Welcome to “12 Summer Gems,” part 4! All of these books and DVDs will wake up your summer—and they’re also great for small-group discussion.
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Confucius, Universe & Hildegard’s Vision
Rodney Taylor’s CONFUCIUS, the ANALECTS … Explained
During an extensive reporting trip to Asia in 2008, I joined a dozen journalists for an afternoon with some of the world’s top China scholars. As journalists, one of our first questions was: “What should we read to understand China?” We assumed these scholars would recommend their own recent books. Instead, after a brief huddle, the scholars told us to read one book: The Analects.
One reporter asked: “Who’s that by?” Pens were poised around the room. The scholars blinked at us.
The truth is: Most Westerners only know the name Confucius from throw-away lines in American movies and TV shows with vaguely Asian themes. If an American wants to dive into the Analects, Amazon lists dozens of choices. Most are tough slogging for general readers. Now, Dr. Rodney Taylor—the scholar who wrote the Confucianism volume that you’re likely to find in a local library—has teamed up with SkyLight Paths to give us Confucius, the Analects: The Path of the Sage, Selections Annotated and Explained. Finally, we’ve got a friendly introduction in less than 150 pages. Taylor agrees with those scholars who addressed the journalists a few years ago, writing: “Confucianism is not a historical relic of a philosophical value system, but a living tradition of great religious and spiritual depth.” Its core principles revolve around the nature of moral goodness within ourselves, our families and our world. Confucius is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the challenges and strains within China today. Thanks to Taylor and SkyLight, we’ve got a welcoming doorway into the Analects.
JOHN BARROW’S THE BOOK OF UNIVERSES
We are closing our 12 Summer Gems today with BIG themes! China and the nature of goodness, above. Mysticism and the nature of wisdom, below. And here we are recommending The Book of Universes: Exploring the Limits of the Cosmos, by Cambridge University professor of mathematical sciences Dr. John D. Barrow. This is the one book in our Summer Gems series that is written for general readers, but really is aimed at a particular subset of readers: Those intrigued by the science behind our cosmos. The timeless spiritual questions inquire about why we’re living, how we’re supposed to live and whether anything we do truly matters. Barrow’s new book asks, not why or how—but where are we living? Members of the Abrahamic faiths would pose the question: What’s the nature of God’s Creation? And, Barrow isn’t hostile to that kind of question. In fact, there are occasional religious connections scattered through his book. But, overall, this 300-page adventure into cosmology (the study of the structure of the universe) feels more like the spiritual relections in Star Trek or Dr. Who. In fact, Barrow’s overview of cosmology argues that contemporary science fiction isn’t too far off the mark. Rather than one universe, there are likely many kinds of universes—plural. You’ll be amazed at some of the weird diagrams and theories Barrow describes, particularly in the last half a century. Time travel? Yup, it could be possibles somewhere in the cosmos, some scientists have argued. A Big Bang? Could have been many bangs. Are we unique as a species? Yes, we probably are, he argues, but it could be that our particular universe may not be the center of the cosmos. If this sampling of questions has your mind revving into a higher gear, then Book of Universes is your vacation read for 2011—and imagine the small-group discussion you can spark, when you get back home to your particular corner of our little blue planet!
Margarethe von Trotta’s VISION of Hildegard of Bingen
In the DVD extras with VISION: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, the celebrated German director Margarethe von Trotta steps from behind the camera and tells us that she had wanted to produce this feature film about the great mystic for several decades. But, until now, no producer was willing to fund a full-scale movie about a medieval visionary, musician, scientist, writer—who also was a cloistered nun for most of her life. Hard to envision teenage moviegoers shelling out money on a Friday night! Given the up-hill struggle, why was von Trotta so determined to direct this life of Hildegard? Because, the director tells us, back in the 1970s in Europe—where religious practice has been dwindling for years—Hildegard suddenly emerged as an inspiring figure for women who felt especially alienated from the church. That motivating inspiration springs to life in this nearly two-hour drama. Vision may be a little challenging for American viewers, because it’s nearly all in German with subtitles. But, as a journalist specializing in covering religion for many years now, I have seen nearly every feature film ever made about saints and visionaries. Even the best of those movies taste a bit like medicine we should take for our own good. In Vision, we get a vivid, but also a humanly believable, portrayal of one of the world’s great mystics. I’m not alone in this judgment. Both The Chicago Sun Times (Roger Ebert) and the New York Times praise Vision. If you’ve never head of this amazing, multi-talented nun, Wikipedia has an overview of her life and legacy.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.