mini-reviews: jonestown, going clear, gravel, and no god

I’m not a religious person. I was loosely raised as Roman Catholic… but the normal kind where we only went to church on Easter, Christmas, and when Gramma was in town. I begrudgingly made it through all the rites (except marriage) and ironically now I’m pretty thrilled to be my niece’s godmother. I was that kid in catechism class that was asking rebellious questions like, “What about the women?” and “What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?” and “Why should we believe what a bunch of old white men wrote centuries after the fact?” I bet the teachers just LOVED me, haha! My mom was secretly proud. Honestly, looking back, I’m glad I went through it, however sour my attitude may have been. I participated in a longstanding family tradition, I thought critically, I learned there are options, and once I was confirmed no one can force me to go to church ever again.

Anyway, despite all that, I’m always interested in learning about different philosophies and belief systems. It’s a big part of life and the world, and I think it’s worth reading about even if I don’t want to be religious myself. Another part of religion is the cultish aspect, which I happen to find fascinating and terrifying, and in the last year I listened to a few audiobooks on the subject, as well as one incredible book on a legit religion.

All I knew of the story of Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement was “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but I learned so much from Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn does a great job chronicling Jones’s path from his early life in Indianapolis, family life, rise as cult leader, moving his base around until landing in Guyana, and his ultimate betrayal and abuse of his followers and its aftermath. I had no idea Jones started out as such a staunch supporter of civil rights… but oh how quickly greed for power and an inflated sense of self-importance can drive people to do evil things. This is a great look at the development of a narcissistic megalomaniac, and trying to understand how a person gets there and charms others to follow them. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

Another great book complementary to The Road to Jonestown is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Like Jim Jones, Ron L. Hubbard was a narcissistic leader with illusions of grandeur. Wright goes deep in laying out the entire history of Scientology, Hubbard’s and his successor David Miscavige’s lives, and how Hubbard’s science fiction musings and elaborate vetting system lured so many people into following him, including rich and famous Hollywood elites. And there’s so much more, like the secret goal of taking over the U.S. government. There are some shocking, abusive practices in Scientology, including possible brainwashing, slave-like living and working situations for followers, blacklisting and practically ruining the lives of former followers, and more. Just when you think this “religion” couldn’t get any crazier, it totally does. This is a long audiobook, but I was utterly transfixed throughout its 17 hours. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

Ruth Warnier was born into a polygamist cult, the 39th of her father’s 42 children. Her father was the founder of this particular sect, one which told women in order to get into heaven they must be one of many wives to a man and bear him as many children as possible. This patriarchal community blossomed in rural Mexico, where Ruth grew up in poverty-stricken conditions, as local authorities turned a blind eye to its unconventional practices. After Ruth’s father was murdered by his brother, her mother remarried a man who quickly became abusive to the children. Her book, The Sound of Gravel, relays the story of her family and upbringing. I was impressed with how even-keeled Warnier is in describing some of the horrors of her childhood—violent and sexual abuses at the hands of her stepfather, the family pulling welfare scams, and, while it’s clear her mother loved the children, her mother’s neglect and carelessness. It’s an inspiring, sad, raw story but told in an unsentimental way, and I wonder if that is a side effect of the psychological harm she had to endure. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I really enjoyed the informative and accessible No god but God by Reza Aslan. I learned so much from this book. Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how it exists and relates in the world, including in the United States in this century. He offers a narrative of Muhammed the Profit’s life, as well as challenges the religion in all its iterations faces today. This subject is broad and deep, but Aslan’s prose kept it from becoming too technical, long-winded, or overwhelming (well, it might be a little dry in the beginning, but well worth it to muscle through). This is a fascinating, refreshing, and illuminating book, especially for a Westerner, since most of us have been told time and again that Muslims are to be feared and hated because of their “evil” religion teaching them to destroy America… sure whatever. No religion is perfect, and not that I subscribed to the Islam-hatred ever, but this book did open my eyes to the fact that Islam is not all that different from the actual, historical core values of Christianity (“peace, love, and understanding,” in a nutshell). Can’t we all just get along? [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

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