Category: religion and belief

Uncivil War: the Israel-Palestinian Conflict and the Jewish Community


Keth Kahn-Harris Uncivil War“For Jews, Israel goes very close to the heart, whether you’re a Jewish supporter of Israel or you’re a Jewish critic of Israel and of Zionism, it’s very hard to be indifferent about it. In fact, it would be very odd if most Jews were indifferent about Israel because this is the major project of the modern Jewish people. […] The author Joel Schalit says in his book Israel vs. Utopia that it isn’t just an issue for Israel and the Palestinians; it’s really become the world’s conflict. Everyone seems to have a stake in it, whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever. It’s something that it’s very difficult generally to be indifferent about, which has its positives and negatives, but I think it’s mainly negatives…”

This podcast features an interview with sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris about his new book, Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community. This book sets out not only to examine the heated, often vitriolic, even poisonous nature of that debate and explore how it has come about, it also aims to make its own contribution to improving the debate. As you’ll hear in this interview, Keith and his wife experimented with commensality – the practice of eating together – to see what that might achieve when members of the UK’s Jewish community with widely differing views sat down together.

You can find out more about the book at David Paul Books and you can read more about Keith and his work at his own website.

“These are a few of my favourite popes…”

ten popes who shook the world

Yes, the title of this post is admittedly a little misleading – the popes in the podcast (popecast?) are not necessarily the favourites of my guest, Eamon Duffy, but those who he thinks have had the greatest impact on history – The Ten Popes who Shook the World.

Eamon’s popes range from Saint Peter to John Paul II, and along the way take in reforming popes and reactionaries, and sometimes complex men who combined both instincts, faced with the challenges of establishing and shaping the church.

With over 260 candidates to choose from, I bean by asking Eamon how hard it had been to come up with a list of just ten pontiffs. To listen to the podcast, click here.

Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity, Cambridge University, and fellow and former president of Magdalene College. He is the author of many prizewinning books, among them Fires of Faith, Marking the Hours, and Saints and Sinners, all available from Yale University Press.

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – “Blame the Grand Mufti”

Arabs and Holocaust coverAfter a gap of a couple of months, the Le Monde diplomatique podcast is back. This month I talk to Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese academic who is professor of development studies and international relations at SOAS in London and author most recently of The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, published this month.

His subject in the article – and in this podcast – is Israel’s propaganda war with the Palestinians and the Arab world in general, and the intensification it has undergone in recent years.

In the interview we talk about the propaganda use to which the “abject” wartime behaviour of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has been put by Israel and how Holocaust denial in the Arab world differs from that in the West.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – Barbara Ehrenreich

Smiley plugIn this month’s edition of Le Monde diplomatique I have a piece about US journalist and campaigner Barbara Ehrenreich and her latest book, called Smile or Die in the UK and Brightsided in the US.

I interviewed Barbara on a snowy evening in Bristol last month before she appeared at the Festival of Ideas to explore her thesis that the relentless promotion of positive thinking is undermining America and its effects are being felt all round the world.

If you’re unconvinced that positive thinking is creeping into more and more areas of life, here are some facts with which I began my article:

“George W Bush was head football cheerleader in his senior year at prep school. The most popular course offered by Harvard University in 2006 was positive psychology. The total US market for “self-improvement products” in 2005 was estimated at $9.6bn. Last month, during the Haitian earthquake, the top international story on – which publishes only good news – was “Prince William attracts crowd in New Zealand”. There are at least four different species of breast cancer awareness teddy bears. Sales of the self-help book The Secret (2006) (“the secret gives you anything you want: happiness, health and wealth”) by former Melbourne TV producer Rhonda Byrne exceed 7 million.”

Listen to the podcast by clicking here to make up your own mind whether there is something here to be worried about.

39. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears

On Monsters AsmaI first became aware of Stephen Asma‘s book on the fine Washington Post Book World podcast (which sadly is no more). The Post also chose the book as one of its top non-fiction titles of the year for 2009, calling it “a safari through the many manifestations of our idea of the monstrous”. Their reviewer went on: “I have seldom read a book that so satisfyingly achieves such an ambitious goal.”

And indeed the book is much more than a mere freakish parade of monsters (though that is a part of its pleasure) – it is rather an investigation of the meaning of monsters. Why do all societies have their monsters? What do they help us cope with? How has the significance of monsters changed as societies have gone from polytheism to monotheism and on through the Enlightenment? And which of our current fears will our future monsters embody?

Asma is clearly something of a polymath – not only did he produce many of the illustrations in the book himself, he also combines his academic career at Columbia College in Chicago, where he specializes in the philosophy and history of science, with playing music professionally (you can sample it here). And he has made his own entertainingly creepy trailer for On Monsters, which you can see here.

Click on the link above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe to Podularity on iTunes using the link in the right hand column above – it’s quick, free and easy.

Books of the Decade – Michael Bywater

Michael BywaterMichael Bywater is an author and broadcaster whose recent books include Lost Worlds (Granta, 2004), Big Babies (Granta, 2006), and – with Kathleen Burk – Is This Bottle Corked?: The Secret Life of Wine. He writes regularly for the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and numerous other publications. He is a regular broadcaster for the BBC.

Scarlett Thomas – The End of Mr Y (2007)

Thomas: End of Mr YThe Noughties produced a series of fine and strange novels on the strange relationship between the living and the dead, starting with Will Self’s How The Dead Live (2000) and including Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005), The Brief History of the Dead (Kevin Brockmeier 2007). But the star of the show was, for me, Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y (2007), an astounding, hypnotic compendium of computer-game, urban fantasy, dreamscape and sheer magic, incorporating a discourse on homoeopathy, a meditation on Heidegger and Derrida, a love stronger than death, and the sexiest, stroppiest, most wilful and clever heroine of the last decade, her first-person narrator Ariel Manto. I can’t tell whether I’m in love with Manto, with the book, or with Scarlett Thomas for creating them. Probably all three.

Howard Jacobson – Kalooki Nights (2007)

Jacobson: Kalooki NightsThe narrative of the Jew as the brilliant edition of a universal fact (as Walter Bagehot said of a princely marriage) has been a staple of fiction since Shakespeare, but never done better than in Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights. Ostensibly the story of a Mancunian Jewish family in the late 20th century, it is by turns chaotic, melancholy, penetrating and hilariously grotesque. But above all Jacobson’s virtuoso writing and unique ear for the vast diversity of the human voice makes this an entirely original masterpiece.

Adam Nicolson – Power and Glory (2003)

Nicolson: Power and GloryWhen the socially unpolished King James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England, he commissioned what has become arguably the most powerful influence on the English (and English-speaking) mind and tongue: the “Authorized Version” of the Bible. Adam Nicolson’s Power and Glory (2003) account of how a committee produced such a work of art is simultaneously humane, scholarly and moving, simultaneously illuminating the inward lives of the Translators and the wider context of their work, in beautifully-measured prose of which they themselves would have approved.

Books of the Decade – Mark Vernon

Mark VernonMark Vernon is a writer, broadcaster and journalist.  His academic interests led him from physics to philosophy via theology (he began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England). He went freelance ten years ago and now writes regularly for the Guardian, The Philosophers’ Magazine, TLS, Financial Times and New Statesman, alongside a range of business titles, including Management Today. He also broadcasts, notably on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.

Plato's Podcasts coverMark’s most recent book is Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living. You can hear a podcast about that book by clicking here. His other publications include: Wellbeing, After Atheism, The Philosophy of Friendship, and Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

On Religion, John Caputo (2001)

Caputo: On ReligionThis book appeared in 2001. Had those folk who waged battle in the God wars of the decade read it first, we might have had a more informed debate.

Caputo aims to do a difficult thing: define religion. He does so with great verve, seeing that at heart, religion is a form of love – for good or ill.

The Athenian Murders, José Carlos Somoza (2001)

Somoza: Athenian MurdersIt is rare for a novel to combine the excitement of the thriller with the insight of great philosophy.

Umberto Eco manages it, and Somoza does too, in a plot that starts with an apparently minor conundrum and ends up engaging nothing less than the secret of knowledge itself. Brilliant.

The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head, Raymond Tallis (2008)

Tallis: Kingdom of Infinite SpaceI read this book whilst taking a long train trip, and it was so engaging that when I got off, I’d swear I saw the world in brighter colours.

Tallis combines the science of the body with the philosophy of consciousness and, pulling no punches, produces a truly remarkable exploration of what goes on with our heads.

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – “civilizations from different galaxies”

“After Iraq the ideas of the Bush administration – for example, the idea that you can remake the world in America’s image, that we can alter the condition of the whole Islamic world in order to protect ourselves – had become deeply unfashionable.

“But I think there is a danger of embracing the opposite idea – a kind of Orientalism, the notion of a primordial and timeless enemy.”

My guest on this month’s podcast for Le Monde diplomatique is Dr Patrick Porter of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.

Porter: Military OrientalismPatrick has recently published a book on military orientalism, and he pursues that theme in his article in this month’s issue of LMD with particular reference to the Taliban. To view them as medieval or even extraterrestrials as many in the West have done is to see no further than their rhetoric and overlook the extent to which their culture is constantly changing and adapting to circumstances.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Pick of the podcasts

This is the first of a new series which will feature a regular round-up of podcasts on other sites which I have recently enjoyed.

Asma: On MonstersHallowe’en may be over, but as Stephen Asma tells Ron Charles on the Washington Post Book World podcast, humanity’s fear of monsters – and our fascination with them – is not likely to evaporate any time soon. Asma, a specialist in the philosophy and history of science, is amusing on the “class divisions” that exist in our perceptions of monsters, with vampires as a sort of aristocracy at the top and zombies as the lumpenproleteriat at the bottom of the heap. He also ventures some theories on why monsters have survived so well in the dark recesses of our collective imagination.

Asma’s book, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, sounds well worth checking out. Michael Sims’ review in the Post is here. Note that the book is available now in the US, but the UK publication date is January 2010.

Herta Mueller: The PassportIf you’re curious about the 2009 Nobel laureate for literature, German-Romanian writer Herta Müller, who is far from a familiar name in the English-speaking literary world, I recommend this podcast from the New York Review of Books.

In it, Hugh Eakin of the NYRB talks to Romanian writer, Norman Manea, about Müller’s work and Romania’s minority communities under Ceausescu and since.Here’s a brief extract from their conversation:

HE: One of Herta Müller’s big themes is the continuity of the security state in Romania.

NM: She was extremely fierce in her criticism after 1989. This transition in Romania of civil society was and still is extremely ambiguous. Four million Communists became, the day after the dictator was killed, fierce anti-Communists. All of them claimed that they were victims – some of them really were. But a lot of people who worked in the former secret police became the nouveaux riches and now had another kind of power. And some of them are still in the shadows. And she spoke openly and insistently about this, which was not very easy to swallow, even for the post-Communist generation.

32. What made Greeks laugh?

Halliwell: Greek Laughter

“I’m trying to use laughter as a kind of prism, I suppose, through which to examine certain features of the broader culture…

“Greeks talk a lot about laughter and so there are a lot of perceptions and representations of laughter in prose texts and poetic texts… It’s used all over the place, it’s referred to, it’s discussed by philosophers and others.

“So I really wanted to use it as a prism through which to look at a wider range of Greek values and tensions with in the culture and ways in which Greeks think about many different aspects of life.”

My guest this week is Stephen Halliwell, Professor of Greek at St Andrews University and winner of this year’s Criticos Prize for the best book published on the subject of Greece, ancient or modern.

Stephen HalliwellStephen’s book, Greek Laughter, is a vast compendium of information of what made the Greeks laugh and how laughter functioned in ancient Greek society. As the book makes abundantly clear, laughter was far from unproblematic –  to be laughed down in Greek society was a deeply shameful experience – and laughter was a frequent subject of reflection for philosophers and other ancient Greek thinkers.

The book is also fascinating on the links between laughter and early Christianity (by and large, they weren’t in favour of it…) Click on the link above to hear the podcast, or subscribe at iTunes (link in right-hand column above).