Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians once counted biblical scholar Bart Ehrman among their number. But Ehrman eventually became an agnostic, and many of his former brethren have found fault in his bestselling books that question common beliefs about Jesus Christ, Scripture, and the early days of Christianity.
His newest book has turned some of his perennial critics into fans, at least temporarily. In "Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth," Ehrman decimates the persistent arguments of those who not only deny the divinity of Jesus but insist that no such man ever even existed.
In an interview, I asked Ehrman about the motives of the "mythicists," the evidence supporting the existence of Jesus, and his own spiritual beliefs.
Q: As you explain in your book, many mythicists continue to try to debunk the very existence of Jesus Christ. What's the motivation of those who try to turn Jesus into an imaginary figure?
A: It's been a bit of a mystery. I don't have a solid answer, but I have a hunch. It's based on the fact that everybody who’s a mythicist is a very strong agnostic or, more typically, a hard-core atheist.
And virtually [all mythicists are] diehard opponent[s] of organized religion. They think it's done so much harm in the world, not just crusades and inquisitions, but by supporting slavery and racism and sexism and so forth.
These people, who are quite strongly opposed to religion, live in a culture where the dominant religion is Christianity. These people think that by showing Christianity is founded on a myth, they can show that it's in fact a fairy tale not worthy of belief.
Q: How influential are these people?
A: They are not influential among scholars of antiquity, historians of the ancient world, classicists, and biblical scholars. There, they've made virtually no impact.
Where they have made an impact is in popular circles, especially with the advent of the Internet. There is an increasing following of these people on the Internet, and a number of them have written books that have sold a lot of copies.
Q: Does the existence of Jesus matter for people who aren't Christian?
A: For people who have allegiance at all to Jesus, whether they consider themselves Christian or consider him an ethical teacher, it matters whether he existed or not.
I myself am an agnostic, and one would ask why would it matter to me.
The answer is that history really matters. It's important that we not rewrite it as the way we want it to be. Once we give people that license, it can lead to all sorts of dangerous political and social implications. It's important to get history right even if it's something that we're not that concerned about.
The second thing is that whether we're Christian or not, there's no doubt that Christianity is the most important phenomenon in Western civilization. Jesus stands at the foundation of Christianity and the Christian church. It's important to understand Jesus.
Q: Why has this book been popular among fundamentalist Christians, who have criticized your conclusions in the past?
A: I actually argue for a position that they would be comfortable with, although I do so on grounds that many wouldn't be familiar with.
Most accept Jesus because they have a personal relationship with him, so of course he exists. I approach it as a historian, looking at how a historian would go about establishing that he exists. Just by doing work as a historian, we can show that Jesus existed.
Q: What about historical evidence of his miracles and his divinity?
A: History only deals with matters that cannot invoke supernatural causality. That’s simply the nature of historic evidence.
Q: Many biblical scholars believe that the canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – weren't written by anyone who personally knew Jesus. Does that make it difficult to rely on them as historical narratives of what really happened?
A: Scholars have worked on this problem for a very long time, starting in the 1770s. We're talking about a discipline that’s hundreds of years old.
And the majority of scholars have believed that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist. Jesus believed there were forces of evil that were in charge of this world, and that's why there's so much pain and suffering, but God would soon intervene to overthrow the forces of evil. Jesus probably expected this to happen within his own lifetime or his disciples' lifetimes.
Q: What’s your next book about?
A: My next popular book is about how Jesus became God. How do we get within a hundred years from this apocalyptic prophet who was preaching his message in Galilee to someone who's considered the second member of the Trinity?
Q: I'm curious about your status as an agnostic. I wonder if it's similar to being a political moderate who gets accused by both conservatives and liberals of really being on the other side.
A: For many years, I was a conservative evangelical Christian. At the time, I thought agnostics and atheists were basically the same thing.
It wasn't until I became an agnostic that I realized that atheists basically think agnostics are wimpy atheists, that they don't have the guts to go all the way. And agnostics think that atheists are arrogant.
Q: What do religious people think of agnostics?
A: There's hope because they don't know the answer, and Christians are happy to tell them so they can learn the truth.
Q: Why not become an atheist yourself?
A: I don't know whether there's a superior being. I prefer to call myself an agnostic because it simply acknowledges what I don't know.
Also, I think that given the vastness and awe-inspiring nature of the universe, it does deserve a little bit of humility.
(For more about biblical scholarship, check my recent Christian Science Monitor interview with Elaine Pagels, author of the new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.")
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.
The state budget approved last month by Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal eliminates funding that usually goes to the state's public libraries. The budget cuts $896,000 that the facilities typically earmark for Internet access, buying new books, and other services.
“In tight budget times, we prioritized funding for health care and education,” commissioner of administration Paul Rainwater, who is also the governor’s chief budget aide, said in a statement. “Operations such as local libraries can be supported with local, not state dollars.”
Michael DiResto, the spokesman for the Louisiana Division of Administration, told the Library Journal that the new budget includes two federal grants for technology that would allow the state library to purchase e-books, which local libraries can also utilize, and funds for local libraries to host technology training and buy necessary equipment.
However, the Library Journal pointed out that the second grant can provide technology training, but is otherwise specifically for providing laptops for patrons to check out and for the upkeep of technology workstations for blind patrons. Libraries would not be allowed to use the grant for desktop computers inside the library, an area previously covered by state funding.
Director of the Audubon Regional Library Mary Bennett Lindsay told the Library Journal that state aid made up 10 percent of the library’s budget.
“I’m just going to pray,” she said. “We’ll just have to cut back on books and hope we get through. If our server goes down or the switches go down, it’s going to have to come from somewhere. It’s not going to come from utilities. We’re barely paying people above minimum wage, so it’s not going to come out of salary. We may have to cut hours.”
Libraries located in more farflung areas will struggle more with the lack of funding because Louisana libraries in more populated areas are better supported by property taxes. Co-director of the East Baton Rouge Parish library system Patricia Husband said her system would be able to get by without the state money.
“It’s not a major source of income,” she told The Advocate. “It’s not going to interrupt our services.”
"Twilight" fans know that, in Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster series, protagonists Bella Swan and Edward Cullen love the classics they read in school, occasionally referencing books like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Wuthering Heights.”
The New York Times wrote this week about efforts by US publishers to introduce hardcore "Twilight" fans – also known as Twihards – to those older stories of romance by slapping on some "Twilight"-like covers. In fact, the 2009 version of the Emily Brontë classic "Wuthering Heights" published by HarperCollins Children’s Books could easily be mistaken for one of the Stephenie Meyer novels, using as it does the well-known “Twilight” cover format of a black cover with a single red object in the foreground. The new “Wuthering Heights” cover is all black, with a shadowy flight of stairs in the center and a white rose tied with a red ribbon in front of it.
Just in case you missed the point, a red sticker on the cover reads “Bella & Edward’s Favourite Book.”
“As a bookseller, I appreciate the classics and I love when I can sell them to a new generation,” Julie Klein, owner of the New York bookstore Book Revue, told The New York Times of the new classics covers. “Anything that gets kids to look at them.”
But European press was way out ahead on this one. In 2009 papers in France and Britain were already reporting on a “Heights” mini-boom as European readers began snapping up both the "Twilight"-linked and other editions of the Brontë classic.
In France (where the book's title translates as "Les Hauts de Hurlevent"), teens who had never heard of the Brontë sisters were suddenly enthralled, as the Monitor reported at the time. “We have sold as many copies of 'Wuthering Heights' in the first two months of 2009 [when the movie version of "Twilight" was released in Europe] as we usually sell in a whole year,” a spokeswoman for Le Livre de Poche, the publisher of the French translation, told London's Times Online.
British teens, of course, have long been familiar with the homegrown Brontë books. But the 2009 "Twilight"-linked edition of "Wuthering Heights" was rapidly outselling earlier editions of the book, the Monitor reported at that time.
In at least one respect it was a novel experience, Waterstone's classics buyer Simon Robertson said in an interview with the Guardian at the time. “I don't think a vampire's recommendation has ever sent a book to number one before."
Google announced the release of its first tablet, the $199 Nexus 7, at its San Francisco developers conference Wednesday. More than just another tablet to enter the hot new market, the Nexus 7 illustrates Google’s determination to reinvent itself as a “lifestyle and culture purveyor” manufacturing its own hardware to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. It’s a new direction for the company, and one that heats up the tablet wars in a big way.
The good news for bibliophiles? Unlike Microsoft’s promising new Surface tablet, the Nexus 7 is compact, relatively affordable, and designed for e-reading. (Google’s director of product management Hugo Barra actually compared the Nexus 7’s form to a paperback book, touting the device’s compact, easy-to-hold shape.)
"We want things to be simple, beautiful and really smart," said Mr. Barra at Wednesday’s unveiling.
The 7-inch tablet, made in collaboration with Taiwan-based manufacturer Asus, has a Tegra 3 quad-core processor and a 12-core processing unit, allowing users to run games, movies, apps, e-books, and other content smoothly. It’s got 8 GB of memory (bump up to $249 for 16 GB) and runs on the Jelly Bean operating system, plus comes with a bevy of goodies including a front-facing camera, microphone, GPS, accelerometer for testing Internet speed, plus several ports (mini HDMI, Micro USB, Ethernet). What’s more, it’s got a sharp reading medium, in-plane switching technology to increase the screen’s viewing angles and higher-resolution screen than the Kindle: 1,280 x 800 pixels versus the Kindle’s 1,024 x 600 pixels. “Great if you want to share something with your friend; bad if you want to hide the fact that you’re reading ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ or indulging in some guilty pleasure like ‘Real Housewives of Orange County,’ since you can now purchase TV shows on Google Play,” writes allthingsd.com blogger Bonnie Cha.
What’s more, almost all of Google’s products are integrated into the Nexus 7, including Google Chrome, Google Maps, Google Translate, and of course, Google Play, which the company will use to sell the tablet and deliver content to users.
So how does the Nexus 7 stack up against the Kindle Fire, its most obvious competitor? Early reviews are promising.
Writes the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Takiff, “The 7-inch screened Nexus 7 tablet has instantly been judged a better deal at $199 (in 8GB form) than the similarly-sized but now relatively old tech Kindle Fire.”
“Google’s Nexus 7 tablet feels like the device that might just usurp the Kindle,” writes the UK’s Telegraph. “It does everything that Amazon’s device has done so successfully since it launched in 2007, but with Google you can now also watch videos, browse beautifully rendered magazines and the web and of course check your email. A Kindle costs from just [$79], but those extra functions are likely to persuade a huge number of people to part with [$199].”
The $199 Nexus 7 is available for sale on Google’s app store Google Play and will start shipping in mid-July. Every order comes with a $25 credit to spend in Google Play on movies, magazines, and more.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
So the first installment of "Atlas Shrugged," the movie, was a colossal flop that few heard about and even fewer watched. What’s a producer to do?
“Spend even more money on the sequel, cross your fingers and hope for the best,” writes Indiewire, reporting on “Atlas Shrugged: Part 2."
Producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow just announced that their second installment in the proposed trilogy will hit theaters October 12. Last time around marketers spent almost no money on marketing “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” instead relying on Internet, talk radio, and word of mouth (a strategy distribution execs called “awful” at the time). They leaned heavily on tea party members to spread word about the movie primarily to libertarian, free-market, and small-government advocates. The result? The movie opened in April of 2011 on 300 screens, then fell off quickly. After six weeks, total ticket sales had not crossed the $5 million mark – less than a quarter of the production budget.
It was a bit of a surprise, as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” has drawn a passionate following ever since its initial publication in 1957. It is Rand’s last and longest novel, her magnum opus that philosophically explores a dystopian America in which society’s best-performing citizens strike to protest high taxes and government regulation. In modern politics, the book has become a rallying cry for libertarians, conservatives, and tea party members – which is why marketers targeted this group, then scratched their heads in surprise when the first installment didn’t do well.
This time, the $15 million movie has a proper marketing budget. Producers hired Russel Schwartz of Pandemic Marketing. “The industry will take us more seriously now that we have Russel and Bill [Lewis, for theatrical distribution] on board,” Kaslow told the Hollywood Reporter. “Last time we marketed in an unorthodox fashion. This time, in addition to online, we’ll do traditional print, radio, and TV advertising.”
Will things be any different this time? We think there’s a good chance. Kaslow has allocated 10 times more money to market “Part II” than he did for “Part I.” And Schwartz has proven his talent; he was behind the campaigns for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Hairspray,” “Elf,” and other hit films. What’s more, the film will be released just as the hype over the November presidential election reaches fever pitch, likely drawing more politically-stimulated audiences than otherwise.
And the scenario will likely strike a chord with some politicos. " 'Part 2' begins with the world’s economy on the brink of collapse,” writes the Hollywood Reporter. “Unemployment in the US is 24 percent, gas is $42 a gallon and the most productive people in the country have begun a 'strike' to protest high taxes, government regulation and lawmakers who demonize success.”
Hmm. A less-than-subtle comparison and a jab at a certain leader? This much is sure, if this premise doesn’t get people into theaters, we’re not sure what will.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Now here’s a novel idea. One way to solve prison overcrowding, promote literacy, and empower inmates, in one fell swoop? Offer inmates the chance to shorten their sentences by reading.
That’s right, Brazil’s government recently rolled out a new program, Redemption through Reading, that allows inmates to shave four days off their sentence for every book they read, with a maximum of 48 days off their sentence per year, Reuters reported Monday. The program will be extended to certain prisoners in four federal prisons in Brazil holding some of the country’s most notorious criminals.
According to Reuters, a special panel will determine which inmates are eligible to participate. Those chosen can choose from works of literature, philosophy, science, or the classics, reading up to 12 books a year. Flashback from grade school: they’ll have four weeks to read each book and write an essay that must “make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins, and legible joined-up writing,” according to a notice published Monday in Brazil’s official gazette.
And according to the New York Daily News, the trend of shortening sentences through reading is nothing new. As recently as last month, judges, like US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in the Bay Area, handed out similar stipulations to inmates eager to shorten their sentences.
Nonetheless we’ve got to admit, as bibliophiles, as much as we like the idea, we aren’t convinced. How does reading help rehabilitate prisoners? Is this the best way to offer inmates a sentence-shortening incentive? Is it truly constructive? And as we learned in fifth grade, writing a book report is no guarantee that one has really finished a book. How do we ensure that the prisoners are really doing the reading thoroughly and completely?
Questions aside, we are intrigued by the idea and eager to see how it plays out in Brazil. We’ll keep you posted.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Author Sara Gran evacuated and returned. For two years, she watched the decline of one of the most vibrant and unique places on earth. And for two years, she watched the world ignore the real story of heartache and misery, much of it shoved deep into the minds of those whose city was lost.
Gran brings this grim, gritty, and unhappy New Orleans to life in her entrancing mystery novel "Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead," which is now out in paperback. In the well-reviewed book, Gran manages to expose the darkness in the Big Easy while still finding signs of life amid the ruins. I reached Gran last week and we talked about her mystical private-eye character, the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans and the next book in the Claire DeWitt series.
Q: For people who haven't read the book, who's Claire DeWitt?
A: Claire DeWitt is in her mid-30s and from Brooklyn. She's "the world's greatest detective," but no one believes her. We'll find out if it's true as the series goes on.
She's been been through a lot, had a really hard childhood, and a lot of personal losses. She doesn't get a lot of pleasure in her life, but she does get pleasure out of solving crimes.
She's a devotee of a French detective who has an unusual school of detective work based on intuition, omens, and psychology. It is not science-based, more like the alternative medicine of detective work.
Q: She seems pretty messed up as she tries to solve the case of a missing prosecutor. Is that fair to say?
A: She's in one of those phases in her life where she's in between things. She’s not really depressed, she’s not really happy. She doesn’t have a future she's particularly looking forward to, but she's not in her past. She didn't want to go to New Orleans, but goes there to help solve this crime.
She does have this way of solving mysteries that’s stable for her that she can fall back on. It provides her the routine and stability that most people take for granted in life.
Q: You're from Brooklyn, lived in New Orleans, and now live in Northern California, just like her. How much of Claire is you?
A: Forty-three percent.
I just made that up, but that may be right. Between 43 and 57 percent.
Q: What in her is not like you?
A: The stuff with the guns, and being very tough and strong. She’s a lot smarter than me, she figures something out in a minute that takes me six months. She's more fun and more interesting.
Q: What's been the reaction among readers to her?
A: I hoped people who would see her as an inspiration, despite the darkness and the weirdness of the character and her own personal history, in the way she found a way to do something good despite the screwed-up things that have happened to them. People have responded to that exactly the way I hoped they would.
Q: Your portrait of New Orleans is grim, full of decrepit homes, desperate people, and thugs standing on street corners. What made you decide to look at that part of it?
A: I wanted to write a book that was more about my experiences after the storm. I was really depressed when I wrote the book. Being in New Orleans after the storm was really depressing. The rest of the country seemed to want the cheerful and upbeat stories, but there weren't a lot of them.
I love crawfish étouffée, but I don’t think that’s an appropriate topic in a discussion when thousands of people died and thousands are left homeless, and the people left behind are walking around zombies.
Q: What did you see happening in the city?
A: It was very divided. You'd meet people like me who lost no one and those who lost 15 to 20 family members and neighbors.
There was not an emotional public space to acknowledge the pain that people were going through. People are so terrified of dealing with their pain, but if you don’t, you end up with permanent post-traumatic stress disorder.
Q: It sounds unrelentingly grim, doesn't it?
A: That's what it was like living in this city.
For some reason, nobody really came to help. Two years later, people are saying, "When the aid and the trucks come," and it's like, "Dude, there's no trucks coming." People say, "When we start the rebuilding effort," but there's been no WPA-type rebuilding effort.
Q: Did you worry about being fair to New Orleans?
A: I didn't worry about fair at all, I worried about being honest to my experience and the imaginary world of my characters' experience.
You can't write a book and be fair. You have to write a book and be honest.
There is more to New Orleans than what I pictured. There’s a lot that’s wonderful and beautiful. But there's enough talk about the music and the food.
Q: Your next Claire DeWitt book is due out in the spring of 2013. What's it about?
A: She’s back at home in San Francisco, and a close friend of hers is murdered. The book also goes back to a murder in Brooklyn in the 1980s. It's two stories and alternates between them.
Q: Are you attracted to writing about the darker side of things?
A: I’m more interested in the dark side, in how the people of New Orleans were not perfect.
Everybody wants to talk about the innocent victims, but we're never really innocent victims. We're never really innocent, and it's sort of dehumanizing to say that they are. It's more interesting and respectful to get into these darker areas.
Still, in my previous three books I wrote exclusively about the dark side of things, and that got really boring. What's more interesting are these spaces of light and good deeds that come in these dark spaces.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
To celebrate its new exhibit titled “Books That Shaped America,” the Library of Congress recently had curators and other literary scholars compile a list of works that have influenced us as a country, resulting in an 88-book list.
The list of 88 books was ranked by publication date, not any preference on the part of those who compiled it. The earliest title was “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” by Benjamin Franklin, published in 1751, while the newest book to make the list was “The Words of César Chávez” by César Chávez in 2002.
Other notable titles that made the cut were “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, and “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
The “Books That Shaped America” exhibit by the Library of Congress is scheduled to be on display through Sept. 29 at the Thomas Jefferson Building. Readers are encouraged to comment on the list online and nominate other titles.
Check out the full list here.
Many patrons are unaware that their libraries offer e-books, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
The study reported that 62 percent of respondents didn’t know whether e-books were available at their local library. The study also revealed that only 12 percent of respondents living in the US who were older than 16 had borrowed one or more e-books from a library within the last year.
According to the report, 56 percent of those who responded said they’d tried to borrow an e-book at their library and it hadn’t been available, while 46 percent said that if given a device with the e-book they wanted already on it, they would be very or somewhat likely to borrow the device from the library.
Those who borrow e-books from libraries had read 29 books this year, the survey said, compared to 23 books for those who do not.
“Clearly there is an opportunity here for us to step up our outreach and increase public awareness," American Library Association president Molly Raphael told Publishers Weekly on the subject of patrons not knowing about e-book offerings. "Of course, awareness is not enough. Libraries cannot lend what they cannot obtain.”
Of those who responded to the survey, 58 percent of people who were older than 16 said they still possessed a library card, and 69 percent responded that the library was an important institution to them.
The question of e-books in libraries has created a point of contention between libraries and publishers, with publishers concerned about allowing patrons to borrow e-books from libraries even as they are scrambling to profit from selling those same books. Some libraries say they have been discouraged from offering e-books because of high costs publishers are charging for them and/or the circulation limits they are imposing.
The Pew study used 2,986 people over 16 for the survey and conducted it by phone.
Tolstoy’s novel follows the title heroine, whose full name is Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, and who falls in love with Count Vronsky, a wealthy and dashing officer, while still married to Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a powerful member of the government who is 20 years her senior.
In Wright’s version, “Pride and Prejudice” star Keira Knightley will play Anna, while “Nowhere Boy” actor Aaron Johnson takes on the part of Vronsky and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” actor Jude Law will play Karenin.
Other actors appearing in the film include “Brave” star Kelly Macdonald as Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly, “Pride and Prejudice” actor Matthew Macfadyen as Dolly’s philandering husband Oblonsky, and Olivia Williams of “An Education” as Vronsky’s mother Countess Vronskaya.
The trailer opens with a quote from Tolstoy, “There are as many loves as there are hearts,” and shows the opulence of the film, with sumptuous costumes, elaborate balls, and some stage performances.
“I was eighteen when I got married,” Knightley says at the beginning of the trailer. “But it was not love.”
The trailer shows the betrayed Karenin’s anger at Anna, with Law asking, “Do you think I would let you have my son? You are depraved,” as well as her isolation as her aristocratic world is shocked by her affair.
The movie is scheduled to be released Nov. 9.
Check out the full trailer here: