A great study of religion from the inside.
Kugel is basically a Jewish biblical scholar, but in writing this book, he has put together snippets from other religious traditions as well: and analyzed them with help from the writings of contemporary ethnographers, evolutionary biologists, and neuroscientists. All this is part of his attempt to understand why religion seems to be such a universal phenomenon. Is it something that is just hardwired into the human brain? A bit like what Steven Pinker says about grammar?
What Kugel suggests is that "how we think about God or the gods is very much connected to how we conceive of ourselves". By this he seems to mean that our now-fading, primal sense of human smallness--which he describes so vividly in talking about his own feelings after having been diagnosed with cancer--is a state of mind that was simply built into pre-modern man, and it's still present in a lot of non-Western societies today. But in times of crises of life and death, this smallness is brought back with a vengeance. See, for instance, Roger Martin du Gard's Jean Barois, a confirmed atheist, when seeing death come to him in an accident, viscerally prays to the Virgin Mary, to his subsequent dismay.
In search of its origins, Kugel makes his from the Bible to ancient Mesopotamia to the hunter-gatherers of Tasmania and beyond--and then back still further, to what anthropologists and brain scientists have been able to piece together about earliest man's sense of the divine.
This may make the book sound like an abstract, academic treatise, but what saves it is Kugel's constant filtering of these insights through his own illness, which is another way of saying, through the death that awaits us all. In the Valley isn't a morbid book by any means, in fact, it's often pretty funny, and I should add, very well written. But his talking about his bout with cancer (in fact, living through it with him--Kugel is alive and well ten years later), is a way of bringing it all back home, turning a subject that is often abstract and distant into something that speaks to the reader's own life.
Not many writers about religion can do that.