Book Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Subtitled The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan’s New York Times #1 Bestseller takes a purely secular look at the historical Jesus to draw the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that he was primarily a Jewish political agitator. Complete with exhaustive endnotes and a seemingly endless bibliography, Aslan shows he has studied the available literature in many languages — original source material in Greek and Aramaic as well as scholarly works in English and German. Because of its sometimes overly drawn out and mellifluous language, I don’t necessarily recommend reading Zealot unless the motivations of the historical Jesus in the context of his times and the evolution of his following is of particular interest to the reader. While not a novelization, the prose is both flowery and verbose, with chapters often repeating key facts probably with an eye to making them more independently consumable. Even so, the book is undeniably engaging and offers several profoundly interesting secular takeaways that help us to better understand how Jesus became the influential spiritual and religious figure he is seen as today. I offer a summary, or even a reorganization to taste, of the highlights.

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The Intercept v. McDonnell v. United States

One of the great journalistic developments of the last few years is the rise of The Intercept, the self-styled adversarial journal cofounded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. Founded in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s NSA leak as an avenue for publication and analysis of those documents, the site has become a relatively fearless and eloquent site for objective reporting and progressive editorials.

But like any media group with an ideological agenda, the temptation for an unsubstantiated stretch to support a general claim is high. A short op-ed at the close of the Supreme Court’s term in late June by staff contributor Jon Schwarz raised my eyebrows for its sharp and sarcastic rhetoric accusing the Court of being self-contradictory and even activist in legitimizing the corrupting role of money in politics. The prevalence of pay-to-play corruption as a talking point in coverage of this election cycle motivates a closer look at both the editorial and the case.

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The New York Times, the Supreme Court, and the slow death of the Fourth Amendment

It’s Supreme Court decision season as its term ends. On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a giant graphic on its front page purporting to document a leftward shift in the ideological bias of the Supreme Court. I learned about this from a damning takedown of the attribution of that graphic in an article on the blog of the nonprofit media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting). What’s particularly interesting about that FAIR article is that it cites, in mockingly discrediting the assertion of any kind of progressive “golden age” for the Court, a shocking case that I had only days before learned about from a friend. The opportunity to criticize both the Times and the Court in one go was too much for FAIR to resist, and the same goes for me now.


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2015 Music Review: Top 10 Albums, 20-song Playlist

It’s well past time again for me to pick winners among all the fantastic music released in 2015, truly a bumper year in my experience. Now for the fourth time, I’ll review the ten albums I loved the most from last year; discuss many others that were somehow notable; and also serve up a 20-track, 20-artist mix of highlight singles, half of which appeared on those best-loved albums. If you have a pulse, you should dig it!

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understanding black support for Clinton

As the primary race creeps along we keep hearing about Hillary Clinton’s popularity among blacks. That apparently explains her sweeps in southern states: “according to exit polls, Clinton won more than 80 percent of black votes in Tennessee and Georgia, and 90 percent in Arkansas in Alabama.” I’ve been trying to understand what can explain this.

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Jonathan Chait’s Nonsensical “Case” Against Bernie Sanders

Jonathan Chait, a smug, center-left blogger of some note among Democrats and moderates, recently weighed in on the Democratic primary. The article, with the self-congratulatory title “The Case Against Bernie Sanders” is worth exploring in some detail because of its bad logic, exaggerated arguments, and extreme cynicism. Ultimately, no one should be convinced by his “case.”


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Light at the End of the Solstice: Sunrise, Sunset, and Celestial Mechanics

Most people are familiar with the idea that the length of the day varies with the seasons. Especially for those in the more northern latitudes, it’s an obvious feature of the winter that the sun rises later and sets earlier than in the summer. Throughout history and across northern cultures, the winter solstice is celebrated to herald the imminent return of light; after the shortest day, things can only get brighter!

One would expect that following the winter solstice — the shortest day — the sun will start both rising earlier and setting later in the day in order to make it longer. That is, we’d expect the sun to be highest at noon and have sunrise and sunset start moving away symmetrically on either side as the days get longer. What surprises many, and left me at a partial loss to explain when asked about it, is the fact that this is not so. In fact, the sun continues to rise later in the morning for days following the winter solstice — and begins setting later days before it! The reason is truly celestial.

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A Rapper with a Ghostwriter – Musings on Contemporary Rap

I recently had a shocking experience at a concert. I’ve been to many, and they vary wildly in quality, but shocking is not a term I use lightly. A great show is a great thing for a reason: there’s a lot of boring and even awful music out there. Every genre is guilty of being terrible for reasons of talentlessness and avarice and cronyism and even sheer accident. I don’t usually mean to single out a particular genre in general, but to explain this shocking show it suffices to compare two critically acclaimed rap albums: October 2014’s Run the Jewels 2 by supergroup Run the Jewels [El-P and Killer Mike] and March 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. This comparison sets up the context for a review of a Kendrick Lamar show.

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2014 Music Review: Top 10 Albums, 20-song Playlist

Gregorian Calendars the world over agree: 2014 has ended. For the third year running, it’s time for me to review the ten best albums I noticed that were released last year; jeer at a few for being remarkably bad; and also serve up a 20-track mix of highlight singles, half taken from the top ten albums list. This year affords a special treat, as you can now stream the playlist in-line!

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