Qur’an 3: The Family of Amram

There are parts of some texts that are easy to understand. Then there are texts that are harder to understand.

And then there are texts even provide a hermenutical key to help in deciphering them.

It is He who has send down to you the Book.
Parts of it are definitive verses, which are the mother of the Book,
while others are ambiguous.

As for those whose hearts is deviance,
they pursue what is metaphorical in it, perusing misguidance and aiming at its interpretation.

But no one knows its interpretation
except God and
those firmly grounded in knowledge;
they say, ‘We believe in it; all of it is from our Lord.’

Only those who possess intellect take admonition.
Qur’an 3:7

The third chapter of the Qur’an takes its name from the father of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: Amram. An extended comparison between Miriam and the Virgin Mary (who in Hebrew have the same name) is presented. As before there’s also another voice, focused on the political and religious events of another time and that views Christians as an out-group. These two voices have a surprising convergence, at least for me, in their understanding of words and books.

Arian Christianity

The Two Marias

The Christian Bible contains two Marias, with the same name in Hebrew (“????????” or Miryam) . The name of the first is typically translated as “Miriam,” she is the sister of one of the men who during the Transfiguration talked with Christ: Moses. The second is typically translated as “Mary,” she is the mother of the man-god who during the Transfiguration talked with Moses: Jesus.

Both Marias are associated with songs, celebrating God’s overthrowing of the human inequity. In her song to the women, Maria sister of Moses sang:

And Miriam answered them:
“Sing to the Lord,
For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has thrown into the sea!”
Exodus15:21

In her own song to Elizabeth, Maria mother of Jesus sang:

And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord…
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
Luke 2:46,51-52

The typological similarities between the Marias as well known in our academic church literature

Tracing the attributes of Miriam, the sister of Moses, we discover the following: she is a leader, a prophetess, a mediator, an initiator, a servant. a nurse. a caring person, a model of discretion and timing, a negotiator, and a woman who secretly and effectively works behind the scenes in the salvific history of the people.
The Catholic Tradition uses such attributes for Mary of Galilee in the Church’s devotional hymns and litanies. The biblical sources for such expressions are taken from the Cana event (Jn 2:1-11) and from the Annunciation and Visitation accounts (Lk 1:28-45).
Old Testament Types of Mary,” Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Perhaps this is why the prophets who bridged the Old and New Testaments looked back not just on Egypt, not just on redemption, but the Family of Amram— the Prophet Moses, the Priest Aaron, and Maria:

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Micah 6:4

The Family of Maria

In the above, I’ve said “Maria sister of Moses” and “Maria mother of Jesus,” but properly the style should be patristic. The first Maria would be “Maria daughter of Amram”:

The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and to Amram she bore Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam.
Numbers 26:59

And the other Maria… well, we don’t know exactly. Smart people, going back to the Church Fathers, argued Mary’s father’s name was Perhaps Joachim/ and that we went by a nickname, “Heli.”

It is into this ambiguity that the Koran gives the Father of Maria another name, the name of the father of the first Maria: Amram

When the wife of Amram said, ‘my Lord, I dedicate to You in consecration what is in my belly. Accept it from me; indeed You are all the All-hearing, the all-knowing.’ When she bore her, she said, “My Lord, I have born a female’ — and God knew better what she had borne, and the male was no match for the female — ‘and i have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to Your care against the outcast Satan.’
Thereupon her Lord accepted her with a gracious acceptance, and made her grow up in a worthy fashion, and He charged Zechariah with her care.
Qur’an 3:36-37

The Qur’anic author doesn’t just emphasize the connection between the Marias, he recapitulates their Songs into a new form, using the words of neither but the theme of both:

Say, ‘O God, Master of all sovereignty!
You give sovereignty to whomever You wish,
and strip of sovereignty whomever You wish;
You make mighty whomever You wish,
and You degrade whomever You wish;
all choice is in Your hand.
Indeed, You have power over all things.”
Qur’an 3:26

Post-Christianity in the Context of Christianity

The New Luke, the New Paul

After I read The Heifer I felt the Arian Christian and the post-Christian voices in the Qur’an were fundamentally alien to each other, or at least only inexplicably connected. But the beliefs of the men behind those voices may have been more similar than I suspect.

For instance, it may be that one or both of these men saw himself as a new Paul of Tarsus, or new Luke the evangelist

But if they deny you, apostles have been denied before you, who came with manifest signs, holy writs, and an illuminating scripture.
Qur’an 3:184

Luke quotes Christ speaking of the Jews in the third person in his edition of the Beatitudes

Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.
Luke 6:22-23

Paul elevates this charge, adding the murder of Christ to their misdeeds:

For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men
1 Thessalonians 2:14-15

Yet Paul nonetheless identified as Jew, at least tactically:

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”
Acts 23:6

And at times a Pauline verse…

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.
1 Corinthians 4:3-5

appears to cleanly flow int o a Qur’anic one, especially if the three-hold description of God (“Him, the All-mighty, the All-wise”) is in fact Trinitarian:

Nothing is indeed hidden from God in the earth or in the sky.
It is He who forms you in the wombs however He wishes.
There is no god except Him, the All-mighty, the All-wise.
Qur’an 3:6

This rhetorical imitation continues into unexpected areas. Luke uses the term “womb” more than all other New Testament writers combined. Though the emphasis on female participation reproduction according to God’s plan is more common in the Old Testament than the New:

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
And He who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who makes all things,
Who stretches out the heavens all alone,
Who spreads abroad the earth by Myself;
Isaiah 44:24

That’s not even to mention the time travel.

The Apparition at Fatima

Take this verse, which is Luke writing Christ’s words to Paul:

So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said,
‘I am Jesus,
whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to
turn them from darkness to light, and
from the power of Satan to God, that
they may receive forgiveness of sins and an
inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me
.’
Acts 26:15-18

Edit the text down, and rearrange:

I am Jesus,
they may receive forgiveness of sins and
turn them from
from the power of Satan
darkness to light, and
an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.

Compare with the Fatima Decade Prayer, given by Our Lady to girls in Portugal nearly 1,900 years later:

My Jesus,
forgive us our sins,
save us from the fires of hell.
Lead all souls to Heaven,
especially those most in need of Thy mercy.
Amen.

And in between, the text of The Family of Amram:

Those who say,
‘Our Lord!
Indeed, we have faith.
So forgive us our sins,
and save us from the punishment of the Fire.’
Patient and truthful, obedient and charitable, and
they plead forgiveness at dawns.
Qur’an 3:16-17

Twice:

Our Lord, whoever that You make enter the Fire will surely have been disgraced by You, and the wrongdoers will have no helpers. Our Lord, we have indeed heart a summoner calling to faith, declaring, ‘Have faith in your Lord!’ So we believed.
Our Lord,
forgive us our sins and
absolve us of our misdeeds,
and make us die with the pious.
Our Lord, give us what You have promised us through Your apostles, and do not disgrace us on the Day of Resurrection. Indeed, you do not break Your promise.’
Qur’an 3:192

This is just weird. How can Christ’s words to Paul, as recorded by Luke, show up both in the Qur’an and at Fatima but chopped up and in a different order, and translated from the Lord’s perspective to man’s? There must, I think be, an intermediate form of this pray circulating in the Patristic age.

Does anyone still know that prayer?

The Battle

The post-Christian voice in the Qur’an returns multiple time to a battle. The battle seems to have been lost. But the specific details and locations are not described — the battle that either would have been well known to the audience, or its an allegorical battle.

The battle was against a people of the Book:

A group of the People of the Book were eager to lead you astray; they they lead no one stray except themselves, but they are not aware.
O People of the Book! Why do you deny God’s signs while you testify? O People of the Book? Why do you mix the truth with falsehood, and conceal the truth while you know?
A group of the People of the Book say, ‘Believe in what has been sent down to the faithful at the beginning of the day, and disbelieve at its end, so that they may turn back.’
Qur’an 3:69-72

Perhaps these references are to a battle in the late Classical period in the Arabian peninsula…

Certainly He has excused you, for God is gracious to the faithful. When you were fleeing without paying any attention to anyone, while the Apostle was calling you from your rear, He requited you with grief upon grief, so that you may not grieve for what you lose nor for what befalls you, and God is well aware of what you do.
Then He sent down to you safety after grief — a drowsiness that came over a group of you — while another group, anxious only about themselves, entertained false notions about God, no notions of ignorance. They said, “Do we have any role in the matter.’ Say, ‘The matter indeed belongs totally to God,’ They hide in their hearts what they do not disclose to you.
They say, ‘Had we any role in the matter, we would not have been slain here.’ Say, ‘Even if you had remained in your houses, those destined to be slain would have set out toward the places where they were laid to rest, so that God may test what is in your hearts, and God knows well what is in the breasts.
Qur’an 3:154

Or perhaps the references — to the persecuting people of the Book, to the falling asleep, to the death that awaits — is to something else:

And when He returned, He found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him.

Then He came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough! The hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.”
Betrayal and Arrest in Gethsemane

And immediately, while He was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.
Mark14:40-43

There was, after all, something of a battle:

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.

So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?”
John 18:10-11

The Battle is used as an occasion to bless the weak and marginalized — the female, the migrant, the tortured, and the dead:

Then their Lord answered them, ‘I do not waste the work of any worker among you, whether male or female; you are all on the same footing.

So those who migrated and were expelled from their homes,
and were tormented in My way, and those who fought and were killed —

I will surely absolve them of their misdeeds and
I will admit them into gardens with streams running in them,
as a reward from God, and God — with Him is the best of rewards.’
Qur’an 3:195

This also is parallel to the Gospels:

Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:

“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.
Luke 6:20-23

I wish I understood Arabic grammar better. “God — with Him is the best of rewards” states this voice, who I have been calling post-Christian. I wonder if this is a pun

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Matthew 1:23

Christology and Bibliology

The Word and the words

Christians hold that God created the world through the Logos (“the Word”), and in some ways is identified with the Logos:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
John 1:1-5

The Word became flesh on earth:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

But is the Word-in-flesh identical to the Word, or instantiation of it? Jews believe that God has many hypostases He uses to speak to His creation, including the Spirit of the LORD, the Name of the LORD, and the Angel of the LORD. Is Jesus a part of the Word, or is He identical to it?

The Qur’anic author seems aware of this question, because it’s answered repeatedly: Christ is a Word of God:

When the angels said, ‘Oh Mary, God gives you the good news of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, distinguished in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near. he will speak to the people in the cradle and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.’
Qur’an 3:45

And the same term is used in the angels’ words predicting John the Baptist:

Thereat Zechariah supplicated his Lord. He said, “My Lord! Grand me a good offspring from You! You indeed hear all supplications.’
Then, as he stood praying in the sanctuary the angels called out to him: ‘God gives you the good news of John, as a confirmer of a Word of God, eminent and chaste, a prophet, and one of the righteous.
He said, ‘My Lord, how shall I have a son while old age has overtaken me and my wife is barren?’Said He, ‘So it is that God does whatever He wishes.’
Qur’an 3:38-40

The Members and the Body

The Church forms the body of Christ. All Christian are members of the one Body of Christ:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.
1 Corinthians 6:15-17

Christ instructed us to abandon those members which cause sin:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
Matthew 5:29-30

A logical implication of this, I suppose, is those members of Christ which are still sinful are cast into the fire:

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.
John 15:1-6

Or, as the Qur’anic author puts it:

When God said, ‘Oh Jesus, I shall take you, and I shall raise you up toward Myself, and I shall clear you of the faithless, and I shall set those who follow you above the faithless until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me will be your return, whereat I will judge between you concerning that about which you used to differ.
Qur’an 3:55

One Body, and many members.

The Qur’an’s theory of the Logos is similar. Many words, many books, many Scriptures, but one “Book.” The Torah, the Evangel (“Gospel”), and the mysterious Criterion are in some ways instances of it:

God — there is no god except Him — is the Living One, the All-sustainer. He has sent down to you the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it, and He had sent down the Torah and the Evangel before as guidance for mankind, and He has send down the Criterion. Indeed, there is a severe punishment for those who deny the signs of God, and God is all-mighty, avenger.
Qur’an 3:2-4

Yet, while a people may only have been given the Torah, and another only given the Gospel, they still had been given the Book:

When God made a covenant with those who were given the Book: ‘You shall explain it for the people, and you shall not conceal it,’ they cast it behind their backs and sold it for a paltry gain. How evil is what they buy!
Qur’an 3:187

The Seen and the Unseen

There is one Book in Heaven, the Book is with God, but the Book is not God.

The Torah, The Qur’an, the “Criterion” (whatever that is), even the Messiah, they are books or words, they are perhaps images of the Book, but they are not God.

Christians believe that face of Christ is how we see the face of God, he is a Divine Icon of Ineffable Divinity:

He is the image of the invisible God-, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:15

In the context of The Family of Amram, this is worse than sola scriptura — this is idolatry. Consider the following verse — it’s almost totally Orthodox, could almost conclude a Catholic prayer service – except for one line:

God will not leave the faithful in your present state, until He has separated the bad ones from the good.
God will not acquaint you with the Unseen,
but God chooses whomever He wishes from His apostles.
So have faith in God and His apostles;
and if you are faithful and Godwary, there shall be a great reward for you.
Qur’an 3:179

To me this is a striking. In my impressions of the Qur’an’s second chapter, The Heifer , I mentioned there was clearly an Arian Christian voice in the text as well a post-Christian voice. But on this issue of themes of both — the Arian instances on the created nature of Christ, and the Post-Christian emphasis on the created nature of the Torah, the Gospels, and the “Criterion,” they are.

Would these voices agree, the Word is a Book, and the Book became flesh, and in this flesh was a word in the Book?

I’m not sure. But I had not expected to find this parallelism in voices that otherwise seemed so disjointed.

Final Thoughts

The Family of Amram is the third chapter of the Qur’an. It follows The Opening, an introductory psalm or prayer, and The Heifer, which introduces both the Arian Christian voice and the post-Christian voice. The Family of Amram continues the development of these voices, but introduces a shared understanding: the multiplicity of words, scriptures, and books, in contrast with the one Book heaven. This intermingling of concepts implies that the apparently post-Christian voice may itself incorporate a Christian commentary, and is not so opposed to the Arian voice as I had first thought.

I read the second chapter of the Qur’an, The Family of Amram, in Gabriel Said Reynolds’ translation.

Impressions of “Introduction to Patristics: Learning from the Church Fathers,” by David Meconi

Sometimes you get exactly what you ask for.

In my impressions of When the Church was Young by Marcellino d’Ambrosio, I said how much I enjoyed the work, but wish I could read a more academic companion to it. Introduction to Patristics by David Meconi is that companion. And When the Church was Young is the superior book.

There are no substantial disagreements between the texts. Both begin with the apostolic fathers like Justin Martyr and Polycarp. Both end before John of Damascus. Both reference the Shepherd and the Protoeveangelium The fundamental difference is that the Church was Young attempts to presents a narrative church history and emphasizes memorable personal anecdotes or events in the lives of the Fathers, and how their lives intersected. Patristics is organized in a rough chronological order but primarily around major academic themes. But except for the slightly deeper discussion of heterodoxy, the Church was Young provides more memorable information than Patristics.

While Patristics (unlike the Church was Young) is more about what now-heterodox ideas were believed by some Church Fathers, that benefit does not overcome the other burdens in the text. For instance, take Origin (AD 184 – AD 253), a teacher of the saints who himself was never canonized.  Both books addressed major moments of his life, including the arrest of his father, his rivalry with his bishop, and his arrest and torture by the Romans.  And from Patristics (but not from the Church Was Young) I learned that Origen believed that even demons could come to repentance and salvation. But the Church was Young provides more context around the catechatical school in Alexandria, the continuity of Origen with other Fathers before and after, a  more vivid description of the man in general.

The situation is even worse with another heterodox church father, Tertullian (AD 155 – AD 240). Both books credit Tertullian with coining the term Trinity (in Latin “Trinitas”) to refer to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both conclude with Tertullian all but leaving the Catholic Church. The Church was Young establishes Tertullian’s belief in rigor and confessed impatience. It concludes with Tertullian joining the Montanists, “a rigorist sect.” This is implied to be a pattern in North Africa, and the implications for the Islamic conquest are left to the reader. Patristics does not establish Tertullian’s personality or reasons for leaving, aside from to joining a “gnostic” sect.

Yet neither of these are, perhaps, fully true! Certainly Tertullian seems like a kill joy — Wikipedia’s description of “public amusements, the veiling of virgins, the conduct of women, and the like” certainly matches The Church was Young‘s description of him. But Wikipedia’s description of Montanism implied something more:

Montanism held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church, but it was labeled a heresy for its belief in new prophetic revelations. The prophetic movement called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic.

Neither book nor Wikipedia make the comparison, but the focus on the Holy Spirit’s new age of revelation recalls the Blessed Joachim of Fiore, a personal favorite of Jordan Peterson:

There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
Joachim of Fiore,” Catholic Encyclopedia

There are a lot of lose ends, and neither work is a complete overview. But from When the Church was Young I can at least ask the question. Patristics, despite being more dry, provides less depth

Reading Introduction to Patristics probably helped me re-encode information I already learned in When the Church was Young. It was not very long, and along with The Orthodox Christian Church helped orient me to better understand this stage of the Church’s history.

I read Introduction to Patristics in the Audible edition.

Qur’an 2: The Heifer

The Heifer (or “Cow,” or “Young Cow”) is the second book of the Qur’an. It is also the longest, and ironically follows one of the shortest, The Opening. The Heifer is not named after a theme of the book, but is an important reference to the Bible in the book:

Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,
“This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying:
‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never come. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may take it outside the camp, and it shall be slaughtered before him.
Numbers19:1-3

The author of The Heifer — well, at least one of them — expands this episode into an illustrative commentary of Moses’s patience and Israel’s stubbornness:

Then you turned away after that. And if not for the favor of God upon you and His mercy, you would have been among the losers.
And you had already known about those who transgressed among you concerning the sabbath, and We said to them, “Be apes, despised.”
And We made it a deterrent punishment for those who were present and those who succeeded and a lesson for those who fear God.
And when Moses said to his people, “Indeed, God commands you to slaughter a cow.”
They said, “Do you take us in ridicule?”
He said, “I seek refuge in God from being among the ignorant.”
They said, “Call upon your Lord to make clear to us what it is.”
He said, “He says, ‘It is a cow which is neither old nor virgin, but median between that,’ so do what you are commanded.”
They said, “Call upon your Lord to show us what is her color.”
He said, “He says, ‘It is a yellow cow, bright in color – pleasing to the observers.’ ”
They said, “Call upon your Lord to make clear to us what it is. Indeed, cows look alike to us. And indeed we, if God wills, will be guided.”
He said, “He says, ‘It is a cow neither trained to plow the earth nor to irrigate the field, one free from fault with no spot upon her.'”
They said, “Now you have come with the truth.” So they slaughtered her, but they could hardly do it.
Qur’an 2:64-71

To say one of the authors is not as such to deny Divine Authorship. In the Bible some books clearly have more than one voice. The most obvious is the The Book of Kings , which begins with the same psychological realism as The Book of Samuel and after a couple chapters transitions into either popular or merely chronological accounts. Nonetheless, the Book of Kings maintained a unity of theme of the decline and fall of the Kingdom, and is accepted by both Jews and Christians.

The Heifer also displays multiple voices. The three apparent voices are an inexplicable source, a Christian sermon, a post-Christian source, and a wisdom or law code. (If you read that carefully carefully you’ll note that Numbers describes a “red” cow, while The Heifer has a “yellow” one. The voices described here are my own terms, and I am aware how far Biblical higher criticism has progressed since the Wiseman hypothesis. Qur’anic criticism is now where Biblical criticism was in the 19th century. Scholars like Michael Heiser have complicated earlier assumptions that different voices can be easily extracted from the Bible. Any literary analysis is speculative.)

Inexplicable

There are parts of the Qur’an that, if they occurred in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, would be described as “corrupted” or “interpolations.” This does not mean that they actually are written by different writers — T.S. Elliot used such elements intentionally. Here, for example, Elliot’s poem includes a paragraph with a middle section that also would appear to be “corrupted” or “interpolated”:

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music of the weak pipe and the little drum And see the dancing around the bonfire The association of man and woman In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie — A dignified and commodius sacrement. Two and two, neccesarye coniunction, Holding eche other by the hand or the arm Whiche botokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles, Rustically solemn, or in rustic laughter
T.S. Elliot, East Coker I

Yet, to maintain the comparison between the Qur’an and Elliot’s poetry, at times the English poet does use earlier texts. Consider the phrase (which I myself mis-remembered as “All is well, and all manner of things shall be well”), and its 600 years of history in Christian prophesy and poetry:

One time our good Lord said: All thing shall be well; and another time he said: Thou shalt see thyself that all MANNER of thing shall be well; and in these two the soul took sundry understandings. One was that He willeth we know that not only He taketh heed to noble things and to great, but also to little and to small, to low and to simple, to one and to other. And so meaneth He in that He saith: ALL MANNER OF THINGS shall be well. For He willeth we know that the least thing shall not be forgotten.
Julian of Norwhich, Revelations of Divine Love, AD 1393

C.S. Lewis, in both private letters and his published apologetics, slightly alters this phrase:,

I have been reading this week the ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian of Norwich (14th century); not always so profitable as I had expected, but well worth reading… Christ tells her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.; She asks how it can be well, since some are damned. He replied that all that is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well.’ ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’
C.S. Lewis, “On reading The Revelations of Divine Love“, AD 1940

And, presumably via either Lewis’s published works or private conversations, Elliot adopts it too:

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and-
All manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T.S. Elliot, Little Gidding, AD 1942

So what to make of bizarre referencing, those that make no sense have no known meaning and are untranslatable, like the very first words:

Alif, Lam, Meen
Qur’an 2:1

The same occur in larger passages. Is the below reference to Exodus merely corrupted? Is it a play on a lost homily on Jerusalem? A reference to either a lost book, such as The Book of the Wars of the Lord or oral tradition, perhaps maintained by desert dwellers to the south and east of the Kingdom? We do not know.

We shaded you with clouds and sent down to you manna and quails: ‘Eat of the good things We have provided for you,’ And they did not wrong Us, but they And when We said, ‘Enter this town, and eat thereof freely whencesoever you wish, and enter while prostrating at the gate and say, ‘Relieve,’ so that We may forgive your iniquities and soon We will enhance the virtuous. But the wrongdoers changed the saying other than what they were told. So We sent down on those who were wrongdoers a plague from the sky because of the transgressions they used to commit.
Qur’an 2:57-58

Christian

Yet the clearest and longest voice in the Koran is clear – it is clearly Christian. The Christian writer of the Qur’an is particularly fond of Moses, Mary, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus:

Certainly We gave Moses the Book and followed him with the apostles, and We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear proofs and confirmed him with the Holy Spirit. Is it not that whenever an apostle brought you that which was not to your liking, you would act arrogantly; so you would impugn a group, and slave a group?
Qur’an 2:57-58

The faithful await the return of the Lord in a cloud. This will be the future sign that ends all speculation, after God’s repeatedly signs given to all sons of Israel:

Do they await anything but that God should come to them in the shades of the clouds, with the angels, and the matter be decided? To God all matters are returned. Ask the Children of Israel how many manifest a sign We had given them. Whoever changes God’s blessing after it has come to him, indeed God is severe in retribution.
Qur’an 2:210-211

This is a clear reference to the Gospel of Matthew:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Matthew 24:29-31

Referencing Biblical texts can slide into expanding on them. This may be for high-minded reasons, or just for curiosity. John Chrysostom’s homily on Cain and Abel is something I feel deeply, but it reads into the order of God’s interrogation of Cain meaningfully pauses and an intentionality that is not explicitly there. On the other end, the The Protoevangelium of James has no particularly deep meaning, but elaborates the story of Christ’s early family to provide models for the faithful to imitate. The Qur’an has these too. One example is the elaboration of the Book of Numbers about the Cow. Another example is the Qur’an’s explication of God’s promise to Moses. In the original text, Abraham’s response to God is not recorded:

Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
Genesis 22:15-19

While the conversation continues in The Heifer:

When his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, “I am making you the Imam of mankind,’ said he, ‘And from among by descendants?” He said, “My pledge does not extend to the unjust.”
Qur’an 2:57-58

The idea of Abraham’s fatherhood being potentially lost exists within Christianity. As the father-in-faith to Christians, those who lose faith logically lose lose him as a father. van’t Veer and other Reformed Christians go a step further, arguing that even the Jews (except for Mary and Jesus) had lost their inheritance by the time of the Incarnation.

With Other Voices

There seem to be at least two other voices in the Koran, though perhaps they are intended to be the same author .

Anti-Catholic

The Christian voice in The Heifer clearly has a bone to pick with the Catholic Church.

A number of teachings are directly criticized, such as the Intercession of the Saints:

O Children of Israel, remember My blessing which I have bestowed upon you, and that I gave you an advantage over all the nations. Beware of the Day when no soul shall compensate for another, neither will any random be accepted from it, nor will any intercession benefit it, nor will they be helped.
Qur’an 2:48

and Purgatory:

And they say, ‘The Fire shall not touch us except for a number of days.’ Say, ‘Have you taken a promise from God? If so, God will never break His promise. Or do you ascribe to God what you do not know?’ ‘Certainly whoever commits misdeeds and is besieged by his iniquity — such shall be inmates of the Fire, and they will remain in it.’
Qur’an 2:80-81

and the procession of the Trinity:

“Who is it that may intercede with Him except with His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they do not comprehend anything of His knowledge except what He wishes. His seat embraces the heavens and the earth and He is not wearied by their preservation, and He is the All-exalted, the All-supreme
Qur’an 2:255

What could be the context of this voice, this anti-Catholic Christian? One possibility is that the author is an Arian, a believer that Christ and the Holy Spirit are created God-persons that God has made in order to provide intermediaries between Him and the human race He loves so much. Arianism was widespread in much of the Roman Empire — indeed, most bishops at one point seem to have been Arian (including Achbishop of Constantinople Eusebius of Nicomedia, who baptized the first Emperor Constantine). Further, the Qur’an’s focus on man’s ignorance echoes an Arian assertion, that the precise Christology of the Nicaean Fathers was simply inappropriate given’s man’s limited knowledge of the unseen realm:

And nobody is unaware that this is catholic doctrine, that
there are two Persons of the Father and the Son, and that
the Father is greater, and
the Son is subjected in common with all the things which the Father subjected to him; that
the Father has no beginning, is invisible, immortal, and impassible; but that
the Son is born from the Father,
God from God,
Light from Light,
whose generation as Son, as has been said already, no one knows except the Father;
Second Cirmian Creed, AD 357

Or perhaps the author was a proto-Calvinist! Amusingly, the author sharks one tic with a contemporary anti-Catholic writer, William Dumbrell. Dumbrell creates his own list of Patriarchs, using a formula found nowhere in the Bible:

Thus the book of Genesis ends with Israel preserved and populous. Curiously, blessing, or the promise of it, comes to each of the three patriarchs (Abraham Jacob, Joseph) outside of the promised land, but with reference to the land.
William Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning, p. 133

The same category of innovation — changing the formula to describe the Patriarchs — occurs here, but instead of subtracting Jacob, Ishmael is added!

Were you witnessed when death approached Jacob, when he asked his children, ‘What will you worship after m?’ They said, ‘We will worship your God, and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, the One God and to Him do we submit
Qur’an 2:133

The Post-Christian

While one voice appears to specifically challenge the Catholic church’s teachings on Christianity, another seems to abandon identification as Christian altogether. For instance, like Mormonism, this voice views the canon as still open:

For any verse that We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring another better than it, or similar to it. Do you not know that God has power over all things? Do you not know that to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth? And besides God you do not have any friend or helper.
Would you question your Apostle as Moses was questioned formerly? Whoever changes faith for unfaith certainly straits from the right way.
Qur’an 2:106-108

This voice also refers to Christians in the third person, along with Jews and a group called the “Sabeans” (some speculate that “Sabeans” are followers of St. John the Baptist who thought following Christ wasn’t such a good idea):

Indeed, the faithful, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabeans — those who have faith in God and the Last Day and act righteously — they shall have their reward near their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve.
Qur’an 2:62

A New Law

The other voice provides what appear to be reasonable practical guidance, and is something between wisdom literature that provides solid advice:

O you who have faith! When you contract a loan for a specified term, write it down. Let a writer write with honesty between you, and let not the writer refuse to write as God has taught him. So let him write, and let the one who incurs the debt dictate, and let him be wary of God, his Lord, and not diminish anything from it. But if the debtor be feeble-minded, or weak, or incapable of dictating himself, then let his guardian dictate with honesty, and take as witnesses two witnesses from your men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women — from those whom you approve as witnesses — so that if one of the two defaults the other will remind her. The witnesses must not refuse when they are called, and do no consider it wearisome to write it down, whether it be a big or small sum, until its term. That is more just with God and more upright in respect to testimony, and the likeliest way to avoid doubt, unless it is an on-the spot deal you transact between yourselves, in which case there is no sin upon you not to write it down. Take witnesses when you make a deal, and let no harm be done to the writer or witnesses, and if you did that, it would be sinful of you. Be wary of God and God will teach you, and God has knowledge of all things.
Qur’an 2:282

… and a law code basic on Moses:

O you who have faith! Retribution is prescribed for you regarding the slain: freeman for freeman, slave for slave, and female for female .But if one is granted any extenuation by his brother, let the follow up be honorable, and let the payments to him be with kindness. That is a remission from your Lord and a mercy; and should anyone transgress after that, there shall be a painful punishment for him.
Qur’an 2:178

Conclusion

I have spoken of the voices of the Koran. But as with the Bible and the mysterious “redactors,” at time the voices intertwine in the same paragraph. David’s last words to Solomon, for instance, combine the ruddy faith of the Shepherd-King with the high-minded theology of the Deuteronomist:

Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man. And keep the charge of the Lord your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn; that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’

“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed. And he shed the blood of war in peacetime, and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist, and on his sandals that were on his feet. Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.
1 Kings 2:1-6

In the same way, who can untangle the first paragraph of The Heifer. What is the “book” mentioned? Who is the “we”?

This is the book, there is no doubt in it, a guidance to the God-wary, who believe in the Unseen, maintain the prayer,and spend out of what We have provided for them; and who believe in what has been sent down to you and what was sent down before you, and are certain of the Hereafter. Those who follow their Lord’s guidance and it is they who are felicitous.
Qur’an 2:2-5

I read the second chapter of the Qur’an, The Heifer, in Gabriel Said Reynolds’ translation.

Impressions of “When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers,” by Marcellino D’Ambrosio

Church Fathers are the ancient writers, sometimes bishops, sometimes saints, who defended the orthodox catholic church during the first several centuries. I became interested in the early Fathers as I began to realize the great role they have in teaching the faith, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the implicit role they have in destroying it, according to Mormon thinking.

The age of the early Fathers begins as the first students of the Apostles wrote, and ended with the dawn of two new civilizations: Medieval Europe and Islam. During this era core, teachings of the Church — such as how many persons of Christ are there (one), how many substances Christ has (two, true man and true God), and how many persons are Christ (one, there’s only one Jesus Christ, Son of God) — were written down. This era includes fathers who lived before, during, and after the First Council of Nicaea, whose words became binding on all Catholics after the council.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten;
that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’
or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’
— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

When the Church was Young traces the development of Nicene Christianity from the immediate post-apostolic era to just before the rise of Islam. The oldest of the Church Fathers are those who knew and learned from the apostles For instance, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp may have actually known the Apostle John. Gregory the Great, one of the very last Fathers in this book, overlaps with the Middle Ages. Indeed, his papacy is the close of the Patristic period and at the opening of *Medieval Christianity: A New History.

When the Church was Young reads like a quicker prequel to Medieval Christianity, like Ball Lightning is a breezy prequel to The Three Body Problem. The major points of development are presented, and the time around the Arian Heresy in particular is very well reported. I learned a lot from this book.

I was pleased at the presentation of two Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo of John Chrysostom. I have read Augustine’s Confessions and Chrysostom’s mis-named Against the Jews, and the description of these Fathers matches my understanding of what I read. Likewise, the short descriptions of The Protoevangelium of James and The Shepherd of Hermas do not contradict what I read.

That said, while this is an introductory history of the early Church through the Fathers, it is not a neutral history. In Christian theology, people who propound beliefs that are later called heretical are not themselves heretics, as they did not have the advantage of the Church’s teaching when writing their ideas. D’Ambrosio, whose interest is in teaching correct Christian beliefs, does not spend much time on heretical or abandoned beliefs of the early Church Fathers. This leads to an accurate if biased depiction of the early Church. This is particularly obvious in the section on Origin, who is repeatedly defended against accusations of heresy without ever which of his beliefs were identified as heretical.

In How God Became King, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright criticized the out-sized importance the Nicene Creed, and its derivatives, have in Christianity. The Nicene Creed was written to refute Arius, and insist that Christ was God, not a creature. The fathers were successful in this. Christological precision is important, but not more important than the person of Christ, His kingdom, or His teachings. Indeed, while I find the Mormon rejection of the Nicene Creed (on the complaint the concept “substance” is not found in the Bible) hypocritical, as Mormonism itself imports Greek philosophy into its cosmological system, Mormons are certainly right that the focus on the Greco-Roman interpretation of the Scriptures, instead of the Hebrew con-text of the written Word, has clouded much of our understanding. Marcellino D’Ambrosio does not seem to realize this. Worse, the hygienic purity of terms in Greco-Roman philosophy can lead to a lack of awareness of the “unseen realm,” and the world of flesh, demons, and supernatural entities which inhabit the cosmos.

I was disturbed to learn of the early church practice that the Sacrament of Reconciliation could be obtained only once or twice a lifetime. Something like this is referenced in Shepherd of Hermas, but I did not realize Shepherd was either reporting a literal procedure, or itself had been taken literally, later on. In my current state I participate in this sacrament bi-weekly, and if anything this does not seem enough. I do not think I would have done well with the early Christians, who seem to live lifestyles of the religious orders in particular, except as someone like the church father Ambrosia of Milan who was not baptized until just before he was named a bishop.

I enjoyed reading When the Church was Young. I have a better grasp of the life of the early Church, controversies which shaped the terms and phrases used and the learning about the ecclesiastical transition into the Middle Ages. I wish the narrative had contained more depth on what the Fathers actually believed, and I would have enjoyed learning about John of Damascus, who commented on the Qur’an, and viewed it as a form of Arianism.

I read When the Church was Young in the Audible edition. The author has a brief summary of the Church Fathers available online.

Qur’an I: The Opening

Nearly ten years ago, Gabriel Said Reynolds published “The Qur’an and the Bible” in First Things. That has now been expanded into a book, The Bible and the Quran, which is centered around a translation of the Koran into English, with notes by Reynolds.

The first Surah, corresponding to “chapters” or “books”, of the Koran is also the shortest, and is called “The Opening.”  It is short enough to reproduce in full:

In the Name of God, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
All praise belongs to God, Lord of all the words
the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
Master of the Day of Retribution
You do we worship
and to You do we turn for help
Guide us on the straight path
the path of those whom You have blessed
— such as have not incurred Your wrath, nor are astray
Qur’an 1: The Opening

In the First Things piece Reynolds notes that the Catholic bishop Paul of Antioch argued in the 12th century the three-fold definition of divinity was not merely rhetorical, but referred to the persons of the Trinity.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,
the God of one substance,
trinity of natures.

From the humble monk Paul of Antioch, Bishop of Sidon,
letter to one of his Muslim friends in Sidon. …

There are substantial attributes having the value of names, of which each is different from the other, since God is unique, neither sharing nor dividing. Moreover, it says at the beginning of the Book:

“In the name of God, the Benefactor, the Merciful,”

it is confined to three attributes to the exclusion of the others. – attributes which, for us are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that which means a living speaking being. Besides, it is said in this Book:

“In the name of God…”

Moreover it is said in this Book:

“Say: Call upon God, or call upon Mercy, but whatever name you call Him by, to Him belong the most beautiful names…”
Paul’s Letter to the Muslims” (translated by Dr. Nafisa Abdelsadek) circa AD 1200 Paragraphs 1, 32

Like the writer of the Qur’an and Bishop Paul, the Gospel account uses a tri-fold formula for one Name:

Go therefore
and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Matthew 28:19

Three comparisons are included by Reynolds to this Surah: the Our Father (as found in Matthew and Luke) and the first Psalm. Like the Our Father, Surah 1 has a general ‘downward’ trend, starting at celestial purity and ending in temptation…

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Matthew 6:9-13

The same pattern is also in the first of the Psalms:

Happy the man who has not walked in the wicket’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood, nor in the session of scoffers has sat. But the LORD’s teaching is his desire, and His teaching he murmurs day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither —
and in all that he does he prospers.

Not so the wicked,
but like the chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicket will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.

For the LORD embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.
Psalms 1:1-6

The first Surah reads like a part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Like the “Our Father” and the First Psalm it is a short prayer that presents the glory of God, the fallen nature of man’s sin, and a gradation of holiness between them. Like the First Psalm “The Opening” is a clear textual unit, and like the “Our Father” it is a threefold invocation of God.

Every book I read in 2018

Last year I copied my friend Tanner Greer and listed every book I read. I am stealing his idea again. As with last year’s list, the best book I read in every category is bolded. And like last year I will give special attention to one work: Jordan Peterson‘s Maps of Meaning is the rare book that changes how you read other books.

And Thomas Merton‘s work is that rare book that changes your daily life.

The Holy Bible

The Book of Exodus
The Book of Leviticus
The Book of Numbers

The Apocrypha

The Protoevangelium of James
The Shepherd of Hermas, translated by Daniel Robinson

Christian Apologetics

How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, by N.T. Wright
To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, by Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr.
Manual for Spiritual Warfare, by Paul Thigpin

Christian Writings

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson
Four Quartets, by T.S. Elliot
My God is the LORD: Elijah and Ahab in the Age of Apostasy, by M.B. Van’t Veer
The Seven-Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

Comparative Religion

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, by Jordan B. Peterson
The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices by Peter Bouteneff
Wrestling the Angel — the Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity, by Terryl L Givens

Business Strategy

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Beneath a Surface: The Inside Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Write-down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry, by Brad Sams
Dogfight: How Apple and google Went to War and Started a Revolution, by Fred Vogelstein
Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols
We Were Yahoo!: From Internet Pioneer to the Trillion Dollar Loss of Google and Facebook, by Jeremy Ring

Politics and Political History

Dangerous, by Milo Yiannopoulos

Science Fiction

Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu

Impressions of “Beneath a Surface: The Inside Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Write-down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry,” by Brad Sams

If you are unaware that Microsoft had a $900 million write-down related to the Surface tablet, this book is probably not to you. Rather, Beneath a Surface definitely is for the reader who wants an accurate, if partial, history of a Microsoft business unit.

It’s too high a praise to compare Beneath a Surface to God — even comparing author Brad Sams to the Divinity would be misplaced — but like the All-mighty, it is easier to say what Beneath a Surface is not than what it is. It is not a history of Panos Panay’s career at the company, or even Microsoft Hardware’s efforts (MS Hardware became MS Surface under Panay). It is not a history of the past few years of the company at the highest levels, or even like Hit Refresh a propagandist attempt to create a history from that level.

Rather, Beneath a Surface is a blow-by-blow account of the trials of the Surface project, told from the perspective of the group’s leadership. It resembles Renegades of the Empire in the sense of charting the successes and failures of a high-visibility project within Microsoft. Where it surpasses that book is in its journalistic focus. If you read Mary Jo Foley’s Microsoft 2.0 but wondered how the organizational tree she outlines would actually play out, this is the book for you.

The best part of the book was its the perspective on timing and tenor provided by Brad Sams. Given that Microsoft totally abandoned its mobile ambitions, the lateness with which phones were still being announced in tandem with new Surfaces. Panay was tasked with promoting phones built by a team he acquired but did not want, and the wording of his remarks shows it. Likewise, Sams confirms the extremely late decision to kill the Surface Mini — which was still being hinted at in the official press invitations sent out for a later-repurposed launch.

I read Beneath a Surface in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood is a true-crime story, a corporate history, and an ethnographic report on a bizarre, feminist misreading of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. It is Detroit meets Losing the Signal meets Hacks, and — for what its worth — it provides a nifty travel guide to the Silicon Valley Area.

But first: the crime. Elizabeth Holmes and her longtime boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, operated a racket that primarily prayed on tech investors, secondly on patients, and thirdly on the status and relationships of high profile champions they found (such as former Secretary of State George Schultz and future Secretary of Defense James Mattis). Their operation, “Theranos,” claimed to be developing either a Machine Learning driven blood test system, or blood test that requires much less blood, or portable blood testing devices, or some combination of these. Theranos was run in a secretive and functional structure, similar to Apple, and the standard practice for individuals who found out it was a scam was to force them to quit, sign an NDA, and threaten them with lawsuits if they talked.

Now, the corporate history. Criminality aside, Theranos acted as if it were a start-up located around buildings now or previously controlled by Facebook. From a 10,000ft perspective, investors were gambling that Theranos could disrupt the blood testing industry — provide a slightly lower quality product at a much lower cost — and that Theranos innovative scientific processes would allow it to quickly increase the quality over time in way incumbent businesses could not. Corporate executives at least claimed their services were widely used — including by the military — when they were not, making the possibility of Theranos boot-strapping quality over an extended period of “dark mode” — at least possible.

Especially in its late stage, as Theranos began courting media celebrity (and, inadvertently, scrutiny) resembled both gamergate and the 2016 Presidential election in its lazy weaponization of feminism. While parts of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Warren’s performance were arguably transgender (mimicking Steve Jobs’ dressing style and adopting a fake, baritone voice), she identified as a woman as was able to convince middle age men to treat her as a daughter. This reached its most ridiculous extent in (SECSTATE George Schultz effectively disowning his grandson to spend more family events with Elizabeth). She also adopted a victimized stance, accusing author John Carreyrou of misogyny, complaining that she was scrutinized more closely because she was a woman, and generally weaponizing a protected status.

Bad Blood contains hilarious moments, such as Theranos’ feuding with a separate patent scam that targeted them. At one point George Schultz is slowly walking up the stairs while his wife tells his grandson to call the family lawyer before he’s able to. Elizabeth Holmes may have destroyed lives, money, and people’s health, but her scam made a great story and was worth a few chuckles.

I read Bad Blood in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols

Impressions of “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols

Hit Refresh is a book published by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to cultivate a cult of personality within Microsoft, to cement the use of rhetorical phrases common in the company, and to sell himself to both large enterprise clients and regulators. While Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance was written on the retirement of a CEO, and Alan Mullaly’s American Icon was effectively a resume aimed at larger corporations, Nadella is aimed at cementing and continuing his leadership of what is now America’s most valuable company. Of this genre, Hit Refresh is the first where I am able to judge in a context of closely following the company in question at the time.

There is a short section on Satya’s childhood in India, which largely cuts off around high school. I assume the material in that section is accurate. After that, Satya’s narrative suffers from very selective editing and time dilation. Events are presented as causal when years have (silently) passed between them. Important events are described, sometimes using tortuous language, to hide the presence or activities of certain others. One specific example of this is the renaming of Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud platform to just “Azure” (dropping the name Windows), which is presented as the result of a specific customary verdict. Another is when a chain of pronouns is needed to hide former Windows-head Terry Myerson‘s role in delaying the purchase of Mojang AB (creator of the popular game ‘Minecraft’) for years.

Nadella either elides or downplays the most significant decisions he made during his first years at Microsoft: the shift away from consumer products and the shuttering of the “Nokia / Microsoft Mobile” smart phone and manufacturing business. (Nokia herself, which sold the phone business to Microsoft, used the proceeds to acquire Alcatel-Lucent, which was profiled in Douglas Coupland’s mesmerizing Kitten Clone). The first is not mentioned at all, and the second is quickly discussed in what seems a paragraph. But these were the most high-stakes, high-risk and potentially high-payoff decisions that Nadella made. Microsoft literally scrapped one of the most modern and effective manufacturing organizations in the consumer electronics business as virtually his first decision. I understand that the renaming of “Windows Azure” to “Azure” is something of a shorthand which describes the point without boring business readers with details, but it means Satya’s narrative is not factually — at least — reliable. This is neither an in-depth portrait of a leader like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs nor a journalist history of an industry like Blake Harris’s Console Wars.

And yet…. And yet there’s no arguing with success. Microsoft under Satya Nadella left a generation-long malaise and is now the most valuable company in America. Nadella’s Microsoft is more valuable than Apple. And this has not been the result of “cost cutting” or hasty decisions. Satya’s starving and demoting of the Windows organization — not covered in this book — was Solomonesque, and Microsoft’s handling of political risk well before it lands has been masterful. Perhaps the nature of Satya’s authorship here — collaborative, intellectually, and hiding more than it shows — is typical of his leadership. If so, it may be for the best.

I read Hit Refresh in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Ball Lightning,” by Cixin Liu

Ball Lightning is a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu set in the contemporary world. It is loosely connected to the author’s “Three Body” trilogy of Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, and like those books is enriched by a Chinese author’s story being told largely in China. But the story does not depend on those connections, and the events in Ball Lightning do not provide much depth to the events in that trilogy. Ball Lightning succeeds in three areas: discussion of the real phenomenon of ball lightning, a fun description of the highs and lows of scientific discovery, and a meditation on the interdependence of defense research and new technologies.

But before that, some brief criticisms. I enjoyed Ball Lightning and recommend it, but as with “Three Body” the focus is definitely on science and its implications, not characters. All characters tend to be two-dimensional, with simple motivations. No character changes much or discovers more about themselves. They are tropes, but tropes well used to tell an interesting “hard science” fiction story.

I am interested in ball lightning. That comes back to two family members, who did not like each other and often undercut each other, who both reported seeing a silent, very bright, ball of light at the same place in time. (The same episode lead to my interest in UFOs, as described in my UFO theory). I did not know before reading Ball Lightning that the phenomenon was no longer considered to be paranormal: it was recorded by scientific equipment in China! Ball lightning discoveries have been scientifically published (Cen et al, 2014). This is mentioned in-book, and I was as pleasantly surprised it really happened. Nevertheless, the actual composition, nature, and source of ball lightning are unknown, and Liu develops (and has characters either support or contest) a number of interesting hypotheses.

Liu goes one step farther, describing not just specific theories but different methods of implementing research. Characters defend, attack or practice theoretical and empirical research, civilian and military research, and even “mechanistic” and non-mechanistic research. The last category appears to relate to Marxist theory as applied by the Soviet Union, and is a reminder that the Cultural Revolution and our own politically correct eras are not the only where science is infected by political fashion. A large variety of defense research methods are described, ranging from the lone “mad” inventor to computer systems espionage to corporate work.

A fascinating, if short, involves the main character’s trip to the United States. Without giving way plot points, the themes of low-trust bargaining, surprise attacks, coded messages, and mutually assured destruction, all familiar from The Dark Forest, make a reappearance. They feel like good friends.

In the afteward Liu states that Ball Lightning is a traditional Chinese-style science fition story, focused on the invention of a technology itself, as opposed to a western science fiction story, focused on the societal consequences of the invention (The “Three Body” series is, by this definition, western). As I look over the western science fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog — A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Accidental Time Machine, The Difference Engine, and “The Frozen Sky” — I do see this pattern.

I listened to Ball Lightning in the audible edition.

The tDAxp eXPerience