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From Barnes & NobleNarrator Brian F. O'Byrne, with his soft and mesmerizing Irish voice, captures not only Thomas Cahill's intelligence and humor, but also succeeds in evoking the wide range of emotions of people alive at a pivotal point in history. This is especially effective in this narrative, for as in his previous volumes in the Hinges of History series, HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION and THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS, Cahill seeks to animate the names we know from the pages of history, using what we know of them and their times to present them as real people, each with their own character. Beginning with an account of the period leading up to the life of Jesus, Cahill sets the stage of a realm created by the reign and rampage of Alexander the Great, and leading up to the pax romana of Caesar Augustus. Quoting from letters and writings of the time, he paints a picture of life in the midst of an oppressive Roman political presence, thoroughly saturated by the influence of Greek culture. Most importantly, he depicts the social and religious character of the Judaism in which the man, Jesus, lived and flourished. But the history Cahill details is more than background for a historical narrative. Instead, it brings to life a world, a realistic context, in which to imagine "the people Jesus knew," which helps the listener to understand the extreme reaction they had to him -- either as a savior or a blasphemer.
This history gives way what is a fascinating interpretation and exploration of the New Testament writings, and most importantly, the writers. Based on his own brilliant translations of the ancient Greek, Cahill illuminates narratives populated with people whose concerns would otherwise seem impossibly remote from the modern listener. He brings to life the characters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as authors who, each with his own concerns, style, and often remarkably different levels of linguistic capability, painstakingly struggled to record the details of the life of Jesus. Through their accounts, we are able to develop a context in which to see Jesus as a real, living person: a man of sharp intelligence and enormous kindness, a humorous and affectionate teacher who preached a breed of spiritual morality as yet unheard of by the world, and whose devoted friends were fishermen and fallen women. The portrait also helps to imagine the lives of his followers after his death, persecuted, their memory of Jesus haunted by an unimaginably cruel and painful death. Cahill's account paints a portrait of Mary, long before she became the Virgin Mary of popular faith, but as a woman who had a profoundly important influence on her son, and Simon Peter, Jesus's intimate friend, the "rock" upon whom the Catholic church was built. Brian F. O'Byrne's voice, which expertly flexes between gentle and stern, fearful and forceful, brings to life each of these characters, conveying the subtleties of the emotions of ordinary people alive in extraordinarily wondrous and equally trying times..
But still, what remains most compelling about this account is Thomas Cahill's ability to tie the past to the present, frequently illustrating examples with events from modern times to which the modern listener can relate. From Alexander the Great to Adolf Hitler, from religious and social rifts in at the time of the 1st century a.d., to Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 20th century, the question remains: what difference did Jesus of Nazareth make? Ultimately, the key strength of DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS is that it creates a rich context in which listeners, regardless of their faith, can ask that question of the world, and also themselves.
--Elise Vogel is a New York-based freelancer.