Sunday, May 21, 2017

Simple Book Review: "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" (2014)

This book is not a quick read, but worth the investment of time (it took me a month and a book in between to finished reading it. 466+ pages) and money (RM51.80). If you are not bothered by reality and willing to face the uncomfortable truth about human race from the writer’s perspectives, this book is for you. It is brilliantly written, challenging, humorous at time and totally non-politically correct. To appreciate a book you need to have an open-mind and critical thinking. Don’t believe everything you read and – don’t simply condemn that you don’t know in depth.

Okay, Sapiens first published in 2014. It is a critically acclaimed international best-seller. Mark Zuckerberg and ex-president Obama were among influential people that recommended this book. In it Harari tracks the evolution of Homo Sapiens from hunter-gatherers into self-empowered “gods” of the future (which he expounds more in his second book, Homo Deus). He focuses on the 3 great revolutions of human history: #1 Cognitive, #2 Agricultural and #3 Scientific.  

We control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers,” writes Harari, historian from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He continues, “And if you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find that it is based on some fiction like the nation, like money, like human rights. These are all things that do not exist objectively, but they exist only in the stories that we tell and that we spread around. This is something very unique to us, perhaps the most unique feature of our species.”

What I like about Harari is that when he doesn’t have any real answer to certain topics, he just say ‘I don’t know’ and then outline 3 to 4 possible theories or reasons and ask us to decide for ourselves. But when he really know the topics very well – as historian, he is also very good with scientific knowledge – he writes with simplicity, clear and clarity. Jared Diamond similarly fascinated: “Here is a simple reason why Sapiens has risen explosively to the ranks of an international bestseller. It tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language. You will love it!” Yes, you will.

This book is divided into 4 parts and 20 chapters. Part 1, 2, 3, and the last chapter are my favourites, especially part 3 entitled The Unification of Humankind where Harari claims that commerce (money), empires (nations) and universal religions are the three secrets of success that virtually bring every sapiens (humankind) on every continent into the global world we live in today. He ends this book with an afterward entitled The Animal that Became a God. He argues that we have become more powerful than ever before “but have very little idea what to do with all that power.” We seem to be more irresponsible than ever. “Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one.” We are the ones that wreaking havoc on wildlife, ecosystem and environments. With a question, he ends this book: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Fire gave us power
Gossip helped us cooperate
Agriculture made us hungry for more
Mythology maintained law and order
Money gave us something we can really trust
Contradictions created culture
Science made us deadly

A must read!

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Jesus' Leadership #6 Request for Noble Things

In thinking about the leaders in the Bible, I began to study their prayer requests. Many of them had opportunities when God said, “I will give you whatever you ask.” How did these people replied to God’s offer? To my surprise, I noticed that all of them asked only for noble things:

Abraham’s request: “Help me follow you”
Moses’s request: “Help me free your people”
David’s request: “Help me slay the giant for our people”
Esther’s request: “Help me save these people”
Solomon’s request: “Give me wisdom to rule your people”
Isaiah’s request: “Give me clean lips to speak your words”
Peter’s request: “Help me feed Your sheep”
Jesus’s request: “Help me show them You Father”

There is one verse that says, “The noble person plan only noble things” (Isaiah 32:8). Jesus was a leader who requested only noble things. People asked him for healing, for forgiveness, for love from God because they knew that he can, he is noble. Once he claimed the verses from Isaiah 61 as his mission: “[God] has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to the captives… to comfort all those who mourn, and to give them for ashes a garland… for a mourning robe the oil of gladness, for despondency, praise.” Jesus asked for noble things.

Noble is such a beautiful word, but one doesn’t hear it mentioned very much anymore. I never heard preachers preach a sermon on “How to Be a Noble Man.” Stephen R. Covey doesn’t carry articles on “7 Highly Effective Noble People.” This book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill might not have sold so well if it had been titled Think and Grow Noble.

I think people are basically noble at the core. As for me, I’m going to think about noble things such as how to contribute more to the noble causes in the world. Maybe, if we each think about it more, we, like other leaders in the past, can become nobility. We should ask for noble things just as Jesus asked for noble things.

How can you do noble things to the world today?

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Simple Book Review: "Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment" (2014)

Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment (2014)
by Jon M. Sweeney

First, not all the books that I read is what I agree with; and secondly, if I were to read only the ones that I already agree with, I’ll become the most close-minded person and unworthy orthodox. Always challenge your own assumptions and beliefs. The truth remain the truth but the way you perceives and comprehend it can be change overtime. That’s growth, not heretic.

Okay… the book. Well, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. Maybe I should reflect on it some more. For now though, my initial impression is a positive one. But I'm not sure that I agree with all that Sweeney writes. That we have misunderstood and misapplied the teachings of hell – I totally agree! That there is a clear development of the concept of hell through myths (especially, Greek mythology), Socrates, Plato, Hesiod, Virgil, the Old Testament, the New, Thomas Aquinas and even the Quran – will all the evidences in this book and elsewhere – I somewhat agreed (say 80%). The peak of this evolution of hell, the writer argue, is attributed to the greatest influencer of all: Dante’s Inferno. Durante degli Alighieri, simply called Dante, was a major Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages. He is famous for his work The Divine Comedy poet-trilogy [#1 Inferno (Hell), #2 Purgatorio (Purgatory), and #3 Paradiso (Heaven)].

By the way, none of this is particularly new for me. However, I'm not quite comfortable with the author's take on Psalm’s afterlife which is more hopeless compare to Paul’s afterlife version that is more optimistic, body-soul arguments, Plato’s influences in Jesus’s teachings, the allegorical nature of Satan and mythical concept of hell (one of it in which he said that ‘Hell’ is Christian’s term that may differ in nature, location and functions from ‘Sheol’, ‘Hades’ and ‘Tartarus’ which are used in Greek mythology) and with the actual influence of Dante on our more recent views of hell. Dante’s imagination of the underworld or the 9 circles of hell? Interesting, but get the hell out of here!

Sweeney writes explicitly that most of Dante’s sources were the stuff of myth, legend, philosophy, ancient religions and the politics of his day. But the good thing about this book is that he doesn’t start with Dante, he starts with Genesis. The bad thing is… sometime some of his arguments are not clear and very vague. Well, this book is divided into 13 chapters and a conclusion:

#1 In the Beginning
#2 The Ancient Underworld
#3 The Awful Underworld Psalm
#4 The God Hades
#5 Virgil and Myth of Empire
#6 When the Soul Went Immortal
#7 Plato and the Myth of Er
#8 Jesus, Hades, and a Pit Just Outside Jerusalem
#9 Inventing Holy Saturday
#10 Medieval Apocalyptic!
#11 Dancing on a Pin
#12 Dante with a Quran by His Side?
#13 The Sublime Order of the Universe
Conclusion: Is There a Future for Hell?

I like how he ends this book by asking the future for ‘hell’, his three complaints about Dante and his wrathful ideas, the connection of hell and religious violence (and how hell has inspired many people to do good. But out of fear?), his challenge on which God do we choose (can we do that?) and his faith as Catholic. “God is the real one,” he summaries, “the one I have come to know and understand, and that God has nothing to do with medieval Hell.”
[Actually price of this book is RM72.00, but I bought it from BookXcess for only RM17.90]

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Simple Book Review: "The Making of An Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief" (2010)

The Making of An Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (2010)
by James S. Spiegel

"Perhaps we should consider the possibility that sceptical objections are the atheists' facade, a scholarly veneer masking the real causes of their unbelief," writes James in this book that looks at how morality or the lack thereof plays an important role in the rejection of God. "[Atheists] willfully reject God despite the fact that the entire universe proclaims His existence." Can immorality lead to unbelief? Surprisingly (or maybe not), Spiegel argued, many well-known atheists are not reticent in acknowledging the volitional aspect of their atheistic beliefs.

But what about those of faith? To my mind that is the bigger question here. Does a lifestyle which rejects the basic tenants of Biblical morality lead to a rejection of God by those of a Biblical world view? After reading this book, I believe you’ll find the answer to that question is an unfortunate - Yes. Scary!

According to Spiegel, "the root of the problem, apparently, is not a lack of intelligence but rather a hardness of heart that is itself caused by immoral behaviour." Morality by its very nature is a God attribute. Without God mankind’s competing self-interests are ultimately destructive. Without God each of us becomes merely the next meal in an endless evolutionary food chain. Is that really how we want to see the beauty and mystery of the world around us? Is science enough? With God, will it be fuller?

I know James tried not be bias as Christian philosopher, tried to be generous and graceful in the first chapter ("Atheistic Arguments, Errors, and Insights"), I respects him for that. Theists and atheists (even sceptics) will be benefited by reading this book. My most uneasy part in this book is when he examines "the faith of the fatherless." The "defective father hypothesis" - the notion that a broken relationship with one's father predisposes some people to reject God. He ends this book well by telling the benefits of being theist and especially as Christ's followers.

Read it! Or watch James's talks/sermons online. Worth it!

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Simple Book Review: "What I Believe" (1925)

What I Believe (1925) by Bertrand Russell

For Bertrand Russell, the leading philosopher of the 20th century, nothing is sacred. Sex, morality, politics, society – all are fair games for him. I wish to read his tick and massive volume of History of Western Philosophy but I have to say no for now. But I will read his second famous book, Why I am not a Christian (Once Russell was declared unfit or ‘heretic’ to teach college-level philosophy because of his attacked on organized religion).

In this short book or rather essay, Russell attempts to say what he think of man’s place in the universe and possible way of achieving the good life. This is how he sums up his idea of what constitutes a life well-lived: “My view is this: The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

No doubt, Russell was an agnostic-atheist. But he was also the great champion of humanism and rational thought. On human rights and ethical issues, for example, on the criminal justice system, he maintains that “Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective.”

In this book, he put a great emphasis on science and research in contrast to belief and dogma as our main practical tool (as for now) to improve and better the condition of humankind. “An able physician is more useful to a patient than the most devoted friend, and progress in medical knowledge does more for the health of the community than ill-informed philanthropy,” writes Russell. “For example, the spread of cancer is alarming—what are we to do about it? At the moment, no one can answer the question for lack of knowledge; and the knowledge is not likely to emerge except through endowed research.”

Ideas contained in this 42 pages book were and are controversial, contentious and – to the religious keyboard warriors in my Facebook circle – downright blasphemous. I think the arguments within this essay will continue to challenge one’s faith and assumptions. Alan Ryan, who wrote preface of this book thought that Bertrand was “a deeply religious thinker.”

You don’t have to agree with Russell, not all, but keep an open mind.
Ah, dangerous of course. 


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Simple Book Review: "An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention" (2013)

An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention (2013)
by Matthew Kneale

Superb. Eye-opening. Thought-provoking. Though not unique, his writing is a smooth reading, probably because Kneale is a writer better known as an award-winning novelist. Only the last part of this book and somewhere (few parts) in the middle is sort of – boring and leave me with more questions than answers. As a whole, I think he should change the title of this book to A Brief History of the Invention of Belief. Kneale is true to his title, by the way, he gives a history of belief, not religion.

He start on an individual note: "As the son of a Manx Methodist atheist and a refugee German Jewish atheist, I have never been much of a believer. Yet, like everyone else, I find myself surrounded by belief.” With that introduction, I find that Kneale does not preach atheism but dissects, like a historian, the pillar of society called belief. Starting with prehistoric man, the journey follows how belief became a part of our being, and why. This book, no doubt, soul food for atheists and an anti-theological thought experiment for agnostics and the liberally faithful. But regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), if you want a book to help you see/challenge your beliefs from various angles, this is the one.

What first prompted prehistoric man, sheltering in the shadows of deep caves, to call upon the realm of the spirits? And why has belief thrived since, shaping thousands of generations of shamans, pharaohs, Aztec priests and Mayan rulers, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Nazis, and Scientologists? What really happened? What had caused people to come up with such strange-seeming notions as paradise, hell, end of the world or sin? Or gods? Kneale offers his answers, his ideas based on research and history… that mean… not without his own personal bias and limited knowledge.

This book is divided into 10 chapters:
#1 Inventing Gods
#2 Inventing Paradise
#3 Inventing Deals with God
#4 Inventing the End of the World
#5 Inventing Humble Heaven
#6 Inventing a Religion, Inventing a Nation
#7 Inventing Elsewhere
#8 Inventions from the Underground
#9 Inventing Witches
#10 Inventing New Comforts

Matthew writes this forward: “This book does not seek to belittle religion. On the contrary, the more I have looked at intense beliefs, the more I have found them fascinating. They say so much about us. As a fiction writer, who tries to make a livelihood from imagination, I have considerable professional respect for what is, I would propose, humankind’s greatest imaginative project.” Read at your own risk!

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Simple Book Review: "The Message of Matthew" (1988, 2000)

The Bible Speaks Today Series: The Message of Matthew (1988, 2000)
by Michael Green

After two months, I finally finished reading this awesome commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Every commentary from The Bible Speaks Today Series is worth your time and attention. "Accessible, informative, and uncomplicated," writes Terry Virgo, "[this series] offers genuine insights into the text, without becoming over-scholarly." I totally agree!

I don't read Christian books that much, but when it comes to commentary about the Book of the books - Gods Word - I will not risk that attitude of ignorance 

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Simple Book Review: "The Blood Gospel: The Order of the Sanguines Series" (2013)

The Blood Gospel: The Order of the Sanguines Series (2013)
by James Rollins & Rebecca Cantrell

Its long way beyond the science of the Sigma Force Series by Rollins and into the realm of vampires, werewolves, and the living dead. The action starts when an earthquake breaks open the mountain of Masada in Israel, releasing a mysterious gas that kills everyone but one teenage boy (his character only develop properly in the next books, I was told).

An archaeologist, Dr. Erin, on a dig in Cesearea, and Jordan, an American ranger squad, and Father Rhun, a Roman Catholic priest are airlifted onto the damaged Masada and so the adventure begins. They are trying to find the Gospel said to have been written by Jesus himself in his own blood that was believed to have been entombed at Masada. That's where the title Blood Gospel came from.

The action is nonstop, I love it! The Roman Catholic priest is a member of the Order of the Sanguines, priests who have been bitten by vampires, but live on (None like the Twilight vampires okay!). They subsist on the consecrated wine of communion, and battle the forces of darkness believing that if they are killed in that holy battle their souls will be restored to them.

Many names, mysteries, places and figures revealed one by one in this book that make me want to know more. Even in my busy schedule, I can finished this 670+ pages book in 5 days. That good!

It is clear that the story has not ended, the The Blood Gospel is only the first in a series (#2 Innocent Blood, #3 Blood Infernal)

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Simple Book Review: "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" (2014)

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004)
by Sam Harris

In this book Sam Harris (one of the very vocal atheists today together with Richard Dawkins in which his book The God Delusion I have read) makes the compelling argument that "human beings can no longer afford the luxury of major religious belief systems." In a world in which we now have the capacity to kill millions of humans at one time, belief systems that are intolerant of non-believers and emphasised life in the hereafter over the present are simply "too dangerous," said Harris.

Harris claims that even moderate members of a religion are to blame for extreme acts committed in the name of their faith, because the moderates help to legitimise the acceptance of beliefs that can be easily used to support violence.

His arguments cut to the heart of the concept of faith itself, and will be unpalatable to many. But Harris does not seem to be advocating a switch to an atheist or even agnostic view (at least in my reading). He is primarily against subscribing to unexamined beliefs. As an alternative, he offers a discussion of a rational, experience-based spirituality.

This is a highly provocative book that offers many important ideas to the debate about the role of religion in modern life.

As Christian, I encourage you to read something else unless you are willing to be challenge by intellectual atheist like Sam Harris. This is a heavy stuff... I recommend you listen/watch his talks on YouTube to begin with.

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