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    Gordon Book Review Blog

    The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jan 16, 2019 @ 08:11 AM

    The Bonnie Lea Book Club tackled a book about the world’s most influential religion, examining how it grew as an offshoot out of a minor ancient sect based in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire (Judaism) into the foundation of the West’s religion and philosophy for the next two millennia.

    The author, Ehrman credits Christianity with overturning a culture of dominance, spreading an ethic of love and service in which everyone is equal before God. I agree and believe Judeo-Christian morality was the philosophical underpinning for America’s founding documents and subsequent European democratic development, while Mal rejected that high level of influence. How the religion became so successful, and how it replaced the existing order, particularly in its first three centuries, was the focus of the book.

    In summary, the book examines three concepts: first, the existing pagan belief system was vulnerable to Christian spiritual and social arguments; second, its messengers, most influential, Paul; and finally the influence of Roman emperors, most consequentially Emperor Constantine.

    The members of our book club had the broadest overall spectrum of reviews that we’ve had in several books. Mal did not like the writing, clarity or organization at all, and couldn’t finish it; Bill thought it was Ehrman’s best of three he’s read, and excellent. Most of us agreed that the organization and logic was disjointed; the writing dense at times, and Rob commented that for a relatively short book (less than 300 pages), too many topics were redundant and repetitive. And yet the insight into pre-Christian paganism, the appeal of Christianity to the masses, its inexorable growth, one convert at a time, and the Roman leadership structure made for interesting historical insight.

    To be clear, for a highly respected New Testament scholar, Ehrman’s analysis was remarkably devoid of any theological depth or modern aspects of faith; this was a historical sociological study. To its credit, it provided a thorough examination of pre-Christian paganism that was the established philosophy of the day, where magic, mystery and a pantheon of gods brought answers to the difficult questions of why things happened. Paganism did not have a name; that is our retroactive label. It simply was.

    Ehrman refers to the Bible frequently, so a brief overview of its organization and authors may provide some perspective. The first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the Jewish ‘bible’ before Jesus. It is here that Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments (first in Exodus) and rejecting certain foods (pork), are introduced. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written decades after his death by those authors about Jesus and his acts, words and teachings. Acts of the Apostles follows the Gospels, introducing us to Saul of Tarsus, an educated Jew (Pharisee) who dramatically converts to Christianity after leaving Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, faced with a blinding light, and hearing a voice (from Jesus) asking “Why do you persecute Me?” Paul wrote the majority of the rest of the New Testament (Letters of Paul) to the new churches he systematically established throughout the eastern Mediterranean to Rome.

    The book began and ended with Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity upon his march into Rome to unseat the previous emperor, and arguably the most influential character in Christianity’s rise. His mother was a Christian and his father a henotheist (believing in one top god, in his case the Sun God, Sol Invictus). But above that, he was an astute survivor, and a successful emperor of Rome for thirty years. He oversaw the congregation of bishops in Nicea, resulting in the Nicene Creed, still recited today in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and which outlines the church’s core doctrines.  In addition he settled and developed Constantinople, (today’s Istanbul), on the Bosporus, easily defended and strategically located, where the Eastern Church was seated for over a thousand years until the Ottomans conquered the City in the 1400s.

    Another of Constantine’s signature edicts was the Edict of Milan, which established for the first time a governmental principle of freedom of religious belief under the law.

    The question of whether the inexorable growth of Christianity would have continued as swiftly without Constantine’s support tilted to no, it couldn’t have.  His support also had the effect of permitting Christianity to influence the educated, economic military and political policy makers,  While the trajectory would probably continue to rise, its ascendancy as the dominant religion of Europe and the Mediterranean was greatly influence by this Emperor.  Ever the astute leader, he may simply have decided to ride this religious wave to hold together an increasingly broad and disparate empire. The emperor waited until shortly before his death to be baptized (though this was not an uncommon practice at the time to ensure entry into heaven). 

    Julian, a few emperor’s later, re-instituted the persecution of Christians; but he lasted less than two years (killed by Persians in battle). We also surmised whether a thirty year survival of Julian might have changed history.

    Paul, formerly Saul, described above, was the great marketer. We discussed whether Paul’s interpretation of Christianity as we know it would have been approved by Jesus. James’ own words give us insight: he would NOT have, due primarily to Jesus’ intent to have his message become a natural extension of Judaism, rather than a religion most appealing to Gentiles or pagans.  The appeal to pagans might have been Paul’s greatest success. While we know Jesus said that Gentiles could accept the Jewish God, it was clearly Paul who took this message and spread it to the densely populated cities along the Mediterranean, chronicled in the books of the New Testament. 

    The message had remarkable consistency (marketers take note).    The main attractions were:

    • This God was bigger and better than the pagan gods;
    • the Jewish concept an ethical foundation; developed further where sinning could be washed away by this God, through Jesus;
    • immortality, heaven, was the eternal joy and reward for conversion, while hell was eternal torture, a concept too many were familiar with.
    • The message of Love thy Neighbor, Help the Poor, and establishment of communities of faith created social benefits

    These simple messages provide an attraction, and conversion seemed most effectively to be a one-way door.   Pax Romana also had created stability and fertile ground for a merchant class not solely concerned with survival to the next day, but time to contemplate bigger issues of the spirit.  Converts and their offspring rarely returned to paganism.

    Chuck’s notes were outstanding and made for a well organized discussions.

     Here's a link to the book

     

    Our next book is Educated by Tara Westover

     

    Tags: Christianity, book review, review

    A Climate of Crisis by Patrick Allitt: Book Review

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Thu, Jul 17, 2014 @ 10:59 AM

    A Climate of Crisis was a good read, providing perspective on the dialogue and evolution of environmental progress in the United States.  With all the noise on both sides of the climate debate today, the book was refreshingly balanced and prompted deeper discussion about trends in energy use and the economics of climate change.  Doug’s expertise in energy distribution added to the substance of our discussion.  We also enjoyed the book for its balance and its equal time toward both ends of the climate spectrum. 

    The book’s guts are a historical chronicling from early reactions to nuclear fallout to the most recent debate on climate change.  The central theme is that change is possible in a democracy when voters perceive imminent crisis.  Today’s shrill debate is exacerbated by the potential spending opportunities (follow the money) and the fact that many of the environmental pioneers of the 1960s are now in positions of influence.

    Early in our discussion, Geoff asked, on a 1-10, where 1 is burn-baby-burn, 4 is counter environmental, 6 is wise use, and 10 is let's live like cave men, where are you?  Chuck put himself at 3-5, Doug at 5-7, and Geoff 4-6 to 3-7, depending on which part of the environmental debates we're talking about.

    While early public reaction to nuclear testing was muted by a national security ethos, the 1960s saw a broadening of environmental awareness and activism as excessive pockets of pollution of air, water and land had gotten the stark attention of citizens.  Seminal events such as chemical dump site Love Canal and a flaming river in Pennsylvania became flashpoints for a newly wealthy society.  Environmental improvement is a luxury, achievable only after basic necessities are broadly available to citizens.

    Capitalism is not necessarily the main problem, but when externalities such as pollution are not part of the cost of business, businesses will seek to keep those costs external.  In an open and democratic wealthy society, where people are willing to pay for the externalities to have clean air and clean water, the costs can be imposed through laws and regulations.   Hank Paulson's article from the NT Times that Chapin sent in promoting a high carbon tax is one example of charging for pricing externalities.  Higher gas taxes such as are common in Europe is another.  The problem with taxing externalities is the inefficient re-use of the tax revenue.

    Chuck added that we should also quantify the external cost of keeping the Middle East open and oil flowing.  Add our military and defense budgets dedicated to the Middle East over the past 20 years and the cost of energy externalities becomes something we shouldn’t ignore.

    Read a climate of crisis with andrew g gordon inc insuranceThe book also forces us to ask the question: if the climate change prognosticators are right, what can we do now, and at what cost?   And if they're wrong, how much will we as a society spend chasing something over which we have little control?
    The problem with climate models is that small changes on any of several variables can yield broad differences in results.  Much measuring is imprecise, and where math models follow the numbers, projections are mathematically imprecise.

    We agreed that political interference with cost analyses of non-carbon energy sources undermines the process of accurate estimates.   A good local example is the Cape Wind project, where the federal government recently committed $150,000,000 in loans to the project.  Private capital markets wouldn't fund Cape Wind, so politicians saw to it that taxpayers would.  Doug pointed out that long term costs of maintenance and disposal cannot have been adequately quantified by this process.  After all, mechanical-based power generation, sitting in salt water, will depreciate quickly, changing the entire ROI calculation.  Private capital markets understand this; only politicians with green backing can afford to ignore these economic realities.

    Chuck brought up how the scientific method has been compromised by entrenched interests over the centuries.  Thomas Kuhn wrote a great book about the fallacy of ‘affirming the consequences’.  An example in Kuhn's book is the Ptolemaic earth-centric universe, a view accepted for centuries, and still forming the basis of (effective) celestial navigation today.   But we know today it's completely wrong.  One of the problems with the global warming argument today is the broad silencing of views that do not support the paradigm.  Careers are terminated when the paradigm is challenged.  And many businesses, politicians, and scientists are dependent upon the continued funding of the climate crisis paradigm.  One victim of the climate debate today is the integrity of Science.  That’s a shame.

    Doug pointed out that our advantage on the world stage may commence when American innovation becomes exportable, to China, to India, and other developing nations as they grow their economies and demand better air and water.  A wealthy nation has resources to create better technology to export.  The question is whether our lower cost of energy will prompt us to seek better energy efficiencies for export.  Some of the best energy saving products today come out of Germany, where the cost of energy is highly taxed.  Higher costs spurn cost saving innovation.  Could innovation prompted by higher gas taxes exceed the cost to the rest of the economy?

    When developing nations, particularly huge carbon burners such as China and India will slow their use of dirty energy (coal) because of demand from their own citizenry is an open question.   A well educated and well connected (in China) Chinese student whom Chuck knows personally wants to settle in Boston to avoid the pollution in Beijing and throughout China.  Societies with wealth will pay for clean air and water.  Wealthy societies’ attraction of talent for a cleaner environment is an asset we can cheer.

    As to the Malthusian predictions of an end of energy: Doug subscribes to a daily energy news feed called Fierce Energy that predicted today that ... The US will never run out of energy.  (See article here). This was an interesting turn on our earlier book, Midnight in the Desert, where we thought we had learned that ‘peak oil’ had arrived.  Our book club can claim as one of its sujeffccesses new perspectives that change our minds on important topics.

    On that note, our next book is Thomas Pickett’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, an examination of wealth disparity in advanced economies. Left leaning, out of the Paris School of Economics, called groundbreaking by Larry Summers, this book may define the debate on wealth distribution over the next decades, and will definitely go against the grain of most of the group.  It will give us lots to argue about, (including the integrity of the data if you read the Wall Street Journal).  


    2nd Tuesday of October = October 14th.  Mark it now.

    Geoff

    Tags: novel, a climate of crisis, patrick allitt, global, warming, climate, change, capitalism, environment, book, review

    The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: Book Review

    Posted by Gordon Atlantic Staff on Tue, Jul 08, 2014 @ 09:47 AM

    Read book reviews and find the novel for you with andrew gordon inc insurance norwell maYou're probably familiar with J.K. Rowling as the author of the beloved Harry Potter series (I'm a huge fan myself). In her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, it's a bit of a shock to recognize her writing style paired with very real and serious social issues, rather than a wizarding world. However, I enjoyed this book very much, and while not a Harry Potter novel, its characters have intricately intertwined backstories, as does the bestselling series. 

    The Casual Vacancy is about a small town in England called Pagford where a member of the local council, Barry Fairbrother, dies. His death is the spark that sets off the rest of the events in the novel, and a decades-long debate that has divided the town for years is finally freed from its impasse. The townspeople have argued over whether "The Fields" (a section of Pagford that houses many poor, desparate lawbreakers and the lowest of society) should remain a part of Pagford or be switched to Yarvil, the adjacent city. Drama and scandals ensue in the weeks leading up to the election, but the novel doesn't end there. The Casual Vacancy hosts an array of characters of all ages and classes, yet somehow all connected. Many of these characters embody very mature topics, such as political corruption, death, drugs, and just about any you could name. The finale of the story is logical yet a surprise, and the novel leaves a few questions unanswered and leaves readers thinking.

    The novel jumps between the perspectives of at least ten characters. While this initially makes the plot a bit dull and hard to follow, after the first few tens of pages, the story becomes exciting, complicated, and interesting. J.K. Rowling proves herself not only as an author for children's literature, but for adult reading as well. 

    While interesting, The Casual Vacancy is surely meant for more mature readers. I am 17 and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I am one of the most avid readers I know and would not recommend this book to most of my friends, as even I felt some parts were dull. I definitely would not advise anyone under the age of 14 to read this. However, for any adult looking to enjoy the magic that is J.K. Rowling's writing, I'd say give this a try. For a younger reader like myself, the story also opened my eyes to many of the adult issues and themes and gave the perspectives of everyone involved in such topics. Overall, while I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy very much, it is certainly a book for more mature and determined readers. 

    Emily Kirslis

    Tags: casual, vacancy, the, jk, rowling, harry, potter, author, book, review

    The Son: By Philipp Meyer

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Feb 05, 2014 @ 11:50 AM

    We all enjoyed this second book by Philipp Meyer: great writing, backed by deep research, and an ability to project interesting and disparate characters.  It is the combined stories, diaries and thoughts of three members of the McCullough family, Texans all, in their respective worlds of Indians, Mexicans, land and oil.

    Jeff and Chuck could not attend, but both sent comments and questions to the group.  So we began with Jeff's question: whether Eli was justified In killing the tortured buffalo hunter.  That question prompted a follow up question: had Eli's motivation to terminate the pain, taken at great personal risk, arisen from his white upbringing, his Comanche experience, or a deeper morality.

    Which brought up another issue: Eli's hardness.  Some argued that he was hard from the start, Geoff argued that his experiences from the murder of his family to the escape, to his continued upbringing under Toshaway and Nuukaru hardened him during his most formative years.  One thing was clear, Eli learned to take those things in life he wanted, from the river bank turtles, to the oil fields to the judge’s home.

    Jeff's second question prompted questions about Peter's conflicted soul and an evolving contemporary morality.   Geoff's initial observation that Peter was weak (compared to Eli and Jeannie, and other Texans) was rejected by the group.  His strength was manifest in his opposition to the murder and taking of the Garcia's ranch, seen by the mob and his own father (Eli) as weak.  His tortured soul may have been more a manifestation of his own deep morality amongst a family and a culture that encouraged the  raw expression of power than any weakness in his character.

    Chuck had posed the question, is it possible that the meek will ever inherit the earth?  In Texas they didn't by wealth standards, but wasn't Peter ultimately the one who achieved happiness?  (Count no man happy until his days are done)

    Chuck also pointed out the value of holding land before the emergence of modern economies.  To which Rob pointed out the benefits of condo living in snowstorms while many of us still clear driveways and walkways by machine or by hand.  But we digress.  Land was more important in the West where the amount of land needed to support a family was greater than back East.  Accidental emergence of oil made the big landowners more powerful by orders of magnitude, and those who embraced each wealth rush made lots of money. The clinging to old ways of ranging cattle and moving great herds to the stockyards of Kansas City seemed romantic, harkening pathetically to days long past.   Cowboys graced dime-store book shelves, but oil won the wars.

    Our favorite characters were as disparate as our group.  Eli was a favorite for some, as a character whose influence was legion, and morality his own.   He stated that his first loyalty was to the Rangers (and behaved with his first loyalty to his Comanche band); second loyalty to self.  This elevation of a larger order as the prime loyalty is characteristic of many content and good people: a survival characteristic among warriors, a unifying characteristic among the faithful, and always extant among the most successful teams. 

    Rob liked Toshaway, the noble leader of the Comanche band, a man whose leadership was magnetic, who was never corrupted by his influence or power.   He knew when to speak, when to act, and when to leave others to their own preferences and consequences.

    We respected the efforts of Jeanne, into whose mind Meyer masterfully allowed the reader to peer.  Confident and tough on the outside, unsure and questioning on the inside.  The visit to the hunting camp was unfortunate; the decision to take charge of her business showed her great strength in the face of uncertainty.  Her childhood relationship with the old Colonel guided her throughout her life.

    We had to respect Peter for his underlying strength living in the shadow of his father, Eli.   Perhaps he wasn't weak after all.  And he got love.

    Finally, a review which we cannot recall for attribution, was right on point for this book: for those of us old enough to have seen Indians portrayed as simple bad guys in early westerns, to the romanticized noble savage in later portrayals, this book shoots a flaming arrow into the heart on politically correct portrayals.   Indians' brutality was matched only by the white soldiers and settlers who eradicated most of them.  

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    Tags: novel, the son, by, philipp meyer, book, review

    A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 18, 2012 @ 12:03 PM

    A Summertime Hemmingway Double Header:

    Moveable Feast contains the theme the Hemingway writes the truth.   Write one page of truth and discard 90 pages of crap.  The quality of writing can be measure by the amount of good work that has been discarded.  The characters from A Moveable Feast are all enjoyable, so is the story of Hemingway’s years in post WWI Paris.  Scott Fitzgerald was human, Zelda is crazy, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas lesbians in a time when people didn’t talk about lesbians, the smelly liar Ford Maddox Ford,  and of course,  his love, and the collapse of his love to, Hadley.  The path of criticism of the bohemian lifestyle of “the Lost Generation” group of ex-patriots wining and dining their way through Paris is easy to walk down, but one can brought back by not viewing history through any-colored, contemporary glasses.  This book is in fact, post- war Paris, where the celebration of life after the horror of the world’s first world war continued.

    Interestingly, after all the descriptions, one should note from Hemmingway’s book on writing that he had disdain for writers who wasted their lives away boozing and talking in French cafes..  Witness his discipline in waking, writing, living, and writing more.

    The close while skiing in the Vorarlberg in Austria brings a brief description of the unraveling of his marriage to Hadley, and his complete mea culpa for that affair.

    Love may be a transition to The Sun Also Rises.   The shallow love and obsession with Brett Lady Ashley is a common point of focus for many of the other characters.   She loves Jake as a girlfriend, the one safe (impotent) man in her life.   She wrecks all the other men who loved her, her husband Lord Ashley, her fiancé Mike, poor pitiful Robert Cohn, and of course, the vulnerable magnificent Romero the matador.  Only the war veteran Bill Gorton seems immune to her wiles; perhaps he had seen enough in the war to see the truth.

    The fishing scene with Bill in the hills above Pamplona is touching.  Catch a few trout, drink a little wine, nap, and return only after enough fish were taken. Maybe stay an extra day. That’s living.

    One can disagree about how despicable is Cohn, the amateur boxer, who would drag the elegant master of another craft into his fighter’s world (again, over Lady Ashley). Some can find him a sympathetic character; surely a pitiable character given others’ treatment at every turn.   Recognize the anti-Semitism as common to the day, and this elicits a measure of sympathy, but Cohn is hardly a likeable character.   Perhaps there is disagreement on whether his beating Romero was so much worse than hitting any other random character. (Editor: why would Hemmingway have opened the book with a biography of Cohn, if not to highlight his amateur boxing status?)Paris

    With all the dialogue, none of the characters engages their friends on things that matter: not their fragile relationships, nor their responsibilities to themselves or to others.   The characters’ failure to speak the truth makes the reader discover it through the dialogue, actions, and misadventures of this well developed cast.

    Overall, it’s great to visit the master.  Highly recommended as a follow-up, A Farewell to Arms and Follet’s latest, The Fall of Giants, the first in the Century­ Trilogy about WWI.

    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: moveable feast, hemingway, paris, ww1, world war one, the sun also rises, europe, france, The Fall of Giants, book review, book, review, ernest hemingway

    A Prayer for Owen Meany Review

    Posted by Gordon Atlantic Staff on Fri, Jun 08, 2012 @ 09:09 AM

    A Prayer for Owen Meany, image via wikipediaJohn Irving is an author notorious for his “touchy” subject matter and clearly stated underlying moral theme. Yet, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel that really struck a chord for me. My AP Literature class read three books by the same author as a part of an enrichment project. Irving’s edgy attitude and interesting subject matter interested me. I chose The Cider House Rules first then The World According to Garp and enjoyed each one more than the last. I had no idea what to choose for my last book; however, my calculus teacher recommended her favorite Irving novel, Owen Meany for me. After borrowing her copy, I dove into an incredible literary journey.

    The Plot

    The story follows the life of one extraordinary boy, Owen Meany, from the point of view of his best friend, John Wheelwright, effectively telling two stories for the price of one. Both characters grow up in New Hampshire often commenting about the landscape and lifestyle in New England. The main point of the work is the question of religious faith versus doubt. Irving represents the two points equally as well as creating a dichotomy of the two elements, making a character believe that doubt is the foundation for faith.

    The Good

    Despite the unbelievable qualities of the characters in question, they are all made to be so sympathetic all belief is suspended. Owen Meany is miniscule, genius, squeaky voiced, prophetic Jesus figure and yet one can still picture him. The plot never left me bored, made me laugh, and made me very distraught .

    The Bad

    Some aspects of the book were unbelievable. The point of view often shifted from past to present which could get a little tiresome. Also, the main character’s political obsessions do get a bit obnoxious at times. Overall the good completely outweighs the minor poor details.

    Overall

    I recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany to anyone looking for a good read, suffering from religious faith crisis, or lives in New England. The story will leave you wanting to go back and read it again.

     

    Steven McClelland

    Tags: book review, a prayer for owen meany, religion, owen meany, owen meany, book, review, commentary, Irving, John Irving

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