Books by Donald Harman Akenson

Released: Sept. 1, 2000

"Although told with great panache, this is a story that we have heard before."
An absorbing, if conventional, look at the latest "Quest for the Historical Jesus" through the letters of the apostle Paul. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 19, 1998

Venturing as an amateur into biblical and Judaic studies, historian Akenson (Queen's University, Ontario) constructs a brilliant integrative theory of continuities and parallels between Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and rabbinic Judaism. Within today's complex world of biblical interpretation, Akenson's book falls under the rubric of canonical criticism: the extrapolation of meanings and intents from the final (canonical) forms sacred scriptures assumed. By his own terms for his project—to uncover "the grammar of biblical invention"—Akenson means to highlight both his theological neutrality on the issue of divine biblical inspiration and his awe-filled regard for the genius of the Jewish and Christian "inventors": the author/editors who shaped the disparate materials they received, both oral and written, into literary masterpieces that met historically conditioned spiritual needs. The central need in question, according to Akenson, was to replace the temple of Jerusalem, destroyed first by the Babylonians in 587 b.c., and then again by the Romans in 70 a.d., with texts whose ideas could substitute for the temple-based ritual sacrifices. Temple-substitution is the common template over which Akenson lays Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and the rabbinic literature, with startling and provocative results. The Torah, or first five books of Moses, traditionally most revered by Jews, becomes a relatively late, politically motivated extract out of a prior unit of nine books (Genesis through Kings, in the Hebrew Bible); the physically resurrected Christ becomes a biblically ungrammatical aberrancy; and rabbininc Judaism emerges as the younger sibling of Christianity. The intellectual shocks are hugely instructive (St. Paul conceived in relation to the gospels as the Mishnah to the Talmud), entertaining (Ecclesiastes as "camped-up staginess"), and conciliatory—for ultimately, Akenson hopes to reinvigorate Jewish-Christian dialogue with shared wonder over the literary ploys of genial scriptural redactors working common themes to opposite effect. Akenson successfully reproduces, in microcosm, an ancient world of scriptural ideas that he rightly calls "one of the greatest intellectual air shows ever conducted." Read full book review >
CONOR by Donald Harman Akenson
Released: Oct. 1, 1994

Conor Cruise O'Brien may or may not be ``the greatest living Irishman'' or ``the most important Irish nonfiction writer of the 20th century,'' but he has certainly found a splendid biographer in historian Akenson (History/Queen's Univ., Ontario). Born in 1917, O'Brien could seemingly do everything but math. He supported himself with prizes at university; wrote literary criticism; was on the fast track in the Irish Foreign Office until he jumped off it, carrying out too exactly the unattributable wishes of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjîld; was vice chancellor of the University of Ghana, a New York academic, an Irish Cabinet minister, editor-in-chief of The Observer, and the author of seminal books on Ireland and Edmund Burke. Along the way he became the enfant terrible of the UN, not only revealing in his To Katanga and Back how it worked but doing it in such entertaining fashion that Akenson calls it ``the first successful picaresque novel of postcolonial Africa, but...a novel that is built almost entirely of fact.'' He showed enormous courage in Ireland, denouncing the constitutionally asserted right of the South to exercise jurisdiction over Ulster as ``essentially a colonial claim'' and campaigning ceaselessly against the romanticization of violence. It would be surprising, in a life devoted to journalism and crusades of one kind or another, if O'Brien had not gone off the rails from time to time as he did in the late 1960s: His castigation of Western imperialism as ``one of the greatest and most dangerous forces in the world today'' and his statement that containing communism was one of the greatest dangers to world peace suggest his limitations. But his courage, his honesty, his restless mind, and his eloquent writing assured him of a wide audience, and his States of Ireland and The Great Melody have both been remarkably influential books, the latter, according to Akenson, ``among the great biographies of the 20th Century.'' This, too, is a very fine biography, full of wit, verve, candor, and a critical appreciation of its subject. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1992

Bold, often brilliant, but perhaps strained attempt by Akenson (History/Queen's Univ.) to trace how ancient Hebrew scriptures have ``formed the fundamental pattern of mind of the three societies'' of South Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland. Akenson begins by analyzing the Old Testament: ``The Bible is sulphurous in spots, not nice,'' he says, with Yahweh, a ``jealous God,'' purging 120,000 men of the House of Judah on one occasion, making a bargain with Jephthah to kill his own daughter on another. Akenson believes that the Old Testament laid great emphasis on social law, vengeance, a warlike deity, the value of particular lands, the significance of the Exodus, and group purity—each of which he finds reflected in the three societies he examines. The most obvious case is South Africa, where the belief in a chosen people, in the significance of an exodus into an untamed country, and in biological and cultural purity is particularly clear. Akenson's most strained analogy is that of Ulster, where he sees rigid thinking, sharp dichotomies, a prophetic mode of utterance, and territorial segregation at work. And his most controversial analysis is likely to be of Israel: ``The Israelis systematically deprived the Palestinian Arabs of their lands, segregated their places of residence, and developed a dual economy and severe restrictions on the civil liberties and civil rights of the indigenous population.'' Eight-six percent of Palestinian villages, he says, have disappeared within the past 20 years; military government has been used for ``security'' reasons to deny civil rights; and there are strict ``pass'' and travel restrictions. It's debatable whether Akenson's concept of resurgent Old Testament behavior is more theory than reality—his idea that Israel will move ever closer to the covenanting pattern seems confounded by the recent elections—but the author's sweep and grasp are impressive. Read full book review >