The first was B.J. Novak's One More Thing. This was an odd and entirely wonderful book that I'd picked up last year and had never gotten around to listening. It's very hard to explain what this book is about; but essentially it's a book of short (sometimes just a few lines, sometimes several 'pages') stories that are a fascinating blend between O Henry's style and the bizarrely compelling fantastical premises of the best Kids In The Hall sketches. Some of them are terribly funny. Some of them are sad. Some are thoughtful. And a handful of them are all three at once. To enjoy it, I found that I needed to just let go of my preconceptions and let the dada wash over me. Once I went with the flow, it was amazing how well the stories worked for me.
Like many audiobooks these days, this one adds value in the form of guest readers who step in to take different parts. Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Katey Perry, Emma Thompson and Rainn Wilson are amongst the guests who join Novak in reading this book. All of them are totally with the bizarre program and do a great job of bringing this book to life.
Just remember. No one goes to Heaven to see Dan Fogelberg.
The second was The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon by Professor Bart D Ehrman, from The Great Courses lecture series. Covering a topic that I've always loved, Ehrman explores the path that the Christian New Testament takes to go from a collection of letters and gospels into the twenty-seven books that are Scriptural canon today. Rather than just springing into existence, our current canon was the result of many years of Darwinian evolution, wherein books that found favour with congregations (and ultimately church founders) were copied and recopied and passed on to future generations; while those that fell out of favour stopped being copied and eventually fell out of sight. The final canon was fixed in place only once the printing press came along to allow for the same books to be printed in the same order time after time.
One of the best parts of Ehrman's lecture is that he takes pains to place the books into as much historical context as he can. While there's far more material than could be covered in just a six hour course, he tries to provide representative samples of what the various alternative gospels were all about, why they were written and the points of dogma that ultimately caused them to be rejected by various Christian communities. He also provides fascinating insight into other Christian polities who lost the battle for orthodoxy, such as the Gnostics (and if this is a topic that fascinates you, I highly recommend doing a whole lecture course on the Gnostic faiths. They're outre as heck, but they're also intensely creative and thoughtful).
My favourite part of the entire series is that he takes the time to place the Book of Revelation into its proper historical context. Today, Revelation is the only Apocalypse that we have, so we consider it something of a unique, special book. But at the time when it was written, Revelation was just one in a series of Apocalypses written in that particular style. Apocalypses were written by both Jews and Christians and the style appears to have emerged from Jewish communities as an answer to why their people continued to be oppressed and harassed despite keeping the Law. Since early Christianity was really just a sect of the Jewish faith, it got to inherit writing styles such as this.
Revelation is also explored in its historical context as a subversive writing meant to promise what would become of the oppressive Roman empire once the Christ returned to make things better (keep in mind that many to most Christians during the first century held to Paul's belief that Jesus' return was imminent). The symbolism used in Revelation is unpacked and explored for what it was meant to convey to a contemporary reader who was under that Empire's heel. While I'd sort of known the history behind Revelation before, this helped me put the various pieces together to come to grips with what the thing was actually about.
Interestingly, Revelation only barely made it into the New Testament (and made it all the poorer for its inclusion, in my opinion). It was considered too naively literal to be canonized during a time when the symbolic reading of scripture was becoming la dernier crie. Another apocalypse, The Apocalypse of Peter almost made it into the canon in its place. This book was a fascinating guided tour taken by the apostle Peter as he's shown the wonders of Heaven and the torments of Hell. Ultimately, it was rejected for the same reasons that Revelation almost got the axe: it was just too literal a story.
Peter's apocalypse had many scenes of hell in which sinners were tormented by being strung up by a body part that symbolized their sins in life: liars were hung over hellfire by their tongues; the vain were hung by their hair; and adulterers were dangled over the pits of hell by their, er... members.
I can't help but fervently wish that if Peter had made it into the canon rather than Revelation, the execrable authors of Left Behind (Jenkens and LaHaye) would have instead published a book series with the somewhat on the nose title of 'Left Hanging'. Just a thought!