Short Take: Pagans – James J. O’Donnell

Several thousand years ago, the major superpower had a culture of religious pluralism which had existed for centuries. By the fourth century, a minority religion with a radical one-god theology and mandate to convert followers was able to “rebrand” this Roman pluralistic religious culture as “paganism” as a way of controlling and ostracizing those who refused to believe in their god. Within a hundred years, Christianity had supplanted centuries-old religious Roman religious traditions. The story of how this happened makes for great reading.

O’Donnell’s work is always something to look forward to: vivid and erudite; lively, contrarian and eye opening.  For my money, it’s exactly what you want history to be: an argument that strips away received wisdom and brings the ancient world to life again.

Praised by reviewers and historians from Gary Willis to Madeline Albright, Booklist says of this: “Although [Pagans] is serious scholarship, it does not take itself too seriously. The result is an engaging view of antiquity few of us have seen.”

“[T]he now-familiar story of the rise of Christianity very often leaves out the complex relationships between early Christians and…other religions. O’Donnell shines a light on that omission, in meticulous detail and through lively storytelling, animating the world of ancient religions…. In the first and second centuries, Christians were the odd ones out: ‘if there are many gods, people who claim to believe in exactly one god, a god few had heard of… are, functionally speaking, atheists,’ he writes….He convincingly demonstrates what many have known all along: paganism is a category that modern Christians invented to define themselves against other religions and to use, often, to justify persecution of those different from Christians.”
Publishers Weekly

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity (9780061845352) by James J. O’Donnell. $27.99 hardcover. 3/17/15 hardcover.

Short Take: How Jesus Became God – Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman is well known to readers interested in the intersection of religion and history. He’s a regular visitor to the bestseller lists and where he first became widely known for known for 2005’s Misquoting Jesus

In the introduction to this new book Ehrman writes, “As a historian I am no longer obsessed with the theological question of how God became a man, but with the historical question of how a man became God.” In an exploration that took eight years of research and writing, Ehrman explores how a backwater apocalyptic prophet, executed for crimes against the state, came to be understood as the equal of the Creator. It’s a fascinating tour through the early days of Christian history and how Christ’s first followers came to believe in the divinity of their prophet.

“Appealing to nonexperts interested in historical questions about the development of Christianity’s central and most basic tenets, Ehrman traces ancient ideas about divinity that likely informed Jesus and his followers, through the biblical record, and into early Christianity. In the process, he shows how claims about Jesus’ divinity as it was understood by Jesus and his followers demand nuance….As it makes strong scholarship on fundamental issues available to general readers, this is an important addition to the corpus of books about the historical Jesus.”
–Publishers Weekly

How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (9780061778186) by Bart D. Ehrman. $27.99 hardcover. 3/25/14 on sale.

Religion Short Take: Jesus: A Pilgrimage – James Martin, S.J.

Jesuit priest James Martin has written two best-selling humor-tinged books on religion—The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and Between Heaven and Mirth. In this book he starts with the premise that what should be a life-changing encounter with the vivid, real-life person of Jesus is often turned into a cold series of dos and don’ts. He takes us on his personal spiritual journey and invites us to find our own way. Given Martin’s sales track and relationship with Stephen Colbert, expect good publicity and media coverage.

“Inviting readers of ‘deep faith or no faith’ to meet the Jesus he loves…[t]he noted Jesuit, media commentator, and author balances faith and reason in the classic Catholic tradition as he ponders the meaning of significant events in Jesus’s life. Martin’s broad knowledge of current academic work informs his imaginative exploration of possible answers. [H]e emphasizes that Jesus, at once both human and divine, is ‘not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.’… Throughout, vivid details of his search in blistering heat for holy sites both authentic and dubious anchor this complex, compelling spiritual testimony. ‘You’ve met my Jesus,’ he concludes. ‘Now meet your own.’”

Jesus: A Pilgrimage (9780062024237) by James Martin, S.J. $27.99 hardcover. 3/11/14 on sale.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

New Nonfiction: Unapologetic – Francis Spufford

This one’s a bit of a “crash” to use an industry term. That is to say, we announced it and sold it to stores on a very short timeline, the reason being that the U.K. edition of this manifesto made quite an impression and we want to build on the buzz.

This isn’t a book about whether or not Christianity is “true”—it’s witty, energetic and even profane argument that Christianity satisfies. It makes the lives of those who believe more meaningful. Does it matter that Spufford himself was once an atheist? I don’t know. But it does give his argument a certain extra force. As the editor says, “[T]his is a book for believers who are fed up with being patronized [and] for non-believers curious about how faith can possibly work in the twenty-first century.”

You can get the sense of the energy of the read from these U.K. reviews:

“… a remarkable book, which is passionate, challenging, tumultuously articulate, and armed with anger to a degree unusual in works of Christian piety.” —Sunday Times

“A subtle, witty, clever writer.” -Observer

“This is a wonderful, effortlessly brilliant book.” –Evening Standard

“The point… is to show those on the fence that belief need not mean the abandonment of intelligence, wit, emotional honesty. In this, Francis Spufford succeeds to an exceptional degree.” – Times Literary Supplement

U.S. reviews are shaping up nicely, too:

“Spufford’s defense of Christianity is as unique as it is refreshing.…With unrelenting passion and honesty throughout, this book successfully accomplishes what it sets out to achieve—namely, making the case for the intelligibility and dignity of Christian faith.”
   — Booklist

Unapologetic rhymes with splenetic, and that’s one aspect of British writer Spufford’s rhetorical tour de force….God, he asserts, is the ground of being, experienced emotionally, as one might experience Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Having moved the boundaries of the argument, Spufford has at it, swearing, skewering, and bringing a sense of humor to bear on the question, ‘Why bother to be Christian?’”
Publishers Weekly

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (9780062300454) by Francis Spufford. $25.99 hardcover. 10/15/13 hardcover.