Posted January 24, 2012
Book: The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions
Author: John Bowker
Yale University Press. New Haven, Conn. 2012. pp. 406
An Excerpt from the Jacket:
Grand in its sweep, this survey of the sacred writings of the major religions of the world offers a thoughtful introduction to the ideas and beliefs upon which great faiths are built. Under the expert guidance of John Bowker, a religious scholar and author of international stature, readers explore the key texts of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddist, Parsi, Confucian, Daoist, and Shinto traditions. The author discusses some 400 books, among them such well-known sacred texts as the Bible and the Quran, but also spiritual writings by theologians, philosophers, poets, and others.
An Excerpt from the Book:
In the year that Aquinas died (1274), a boy nearly nine years old went to a children’s party. He saw a girl there, about a year younger than himself, and fell instantly in love. The boy was Dante Alighieri, the girl was Beatrice. Of that first sight of Beatrice, Dante wrote twenty years later, in La Vita Nuova:
She came into my presence at about the beginning of her ninth year when I was almost 10. She appeared dressed in a most noble color, a rich and yet delicate red, tied and adorned in a style well-suited to her tender age. In an instant that vital urgency which dwells at the inner heart of our being made me tremble so violently that I felt it in every pulse, and it cried out, “Behold, a God stronger than I has come to rule over me” . . .And speaking to my sight it said, “Now has your bliss [beatitude] become manifest.
It was almost another ten years before Beatrice spoke to him again, but he never forgot the impact of that stunning moment when he discovered that beauty and love lie at the heart of life and indeed of all things. It led him to write, first La Vita Nuova in memory of Beatrice, and then his supreme poem of the Christian vision of God, La Divina Commedia, “The Divine Comedy”, a text so highly regarded that it has been called the ‘fifth Gospel.’
The poem is in three parts, Inferno (Hell), Purgatoria (Purgatory) and Paradis (Paradise). It begins with Dante on the journey that all people have to make through life to death and beyond – but with different outcomes depending on how the journey is made. Dante begins in ‘the dark wood’ of human ignorance and error. ‘Inferno’ I begins:
Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.
He is met by Virgil (70-19 BCE), the famed author of Aeneid, who offers to guide Dante as far as he can. Virgil represents the best vision and guidance that humans can achieve on their own in philosophy, art and poetry. Many, however, do not follow even these elementary guides, and Virgil shows Dante those who are held in the twenty-four circles of Hell because they have become trapped in ‘capital sins.’ Those sins are often call ‘the deadly sins’, but they come from the head, or in Latin caput (hence the name ‘capital sins’). They are actions and attitudes that are fundamentally good (as, for example, hunger or desire), but they become destructive and sinful when they take control of human life in the form of greed or lust.
Virgil then lead Dante on to the terraces and ledges of the mountain of Purgatory, where people are still in the condition of fault, but it is now fault that is being dealt with --- i.e., purged ‘in the fire which refines them (‘Purgatorio’). Virgil brings Dante to the edge of Paradise, but he (human guidance) cannot take him further.
He is replaced by Beatrice because she has been to Dante the first ‘God-bearer’, the first manifestation of the goodness of God made visible in beauty. Beatrice is thus an example of the other ‘God-bearers’ who carry God into our midst: the Church, the Virgin Mary, even Christ himself. She brings him into Paradise where the light of God, which can be glimpsed on earth but which is obscured by human fault, shines with unqualified glory
The glory of him who moves everything
Penetrates the universe and shines
In one part more and, in another less.
Table of Contents:
Zoroastrians and Parsis