In the Valley of the Shadow, by James Kugel

This is the second book in a week that I bought because I heard the writer interviewed on CBC Radio, and all told this was a much better buy than Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, even if it was a bit more of a challenging read. In the Valley of the Shadow is a combination of memoir and theological (or philosophical? or anthropological?) reflection. The premise is simple enough: James Kugel is diagnosed with what appears to be terminal cancer (fortunately, his prognosis was better than originally thought and he’s still with us), and thinks about how this news affects what he thinks about God. Except that James Kugel is a professor of religion and a noted expert on the Hebrew Scriptures, so this isn’t a comforting book of devotional thoughts about how you draw closer to God when you’re faced with death. Instead, it’s a fascinating and often complex look at the origins of human religion, and there’s nothing easy or particularly comforting about it.

There were parts of this book where I didn’t quite follow or understand everything Kugel was saying, which is fine by me — I like books that stretch me a little — but he keeps bringing the philosophy, anthropology and theology back to the personal level at the beginning of each chapter as he relates his own cancer experience. Essentially, Kugel found that after his diagnosis, faced with the possibility of his own death, his “self” felt smaller, occupied less space, then it had when he was healthy. Instead of the large, autonomous, individualized self that most of us in the Western world unconsciously have — a sense of ourselves as in control of the world around us, masters of our fate — Kugel found that his post-cancer self felt small, stripped-down, not particularly powerful or autonomous. He was, after all, in the hands of a greater power which would decide his fate no matter what he did: Cancer.

He also became more aware of what he calls a sense of “starkness” in the world: the feeling that rather than being made up its usual many shades of gray, the world became much more black-and-white, and he found himself drawn to literature, poetry especially, that spoke this language of starkness. It is, he points out, the language of much of the Bible, where people are either righteous or wicked, rather than a muddled mess of both like most of us seem to be in everyday life.

His argument is that these two shifts in perception — a sense of his own smallness and of the starkness of the world — represent ways of thinking about one’s self and the world which were much more common in ancient times, and much more conducive to belief in God or gods, than our modern perception, and that people today only slip into those states of mind rarely, such as when faced with a life-threatening illness. Whether this change in human perception is a good thing or a bad thing is not the type of answer Kugel is likely to give (did I mention he is a religion prof?); rather, he explores the questions and leaves them out there for us to pick up and look at ourselves. But the exploration, while a bit scholarly, is anything but dry. Kugel’s writing is always engaging, and the way he grounds theory in his own practical experience keeps it readable even for the less-scholarly reader like myself. I would definitely read another of his books, knowing from the start that I should be prepared for a bit of a challenge.

 

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