Archive for the 'religion' Category

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.

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John Barton: A History of the Bible

April 27, 2019

A1tPCMSb+DL._AC_UL436_This is a fascinating and seriously academic book; the author is an Anglican priest, but writes from a very open-minded perspective, casting his net very widely. The book is very carefully structured and presented, right from his opening thesis in the introduction, and references and bibliography are excellent. He seeks to cover as much as possible in the history of the scriptures of two major religions of the book, Judaism and Christianity, explaining the complex relationship between the two faiths, as well as the complex interrelationship of their scriptures and how differently Jews and Christians regard and use the Old Testament. This last, coupled with the notion that Jews have no notion of original sin, I found very enlightening. Barton explains clearly, makes helpful connections and draws many quite disparate strands together.

The first eye-opener was the lack of evidence for so much of the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, and the haziness of the existence (or not) of so many of the characters familiar to us. The Old Testament comes across as a veritable mishmash, confusing and confused, not susceptible to unravelling for clarity or veracity: Israel is brought down to the small-sized nation it was, and almost nothing in this apparent ‘history’ can be corroborated from other sources.

Although Barton explains and clarifies as far as possible (not very far!), I must confess to still finding myself mystified by the purpose of much of the Old Testament. I’m drawn to the familiar names and stories I first encountered in my childhood, whether they are truth or legend, and I’m drawn to the wisdom books, though many regard these as apocryphal, but I still find the prophecies and many of the psalms rather empty.

Barton outlines very concisely and clearly the historical context of the New Testament; indeed contextual background and connections are one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. Again, he is clear about the lack of clarity and definitive knowledge about Paul, about the practices, observations and rituals of the early church, and therefore how much may be later accretions. Increasingly as I’ve read more widely about the beginnings of Christianity, I’ve become aware not only of how controversial a character Paul is, but also of recent much more careful interpretations and evaluations of some of his attitudes, especially towards women; it is a caricature to describe him simply as a misogynist, which many tend to do.

Barton’s willingness, as a Christian, to examine and question everything and admit to the absence of so much certainty I find very refreshing: he is not defensive about this, even when considering the balance between what may be true and what has probably been invented in the gospels. But very little emerges with any definiteness. He feels that the teachings of Jesus Christ have been overshadowed by the construction of a religion centred on him.

He surveys the changes in the Christian Bible over time, through Reformation and translation, noting that the more extreme reformers – Calvinists and Puritans – interpret the Bible in a more Jewish way, prescriptive and ritualistic.

It’s an excellent book if you are deeply interested in the subject and along with the writings of Geza Vermes, will probably complete my current reading on the topic for a while. I often found myself astonished when I recalled that it was an Anglican priest writing, until I realised that clearly all his research had not shaken his faith, which is clearly grounded elsewhere than in unquestioning acceptance of the contents of a book, despite the reformers’ insistence on sola scriptura….

On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

Gilbert Sinoué: Le Livre de Saphir

April 1, 2019

81gEuxNWzxL._AC_UL436_This is quite a fascinating and gripping mystery, set in Spain in the final years of the Reconquista, shortly before the fall of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. It’s set around the search for the Sapphire Book, hidden somewhere by one of its last guardians; it purportedly contains proof of the existence of God. There is a whole set of cryptic clues which send the searchers on journeys all across the country. The searchers are three, one from each of the faiths of the book: an ageing rabbi, a middle-aged sheikh and a young monk, who each have been entrusted with a partial version of the clues: Sinoué is setting up his trio for dialogues about God, faith, religion and their three differing interpretations.

So, at one level it feels like a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but there’s rather more to this Egyptian-born writer’s novel than that. The focus is on the similarities and connections between the religions, which even the three adepts are not always aware of. Their quest is complicated when they are joined by a female who is a plant from the Inquisition who have gained knowledge of the quest and through subterfuge have obtained some of the clues: she is a clever and learned woman, confidant of the Queen, but is playing a dangerous game: as well as being in constant danger of giving herself away or being uncovered, she is tailed by the Inquisition and also a rival group linked to the Queen…

An atmosphere of sadness permeates the story as we know the Moors are about to be driven from Spain, and the Reconquista will shortly mean the expulsion or enforced conversion of Jews and Muslims. I was saddened by the suspicions between the three seekers, as well as the way trust gradually grew as they advanced in their journey, and came to realise how much more similar than different their faiths were; all of this makes the story so much more tragic, of course. At times the book felt worthy of a writer like Umberto Eco, and I did find echoes of his Baudalino occasionally.

The female agent improves the story as a foil to the men, and provides romantic interest as it is she and the monk who find their lives and fates entangled further than they expected. All are changed by their shared adventures: the monk becomes a killer and a lover, the treacherous woman comes to understand a purpose to her life and is disabused of her fanatical Christian opinions, and the Sheikh learns what forgiveness means.

I enjoyed the book for its atmosphere, for making me think, and for exploring the nature of faith. I was annoyed by one gross error which someone ought to have picked up: a reference to the work of Copernicus and his dangerous astronomical discoveries, when that learned monk would actually only have been 14 years old at the time the story takes place… and if I’ve whetted your interest, I’m sorry that the novel has not been translated into English.

On heresy

January 23, 2019

A punishable drift from accepted orthodoxy, but how, and by whom: who decides what is ‘correct’, the ‘party line’, and how? And why are organisations so fearful of other views?

I came to ponder the topic after looking up a reference to Pelagianism which came up in something I was reading. Pelagianism was a fifth century heresy which denied original sin, in other words, Adam’s sin was his alone on not visited on every subsequent human generation, as the church (or St Augustine of Hippo, anyway) taught; this meant that infant baptism was not vital… once you get into the hair-splitting nitty-gritty of questions like this, that way madness lies, as someone once said. I have read several interesting novels whose outcome hinges on heresy: Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterpiece L’Oeuvre Au Noir, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, and Luther Blissett’s Q. This last novel, set in the early days of the Reformation and centred around various divergences from the Lutheranism that was gradually becoming an orthodoxy itself, was apparently written by a collective…

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It’s the same in politics, although the need for rigidly politically correct lines of thought seems more to affect left wing and progressive organisations. I was reminded of the political acrobatics described in Ismail Kadare’s astonishing novel The Great Winter, recounting the split between the Party of Labour of Albania under Enver Hoxha, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: so many words, so little difference, so much significance. The party members in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four are oppressed by the need to follow and toe the party line; we follow the workings of the Stalinist purges in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Ultimately, of course, it’s all about control: if someone has to spend all their time ensuring that they know the official party line, that they think correctly and do not deviate from it, then they are in a constant state of self-induced anxiety, which is worsened by the often random nature of arrests and purges. And also, everyone is watching everyone else…

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I wonder if this kind of nit-picking explains my lifelong reluctance to join political organisations, or religious ones. I still spend ages thrashing out my own ideas and understandings, unwilling to take on board anyone else’s wholesale, although I do read lots of other people’s ideas. There came a point when I was on the verge of losing my Catholic faith, when a priest whom I respected responded to something I said with ‘that’s a bit too Protestant for me!’ And I realised that some of my thoughts were therefore definitely unorthodox, even heretical… Whereas I knew others who seemed quite happy to live with a whole series of contradictions and still practise their religion, I couldn’t.

Philip Pullman: La Belle Sauvage revisited

October 4, 2018

51zrG9f2dVL._AC_US218_I’ve come back to Pullman’s novel a year after it was published and in anticipation of the rumoured appearance of the next one in the series in the spring. If you want to read my reaction first time round, you can find it here.

I usually find a re-read quite different from the first read and this was no exception: apart from the main plot characters and outlines of the story, I’d forgotten many of the details; this is quite natural in my experience, since that first reading is so driven by wanting to know the plot, the whole story. Now it was time to slow down, and focus on what else the author was doing.

The first thing I have to acknowledge (again!) is what a really good story-teller Pullman is: the plot grips from the outset and carries you along; once again I found myself side-lining other activities to sit on the sofa with the book. And the book is well-written, too, as you might expect from an ex-English teacher, perhaps.

I found myself thinking about alternate universes, which is what Pullman created in the original trilogy His Dark Materials, and what is so effective is its plausibility. I’m sure Tolkein’s Middle Earth is a coherent whole but Pullman’s alternate universe is populated with humans with whom we can identify, even though their being, consciousness and experience of the world is split between themselves and their external daemons; the technology of their world resembles ours in many but not all ways and its nomenclature is interesting, too (there is Pullman the English teacher playing again). So that world absorbs us from the start, in all its detail and complexity, with its different history and yet similar concerns to those of our own world: freedom of thought, the power of religion, climate change…

In this novel, Pullman clearly gains from his readers’ familiarity with that universe from his previous trilogy, and from the reappearance of some characters with whom we are already familiar, even though this novel is chronologically set some ten years earlier.

Pullman again uses young characters at the heart of his story, and not because he’s specifically writing for a child or adolescent audience – he’s not – but this aspect of the novels intrigued me this time around. In His Dark Materials we have Lyra and Will, roughly of the same age, not quite adult, but adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, and Pullman highlights this crucial age by having the transition to full adulthood as the point in life where one’s daemon becomes fixed as a single creature which it will remain for the rest of that person’s life, rather than being capable of constant change as it is during pre-adulthood. Behind this concept, as well as what particular creature an individual’s daemon fixes as, lies deep reflection of the process of development of the personality, and all the influences on the individual during her or his formative years. And in La Belle Sauvage we have two similar, yet slightly different characters: Malcolm is younger by several years than Alice, who is rather more worldly-wise and experienced but still not quite an adult…

Pullman puts his characters in very challenging situations where they are often faced with difficult and complex moral choices, sometimes able to reflect before acting, sometimes not, and it seems to me that there are lessons offered here, not in any didactic or exhortatory sense, but lessons nevertheless to be experienced through the characters and then reflected on by the reader whatever age s/he is, as it were: Pullman’s characters have to learn how to live right, and to live with the consequences of the choices they make, and he is reassuring to the reader and to his characters about the outcomes for his young characters…

I think this aspect of his work is one that I shall return to in future readings of his works: as well as being a stunning story-teller, Pullman is also a very moral writer.

Jean Verdon: Le plaisir au Moyen Age

September 30, 2018

51zbteZ-JsL._AC_US218_I’ve read, enjoyed and found enormously informative this author’s book on travelling in the Middle Ages, and couldn’t resist this one, on pleasure. Verdon was immensely informative on the idea of courtly love, which I’d first encountered at A level when studying Chaucer, but what we were given as school students was a basic outline and some key concepts. To have it all clearly exemplified with extracts from a wide range of literature from the time was fascinating, and only partly because I’d always regarded courtly love as such a crazy idea…

Pleasure only makes slaves of those who consider it an end in itself…’ that I found really thought-provoking. In those times, everything was overlaid by a strongly religious outlook – not just sexual activity – and yet it’s clear that there were lively debates and disagreements on the subject, with clerics and ascetics taking a much harder line than those who actually lived in and engaged with the real world. Verdon explains the astonishing religious scruples and hair-splitting about the different kinds of sexual activity, and the sinfulness of pleasure: from a twenty-first century perspective, it’s quite mind-boggling. And yet, there seemed to be a general agreement that desire was necessary in nature…

I found myself wondering why what seemed to have changed most radically in religious attitudes towards human sexuality over the centuries was its acceptance of pleasure, whereas the Catholic Church is still wedded to the idea that all sexual acts must be open to procreation, thus creating the problems we are all familiar with, concerning contraception, abortion, homosexual activity, before we even come on to considering clerical celibacy: why is enjoying sex now OK whereas the other baggage is still retained?

I found Verdon’s further exploration of the influence of religious attitudes to food, fasting and other forms of asceticism just as mad as attitudes to sex; within the total religious weltanschauung, they make sense perhaps, but at the cost of such an astonishing warping of human life and experience. There was basically an ‘official’ downer on any kind of pleasure, enjoyment or fulfilment, with the clergy wanting to dictate to everyone how they should live. However, as Verdon also makes clear, there was fairly widespread scepticism and ignoring of official dictates.

It was useful to be reminded that the entire mediaeval mindset was shaped by Christianity – or rather, interpretations of Christianity over the centuries – and focused ultimately on the duty to love God and have the eternal rather than the secular in view at all times.. And while this may make little sense to us in these radically different times, I am often unsure that our current materialistic, money-focused and ultimately hedonistic approach is any saner or healthier an approach to life, happiness or contentment.

August favourites #21: Music

August 21, 2018

Some readers of my blog may be aware of my passion for J S Bach’s music, especially his church cantatas; one of my best memories is of a trip I made exploring his world in deepest Thuringia a few years ago. My interest in his music was sparked by a teacher at school – cellist and organist too – who felt that the master’s music was not for peasants like us students and so would not play it to us… For my favourite piece of music I go back to an Eastertide cantata (BWV 104 Du Hirte Israel, höre), which probably sealed my passion for the man’s music. Many years ago whilst a student at Lancaster University, I picked up a second-hand LP on a stall in the city market, and this was one of the two pieces on it. I played it to death and wore it out, and it led me to listening to more and more of the great man’s church music. I never looked back. Bach’s music has been one of the great joys of my life, and combination of the words and music in his church cantatas I have always found spiritually uplifting.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #14: the Bible

August 14, 2018

I wrote a post once – you’ll hunt it down if you’re that interested – in which I expressed how tiresome I find much of the Bible. The creation myth and the story of the early humans, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and the like, Moses perhaps, are interesting enough, but pretty soon the various imagined versions of Jewish history begin to pall, as do all the lists of ritualist observations allegedly required of the devout. The prophecies I have always found tiresome and repetitive as well as open to being twisted to suit any interpretation, and all the hymns of praise bore me: if there is a God, is He really going to spend all his time listening to that? In the end it’s to the various books of wisdom I turn (although the misogyny of some of those is very hard to stomach), my favourite of which is the Preacher, or Ecclesiastes as it’s usually known. His cynicism is in tune with the modern age: vanity of vanity, all is vanity. There is a time for everything, and whatever we do, everything carries on just the same. We live life and then it stops; no promise of any hereafter. But the Preacher manages to present those thoughts in beautiful words, the rhythm of which somehow makes it all just about bearable…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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