Subversive Religious Texts
June 11, 2004 8:47 AM   Subscribe

ReligionFilter: need recommendation for a very subversive book (more inside).

My brother got religion a few years ago (we were both raised in a very secular home in Berkeley, our parents are academics and met at Cal) and moved to Israel and is now a very conservative, ultra-orthodox Jew and spends most of his time at yeshiva. He called this AM with a proposal, which is both kind (he geniunely thinks this will bring us closer) and typically weird - I'm sure the rabbi that proposed it to him wants it used as an evangelical tool: basically, he told me that we should come up with a list of books - "religious or whatever you want" - that we would read together and discuss via weekly telephone calls and regular emails.

He's been programmed to disbelieve in even the general idea of science as being possibly valid (as I have been programmed to believe some of it, I suppose) so here's what I need: books that will be entertaining and which he won't reject out of hand, but books which will also be subversive in that they will teach or subtly preach the necessity of critical analysis, of using a thinking framework to analyze onesself and ones surroundings, or even readable and enjoyable general introductions to various aspects of natural sciences. In fact, even fiction that addresses such issues, however obliquely, or would otherwise make him stop and scratch his head would be good.

Truthfully, I really am trying to manipulate him a little bit here. He's still the Carlos Castaneda-ish hippie that he always was, it's just that the path he found this time has barbed wire on each side of it and I don't think he could get off of it even if he tried. The rabbis read their letters, inbound and out; I'm not sure how private their email is, either. But it scares the crap out of me and I want him to take a more active role in deciding his future.
posted by luriete to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total)
Philosophical Investigations, from my browsing, does not cover religion, but it does cover thinking. It could be a good second book, after the "spark" has been initiated. Sorry, but can't help you with a first book recommendation.
posted by Gyan at 8:55 AM on June 11, 2004

Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle is a pretty thorough search-and-destroy of the concept of religion. Although it's not terribly pro-science, either.

And Tom Robbins' Skinny Legs and All is sort of a sneaky takedown of monotheism. Robbins' prose gets to some people, but if your brother's got a hippie streak it might appeal to him.

Or you could give him an entertaining science book, along the lines of A Brief History of Time.

Not sure if either of these are quite what you're looking for, but they're pretty common mind-expanders...
posted by COBRA! at 9:23 AM on June 11, 2004

I was going to say Walter Kaufmann's, The Faith of A Heretic, but I see that it's out of print and not cheap. Not exactly "entertaining", but it is Jewish, it is humanistic, it is very honest, and at times gripping.
posted by goethean at 9:27 AM on June 11, 2004

Ooo. Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle is a good suggestion. Also his The Sirens of Titan. Those are among the books that moved me out of Evangelical Christianity to the wider world. Then again, I was ready to change.
posted by goethean at 9:45 AM on June 11, 2004

Although, come to think of it, the philosophical conclusions of Vonnegut's novels are pretty much relativistic---which is probably what your brother intends to avoid.
posted by goethean at 9:51 AM on June 11, 2004

Sophie's World is a novel that tracks through the history of philosophy in the form of a dialogue of sorts between a father and his daughter.

It moves slowly in the beginning, as the philosophy discussed is ancient greek, but then picks up speed as it moves toward the modern world and the characters in the story start to suspect that they are, in fact, characters in a story, and they want to get out. I could imagine this being a quite thought provoking book that could open the way to deeper understanding between the two of you.
posted by jasper411 at 10:11 AM on June 11, 2004

Blind Watchmaker might do it.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:32 AM on June 11, 2004

one would be tempted to say Rousseau, but at this point it's probably useless

why not something more... pragmatic, like a magazine article? Among the Settlers, by Jeffrey Goldberg
posted by matteo at 10:35 AM on June 11, 2004

I used to be an Orthodox Jew, but I was raised that way. Unfortunately for you, it was science reading which affected me the most as far as subversive reading goes and it sounds like that won't float your brother's boat. I'd recommend Chaim Potok's books to start with, especially The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev. Potok was (I think) Orthodox. The Chosen, iirc, includes an ultra-orthodox Jew who becomes fascinated with secular knowledge and, while he doesn't leave his religion altogether, he decides to live and work in the secular world. I believe it also has one of the characters struggling with textual criticism of the Bible and Talmud, which for an intellectually-minded Orthodox Jew could be crucial. Asher Lev is about an ultra-Orthodox Jew who is a genius on par with a Chagall or better who must come to terms with his art on the one hand and the religion and relatives who consider it wasteful at best and downright demonic at worst. Both books are beautiful stories and may appeal to a more emotionally-based person than a science/philosophy book would. Although the characters uniformly remain Orthodox, one couldn't call them overly conservative or out-of-touch.

If he's really a hippie, you could look into the whole Shabbtai Tzvi thing, which I don't know much about. He was supposedly a false messiah who was way into the mysticism and had a huge following at one point.

Science-wise, I think it was mostly basic knowledge that did it for me. (See if he can figure out where the "firmament" is exactly, which has stars embedded in it and waters above and below it. Let him hear about The Bible Codes and Genesis and the Big Bang and see how silly they are. I found really bad arguments by ultra-Orthodox folks almost as convincing (for moderation/secularism) as good arguments by secular or moderate folks.) A Brief History of Time had a big influence on me early on, and it may have been The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals
a Universe Without Design
which sealed the deal for me. I can't imagine that the rabbis would let that last book in if they censor his freaking mail though.

Even more subversively, you might want to go through the Torah with him and point out the various contradictions and moral flaws. The genesis and flood stories, obviously, but also the morality of God's wiping out cities and ordering the early Jews to kill men, women, children, and their cattle. The story in which it is apparently commendable to send one's virgin daughters out to be presumably gang-raped by an angry mob. The verse about how gay men should be put to death. Be aware that the accepted commentaries will probably have answers to everything you could come up with, so it's a matter of convincing him those answers aren't sufficient rather than bringing up questions nobody's ever thought of before.

Finally, you should be aware that many young men who leave yeshiva will within a few years become much more moderate in their views even if they do remain Orthodox. This is so common it's practically a cliche where I come from.

Remember that you don't have to get him to give up Orthodoxy to convince him to be more moderate. It might be easier to convince him, for example, that it's not okay to have rabbis censoring his mail or that secular knowledge can be a great complement to religious study. The people I knew realized to some extent that they were being brainwashed even as it happened -- they just weren't all that opposed to it.

He's reaching out to you -- try to stay close with him even if he is a little crazy for a while. Don't be combative all the time or he won't want to talk to you.
posted by callmejay at 10:43 AM on June 11, 2004

Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach is an excellent book on the intersection between art, science, and philosophy.

Religion and philosophy provide a useful framework for part of your life. Science provides a great framework for many practical things. Art keeps everything interesting. One could dedicate their life to any one of the three, but I find that the most interesting people are well rounded.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:22 AM on June 11, 2004

the little prince? to kill a mockingbird? fahrenheit 451? not science thinking, but questioning authority/convention.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:44 PM on June 11, 2004

Okay, this is a really subtle one, but it's got a couple of angles that should apeal:
The Archivist by Martha Cooley.
"Betrayal figures heavily in The Archivist. For starters, Roberta feels betrayed by her parents, German Jews who had spent World War II in hiding and emigrated to the U.S. soon afterward, re-creating themselves as Christians. She has only recently discovered her Jewish background. The irony is that Matthias's wife had also been an Eliot adept and had felt violated by a false version of her own past and destroyed when confronted with the realities of the Holocaust. No wonder Roberta sees the Hale letters as a Holy Grail, the key to her questions about religious conversion and identity."
Very subtle, as the characters are rediscovering their "Jewishness" but it talks about questioning what you have believed for a long time, and how it can be painful, but worthwile.
Highly recommended anyway, it's one of my favourite books
posted by nprigoda at 3:58 PM on June 11, 2004

ok, i'm a certified nut, but robert anton wilson has always really appealed to me. a no-bullshit, straight-talkin', non-guru with a sense of humor. the illuminatus books are fiction, and a bit involved, but the 'cosmic trigger' series has some really good stuff, if you can get past the trashy pulp veneer.
posted by dvdgee at 4:50 PM on June 11, 2004

I have to say, although it may sound a bit harsh, what skallas is saying has some truth to it. Which isn't to say you have to give up on your brother as a brother, but you may have to let go of him as a secular intellectual peer... People who get really taken in by groups or systems will often just find another one after escaping from the first. Maybe you'd prefer he were stuck on "the forum" or "objectivism" instead of judaic orthodoxy, but ...

well, my general advice is just not to get too stuck on what you want him to be like, and to deal with the fact that he may need more structure than you do.

My specific advice - try comparative religious stuff, like maybe Variety of Religious Experience (william james), or Beyond Belief (Robert Bellah). Any philosophy would be good, I'd think; if you're looking for particularly anti-religious slant, I'd go with nietzsche, maybe emerson (who was religious but in a "unitarian" kinda way - plus he was a lovely writer), maybe some of the existentialist stuff, or the modern semi-neuro stuff on what consciousness is etc. LIterature - well, all great literature is non-orthodox, since an underlying fight with death is such an important part of most conflicts... "to be or not to be" - if you're assured of eternal life, where's the story? I dunno. Dylan Thomas!
posted by mdn at 5:11 PM on June 11, 2004

And, just so the other side has some representation on the subversive side of things, your brother should recommend to you Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Tokyo, Hokuseido Press, 1942. Out of print, obviously, but not all that hard to find. The University of Georgia library had a copy, and it's worth xeroxing the whole thing. If you think god must be either a blind watchmaker or a guy with a beard on a gold chair up in the clouds, there's quite a range of thoughts you haven't had yet.

> like maybe Variety of Religious Experience (william james),

Wonderful book, I've read it thrice. Poor old William James ached to have a religious experience. But no luck, too rational.
posted by jfuller at 6:59 PM on June 11, 2004

I was thinking Robert Anton Wilson too - though I'd choose Cosmic Trigger - and also read some Alan Watts.
posted by skylar at 10:53 PM on June 11, 2004

Berkely, academic family, Jewish: sounds to me like Despite Everything: the Cometbus Omnibus might be of interest to both of yez, esp. as Aaron's real topic is millenarial utopia.

drat. Amazon's down, as I post.
posted by mwhybark at 11:37 PM on June 11, 2004

It helps if you have some interest in their belief system, even if you don't share it. I'm an atheist, and my beloved sister is an evangelical minister and missionary. I do, honestly, deeply miss our old relationship; but we are carving out a new one, slowly but surely. I think it has recently occured to her that although I'm quite knowlegable about her beliefs, and quite willing to talk about them and their implications, I really need other things to connect with her about. Our last conversation, last weekend, in fact, didn't involve religion at all, which, in many years, might even be a first.

If you're going to love someone, you need to respect them for who they've come to be, even if you don't agree with it. If you can't respect them, then perhaps you shouldn't be in an active relationship with them. Trying to fight them on it is likely a losing proposition even if you win. That is, it will engender hostility and resentment even if you change their minds about their beliefs.

As a matter of fact, I continue to have more intellectual influence on my sister than almost anyone, not just because I'm still her big brother, but also because I've always, always, always taken her seriously and held her in respect, even when she takes paths with which I disagree.

If she has to be a relatively conservative Christian evangelical, at least she can be the kind of conservative Christian evangelical I can be proud to say, "That's my sister". And she is that person (which I said in a speech at her wedding a few months ago), and my love and support, I don't doubt, has had a positive influence in her going in that direction rather than another. But, ultimately, of course, it's her own temperment and nature—and she's a really, really good person and that's what makes the difference. Have some trust in your brother's good nature and instincts. Believe in him and support him.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:23 AM on June 12, 2004

Previous AskMe thread on communicating with religious people here.
posted by fuzz at 5:53 AM on June 12, 2004

A book that I don't agree with, but is interesting in many places, is Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, by Pascal Boyer. However, that book wouldn't be subversive, it would be more of a full-frontal attack.

How about some Philip K. Dick? Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, or Radio Free Albemuth would be tons of fun.

I've recently finished reading About Time by Paul Davies, and enjoyed it. Same author wrote God and the New Physics, which I haven't read. Note that cutting-edge physics and cosmology might draw one away from textual literalism, but still have lots of elements for religious-minded types to glom onto.

Heck, why not suggest talking about Gershom Scholem and Kabbalah? That'd really be lighting firecrackers at your grandmother's tea party.
posted by gimonca at 9:13 AM on June 12, 2004

What cool thread. I have a feeling I'll be thinking about it all night.

May I suggest meeting him half way and reading books about religion that engage the secular world. Two titles that jump to mind are a Cantical for Liebowitz and the Master and Margarita. The former is about the need to accept wisdom from all corners of society, the latter is about many things, including the need for mystery, fantasy, satire and forgiveness in the modern world.

There is also a wonderful book by Jim Crace-- a wonderful modern writer with a moral bent-- the GIft of Stones.

I am completely secular, but these are books that approach morality in a way that both you and your brother may appreciate it.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:30 PM on June 12, 2004

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