Religion 101 (The Short Course)

Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to Book Review

Right off the bat, let's admit that there's something unsettling about the words "idiot's guide" and "life of Christ" in the same sentence. The glowing blurbs on the book's cover do not do anything to allay that feeling: "Easy-to-follow coverage of Jesus' early years, ministry, death, and resurrection!" This statement appears inches below an endorsement from Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and hero of South African struggles against apartheid, "I wish I had this book at the beginning of my career." Yes, the recent offering from Alpha Books, which invented the "Complete Idiot's Guide to ..." series, manages to be jarring before the spine is even cracked.

OK, as the proverb says, it's not fair to judge a book by its cover. But this particular cover does say a lot about the book to come, as does the cover of the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism," which promises "idiot-proof steps to understanding the Torah" and "down-to-earth answers to your questions on prayer, ethics and family."

On the face of it, these books make an easy target, and not just the two under review but a whole gamut of similar books. All the squiggles and icons of this new system: ugh. I'd prefer to be dropped into the middle of a mazy pyramid with a box of matches and left to figure out the exit from the glyphs. The first "Idiot's Guides," which were published in the early 1990s, were designed to help readers navigate the new and often bewildering world of computers, but commercial success led the publishers to expand the array of topics. With more than 300 titles now in print, the "Idiot's Guide" series competes with the equally ubiquitous "Dummies' Guide" series, and the two often seem like Time and Newsweek, with copycat topics and titles.

One of the new topic areas is religion, and the "Idiot's" series is in the lead with more than a dozen titles and counting. The question is: Can religion be explained within the "Idiot's Guide" format? Even if the outlines of faith can be adequately sketched, does the very form of these books betray the substance of faith?

Initially, the "Idiot's Guides" were conceived to help readers understand essentially mechanical problems, such as computer programming or how to manage a 401(k) account. But newer books in the series cover more esoteric topics, like "caring for the aging." As the topics become increasingly humanistic, the format begins to fray. Computer programming can be described by set rules. It's less clear that "dealing with in-laws" or "the life of Christ" is amenable to the same template.

All of the guides rely on highly colloquial language and hokey visual aides. In "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meditation," there is a subsection titled "Ready, Set, Om"; and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Spirituality" includes a heading that reads, "Leggo My Ego." "Understanding Judaism" has a section titled "A Pentateuch, Not a Pentium." Important data in "The Life of Christ" use icons of the cross; "Understanding Judaism" uses a smiling caricature of the author, Rabbi Benjamin Blech (in order to highlight folk wisdom blurbs called "Ask the Rabbi").

William Grimbol, in "The Life of Christ," loves to use everyday language. When describing the persecution that Paul and the apostles faced when spreading the Gospel after the death of Jesus, Grimbol writes, "These guys just can't win." In fact, he uses "these guys" repeatedly to refer to the apostles. He also likens Jesus to a therapist and calls John the Baptist "one wild and crazy guy." Blech is an egregious punster, and he liberally sprinkles the narrative with jokes, like: Didja hear the one about the three guys who die in a car crash and, on the way to heaven, the rabbi says ... ?

It's no surprise that these books are red flags to critics. Writing in The Washington Post, one reviewer waxed apocalyptic that the publishers were "trying to reduce to the level of the idiot the entire universe." So wherein lies the truth? Are these books wonderful, pithy guides to vital, difficult topics, or are they the worst example of a dumbed-down culture?

The truth lieth somewhere between the scorn of the culturati and the promises of the covers. And the answer also depends at least as strongly on the author as it does on the overall conceit. To wit, "The Life of Christ" is apt to support the conviction that when wandering away from the purely technical, the guides can be stupendous failures. But "Understanding Judaism" could be held up as a rebuttal that the form can produce decent substance in the hands of a nimble writer.

Both authors assume that their readers feel intimidated by the subjects at hand and have little prior knowledge. Thus, the authors explain their subjects as if the answers are simple, the stories uncontroversial and the meanings apparent.

Grimbol, pastor of a church in Shelter Island, N.Y., betrays no qualms about telling us precisely what the Gospel of Mark says, in bullet points beginning with "Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God" and ending with, "If you trust in God, you can be healed and made whole." He presents the miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospel as myths meant to emphasize key aspects of the teaching. Jesus' calming of the storm is interpreted by Grimbol as a metaphor for not succumbing to fear and explains that "faith alone can calm the stormy seas of our lives." In a touching and very personal moment, Grimbol confesses that his wife died while he was writing the book, and that the story of this particular miracle helped him weather the storm of grief that accompanied her death. "Jesus is in control of the situation," he writes, and "you cannot demand a miracle, but if you have faith, you can expect one." With equal surety, Grimbol tells us that the "coming of Jesus Christ is predicted" in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, and he informs us that "Jesus was fearless."

For his part, Blech announces unambiguously that "Judaism isn't just a religion. It's a special way of living and looking at life." He then guides us through the Jewish holidays, from the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to the most recent addition to the celebratory calendar, Yom Yerushalayim, which commemorates the Israeli "liberation" (or "capture," if you're Palestinian) of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967. Blech also includes a delightful chapter about Jewish attitudes toward sex, appropriately titled "The Bedroom," in which he describes the affirmative stance of Judaism toward sexual pleasure. "Sex is kosher," he writes, and he enjoins readers to "have an affair with your wife."

Both Grimbol and Blech define their faiths partly by their opposites. For Grimbol, Judaism hovers in the background, and for Blech, Christianity does. Though Grimbol praises Judaism as the faith that gave rise to Christ, he also speaks of Paul's "conversion" to Christianity and of Christ's having moved beyond Jewish law. Blech, on the other hand, defends the Hebrew God as a God of law, in comparison with the Christian God, whom he describes as a God of love. In their descriptions of the most proximate other, both authors create straw men and, in the process, unintentionally expose the great weakness of their characterizations of their own faiths.

Reading these guides, you would never know that the notion that Paul converted to Christianity is highly debatable and probably absurd. At the time that Paul preached, there was no such thing as Christianity. There was only a new variant of Judaism, articulated by Jesus and spread by his disciples. You would never know that the precise relationship between Christianity and the law of the Old Testament was argued for centuries and that different groups of Christians disagree strongly on this question. You would also be barely aware that the Judaism described by Blech is a Rabbinic Judaism that developed only after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the 1st century or that the doctrinal differences between different Jewish sects, which Blech at least discusses in passing, are so extreme as to raise the question of what, if anything, they share.

These are beginners' primers, but that doesn't mean that the elisions are defensible. The image of simplicity is what is worst about these books. But they aren't identically bad. Blech's book isn't just longer; it is also more sophisticated, bad jokes notwithstanding. He gets at the essence of prayer, for instance, and relays a compelling story told by an 18th century rabbi that prayer gains strength from the passion of the pray-er, not from the specifics of the prayer. Blech also gives a sense of the vast range of Jewish teachings, which speak to all aspects of life from cradle to grave, and he manages not to talk down to the reader even while simplifying.

The same cannot be said for Grimbol. His life of Christ is both factually debatable and literarily weak. He makes blanket statements, such as "Jesus was fearless" and "Jesus knew that parents wanted children to be successful." It's possible to interpret the New Testament without coming to either of these conclusions, but that level of sophistication is seemingly lost on Grimbol. He may be a wonderful, caring pastor, and indeed he is at his most appealing when talking about his own ministrations, but this book is likely to be fodder for those who see the whole series as a step down the slippery slope of cultural decline.

The "Complete Idiot's Guide" series is an awkward vehicle for conveying the meaning of faith and religion. Without descending to the easy disdain that these books invite, let's say that their reach exceeds their grasp. If you want to learn how to use the latest version of Windows, you probably can't go wrong with an "Idiot's Guide." If you want an understanding of how to live or how other people live, if you want some hints about how to navigate the waters of the soul, you should probably start with the axioms that such answers aren't simple, that there is no easy fix and that anything that suggests otherwise is snake oil--not necessarily harmful but almost certainly unhelpful. As far as snake oil goes, the "Idiot's" guides to religion aren't very expensive, but beware the hidden costs.

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