospel writers, who began writing at least forty years after Jesus’ death may have assumed that there was a religious meeting place in Nazareth, because by that time the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans.  Data suggests that the illiteracy rate among Jewish peasants in the first century was about 97%, yet somehow, Jesus was able to read the Torah scrolls in the synagogue.

Mr Aslan argues (successfully) that Jesus was, like many contemporaries a zealot, that is: someone strongly committed to a cause, and that his most clearly documented cause was the reform of the corrupt Jewish priesthood.  In fact this antipathy for the Jewish leadership was still strong when the gospels were written, so that politics may have influences some of the words that the writers put into Jesus’ mouth.  For example, Mr Aslan finds it unlikely that Jesus ever met with Pontius Pilot.  If such a meeting ever occurred, it would have been an extraordinary event, since in the normal course of events, Pontius Pilot merely signed the death warrant where capital punishment was sought by the chief priest.  The scriptural dialogue between Jesus and the Roman essentially absolves Jesus of any crimes and places the blame for his death squarely on the hated chief priest.  (I have always wondered why a crowd that brought Jesus so triumphantly into Jerusalem could so loudly demand his crucifixion!)

This biography makes interesting reading, and it does not hesitate to open and explore nearly every controversy about Jesus: His disciples, parents, relationship with John the Baptist, trials, crucifixion, resurrection, what He said or didn’t say, what He may have thought.  The controversies involving the leadership of the church after Jesus’ death are also examined.  These examinations may extend to the historic translations of the original text, as well as both (or even three) sides of the scholarly arguments.  Cultural, political, military, and economic evidence is brought to bear.

This is clearly a scholarly work.  In addition to the extensive bibliography there are nearly seventy pages of notes for those who have lingering curiosity about statements made in the main text.

For me, the only disappointment is that Mr Aslan has made no attempt after shattering what may be a childish image of Jesus to reconcile the ‘historical Jesus’ with the Son of God.

Review: Nietzsche

I had heard of Nietzsche, the wild German philosopher who averred that “God is dead!” when I was in my late teens.  My college roommate seemed to know about him (and Ayn Rand), but I considered anyone who would make such a stupid remark not worthy of further attention.  And Nietzsche was not among the philosophers studied in the Philosophy 101 course.

But he came to my attention about 10 days ago when there was an hour-long BBC program about the man and his life.  In the program, the “God is dead!” exclamation was attributed to the untimely death of his much-admired father at an early age from a horrible brain disease, and to his view of the culture in late 19th century Europe.  As Nietzsche saw it, the culture was wantonly secular, and self-serving.  People cared only about entertainment, pleasure, wealth, status, and image.  His view was that we had killed God (who had been alive).

The novel I am currently writing has a similar theme: society has turned its back on God.  So I bought a copy of Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann to compare my views with those of the great German philosopher.


Friedrich Nietzsche

Walter Kaufmann (1921 – 1980) was professor of philosophy at Princeton University and a world-renowned scholar and translator of Nietzsche.  In fact, Nietzsche was first published in 1950, and has been through four editions, the latest appeared in 1974 in paperback.

It is clear from a mere perusal of the book that Kaufmann devoted much of his life to the study of Nietzsche, who was a difficult and somewhat opaque character, who fought with his mother and sister, and had a tendency to state his case in strong, sometimes extreme, language.  For these reasons, he was not well understood and attracted considerable criticism.  In fact, he became a hero of Nazi ideology, when some of what he said was either misunderstood or taken out of context.  Much of  this misunderstanding is owing to his sister who was an ardent Nazi, and who published re-written pieces of his work.  Nietzsche abhorred the German state and anti-Semitism.  His use of the term ‘blond beast’ was thought to praise Aryan purity, when, in fact, it had reference to the male lion.

The book begins with a history of  Nietzsche’s life: born 1844 and died in 1900, having slipped into insanity on about 1889.  He was made a full professor of classical philosophy at the age of 24; traveled extensively in Europe, and suffered from ill health.  He never married, but he proposed twice to Lou Salomé, a bright, strong-willed woman who was seventeen years his junior.

Nietzsche wrote fifteen books, there are also his lecture notes, his letters and his personal notes.  Rather than deal with each of his works one-at-a-time, Kaufmann addresses themes of Nietzsche’s work.  This is a better approach since Nietzsche made changes to his views from time to time.  Nietzsche was a doubter, a questioner, who took nothing at face value, yet he avoided the label ‘nihilist’ by attempting to establish pieces of a structure to replace what he had torn down.  He was anti-Christian because for him it placed too much value on faith and not enough on good works, and he called himself the Antichrist as a result of inconsistencies he perceived in Christ’s messages and actions, and because he refused to accept Christ’s divinity.  While he averred that ‘God is dead!’ because he thought people had turned their backs on God, it is not clear that Nietzsche was an outright atheist.  He seems to have had a belief in the possibility of God.

One of his better known ideas is that the basic human urge (more important than sex) is the Will to Power.  By this somewhat confusing term he meant striving to overcome the faults and weaknesses in ourselves to become as valuable human beings as we could be.  For Nietzsche there were three categories of humans which exhibited extraordinary value: artists, saints, and philosophers.  When one had overcome one’s faults and weaknesses, one became an ‘úbermensch’ – literally an ‘over man’, which has unfortunately been translated as ‘superman’, which wasn’t at all what Nietzsche had in mind: a sustained, an arduous, personal striving for self improvement which leads to happiness.  Coupled to Nietzsche’s concept of the úbermensch was the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’.  This latter was the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things; unfortunately, even if one assumes that time is infinite, this has been proven impossible.

Kaufmann is at his best shedding light on Nietzsche’s intentions, his values, and his thought processes.  As a result there is an enormous amount of detail in the book: footnotes and quotations from a wide variety of sources.  Occasionally, the logic of an argument becomes murky, but Kaufmann’s straightforward approach clarifies both the distinct character and the great contribution of this philosopher, and restores his stature in the face of unjust criticism, poor health, broken friendships and little happiness.

If one wants to understand Nietzsche as a whole philosopher, this book – rather that any two or three of his own books – is the one to read.

Designing a Cover

I probably wrote about this subject quite a while ago, but it’s close enough to my heart that it warrants a re-exploration.

My publisher will produce two cover designs, and the author can have his/her choice.  To facilitate the process, there is a questionnaire for the author to fill out.  It includes such questions as:

  • what is the book about?
  • what ideas do you have for the cover?

I usually respond with a fairly detailed cover idea.  In the case of my second novel, Sin & Contrition, I didn’t have an idea, and I probably told the cover designer that the cover should reflect sin and repentance.  What came back was amazing, and I liked it immediately:


But with the five novels that have followed since, I have had to make more of a personal effort.

My latest novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, is a modern allegory about one man’s search for spiritual fulfillment.  It is set almost entirely in the Middle East, and many of the issues involve Islam.  As the title implies a difficult search, I told the designer that I wanted a Middle Eastern maze with the Dome of the Rock (the famous mosque in Jerusalem) positioned at the end of the maze.  What came back was a modern, three-dimensional maze with the Dome of the Rock floating on the horizon.  It just didn’t work.  Next, I found two, antique two-dimensional mazes to choose from, and I suggested that the Dome of the Rock (in miniature) be positioned at the success point in the center.  This also didn’t work; I gave up on the maze.

While browsing’s collection of mosque photos, I came across a single photo of some people ascending a long flight of stairs toward the Dome of the Rock.  That’s it.  But meanwhile, my wife, who has a much better eye for things artistic than I, had objected to the font proposed by the designer for the cover: “It’s a dated Western font; there’s nothing Arabic about it!”  So, on a page offering ‘free Arabic fonts’, we found one we liked.

What came back from the designer was a lot better, but I asked that the photo be enlarged and positioned at the top of the cover, and that the white highlights be eliminated from the font.  We’ll see what comes back, and I expect to introduce the book and its cover to you when it goes to press within a month.

It is true that one can’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover can play an important role in introducing the book to the reader!

First Amendment Problems

As you may know the first amendment to the US Constitution covers free speech.  There is an article in my alumni magazine which addresses the ‘First Amendment Problem’.  You will know that freedom of speech is, to me as an author, a key issue.  The article says that hate speech isn’t the issue; politics isn’t the issue; the problem, says the dean of Yale Law School, is that nobody knows how to think about free speech.

The article says,” Take Sorrell v. IMS Health.  In 2007, Vermont passed a law restricting the sale of doctors’ prescriptions to drug companies, which were using the records in their marketing.  The drug companies, along with data mining companies sued, saying that the law violated their First Amendment rights. Vermont argued that the law regulated commerce, not speech.  The case reached the US Supreme Court, where Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the majority opinion in 2011.  Marketing, he reasoned, consists of speech.  Therefore, singling out marketers amounts to government censorship.

Sorrell wasn’t treated like a blockbuster in the press, but it caused a sensation in the legal world.  It’s hard to argue with Kennedy’s declaration that ‘the state cannot engage in content based discrimination to advance its own side of the debate’.  But if that’s true for pharmaceutical marketers, what else does it apply to?  All kinds of commercial and professional regulations restrict speech based on its content.  Under Sorrell, can states still require psychologists to be licensed, considering that therapy is speech?  Can a public school teacher be fired for telling students that the earth is flat?”


Robert Post

Robert Post, the dean of Yale Law School and an expert on the First Amendment, has been following Supreme Court rulings on freedom of speech for about 30 years.  He has been trying to deduce the criteria that the court uses in making its decisions.  For example, the Supreme Court recently ruled that a newspaper couldn’t publish confidential information it had obtained through the discovery process in a civil lawsuit.  At first, Post disagreed, but he came to the conclusion that the court had made the right decision.  “The legal system, Post realised, isn’t an open forum for public debate; it’s a government institution designed for a specific purpose.  For the courts to function, judges have to have the power to regulate speech in a trial setting’”

Post’s insight is that “the amendment applies differently is different contexts or ‘constitutional domains’.  The most important domain is what he calls ‘public discourse’, because the goal of free speech is self-government.  Only speech relevant to that goal should get the highest level of protection.  Because public opinion shapes laws in a democracy, people need a chance to affect it: otherwise they won’t experience self-government.”

An interesting example is that some dentists believe that the mercury contained in some dental fillings can leach into the body, but they are punished by their professional regulators for malpractice if they advise their patients to remove the fillings.  The same dentists can, without censure, write op-ed pieces setting out their views.  This latter case is ‘public discourse’ and has First Amendment protection, while advice to a patient is not ‘public discourse’.

The question for an author, whose work is clearly ‘public discourse’, is: how far can you go?  If I were to write a piece belittling or making fun of the Prophet Muhammad (which I have no reason to consider), that would probably be OK, based on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and The Satanic Verses.  But if I were to write a treatise recommending that the readers go and join ISIL, I might well end up in jail (like Anjem Choudary, the UK hate preacher).  What’s the difference, legally?  Professor Post doesn’t say, but I guess the legal differences arise from two subjective factors:

  • Public opinion, and
  • The perceived threat to a democratic form of government

J K Rowling’s Writing Tips

Recently, I accompanied my grandchildren on a trip to the Harry Potter exhibition at Warner Brothers Studios near Watford.  I have to confess that I am not a Harry Potter fan, but I certainly enjoyed the outing to the exhibition.  I found it astonishing the detail that goes into creating the real visual effects that appear on the screen.

Certainly J K Rowling is a brilliant author to have created the seven Harry Potter books which are so popular, worldwide.  Yesterday, I ran across her top five writing tips on the Now Novel blog.  I thought I would republish and comment on them.


J K Rowling

1.    Write in whatever time you have

One of J.K. Rowling’s most famous quotes is: “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.” This is crucial advice on writing a book. It’s easy for us to imagine successful writers spending all day penning beautiful paragraphs, but everybody had to start somewhere. For Rowling, that somewhere included full-time work and finding stolen pockets of time to write. Much as it might be a dream to take six months out to write your book, odds are you’re going to have to fit it into your everyday life.

I agree that it is unwise – even couterproductive – to establish an overall deadline (unless you publisher insists on it).  For me, the minimum size of a ‘stolen pocket’ is an hour.  In less than an hour, I can’t get into a fully creative mode.

2.    Planning is essential

Instead of diving right into line 1, J.K. Rowling advises taking the time to plan out the world your books will live in. She took five years to create and develop every last detail of the Harry Potter world. Every part of Rowling’s books was planned and worked out, right down to how the Wizards and Muggles interacted (and the word Muggles, to begin with!) what the education was like, how magic helped in every day life and how the wizarding world of government worked. She also plotted out all the events of the seven books before she started writing the first.

Great if you can do it!  I write a two page outline of a novel before I start it, but for me, this is just a framework.  I find that characters want to behave differently and therefor events change, or I get an ‘inspiration’ that causes me to deviate from the original plan.  I depend a lot on these inspirations!

3.    Rewriting is just as essential

You would think after five years, J.K. Rowling would just be able to dive right in and write the whole of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, without much rewriting. She rewrote the opening chapter of her first book a total of fifteen times, however. It’s easy to imagine published authors writing with the greatest of ease, but actually the process is just as difficult for them.

I agree!  I don’t think I’ve ever reached fifteen re-writes, but four of five is not uncommon.  For me, the scope of a rewrite tends to decrease over time: after a major rewrite, what follows tends to be less and less radical.

4.    Be aware of plot and pacing

Even when you’ve plotted out all seven of the books you want to write in a series, you can trip yourself up. In fact, that’s one of the big things to be aware of when you’ve done the necessary planning: even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies. After J.K. Rowling finished the first book in the Harry Potter series, she realised she’d given away the whole plot of the series. So she had to rewrite it, and hold back a number of integral plot points.

I tend to make changes to the plot once I’ve started writing a novel.  These changes make the novel more interesting, more exciting, or better convey the overall message of the work.  But I agree that one has to be careful that the revised plot flows seamlessly with no inconsistencies.

5.    Write your passion

Perhaps a favourite J.K. Rowling quote is: “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!” One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so infectious is because you can tell she really loves the world she created – and all the characters in them. If you’re going to approach your book in a half-hearted manner, there’s no point even beginning it. Make sure you’re passionate about what you write and you’ll draw your readers along with you.

This is very true!  Occasionally, I find that the work is starting to lose interest for me.  Then I know that something is wrong and significant changes are required.  For example, I gave a literary friend a draft of Sable Shadow & The Presence before it was finished.  His comment: “It’s boring.”  I agreed, and I put it aside while I wrote Hidden Battlefields.  When I came back to the manuscript it was with new ideas and new enthusiasm.  When I finished, my friend (like many others) gave it a very good review.