Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

June 7, 2021

     For some reason, despite being a great admirer of Philip Pullman, I’d deliberately avoided this novel when it was published; a chance encounter with a pristine copy in a secondhand bookshop was an impulse buy…

Mary has twins in this version of the story: Jesus and Christ, which did feel like a very clumsy device. Jesus is the human Jesus we would probably recognise, Christ a background figure who at times overlaps with the Tempter/Satan figure, and who is initially manipulated by a mysterious stranger – some kind of angel – who encourages Christ to see the future potential of Jesus’ story and message, if only it is recorded and used correctly… you can see pretty early on where Pullman is going with this, and it’s not very subtle at all. He’s doing what many have done over the ages, exploring the contrast between the original Jesus and what Christianity has become over the centuries, while recognising that unravelling the deliberate obfuscations of the past is pretty impossible. And, as an avowed materialist, Pullman is having none of the miracles nonsense.

It’s a roman à thèse, didactic, what have you. Christ starts out following the stranger’s instructions faithfully to record Jesus’ sayings and actions but soon realises that he can embellish for a more effective future purpose. And yet Pullman is a very skilled and experienced novelist, and his Christ character is not as baldly presented as this: he does have a character of his own, doubts and concerns about what he’s been drawn into, feelings and weaknesses that are gradually revealed. But in the end he does what is asked of him, and allows the obvious fraud of the resurrection to be perpetrated – you saw this coming a mile off, after all.

You can see why traditional Christians either avoided this novel like the plague, or attacked it roundly. So, what was Pullman trying to achieve? Obviously, to rattle his readers, to make them question what they may long have accepted as ‘the truth’. There is the idea that realpolitik ruins everything: for Pullman, it elides Christ and Judas at times, and he dares to offer a slightly sympathetic picture of Caiaphas, too. And there is the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which dared to suggest that Judas’ betrayal was a necessary part of the entire Christian redemption story, and therefore offered a judgement of Judas rather different from the traditional one: that Gospel died almost without a trace, too.

Pullman is clear that two millennia later we have no chance of separating truth from invention, and that too much is invested in the ‘accepted’ narrative. His Afterword is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting part, reflecting on his own journey and his motivations. His Jesus, in the novel, is abandoned or ignored by any existing God the Father figure. I think we have to go back to the end of His Dark Materials, to the idea that we must get on, by ourselves, and build the Republic of Heaven here on Earth, for ourselves, etsi Deus non daretur (as if there were no god) as it has been succinctly put.

An interesting read, and a challenging one if you are a traditional Christian. But then, your faith is strong enough to stand up to challenge.

Richard Fletcher: The Cross and the Crescent

December 16, 2020

     This is a short, well-written and very readable account of the interactions between Christianity and Islam in their early days. Various pieces of a complex jigsaw are laid out clearly, and contrasts, connections and overlaps between the two faiths and their world-views explained lucidly.

There were a number of reasons why Islam tolerated both Judaism and Christianity in the lands it rapidly overran in the seventh and eighth centuries: partly the injunctions in the Qur’an about respecting the other ‘peoples of the book’ and partly Muslims were often in the minority, and needed the remnants of the old Roman Empire to continue functioning, which meant using its learned men and its bureaucrats.

What had never occurred to me was that the only possible framework within which Christianity could explain and view Islam was that of heresy: there were plenty of heresies that the orthodox church was trying to suppress in those days, and the such an idea was reinforced by the evident overlaps between the Christian and Muslim holy writings. Certainly there was no concept at all of a ‘new religion’. Equally, there was a tendency among in Islam to ignore Christianity, given the belief that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, with the final and perfected message from God, which necessarily superseded that of the Old Testament and Jesus… Christianity was passé, if you like.

Nor did the Christian lands seem to have very much to offer the Islamic world and its rulers; society in Christian lands was backward, primitive, agrarian. Although they were not very interested in each other as belief systems, there was much interest in the spread and sharing of knowledge, and eventually in trade. The gradual diffusion of the learning of the ancients was a lengthy process involving translations through multiple languages. Here was the greatest and most fruitful area of co-operation: curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries. Yet, once the Christian West had gained the knowledge it wanted from its Eastern rivals, the two worlds gradually drifted apart, and Islam became more aloof and self-isolating.

And while Christians threw themselves with great energy and violence into Crusades to recapture the holy places from the ‘infidels’, the Muslim world was largely indifferent to what were merely pinpricks, and was far more concerned with serious dynastic rivalries and other more weighty issues. On the other hand, the Crusaders were having their eyes opened to a much wider world than the one they had known…

So Fletcher offers us a good number of refreshing new perspectives, which certainly helped me deepen my understanding of what went on in that era, from the seventh century to the Renaissance. He also explores, as far as the available evidence allows – and recognises where it is lacking or incomplete – how the Christian world eventually came to gain the edge over the Islamic world. He is clear that it was a complex spread of factors involving trade, Mongol invasions, dynastic rivalries in the Muslim nations and others… and others have also highlighted that the rapid adoption of printing technology in the West but not in the East, had much to do with this.

In Fletcher’s judgement, through the Middle Ages there was a persistent failure by both sides to try and understand each other – and I feel he is more than hinting at a message for contemporary readers here – which he recognises was probably inevitable. Certainly the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise, and it has probably never recovered from this. Here is a really interesting and useful read.

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….

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

On Europe…

February 8, 2016

There’s a lot of talk and argument about Europe at the moment, and it’s not going to go away. So, I’ll add my fourpence-worth, at least, from the perspective of my blog.

Sense of belonging is a curious thing. I’ve never felt British; it’s a weird concept, and alien to me. I know it says it on my passport. If I acknowledge anything, it’s Englishness, as England is where I was born, brought up and have lived; however, half of me is Polish, and I feel an affinity with that nation, too, some of the time, although I feel alienated by its currently bonkers politics… so I’ve never really been sure where I properly belong.

Most of my travelling has been in Europe, a place I feel at home in and understand to varying degrees, depending where I happen to be visiting. We share a great deal in Europe: the past, the Romans (for a sizeable chunk of Europe) Christianity, which for better or worse has shaped our beliefs and philosophy, and our approach to literature and the arts links us together, too. There’s a great deal we can be proud of as Europeans, and probably rather more that we should be acknowledging is shameful.

Although other parts of the world, perhaps tutored by our past example, are beginning to approach the savagery let loose during two world wars, those wars blight our history and collective memory in aeternum. And somewhere, the European project of the last sixty years or so has been about ensuring that we do not slide into that kind of anarchy and mayhem again; apart from the Balkans in the 1990s, on that front we have done quite well. Many nations are increasingly closely tied together by economy, law, travel and culture, and it’s pretty difficult to see those bonds disintegrating.

And yet, the cynic kicks in: despite all those lofty ideals to which our petty leaders pay lip-service, the EU is actually a gigantic capitalist club, increasingly forged in the interests of big business and profits, if not actually run by those businesses, as they pull the strings of the Brussels puppets. It’s not the Europe I’m really interested in, and feel part of.

Then there is the refugee crisis and immigration, which is being exploited by nationalists who would be happy to see the European project dismantled. Those of us who are reasonably comfortable with immigration, and want to help those in need, nevertheless must recognise that we live among other people who are profoundly unsettled by what is going on, who would like to restrict or end immigration and asylum. To this I can never subscribe, being the son of a Polish exile. So what should Europe do?

Because Europe is prosperous and peaceful, it’s attractive to people who live in war zones. And, to begin with, Europe should be looking at its contribution in creating those war zones in the first place: invading Iraq, bombing Libya, bombing Syria: as we collectively trash those countries and interfere in others, we both make ourselves more attractive to our victims, and also make ourselves the potential objects of revenge. It doesn’t take an Einstein to put that two and two together…

So, yes, I feel European, and want my country (England) to remain an integrated part of it. I’m not worried about loss of sovereignty (whatever that may mean); I’m concerned about lack of democratic accountability within EU institutions, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw my toys out of the pram. And I hope to continue enjoying travelling in Europe, visiting its cultural treasures and marvellous landscapes, and enjoying its amazing music and wonderful literature for many years yet. English and happy to be European!

 

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

Parrinder: Jesus in the Qur’an

February 25, 2014

9781851689996Firstly, this is a very curious book. The publishers have made a rather ham-fisted attempt to conceal the fact that this is a reprint of a book originally published in 1965; only the copyright details acknowledge this.  But a little detective work: the strange pagination, with even-numbered pages on the right (!), the absence of a bibliography (there must have been one, given the detailed footnotes in the text, but it has been removed), the quotations taken from two very old translations of the Qur’an and no mention of many recent ones, the dated fonts contrasting with the modern font used in the blurb inside the front cover… what were they thinking?

However, it’s also a very good book, in terms of the content, and detail, from a writer who clearly was very familiar with his subject matter. I came away saddened as I realised that we all seemed to have gone backwards since 1965, Christians and Muslims alike, in our knowledge and understanding of each other’s faiths and beliefs. From my own earlier reading I had been aware of links and connections between the sacred writings of these two religions, but did not realise how close they were in their earliest days, given that the Qur’an was revealed in a land surrounded by Christian lands, lands which had been the cradle of Christianity, where there was daily close contact between Jews, Christians and early Muslims. Parrinder lists and explores many very close links between various aspects of Christian theology, and its central characters, and references to all these in the Qur’an.

The book obviously begins from a Christian perspective, and is structured around the person of the historical Jesus, the Christian understanding of God,  and the development of the Christian Churches, but Parrinder is careful to recognise that references to Jesus and to Christian ideas are only a very small part of the Qur’an. I found his approach very thought-provoking, and his response to Islam very sensitive; he lists many references to research by Muslim scholars into the early connections between the two faiths; these were new to me, and the picture he paints is of two great religions much closer to each other in many ways, ways which do not seem currently to be recognised very widely.

I have never forgotten, as a child some fifty years ago, my first meeting with a Muslim, and the reverence with which he treated his holy book when he brought it along to show our family; I remain fascinated by the connections between the two religions, and in an age in which it is fashionable to mock and scorn religions, I feel that they do have real messages and good advice to offer us today, even if it is far harder, or impossible, for us to have the faith that people used to have. For my readers who have not yet met it, I commend a poem – Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold. He said it better than I can.

MacCulloch: Silence: A Christian History

May 5, 2013

9781846144264This is a difficult book, and a challenging one, but good, and I shall be re-reading it shortly, now that I’m clearer what his approach is.

I read it because I like silence, and feel oppressed by the gratuitous noise that pervades so much of the modern world. I want to flee bookshops like Waterstone’s as soon as I pass through the door, because of the awful music that they play – presumably to encourage people to buy books? I read it because I enjoyed Sara Maitland‘s book on silence, and will be returning to it, and I read it because I’m a Quaker and we worship in silence.

Diarmaid MacCulloch explores the place of silence in a wide range of different Christian churches and their rituals over time, and its gradual disappearance in favour of ritualised worship and liturgy. He shows why religious leaders were suspicious of silence and where it might take worshippers, and he recognises the deep spiritual potential of silence. His approach is a thoughtful, enquiring and sympathetic one, although he pulls no punches in the later parts of the book where he explores issues and topics that the established churches have deliberately remained silent when they ought not to have done. He recognises that his background and expertise mean that he is focused on Christianity and its traditions, and that there is much that might be said about silence in other faiths.

I have found his earlier books, on the Reformation, and on the history of Christianity, very interesting and thought-provoking, and this was no exception, although harder to get into initially because of the elusiveness of the concept. But it repaid perseverance.

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