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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