Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Religion and Spirituality

Tao te Ching

Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu
Approx. 600 BCE

Lao Tzu – or Laozi – may or may not be a real dude. He’s often said to have been a court record keeper during the period of the Zhou dynasty, though a signficant number of historians believe he’s actually a philosophical character, a composite of real historical figures and mythological ones. Doesn’t really matter, either way, for our purposes – the Lao Tzu we know is the recognized founder of Taoism, and to many a near-deity.

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On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church

On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
Martin Luther

There are really three books that together mark the advent of the Protestant Reformation and usher in a profoundly new approach to religion, the state, and the individual in western thought. They are all Martin Luther, they were all published in 1520, and they all represent the moment of his excommunication from the Catholic Church and a massive schism within Christendom. To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and On the Freedom of a Christian are books 1 and 3; the one we’ve chosen here to represent that moment, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, comes between the others, and reconsiders the Catholic Church’s 7 holy sacraments in the light of Luther’s own interpretation of scripture. Continue reading “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
James Frazer

“I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology.” Bronislaw Malinowski, by all accounts one of the most significant and influential figures in the development of anthropology, started here, with Frazer, with The Golden Bough, a study of comparative religion that not only helped to shape anthropology as an academic discipline but profoundly influenced a whole lot of the literature that appears on this list and intellectual and artistic culture generally – Yeats, Lovecraft, D.F. Lawrence, Hemingway, Freud, William Carlos Williams, Wittgenstein, and – more recently – Joseph Campbell and Camille Paglia, to name just a few.

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The Inferno

The Inferno
Dante Alighieri

The first and most famous part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Inferno follows the author as he is taken on a guided-journey through Hell by the great Roman poet Virgil. The piece both reflects and builds upon medieval imaginings of Hell, drawing a picture of nine levels of torment which grow increasingly-brutal as they lead deeper into the earth. The book was written in the early part of the 14th century by soldier and poet Dante while in exile from Florence following his participation in a series of political and religious conflicts that wracked the Italian city-states of his day. Continue reading “The Inferno”

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
Deepak Chopra

(By way of intro: As this post goes up today, I am just returning from a week at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. Two things I’m not especially keen on – visiting the U.S. and hippy retreat centres – but I’ve gone, relaxed, laid in the hot springs, and generally blissed out on a week doing nothing but loving my girl and spending some time in quiet contemplation. And, yes, I admit it – I absolutely fell in love with Breitenbush. In honor of the new-age-ness, then, today’s offering – Deepak Chopra’s little manual to the good life, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.)

I normally try to write pretty objective little posts on the books here, and even when I make clear my own view I do at least try to be fair. Confession – I am not even trying in this case. For a balanced view, you’ll need to look somewhere else.

Chopra is the guru of gurus as far as the new-age, pseudo-eastern version of prosperity religions goes. He’s a master at taking bits and pieces of important spiritual traditions and re-framing them as life lessons for success and happiness in the hyper-individualism of western capitalism. And The Seven Spiritual Laws…is his handy guidebook to the question: How can I [and yes, it’s an “I” not a “we”] make self-interest and self-awareness mean the same thing?

1. Judge nothing, just ‘be’. Take in the world, but don’t let it get to you.

2. Give and you shall receive. OK, pretty standard, and never a bad thing to encourage a little generosity of spirit.

3. A little insight from physics – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You put out fear, you’ll be afraid. You put out anger, you’ll get it back. You put out kindness, you’ll get kindness.

4. If it is, it is as it should be. Don’t fight the man, don’t get all upset cause things seem pretty screwed up out there. What is is, and you can’t change it, so just let it all be, and be content.

5. The power of the universe is yours for the asking. If you want something, believe in it, focus your good energy on it, and it’ll all come to you. (And, by extension, if something is wrong it’s probably your own damn fault.)

6. Detach from the world. Let it all flow by. Don’t try to change nothing, fix nothing, do nothing, cause the universe is what it is and all you’ll get for your efforts is a whole lot of stress and a whole lot of disappointment.

7. You’re special, you’re lovely, you’re amazing. Believe this about yourself.

There you go. No need to read this book, cause it’s all here. Be nice. Accept the world as it is. Be happy with what you’ve got and know that it is all meant to be. You’re a millionaire? God wants it so. You’re broke? God wants it so – or you’re not sending enough good-intention vibes out into the world. Bombs getting dropped on people across the world? It is what it is, you can’t fight it, let it go. This is spirituality from a box, spirituality that is consistent with any morality because it has no core morality, spirituality that asks nothing of you but to say you believe it.

If it’s not abundantly clear yet, I am no fan of this kind of thing. Read the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, whatever other sources of spiritual wisdom you can find. Don’t bother with this guy. However, lots of people do read it. Lots of people like it, lots of people buy it. Sad as that may be to me, this is influential stuff that gave the west the chance to say, “look at us, we’re all spiritual and exotic, too!” without having to actually learn anything, actually challenge anything, actually build any kind of meaningful spiritual community or spiritual practice. I never said everything on this list was a good book.

Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita
compiled by Vyasa
500-200 BCE

One of the most important works in the history of literature and philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu text of 700 verses that offers wisdom for living beyond the Hindu tradition and intended to speak to humankind as a whole.

The Gita is structured as a conversation  between the Lord Krishna and the Prince Arjuna, the former providing guidance and insight to the latter, and revealing to him Krishna’s status as the supreme deity. Compiled somewhere between 500 and 200 BCE (though some recent analysis place the date later, in the first century AD), the conversation it details – the teaching of Krishna to Arjuna – is said to have taken place some 3000 years BCE.  It introduces the notion of Yoga – a serenity and a wholistic outlook which allows for the active living of human life while remaining mindful of and devoted to the divine. Different aspects of the yoga are articulated and explanations provided for a wide range of spiritual beliefs, ritual practices, and philosophical approaches to human life and human action.

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita goes far beyond the boundaries of Hindu religious tradition, being felt widely in the western canon as well. Such diverse western thinkers and writers as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Albert Einstein, and Ralph Waldo Emerson have named it a major influence. Within the Indian tradition it has served as unifying text among a diverse range of Hindu traditions and was a foundation for the spiritual practice of Gandhi and his work to build the Indian independence movement.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Pilgrim’s Progress
John Bunyan

The early evangelical work – The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come – concerns the journey of one man (Christian) from his state of sin through his path to salvation and onto heaven. Early in the book, Christian flees from home burdened by the knowledge of his graceless state which arises from his reading of the Bible, and sets out to alter his path which he is sure will take him to hell (Tophet). Along the way his faith is tested by obstacles and ordeals which he must survive and he meets many archetypal characters (Evangelist, Pliable, Help, Goodwill, Beelzebub, Hypocrisy etc) who shed light on right and wrong in the Christian tradition. With this moral guidance and his own inner strength, the protagonist manages to reach the Celestial City and be granted admission and everlasting life.

The second part of the book, which didn’t appear until 1684, concerns the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife (Christiana), their sons and the maiden, Mercy. They too make the valiant journey and encounter many of the same scenes and obstacles, but take a longer time to allow for the marriage and childbirth in the lives of the four sons. This later addition to the tale is seen as a reinforcement of the first part, in attesting to the fact that children and women can also be brave pilgrims in undertaking a Christian life. Each part of the story is narrated as a dream.

Geographical travel as a route to spiritual movement, knowledge as attained through the bible, and a community of family and friends are all emphasized as key to attaining the ultimate success of reaching the Master and the Celestial City, thus shrugging off sin.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is argued to be one of the “most significant works of religious English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print”. It was largely written from prison where Bunyan was serving time for preaching without a license (breaching the Conventicle Act). During Bunyan’s lifetime, there were eleven editions of the first part and two editions of the second part printed.

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