Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Gospel of Thomas? Most-hated review.

Can we have a drum roll, Mystro . . . . .

And after months of tortured suspense, a torment that would try the spirits in Dante's Inferno, here it is -- the Number One most-disfavored review I have yet posted on Amazon, out of some four hundred total. 

Notice that the total number of "BOOOO!" votes here is not nearly as great as for some other books, like American Fascists, the runner-up.  But the intensity of rejection that makes this review the winner: only eight people found my review "helpful," while 51 found it "unhelpful." 

The funny thing is, I gave the book three stars.  Clearly, I felt ambivalent about this book, even if other readers felt certain about my ambivalence. 

Maybe they're on to something.  This review is not so long, so after it's complete, perhaps I should do a little soul-searching -- mine and theirs.

The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin

Lynn Bauman

8 + / 51 - 

I give Bauman and the publisher credit for making the most of what seems to me unpromising material. This book is nicely designed, reasonably introduced, and attractive. On one page a saying in paraphrase from the "Gospel" of Thomas is given, then on the facing page a series of questions, an "academic translation," and some notes. She doesn't give answers to the questions (though you might guess what she thinks); you're on your own. What you find will I think depend mostly on what you expect to find! If you don't mind a lot of white space, and want to get a discussion going that takes Thomas seriously as a source for spiritual wisdom, this is your book.

If you're open to critical comment on Thomas, please consider the relevant chapter in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. I argue that (1) Scholars who think Thomas is late and a worse source for the life of Jesus than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have had much the better of the argument so far; (2) Thomas is more UNLIKE the canonical Gospels than the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Agricola, Journey to the West, or (especially) Analects of Confucius. (3) In particular, Thomas has left all the great moral teachings of Jesus on the cutting board, and that's a shame. My own feeling is that, if you like this sort of mysticism, the Upanishads and Buddhist sutras are better. But I admit to a prejudice against even ancient writers who say, "Jesus said," when they really mean, "I rather think."

Finally, one criticism of Bauman. It seems to me that the words of the canonical Gospels have become stale to her. I find this extraordinary; can Handel's Messiah be rendered elevator music? For any reader suffering the same affliction, I suggest looking at the Gospels from the point of view of some sensitive non-Westerner, like Lin Yutang, Vishal Mangalwadi, Yuan Zhimin, Sundar Singh, or Giming Shien in Hieromonk Damascene. G. K. Chesterton also brings a rather Zen-like approach to the texts that reawakens the heart to many of their amazing qualities. The analysis of the Gospels in the central third of my Jesus Seminar book may also help.

Postscript: So what is it about this short, ambivalent review that irritated readers?

Maybe it's the fact that I recommended one of my own books.  Sorry, can't help that. The only reason I write books is I want people to read them.  And if I didn't like them, I wouldn't write them.  In general, I love books, and love to recommend good ones, whether or not they happen to be by me.  But of course like almost every writer, my own books come first to mind. 

A bigger issue, of course, is my dismissal of Thomas.  A lot of people have grown attached to this rather hopeless "gospel," for some reason, and resent either historical or ethical criticism of its alleged wisdom.  Can't really do anything about that, either: one must call 'em as one sees 'em, Zeitgeist be damned.  And the case I build in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and then in The Truth Behind the 'Lost Gospels,' is I think pretty solid. 

I also wonder (in political season) what the focus group would say about that swipe about saying "Jesus said" when people mean, "I think."  Sometimes I confuse sarcasm with wit, and manage to alienate some readers that way. 

All right, that's enough soul-searching for now. 

And with that, we're done now with my list of "Bottom Ten Reviews," even though it came to about twelve.  The "top ten" list may, in the end, prove even longer. 

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