Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reflections: Gates of Fire

Our popular culture took a special interest into the battle of Thermopylae in 2006 when the film 300 was released.  The battle itself, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors and their allies, is referenced in a variety of settings, including religious.  We stand in awe of the Spartan Dienekes who, once being told the Persians' archers' arrows would blot out the sun, said: "So much the better.  We shall fight in the shade."  Steven Pressfield, in his book Gates of Fire, has taken this incredible historical event and written an incredible historical novel to showcase what courage, honor, bravery, and the brutality of war looks like.

Gates of Fire is quite possibly the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read.  Yet, I would not classify the book as gratuitous.  I realize that may seem incongruous, but I maintain that the violence on display in this book serves a bigger purpose than violence for violence's sake.  The sword and sandal warfare of the Spartans' era was a face-to-face, nose-to-nose bloodbath.  Pressfield attempts and largely succeeds in making the violence in this book as intimate, for lack of a better word, to the reader as it is for the characters.  I would practically exhale in relief when a battle scene would come to its bloody end.  Gates of Fire is not for those readers who are uncomfortable with violence and all of its inevitable gory consequences. 

Having said all of that, a bloody and violent story which is nothing but that is hardly worth reading, if at all.  Pressfield has not only re-created military situations with convincing adroitness, he has also populated those situations, and especially the build up to them, with genuine and memorable characters.  In fact, a large part of the book, the majority really, is not about warfare but the lead up to it.  It reminded me of The Two Towers film adaptation; the film takes an inordinate amount of time building up to the monumental conflict you have paid money to see.  That build up, that tension, is what makes the final showdown so compelling and engrossing.  What this provides are the emotional crescendos and the heartbreaking realities of war.  There are some genuinely emotional moments in this book.  In the end, even the stoicism of the Spartans cannot contain the unbridled outcry of a broken heart.  Like other tales of war, such as the Lone Survivor, Gates of Fire shows how men behave when placed in the most terrible of situations, both the best and worst of mankind.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the book's examination of the Spartan worldview, the ethos of its people.  Modern nations and cultures boast a much more prolonged quantity of life, but I believe the quality of that life is highly debatable.  Sparta, although existing with and embracing rules of conduct and expectations of lifestyle most, including myself, would bristle at, could teach us something about embracing the most important ideas.  Freedom, honor, courage.  It goes without saying that these ideals aren't the ultimate goals of millennials; rather, our world thrives on security, ease of lifestyle, and entitlements.  Again, Sparta is on one hand an extreme, and we largely live in another extreme, but I believe Gates of Fire can teach us something about ourselves and how to find a better balance.

Gates of Fire is an excellent book; it's one of the finest historical novels I have read in a long, long time.  It's brutal and bloody and not meant for readers who are uncomfortable with such violence.  Like some of the most memorable works of non-fiction relating to war and mankind's inveterate need to engage in it, I will not soon forget Gates of Fire, if at all. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reflections: Temple and Cosmos

For Latter-day Saints, Hugh Nibley is a household name.  He was a prominent Mormon scholar for decades and is probably still the most well-known.  His writing and speeches are works of sometimes dizzying intellect.  I was very excited to read one volume of his collected works series, Temple and Cosmos.  After having been fairly underwhelmed by W. Cleon Skousen's The First Two Thousand Years, it was wonderful to read a book of both doctrinal and intellectual significance as interesting and provocative as Temple and Cosmos.

Of all Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice, there is perhaps none more mysterious and enigmatic to non-members and outside observers than our temple worship.  (This is also the case for some members of the Church who have not been able to experience the temple endowment and sealing yet or have and still find it all inscrutable).  Nibley's academic work on tracing the origins of the temple, not just Latter-day Saint temple worship but temple practices and rituals around the world and throughout all civilizations, provides a valuable perspective on how central it was and is to the human experience.  In many ways, reading Temple and Cosmos was very similar to reading Joseph Campbell's challenging but remarkable The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  There are commonalities between cultures, between peoples, between rituals that are so striking they cannot be ignored.  There are patterns on earth within the human experience which are continually being played out.  The tantalizing question is where the pattern originates from?  Nibley, while focusing on the central importance of the temple, attemps to answer that question with exhaustive research and references from ancient writings and evidences.  The academic work showcased within this one volume of his collection is staggering.

Therein lies one of the problems with a book like Temple and Cosmos.  These collected writings are culled from speeches, academic papers—some previously unpublished—which aren't exactly written for a lay audience.  Nibley's writing, much like his speaking, moves at a breakneck speed.  You've barely had a moment to digest a particularly interesting quotation or comment, and he has already thrown four more at you.  It's difficult to keep up.  In addition, with very little background in ancient cultures or civilizations, a reader like me can't actually compare a statement by Nibley with a contradictory statement by another scholar; I wouldn't even know where to look.  However, Nibley does a fine job, much better than Skousen ever thought of doing in The First Two Thousand Years, of presenting some opposing viewpoints.  It is true he mostly does this to create a springboard from which to disprove the statement; however, it's serviceable nonetheless.

Although this volume, which is the twelfth in the series, is titled Temple and Cosmos and mostly focuses on that topic, it does take some odd deviations.  (Of course this doesn't really have anything to do with Nibley since these are his collected works, which I'm assuming were put together without any direction from Nibley).  Having said that, some of those "deviation" chapters proved to be some of the most valuable.  Nibley's essay Does History and Religion Conflict is one of the finest I have ever read.  I consumed it ravenously and will forever consider it a high-water mark of academic commentary and critique.  Nibley, although steeped in academia, appears to have had a healthy distrust of it, which I can certainly appreciate (see my commentary Academic Humility).

Temple and Cosmos is wonderful.  From a Latter-day Saint perspective it is an unbelievably valuable addition to our personal libraries and to our understanding of the temple ordinances; in fact, for someone who has "gone through" (common Mormon vernacular) the temple, Temple and Cosmos may make you feel a tad bit uncomfortable at times as it describes in some detail ancient patterns of temple worship.  Those patterns and other details, as delineated in apocryphal writings, show why our scripture would describe the gospel as being "new and everlasting."  I will absolutely read Nibley's other volumes of collected works.  In regards to Temple and Cosmos, it is a significant and important academic achievement which Latter-day Saints should take special interest in.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The First Two Thousand Years
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I have Ever Read
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture