Tag Archives: christianity

The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

The unfolding of the Logos introduced directionality into history

Such as do build their faith upon
The Holy Text of pike and gun
Decide all controversy by
Infallible Artillery
And prove their doctrine orthodox
By Apostolic blows and knocks
call Fire and Sword and Desolation
A godly-thorough-Reformation.

Samuel Butler.

This monster-post, inspired by the book The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch,  has been in the works for a long time. I have been reading it for an even longer time (it is not quite a book one finishes). The history he tells bursts with anecdotes, people and ideas; they combine headily during a heady time. Writing about it was intended to illustrate the principle of Fortitude, eleventh in the Tarot; that one must practice what one preaches.  Often in the reading I felt like a lone sailor lost upon a vast vessel, nipping between coasts and trading information: had the priests became pastors and wives replaced concubines? Were they likely to? Who was invading whom? Had the Habsburgs blitzed through yet?


Storm At Sea, Bruegel

I am caught within the wave of the large book. There are primarily two reasons people read non-fiction, discounting the obvious motive of pleasure: one is to figure out a ‘position’ to a specific question/ related set of questions (what can you do about a problem like Sarah?), the hunt-for-data; the other is to get an inkling of perspective, context, the hunt-for-the-idea (How is American Conservatism different today from 100 years ago?). I defy you to find anyone willing to undertake a book longer than 300 pages for the former cause. If polemic cannot be condensed down to that size, it has no right for exist: any heft will simply be more excuses for the opinion, all the more suspect for being disguised. Passionate manifestos, incendiary reporting, pithy histories, reasoned commentary — these are all excellent reasons to read a book, but they are limited by the demand for relevancy, this devotion to defining the conventional wisdom of the times.

The pleasures of weighty tomes are that they allow detail and deliberation to build rather than argue.  A long history, a sustained piece of philosophy, these are written with the desire to enable the fashioning of an autonomous hypothesis from the broad welter of fact.  An essayist marshals facts that suit her story, a historian marshals stories that surround her every “fact”.

McCulloch’s history, in keeping with his tradition, doesn’t short-circuit by telling you who to side with in the multifaceted debates of his chosen time: it just lays them all out, in sometimes interminable detail, within a complex web of shared relationships and assumptions. He describes events and their ripples, ideas and their diaspora, people and their migrations; all set within a narrative best described as Transylvania talking to Scotland.   He demonstrates how the same scriptures led to many forms of worship in one city even as they’re being hacked down to meet the partisan requirements of its neighbour. It is this meandering quality that makes large books, especially those that aren’t anthologies, so damnably hard to write about. They pool in the shadows and form backdrops, but are rarely showpieces. It is impossible to pinpoint what such a book made you think about, which hunches it confirmed and which it dismissed, for the journey is made between amorphous hunches and nebulous conclusions.  I don’t know what I thought about the Reformation before I read this book: I began the book because I didn’t know what to think.

I can tell you, instead, why I am reading about the Reformation. First, as devoted readers (hullo parents) know, I am interested in the ways divinity interacts with humanity.  Not very much survives the tumult of human passage, save two truths: there are ideas, and there is matter; only a very few entities may transcend both. I am fascinated by the divine as a bridge between human eras: constantly evolving, yet always retaining the core kernel of faith every religion needs to survive.

Does one trick people into believing in the power of the metaphysical; persuade, coerce, or reason? Does one contemplate or act or purify one’s way into a happy immortality? Is there an insurance policy for the family we can invest in while alive?   Religion, it is easy to forget in our era of theocrats and evangelists, is the purest free market that exists. It is a barometer of human madness, as variable and contrarian as the spirit it seeks to channel. It is the fallacy of fundamentalism and rationalism alike to imagine that religion can shape the zeitgeist, rather than be shaped by it. Slavery was legalised by Papal Rome while Dominicans in Spain were reviving jus gentium and inventing the concept of human rights.

We live in an era the most determined humans call postmodern; which is unlucky for those of us who only achieved modernity meagre decades ago. Then again, perhaps we ought to be glad to have made the goalpost when so many others are consigned to the pre-modern. In any case, I felt it was time to get to the root of the uprising, back to when modernity was first fashioned. And thus we come to the Reformation, one bridge across time in one small part of the world. Pick any modern ill you find strewn across our conversations- nationalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, fascism, colonialism, liberalism- and you will find analogues or antecedents in the Latin Reformation, that brutal, cold time in history.  So, really, my question is: why aren’t you reading 800 pages about that?

Which is my way of saying I can’t think of any earthly reason you would want to know this stuff, so I shall just plug along and hope that I am entertaining enough to reward the effort this enterprise involves. If I must have fortitude, after all, so must you. What follows is my mini-history of the Reformation, for the curious, the insane, and the bored. It’s the broad outline of an infectious revolt, beaten back here and then there but never everywhere.

My aim is to sketch how this time folds into ours: how movements born with radical visions were trapped in fresh prisons woven out of ‘purity’, patriarchy, and racial pride. The Reformation is a study in how rights can grow broader even as the communities they accrue to grow ever narrower. My perspective diverges slightly from MacCulloch’s. He observes, with a tinge of triumph, the birth of tolerance amidst all the sectarian violence. You will forgive me for being less impressed by the miracle of pluralism. As with ‘plural’ Hinduism, tactical freedom was accessible only to the elite, not the general mass of humanity, upon whom most behaviours are imposed. MacCulloch, to give him due credit, ably argues that most lives were increasingly constrained by the renewed interest everyone had in their private life and souls.  The “Reformation of Manners” had a dramatic impact on longstanding social and sexual practices, and steadily degraded the rights of women. Many Free Cities, for instance, revoked the right to female citizenship during this era, as women began to be considered legal chattel.

Patriarchy was ceasing to be a microcosm of the God’s purpose and an expression of what was considered the the natural make-up of a mechanical universe… Society, once integrated by the cosmology of humours and by Galen’s theories, with gender a continuum, was from around 1700 conceived in terms of rigidly divided opposites- especially gender. By 1800, men were told that they must exercise rigid self-control and never shed tears; women that, after all, they were not uncontrollable and lustful like Eve, just passive and gentle crybabies, to be shielded from life’s brutalities.

Church weddings and the legitimacy of children rose in importance, as every Church rushed to exert their influence among the faithful, and marriage was now seen as a necessary sacrament, a ‘holy contract’. Cohabitation and premarital sex, once encouraged by the practice of long engagements, came under much fire in this era, as the clergy discovered the pleasures of marriages and insisted everyone ought join their state of bliss. Brothels found their licenses revoked across cities (rampant and fatal syphilis probably helped that along).  In the protestant world, clerical wives replaced nuns as the apogee of a pious woman’s ambition; the brides of god had become wives of men.  The growth of nuclear families proceeded apace in these lands, and the new justification that marriage was the ‘natural state of man’ made the social stigma surrounding homosexuality worse.  The patriarchal order within the family was emphasised even by so-called humanists, who would, one might think, feel compelled to ‘humanise’ women simply to be consistent.  Not a bit of it:

A good example [of humanist scholarship] is Mary I of England’s tutor Juan Luis Vives. He wrote the popular treatise The Education of a Christian Woman, which did indeed recommend education for all women, but that thought was overwhelmed by a good deal of talk about women’s need to control their passions, battle against their weak nature and obey their husbands. Vives also made explicit a double standard in chastity: ‘human laws do not require the same chastity of the man as the woman’, he said reassuringly, ‘men have to look after many things; women only for their chastity’

Yet, for all such instances of subtly reorganised dogma, it remains a revelation to learn how inexhaustibly diverse people are, even within close confines. What could more claustrophobic than the  revealed scripture of the Only God? Yet the ruckus, once raised, took two centuries to resolve.   Some bits of this story, it must be said, are right out of the plot of Lost: consider Martin Luther stamping out of the Diet at Worms in fury, declaring the Pope to be the Devil masquerading as the Saviour (the original ‘AntiChrist’) and suggesting that the faithful ought to follow his own example, stampede the false Church, and recreate the true Church. Substitute Jack Shepherd  for Luther, John Locke for Pope, and the Island for the Church, and tell me that isn’t the final season in a nutshell. Here I stand, and I can do no other, like the man (apocryphally) said.

This being a long essay, I divided it into pages. Look below the little facebook and twitter icons below to go further.

The Uncoupling of Jesus Christ.

30 Jun

Hope is a long leash
drawn in slowly.

Wendy Cope, After Prague

 I came to The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ well disposed to Philip Pullman, and I left with my illusions intact.  Pullman tackles the central conundrum of the Christianity: how did the oh-so-radical Jesus leave the oh-so-conservative church as his sole legacy? Pullman’s answer: He didn’t. It was all the fault of his bookish younger brother. Jesus was the radical political rhetorician, Christ was the gullible historian. His point, historically speaking, is this: The son of god and the word of god were different creatures, and the latter was the more corruptible.

As the impostor-angel tells Christ:

We who know must be prepared to make history the handmaiden of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom [of God: everyone seems certain it’s around the corner, in keeping with other accounts of the period] than what was…. When you look down upon the story as God looks down on time, you will be able to have Jesus foretell to his disciples, as it were in truth, the events to come of which, in history, he was unaware.

St Matthew and the Angel, Caravaggio

If I had a kid (Christ forfend, and Jesus save her) this would be the book I introduce Christianity to her with.  All the biblical highlights exist, subtly and seamlessly twisted into new meaning. He envisions a world in which the miraculous and the mundane aren’t distinct; where myth and miracle are reinforcing, and a miracle is only as good as its chronicler.  When they discover that they can (sort of) pull them off, the question of miracles begins an intense debate between the brothers. Jesus is of the opinion that ‘conjuring tricks’ can be of no service to spreading God’s message or love. Christ sees in them instrumental value, arguing that people need “signs and wonders”, and, conversely, that miracles are a good way to collect what we would call social capital.

This conversation leads into Christ’s proposed church:

I can see the laws an the proclamations issuing from the centre to the furtherest edges of the world. I can see the good rewarded and the wicked punished. I can see the missionaries going out bearing the word of God to the darkest and the most ignorant lands, and bringing every loving man and woman and child to the great family of God- gentiles as well as Jews. I can see all doubt vanquished, I can see all dissent swept away, I can see the shining faces of the faithful gazing up in adoration on every side.

Jesus is skeptical, as anyone would be after that little soliloquy:

Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would arrive at these magnificent palaces and courts like a poor traveller with dust at its feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, throw him out into the street.…

And, later, he remains a prophet, if not quite in the mold Christ intends:

And from time to time, to distract the people from their miseries and fire them with anger against someone else, the governors of this church will declare that such-and-such a nation and such-and-such people is evil and ought to be destroyed, and they’ll gather great armies and set off to kill and burn and loot and rape and plunder, and they’ll raise their standard over the smoking ruins of what was once a fair and prosperous land and declare that God’s kingdom is so much the larger and more magnificent as a result.

A prophet who damns neoplatonism, no less:

I’m not one of those logic-choppers, these fastidious philosophers with their scented Greek rubbish about a pure world of spiritual forms where everything is perfect and which is the only place where the real truth is, unlike this filthy real world which is corrupt and gross and full of untruth and imperfection.

As surely as he systematically destroys the holy cows of christian faith, Pullman is charitable to everyone traditionally considered “evil” in that scripture (save Pontius Pilate, who is perhaps irredeemable): Judas is Christ’s informant, but only because he thinks recording his master’s speeches is worthy work; Nicodemus sees to the crucified body’s internment when none of the apostles can be bothered; even the Sanhedrin who betray Jesus are simply civic authorities caught between Jesus’s radicalism and his popularity.

All through, perhaps paradoxically, I felt far greater affinity to Christ than to Jesus. His motives and jealousy are relatable; his credulity is explained by the great desire I share for a clean-cut world that matches neat legal definitions and well-plotted stories. He is the insecure introvert obsessed of his stylus, who “clings to rules because he fears there is no passion there at all”, the brother who is not bursting with hope for humanity. This could be me, circa whatever BC.


A List for Today

The Heirophant, Fifth of the Major Arcana in a standard Tarot deck

Ten Interesting Facts about Reformation Popes.

  1. The first Medici pope- Leo X- incensed Martin Luther by his ‘indulgences’.
  2. The second Medici pope- Clement VII- incensed Henry VIII by his intransigence when it came to the question of divorce.
  3. He was killed by a “death-cap mushroom”. Post-burial, his body was exhumed, stripped of all valuables, and dragged across Rome.
  4. Clement’s successor- Paul III, was a Roman mobster who spent his papacy securing fortunes for his children.
  5. He authorised slavery in the papal states: he issued the famous Bull which legalised the slave trade and repealed the ancient Roman law which provided slaves some right to sue for their freedom.
  6. His successor, the allegedly gay Julius III, devoted his career to pushing through the Tridentine formulae, which were to change the face of Catholicism indelibly.
  7. With Marcellus II, the next pope, died the last hope of a truly reformed Catholic church. The accession of the hardline Bishop Carafa as Paul IV saw the imposition of the Spanish inquisition on the papal states, the creation of the jewish ghetto in Rome, and the stamping out of the mystical Spirituali. This was a pope who turned on his own folk,  persecuting Reginald Pole (who oversaw the Marian reconstruction in England) and cutting off Michelangelo’s pension.
  8. Pius IV, next in line, was yet another Medici, but not consequential enough to be called a “Medici pope”. His successor Pius V nailed in Mary Stewart’s coffin by excommunicating Elizabeth I.
  9. Gregory XIII,  post Pius, instituted the Gregorian calendar and sealed in the Tridentine   counter-reformation.  Popes named Gregory have proved good for the church- it was one so called who instituted “Christendom” in the 12th century by seizing upon a chaotic political situation, and it was “Gregory the Great” back in the 6th century that united a schismatic church under the banner of strict trinitarianism.
  10. There have been no popes named after any of the apostles, though there have been no dearth of Pauls. Odd, innit, in a religion with such a complex relationship to its conversos? (In this context, I mean catholicism when I say religion. Protestantism, evangelical from the get-go, has reconciled such stress with less dithering).
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