A Harvard University Professor Emeritus and Chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel, there is no more respected or comprehensive authority on Biblical studies than James L. Kugel. He is the author of more than a dozen seminal books on various aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition, including The Bible as It Was, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2001. An Orthodox Jew, Kugel has long been noted for taking a surprisingly fair and inclusive view on a variety of Biblical interpretations, and it is precisely this warm and welcoming perspective that makes In the Valley of the Shadow such a useful book.
George K. Wilson is the perfect narrator for this tone of spirited openness, well-practiced as he is in nonfiction voice work, having narrated more than 100 books. Kugel was prompted by his own cancer diagnosis to undertake a study of the religious basis for the feeling of smallness produced by his fatal prognosis, a subject that certainly requires Wilson’s impeccable gravitas. When faced with the real prospect of our own death, each and every one of us pretty much arrives at a profound sense of silence and has trouble coping with the fact of our insignificance. Charting the course of such an idea in human history is no easy task, and Kugel riffs off a wide assortment of roots for this phenomenon, from neuroscience to sociology to poetry to gospel.
Kugel’s ultimate argument is that this is a universal feeling, and an appropriate foundation for the contemplation of God. Skeptics and devotees alike will appreciate the mystical sense of unraveling in Wilson’s interpretation. In the end, religion is more of an experience than a dogma. Wilson’s very distinguished job of conveying Kugel’s insight into the matter makes this a worthy listen. Megan Volpert
When James L. Kugel, one of the world's leading biblical scholars, was diagnosed with an aggressive, likely fatal form of cancer, he said, "I was, of course, disturbed and worried. But the main change in my state of mind was that the background music suddenly stopped. Now I was just down to myself, one little person, sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do." He recognized that same feeling of smallness expressed in many early religious writings, and in the months that followed, he began a journey of discovery, reexamining the most basic questions about the origins of religion and its universality, which had taken on immediate and vital importance for him.
Weaving reflections on his own struggle---the love of his family became "as tangible as bread"---with the writings of anthropologists, neuroscientists, and poets, he leads listeners from prehistoric religious practices to the religious doubts of modern times via an amazing array of topics: the eerie starkness of medieval cathedral architecture; the "looming Outside" revealed in African witchcraft; biblical encounters with angels; gospel album covers; and---through it all---the peculiar "sense of smallness" that, he argues, characterizes how all humans used to conceive of themselves. Kugel's look at the whole phenomenon of religion is rigorously honest, often funny, sometimes skeptical, but ultimately a deeply moving affirmation of faith in God. Believers and doubters alike will be struck by its combination of objective scholarship and poetic insight---a beautifully crafted consideration of life's greatest mystery.
If you could sum up In the Valley of the Shadow in three words, what would they be?
insightful amd thought provoking
Who was your favorite character and why?
Jim Kugel - he is the victim
Which scene was your favorite?
winning prize payable over multiple years at time when he thought he would die quickly
If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?
what fools we mortals be
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