Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stephen Prothero's Jewish Problem, etc.

This week, once again, most of what one finds on teh interwebs concerning Stephen Prothero's new book God Is Not One is just more uncritical, substance-free fawning that sounds like it was written by Prothero's own publicist.

The one bright spot that I have found is Menachem Wecker's review at the Huffington Post entitled Stephen Prothero's Jewish Problem. Wecker is an artist and art critic who writes the Iconia blog, hosted by the Houston Chronicle, with the subtitle "Wherever faith meets art."

I especially liked the fact that Wecker calls Prothero on the tired old Christian claim that their's is a religion of "faith" and "belief", while everyone else is just blindly going through the motions of religion without any genuine emotional or intellectual engagement in what is being done (so long as it is done according to the rules):
An odd thread that continues throughout much of God Is Not One is the strained introduction of artificial differences to bolster the thesis that religions are very different. One such synthetic divergence is the description of Christianity as a religion of faith, while Judaism is one of action. Or, as Prothero says it, "Judaism differs dramatically from Christianity, where faith is paramount. Whereas Christians strive to keep faith, Jews strive to keep the commandments." How odd that Prothero cannot seem to remember that belief in God is the first of the Ten Commandments. Has he forgotten that Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and medical man, insisted upon Thirteen Principles of Faith, not action? Apparently not. Referring to the "Thirteen Principles" (and truncating "of Faith"), Prothero declares that Maimonides' principles were controversial "and not universally accepted," so "Judaism has always been more about practice than belief." But surely even Jewish practice, according to Prothero, has been hotly debated, so one can hardly call practice an essential part of Judaism according to Prothero's logic.
As a Jewish art-critic, Wecker also leaps on something that could easily escape the attention of others. As Prothero busies himself ticking off "Jewish achievements" (in a way, as Wecker indelicately points out, that "is sure to remind some of the claims of Protocols of the Elders of Zion"!), Prothero somehow (although Wecker suggests a possible explanation) manages to completely overlook a very noteworthy category of Jewish achievers:
... but one group of Jews is noticeably absent: Jewish fine artists. Prothero could have referred to Rothko, Lee Krasner, Soutine, Chagall, Ardon, Bakst, Lucian Freud, Newman, Weber, Morris Louis, Lissitzky, Liebermann, Levitan, several Soyers, Simeon Solomon, Shahn, Kitaj, Rivers, Kaufmann, Pissarro, Olitski, Oppenheim, Gottlieb (several of them), and Man Ray.

Prothero's omission might be part of a larger misconception. "Unlike Christians, [Jews] insist that God is not to be depicted in human form or worshipped in 'graven images,'" he says. Of course, one can find thousands of representative illustrations and paintings in Jewish sacred books and buildings. In the third-century synagogue at Dura-Europos, the divine hand is clearly visible in the depiction of Ezekiel's vision, and the signs of the Zodiac appear on the floor of the Byzantine Beit Alfa Synagogue.
The whole review is very thoughtful and detailed and well written. Please go to the link and read the entire thing, and also check out Wecker's blog, while you're at it.

And, for the record, here are the other reviews and other online references to Prothero's book I have found this week, such as they are. All of them are filled with mindless praise for Prothero from people sorely lacking in critical reading skills (or, possibly, who have simply not read the book in question):

Vive la Différence by Garrett Baer at Killing the Buddha (June 7). A softball interview in which Baer essentially asks Prothero if he realizes just how awesome he is. He does.

All religions are NOT the same by Rod Dreher (a Templeton Foundation stooge who looks a lot like Kenny Bania) at Beliefnet (June 7). This blog post consists largely of an excerpt from Baer's "review".

Wendell Berry, American Confucius. This is another one by Rod Dreher at Beliefnet (June 9). Herein Bania Dreher comes dangerously close to pointing out just how incoherent Prothero's whole discourse of immutable religious difference is, since Dreher and Prothero both promote the benefits of a hybridization of Christianity and Confucianism a la Wendell Berry.

Book review: 'God Is Not One' by Thane Rosenbaum in the LA Times June 9. Possibly the worst of the bunch.

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One":
Another negative review of Prothero's God Is Not One
Holy Crap! Two reasonably intelligent reviews of Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One
Good Fences Make Good Religions?
Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero arguing with, other than himself?
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero