Mix Harold Bloom with Stephen Jay Gould, and you’ll get something like Kass. A wonderfully intelligent reading of...

THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

READING GENESIS

A learned and fluent, delightfully overstuffed stroll through the Gates of Eden.

“It was all because of Darwin,” writes Kass (Committee on Social Thought/Univ. of Chicago), that he came to study the biblical book of Genesis, in which the earth is created, populated, depopulated, and scourged in various awful ways. Blending science with philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and other disciplines—but with only a smattering of theology as such—Kass turns to some of the big questions that science cannot or does not care to answer, as well as to a few ticklish other matters: “How, we wonder, does the speaker know what he is talking about? Why should we believe him? . . . On the basis of what other than prejudice—prejudgment—can we decide whether the text is speaking truly?” Kass provides no firm answers (how could he?), but he grapples nobly with the notoriously difficult text from first words (“In beginning,” he translates, eschewing the definite article, “God [’elohim] created the heavens and the earth”) to last (“the very last word of Genesis is ‘in Egypt’ [bemitsrayim]”), commenting, elucidating, and arguing along the way. Kass, now chairman of the President’s Bioethics Committee, is inclined to a generous view of human and divine nature, though his Garden—a place that appeals to “beings with an uncomplicated, innocent attachment to their own survival and ease”—conceals plenty of Darwinian thorns. On the matter of Cain and Abel, for example, he ventures, “readers recoil from considering the possibility that enmity—yes, enmity to the point of fratricide—might be the natural condition of brothers,” while among the other matters Jacob must wrestle with, Kass has it, is “nature’s indifference to human merit.” But all those big questions and problems, Kass concludes, resolve into an overarching one, the real subject of Genesis: “Is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life that accords with man’s true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his godlike abilities?” Hmmm.

Mix Harold Bloom with Stephen Jay Gould, and you’ll get something like Kass. A wonderfully intelligent reading of Genesis—and surely worthy of sequels, a fat volume for each branch of the Pentateuch.

Pub Date: May 15, 2003

ISBN: 0-7432-4299-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2003

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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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THE WEIGHT OF GLORY

The name of C.S. Lewis will no doubt attract many readers to this volume, for he has won a splendid reputation by his brilliant writing. These sermons, however, are so abstruse, so involved and so dull that few of those who pick up the volume will finish it. There is none of the satire of the Screw Tape Letters, none of the practicality of some of his later radio addresses, none of the directness of some of his earlier theological books.

Pub Date: June 15, 1949

ISBN: 0060653205

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1949

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