New books prompt thoughts about our beliefs

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2014

By Gretchen Beilfus Witt

Rowan Public Library

In Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” James’ parents encourage James to solve problems or dilemmas by “looking at it another way.”  He sometimes turns things upside down in order to find a alternative solution.  Sometimes a little introspection is required.    

The library has several newly acquired books that provide an opportunity for a little contemplation about a curious or controversial subject. In Jon Sweeney’s “Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment,” he examines the evolution at least of Western civilization’s view of hell.  In the biblical or Hebraic view of death, the body is merely placed in the dust of the ground and remains there.  There is no activity, little awareness and no punishment meted out to those who have passed on.

Ancient Greek and Roman cultures add a few concepts — the three-headed Cerberus, the select few who are tormented for specific crimes or the cheerful fields of Elysium for the elite.  Sweeney maintains that our current view of the tortures and punishments of hell were largely created by Dante Alighieri in his classic poem, “The Inferno.”   

He explains the texts and ideas that Dante would have been exposed to, Dante’s political experiences and how they shaped his worldview.  Additionally, Dante also borrows images from the Koran to describe the experiences of those souls condemned to one of the nine circles.  These descriptions are swiftly assimilated into Renaissance culture and repeated in other art forms.  A quick and interesting read,Inventing Hellmakes the reader ponder how these ideas, once so avant-garde became a traditionally held view.

The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible,” by Jonathan Kirsch, examines in detail some of the less known and perhaps even slighted stories found in the Bible of events and activities that might be viewed as scandalous.   

These stories deal with adultery, incest, seduction, assassination, torture and murder. They are stories that have systematically, both in Jewish tradition and Christian, been censored by well-meaning rabbis, priests and pastors as too shocking to be read or examined by the listening or reading public.

For example, some stories are just not used as texts to speak of in sermons and the like. Others are made perplexing or veiled by a translation of the text that is confusing and used to disguise the actual activities in the story.

For instance, legs or feet were often used as euphemisms for male genitalia by translators. Kirsch brings these stories to life with vivid descriptions and translations of words that elucidate the potential meanings of some passages.  A thought-provoking look on an old standard.

Karen Armstrong’s introduction of  “Fields of Blood” asserts that the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted. She takes issue with this and tracks the beginnings of humankind in its hunter-gatherer era through agrarian and urban cultures and examines how different stages lent themselves to escalations or changes in the acceptance of violent behavior.

Looking at cultural development from diverse countries like India and China as well as major religious traditions, she scrutinizes the political, national and ethnic ramifications of the interplay of religiosity and war.   

“Fields of Bloodis her answer to what she feels is the “need to assess our situation accurately,” that if we are to meet the challenges of our time and create a global society where all can live in mutual respect and peace, “we cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in the world.” An excellent read designed for serious reflection.

Book Bites Club: South Regional (only), Dec. 16, 6:30 p.m., “Redbird Christmas,” by Fannie Flagg. Book discussion groups for adults and children usually meet the last Tuesday of each month. The group is open to the public and anyone is free to join at any time. There is a discussion of the book, as well as light refreshments at each meeting. For more information, please call 704-216-8229.

Christmas Tea Party — Headquarters, Dec. 17, 10:30 a.m. Come join the annual Christmas Tea Party with stories and a visit from Old Saint Nick. For more information please call 704-216-8234.

Holiday Library hours: Dec. 22 and 23, close at 7 p.m. Dec. 24-27, closed for Christmas. Regular hours resume Dec. 29. Dec. 29 and 30, close at 7 p.m. Dec. 31, close at 5 p.m. Jan. 1 , closed for New Years Day.

Displays for December: headquarters, Eleanor Qadirah; South, NC Music Hall of Fame honoring local artist Curley Sechler; East, Holiday by Mary Earnhardt.

Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.

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