by Adolf Holl
In the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, God has three aspects: God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. God the Father, or the “Old Testament” God Yahweh, is the creator who made the universe and actively intervenes in human affairs. He sends angels to smite the wicked and plunges prophets into the body of the whale. Jesus Christ is the human incarnation of God, sent to die for humanity’s sins. Their roles are easy enough to grasp. But there’s the third figure, the mysterious Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost. This amorphous being lacks easily defined traits – sometimes, he’s described as a ‘still small voice’ while at other times he appears as ‘tongues of fire’. In an unusual biography, Adolf Holl seeks to identify and describe the most elusive member of the Godhead.
I approached this book wanting to learn more about the personality of the Holy Spirit. After all, in the Bible both Jesus and Yahweh show joy, anger, sorrow. In Genesis, Abraham and Yahweh debate over how many virtuous men must exist in order for the city of Sodom to be spared destruction. In the New Testament, Jesus is accused of being a glutton because he parties with his friends. But the Holy Spirit remains aloof and distant; he inspires human action on behalf of God but as far as I know, we never really see him directly acting. I hoped that Holl picked up something from the texts that I never noticed, or that he’d combed through two thousand years’ worth of theological debate to present a plausible interpretation.
This is not that book.
“Holy Ghost” is a name for a decidedly Christian doctrine, but Holl applies it universally. So the spirit that narrated the Koran to Mohammad becomes the Holy Spirit. The zeitgeist that led to the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung becomes the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired James Joyce to write novels and Rainer Maria Rilke to write poetry. It’s certainly an unusual approach to the topic, but it leads to a very meandering, episodic sort of biography. Holl hops around in time, jumping from one religious or intellectual movement to the next with only the loosest connection. I tried to keep up, but I constantly felt like I was missing the threads tying everything together.
By the close of the book, the question in my mind was no longer “What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity?” but rather “Is the author’s version of the Holy Spirit a divinity or simply a figment of mankind’s imagination?” This made for an interesting and entertaining read, to be sure, but ultimately it was a very frustrating journey. One thing I will give the book credit for, though – it definitely made me think about religion, inspiration and underlying spirit of humanity in new ways. If that was the author’s intention, as I believe it was, then it was a very successful book.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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