Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

ZealotZealot is a straightforward yet scholarly account of the life of Jesus, unencumbered by metaphysical speculation about what Christians regard as religious mysteries. For atheists or agnostics with an interest in mythology and religion as a social phenomena, Reza Aslan has done exactly what it says on the cover. It’s about “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Other readers may feel short-changed by the focus on the material facts of the life of Jesus in the context of first century Palestine. Yet others, apparently without reading the book, have been upset by the fact that it’s written by a Muslim, as if his religion disqualified Aslan from writing on the subject. See this toe-curlingly embarrassing clip from Fox News for a particularly egregious example.

As well as being a scholar of religions, Aslan is also an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and he takes a novelistic approach that emphasizes story, setting, and characterization. He begins in the present tense, taking us on a journey through the Temple in Jerusalem to witness the assassination of the High Priest in 56 CE by Jewish zealots. Along the way, he introduces us to the architecture, personnel, and functions of the Temple, even the smells of the place during Passover. It’s a brilliant, almost cinematic, introduction to the key facts.

Aslan accepts that a real, historical Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, was the basis for Christianity. As a careful scholar, however, he always distinguishes between the Jewish Jesus and accretions of the Christ mythos. While there are no footnotes to clutter up the text, he writes exhaustive chapter notes at the end of the book.

His historical background covers the period of Roman rule, up to and beyond the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, encompassing the many Jewish Messiahs, of which Jesus is the most well-known. The title of the book, Zealot, points to their common characteristic, outrage at both Roman occupation and the collaboration of the Temple authorities.

In conjunction with his focus on the historical Jesus, Aslan is painstakingly agnostic about the miracles recorded in the Gospels, those which allegedly occurred during his ministry and the resurrection itself. He merely notes that most people accepted them as true. As an atheist, I wanted more scientific rigour, but you can’t have everything.

Aslan spends some time analyzing what the word “Messiah” meant to Jews at the time, since the definition is central to the story of Jesus. To that end, he deconstructs the Gospel accounts to reveal Jesus as a zealot, leader of a movement aiming to wrest control of Israel from Roman rule. In terms of verifiable events in the life of Jesus, however, Aslan devotes the bulk of the book to the events of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. In part this is because there are so few verifiable events.

The idea of Jesus as Jewish zealot is not a new interpretation – I remember reading a book written in the Seventies with this premise – but Aslan’s combined scholarship and novelistic skills make a compelling argument. In the event, it was an easy sale, since I’ve long subscribed to the idea.

He is particularly interesting on the religious rivalry between the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem and Saul of Tarsus’ conception of Jesus as Christ. The former, led by James, brother of Jesus, saw him as a Jewish Messiah, and their church bound by the laws of the Torah. Saul, who became Paul after his attack of hysterical blindness on the road to Damascus, preached a vision of an eternal Christ to the gentiles. If Aslan’s novelistic approach lets down the scholarly side, it’s here. You can see in his characterization that he clearly dislikes Paul. As do I, so we’re on the same page. If I had a time machine, Paul would not be history. Literally.

This is not a book everyone will warm to, but I’ve not read a better account of the life of Jesus in his historical context. Highly recommended.

The Wicker Man Director’s Cut

the-wicker-man-the-directors-cutOne of the great British horror films, The Wicker Man, is finally being shown in its entirety today after Hollywood butchered it prior to release in 1973. According to Studio Briefing, a complete print of director Robin Hardy’s final version was discovered in the Harvard Film Archive.

I’ve seen The Wicker Man in incomplete versions a couple of times. It never fails to simultaneously evoke pity for Howie and huge exhilaration. Partly because life on Summerisle is an idyllic vision of people just getting along and enjoying life to the full. Unless, of course, your crops begin to fail and you have to turn to human sacrifice. Opposing their worldview is Constable Howie, a dour puritan, who would have burned pagans in another age. He achieves something his peculiar mindset might hold in high esteem – the chance to die as a martyr. I think that tension is what gives the film such resonance.

Unbelievably, or perhaps believably, the studio wanted a happy ending for Howie, with rain putting out the fire in the wicker man. A simplistic, Biblical Deus ex machina calculated to destroy the complex duality of the film. We must be thankful that Hardy refused to compromise its integrity.

There’s no doubt Howie is entrapped into investigating the disappearance of a young girl who never actually went missing, but the fool gets every chance to save himself. He only has to give in to Willow’s enchantment and lose his virginity. Here’s her song and it’s well-nigh irresistible.

As is Britt Ekland in the role of Willow, though she thought she had “an arse like a ski slope,” so they had to get her a bottom double for the nude scenes. This according to an illuminating article in the Guardian where Hardy and Gary Carpenter, musical director, talk about the making of the film.

I’m hoping our wee Picture House gets a copy for the First Monday program – good films that aren’t the usual Hollywood dreck, shown on the first Monday of every month. In the meantime, here’s the trailer. I’d take the 4 hour bus to journey to Glasgow, and 4 hours back, just to see this film again.

Last Rituals

Last RitualsLast Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, is an Icelandic-noir crime novel, featuring a particularly gruesome murder, irresistibly combined with sorcery and witchcraft. I learned a great deal about these ancient practices in the course of finding out whodunnit, including a tasty gobbet of information about corpse breeches. I do like to be informed as well as entertained.

The subject matter of the novel is surprising in that Yrsa spent the first seven years of her writing career in children’s fiction, and this 2005 novel was her debut in adult fiction. It’s as if all the sweetness and light just got too much, and she decided to do something completely different. The Scotsman has an interview with the author from 2010.

Last Rituals is a splendid read, a page-turner if ever there was one. I gobbled it up in one day, remarkable because I’m usually a slow reader. Yrsa’s protagonist, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is very much like herself. A professional woman, in this case a lawyer rather than her real day job of civil engineer, 30-something mother of 2 children, living in the up-market suburb of Seltjarnarnes in Reykjavik. Her description even fits the author’s photo.

A post-graduate German student, Harald Guntlieb, studying at the University of Iceland, is found strangled with both eyes removed. One of his drug dealer friends is quickly arrested for the crime, but Thora receives a phone call from the victim’s mother, asking for help in an independent investigation – she does not believe the drug dealer was responsible. She sends the family’s security chief (they own a bank) to Iceland to help. Matthew Reich is a tough, capable ex-detective, and completely out of his cultural depth, so they make a good team as they begin to rub the edges off each other’s preconceptions.

Thora’s sympathetic and appealing character is extremely well-drawn, as are her children Soley (6) and Gylfi (16). It’s through Thora’s eyes that we see Matthew evolve from a martinet to a relaxed, likable man as they get deeper into the investigation.

Much of this investigation revolves around a group of students who had formed a witchcraft and sorcery club with Harald, as well as two of their professors. There’s a lot about drink, drugs, and sex as the lifestyle of young Icelanders, as represented by this group of students. The novel also takes a trip to a remote sorcery and witchcraft museum in Holmavik, NW Iceland. This video shows some of the exhibits the novel talks about.

The novel works on many levels. As a whodunnit, it had me guessing right to the end, but I have to confess that I’m lazy in these matters, less concerned with finding the murderer and more interested in the characters. In this case it’s very rewarding. I was much taken by Thora, her family, and her developing relationship with Matthew. And Harald’s peculiar pychopathology is fascinating. Less interesting are the drinking, drug-taking, and sexual antics of the students he has drawn into his circle – they seem merely stupid.

Then’s there’s the allure of books and scholarship, enough to make me salivate. The novel revolves around a search for a rare copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, a theological justification and user manual for the torture of those suspected of witchcraft. There are many other obscure and fascinating texts woven into the story. How could I resist?

Finally, there’s Iceland, that strange country I want to visit more than ever.

If you like this first outing for Thora, there are 3 more novels with her as protagonist, which I intend to read: My Soul to Take (2009), Ashes to Dust (2010), and The Day Is Dark (2011). Looks like the subject matter hasn’t got any more cheerful, I’m glad to say.

A Day in the Life of Augustus Carp, Esq.

Augustus Carp, Esq.Required, like my father, who was still fortunately able to pursue his secular avocations, to be present at my place of employment by nine o’clock in the morning, my mother would call me at a quarter past seven, bringing a cup of tea to my bedside. This I would permit to cool for three or four minutes while I ate one of the biscuits with which it was accompanied; and then, sitting up in bed with my dressing-gown over my shoulders, I would drink the upper half of it before again eating. I would then eat the second of my two biscuits, and having drunk the remainder of the tea, would ring for my mother, who would then bring my hot water prior to the removal of the tea-things.

I was now ready to dress, and pushing down the bed-clothes, would begin by leaning forward and reaching the trousers which, the night before, I had hung over the end of the bed, with this very purpose in view. Containing my pants, to the lower extremities of which my socks would be still adherent, I was thus enabled, without removing my nightgown, to clothe my lower limbs before actually rising; and it was only then that I would finally leave the bed and cross the room towards the wash-hand stand. I would then fill the basin, leaving sufficient hot water for the purposes of subsequent shaving, and having locked the door and drawn the blinds would remove my nightgown preparatory to washing.

It would now be half-past seven, and if it were at all cold, I would don my vest before bending over the basin, never failing, however, in even the severest weather, to roll up my sleeves as far as my elbows. Then having dried and put on my shirt, I would shave before putting on my shirt-front, always brushing my hair before I put on my coat,but not before putting on my waistcoat. I would then select a clean handkerchief from my top right-hand drawer, and having pulled up my trousers a little to prevent them from becoming baggy, would kneel by my bedside at seven forty-five, assuming an erect position again at five minutes to eight. I would then pull up the blinds, open the windows, fold up my nightgown and put it in my nightgown bag, and by eight o’clock would be sitting at the harmonium in readiness to burst into the morning hymn.

Thus begun, and breakfast having been concluded, the day would next behold me inside an omnibus, unless the weather were warm enough to permit of my sitting upon the top for the purpose of rebuking adjacent smokers; and punctually at nine o’clock, I would enter the show-room and divest myself of my hat, scarf and overcoat. I would then exchange a courteous word or two with Miss Botterill and the youth who had succeeded me as show-room assistant, and immediately apply myself to the various duties that as show-room manager devolved upon my shoulders. Comprising the arrangement of books upon the shelves and counters, as well as of an attractive display in the street window, these would include, of course, my personal attendance upon the more important of our retail customers, the booking of orders, the checking of the show-room takings, and the maintenance of discipline amongst my two subordinates. And I had long ago proved the necessity, in view of such diverse demands, of paying the utmost attention to my physical upkeep.

At eleven o’clock, therefore, I would despatch Miss Botterill to a neighbouring branch of the Aerated Bread Company for a glass of hot milk and a substantial slice of a cake appropriately known as lunch cake. I would then, at twelve-thirty, repair in person to the same branch of this valuable company, where I would generally order from one of the quieter waitresses a double portion of sausages and mashed potatoes, accompanied by a cup of coffee, and followed by an apple dumpling or a segment of baked jam roll. This was the more necessary because the hour from one to two was usually the busiest of the working day, while from two to three, when, my subordinates lunched in turn, I had, of course, only one of them to assist me.

By three o’clock, however, they had both returned, and I would take the opportunity, five minutes later, of again sending Miss Botterill to the Aerated Bread Company for my mid-afternoon cup of tea. This I would drink, unthickened by food, but at half-past four I would send her out for another cup, and with this I would eat a roll and butter, a small dish of honey, and perhaps a single doughnut. Thus fortified I would then continue at work until six o’clock, when the show-room closed, and at half-past six I was sitting down at home to the chief meal of the evening. Taken somewhat earlier than had been my father’s custom in the days of my boyhood and adolescence, I had found myself obliged to insist on the alteration in view of the many demands upon my evening hours. Most of my active work, for example, at the doors of public-houses, required an attendance from seven to nine, while few of the local prayer meetings began at a later hour than half-past seven or eight.

Early as was this meal, however, it was none the less welcome, consisting as it usually did of a joint and two vegetables followed by a wholesome pudding, tea, bread and jam, and perhaps a slice or two of home-made cake. Then after evening prayers, I would embrace my father, who was now always in bed by a quarter to nine, and leave the house upon some such holy errand as I have described in the previous paragraph. I did not fail, however, on returning home to drink a bowl of arrowroot and eat some digestive biscuits, and whenever possible, in the interests of my health, I would retire to my bedroom at ten fifteen.

Here I would find my windows closed for the night, the blinds drawn for the sake of decency, a jug of hot water standing in my basin, while a hot-water bottle would be within the bed. All would be in readiness, therefore, for my quick disrobing, a process that I would begin as soon as I had locked the door; and within five minutes, I would be bending over the basin clad as I have described myself some fifteen hours earlier. I would then brush my teeth, using some mild disinfectant, open my nightgown bag and extract my nightgown, and having taken off my vest, would slip on my nightgown prior to the removal of my lower garments. These I would then detach from myself with a single downward movement, subsequently hanging them over the end of the bed, after which I would put on my dressing-gown and bedroom slippers and utter a brief but fervent supplication. I would then pull up the blinds so that the stars could shine upon my bed, swallow a tablespoon of the Adult Gripe Water, unlock the door, extinguish the light, and by ten thirty-five be composed for slumber.

Such was a typical day of this period of my life, during which, as I have said, I increased in weight, and in which, as I am glad to believe, my moral stature also expanded and became consolidated. This was, at any rate, the conviction of my friend Simeon Whey, who took the opportunity of my twenty-sixth birthday to describe me in his diary as `now in the full flower of his southern Metropolitan Xtian manhood’. Indeed, the whole passage is well worth transcribing, written as it was on the eve of his ordination, and following a happy hour together discussing the price-lists of various clerical tailors.

`By a moving coincidence,’ he wrote, `the eve of my ordination has coincided with the twenty-sixth birthday of my old and dear friend Augustus Carp of Angela Gardens. And yet perhaps old is scarcely the right word, for mature as he is, he is now in the full flower of his southern Metropolitan Xtian manhood. Nor have I ever seen him looking so large as when he came to see me at 2.35 to receive the hand-painted toothbrush, with which I had promised to present him, and to give me his benediction for the morrow. Fully a stone heavier than this time last year, his moustache has become noticeably more abundant, and his every movement possesses the weight and gravity of a man twenty years his senior. Admirable as was his diction, too, even as a boy, it has now attained a level of sonorous grandeur, from which it never lapses in even the most trivial pronouncements imposed upon him by necessary human intercourse. Is it surprising, therefore, that I daily thank P, for so noble and inspiring an example?’

– from Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself, Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. See my review here.


I was talking to someone on the phone, and diddling about in Picasa with this image from Apocalypse Day at the same time. Not entirely sure what I did or in what order, but it looks quite Christmassy, don’t you think? In a kitschy kind of way.

A happy accident (or not, depending on your point of of view). The original image certainly had insufficient oomph.