Archive for the 'religion' Category

Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials

April 5, 2017

I’ve read the books at least three times, and listened to the unabridged recording in the car twice, and I’m even more impressed by Pullman’s achievement: the Dark Materials trilogy is a masterpiece. And as I approached the end this time, I was determined to try and work out why I think it’s so brilliant. Partly, he’s an absolute master of the English language, which he uses beautifully: you really notice this aspect of his writing when you listen to the audiobooks.

At times it’s quite easy to think: kids’ books. And I’m sure I’d have been stunned to read something like this at the age of ten or eleven, say. But I was in my forties when I first met them, introduced to them by my daughter who probably was about ten or eleven at the time. I had flu: I hoovered them up and remember dispatching someone to a bookshop to re-purchase the second volume, which had gone astray somehow…

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of parallel worlds, and the possibilities of moving between them. And there are lots in His Dark Materials; the story only focuses on three or four, moving between them quite frequently.

The link between Pullman’s novels and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I also love, is evident, and acknowledged by Pullman. We see good facing evil, innocence and experience side by side, the desire to move from the former to the latter state and then the impossibility of going back; there are links with mythology: what happens in the land of the dead? Can one ever return from it?

Pullman introduces fascinating new ideas: daemons, for instance: everyone in Lyra’s world has one, an externalisation of part of their personality (or soul?) in the form of a living creature which is visible to all, and accompanies them everywhere. Humans and daemons are inseparable. And in our world, we don’t have them. But what if we did? Here we shade into what science fiction does so well: the ‘what if?’: make your reader think… What happens – or could happen – after you die? There’s the land of the dead, there’s the Christian heaven, or there’s the idea that one becomes part of the consciousness of the universe, a different kind of eternity from the psalm-singing and God-praising one.

Pullman’s characters are vividly created, sustained and developed: if we ever feel he has strayed into the world of science-fiction, he certainly doesn’t do the archetypal cardboard characters of that genre. We come to know and like and feel for his characters, even quite minor ones, or very alien ones: their fates matter to us. And his imagination runs wild: armoured bears, gallivespian spies, the mulefa with their wheels. But these creatures aren’t wildly unbelievable, they have convincing personalities and feelings and they interact with the story’s heroes.

I would have to like Pullman anyway, because he’s a writer who loves ideas, and you know I crave stories which get my brain working. Friendship and loyalty are important to his characters, and he shows us the strength and value of these traits over and over again; we see many examples of individual resilience too, and reflection on the importance of doing what is right, and learning to discern what this may be. And, of course, Pullman shows us love, the love that gradually develops between Will and Lyra as they pursue their fates across the worlds. This time, I was struck by how subtly and slowly and carefully he prepares us for its flowering as the book draws to its close. Theirs is a second, happier Fall, a movement from innocence to experience that we can only welcome, a love that redeems the universe rather than requiring a redeemer to undo it… and inevitably, the tragedy of eternal separation is woven in there too: who can fail to be moved by the ending of their story. And yes, I know a certain amount of suspending disbelief is necessary for their love to have meaning – just as in Romeo and Juliet…

I know I’ll read and listen to the books again; I’m really looking forward to The Book of Dust in the autumn, hoping that Pullman will sustain what he started.

Geza Vermes: Christian Beginnings

April 3, 2017

Geza Vermes was one of the world experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism, and the early history of Christianity; I’d planned to read this book for a long time. I have always been fascinated by how the Church got from the time of Jesus’ death to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Vermes analyses and explains in detail here. I learned an awful lot.

For starters, Judaism wasn’t monotheistic until the sixth century BCE: previously it had been a monolatry, ie only worshipping their god. Judaism is shown as a religion of one race or people, based on deeds and observances, whereas Christianity quite rapidly became a cosmopolitan religion of believing. Vermes shows us that the gospels portray Jesus as a charismatic prophet and healer, conventional in his Jewish beliefs and practices, but preaching that the end was near.

Vermes very carefully unpicks, and evidences, from the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles of Paul and others, the nature, development and practices of the early church; differences and distinctions emerged very early on. At first, everyone expected the imminent second coming of Christ, which never occurred; the early church gradually worked out how to respond to this. The first structures were devised by Paul, and again, Vermes is able to show in practical terms the gradual, deliberate and necessary development of church organisation and ritual. He has an enormous grasp of detail, and from his research and evidence we get a clear and careful unpicking of the early years of the church, and we can see how much was gradually added and superimposed, as well as just plain changed by the church as it moved away from its Jewish cradle to the Roman and Greek world outside; most notably in the gradual process of turning Jesus from man to god and then to the Son of God.

Quite rapidly – by the middle of the second century – the church became embroiled in fantastical complications and contradictions, inventing dogma tentatively at first as it began to assert Jesus’ divinity, and working its way towards defining the Trinity. Anti-Jewish aspects gradually begin to emerge, too, as did the idea of heresy, and excluding those who disagreed with you. Vermes ends his exploration with the Council of Nicaea in 325, convened by the Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and was increasingly frustrated by the doctrinal disagreements that divided it…

What was an eye-opener for me was how so many aspects of Christianity that are nowadays accepted and believed as if they have always been, were in fact gradually devised and invented over several centuries, in other words are nothing to do with the person who was Jesus of Nazareth, but are about politics and power-games as an increasingly large and powerful organisation manoeuvred for its place in the world. And I was angered by the human arrogance, presumption or sheer stupidity – whichever you will – of human beings trying to define God, his nature and intentions. If there is a God, s/he is way beyond such pettiness and silliness. On the other hand, as Ludwig Feuerbach once wrote, human beings have invented God in their own image. Obviously.

The book was fascinating; I learned a lot, as I noted earlier, and it hasn’t changed my beliefs one jot: Jesus remains a preacher, philosopher and prophet who had an important message – just as others did – and who has had a huge impact in so many different ways on our part of the world.

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

March 27, 2017

I felt drawn to re-read this (there’s an earlier review on this blog if you want to look) by Maitland‘s occasional columns in The Tablet, which I always enjoy. She’s a radical Catholic hermit – at least that’s how I’d sum her up – and recently mentioned a lengthy period of recuperation which had tested her decision to live in extreme isolation in Galloway.

She considers silence compared with solitude, observing that they do not necessarily go together, and nor are they mutually exclusive. Her own journey, in the latter part of her life, has moved from noise to silence to solitude. In many ways I see her personal account of silence as a companion to the excellent Silence: A Christian History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which I’ve also written about.

Is silence the absence of language or the absence of sound? Is written language silent? I noted that she always has reading matter with her when she isolates herself. As I Quaker, I worship in silence, but share that silence with a group of other like-minded people. Maitland had me reflecting again, in many different ways.

My personal interest in silence comes from how I find the world increasingly noise-ridden; perhaps this is exacerbated by my hearing difficulties. But I dislike how everywhere I go I must be accompanied by noise: traffic and people (and I choose to live in a town rather than miles from anywhere, I know) but in shops I am assaulted by random music, and quite often driven out of shops before I’ve made any contemplated purchase; in the street harangued by talking vehicles; deterred from entering cafes and restaurants by the thought of music I haven’t chosen accompanying my food or drink…I find unnecessary noise intrusive, and I also do worry about how so much of the world gets on my nerves as I age!

Maitland reminded me how much of every other aspect of life apart from the human is quiet or silent; I’d not ever seen the world like that before. She explores an enormous range of human experiences of silence and solitude, and places of hermitage in woods, mountains, islands and deserts through the ages, quoting in detail, as well as narrating her own journey of self-discovery and the choices which led her to her current retreat from the world. At times, she seems to take her pursuit of attentiveness to extremes, certainly much deeper than I might; she is fascinated by others’ observations and wants to emulate them, perhaps in the way that a novice hermit might seek a mentor? It was interesting to follow her as she gradually worked out what, exactly, it was that she was seeking…

She catalogues closely and in great detail the effects that silence and isolation has on her, particularly during a lengthy retreat on the isle of Skye, and links these in to others’ experiences as well. Her observations about research which suggest that too much exposure to noise has the potential to make people ill, made sense to me.

When I go away travelling, I often spend considerable lengths of time alone, walking and thinking, as far away from other people as I can get; curiously, this does lead to occasional very interesting chance encounters and conversations. But I am always glad to get back to the company of those I know and love; though I’m occasionally tempted by the thought of hermit-like silence and solitude, I honestly don’t think I’m called to it. But I really enjoyed seeing how someone else gradually found herself in that place.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

Colin Thubron: Mirror to Damascus

December 21, 2016

517pyetfy1l-_ac_us160_This is a lovely book, by a true traveller who clearly lived in Damascus for a serious length of time and fell in love with the place. I’d never heard of it before, found it in a secondhand bookshop in the summer and felt I wanted to read something about this country that has been tearing itself apart for the last few years… it seems to have been Thubron’s first book, published in 1967. It has beautifully-drawn maps which are nevertheless not quite as informative as they look, and quite a lot of blurry black and white photographs.

Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and Thubron takes us through its history, episode by episode, epoch by epoch, linking us to significant places and describing them in detail, often lyrically: we get a picture of a city of great age, rambling and ramshackle, home to many different tribes and peoples, full of historic remains from many different centuries, and cultures. There is a Roman Damascus, a Jewish one, a Christian one, a Muslim one, an Ottoman one, a French one…

To Thubron, the people are friendly, welcoming, curious; he wanders far and wide, seeking out places he has heard of, remains he’s interested in, sometimes finding and sometimes not, observing and reporting with an open mind, non-judgemental, talking with anyone who will speak with him: an ideal traveller. There’s also a fascinating chapter about the many travellers who have visited the city through the ages…

I’m not aware that Damascus has been quite so comprehensively wrecked as Aleppo or Homs in the current conflict, but have found myself wondering how much of this lovely place that he visited fifty years ago still exists. The chapter on the French Damascus reminds one just how much responsibility the West bears for the unspeakable horrors that are going on in Syria and other Middle Eastern lands, and underlines for me that it would be far better if we just left other nations to sort out their own internal affairs. Thubron’s book manages to capture some of the relative peace and innocence of earlier days, and I really enjoyed it.

Al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

December 18, 2016

51vj4rksg2l-_ac_us160_I have been curious about how people saw and tried to understand the world in the past, for a very long time. When I studied Latin in the sixth form, I came across Virgil’s recipe for bees in his fourth Georgic: to make bees, you stop up all the bodily orifices of a young calf and beat it to a pulp, and leave it in a tower with windows facing the four cardinal points: come back a week later and there will be bees! And it turned out it wasn’t that bonkers a theory as there’s a type of fly that looks very like a bee that lays eggs in carrion in that part of the world…

Writers have compiled compendia of knowledge over the centuries, until the time came at some point around the sixteenth century when it was no longer possible for one person to know everything that was known about the world. There’s a man from those times called Athanasius Kirchner who I’ve come across a few times. So there was Pliny’s Natural History, which is a fascinating collection of information that the Romans knew or speculated, and Isidore of Seville’s marvellous Etymologies, in which he tried to write down everything that was known in his time (seventh century) and for which he has become the patron saint of the internet.

And here is one of the Islamic world’s similar ventures. The original runs to 33 volumes, apparently, so this is a brief but carefully chosen selection, well translated and annotated, giving a feel of the original. Hazelnuts enlarge the brain, according to our fourteenth century author, but for me the most wonderful insight was that, if you are ever bitten by a panther, you must be very wary of mice, who will be attracted to you and come to urinate on you, and if one does, you will certainly die…

The sections on the natural world are probably the most fascinating; there are all sorts of bizarre recipes for enhancing sexual prowess, which make today’s spam e-mails seem positively dull. And the Islamic version of the Adam and Eve story is also an eye-opener, far more detailed and elaborate than the Genesis version. It’s not all from the Qur’an, but I’m unsure where the embellishments are from.

What come across to me quite clearly in all these authors and other that I’ve come across, is that there are things which they know for certain, and we can recognise these because they are correct and accurate to our understanding too, things that they are unsure about, and admit they are unsure about – here, our author concludes such sections with ‘God knows best’ which seems fair enough to me, and then things they clearly don’t know at all, have come across through hearsay or are just guessing. Today, in our scientific age, we are given the impression that everything is known; I think modern writers ought to be similarly modest and humble, but instead they usually present themselves as experts, founts of all knowledge and wisdom, or else we lend them that kind of authority unquestioningly. There are surely many things which we don’t know yet, and many things which we write of today as if we are certain of them, but which will come to be corrected in the future. I sometimes wonder what our generation’s equivalent of Virgil’s bees or Al-Nuwayri’s hazelnuts will turn out to be…

Anne Brenon: Les Cathares

December 11, 2016

51pp-bkvpyl-_ac_us160_After my visit to Cathar country in September, I allowed myself some in-depth reading about this mediaeval Church, exterminated in the fourteenth century by Rome and its secular allies. Anne Brenon‘s book was just what I needed by way of further history, and more importantly, explanation of Cathar beliefs, theology and religious practice.

Much has been uncovered about the Cathars over the last fifty years or so, including ritual books, and much has been unravelled from the detailed records kept by the Inquisition: the church was much more widespread, longer-lasting and more deeply rooted in the south of France, northern Spain and northern Italy than had previously been known. It was a properly organised and run church, not secretive, hidden or lurking.

It was a very different church from the official Catholic Church of the times: it rejected violence, allowed equality between men and women, was against the taking of oaths, believed that its members were the church, rather than any buildings or property. Cathars denied the humanity of Christ – he was purely divine – and they held a dualist view of creation: God was only good, and the sinful world we lived in was the creation and work of the devil; we aspired to and could return to God’s world after death. But this was not a belief in two Gods; it did solve the problem about the origins of evil in the world, which traditional Catholics have always had problems explaining. However, it did do away with the notion of free will, too. And if there was hell, it was only the place of the devil and his crew: in many ways the Cathar picture of God was more human and more merciful than the traditional one.

It’s a fascinating slice of the past, of what could have been; it’s an indictment of the Catholic Church and its temporal obsessions, maybe an indication of the problems all religions face when they become widespread in their influence and following. Certainly George Orwell would have been proud of the job the Church did in disappearing history and evidence for the Cathars and their beliefs: everything into the memory-hole, books and people burnt alike.

My A-Z of Reading: H is for History

November 15, 2016

With the arrogance of a sixteen year-old, I decided that I wouldn’t study History for A-Level, I’d do English Literature instead, reasoning that I could always just read the history… and if ever there was a life-changing decision, that was one. I have always read history, but I’m not a historian; sometimes I wish I were, but that’s for another existence, someday. With more mature reflection, I still approve of that decision so long ago, since my love of literature has been lifelong, and the basis of three degrees and an entire and very enjoyable career as a teacher.

I can’t count myself a historian because my reading has been haphazard and wilful, because I’m not trained in the evaluation of source material, and I have no way really of knowing if the knowledge and understanding I think I’ve acquired is sound, although it seems to have suited my purposes.

I have read quite widely in the history of Poland and Eastern Europe, and have authors on whom I choose to rely: Norman Davies on Poland I find excellent, and Timothy Snyder on the borderlands and ethnic mishmash that was Eastern Europe before the 1945 ethnic cleansing. I’ve read quite a lot on the Soviet Union, an experiment which has always interested me, perverted though it ultimately was, as well as unsuccessful. This has been as a background to my reading of the literature of those areas and countries: my training as a literature expert taught me the importance of context and background.

I’ve read widely in religious history: I’m particularly interested in the earliest years of Christianity and how it developed before it became an official state religion and more interested in temporal power than spiritual soundness. Again, my reading is rather unsystematic: I have found Geza Vermes very interesting, and Diarmaid MacCulloch most knowledgeable and thought-provoking, but whether that counts as balanced study, I know not. Similarly, the rifts in Christianity that resulted from the Reformation have long gripped me. I studied that period several times in history lessons at school, both from a Catholic and an Anglican perspective. Since then I’ve read more widely; again, MacCulloch has impressed through his thoroughness and contextualisation, but I have also gained much from the work of the relatively little-known Catholic historian Philip Hughes, who wrote serious tomes in the 1950s, particularly on the English Reformation. I have the abiding feeling that an awful lot was lost in the cultural vandalism of those times in England. But is my knowledge and understanding balanced? And then I comfort myself with the realisation that my knowledge and understanding of literature, wide and broad as it is, is hardly balanced or comprehensive, and nor is it capable of so being.

As and when the whim has taken me, I’ve branched out: I needed background on Arabic literature I was reading and so took in Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples; I’ve found E P Thompson’s history of revolutions very thought-provoking; I have had an enormous tome on the history of the United States on my to-read list for over a decade.

Why history: the triteness of ‘those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it’ is nevertheless true; I want to understand why we, as a species, have made such a hash of our world and ourselves, and to discover some hope, perhaps, that we aren’t permanently doomed to be in a mess, even though we will surely not draw nigh to utopia in my lifetime. At the moment, my feeling is that the tension between the individual and the group or collective is not being given sufficient attention, that competition rather than co-operation is not good for us, and that meddling in the affairs of others rather than just getting to know and live peaceably with them, isn’t helping either. And those are probably not the conclusions of an historian…

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