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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) [Paperback]

James L. Kugel

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In the Valley of the Shadow 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 "nothin... Full description

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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the shadow to light 12 Aug 2011
By Daniel Braunschvig - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confronting Death with Erudition and Soul 4 July 2011
By Diamond of the Highlands - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
James Kugel, the leading biblical scholar of our time, offers us a truly unique hybrid of impeccable objective scholarship and personal experience in confronting imminent death. Kugel masterfully weaves between modern poetry, literature, ancient biblical verse, anthropology, history, theology, and neuroscience in the struggle to wrest meaning out of the realization that life's end is imminent and the music, as he puts it, that accompanies the vitality of a rich and productive existence has come to an abrupt stop. In an age that is rife with trite and shallow new age ramblings, Kugel's latest book, boldly addresses the ultimate questions we must all face at some point, though hopefully later than he faced it in his own life. He does so with poignancy, historical sensitivity, humour, acute mastery of languages, both ancient and modern, and, above all, an abiding religious faith that is informed by both an unrivalled proficiency in the history of ancient religions and the development of the biblical canon, as well as an existentially dedicated commitment to his own religious tradition. What results is a profound book that offers fresh insights into age old questions that have haunted humanity since its inception.
From here on in it is simply not possible to engage in any serious attempt to grapple with those questions without the aid of Kugel's book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original religious insights 13 Nov 2011
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
James Kugel is one of the greatest living Biblical scholars, especially in his reading of Hebrew Biblical Poetry. Approximately ten years ago he was informed that he had cancer, and most likely had only a short time to live. He describes the way he reacted to this how the background music that had always accompanied his life suddenly stopped playing. His illness however led him to reflect again the origins of Religion and its universality, on in a sense the meaning of it all. In this reflection he made use of wide - reading not only of religious texts but of contemporary research in a wide variety of areas from anthropology to neuroscience. In the course of this he speaks of how Mankind has developed increasing control of areas that once were considered exclusively under the domain of God, or Divine Mystery. This increasing human control, this increasing human sense of greatness Kugel contrasts with a traditional human sense of our own smallness, and his present sense of his own smallness. In another sense there is the feeling that Kugel is somehow making an argument for our ultimate smallness, and our ultimate connection with the Mystery and Being of God.
But my summary here does not do justice to the variety and richness of insights he has on religious life, and on human historical development.
The book concludes with the spontaneous and mysterious cure from cancer, which his doctors of course inform him, may possibly recur. Kugel does not go into great depth in dramatizing the whole process of his illness development and his feeling about it. But he does provide a broad and interesting perspective on the human situation and its meaning.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very thoughtful, beautiful read 29 Oct 2013
By tspencer - Published on Amazon.com
This book is superb for what it is: the reflections on religion--and sometimes even religious reflections--of a card-carrying Ivy League intellectual. What do I mean by that? You can smell Steven Pinker down the hall, and the world remains basically disenchanted. That being said, Kugel brings us right up to the edge of enchantment with a sensitive religious phenomenology. He brings us into a world--which he persuasively presents as the "real" one--in which the Western ego is cut down to size and we feel the "starkness" of our existence. The Outside becomes the real "self" to the religious cast of mind. It is moving how Kugel spins all of this with his own recent brush with death as a cancer patient, and his broad range of literary, scientific, and historical reference is genuinely impressive. The only melancholy thing about this book--apart from the constant reference to death--is its inability or unwillingness to accept anything like the supernatural. "God" seems to be no more than the world-as-seen-from-the-Outside, and thus a state of mind. But I liked the book very much. It is both personal and rigorous, which is a good combination.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Possible Clues on the Origins of Religious Belief 8 Jun 2013
By W. A. Carpenter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Why do humans have religious beliefs? There is not yet a definitive answer to that question and the whole issue remains controversial. In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief by well-known biblical scholar James L. Kugel offers some insights into this question based on the author's experience of his own serious illness.

This is not, however, a book about the author's personal struggles with theodicy or finding meaning in suffering. Rather he uses his reactions to his illness as clues to the possible origin of religious beliefs. He identifies such things as the self's experience of being small, of starkness, and of "the sickening question" as starting points for an erudite and interesting investigation. He considers the issue and how it can be informed by such things as how the brain works, the beliefs of other cultures, the eerie proximity of the divine, and the end of omens in human affairs. He quotes poetry, songs, biblical texts, and other interesting material.

I particularly enjoyed his discussion about how the way humans think of the self has changed over time and in different cultures. This seems so basic to the way we are that it is quite a challenge to see what the world looks like from very different mindsets.

Kugel's book is warm, witty, and interesting. In an odd way, I found it quite comforting as well when considering my own mortality and that of my friends and family as more of them confront their own serious health problems.
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