Paleo Retiree writes:
I enjoyed Mark Berkson’s hyper-basic (one-half to four lectures per major religion) Great Courses series very much. My beefs with it first, but only because complaining is so much more fun and easy than praising. It wasn’t the anthropological lecture series of my dreams. I’d have enjoyed some looks at animism, tribal beliefs, and Egyptian, Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian religions, as well as a few tours through the main ongoing debates over what’s a religion and what’s not. Is our current regime of multiculturalism / feminism / diversity / PC / neoliberalism taking on some characteristics of a religion, for instance? (I sure think so.) The course’s worthy “If only we understood each other we’d get along better” framing struck me as pretty silly. Why shouldn’t intellectual curiosity be understood to be reason enough to justify going through such a series? And, perhaps predictably, Berkson’s treatment of Islam seems as concerned with preventing listeners from hating the religion as with presenting and explaining it. Berkson in fact seems to have intended his Islam lectures as a corrective to some imagined wave of anti-Islam vindictiveness. Since despite checking the news most days I’ve remained unaware of the angry mobs in the U.S. that are apparently clamoring for attacks on Muslims, I did roll my eyes a few times during these particular lectures.
OK, it’s a pretty earnest experience. But, all my ungallant carping to one side, I also found it to be a super-clear and very informative series of talks. If you’re like me, you’ve run across 3/4 of this material before but only in a scattershot, higgledy-piggledy fashion. Berkson lines it all up in very easy-to-digest order. He speaks clearly and well; he has a lot of enthusiasm as well as a major gift for organization; and he supplies just the right amount of historical context-setting to make the beliefs, dogmas and developments comprehensible. And for what the course wants to be he gets the generalization-level just right. That strikes me as a very big accomplishment. (A writerly note: It’s fascinating how the demands of speaking hyper-basically can — somewhat paradoxically? — make a person come up with interesting things to say, as well as interesting ways of saying them.) For a few minutes, my head felt very clear, and that’s something I’m always very grateful for. Verdict: A first-class (if slightly, and forgivably, square) shot at Major Religions of the World 101.
- I was recently wowed by Grant Hardy’s “Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition.”
- Blowhard, Esq. was a big fan of Philip Daileader’s several series about the Middle Ages. A little more from Blowhard, Esq.
- Fabrizio offered some recommendations and reflections.
- All three of us are crazy about Kenneth Harl’s many series.
- I’m currently going through (and enjoying) Bart Ehrman’s “From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity.” The series is both more fiery and less historical than I expected it to be — its focus is less on events than on arguments and debates, and evolutions in doctrine. I know that Ehrman has been a controversial figure, so one thing I’m looking forward to is finding out what his fans and detractors see in him. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Ehrman.
- As usual with the Great Courses’ products: unless you have money to burn, don’t buy ’em until they’re put on sale, when they’ll cost about as third as much as their list price.