Monday, December 5, 2011

The Breath of God- Book Review

This is one case where one of those ads that Facebook serves up to me everyday got it right.  I saw an ad for this book one day when I was on Facebook and after reading the reviews on Amazon decided to give it a chance.  I'm glad I did as I found The Breath of God by Jeffrey Small to be quite refreshing.

The book is a novel by a first time author who is really into comparative religion and gives credit for his inspiration to people like Marcus Borg, John Spong and Thich Nhat Hanh- some of my favorite writers.  The book is reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code as it a thriller with the hero- Grant, a graduate student is taken on a trip around the world trying to find texts that reveal something about the "lost" years of Jesus's life.  The story is based on true events.  There was a claim made by a Russian- Nicholas Notovitch in the late 1800s.  He said he discovered texts in a monastery in India that documented the legend that Jesus traveled to India and studied Hinduism and Buddhism during the years the Bible is silent about His life.  He wrote a book about those texts. But, they could never be located and his book was largely declared a fraud. What is true though is in the gospels, we have baby Jesus, teenage Jesus (one scene where He stays behind in the Temple while His parents take a couple of days to notice He's missing) and then suddenly Jesus is 30 years old.  The gospels say nothing about 90% of Jesus' life.  There are legends in India about an Issa (very similar to the Muslim name for Jesus- Isa) who traveled there as a teen to learn meditation techniques.  The book quotes passages from the Buddha's writings (The Dhammapada) and parallels them with things Jesus said. It also draws many parallels between the lives and legends of Jesus, The Buddha and Muhammad.

“I am the source of all things, and all things emerge from me ... Infinite are the forms in which I appear. I am the self, seated in the heart of all beings; I am the beginning and the life span of beings, and their end as well . . . I am the source of all things to come.”   The Bhagavad Gita, 5th century BC

“I am the Alpha and the Omega who is and who was and who is to come.”   The Book of Revelation, AD 1st  

While Grant is working to find the lost texts, he is, of course, dogged at every opportunity by a fundamentalist pastor and his church who insist that it's sheer heresy to think that Jesus might have been influenced by any faith other than Christianity and that the discovery of these texts would destroy the faith of millions.

The book is very well written and suspenseful.  It's set mostly in India and Bhutan where Grant is on his quest for the texts.  Grant is taught by an Bhutanese Buddhist monk, Kinley who was educated in the West. For me, being interested in the similarities between religions rather than focusing on the differences, I enjoyed the way Jeffrey Small pointed out not only how similar the faiths of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are but how similar the stories about our "prophets" are and how the faiths themselves (and the prophets) are- using a Buddhist saying are like the finger pointing at the moon.  The faiths all point to the same underlying eternal universal truths. None of the comparative religion material was really new to me. But, I think it would be new to a lot of Christians who haven't read about the lives of Muhammad, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and studied about their faiths.  The educational material is slipped into the book in such a way that you don't feel you are being lectured, but you are educated while being entertained.

Grant, like many is caught up in whether the events recorded in the Bible are historically true or not.  One of the many lessons he learns on his quest is summed up in the following quote.

Jigme shook his head. “Why must religion be a history lesson? How the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad learned these techniques is irrelevant. Why not focus on what their common experiences teach us about our own lives?”
Whether Jesus actually traveled to India or not is largely not important- except that so many Christians are caught up in constantly pointing out just how different Christianity is from any other faith and ignoring the fact that many of Jesus' teachings are the same as the teachings of the Buddha or Muhammad or the teachings of Hinduism.  This book could give many a new found appreciation for the beauty and truth found in all of the major faiths of the world, if they're open to the possibility that Jesus Himself might have learned from them.

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Don said...

Thanks Brian, for the review. This does look like a book, a story which would interest me. I'll put it on my list.

kc bob said...

You always have the most interesting stuff Brian. I was intrigued by the idea that Jesus traveled to India and found an article that seems somewhat reliable that says he didn't. Of course Dan Brown also had skeptics questioning his data. :)

Brian said...

Bob, the book is a work of fiction. It's interesting to suppose. I read the article you posted. I didn't see any evidence that Jesus didn't go to India. What I was was that Buddhism didn't reach Tibet until a later time. But, that doesn't mean Jesus didn't go to India. Of course, it's difficult to prove a negative. What we do know is that the gospels are silent on most of Jesus' life. We also know His teachings are similar to Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita (at least IMO). As I've read about the Buddha's life, some parallels strike me. Without supposing why the legends are so similar- The Buddha's mother had a dream/vision about his birth. The Buddha started his spiritual quest around the age of 30 and the Buddha was enlightened after 49 continuous days of meditation (Jesus had the 40 days of being tempted in the wilderness). These are just a few of the similarities between the legends of the two men.

One of the things the hero in the book comes to realize is that both he and the fundamentalists he's fighting against get way too caught up with the literal historicity of the legends (of both the gospels and the texts about St. Issa) and miss the lessons they try to teach. The stories are, the fingers pointing at the moon. He's taught this by the Buddhist monk who become his mentor.

kc bob said...

"get way too caught up with the literal historicity of the legends (of both the gospels and the texts about St. Issa) and miss the lessons they try to teach"

Well said Brian!