Posts Tagged ‘history of Christianity’

Tom Holland: Dominion

February 12, 2020

91jqczH5FaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    This is a very thought-provoking and demanding read. There is an interesting trend in recent history-writing to not merely regurgitate, repeat, or go over the same ground again in the same way, but to seek new angles and perspectives on old material; sometimes this can be perverse and gratuitous, but it’s often enlightening how it can suggest connections not previously made, and explore a different narrative. It seems obvious to me that such enterprises cannot and should not exclude or over-write conventional histories, but that they do offer illuminating possibilities…

Holland sets out to show how Christ and Christianity shaped and made the West, and allowed the West to shape the world in its image; in some ways this ties in with what I’ve always known as ‘cultural Christianity’. Initially he surveys different Middle Eastern peoples and their gods, and their attempts to explain the cosmos and find a sense of order and meaning; there is the gradual evolution of the idea of evil being in the world because of people ‘disobeying’ the gods. For the Jews, this explained their plight, and in addition it was all the fault of a woman…

Holland also enlightens us on the complex development of the Hebrew Bible, and it was helpful to be reminded of how monotheism itself took time to evolve: there are numerous references to a multiplicity of gods in the Old Testament.

When we get to New Testament times, the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message was underlined by Paul, and it is at times mind-boggling to see unpicked and laid out clearly the gradual development and articulation of a Christian theology over time. It was certainly not a coherent totality from the outset as some would like us to think.

Although Holland attempts a flowing narrative of the development of specifically Christian thought and practice, I didn’t find it completely coherent, particularly in the way he develops a particular strand thoroughly in a chapter and then leaps ahead to a completely different starting-point for his next chapter. This disjointed effect was initially quite annoying and had the effect of negating the sense of continuity he wanted to show.

We see clearly how the new religion was quite rapidly militarised and identified with secular power, which was a major factor in the unification of Europe over the centuries. As time passes we see the monumental struggle between royalty and papacy, the increasing corruption of the Church, the separation of church and state, the institution of clerical celibacy, and the crystallisation of the idea of sacred and profane. Where everything becomes totally warped and light-years away from the original, simple message of Jesus is, of course, in the way that religious power came to fear and then to seek ruthlessly to extirpate all possible signs of disagreement, independent thought or unorthodoxy, under the label of heresy.

Holland also shows how the religious regulation of marriage was about controlling sexual appetites and expecting men to be monogamous as well as women; this was to lead to individual ‘rights’ moving to the foreground, as well as creating the modern concept of the family. Here his analysis is newer and more interesting, I think. The labelling of same-sex pleasure as sinful and evil is a specifically Christian development, too.

Luther’s challenges reflected the angry mood of the times across Europe, and ushered in the mood of individualism in questions of religion, salvation, interpretation of the Bible, and these anarchist tendencies are shown leading to everything flying apart; certainly the contrast between the highly centralised Roman Catholic Church and the plethora of different Protestant churches and sects reflects this. Secular power eagerly colluded in the inevitable transfer of authority from church to state; Luther was driven to compromises very quickly, and we are in the transitional state which eventually, after much warfare and slaughter was to lead to the toleration of the individual’s right to worship where, when and how they pleased; from these originally religious beginnings was to flow the concept of ‘human’ rights as espoused in the French and American revolutions.

In the wider world, as the dynamism of Christianity led Europe to colonise large tracts of the world, it saw other belief systems as replicas of its own, and so non-Christians were made to identify with ‘a’ religion: thus Holland sees Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, as externally imposed categories. Ultimately the narrative takes us to the development of international law, another Western concept which, as we can see, is not necessarily accepted by all peoples (nor by the USA when it doesn’t suit!).

As we move closer to our times, Holland shows how Marx’ communism goes back to the early Christian communities’ sharing of goods and property, how the Nazis’ anti-Jewish ideology was spawned by Christianity, and how the roots of the messages of Martin Luther King, the Beatles and the summer of love may all be traced back to such earlier roots. The other important point he emphasises is the fragmentation of Christianity into liberal and evangelical camps, both of which lay claim to authority from two millennia ago. I have still not thought through his interesting parallel between Protestantism as a fundamentalist approach to faith, and Muslim fundamentalism…

Holland’s narrative of how all these developments ultimately flow from Europe’s Christian history is convincing to me, but I am not a professional historian, so I would be interested to hear historians’ take on his book. I find myself wondering where the tipping point was, at which the Christian West had so much the upper had that it was able to more or less shape the entire world, in terms of conquest, empire and industrial revolution. Equally, what might have prevented it, and would that have been a good or bad thing? There is an imperialism in the West seeing its values and beliefs as universal, its way of looking at the world as the only valid one and expecting all cultures to worship at its altar. Christianity comes across as an enigma, a hydra, and the roots of the Western control of the entire world…

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.

August favourites #9: history books

August 9, 2018

I read a lot of history, partly to make up for giving up my study of it after O level, and partly because I feel that understanding the present and then trying to imagine a better future world depend on understanding the past. There are three historians currently writing whose work I respect immensely. Eamon Duffy writes carefully and thoughtfully about the Reformation in England, and what was lost during those turbulent times, and his detailed picture of Catholic England goes some way to countering the strident Protestant accounts that had corruption and idolatry at the heart of it all; it was far more complicated than that, as were the political and social reasons for the English Reformation. Then there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of religion, the scope of whose work astonishes me: a three-thousand year history of Christianity which I shall shortly go back to, and a weighty tome on the entire European Reformation, covering two centuries, as well as some excellent TV programmes on religion. Finally, and I think I will name him as my favourite, is Norman Davies, a scholar whose work on the history of Poland has earned him a mighty reputation even in that country. He has written the only complete history in English of that nation, as well as histories of more specific episodes such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and various others. That’s before you turn to his history of Europe, and his history of the Atlantic Isles.

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.

Emmanuel Carrère: The Kingdom

June 27, 2017

41NhBTMsvIL._AC_US218_512fu00TIRL._AC_US218_Searching for an illustration for this post, I was surprised and pleased to discover that this book, which I read in French, has just been published in the UK.

It’s quite an astonishing book, and one that perhaps may not appeal to very many. It’s by one of France’s best-known and most popular contemporary novelists – who I hadn’t heard of until I came across a review of this book – and yet it’s not a novel; it’s quite hard to assign it to a single genre, as it’s part spiritual journal, part religious and biblical history and part a novelist’s imagination of what might have happened two thousand years or so ago…

The writer cannot decide whether to go on an organised tour of places in the life of St Paul, on which he has reserved a place: this leads into the first section of the book which is an account of his own spiritual journey, one that led him to spend three years of his life as a convinced practising Catholic, believing in and accepting the tenets of the church, and during which he embarks on various spiritual exercises, including a detailed journal on his reading of John’s gospel. We share in how his godmother encourages his growing faith, the religious practices he adopts as part of his new-found faith, and then we see the gradual emergence of doubts and fears, which eventually lead to his drifting away from that faith, and putting all his notebooks away for a number of years, indeed to what seems a deliberate hiding of three years that he felt somehow ashamed of.

Carrère is not an atheist or an agnostic, but what I suppose I must call a seeker after truth, a label with which as a Quaker I can identify. He accepts that something of great moment and significance happened in those years of what is now the first century CE: a man called Jesus did exist, travelled around Palestine preaching, and was executed by the Roman authorities for some reason. And then there are the stories which grew up around the man, which Carrère finds harder to accept or understand, because neither he nor we can know the truth, which has been so obscured, over time, both accidentally and deliberately, in so many ways and at so many different levels. What kind of man was Jesus: a political or spiritual leader? and why was he executed? who brought about that execution, Romans or Jews? how did the work of various groups of his followers end up as today’s church? how did the rivalry between the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians play out? what was the role of Paul in all this? who wrote the accounts in the gospels, the Acts? who wrote the various letters to the early churches?

Carrère reads widely as he explores all of these questions and imagines various possibilities about those early years, the participants in the events, and where there are various possible alternatives he explores them as a novelist might, not seeking to confuse or waylay his readers, as he always makes clear when he is drifting into the realms of what if…

It’s quite difficult to write coherently about such a complex book that ranges so widely and speculates in such an interesting way: if the early history of Christianity interests you, or if the idea of life as a spiritual quest speaks to you, then I recommend it highly. It obviously makes one think quite deeply about the notion of faith, which Carrère had, or thought he had, briefly; it’s something I think I had once, too, but now find myself in a similar situation to the author, of being a seeker of something, but I’m not quite sure of what…

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.

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