Tag Archives: VSI

Book Review: The Koran – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read the Koran once when I was a teenager, but did so with no guidance and just went through it cover to cover. It seemed rather disjointed, with some oddly worded concepts and what I considered to be perversions of stories from the Old Testament. The one that stuck in my mind was a re-telling of the story of the garden of Eden, where the serpent of Genesis became Satan (or Shai’tan as I think it may have been rendered) and prompted me to wonder whether this was the impetus for christian theologians to make that identification or whether it was earlier, even if it is commonplace in most expressions of christianity today. Yet I haven’t touched the book since then. At some point, I may come back, though I wonder how one might review it on this blog.

In approaching this book, then, in the hope that it will go someway to filling a hole of ignorance. Already, one may think it wrong to refer to the Koran as opposed to the Qur’an. In his introduction, Cook states that while Qur’an is the more faithful rendering, Koran is readily recognised as an anglicised form that lends itself to a correct stressing of the syllables. As this is the way Cook refers to it, then so shall this review.

The manner in which Cook approaches the book is unlikely to be one that people expect. He works roughly in a sort of anti-chronology, looking at the modern usages of the Koran, moving back in time to tell its story. Though at times, this timeline gets a bit jumbled, that seems to be in order to avoid the exposition itself becoming jumbled. In case it needs highlighting, this is the VSI of the book of the Koran, it is not a VSI of Islam. If that it was you’re looking for, then this is not the right book for you.

We begin by considering what the notion of ‘scripture’ is and what the overall message of the Koran tries to tell us. The emphasis Cook brings out is that of the straight path and the nature of God (though I did wonder why Cook referred to God, rather than Allah).

After this introduction, we get to see how the Koran is used today and its influence, which is quite evident to many if you either live in an area where there is a high Muslim population or by putting on the news. Yet the disparity between these two is clear and not a little confusing for the non-Muslim. Such misunderstanding can give birth to Islamophobia.

After looking at how the Koran is communicated (both as a written text and as a self-contained oral tradition in and of itself), there’s a general discussion as to what it means for any text to be regarded as “scripture”. Of course, any writing is, etymologically scripture. Even this blog is; but that’s not the common usage of the word, which tends to denote some sacred text of a religion. Contrasts are drawn between the Koran and some of the Vedas, though to many a reader, especially christians like me, the comparisons to the bible are rather thin and it left me feeling a little flat.

One of the bits that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense was the idea of coloured text. There is talk of it, but as the book is published in black & white, apart from the cover, then one cannot tell about the red and gold punctuation marks. It was only when I visited the British Library’s collection of Koran’s that this became clear.

What we don’t get is one clear story of how the Koran is said to have come about. There are hints here and there, but the whole story of Mohammad being told to read is rather lost in amongst the other chapters, partly as the story of where he was when various bits of the Koran were revealed.

Overall, it is a useful VSI, though I can’t say it was particularly memorable. I’m publishing this review some time after having finished it and find myself having to keep opening it to remind myself of the book’s contents. It’s one to keep and refer to, yet I couldn’t help but think there are better introductions available.


Book Review: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

Today, the 15th of June 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was first ‘signed’. 3 weeks ago, I visited the British Library which is running an exhibition all about the Magna Carta. Just before I did, though, I thought I ought to try to get clued up a bit about it. My aim wasn’t to become an expert, but just to sketch in a rough form where there was a massive space of ignorance in my knowledge. This VSI by Nicholas Vincent, then, was the book I chose.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I picked this up when I was last at the British Library in February, having been somewhat disappointed by the VSI on the British Constitution.

Here, Vincent was keen to put Magna Carta in its context. That context takes up more than half of the book, so the contents of Magna Carta are somewhat relegated to an appendix. It wouldn’t be too unfair then to say that this is much more about politics of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So if you expect this to a summary of the Magna Carta and a discussion thereof, then you will likely be very disappointed by this work (don’t worry, though, there are plenty of publications available at the moment; I’m sure some of them take this approach). This is likely because Nicholas Vincent’s specialty is medieval history. So rather than foregrounding Magna Carta and filling in the background detail, he spends a lot of time and effort bringing to life the background, seeming to hope that the Magna Carta speaks for itself.

In favour of this last statement, a modern translation of the Magna Carta is provided in an appendix, though it seemed slightly unfair to relegate it to this position. It is only when one is about 2/3rds of the way through this VSI that we get the occasional reference to specific clauses, though there’s no specific instruction to the reader to turn to the appendix, so one might be a bit wrong-footed by this.  Even then, we are not exactly guided through it, but instead we are given a scattergun approach.

As an overview of the politics of north-western Europe in the medieval period, it is a very good work. It’s not a period of history that I could claim any expertise in, nor even much familiarity, so cannot really comment on Vincent’s accuracy or choices of emphasis in his portrayal. As an amateur reader then, I came away with a better appreciation of the circumstances that led to the Magna Carta’s formation, though this wasn’t really a magnification of it. Rather, one could see a developmental stage that led towards it. This was later added to by my visit to the aforementioned exhibition at the British Library which is very well done (apart from the actual copies of the 1215 Magna Carta which I must say were a tads disappointing). There were several videos running in the exhibition, one of which featured Nicholas Vincent talking, so when I listened to him, it rang strongly of this book that I had finished reading the day before.

One thing that is picked up on by both the book and the exhibition is that almost as soon as the Magna Carta came into force in 1215, it was annulled. So we ended up with a slightly farcical situation whereby it went and came again, with there being various versions going about, each differing slightly different from the last. Only Durham Cathedral (I miss seeing it from the dining room window) has a copy of each edition. We get an overview of which sections got dropped from the statute book over the years.

The thing is, the Magna Carta is more often invoked by name than in substance. How relevant is it that clause 33 calls for the complete removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and Medway? Well, a lot less than clause 39: “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.” The book finishes then with an evaluation of the legacy of Magna Carta. It is somewhat brief, and might perhaps have been better written by a legal or constitutional expert, rather than a medieval historian. As a starting point, though, it’s not bad.

You may well hear a lot about Magna Carta at the moment, but a lot of it comes with an assumption of a knowledge and understanding of its background and content. If you think you have a gap in your education around this, then I would certainly recommend this as a very short remedy.

Book Review: Jesus – A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

One might well work out that, being a christian, I am somewhat interested in the figure of Jesus. My aim really is to come to as true and fair an understanding of this figure as possible. One might question why I chose to read the VSI of Jesus – surely I know it all already? Well, while I might try my best to be a faithful disciple, Jesus is a figure one can never see him from enough angles. Over the next year, I aim to look at a number of viewpoints, some of which are referred to in this short book.

The opening gambit is the question of “how can we know about Jesus?” In and of itself, this would entail a whole other VSI in and of itself. So we skip over the details of textual and form criticism and jump to the working hypothesis that the gospels are, by and large, the most reliable works through which we can know who Jesus was. Other reviewers of this book object to this, as it does leave some key questions and objections unanswered. Though Bauckham does refer the reader to his earlier work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which makes a more compelling case than that presented here.

Rather than dive into the texts, Bauckham takes his time to let the reader get a look at the time, place and culture in which we may find Jesus. 1st century Israel/Palestine was a fascinating arena, though we focus mainly on the strands of Judaic thought that Jesus would have encountered. From here he looks at the one topic that Jesus spoke about more than any other: the kingdom of God. This is done in two ways, by looking at what Jesus did and also what Jesus said. It is in reading these chapters that one sees the need to have started with an assumption in the historicity of the gospels. In doing so, we can see what one of the major obstacles is in modern evangelism, where a healthy sceptical questioning of the biblical sources tips over and becomes an irrational denialism (think of a parallel between climate change deniers or young earth creationists, both of whom would try to claim the ground of reasonable scepticism but who in truth are impervious to evidence).

The kind of view that Bauckham puts forward is of Jesus being very Jewish, understanding the history of Israel and enacting renewal. Yet Jesus did this by reinterpreting the Torah and having a revolutionary way of looking at and speaking of God. The question that would probably be at the forefront of many people’s minds is “who is Jesus?” Yet Bauckham builds up to this, only asking the question once the background has been fully sketched (I say ‘sketched’ because in a VSI there is insufficient room to fill in many of the details). The answer is, as ever, many sided. We look briefly at Jesus’ identity as Messiah and as Son of God. Though necessary to include these, I felt there could have been a lot more said that would clarify the matter for readers who may have chosen to pick up this book having relatively little understanding of Jesus or what churches over the centuries have taught about him.

Naturally enough, as study of Jesus should, Bauckham eventually comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bauckham remains resolutely orthodox in his stance here, affirming the historicity of the Easter weekend and again drawing on the eyewitness testimony, especially via the “embarrassment criteria” of having women recorded as the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. If anything, this chapter is a bit of a paraphrase of the Easter narratives, mainly as a combination of Mark and John’s gospels as well as 1 Corinthians 15.

The book concludes with how Jesus has been understood by the Church. The focus here is on the early church rather than views from the 2nd century onwards. He resists the idea that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, noting that that idea only emerged around the 19th century.

I would hope that most find this a helpful book. Bauckham is very orthodox in his view and doesn’t make space here for a wide variety of more heterodox views. So if you are looking for an overview of different beliefs, then this is probably not the best book for you. It is a view of Jesus that I largely agree with, even if some elements are glossed over and questions of high or low christology only appear towards the end and are dealt with in a very cursory manner. But if you have heard of the idea of a difference between the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history” then this is a good place to start to help see why such a distinction is false. And if you think you know who Jesus is, it’s never a bad idea to take a fresh look.