‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Three

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

After taking two and a half years and seven posts to make it to the end of Chapter Two in this book, I’d assumed I’d be doing this until some time into my retirement. Fortunately, it looks as though the next few chapters are going to be significantly quicker to get through (for my highly relative standards of ‘significantly quicker’) and so I’m hoping to be able to get through each chapter with a single post. We might yet make it to the end of this!

Chapter 3: Copies Of Mark, Not Independent Accounts

In this chapter, Price discusses two scenes that appear in all four gospels; the scene with Jesus and the moneylenders in the temple, and the crucifixion scene. His chain of argument is:

  1. Mark derived both of these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures.
  2. All three of the other gospel writers derived these scenes from Mark (varying them in different ways).
  3. This gives us good evidence that none of the other gospel writers knew anything about a ‘real Jesus’ either.

I’ll look at each of these in turn.

1. Did Mark derive these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures?

Price believes that Mark derived the temple scene from a passage in Hosea. If you’re interested in his theory, you can read about it on his webpage here, and if you’re really interested you can read the lengthy debate he and I had on the topic in one of my previous comment threads here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (However, I don’t think I’d particularly recommend reading through all those unless you’re someone who really loves following up every little detail.)

The tl;dr version is that Price believes that Mark derived the temple scene entirely from Hosea 9, while I find it more likely that Mark embroidered a real scene with details from the Hosea passage to add symbolism. The truth might, of course, be ‘neither of the above’, and we’ll never know anyway. But the important point is that ‘Mark embroidered a real scene’ is plausible as an explanation, and that means that we can’t take ‘Mark invented the whole scene based on Hosea’ as a premise on which to build further speculations.

As far as the crucifixion scene goes, I’d say ‘as above but with more certainty’. It’s widely accepted – and certainly a claim with which I’d agree – that Mark based details in his description of the crucifixion scene on passages from the Jewish scriptures. However, for reasons I’ve discussed previously, I also believe it’s a lot more likely that Jesus really was sentenced by Pilate and then crucified than that those particular details were inventions about a mythical celestial Jesus-figure. So, again, I think that the explanation here is that Mark reported an actual incident that had been passed down but embroidered the bare-bones details he had with both his imagination and links from the Jewish scriptures.

2. Did all three of the other gospel writers derive their work from Mark?

It’s not news to anyone who knows even the basics of Bible study that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources; that’s long since been established by New Testament scholars. Whether John used any of the synoptics (the three gospels other than John) as a source is less clear, but Price does raise a good point here; in the crucifixion scene, John includes the details that Mark clearly did derive from the Jewish scriptures. This means that either Mark’s and John’s accounts both come from an even earlier source that did the same thing, or John got his information (directly or indirectly) from one of the synoptics. I think the latter explanation is the more likely, so that means that John probably did get information (though possibly via an indirect route) from at least one of the synoptics.

3. Can we deduce from this that the other authors didn’t know anything about the Jesus story other than what they got from Mark?

This one, however, doesn’t follow. Price argues:

If there was some real temple-cleansing event, then what’s clear is that none of the other Gospel writers had any knowledge of it. If they had had knowledge of a real event where a real Jesus threw merchants out of the temple, then they wouldn’t have simply copied their versions of the story from what is clearly a fictional account. […] [I]t is impossible to believe that anyone who had direct knowledge of a real Jesus person would have written an account of his life in which all of the most important details are borrowed from a single fictional story.

This, like rather a lot of Price’s arguments, left me thinking ‘Huh?’.

If by ‘direct knowledge’ Price means that the gospel writers didn’t personally know Jesus, then I think he’s just reinvented the Biblical criticism wheel. It’s been established for something like a century now that they’re highly unlikely to have known Jesus, given how much gMatthew copies from gMark (a gospel attributed to an author for whom even church tradition only claims second-hand knowledge of Jesus) and how late gJohn is thought to be.

However, if by ‘direct knowledge’ Price is referring to information or sources other than gMark, then of course it’s possible for the authors to have worked from other sources. In fact, the amount of information that’s shared by both Matthew and Luke despite not being in Mark has convinced the majority of New Testament scholars that the two of them both worked from a separate source, since lost, as well as Mark.

It’s important to remember here that, regardless of what we think about gMark, we can’t assume that the other gospel authors would have seen it that way. Price thinks it’s ‘clearly a fictional account’; I think it’s an embroidered and partly fictionalised version of something based in fact; but neither of those viewpoints are relevant, because we’re not the people who wrote the other gospels. The people who did so were believers, not skeptics; they had no reason to reject gMark as a source of information, and the fact that they accepted gMark as such a source in no way excludes the possibility of them having other such sources. Price devotes several pages to his belief that the reliance of the other gospels on gMark is enough for us to conclude that they were entirely fictional, but this claim doesn’t stand up to examination.

Although it’s a side note rather than the main thrust of the chapter, Price makes one more point towards the end that’s worth a comment:

The key argument of the founders of Christianity was that the Gospel accounts had to be true, because they were independently written accounts that corroborated each other. The belief that the Gospels now attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were independently written accounts was absolutely central to all of the arguments made by the founders of Christianity as to the validity of the religion and the truth of the accounts they contained. The argument was that since four separate witnesses all recorded the same basic things, their accounts corroborate each other and therefore must be true.

This flat-out doesn’t make sense. The gospels weren’t even written until decades after Christianity started and weren’t collected together until even later than that, so, unless the founders of Christianity had access to time travel, it would have been physically impossible for them to use this argument.

The only sense I can make of this is that Price didn’t know what the word ‘founders’ means and was actually trying to refer to to a significantly later stage of Christianity in which apologists did use this argument. If so, then it’s possible that he’s correct in that claim; I don’t know of any examples of apologists claiming this, but that proves nothing as I’m not very familiar with early church apologetics. However, Price gives no citations to back it up, so I have no way of knowing whether that claim would be correct or not. Either way, the claim as written is certainly not correct, so at a bare minimum he needs to edit it to drop the ‘founders’ statement.

Two For Joy

This post was initially inspired by a question asked in an open chat comment thread (on the Ask A Manager blog, but it’s in the weekend open thread and hence nothing to do with the blog topic). Briefly: the poster has two children aged 5 and 2, she’s struggling with the decision of whether to have a third child, and she asked working parents on the site for their experiences with the same decision. As it happens, this is a situation that I also experienced many years back, and so I Have Thoughts on the subject. I started writing a comment, but it was getting so long and rambly that I decided I might as well make it a blog post instead.

(Warning: I’m discussing the issue of decisions about childbearing from the very privileged position of having been able to have the children I wanted and not have ones I didn’t want, and I know that there are very many people out there for whom either or both of those isn’t the case. I’ve been extremely lucky, and I know it, and don’t mean to make it sound as though I’m oblivious to my privilege here.)

When I thought about having children, I always planned that I would stop at two. Well, unless I ended up having a child as a single parent, in which case I planned to stop at one, as I wanted to avoid a children-outnumber-parents situation, but the ideal for me was always to get married and have two children. Besides, I grew up in a two-child family, so that felt normal and and right to me (1). When I met my husband-to-be he wanted three, but I decided that I’d be OK with considering a third if he wanted that, and he decided he’d be OK with stopping at two if I wanted that, and we agreed that if we made it as far as the married-with-two stage we’d revisit the issue at that point and see where we were then.

In fact, by the time we made it to the married-with-one-and-a-second-on-the-way stage it was very clear to both of us that we were going to stop at two. My husband had taken a voluntary redundancy option at work some years earlier and stayed off work to be a stay-at-home parent while the children were small, and his window of opportunity for getting back into his field was starting to narrow; he could feasibly stay at home through the upcoming infancy/toddlerhood, but that was going to be his limit (and neither of us was keen on having to find day care for a baby). Plus, stay-at-home parenthood had been harder than he’d anticipated, and he was now quite clear that two was enough for him. As for me, thrilled about my pregnancy but also constantly nauseated and facing the looming prospect of going back to night feeds, I was thoroughly on board with the idea that I was going through all this precisely one more time and then never again. And my opinion remained quite clear on that point once my daughter was born. We were now a two-child family, and that was great.

So I was a bit stymied when, a few years down the line, broodiness crept up on me and walloped me over the head.

Now, if my circumstances had been different, I might very well have decided to indulge that wish and have a third child, and I expect that, had I gone that route, I’d have gained much happiness from it and this post would be about how it all worked out for me. However, one significant difference between the OP’s situation and mine is that I knew perfectly well that this option was not on the table. I knew my husband was not going to be OK with having a third child, and that was that. I didn’t even raise the issue; the mere suggestion would have sent him into a tailspin, and it didn’t seem worth it when I knew perfectly well what the answer would be. So for me, all along, this attack of broodiness was something I just had to deal with and get over.

And that was doable. Because, as much as I might have enjoyed indulging myself on this one, there were a few things I knew all along:

I would be OK without a third child.

I knew that, in the long term, I would be all right with not having a third child in a way that I wouldn’t have been all right without getting to have the first two. Of course, if I’d faced the situation so many people face of not being able to have even those two children then I’d have had to get on with my life even so, but it would always have been a loss. Having a third child felt optional to me.

This is probably a weird metaphor, but I always thought of it in terms of a table. Deciding to go from one child to two had, for me, been like deciding whether to put the last leg on the table you’re putting together; it wasn’t really even a decision, but a no-brainer. Of course you put all the legs on a table. If you don’t, something is missing in a way that fundamentally damages the integrity of the table. (2) Deciding whether to go from two children to three was like deciding whether to put a vase on top of the table after it had been constructed. It would add something extra, something you might love, but equally well you might decide that it worked better not to put a vase on top of this particular table. Either decision would be OK. Either way, I’d have the table I wanted.

It wasn’t really about having three children rather than two; it was about the prospect of having to move on.

I realised that most of what I was feeling was about dealing with the thought of that part of my life – pregnancy, childbirth, babies – being over for good. Since this life stage was not only something that had been fairly all-encompassing over much of the past few years but also something I’d eagerly looked forward to for as long as I could remember, the realisation that it was all finally a dwindling glimpse in the rearview mirror was quite a major one to come to terms with. And to some extent, it was also about the inevitable retrospective wish to have done some things differently with my existing two.

You don’t really want a new baby, I thought to myself. You want the babies you had back again for a do-over. That wasn’t all of it, but there was a lot of truth to it.

Following on from that understanding, of course, was the realisation that…

…having another baby wouldn’t solve the broodiness problem. Well, temporarily it would, but a problem postponed isn’t really a problem solved. Since so much of this was about saying goodbye to the pregnant/new motherhood part of my life, I found it (and still find it) a pretty reasonable assumption that having another baby would just leave me feeling the same way a few years down the line. However many children I had, eventually I’d still have to move on and accept that that part of my life was over.

 

None of this self-knowledge, of course, made the reproduction cravings magically vanish; I just had to keep reminding myself of all of the above and ride it out like a vastly higher-stakes version of chocolate cravings. The good news is, however, that that actually worked. Eventually, gradually, they faded.

Ten years later, I can happily say that I wouldn’t want another baby now if you paid me, and I’m glad, now, that I didn’t have one at the time. Life with the children I do have has been a lot more difficult and exhausting than I’d originally bargained for, due in large part to the clashes between their needs (they’re both autistic with features of ADHD) and a sometimes problematic school system. It was absolutely worth it, but I’m still glad I didn’t add a third child into the mix.

I did realise, a few years ago, that I like the idea of providing a permanent foster home for an older child. For practical reasons this will unfortunately probably never be possible, but, if it is, then I’ll be a mother of three without ever having to deal with babies again, which will be a lovely outcome. If not… I’ll still be happy with two.

So, at the end of all this, do I have any advice for people in the situation of that commenter? Think about what you actually want. Be realistic about your reasons for considering another. Think about what your partner actually wants. And good luck with whatever you do.

 

Footnotes

(1) As an interesting side note, my sister had the opposite response to the same family background; she’s written that ‘growing up in a quiet, bookish two-child family’ left her with a firm preference for ‘the slightly anarchic dynamic of three’. I love the fact that we reacted in opposite ways to the same background. People are cool. And by the way, in case you’re wondering, she did get her wish.

(2) The other thing that works for me about that metaphor is the fact that different tables have different numbers of legs anyway. A three-legged table works fine as a table; it isn’t at all the same as a four-legged table with a missing leg. In the same sort of way, my personal feelings about the size of family I wanted had no bearing whatsoever on what size family someone else should have; there are people who do only want one child, or none, or three or four, and those are the ‘tables’ that work for them.

10th Anniversary Podcast: see us all today!

I think this has been mentioned before, but…

  1. As you might have noticed from the top left-hand corner, FTB has now been active for an entire decade.
  2. To celebrate this, we are launching our new podcast!

We go live TODAY, at 3 pm MDT. Our brand-sparkly-new YouTube channel is here. For today’s show, we’re going to be reminiscing over the first ten years and discussing what to do for the next ten. See you there!

Richard Dawkins, abortion, disability, and human suffering

Most of the people who pay attention to Richard Dawkins probably remember exactly which tweetstorm I’m referring to, but, for anyone who doesn’t, here’s the quick version:

Some years back, when a woman made a passing comment in a Twitter discussion that she didn’t know what she’d do if she found she was pregnant with a fetus with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins responded with the bald statement “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Faced with a storm of outrage in response, he followed this up with a ‘sorry if you were offended’ post in which he explained that his beliefs on the matter were based on his ‘desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering’ and that thus giving birth to a baby with Down’s Syndrome rather than having an abortion ‘might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare’.

This was, as I say, several years ago, but was brought up again a few weeks ago in a radio interview in which the host (after stating that he himself had a child with Down’s Syndrome) asked him about this view. (Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist blog at Patheos has a transcript of this part of the interview, for anyone who wants to check out what Dawkins said without listening to the whole thing.) Dawkins has dialled it back at least somewhat; if he learned nothing else from the previous brouhaha, he does at least seem to have learned the practical wisdom of trying to avoid getting too inflammatory on the subject. However, from what he says here, it’s clear he still holds the general view of thinking that it’s advisable – the exact phrase he used was ‘wise and sensible’ – to abort a fetus diagnosed with a disability rather than continue the pregnancy.

In case anyone reading this isn’t clear on why people have objected so vehemently to this viewpoint: To reach this belief, it’s necessary to be working from the assumption that disability is likely to impact a person’s life so adversely that it will prevent them from ever having as good a quality of life as a non-disabled person. This is an inaccurate and horribly ablist belief that, in itself, impacts adversely on the lives of disabled people by contributing to myths about disability and by sending an unfortunate message about which lives are or aren’t worth living. I have every sympathy for anyone who’s felt the need to choose abortion for themselves when faced with this situation – we live in a society where support for disabled people and their carers is sadly lacking – but treating abortion as some sort of advisable optimum solution to a diagnosis of fetal Down’s Syndrome or other disabilities is reprehensibly ablist.

That’s the obvious reason, and the one that reactions focused on at the time this happened. However, when Mehta’s post brought this up in my mind again, I realised there was also a second problem with Dawkins’ approach that got somewhat obscured by the extent to which he’d offended everyone with the first problem. I thought it was worth mentioning now: Dawkin’s formulation of ‘abortion advisable here because that’ll reduce suffering’ also completely ignores the experience of the person who would have to go through with the abortion.

Now, there is a huge range of possible reactions to having had an abortion, and I do not wish anyone to misread this post as some kind of claim about the supposed miseries of abortion; there are plenty of people out there whose main reaction post-abortion was ‘Thank goodness for that’. However, that isn’t really representative of the experience of people who have abortions for a diagnosis of fetal disability. Abortions for fetal disability are usually on pregnancies that were otherwise wanted. On top of that, they are, on the whole, carried out later in pregnancy than the average abortion; most abortions are done in the first trimester, but, because of the need to reach particular gestational stages before tests for disability can be performed, most abortions for disability are done in the second trimester, and on rare occasions even in the third. This makes them significantly harder both physically and emotionally.

The result of these factors is that abortions carried out for disability are typically, overall, some of the most difficult and distressing abortion experiences; in short, they cause suffering. Now, obviously, there are many times when people faced with this choice decide abortion is going to cause less suffering than continuing the pregnancy, and that is a choice that I believe should remain available for any individual in this situation. But ‘aborting a disabled fetus causes less suffering than continuing the pregnancy’ is absolutely not a blanket one-size-fits-all rule, because there are so many times when the reverse is true.

What all this means is that when Dawkins assumed abortion was the more moral choice because it would reduce levels of human suffering, he was not only making offensively ablist assumptions about disability equating to suffering; he was also showing utter disregard for the suffering that this would cause for pregnant people in this situation. It’s not that he actually wants them to suffer; he doesn’t. It’s that, when he weighs up what he believes to be the different degrees of suffering, it doesn’t even occur to him to include the feelings of the pregnant person in there. That factor simply isn’t on his radar.

Dawkins is, in fact, providing a sterling example of the Dunning-Kruger effect; the effect of having so little knowledge about a situation or issue that you don’t actually recognise your ignorance. He’s saying what seems right and reasonable to him, because he genuinely does not realise that disabilities such as Down’s don’t have the degree of negative impact on life that he’s picturing, or that abortion for disability is as hard to go through as it is. But, unfortunately, he hasn’t realised that when you don’t know much about an issue, it’s a good idea to avoid making categorical pronouncements about it, and also a good idea to listen to people who know more about it if they’re trying to set you right. And he hasn’t realised the importance of listening to people about their own lives and experiences. Which is a terrible shame, because that certainly is a wise, sensible, and moral thing to do.

 

You guys are AWESOME

Wow!

You know that fundraiser I mentioned? (The one for paying off our legal debts from the SLAPP suit?)

Well, this month you guys have surpassed yourselves with generosity and awesomeness. At last count, donations from this month’s fundraiser add up to a whopping…

$7349.04!
Thank you! We are massively grateful, and are starting to feel we can look forward to the time (still some ways off, but getting closer…) when we actually have all debts settled and can use these fundraisers to raise money for worthy causes (other than getting ourselves out of debt, I mean).
You guys are the absolute best. I hope you’re all having wonderful and fulfilling weekends, and that good things continue to happen for you.
P.S. We’re having an on-line thank you party live on YouTube tomorrow, at 15.30 ET/12.30 PT/20.30 BST (if you go to that link, you can add your own time zone to find out what time it’ll be for you if none of the above fit). Here’s the link to the YouTube channel:

Feel free to come and join in in the comments! All non-trolls welcome!

Fundraising, book reviews, and motherhood

Again, I’m writing a post for our regular fundraiser (for those who don’t know, the brief version of the backstory is that we’re paying off debts incurred in a SLAPP lawsuit). If you’re able to donate and feel moved to do so, we’d be very grateful for anything you can pay. This is a particularly good month to donate, as one of our bloggers has promised to match all amounts donated up to $1000; so, this month, anything you can donate will count for double!

As you might recall, our last fundraiser had a Valentine’s Day theme (combined with a Darwin theme, but that’s by-the-by), and I had the idea of writing a book review post on the theme of romances that promote healthy relationships/progressive social justice views. I liked doing this so much that I decided I’d make this sort of themed book review post a regular thing for future fundraisers, and so, since the theme this time around is ‘motherhood’ in honour of the US Mothers’ Day, I started thinking of books that related to both social justice and motherhood. This was, I have to say, a bit more difficult. I had no problem at all coming up with ideas for novels that explore the theme of motherhood; I just had a harder time thinking of ones that are obviously relevant to social justice themes. (I’m probably missing some obvious ones; any suggestions?) So, this time around I’m reviewing non-fiction books on the subject that I found worth reading. Let’s go!

First up is Candace Brathwaite’s I Am Not Your Baby Mother, an account of Brathwaite’s experience of new motherhood as a black woman in a world of racial stereotypes.

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Brathwaite’s race affected her experiences in ways ranging from a dilemma over whether to choose names reflecting her children’s ethnic heritage (when she knew that having too obviously ‘black’ a name on a CV would close many doors to her child in future) to, starkly, her chances of surviving childbirth. This last is not just an abstract statistic for Brathwaite; after the birth of her first child, she almost died from post-partum sepsis after the health care professionals who reviewed her repeatedly dismissed her increasingly severe symptoms. Five years later, a report showed that post-partum deaths in the UK were five times more common amongst black women than amongst those of any other race; a horrifying statistic in which Brathwaite is still struggling to raise widespread interest.

One thing Brathwaite became aware of was the lack of positive media images of black mothers or black families. (It wasn’t until her first child was five years old that Brathwaite saw a picture of a black woman on the cover of a parenting magazine.) Eventually, this realisation led her to set up Make Motherhood Diverse, a site for mothers who didn’t fit the media narrative to post their photos and stories of what motherhood looked like for them. Not just black mothers, either, as Brathwaite rapidly realised; mothers of other races, gay mothers, disabled mothers, mothers of disabled children, fat mothers, mothers with tattoos or piercings, mothers who adopted, mothers who lost their children… the site is for anyone who doesn’t see their experience reflected often enough in mainstream media and wants a place to make their own face seen and their story known.

Despite the seriousness of the subjects discussed, Brathwaite presents them in a way that’s eminently readable and sometimes downright funny. As a white, middle-class, comfortably-off woman with some very different experiences of mothering in the UK, I found her book an important eye-opener and well worth a read.

The second book is one I read some years ago and hadn’t thought about in a while, until I started thinking of what books I’d read that cover the theme of both parenting and social justice issues; Raising Ryland, by Hilary Whittington and Kristine Gasbarre, is a mother’s story of parenting a transgender child.

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Hilary Whittington hardly knew anything about transgender issues and, when the child she’d thought of as a daughter repeatedly insisted ‘she’ was a boy and became distressed at all attempts to make ‘her’ present as female, Whittington felt stymied and lost. However… she’d already faced one parenting challenge she’d never expected to face, when she discovered Ryland had been born profoundly deaf and there was a decision to be made (and an insurance company to fight) about cochlear implant surgery. That experience had crystallised her conviction that, as a mother, she needed to be on her child’s side for when the going got tough. When she realised her child was transgender and read more about what that meant, she also realised that her job here was to listen to her child’s needs, and that one of those needs was to be seen as the boy that Ryland really was on the inside. The result – also made into a documentary – is a beautiful true story of allyship at its best; of a child who was supported for who he really was and of the parents who gave him this support and worked to do all they could to get the community to give him that support as well.

A few notes on assorted points that struck me:

Firstly, there’s the issue there always is for parents writing about their child, which is the question of whether they will, in years to come, see this as an invasion of privacy that they don’t like. The book was written with great respect for the person Ryland is, and I think he will most likely be happy with it as he grows older; I hope so, anyway. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that one, given that issues like this are important to write about and other children and families in this situation are better off when people like the Whittingtons do tell their stories.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that the book doesn’t go into non-binary gender issues at all. I don’t think this is particularly a flaw, as it’s meant as the story of one specific child and his family’s experience rather than as a definitive guide to all things transgender, but a) if that is what you want to explore then this isn’t the book for it and b) this brings me to my third point, which is that the book really could have done with a section with resources for people who need further information. (There are a couple mentioned in the body of the book, in the text of a beautiful letter that the Whittingtons sent to all their family and friends to explain the situation and reproduce verbatim here. However, it would have been very good to have a separate section listing these where they could easily be found, and I think the lack of this is a flaw in the book; I hope this is changed in any updated editions.)

And fourthly… it’s a side issue, but, my goodness, gender stereotyping in children’s clothing seems to be a problem in San Diego! Maybe it’s just the particular group of friends and family that the Whittingtons knew, but apparently it’s considered a major problem for a girl to leave the house unless she’s wearing a feminine-looking dress and bows in her hair, and don’t even think about wanting to wear Star Wars underwear. While this was ultimately irrelevant in Ryland’s case since he actually was a trans boy, I feel sorry for any cis girls growing up there who don’t like pink sparkles or prefer to slob around in casual shorts.

Anyway… on to the final book I’m reviewing for this post, which is Suzanne Barston’s Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t.

 

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After her own experience of struggling mightily with breastfeeding and having to switch to formula, Barston started delving into the tangled politics behind lactivism, the conflicts between feminism and an all-too-frequent approach of pushing breast as best for all babies, and the ways in which research studies of variable quality have been cherry-picked and oversold to give an exaggerated picture of the extent to which breastfeeding is beneficial. The result was first the Fearless Formula Feeder blog and Facebook group to support other people who used formula, and then this detailed and highly researched book exploring all those issues as well as the individual experiences of people forced into formula feeding through choice or circumstance.

I picked this book for this review for two reasons. One is that I wanted something to represent the sceptic values of FTB as well as the social justice values (believe me, the issue of scientific findings being exaggerated/cherry-picked/misrepresented to support an agenda is a significant problem in the mothering world). The other is that this was a blast from the past for me; I remember Suzanne well from my past blogging incarnation, when we used to follow and comment on each other’s blogs.

I have to make a confession here; I was, at one time, far, far too unquestioning in swallowing the propaganda about the vital importance of breastfeeding and the supposed inferiority of formula feeding. So, when I heard about Suzanne’s site and went to check it out, it was with the full intention of arguing with her over all the errors I assumed she was making. Instead, I found posts so thoughtful and well-thought-out that I realised she actually had really good points and that I needed to stop, read, and learn. And thus it was that my views changed and I was saved from being an obnoxious lactivist. (Well, I would have at least striven to be a polite lactivist, but you get what I mean.)

So, if anyone here is interested in the problems with the way breastfeeding is pushed and promoted in our society and the difficulties this can cause for mothers (which I suppose now that I write it might not be a topic that many people here are interested in, but if you are…), then I can definitely recommend Suzanne’s book.

I hope some readers have found something here that takes their fancy, and I hope you check out the posts written by some of the highly talented bloggers on here. And finally, Happy Mothers’ Day to all mothers in the USA; may you be supported in your choices and contented in your mothering.

Anniversary

I have a hard time believing I’ve now been on FTB for an entire five years, but… the calendar doesn’t lie. It’s once again Pi Day (1), my blogoversary, and on looking back I see it was five whole years today since I got the e-mail from PZ telling me my application was successful, frantically tried to think up an OK-sounding blog name, and made my first post.

I do not wish to dwell overly on all that has happened in those five years, as a depressing proportion of it has been negative (for the world and for me personally). I extend a very cautious optimism regarding the next five, but we’ll have to wait and see. However, being a member of FTB has definitely been a major positive for me during those years. Happy anniversary to all those who joined on the same day as me, and may we all have much happy blogging yet ahead.

 

(1) I am pleased to report that I did, in fact, eat pie. This had nothing to do with it being Pi Day – it was just that our Sunday dinner currently consists of pie – but it was a serendipitous happening and I am glad about it.

Book reviews: children’s/YA series

This is a post I was initially inspired to make by World Book Day, an international day of celebration of books/reading founded by UNESCO for the purpose of encouraging children to love books. Just before the day, I realised I could mark it on my blog; why not write reviews of series that my 13-year-old daughter and I have loved sharing? I didn’t get the post finished in time for the day itself, but I wanted to go ahead with writing it anyway. So, here are reviews of two multi-series that we’ve both loved… and that also carry some great messages for children.

Rick Riordan: the Percy Jackson world

Currently stands at: three sequential five-book series, two spin-off series of three books each dealing with different pantheons, one crossover series of novellas, and so many spin-off novels and novellas I’ve completely lost count.

This infamous multiseries starts with a simple premise: What if all of Greek mythology were actually true… including the part about gods having affairs with humans and conceiving demigod children? What would life be like for those children, growing up with powers and quests and monsters to fight? Riordan’s explorations of this are the kind of wonderful, readable books that combine great plots, humour, (just skim through the chapter titles in a Percy Jackson or Magnus Chase book to see what you’re in for) and warmth and poignancy. They look at what it’s like to grow up thinking of yourself as a loser and then find out you’re anything but, and at what heroism and bravery mean. All with superpowers and snark.

I have a caveat here; The first five-book series is not only (as you would probably expect) not quite as well written as the later books, it’s also for the most part pretty much structured as ‘White male hero solves everything and repeatedly saves the day, white female love interest gets to be Hermione Granger so that somebody can provide all the useful info, most other people get minor supporting roles’. I still loved the series, but be aware of that problem. (Ana Mardoll’s post on The Curse Of The Smart Girl is well worth a read.)

(Oh, and I just looked back at the beginning; there’s an ablist term on about the second page. Forgot that one.)

However… I don’t know whether Riordan realised this for himself or whether someone else pointed it out to him and he listened, but, either way, it’s something he improves on enormously in subsequent series. In the next five-book story arc, he brings in five new protagonists, two of whom are girls and four of whom are from ethnic minorities on their human side (Hispanic, Native American, Black and Chinese). Annabeth (the Hermione Granger character from the first book) gets a much bigger role as well. Percy’s still one of the protagonists, but his role has been scaled back a lot; in fact, he’s not in the first book at all (other than being the ‘Lost Hero’ of the title), and one of the themes from the later books in the series is that he has to learn to step back and let other people do things sometimes. Oh, and there’s a character from the first series who turns out to be gay and who has a happy relationship on the horizon by the time the series ends, with more gay/bi characters in the next series (including the third series’ protagonist). On top of that, we also get the Kane Chronicles in which the co-protagonists are a biracial brother and sister, and the Magnus Chase books in which we get a Moslem Valkyrie, a biracial einherji, a genderfluid einherji, and a disabled elf (who’s deaf and has had to deal with his family’s ablism). So, on top of all the other great things about these books, they’ve also ended up showing good diversity.

 

Tui Sutherland: Wings of Fire series

Currently stands at: two complete sequential five-book series, four out of five published books in a third series, a prequel, a spin-off novel, and four novellas looking at the backstories of some of the minor characters.

The ‘Wings of Fire’ series is set in a fantasy world where the characters are dragons. (Humans exist; the dragons call them ‘scavengers’ and think of them pretty much the way we think of mice, although they do come into the plotline in some key ways. The spin-off novel I mentioned above tells the parallel stories of the humans encountered during the first series, and the most recent book has linked up the two.) There is some adorable worldbuilding, with multiple different dragon tribes who have different abilities. In some places this leads to a trope known as Fantastic Racism (‘fantastic’, for those who don’t know the trope, referring here to the fantasy setting rather than being a compliment); overall, the message is about overcoming differences and working together.

Each of the main books tells the story through the eyes of a different character (with the prologue and epilogue in each case being from the viewpoint of yet other characters, used to flesh out the plot further), and thus each book has an individual character development arc as well as contributing to the overall plot arc. This makes it a great series on multiple levels; not only hugely readable with gripping plots, but with some good character development and great messages as well. It also means we get multiple female as well as male protagonists; in fact, there’s a slight preponderance of female protagonists overall. There’s also one protagonist in a gay relationship and we see a couple of same-gender crushes, all treated as completely normal by the characters. And, again, we get bucketloads of humour and snark and warmth.

I have one reservation to mention. In both of the last two books, we’ve seen a relationship (a romance in one, a friendship in the other) in which the protagonist is regularly angry and quite verbally aggressive towards the other person, who reacts by laughing it off and not being bothered by it. In the second case in particular, the other person sticks around for quite a lot of this, and the tactic eventually works; the protagonist softens. That’s… kind of problematic, given how often emotional abuse in relationships can start out like this, and I’d rather this kind of dynamic wasn’t painted as NBD. I did have a chat with my daughter about it and she does recognise that it’s not a good idea to put up with this kind of behaviour in practice, or to feel obliged to manage it. So, if you have or know children who are reading this series, it’s worth being aware of.

Other than the reservations I’ve raised, both these multiseries are majorly awesome. If you know tweens or teens with a possible interest in fantasy, these make perfect presents; and if you like YA fantasy yourself, absolutely give these a go.

‘Walking Disaster’ review, Chapter 14

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which was being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout until she rage-quit over McGuire’s behaviour.

Content warnings

  • Homophobic slur
  • Violence
  • Animal neglect

Chapter 14: Oz (wait, didn’t we already have a chapter called ‘Oz’? With a better author I’d assume this was innovativeness; after all, there’s no compelling reason why we should be hidebound by unnecessary traditions of having one chapter title per chapter. With McGuire, I’m fairly sure it’s just that she didn’t bother to keep track.)

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