Tag Archives: Divine

The Divine Arsonist: A Book Review

divine-a“Thank God for David and for the creek. They said the cold water probably saved your life. David called in a Lifeflight helicopter and covered you with a blanket. He stayed with you the whole time. They got you down here to St. Luke’s but you were in a coma by then. That was four months ago. Four months. The doctors are shocked that you made it at all. You were a mess. The whole left side of your body was shattered, ribs, arm, pelvis. The burns were bad but they were more worried about the skull fracture. They kept testing you for brain wave activity and every time they were amazed by the results. Even though you were deep in a coma, they said it was like you were living a parallel life somewhere else.”

-Jacob Nordby from the Epilogue of his book
The Divine Arsonist: A Tale of Awakening

This isn’t the sort of book I normally read but somehow Jacob Nordby ended up being my “friend” on Facebook, and his book “Divine Arsonist” keeps coming up in my Facebook updates. I don’t really know how we got to be “friends” on Facebook (I’ve never met him) except that we both live near Boise and we’re both published authors.

I’m generally skeptical of self-help books or texts that purport to show some sort of inner truth or secret meaning to life, but in the back of my brain, every time “Divine Arsonist” appeared in my web browser, I couldn’t shake a twinge of curiosity. Also, I remember part of a transaction I had with Nordby on Facebook. I don’t remember the conversation specifically, but I do remember him gently chiding me about the “path” I’m on, referring to my faith. So I was curious about his particular path.

And I review books.

I normally receive complementary copies of the books I review from the publisher but this time I purchased a kindle edition, which was very inexpensive. I thought I’d shoot through the text rather effortlessly, but I had to really make myself read his book, and I found myself fighting the temptation to abandon it about halfway through.

I don’t want to be unfair. If this book is the result of Nordby being the victim of a hit-and-run car accident in which he was terribly hurt, and if he has suffered all of the misfortunes the Epilogue of his book records, then I have nothing but compassion for him and his family, and I do not want to make light of his experiences. And yet, so much of his book of spiritual allegory is presented as part of his lived experience, I don’t know where his actual life stops and all the fiction begins.

So what did I think of his book?

The Divine Arsonist is the story of a businessman who worked hard to climb the ladder of success only to have something whisper to him that perhaps there was something more to discover. This is his journey of discovery told in a blend of the personal story and fiction. It immediately spoke to me of the question: When do we start dreaming a new dream for ourselves and our world? The old ways are burning us out. That’s where Jacob is at the beginning of his journey. There are so many elements of a shamanic journey, vision quest or hero’s journey from old mythology: meeting spiritual guides, being challenged to endure rites of passage, time in the wilderness, facing the shadow and opening to all the levels of reality beyond our day-to-day “get it done” consciousness. The writing is luscious, descriptive and an easy read. I could have easily read it in one sitting but I forced myself to turn off the light at night and savor it over the course of several bedtime reading sessions. There are beautiful teachings that you want to grab the highlighter to remember.

Jacob’s journey toward finding his light is an invitation or challenge to go on your own journey, to claim your own light. It is a tale that reminds us that life is short and that we are choosing the world we live in right now with each thought and each action we take. It is a story that reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of everything that we think we know to become the person we came to earth to be. Even though I’ve had my own awakening moments, Jacob’s writing made me want to commit to living them on an even deeper level. Isn’t that what we want a spiritual book to do?

Amazon review by Carol Woodliff

I don’t normally look at the other reviews of a book I intend on reviewing, but after finishing Nordby’s book, I thought I must be missing something. Woodliff’s review is typical of the overwhelming amount of praise “Divine Arsonist” has received, at least on Amazon. So why aren’t I “wowed” too?

“So, back to your book. Emerson said ‘make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of triumph out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.'”

-Nordby, Chapter Ten

Those few sentences really tell you everything you need to know about the philosophy that Nordby relates in “Divine Arsonist.” The essence is to not rely on any single truth such as, for example, Christianity or Taoism, but to derive truths from whatever seems to touch you as a truth. While Nordby’s story relies on external “guides” such as Lucius and Jack to assist the author on his spiritual journey, the truths that seem to come out in the end are truths that matter most to Nordby…or presumably anyone on a similar path. It’s what you would expect of a person taking different elements from a wide variety of world religions and philosophies and weaving them into what looks, sounds, and feels right to that individual…a completely, subjectively constructed set of truths.

CASTANEDA_kraftensgjerningerAlthough Nordby only mentions the works of Carlos Castaneda in passing, the experiences he relates reminds me of how Castaneda’s “Don Juan” series has been described to me (I’ve been meaning to read Castaneda for years but never got around to it). I guess that’s what impresses me the most, or fails to impress me, about “Divine Arsonist.” It seems all too derivative, all too “borrowed” from other religions to be truly insightful, let alone remarkable.

I swam through a field of unconditional love to explore the Great All-Nothing. Without effort, I was there, face to face with what could only be the Mystery of Mysteries, Yahweh, Baha, Wakan, Tanakh, Allah, Krishna, God the Father-Mother, Rah.

I have to assume that some parts of the book accurately describe Nordby’s past, and if so, then Christianity, or the part he experienced, was extremely…extreme, and restrictive, and joyless. Nordby did manage to salvage some portions of the Christian writings, but a much larger part of his philosophy is founded on nature-based religions such as different Native American beliefs. There was also a fair amount of mysticism involved and I’ve spent enough time reading Kabbalah and Chassidic Tales to recognize some symbols from those sources (I should say that I doubt Nordby has actually read from Jewish mystic texts, but many mystic themes seem to travel across different disciplines).

Here’s a short sample:

Masters and ancient ones have appeared to bring the light. In earlier days men were more simple, natural. They lived with the Earth and were guided by the Great Mother’s voice.

A dual male/female god isn’t unusual, even in Judaism. In mystic thought, the Ein Sof is the powerful, creative, male force God while the Divine Presence, which descended upon the Tabernacle in the desert (see the end of the Book of Exodus) is considered feminine and nurturing.

There also seemed to be some of the eastern philosophies influencing Nordby, “surrendering the ego” and such, and though I doubt it was intentional, I caught a few references that could have been from The Matrix (1999) and even the cave scene from The Empire Strikes Back (1980), though the connections were only superficial.

“Divine Arsonist” seems to be the sort of book that would appeal to someone who is on a spiritual journey (and aren’t we all) but who doesn’t want to choose one of the pre-conceived paths. Well, not exactly, anyway. If a person isn’t attracted to a pre-existing religion or philosophical discipline, then “Divine Arsonist” offers the alternative of borrowing as much or as little from any or all of the traditions human beings have created for themselves over time. It’s actually quite appealing when seen from that light.

I don’t want to minimize the impact of all this, particular in Nordby’s life, since it is obviously quite significant.

However, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I travel a somewhat different path, and while it isn’t entirely traditional, it is truthful to say that I rely on what I consider to be an objective and external God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a book or repository of truth and wisdom that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. The difference for me in writing my own Bible vs. exploring the one I believe was given to us by God, is that in the former, I’m investigating merely myself and my own symbols in relation to my environment and how I perceive it, even in the spiritual realms. In the latter, I’m delving into not only my relationship with my environment but my relationship with the One, Radical, Creative, Unified, God and how He desires to relate to me.

seeking_the_sunTruth isn’t just what I decide it will be, even below the conscious level (although most humans sometimes attempt to manipulate “truth” to their own advantage), but it’s what God has decided it will be. My task is to search for truth where ever it may be found, uncover it, and let the sparks fly upward back to their source (and you’ll forgive me if I momentarily borrow from the imagery of Chassidic mysticism).

God has created a trail for each of us and in partnership with Him, we walk the trail together, not because God needs us as a companion, but because God wants unity with human beings and He desires to teach us about a relationship with Him. The problem with internally generated symbolism and meaning is that ultimately, you can never surprise yourself or learn something new. Oh I don’t doubt that it can be very beneficial in many ways.

But it’s not God.

However, Nordby did remind me that I always did intend to read Carlos Castaneda, so after I finish the next book in my pipeline, I’ll finally get to The Teachings of Don Juan.

After everything I just said about Nordby’s book, why would I read another book (or book series) that promises to reveal yet another “alternative” spirituality? Curiosity? Yes. But I also want to pursue the history and the mythos that Castaneda’s work contains. After all, Castaneda’s books are considered classics in their genre and not derivatives of previous works (as far as I know).

There is value in unfolding another’s symbolism and following the thread woven into their tapestry…just as long as you remain grounded upon a firmer foundation.

Waking Up Alive

In school, from an early age, Joe learned how stuff works. Joe learned how pulleys work, how electrical circuits work, how cells divide and how neurons process thoughts. He learned that the whole world is a big machine, and we are all little machines inside it.

Joe graduated college, got a job, got married, had kids.

Then Joe had a crisis. He needed help. He picked up books of today’s most popular genre—self-help. Lots of them. The books told him he has a soul, he has purpose, that’s there’s something beyond just being a pleasure-seeking machine.

Joe felt better. He was able to go back to work, keep his marriage and enjoy his kids.

There are many things the world needs. It needs nothing more than a soul.

Joe needed to know he has a soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why the World Needs a Soul”
from the “Chassidic Thought” series

Some people don’t know this. Some people will never learn this. Even for people who do know that they have a soul and that life has a broader purpose beyond the day-to-day grind, any pain that is strong enough or lasts long enough will knock that information right out of awareness.

And all that you’ll be about to think or feel is the pain.

Fortunately, Joe was able to overcome that, as were the equally fictional Julie and Sasha in Rabbi Freeman’s tale (which I highly encourage you to read in its entirety since it makes many good points).

Yesterday, I talked about how experiencing chronic emotional and spiritual pain can make it very difficult to connect to your purpose and to cling to the awareness of your soul in any meaningful way. Actually, that kind of pain makes it hard to even get up in the morning and care about whether you have a purpose or not. No matter how hard the soul strives to reach its Creator, the weight of a thousand, thousand failures, disappointments and criticisms presses the soul back into the dirt like the hand of a thoughtless child crushing a bug.

Yesterday, I also said this:

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?

Is God watching when we’re about to surrender to the final abyss and does He see how tiny and fragile the flicking spark of our soul is under the oppression of darkness and hopelessness? Is He waiting for our ascent after the descent as well? Is He waiting in vain?

It is said “that which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.” But that assumes whatever is trying to kill you will succeed. What if it just hurts instead?

“What is unique about a Jewish martyr,” wrote Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, “is that he would rather stay alive.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Martyrs for Life”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

You feel the Divine spark growing weaker within you. The light dims. Suddenly, you realize that you are in complete darkness. Your lungs labor for air and then there is none and your chest sucks in only dirt and dust and gravel. You close your eyes in anguish one last time welcoming a final oblivion.

But the next morning you wake up and realize you’re alive. On days like that, I still say:

I gratefully thank you living and existing King for restoring my soul to me with compassion.

Abundant is Your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani

Somehow, the weight is still there but it’s lighter, just light enough to allow my chest to expand, let my lungs fill with air, let me exhale, and then inhale again. I open my eyes and I can see light. I sit up in bed, put my feet on the floor. And I can stand.

Why am I thanking God for being alive?

Because I have a soul and regardless of what the rest of me feels like, my soul is part of God and she (in Hebrew, words have gender and the Hebrew word for soul is feminine) thanks her maker for the restoration of life and the ability to continue in the service of the King.

Regardless of what the rest of me feels.

The need for meaning in our personal lives, the sense of responsibility for the ecology of our planet and the respect for the dignity of every human life—all these are sacrosanct today. Which is a good thing, because without them we would have destroyed ourselves in the century just past.

Yet they are entirely hollow. More than that: they are in utter conflict with the materialist concept of reality that we are taught in school and practice in the laboratory.

In short, we suffer an aching disconnect between our brains and our soul.

Our soul believes life has purpose and meaning, while our brains consider our bodies to be no more than a walking water-bottle of biochemical reactions. We teach small children to cry over the future of the elephants, the pandas and the blue whale, that they have a responsibility to save the planet and sustain it, and then we teach them that all this arrived due to a big bang and a series of accidents. We will not tolerate any voice that suggests the superiority of one family of human beings over another, all the while reducing this creature to a string of DNA in which serious differences have already been uncovered.

Nothing could be more precarious.

The world, existence, everything, is more than just how we feel at any given moment. No matter how much life can sometimes hurt, who we are and that we’re alive is more than just our circumstances, our history, our “excess baggage,” and how we perceive our lives. The world needs a soul because it needs a purpose. God built that into each and every human being, whether we choose to recognize that fact or not. Once we do, we’re “trapped” with that knowledge and we become aware of the Divine that lives within our secular, ordinary flesh. We are more and different than the sum of our wetware and our programming. The part of us that thanks God every morning for waking up alive means we can suffer what we think will kill us but still arise the next morning a living martyr.

Life means more than getting our way or winning or losing the endless arguments we find in the blogosphere and in social networking venues. It’s important to step away from the monitor and the keyboard and to realise that life doesn’t primarily occur in the Internet. It occurs in the connection between man and God, even if we only cry out to Him that it hurts, oh my does it hurt.

I recently read an article written by a fellow named Dr. Harlan Weisman called My 11 Months of Kaddish. It’s too long to quote the whole thing here, but it’s the story of a man who, in saying Kaddish for his deceased father everyday for 11 months, discovered himself, who he is as a Jew, and ultimately the relationship between his soul and God.

But he couldn’t do it until his father died and he began his bitter grief. However, Dr. Weisman didn’t really start to live again until the eleven months of saying Kaddish were over:

Next day, I went to shul, even though I didn’t have the obligation to say Kaddish anymore. But I needed the warmth and the continuity. And the minyan needed me, the tenth man. I’m repaying all those who took care of me for those 11 months. I’m helping those who continue their period of saying Kaddish, and I watch the new ones joining us, some just as unsure of what they’re doing as I was 11 months ago, as they stumble through their first Kaddish.

I go because it feels good to join the generations of Jews before me who were blessed with the same traditions.

I go because it makes the light inside me shine more brightly.

In the weeks following my last Kaddish, the hole inside of me opened and closed in unpredictable cycles. The sadness continued, coming and going, but gradually became less intense. And the hole gradually filled and stopped opening, just like the rabbi said. The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone. He is with me today, with me every day. His values, his kindness, compassion, courage, endurance, fortitude, determination and tenacity to do what’s right, his commitment to justice and fairness, but most of all his love, is with me today, tomorrow and always. And I am passing these gifts onto my children, as they will to theirs, through the generations.

Sadness, grief, regret, self-loathing, depression…something’s trying to kill us, but our soul won’t let us die. We’ll just continue to suffer under the weight of a life we never wanted and cannot control. But something has to die for us to live again. Something must be extinguished, and we must let go of it before we realize that it is time for it to end.

Someday, we’ll pray to God, not just because we need Him, but because we want Him, too. Because being with God is the most natural and normal thing for us to do…like waking up in the morning, like breathing.

Our soul will never stop needing God. But we must realize that the rest of us needs and wants Him, too. Then we can stop simply existing in our suffering silence. Then we can begin to wake up alive.