Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book Review: The Great Shift by James L. Kugel

Reading this book feels like listening in on one side of a conversation in which you support the speaker and want to interject but really shouldn't. I've admired James Kugel's translations of Hebrew poetry before, and so I was eager to read this book as a more interpretive, big-picture work. Kugel asks why the Biblical stories in which God speaks and works miracles seem so distant from our modern experience, He explains that it might be US who changed, from pre-modern to modern selves. I deliberately omit post-modern because Kugel seems to be speaking to the "default" modern reader. This is reasonable because most academic non-fiction is addressed to precisely that reader: the good student who wonders about these things but doesn't study them in depth. Because he's explaining ancient religious people to modern irreligious ones, there's not much time to address other parties (like, say, me!), but I'm fine with filling in the blanks and extending the conclusions myself. Then, at the very end, Kugel brings in a Flannery O'Connor quote that shows that 20th-century believers do actually exist, shaped by the same texts into something like the ancient believers. And the book stops. It's done all it should do at that point, but there's so many more questions: What does the Great Shift really mean? What can continue to Shift ... or can Shift back (e.g., Owen Barfield's recovery of original participation)? At the end of the day, and despite Kugel's protestations to the contrary, I think we can participate in ancient belief as we move into the future, because the object of belief is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Great Shift opens a door to that possibility by showing how it used to be, which (to me at least) implies that it might be again.

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