Overshadowed by Armstrong’s more ambitious A History of God (1993), but religion students will find this a worthwhile...

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THE BIBLE

A BIOGRAPHY

Detailed review of the creation and study of the Bible through the centuries.

Religion scholar Armstrong (The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, 2006, etc.) opens with the accepted explanation for the creation of Hebrew scripture, then moves on to the prophetic and wisdom writings. The book’s early chapters are especially notable for the author’s strong presentation of historical background. After discussing the basics of the Hebrew Bible, Armstrong moves on to the life of Jesus and the written documents that ensued. From this point forward, she does an exceptional job of balancing and interweaving Jewish and Christian approaches to scripture. She discusses the tradition of Midrash both as an art in its own right and as an influence on early Christian perceptions of scripture. Likewise, when exploring Christian study of the Bible in medieval monasteries and universities, she compares their work to that of contemporary Jewish counterparts. The narrative advances chronologically into the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and finally the modern era. Today, Armstrong avers, readings of the Bible are influenced by the techniques of scholarly criticism, which lessens the faith of some while fueling a fundamentalist backlash among others. Again, she seamlessly weaves together the history of Jews and Christians in this period. Little here is new, although that is not really an issue for an entry in Atlantic’s Books That Changed the World series. More troubling: The text often reads like a long academic paper, with only limited original insight from the author. Armstrong concludes by urging scholars to employ charity and compassion in their biblical exegeses—though her faith in humanity’s ability or desire to do this seems shaky at best.

Overshadowed by Armstrong’s more ambitious A History of God (1993), but religion students will find this a worthwhile resource.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-87113-969-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2007

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER

New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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