The Testament of Mary — Audible.com — Meryl Streep, Narrator

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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This is another in a long line of alternate versions of the life of Jesus Christ. This one is written as if by Jesus’ mother, Mary.

As a book, it suffers from not being entirely sure what the author believes or wants us to believe. Does she — or does she not — believe in the divinity of her son? For most of the book, I would say she doesn’t, that she rejects his divinity and believes his death was avoidable and pointless. Not to mention horrible, painful and cruel beyond words.

By the end of the book, what Mary believes — or what the author would like us to believe — is abstruse, to say the least. My suspicion is that the author was either unclear where he stands, religiously speaking, or chickened out and decided it was safer to hedge his theological bets.

Judas, My Brother

Whatever the reason, the lack of a clear point of view eventually made me wonder why I bothered to read it. It’s vivid, ugly, graphic and very confused.

In this genre, I have read many other books that are better written, including Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel and my all-time favorite, Frank Yerby‘s Judas, My Brother – out of print, but available used from Amazon.

Which brings me back to the question of why I purchased it. Simply put? I bought it because Audible had it on sale … and I was curious about Meryl Streep‘s narration.

I didn’t think much of the book and the narration didn’t improve the experience for me. Meryl Streep is a brilliant actor, not a brilliant narrator. As a narrator, she is a brilliant actor. She doesn’t get the difference between narrating and acting. It is, of course, a matter of taste, but since this is my review — in my opinion, she puts way too much passion into the narration. She doesn’t read the book. She acts it.

At no point could I forget the narration and hear the voice of the author. Never did the narration free me to become immersed in the story. Granted, the story itself wasn’t all that great, but a different narrator might have made it easier to get involved in the story.

Streep’s presence is very dominant. You will listen to her performance. If you like that sort of thing, Meryl Streep does a fine acting job, but to me, the best narration is one you don’t notice. I want to hear the author, not the narrator. If I’m conscious of a narrator, it’s a problem. Audiobooks are not theatre. They are books. Listening is another way to read, not radio drama.

I didn’t think the book was particularly good, even though it has gotten tons of publicity and is being touted from hither to yon. Of this genre, this is one of the weakest books I’ve read.

What Is Truth? The Liars’ Gospel, by Naomi Alderman

The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel, by Naomi Alderman

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: March 12, 2013

The story of Yehoshuah (Joshua, who became Jesus) has been told by uncountable authors for two millennium. What makes this such a tempting story – other than the obvious importance of its central character – is the lack of any historical references to Yehoshuah from his own lifetime or even any timely mention of his death. There are no references to him in either Roman or Jewish documents of the period. None at all. Everything written about him was penned after his death, for the most part, long after his death, when Christians had become a force in the world.

The author did a lot of research on the period and I applaud the authenticity with which she captured the Roman world. This is not the Hollywood version. This is the gritty, savage world of conquest, killing and cruelty. From this reconstructed world, Naomi Alderman builds a story based on what might – given the state of the world – have really happened.

Whether or not it actually happened the way it unfolds in the book, there’s no way to know. The author wisely leaves it open to our interpretation. No matter how much we may wish it, an absence of fact is not evidence. Silence is void.

The story is rich with inferences that the generally accepted life of Christ story is less than factual. The Liars’ Gospel is a Jewish perspective, recounted by four people who knew him at different points in his life. His mother Miriam (Mary) grieves for her lost son, rejected by him long before his death. Yehuda of Qeriot (Judah Iscariot), who followed him until he no longer believed. Caiaphas, High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem who knew him less as a person, and more as a force to be reckoned with, and Bar Avo (Barabbas), a rebel leader in the battle against the Roman occupation who knew him but briefly at the very last hours of his life.

The time setting is approximately a year after Yehoshuah’s death, though the story includes everything from his early childhood through his death. Each teller holds a piece of the story that link together to form a whole picture.

The complexity of the politics are well done. What I love best is how beautifully Ms. Alderman counters the 2000 year old lies about how the Jews conspired to kill the son of God. Those particular lies have been responsible for an awful lot of death. Millions of Jews have been slaughtered in the name of a rabbi from the Galilee who preached we should love our enemies. The author points out if his followers had lived up to that one precept, our world would be a far better place.

It’s not a novel for the faint of heart. There are graphic executions, massacres, murders, injustice, riots, animal sacrifice and betrayal set against the seething backdrop of Roman provincial domination. The Liars’ Gospel is a taut and terrible tale. It held my interest from start to finish. I only wish I could rewrite the ending.

It’s available in from Amazon and other sellers in hard cover, Kindle, and audiobook. I recommend it.

Hey, God … How about a few answers?

Heresy … or is it blasphemy? I always get the two confused. Maybe this is both.

Whatever it is, I really would like a few answers. I know I’m not a model human. Not in any sense of the term, but certainly not in the religious sense. Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist … the four religions about which I actually know something … I don’t quite fit into any of them. Mind you, I’m not so bad, either. There are plenty a whole lot worse than me.

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While me and mine struggle along, barely keeping our heads above the water, evil-doers of a very high magnitude are thriving their asses off out in the Big Bad World. In fact, there are a whole lot of really awful people doing well, living, as far as I can tell, happy, healthy, and productive lives.

Old South Church from Boston Commons

Is it possible that somewhere beneath the shiny exterior they are deep in existential torment? Maybe, but I’m betting not. In my admittedly limited experience, rotten people are not introspective. They do what they do and they don’t spend a lot of time feeling bad about it. In fact, they don’t spend any time at all feeling bad about it. Maybe if something happens to upset the smooth flow of their expensive lives, they pause and ponder … but I’m not convinced. They probably do something even worse and move on.

So how come they have a “get out of jail free” card and people like me, whose sins are of the ordinary, run-of-the-mill kind, wind up with the world falling down around our ears, wondering how we’ll ever dig our way out from under the rock pile that covers us?  To say that it doesn’t seem fair does not begin to address the issue.

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Like millions of humans throughout the ages and stages of human development, why evil thrives and so often, good people live desperate, miserable lives simply doesn’t make sense. I’ve given every effort to cultivating Christian acceptance, Jewish Nihilism, Existential cynicism, Asian acceptance of unknown Karma … and it still doesn’t work for me.

If there is a God and He, She, It, or They is or are just and good and this Deity loves us, cares for us, wants us to be happy … it doesn’t make sense. Telling me it is not mine to understand because I am a mere human and only God can know God’s reasons seems a thin excuse. I couldn’t pawn that one off on my son when he was 7, and it doesn’t fly well now either.

So I have to ask another question that won’t get an answer: Do we … do I myself … seriously believe God involves Himself in our day-to-day activities? Regardless of incarnation, Jesus, Buddha, Holy Spirit … whatever. You think he’s right there keeping an ever watchful eye on us, ready to stretch out a hand to us? What about Katrina? The Japanese Tsunami? The Holocaust? The massacre of the Native Americans? The hundreds of years of slavery for Black and other peoples? The current enslavement of women in so many parts of the world? What’s God’s position on this? Is he really more concerned whether or not a woman has an abortion than he is about the death of thousands and the enslavement of millions?

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I know the nature of faith is it defies logic and requires a leap. I thought I’d made the leap, but I think maybe I didn’t after all. I’m still standing at the chasm and every fiber of my intelligence assures me this leap will leave me shattered on the rocks below. I guess I’m not going to make it to wherever the faithful get to go when their miserable lives finally draw to a close.

I’ve had several close encounters with at least some shadow of the God or Gods who rule us. I know my life … my existence … has been twice returned to me. I’m not ungrateful, but I’m baffled. It appears I’m going to remain baffled. I’m not going to get the answers to my questions because no one has the answers. Frankly, if I think too long on this, it makes me crazy! I can’t believe and yet, I believe. Stuck forever on the cusp of questions without answers.

Or, as Tom Lehrer so eloquently said it, “Soon we’ll all be sliding down that razor blade of life …” Ouch.

Prompts for the Promptless: Episode 3 : Catch That Running Gag!

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Ball Gag lay in the dark at the bottom of the closet amidst the rubble of discarded sex toys. He fondly remembered the good old days when The Master and Mistress used him and all his friends to play exciting games every night. Sunk in nostalgia, Ball Gag remembered the crack of the whip, the moans, the screams, the foul language. Those were great days.

Then came the babies and the jobs. PTA and late hours at work. Master and Mistress were tired and busy and they no longer came to The Closet to play with all the toys.

Ball Gag wondered if he were actually getting rusty from disuse. The idea so appalled him, that he began to shiver, which made him rattle and set up a noisy clamor as the various chains, clamps, and other metal things banged against one another. Ball Gag tried to move and surprised himself.

“I can move!” he thought. “How can I do this?”

He realized — to his amazement — he had eyes and could see. From his little round body, itty bitty arms and teeny tiny legs clothed in pointy shoes had sprouted.

“FREEDOM!” he cried and began to throw himself at the closet door. It gave way easily and he found himself in the master bedroom. Light streamed in from the windows, covered by … what? Fluffy lace?

Repelled by the sight of so much light and fluff, Ball Gag … at first hesitantly, then with more sureness in his steps … marched to the hallway.  His leather straps scraped along the floor, but apparently no one was home to hear the racket. He tucked up his tiny arms and legs and rolled clackety-clack down the stairs, clambered out the mail slot and onto the front walk.

FREEDOM!” he screamed again and began to run.

That was when the cops spotted him.

“Catch him!” they cried, talking to each other and calling into the precinct on their radios. “It’s a running gag!!”

- – -

Slaughter in a quiet suburb

Yesterday, while putting together awards, a too-long deferred project, I happened to click onto WBZ radio, Boston‘s CBS affiliate. The events in Newtown were just being broadcast. They didn’t know exactly how many children and adults had died. The massacre had just ended — to the degree that such tragedies really ever end. I’m sure that for all the families who lost loved ones, it will never end. There’s no “over” for the slaughter of innocents.

This is the kind of horror story that leaves you with questions that can’t be answered. Even if you know everything there is to know, you still couldn’t make sense of it because it doesn’t make sense and can’t make sense. There is nothing sane, sensible, reasonable or explicable about it. What could possibly make someone — anyone — think murdering children is an acceptable or sane response to anything? No matter what dark secrets or strange thoughts are tangled in the head of the kid who took all those lives … nothing makes it more understandable because our minds reject any answer. There is no reason good enough. Nothing makes it comprehensible nor should it.

I can and will say that had the shooter not had guns, this would NOT have happened.

I do not care how treasured our “rights to bear arms” is to Americans. This is exactly what is wrong with having guns, so many guns, in so many hands. However true it is that guns don’t shoot themselves, the fact is that if they were less accessible to everyone and there were more controls on them to make sure that those who own them understand the responsibility that comes with owning deadly weapons — like the need to keep them out of irresponsible hands — many deaths would not occur. If the same young man had to take whatever weird revenge he sought with a bat or even a knife, he would have been stopped long before the body count had grown so godawful huge.

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Morons at play

Guns don’t kill people all by themselves, but in the hands of people, guns do a lot more damage than the same person could do without guns. These were legal, registered guns.

Why a kindergarten teacher had an arsenal at home where she also had one (more?) mentally ill children is another one of those questions that can’t be answered. Personally I think if all guns disappeared tomorrow and we were reduced to throwing rocks at each other, it would be a better world. Since that’s not about to happen, at the very least, regulating guns so that those who own them are required to keep track of them (how many guns just “disappear” only to reappear as the weapon at a crime scene?), some degree of mental stability has to be established before being allowed to own them, anyone who owns guns has appropriate means to secure them and knows how to properly maintain them … these are minimal sensible requirements. Soldiers aren’t just handed weapons to use indiscriminately. They are taught how to use them, maintain them, and woe to any soldier who just happens to “lose” his weapon.

Yet in the private sector, most states have no requirements other than your ability to fill out a form and wait a few days. Most illegal guns didn’t start out that way, either. They were legal when they were bought … but they roamed to other pastures. If there are simply fewer guns and those who have them are required to account for their whereabouts on a regular basis, secure them when not in use … in short, to be at least as responsible with their guns as they are with their cars for which you are required to take a test, have a licence and registration, and maintain insurance … there would be fewer horrors like that which took place in a quiet Connecticut suburb.

How can we allow mass murder by deranged gunmen and then turn around and say we don’t need gun control? I actually saw posts on Facebook blaming it on not having enough guns. So, now we should arm children so they can shoot each other in schoolyard disputes? That’s your answer? I saw other posts pointing out that we’ve banned school prayer. And you figure that a prayer in the morning would have prevented this tragedy? Really? Has prayer prevented war? Genocide? Plague? Not that I’ve noticed.

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God gave us brains to use. God gave us a conscience to guide us.

In all ten of God’s commandments … nor in anything that Jesus said … is there anything indicating that good people should own weapons. Quite the opposite, actually. Our constitution says that our citizenry is allowed to maintain militia and guns to protect the population, not that ever Tom, Dick, and Jane can have a personal arsenal to use as he or she feels inclined, with no restrictions, no oversight, not even an insurance policy.

It’s outrageous and it’s wrong. If we don’t start to use brains instead of that knee jerk reaction that “Oh my God, the government won’t let me buy an assault weapon! That’s outrageous!” there will inevitably be more of these mornings where families are burying their dead and wondering how it happened. If you want to know how stupid people really are, check out this disgusting website. If you suspected we let insane idiots own arsenals, this website will confirm your worst fears.

It happened because a mentally ill kid was able to get his hands on guns and instead of acting out in a non-lethal way, he instead murdered his family and all those other people too. That’s what happened. Why did it happen? Because we didn’t stop him, that’s why.

Angels and Oxymorons Abounding

I love this time of year. The holidays bring out the pious hypocrite in us. It’s delightful watching people mouth platitudes in which they obviously don’t believe. There we are, deploring the crass commercialism of the holiday season, how they have become nothing but a huge excuse for everyone to spend too much money. Then we jump in the car and race to the mall to buy those last-minute gifts.

Truth is as bright and flashy as the trees we love to decorate: we adore commercialism. Our national sport is shopping. Christmas is one humongous discount bargain bin and everyone accepts credit cards. All that glitters is not gold, but we don’t care.

What we deplore is not commercialism. We just hate not having enough money to dive into the season and pile those gift boxes high. To quote Tom Lehrer, “Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy.” If you live in the U.S., it’s inescapable.

When I was a kid, I so envied my Christian neighbors. They had Christmas trees and lights and presents to open. They had Santa Claus. I wanted it too.

Which makes this a perfect time for me to annoy you by pointing out what everyone already knows: Christ was not born at Christmas. Current thinking is probably sometime in the spring.  The Yule celebration predates Judaism and Christianity. Our most beloved seasonal  symbols — Christmas trees — have no religious significance for any living religion. It’s a symbol of a faith long since faded to fable. We love the trees, the lights and those stacks of boxes wrapped in pretty paper and bows. Let the games commence. The holidays are upon us. Spend today and figure out how to pay it off tomorrow. Holidays bring out the pagan in us. Just admit it already.

Not being brought up with Christmas has given me a running start on understanding the spirit of the season. I got to celebrate Christmas because my first husband, may he rest in peace, was not Jewish. He wasn’t much of a Christian either. To the best of my knowledge, his family had never attended any church, but identified themselves as vaguely Protestant, though which denomination they could not say. But they were very big on Christmas. It was my introduction to nominal Christianity and non-denominational Christmas. It was years before I realized that there was more to Christianity and Christmas than stringing lights and making killer eggnog. They really did make killer eggnog. Unimaginably lethal.

So indulge me for a moment on the subject of faith. I have been accused of being anti-religious, anti-Christian, unGodly and on the fast track to Hell. How ironic when I am boringly obsessed with religion and have been for my entire life.  I’m not unGodly, just anti-dogmatic and not Christian. Jews consider me un-Jewish so I am out of step with everyone and everything. I am very far from atheistic or anti religious. Au contraire, I’m just not your coreligionist. No matter what you are, I’m not that. I’m something. If I had a label, my problems would be over. I could answer that aggravating question: what are you?

So what’s with the whole faith thing? How dare I say you can’t prove God‘s existence?

When I say faith is not proof, I don’t mean to imply that faith is bad or wrong, only that you can’t prove anything by it. It’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it, but it would never hold up in a court of law. Any judge on any episode of Law and Order would throw your case out of court. So my advice is to stay out of the court. Keep government out of religion.

Faith gets us through the day. We  have faith that the world will keep turning on its axis, that the car will start, that our computers will do what computers do. There are people who believe it’s faith that makes our technology work. Because we believe in it, it works. Should our faith in technology flag, it will no longer work. It’s magic. Or God. One way or the other, it’s faith in action.

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create this illustration in 1881.

As for religion making us good or bad people, poppycock. We all know right from wrong whether we receive a religious education or are raised by wolves. Education and family values will provide a coherent belief structure, but only sociopaths have no conscience. That’s what makes them sociopaths.

The rest of us know it’s wrong to kill, steal, lie and cheat. You don’t have to be a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or subscribe to any special set of rules. We can argue for eternity about the details and we probably will, but the basics are the same across the centuries, cultures and continents. Don’t kill, don’t steal, tell the truth, take care of the poor, widows and orphans, and be nice to old people, especially your parents. (Unless that group of people over there call God by a different name — them, you can kill.)

But I digress.

That being said what you believe is what you believe. Nothing more. Nothing less.

You can’t prove or disprove anything — which is why scientific “laws” are called theories, like the theory of relativity, for example. When a theory works, it’s a law. If we make a breakthrough and our previous theory no longer fits, we devise a new theory which we’ll hang on to until something else comes along. At which point we’ll revise it again. That’s why I say that all belief is all faith-based. It can’t be proved or disproved. It just is.

Then there’s doubt. Skepticism. Disbelief. Imperfect faith.

Whenever anyone tells me he or she has no doubts, I start to twitch. Doubt is normal; absolute faith with never a trace of doubt? That sounds more like brainwashing than faith. I’ve talked with ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, Wiccans, wackos, one self-declared reincarnation of Jesus and a Cardinal with strong Jesuit leanings. I’ve talked with born-again Christians and born-again Jews (it isn’t a solely Christian phenomenon). Everyone wrestles with doubt. Life tests faith. I think it’s supposed to. We all have to find our special path through doubt and difficulty to whatever floats our spiritual boat.

I am tired of asking politely for everyone to let me be myself, whatever that is. So I hereby demand the right to do my own thing, make my own decisions, and find my path through the thorny thicket of life. I’m happy to share this freedom with everyone and their Uncle Bob. If perchance I don’t wind up walking down the same road as you, it’s a big world. There’s room for all of us. No one owns the truth.

No one has all the answers.

Except me. I have all the answers. If you want my answers, please enclose a check and a stamped self-addressed envelope. I will send you a key that will unlock the mysteries of the universe. The bigger the check, the better the key.

I need the money to spend on Christmas presents.

God, Faith, and Freedom

The never-ending election of 2012 has given me pause to think about God, faith, and freedom. I have felt since the beginning of this campaign that the religious Christian right is out to get me. Not me personally. I’m too old and insignificant to be worth paying any attention to at all … but anyone like me and certainly, anyone like me still young enough to bear children.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this for a great many years and after all the years and all the thinking, I’ve come back to where I began: I don’t know the Truth and neither do you.

Therefore, I will let my conscience be my guide and do what feels right.

You can believe whatever you want, but you don’t know a single thing more than I do. You believe in God, but you have no proof there is one. What you have is faith.  Faith is not proofit is opinion dressed in fancy clothing. It doesn’t matter how many people believe the same thing you do. A few or many, faith is neither fact nor proof. You believe what you believe because you believe it. You can’t prove anything.

You want certainty, but all you have is faith. You’d like me to buy your faith and accept it as proof, but as it turns out, I’m a hard sell.

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We know nothing. We are the proverbial blind men analyzing the elephant. We think whatever piece of the elephant we feel is the whole elephant but it’s just a piece.
I’ve been dancing around that elephant for years and at one point, I came really close to accepting Christianity. Then wham, along comes this campaign and the bullies from the Christian right decide to try and take all my freedoms away. They figure they can push their agenda through, get a President of their own and whatever I, and people like me want doesn’t matter.
Turns out, we do matter because they lost. Big time.  Not that losing has made them give up. Oh no. They battle on, good Christian soldiers that they are, pushing and shoving and complaining that they are persecuted because they lost. They call it a conspiracy; I call it an election.
Meanwhile, Jesus Christ, the guy on whom the entire Christian thing hinges, wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. Not only was he a Jew, but he was a Rabbi. One of my guys. If he dropped back to visit, I’m betting he’d play on my team.

A little history

That being said, when Christians decided that they were special and different from the religion that gave them birth, they proceeded to slaughter us at every opportunity.

Christians have a special enthusiasm for killing in the name of Jesus, who was a pacifist. Never mind the contradiction; it doesn’t have to make sense. During the Crusades, the armies of God marched across Europe murdering every Jew they found, often by rounding up a whole village, locking them in their synagogue, then burning it down with every man, woman, and child inside. When these fabled romantic heroes ran out of Jews, they began to slaughter their fellow Christians with no diminution of enthusiasm.

Marauding Crusaders wiped out entire Christian villages and depopulated provinces while on their way to save Jerusalem from the Infidels. By the time they got to the Holy Land, between their various squabbles and disease, they were significantly reduced in number and didn’t get to kill very many infidels . No matter. They had racked up impressive kill numbers of Jews and other Christians. It’s easy to kill unarmed people. It was harder when they actually encountered Saladin and other leaders who fought back.  Then, blood-lust quenched, and Jerusalem still firmly in the hands of the infidels, the victorious armies wended their way home, raping, pillaging, and killing as they went.

This is the kind of history that has made me wary of embracing Christianity. Forgive me if I detect a degree of ambivalence in how Christians feel about me.

Back to the present

This election was the last straw. I believe everyone should be free to practice their religion and customs in peace. But it’s time to stop worrying about everyone else’s rights and start giving some thought to my own.

When I add current attacks by right-wing fundamentalists to several thousand years of  historical persecution by Christians, I don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

I realized today that I’m weary of the endless war. I’m tired of being bullied. I’m tired of explaining patiently over and over that yes, I believe in choice for women. No, I don’t believe that a 4 week old embryo has the same value or rights as a starving five-year old.

I don’t want prayer in public schools. That’s what churches and other houses of worship are for. I encourage anyone who feel a need to pray to attend one.

People who would refuse food stamps to hungry kids have no right to claim the moral high ground and lecture me on the morality of abortion. Moreover, anyone lacking a uterus should really just shut up. Women do not need to be instructed by men in what do about their own uniquely feminine health issues.

I grew up in the world before Roe versus Wade. I remember the terror of coat hanger abortions, sepsis, and deaths. Lives were lost, lives were ruined. In my opinion, if you don’t have a uterus and a vagina, you have no right whatsoever to tell any woman what to do with her own body. I’ll believe that God opposes abortion when God tells me Himself.

I’m weary of being bulldozed by a Christian majority. I’m tired of having my beliefs belittled and my concerns dismissed.

Fundamentalist Christian bullies have done their co-religionists a serious disservice. They pushed until they drove a lot of us from a passive, relatively sympathetic neutrality to active hostility. Even though their agenda has been soundly rebuffed, they keep pushing. It isn’t going to work. Those of you who are pushing should stop. You are not advancing your cause; you are hurting it.

I want my freedom. Keep your religion out of my life, out of my email, and off my website. Believe whatever you like; I will never interfere. Pray in your own schools. Keep Christ in your Christmas; I’ll try to keep fruitcake in mine.