November 03, 2005


The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. By Thomas L. Thompson. Basic Books. $35.

University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. By Jennifer Washburn. Basic Books. $26.

     Neither of these books specifically sets out to undermine pillars of modern American thought, but that is what both books, if taken at face value, do.  The Messiah Myth offers an interesting counterbalance to the millions of Americans – about one-third of the population – who believe the Bible is literally true.  Copenhagen-based Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson argues that it is nothing of the sort, that it was never intended to be taken as literal truth, and that the audience for which it was written would have understood it as metaphor rather than fact.  Fundamentalists will not read Thompson’s book, much less be persuaded by it, but it is certainly a good amalgam of theories and explanations.  Christianity is the most accretive of religions: Easter, to cite a single example, takes its name from the pagan fertility goddess Oestre or Ostern (from whose name we also get the word estrogen), and is built on a long tradition of spring festivals thanking God (or the gods) for the renewal of growth after the apparent death of sustaining plant life during winter.  Thompson argues that such Biblical figures as Jesus and David were not historical people but messiah figures, continuations of a longstanding tradition of belief that a divinely appointed king would restore the world to perfection.  The dying and rising gods – resurrection and eternal life – the renewal of the seasons – all these long predate the Bible, Thompson argues, and are incorporated into it.  Thompson tends to make short shrift of what evidence there is for an actual David and Jesus, and of course his rational arguments will be unpersuasive to those who accept the Bible on faith (or because they have always been told to accept it, which amounts to the same thing).  Still, this thoughtful book makes some interesting points.

     University, Inc. is a more argumentative, confrontational book, as close to polemic as to analysis.  Freelance journalist Jennifer Washburn trots out the now rather tired argument that corporate funding of universities invariably comes with specific strings attached, thereby leading to compromised research and inevitable conflicts of interest.  Pharmaceutical research comes in for most of her attacks, based on situations in which a corporation sued a researcher who found its AIDS drug ineffective, and researchers tied to drug companies downplayed the suicide risk to teenagers taking certain antidepressants.  Washburn has clearly done extensive research: her notes and index are half the length of her entire text.  But she seems to have started the book with an agenda, then done research to back it up.  This becomes clear in her recommendations for “The Path Forward”: significant increases in federal oversight of research and tightening of federal conflict-of-interest rules.  There are certainly abuses of corporate sponsorship of university research – but it can be argued (as Washburn does not) that corporate funding helps keep sky-high tuition down and lets universities offer more need-based aid to students.  It can also be argued (as Washburn also does not) that there are as many instances of government misuse of power and outright bungling – after Hurricane Katrina, for example – as there are of corporate malfeasance.  Substituting oversight by scientifically inept bureaucrats for dependence on sometimes over-greedy corporations is scarcely a confidence-inspiring plan.

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