Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Shared Religion

I was planning to post on a different book today, but I was actually startled when I pulled The Lost Spiritual World from my monthly Book Sense White Box.

Bookselling has changed dramatically during our lives. There was a time when every town our size had multiple bookstores. Publishers valued us, both as customers and as a gauge on what the public wanted to read. Traveling book representatives would call on us three or four times a year to show us what was coming up and to write orders for each season.

Those days are long past. Keeping up with the book world now requires booksellers to be active seekers instead of passive listeners. We independents live or die on our own abilities to assess the landscape of upcoming titles.

The White Box is one of our most valuable tools. Publishers can buy an insertion in the "WB," including special promotional items, posters, bookmarks, and other marketing materials. Best of all, we often get ARC's (advance readers copies) or galleys of books the publishers expect to do well in our market area or which otherwise are expected to have big publicity pushes. You know, the books you see in the New York Times or on BookTV.

Friday's box included three books I'll be reading this weekend (yes, I'm an "advance reader") - Frank Deford's The Entitled, John Perkins' The Secret History of the American Empire, and Confessions of a Wall Street Shoeshine Boy by Doug Stumpf. I'll let you guess which of these are fiction and which are not.

But it is Thursday's box that yielded a peculiar treasure. Ruth Rimm wrote the book for the Global Renaissance Society, with Alejandra Vernon providing the unique illustrations.

This is a sensual masterpiece that is a pleasure just to hold. The shaped turtleback cover (yes, that curvature is stamped into the volume) is limned by foil-on-cloth script defining the true contributors to the book - Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, and Lao Tzu (I can't convince Mark, our valued part-timer, that the "MARK" you see in the upper right corner means his wisdom is also being shared with the world).

The book is otherwise hard to describe. It is Volume 1 of a series that begins with the gospel of Mark in an unabridged translation. But it's not a bible or a book of the bible. It is, rather, a series of midrashes. "The 'classical' Midrash starts off with a seemingly unrelated sentence from the Biblical books of Psalms, Proverbs, or the Prophets. This sentence later turns out to metaphorically reflect the content of the rabbinical interpretation offered." (Thank you, wikipedians.)

Here's an excerpt, part of the introduction to the first midrash on page 43:

The Talmud tells the story of a convert to Judaism who asked the great Rabbi Hillel to "teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg." The Rabbi said, "Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary." Likewise, if many of us were asked to summarize the Christian faith with a single sentence, we might respond, "Change your heart. The rest is commentary."

Most Bible commentaries (and bitter arguments) on the beginning of Mark's Gospel focus on theological concepts, such as baptism, repentance, whether Jesus was literally the son of God, or whether the doctrine of original sin can be derived from this passage. But beautifully and simply, Mark reveals the essense of the Christian faith in verse 4: change your heart.

The rest of Mark's Gospel is simply a bonus, simply commentary. Even if you never read another word of the Bible again, if you just remember these three words, you will be an Angel in God's eyes.

To be sure, this is not a sectarian book. It is confessedly a series that "finds good in all traditions and, while acknowledging important differences, accepts none as superior."

Sounds like a book for many of you whose faith life is tolerant of the intolerant. And for people like me, who try to base our lives on Biblical precepts, it serves as fine guidepost against which to measure, a whetstone to sharpen, and a fire to burnish our spiritual maturity.

[Since this was originally posted, someone working with the publisher has written to direct readers to this video about the book. Enjoy.]

The Lost Spiritual World: Volume 1: Mark by Ruth Rimm, Alejandra Vernon
ISBN 9780974575063 Global Renaissance, Feb. 2007 (Hardcover) $39.95


Anonymous said...

Mr. Smith, Thank you for the kind words regarding Ruth's book. Because it's so difficult to describe in words to someone who hasn't seen it, we created a short video that helps you experience the heart of it:

All4Word said...

anonymous, you're welcome. I'm eager to see how the market takes to this unique presentation.

As you must know, ecuminism can turn off entire swaths of potential readers and buyers, while religious inquiry can repulse another swath at the other end of the curve.

I like the way you've handled Mark, a comfortable and familiar book that allows me to compare the midrashes to my own understanding. Thanks for dipping in to the blog.

Biby Cletus said...

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you have a cool blog. Do keep up the good work. I'll be back for more. i live
far from where you live. its nice to be able to see what people from across
the world thinks.

On a related note perhaps you might find the following article interesting.
we are currently doing a series of posts on essenes and their culture and i'll
like to hear your take on the subject via comments. See ya there....

Facts on Essene Culture

Warm Regards from the Other Side of the Moon.
Bijoy Cletus - Kerala, India