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In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (and Their Connection to a Certain, Fleeting State of Mind)by James L Kugel
Synopses & Reviews
A deeply moving and powerful meditation on the origins and authenticity of religious belief and what matters most in our lives, now in paperback.
When he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, James Kugel, one of the world’s leading Biblical scholars, immediately experienced an overwhelming sense of his own smallness compared to a God whose greatness and wisdom is beyond comprehension. He recognized that this same feeling of smallness is expressed in many early religious writings, and in the months that followed his diagnosis, he began reexamining the most basic questions about the origins of religion and its universality.
Weaving reflections on his own struggle with the writings of anthropologists, neuroscientists, and poets, Kugel leads readers 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; and—through it all—the peculiar “sense of smallness” that characterizes how all humans once conceived of themselves.
Kugel’s look at 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.
Ten years ago, when Harvard professor James Kugel was diagnosed with an aggressive, likely fatal, form of cancer, “I was, of course, disturbed and worried. But the main change in my state of mind was that . . . the background music had suddenly stopped. . . . the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities. Now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. There you are, one little person, sitting in the late-summer sun, with only a few things left to do.” Despite his illness, Kugel was intrigued by this new state of mind; it seemed to reveal something basic about the religions that he had been studying for years.
In this wide-ranging exploration of religion throughout the ages, interspersed with personal reflection on the course of his illness, Kugel mines a rich store of sources in an attempt to understand mankind’s unending series of encounters with God, from ancient accounts of human meetings with gods and angels, to first-person narratives of religious conversions and the findings of neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists about religious belief. A rigorously honest, sometimes skeptical, but ultimately deeply moving affirmation of religious faith, In the Valley of the Shadow is a powerful meditation on humanity’s place in the world and life’s greatest mystery.
Insights about life, death and the human place in the world derived from the author dealing with the likelihood that he would die from cancer.
About the Author
James L. Kugel is Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, and a regular visiting Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of a number of books of biblical scholarship, including How to Read the Bible (2007), for which he won the National Jewish Book Award for best book, The Great Poems of the Bible (1999), and The Bible As It Was (1997). In 2001, Kugel was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize in Religion. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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