Posts Tagged ‘St Paul’

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…

Richard Holloway: How to Read the Bible

December 11, 2019

81puXaJNn2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    Here’s a radical approach to the Bible from a former Bishop of Edinburgh whose autobiography impressed me; it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I’m not exactly sure I’d describe it as a ‘how to read’ guide either, but it was very thought-provoking. If you want something with more detailed and specific guidance, then I suggest The Thoughtful Guide to the Bible, by Roy Robinson.

Holloway outlines the various complexities of the text, especially of the New Testament and the questions about authenticity; he accepts the current areas of doubt, indeed finding no fault with the notion of God as a human creation to explain our existence, an idea which makes increasing sense to me, indeed which I find very helpful. The more I read, the more this man’s open-mindedness astonishes me. All thinking about God, he points out, is an unavoidably human process, so he sees the Bible as revealing things about the nature of humanity.

The particular issues he raises about the New Testament centre around the idea that a major enterprise of Christianity has been the inserting of ideas from a later perspective into the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament): the New Testament can thus be seen as prophecy historicised. He also notes in detail its impact on women.

In the end Holloway comes across as increasingly philosophical and less religious in his approach, more distant from any recognisable Christian church than I’d have expected. I like his global approach here, and found him particularly interesting when he explored the agendas of the different evangelists as they compiled their different versions of the Jesus story. I had previously been aware of this idea, but he clarifies and explains the differences and inconsistencies in their accounts. What is clear is that he can explain and accept these inconsistencies without seeing them as threatening or undermining the underlying message or teachings, and I’m with him here. Paul is also clearly contextualised, and Holloway provides a clear sequencing of the different New Testament texts as early Christianity developed: I’d never realised, for instance, that his letters pre-date the gospel narratives…

Short and eminently readable, I’d recommend this to open-minded believers and non-believers alike.

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…

People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

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