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25 Apr

Review: Water from a Skull – Kevin Kim of the Big Hominid’s Hairy Chasms has a new book out, Water from a Skull (hereafter Skull). In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Kevin is a friend of mine, and he gave me an advanced copy of the book and asked me to write a review. I should also say that I was planning on writing a review anyway, even if he hadn’t asked me. But I must admit that it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside to be asked.

“I was challenged in my beliefs and forced to take a cold, hard look at what I believe and why.”

Reviews often say as much about the reviewer as they do about the object being reviewed, so I’m going to start with a little information about me. At the moment I am a graduate student studying at Seoul National University, Korea. I am finishing up my coursework and hope to finish my dissertation by the end of the year, at which time I will have more letters to tack on after my name (currently the only letters I can lay claim to are BA and MA, but no one uses those anyway). My area of study is Korean literature, specifically classical literature, and even more specifically oral literature (yes, oral literature is a subset of classical literature in my department). As an undergrad I studied English literature and creative writing. My only exposure to religious studies has been two graduate courses: a class that dealt with religion from an anthropological point of view and a class I’m taking this semester that deals with religion in Korea during the Joseon period. In short, I am no expert in the field, and my review here is from the point of view of a semi-informed layman.

And considering that Skull is more or less a religious studies book, I suppose my religious background is important as well, especially since it informs a good deal of my reaction to the book. I was raised first in a Presbyterian church and then in a Pentecostal (Assemblies of God) church, and since moving to Korea in the mid 90s I have attended an independent (non-denominational Protestant) church. I have probably moved away from the Pentecostal tradition a bit, but the roots are still there. I am fairly traditional in my beliefs—I am a traditional theist, for example, and I believe that Christ is the Son of God. I identify with the term “born-again Christian,” although in certain social matters I may be more liberal than most who share that label.

Anyway, that’s just a quick sketch of me to give you some idea of where I am coming from when I review this book. Hopefully this will allow you to adjust for your own beliefs and views in order to determine whether or not this book is for you. That is ultimately the entire point of this review—to give you my take on whether or not Skull is worth your time. Since I’m not one for artificial suspense, I’ll tell you right now that, yes, I do think it is worth your time. But it wouldn’t be much of a review if I stopped there, so let’s take a leisurely stroll through the book together.

A good place to start in any book is the introduction, but here it is a must, as the introduction to Skull gives you a very good idea of what to expect. The author starts off by explaining the origin of the book’s title (a famous episode involving the Korean monk Wonhyo) and then discusses the reality of religious diversity and the importance of interreligious issues. After a brief overview of the five sections of the book (which I’ll get to in a moment), he discusses some of the book’s unique characteristics. I say “unique characteristics” rather than “problems” because the introduction makes it fairly clear that the author has given much thought to some of the issues that might throw off readers, and most of these characteristics are not as problematic as the author apparently fears. This is simply the nature of the book, and no reader can say that they were not warned.

It is worth digressing here for a moment to discuss these issues, since doing that will give you a good idea of the feel of the book. The three issues mentioned in the introduction are: the variation in length and tone from one essay to the next, changes in the author’s way of thinking over the period of time (nearly a decade) during which the material was written, and the knowledge of terms and concepts that the book occasionally assumes.

The variation in length and tone is unavoidable, considering that the book draws from everything from graduate school papers written at the turn of the century to much lighter blog posts—all reworked for publication here, but still retaining their original characters. Despite this being the first issue mentioned, I didn’t really find it to be much of an issue at all. One might think it jarring to go from a long, erudite essay on Zen and Taoism to a brief, light-hearted rumination on crap and the Buddhist concept of emptiness, but in fact it is not. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own personal tastes, or maybe it is a reflection of a generation that gets its information from the internet. Whatever the case may be, it works here. In fact, the mixing of short essays with the occasional longer (and generally more complex) piece prevents the reader from getting bogged down. Most of the content is presented in bite-sized pieces, which is a good thing, considering that some of them will take quite a while to fully digest. Sometimes deeper insights are to be found in brevity.

I didn’t have much of a problem with the changes in thinking reflected in the various essays either. We are told up front that Skull does not intend to present a coherent, unified theory of interreligious issues. Rather, it is a selection of thoughts and ruminations that give us a more complete picture of a man searching for answers and not afraid to change directions. This, in fact, is a key point in Skull, especially in the first section: the willingness to be reinterpreted by the Other. Somehow I think attempting to hammer the essays into a consistent, unified front would run counter to that impulse, and so the variation in thought fits.

The final issue was actually the one that bothered me the most—which is to say some, but not too much. Although the author says that the book is not for the uninitiated, he also says that he believes the essays will ultimately be accessible to the layman. While I would tend to agree with him on the whole, I found myself stymied at times by terms and jargon that went unexplained. I read Skull entirely on the subway and thus had no access to the internet or a dictionary, so I often had to piece together the meanings of certain terms from context. Most of the time this is possible, but it was definitely no easy task. One of the byproducts of the book’s characteristic structure is that even terms that are defined are not necessarily defined in the first instance, and some terms are defined more than once while others are left unexplained. Ultimately, though, this was only a minor inconvenience, and probably would not have been an issue at all had I had access to reference materials. But it is something to keep in mind before you pick up the book.

As for the larger structure of the book itself, it is divided into five sections. The first section, “Interface,” is the longest and probably the most important. This is where the author shares with us his thoughts on religious diversity and interreligious dialogue. Although I enjoyed and learned from each section in the book, it was “Interface” that impressed me the most and (along with the next section) forced me to ask difficult questions about my own faith. I will not address those questions here, but I do intend to write a separate journal entry in which I will try to work out my answers to some of them. The variation in outlook and opinion is most evident here, as the author moves back and forth on how he feels about certain issues (exclusivism probably being the most prominent), but it never distracts. Rather, the thoughtful reader will have the opportunity to explore different viewpoints along with the author as he or she reads this section.

The second section is “Christianity.” This section struck me as the most critical of the entire book, perhaps because I myself am a Christian, and perhaps also because the author comes from a traditional Christian background and has since moved away from that (this process is discussed in “Leaving Theism,” an important essay that I probably would have put first—it is currently the fourth chapter in this section). I will admit that I was defensive at first as the author took issue with some of the tenets of my faith. If you are a traditional Christian as well, you may find some of the ideas presented in this section foreign at best and offensive at worst. There are two ways you can handle this. You can ignore the author’s views and close yourself off from them, maybe by just skimming over the offending passages or even casting the book aside. Or you can read with an open mind and be challenged. Being challenged is not a bad thing, and questioning and seeking does not mean a lack of faith. I would go so far as to say that a faith unquestioned is a faith untested, and thus not a very strong faith at all.

After my initial defensiveness, I chose the second path. Although I disagreed with much (but by no means all) of what the author said, I opened myself up to reinterpretation by the Other. The result was a deep searching of my own soul, looking for answers to important questions. If you are not willing to read with an open mind, though, you probably shouldn’t bother reading this book at all. You will be challenged, and if you are not willing to ask yourself tough questions then there is really little point. Of course, all of this applies mainly to traditional Christians (and possibly to adherents of other monotheistic religions—although Judaism has an admirable tradition of argument and debate). None of the remaining sections in the book felt quite as critical to me as this one. Again, I am willing to concede that this may be partly due to my own religious orientation, but I think it is safe to say that the author is not nearly as critical of Buddhism.

That, of course, is the title of the third section: “Buddhism.” The essays in this section are on average longer than any other section in the book, and they include some long discussions of mindfulness and Zen’s relationship with Taoism. Although the main focus is on Buddhism, you will find references to the author’s Christian experience as well. For example, the brief chapter “On Attachment” is a challenge to those who cling to rigid absolutes—which includes most adherents of the Abrahamic religions. Here the author tells us that clinging to these absolutes is unhealthy and immature, and although he uses Buddhist thinking and imagery to make his point, it is an idea that echoes much of what is discussed in the first section. So even though I found this chapter to be one of the hardest to swallow in the entire book, it seemed to me to fit into the greater scheme of things as part of the message of religious tolerance.

This section also probably exhibits the largest range in formality, from reworkings of grad school papers on one end to the brief essay on crap I mentioned above. Yet the fragmentary nature of the book ensures that it all works out. It was interesting to move back and forth between various topics and see the author’s interpretation of Buddhism. While I have some experience with Buddhism (primarily academic), I don’t have nearly as much as I do with Christianity, so some of the essays in the section really made me stop and think—in particular the essay “On Mindfulness,” which deals with the concept of the Zen mind. The subject is a bit much to get into in a review like this, but there is a good chance I will deal with it an a separate journal entry at some point in the future.

The fourth section, “Mind,” is the shortest and probably the most difficult. It is dominated by the longest chapter in the book, “Toward a Theory of Mind.” I had not done much prior study on theory of mind, so most of this was fairly new. I struggled with the issue of qualia in particular, and by the end of the essay my head was swimming. But the author was one step ahead of me and followed up the first chapter with a brief dialogue between Britney Spears, a “staunch substance dualist,” and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a “die-hard physicalist.” Although the essay includes humorous bits of dialogue between the two (in this case entirely fictional) characters, it is actually a reworking of some of the major points in the previous essay, and I found these points easier to understand after having been exposed to the concepts once already. The mental image of Britney and Arnold having a philosophical discussion also helped keep things light. The clever shifting of gears probably saved what could have been a very dense section, at least in the opinion of someone largely ignorant of this field of study.

The final section, “Insights,” is a smorgasbord of twenty essays that didn’t fit neatly into any of the previous sections. Most of them are very brief, the shortest being a page or two and the longest not exceeding four pages. Still, don’t let the brevity fool you. Unlike the previous four sections, there is no overriding theme holding the essays together here (other than, of course, the general theme of religious studies), so at times we find ourselves hopping back and forth between especially diverse topics. However, even though I ran into a few terms with which I was unfamiliar, such as soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and double predestination (from an email with the author: the idea that “two groups of people are predestined: those going to heaven, and those going to hell”), most of the content is not too hard to digest. I wonder if the brevity of these essays was not a deciding factor in their being placed in the final section—some of them deal with such basic issues that it seemed a bit strange for them to be coming at the end of the book. On the other hand, it would have been difficult to structure the book in such a way that these essays would come first. This fifth section is rather unique, and perhaps best read a tiny bit at a time, like a series of quick thought snacks.

And that wraps up our brief tour of Skull. Now that we’re done with that, I want to go into a little more depth about whether or not this book is worth your time. I stated above that I think it is, but I want to elaborate on that. This should come as no surprise after reading the above, but if you are a traditional Christian and are not interested in hearing ideas that may run counter to your own, the chances of you enjoying and/or appreciating this book are slim. This isn’t just a book about religious diversity and interreligious dialogue, it is an act of interreligious dialogue in and of itself, and by reading it you engage in that dialogue with the author. True, the author-reader dialogue is not a true dialogue in the sense of equal give and take, but the reader can have a secondary dialogue with the ideas presented by the author. This is only possible, though, if you are willing to consider these ideas in the first place, if you are (to yet again borrow this important phrase from the book) willing to be reinterpreted by the Other.

With this in mind, I want to go back to the introduction for a moment. I deliberately left off the last part of the introduction in my discussion above because I wanted to talk about it here. In expressing his hopes for the book, the author mentions that he hopes the ideas therein will be discussed, among other settings, “in the context of a church group.” I have to be honest: I don’t think I have attended a church yet that is liberal enough to adopt Skull as a textbook for group discussion. Granted, most of my experience has been with fairly conservative churches, so I suppose this should come as no surprise. It seems to me, though, that the book might be more suited to students or seekers in an academic setting rather than a ritual setting. Many churches have very specific doctrines and might frown on the introduction of texts that run counter to these doctrines. Still, I can see how church group leaders might benefit from exposure to these ideas, giving them something to discuss with their groups. Challenging established ideas and doctrines is not a bad thing, for only through continual discussion and debate do the ideas remain alive.

Possible difficulties with Skull as a text for church groups aside, I can recommend Water from a Skull without reservations to anyone interested in the questions that have driven people to seek answers in a variety of traditions for thousands of years. I can think of no greater compliment than to say that I was challenged in my beliefs and forced to take a cold, hard look at what I believe and why.

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