Making Connections

Multilingual puns and crossreferences are one of the most satisfying elements for me of reading broadly. One serious and one humorous emerged from two of the texts that I read in Olin.

I’ve done a better job of keeping up the reading than the writing about them; two that have been ongoing due to either the subject matter or the portability are the Bible and “Samurai Zen: The warrior koans.” I plan to write about each section of the Bible once I complete it (Old Testament, New Testament, etc.), and though I’ve read the five books of Moses before, this is my first time reading further than that in its entirety. My initial thoughts (I just finished the book of Ezra) are:

  1. The accounting/genealogical sequences make for slow reading, but exemplify the importance placed on exactitude and thoroughness in conveyance of authority and responsibility.
  2. The ties between the Biblical history and my slowly growing understanding of near eastern history from other sources are helping to reinforce my conception of the era.

I’ve been curious about koans for a long time, and was excited to find the latter book, but in order to do justice to their nature I’ve tried to ponder each koan on-and-off for at least a week; when riding the bus, or before falling asleep, in hopes of engaging different forms of wisdom. I’ll plan to discuss it in greater depth when I’ve finished the book; suffice it to say that it the process itself has been enlightening- in Western thought (and especially in corporate America) we tend to focus on getting the fastest answer, rather than the deepest answer, or exploring all of the facets of a question. I’m trying to get my MBA students to treat cases more like koans than like quiz questions: even under the time pressure of a case interview, the richest answers will explore multiple facets of the question/situation, rather than jumping on the first plausible answer. I didn’t know I could think about a one-sentence question for 30 minutes on end and continue to find new insights in it- apparently I can.

The next book I completed from Olin’s shelves was “Understanding Jihad,” which could not have been much farther from Congressman Findley’s perspective. David Cook contends that “spiritual jihad” has no historical legitimacy because jihad began as a military activity, and condemns all who disagree with his position as “apologists writing for a western audience.” This smacks of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy: he’s categorically dismissed all Islamic theorists/theologians who have identified the “greater jihad” as personal internal struggle simply because of their taking that position. In U.S. law, Catholicism, or Judaism, new interpretations of pivotal texts can supercede older ones (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), and that doesn’t make them inaccurate or lesser than the previous interpretations.  At the same time, the book does an effective job of articulating some of the appeal of jihad. Interestingly, there may be an argument for the evolution of religions over time- they may be particularly violent and difficult around a millennium plus a few hundred years after the death of their pivotal prophet. Moses died around 1400 B.C.E., and the Maccabees led an anti-assimilationist campaign ~1240 years after that. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews from Spain in the 1490s, and we’re not yet at 1400 years after Mohammed’s death. I was surprised that Cook cites the Koran’s chapter 9, v. 111 as one of the verses concerning warfare, but doesn’t connect the dots between that verse and the date of 9/11/01. Clearquran.com provides the translation as follows: “God has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties in exchange for Paradise. They fight in God’s way, and they kill and get killed. It is a promise binding on Him in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Quran. And who is more true to his promise than God? So rejoice in making such an exchange—that is the supreme triumph.” For zealots who view themselves as fighting a war of symbols, it is not surprising that the date they chose would have significance.

Next, I came across my first foreign-language aisle. It was a short one, mostly of journals, so I selected a fairly brief French book on churches. The books analyzed the roles of churches in supporting/challenging authorities throughout Northwestern Europe at various points of history. My French isn’t as good as it used to be, but the practice of reading it helped a bit, and one multilingual pun struck me in an essay describing the tensions between King James I of England and Sir Edward Coke, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Coke believed that Common Law restrains even the king, while James claimed that divine right implies absolute rule by the monarch. In French, James I was known as “Jacques,” so the chapter was titled “Jacques et Coke”. And since that sounds like a far more clever and historical origin story for the Jack and Coke than is plausible, I think a creative mixologist bartender could come up with a “Jacques et Coke” with two ingredients in tension and something French (Cognac? Absinthe? Lillet? The Université de Lille published the essay) to complete the pun.

Lastly, I’m pleased to be progressing towards my goals for the year: I’ve done a workout on 9 days so far this year, and have completed through the end of February’s crosswords of 1996. I’m ahead of my self-imposed schedules for both (goal of 100 workouts by the end of the year, and finish through the end of 1997’s puzzles), and I’m more or less on track with new reading as well.

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