I may not agree with the man's theology but anyone interested in early Christian thought and the revolution in mental attitudes Augustine represents n...moreI may not agree with the man's theology but anyone interested in early Christian thought and the revolution in mental attitudes Augustine represents needs to read him.(less)
I can’t recommend Augustine: A New Biography to anyone who doesn’t have a good background in early Christian theology, late Roman history and at least...moreI can’t recommend Augustine: A New Biography to anyone who doesn’t have a good background in early Christian theology, late Roman history and at least a passing familiarity with Augustine’s more popular works – particularly The Confessions and The City of God. If, however, you can meet those criteria then O’Donnell’s book should be required reading. The author deconstructs the image of Augustine that has come down to us without denigrating the real, glimpsed through the prisms of his books, letters and sermons. This man can be vain, petty, and overly contentious, and he certainly had little sense of humor, but he was also a conscientious shepherd for his flock. Admittedly, he wasn’t a very good administrator and tended to ignore the more mundane functions of his see until corruption and scandal blew up in his face but that wasn’t because he didn’t care about the congregants.
And there can be no denying that he was and remains one of the “giants” of intellectual history. No one would have predicted it at Augustine’s death in AD 430, but his theology came to define Western Christianity and all of his successors either built upon his work or had to form their theologies in response to it. Augustine was in the fortunate position of being the only Latin writer and brain of any ability of his era. He also had the advantage of not being very familiar with Greek learning (in The Confessions, the bishop recounts how little Greek he retained from his days as a student) and no exposure at all to the OT scriptures in their original Hebrew. Thus, his brilliance was largely unencumbered and innovative (though he would have been loath to admit it).
For better or for worse (depending upon your philosophical leanings), Augustine’s brilliant mind was a terribly pessimistic one that often skirted the edges of Manichaean heresy (as opponents were all too eager to point out), and which often found itself backed into paradoxical corners by the logic of its positions. A case in point is the origin of the soul. Augustine considered four possibilities (p. 299):
1. God creates souls as each human being is born (or conceived).
2. God has created each soul in eternity and dispatches it to a body as it is created.
3. God has created each soul in eternity but they choose to fall into mortal bodies (the initial act of rebellion).
4. God has created a single soul of which “slices”inhabit each mortal body.
None of these scenarios are without problems, and it’s a measure of Augustine’s intellectual dexterity that he managed to never adequately answer the dilemma and that support for the last two positions can be gleaned from selective readings of his work.
O’Donnell describes two principles that emerge from Augustine’s ruminations (pp. 301-302):
1. God is all powerful, man is weak. The temptation of sin can theoretically be resisted but, in practice, almost never is. Salvation is a divine dispensation, and not human in origin.
2. The apparent salvation of the blessed “is not decisive.” No human can be sure that they are truly saved.
As the author pithily puts it, “ wrestles with Paul’s pessimism and is decisively beaten by it” (p. 301).
What, in the end, did Augustine do? O’Donnell suggests several things. First, Augustine was instrumental in making books the source of “wisdom.” This unique Western/Islamic conceit has only recently been challenged by changing technologies that have made books less central to intellectual development. (This is a thesis that is not fully developed in this book but it is intriguing.)
Second, the bishop’s idea of God – a mixture of biblical and Platonic traditions – is with us still in all of the great monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity & Islam): “He may have died a hundred or more years ago, but he is with us still, the undead deity for whom the zealots of many cultures compete” (p. 329).
Third, God keeps his distance from mundane politics. A view of God’s intervention in the world that will eventually give us the doctrine of church-state seperation, and no end of conflict between the secular and ecclesiastic powers of Western Europe.
Fourth, religion is a “serious” endeavor, concerned with matters spiritual and sublime. Not the often sordid concerns of the here and now. Augustine would have been shocked at the tendency (at least in American churches) toward song and dance as part of a service – “Religion is solemn and serious business, arising out of the deep inner experience of some, a deep inner experience….” (p. 329).
Fifth, set up the framework for Western Christianity’s struggle between its belief in freedom and the limits of that freedom (the illusion of self-control & predestination).
Sixth, and last, “sex.” Not the act, of course, but the somewhat neurotic relationship Western civilization (including Islam) has with it. This is another thread of Augustinian thought that O’Donnell doesn’t spend much time with and points up what readers might find a serious flaw (or, at least, drawback) to the book and that is it doesn’t spend much time with Augustine’s works as such but rather attempts to situate the man and his words in the context of 5th century Roman Africa.
At this, O’Donnell succeeds brilliantly, arguing, for example, that Augustine’s life can be seen as an attempt to enter the rarified heights of the imperial elite and failing. He even goes so far as to argue that much of the bishop’s animus toward Pelagius stemmed from the latter’s success in a similar endeavor. O’Donnell also shows how Donatism was by far the majority “flavor” of Christianity in Africa. It failed not on the merits of doctrine but because the Donatist church backed the wrong player in the internecine civil wars afflicting the empire, and the Western court came down like a ton of bricks on the (now) heretical clergy. (The author even goes so far as to suggest that the Roman church’s victory was pyrrhic in that the resentment and ill will it engendered made the later Muslim conquests all the easier.)
Not a “definitive” biography and not for the general reader, Augustine: A New Biography is still a good read for the properly prepared, even if you can’t always whole-heartedly agree with its arguments.(less)
This is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely Musl...moreThis is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely Muslim) and, arguably, flourished up through the 14th century AD. Only because of the vagaries of history (or the inscrutable machinations of God, depending upon one's point of view) did Western and Orthodox Christianity survive, that survival feeding the myths that the heterodox sects were suppressed by the Romans and that there were no Christians of any number outside of the empire. In fact, there were any number of Christians outside of the empire and in those darks days when Western Europe lay under the hands of the "barbarians" and the Eastern Romans were busy just trying to survive the Saracen onslaught, they enjoyed a vibrant intellectual life and greatly influenced the early Islamic empire both politically and theologically. Beyond that, they managed to evangelize as far afield as China and were influential presences in some of the most surprising places - like the courts of Mongol conquerors and Indian rajahs. Beginning around AD 1300, give or take a few decades, these communities began to disappear; Jenkins chronicles their survival and offers some reasons for their eventual destruction. (They were not entirely exterminated in many cases, however, but the believers had to go underground and avoid the attention of the governing polity.)
This is a very slim volume (only 262 pages of text) for the amount of ground it covers (over a 1,000 years of history and lands stretching from Gibraltar to Japan) so the reader is often left hungry for more information for just about every era Jenkins touches upon, especially as to causes since Jenkins is quite good at recognizing the variety of events that nurtured or killed Christian communities. For example, the disappearance of the North African church after AD 700 involved no large scale massacres of believers or serious persecutions but by 800, it's as if Augustine and Tertullian had never existed. In contrast, the Coptic church in Egypt commanded the alliegiance of a large minority of the population for centuries. It was finally broken only after generations of discrimination, persecution and the occasional pogrom.
The chapters "How Faiths Die" and "The Mystery of Survival" are provocative examinations of how beliefs live and die. For the believer of any stripe, some of Jenkins' conclusions may be a bit uncomfortable: There is no guarantee that any religion will survive no matter how successful it may appear at a given moment and some religions that appear "dead" can rebound spectacularly (consider that in AD 800, no one would have predicted that Western Europe and Christianity would be the dominant culture and faith a thousand years later; based on political and intellectual success alone, it should have been Islam).
The chapter "Ghosts of Faith" is an equally provocative look at the eastern Christian roots or influences on Muslim practices and beliefs, particularly among the Sufis. Jenkins even brings up the extremely tendentious argument that the Quran derives from Syriac Christian liturgies and gospels. While I have no brief for any particular scripture, I should note that Jenkins does seem to go out of his way to emphasize, perhaps overemphasize, the Christian influences on Islam.
On the whole, though, Jenkins is very balanced in his treatment of the various religious traditions. He is, after all, chronicling Christian disasters and the "villains" are often Muslims but he's careful to point out that some "deaths" stemmed from non-religious causes and that every religion has been guilty of discrimination and massacre.
While not, perhaps, a "must read," Jenkins is a welcome and interesting look at yet another aspect of history largely ignored in our assessments of the past and especially apropos considering current relations between the self-proclaimed children of Israel and Ishmael.(less)
I figured I would throw that into the ring the first thing so that people reading this review would know exactly the perspective from...moreI am an atheist.
I figured I would throw that into the ring the first thing so that people reading this review would know exactly the perspective from which I’m writing. For the first 10 years of my life, I had only a passing acquaintance with religion at all. After my parents divorced, my mother began attending church again (St. Robert’s (Catholic) in St. Charles, MO, or – after it was built – St. Elizabeth’s in St. Peters on occasion). Even then, I was never under any serious pressure to believe. I guess mom felt that religion classes on Wednesday and church on Sunday would inculcate faith without any effort on her part. And she was right to an extent. Up through high school, I accepted what I was taught without much thought. Toward the end of high school and the beginning of college (where I was taking a number of religious-history courses), I began to lose that façade of belief. Until recently, however, I remained an agnostic. It’s in the last five years or so that I’ve dived off the fence and plunged whole-heartedly into depraved godlessness.^
I have my father to thank for not indoctrinating me in any particular faith. He was and remains largely religion free. (Though he attends church with my stepmother, I think it’s more for the social camaraderie than for the dogma. He’s an avid reader of books exploring the contradictions of faith and the events that may have shaped Biblical writings – some of those tomes supplied by me.) It was not always so. When he left high school he entered seminary to become a priest. To this day, he doesn’t discuss why he left after a year and returned home. Considering the nature of the scandals that have plagued the Church in the last few years, it’s easy to imagine what he may have heard, seen or endured to make him leave. On the other hand, my father is not one to pursue a fruitless course. It’s more likely – in his case – that he realized the priesthood was not for him, left seminary as soon as possible, and didn’t discuss it much with his family because they remained faithful to Rome and he didn’t want to hurt them.@
When I saw William Lobdell’s book at my library’s used-book sale, I was naturally intrigued by the title and immediately laid down my 50 cents to see what, if any, parallels I could find with his experience. Interestingly enough, not many. Like my own, Lobdell’s childhood and early adulthood were not particularly religious. However, his life took a decidedly less beneficent turn than my own. He became involved in drugs, he cheated on his girlfriend even after getting her pregnant, and his life was spiraling out of control. Until he found God. At this lowest point in his life, Lobdell found a group that discovered satisfaction, happiness and answers to life’s problems as a result of their faith. He embraced it and them, and did indeed climb out of the hole he had dug for himself. More accurately, I think, the author found a group of people who gave him the support he needed to turn his life around. That they happened to be evangelicals was beside the point (believers will take a wholly different view, one which Lobdell would have agreed with until his unconversion). Guided by his new found belief and supported by his new found congregation, Lobdell kicked the drugs, created a healthy relationship with his girlfriend (and subsequently, wife), and established a satisfying career as a journalist. In fact, he began writing a weekly column about the positive activities of various churches for the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition.+ This went on for several years but then the Jim Bakker scandal erupted, and the Jimmy Swaggart scandal, and the TBN scandal, and – most distressing for Lobdell – the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. At the time when the first stories began coming out about pedophile priests and the bureaucracy that covered up their sins, Lobdell was in the midst of converting to Catholicism.
At no point does Lobdell deny the power of faith in a person’s life and acknowledges its own role in his redemption but he couldn’t square the activities of the Church and other spiritual leaders with the faith they preached. It went beyond accepting the fact that men (and women) were flawed and would sin. He asked whether or not a truly God-inspired ministry could sink to such depths of greed or sexual depravity. Surely, people called to the ministry would represent the better part of humanity and be able to resist the worst sins that humans were susceptible to. This led to study into the basis of faith and nonbelief and eventually to a repudiation of his own.
In my opinion, the most telling reason for Lobdell’s atheism – because it succinctly states a major reason for why I can’t believe – is an observation he makes midway through the book:
I felt angry with God for making faith such a guessing game. I didn’t treat my sons as God treated me. I gave them clear direction, quick answers, steady discipline and plenty of love. There was little mystery in our relationships, they didn’t have to strain to hear my “gentle whisper.” How to hear God, love Him and best serve Him shouldn’t be so open to interpretation. It shouldn’t be that hard. (pp. 160-1)
In the end, Lobdell characterizes himself as a reluctant atheist. He’d like to have faith in a higher power but he can’t reconcile what he feels and sees with the God of his early evangelical faith or of his Catholic training, and he sees no other faith with any better claim to knowing God. As he writes in the epilog:
I do miss my faith, as I’d miss any longtime love, and have a deep appreciation for how it helped me mature over 25 years. Even though I’ve come to believe my religion is based on a myth, its benefits are tangible and haven’t evaporated along with my faith….
To borrow Buddha’s analogy. I’ve just spent eight years crossing a river in a raft of my own construction, and I’m now standing on a new shore. My raft was not made of dharma, like Buddhism’s, but of things I gathered along the way: knowledge, maturity, humility, critical thinking and the willingness to face my world as it is, and not how I wish it to be. (p. 279)
I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in religion, in faith, in why we hold it and why we lose it.
^ Part and parcel with the radicalization of many of my beliefs as I grow older. I thought I was supposed to get more conservative as I approach senescence?
@ It’s thanks to my aunt that I know what little I do of my dad’s early years.
+ And not just Christian denominations. He emphasized the positive activities of all faiths – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.(less)
In the page before the Table of Contents, Charlotte Gordon quotes the affirmations of God’s uniqueness found in all three Abrahamic faiths (Deuteronom...moreIn the page before the Table of Contents, Charlotte Gordon quotes the affirmations of God’s uniqueness found in all three Abrahamic faiths (Deuteronomy 6:4, the Apostles’ Creed and Koran 2:255). Gordon’s book is a perfect example of Robert Wright’s argument in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright that every generation reinterprets its scriptures in light of social, economic and political contexts. In this instance, Gordon offers a rereading of the Abrahamic origin myth that stresses the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the irrationality of disputes among these faiths. (In the light of recent history, it should be obvious why some would see the need for this type of reinterpretation.) She also reads the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and their descendants+ as a story reflecting a dysfunctional human family learning to cope and to accept each other.
Unfortunately, I am not the audience for this book. As a nonbeliever, I have no need to reinterpret the Abrahamic myth nor am I convinced by Gordon’s explication of Abraham’s clan as an archetypal human family. I give it two stars not for any serious lack of writing ability or interpretative skill but because it didn’t address personal interests or offer any radical new insights. This did not, however, make it an uninteresting or useless read. I think the value in a book like this, particularly to believers, is in its reinterpretive value. Recently, I reviewed Dan Diner’s Lost in the Sacred Why the Muslim World Stood Still. There the author advised Muslims to become more secular, creating distinct lay and religious spheres in life as has developed in Western culture. Leaving aside the problems that’s caused for the West, I argued that it was silly and counter-productive to counsel such a course of action, and that a better strategy would be to read scripture in a way that accommodated modernity, stressed cooperation and retained the “sacred” in mundane life. Which is precisely what Gordon is attempting to do here. I am unqualified to judge how successful she is in the light of other readings but this shouldn’t be dismissed in the effort to reconcile so far intractable disputes.
I gleaned five points Gordon wants to make about the importance of Abraham’s story:
• God’s command to Abraham “to go forth” reflects the emergence of the self (cf., Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). • God’s relationship with Abraham’s family, particularly Hagar, is the first time he establishes a personal relationship with worshippers. • “Hagar’s story offers an alternative creation myth to that of the Romans and Israelites: one that is based on freedom, not slavery, and one where there is no need for brutality or rape.” (p. 137) • When Hagar names God as “El-roi” (Genesis 16:13), Gordon interprets it as “the one who sees me.” The traditional interpretation is “the god seen in a vision.” If Gordon’s interpretation is the more correct one, she can argue that it’s the first instance of a deity taking notice of one of his worshippers. • Gordon argues a very idiosyncratic interpretation of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s expulsion: It was a scheme concocted by Hagar and Sarah to protect Ishmael from Abraham, and shows that there was a warm, friendly relationship between the two women. (pp. 226-27)
Well…maybe. It’s an imaginative interpretation, and shows just how flexible the Bible can be but I did have some problems with it:
• Number one is that Gordon assumes that the God of Abraham is the modern concept of God. For some believers this may be perfectly acceptable but the historical evidence is pretty clear that there were no monotheists in 1700 BC (at least none whose stories have survived). Assuming an individual named Abraham actually existed, he was at best a monolatrist. • Which brings me to my second objection: Gordon ignores the manifest evidence that the Abraham story is a synthesis of now forgotten myths edited by post-Exile Jewish priests. • She emphasizes Abraham’s “wildness” despite the fact that he and Sarah both came from some of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia, and has a very simplistic vision of the relationship between ancient urban centers and the hinterlands. • She also makes odd interpretations in other matters. For example, referring to Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” as an attempt to convert Romans to Christianity when he was writing to an established congregation of Roman Christians – they were already believers. In Genesis 18, she argues that God is a fourth presence and not one of the three men who approach him at Mamre. Both my reading and others I’ve seen, include God among the trio. While it’s possible to interpret the words that way, it’s decidedly not the usual one and needs more justification (is the ancient Hebrew clearer?). • Gordon strays into heresy on page 190 when she suggests God is not all-knowing. This isn’t a bad thing in my view but if Gordon is trying to convince believers, she loses them here. • Discussing Sodom and Gomorrah, Gordon makes an astonishingly shallow interpretation of Lot and his daughters, whom she characterizes as “valley girl” types (my wording) who missed the opportunities for shopping and flirting denied them in the hills where the family fled. (p. 203) (And, yes, she uses the words “shopping” and “flirting.”) • Related to my first point above, Gordon accepts the historicity not just of Abraham et al. but also the events of the story (i.e., Sarah’s seriously post-menopausal pregnancy). • Lastly, Gordon indulges in a lot of speculation about the principals’ motives and thinking that’s ill supported.
Even if I were a believer, I think I would have a problem with some of the spin Gordon contrives even though I sympathize with her motives. Overall, I found Gordon’s reinterpretation interesting if flawed and would be interested in knowing what believers of all three faiths make of it; I definitely would recommend it
+ For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use Abraham and Sarah throughout rather than Abram and Sarai for the pre-Covenant period.
++ The following has no direct relation to Gordon or her exegesis but in the course of reading this book I became curious about the chronological relationship between Noah and his putative descendant Abraham. So I began with Genesis 11:10-32, which traces the line of Shem to Abraham’s birth. Taking Shem’s birth as Year 1, I came up with the following genealogical tree:
You’ll notice that Shem, a survivor of the Flood, was still alive when Abraham came screaming into the world. Even more remarkable – Noah was still kicking around. In fact, he would hang on until the 450th year after the Flood. The most remarkable “fact” that emerges is that Eber, Shem’s great-grandson and Abraham’s great-great-great-great-grandfather survived Abraham by 30 years.
Does this mean anything? Probably nothing more than a caution against blindly asserting the inerrancy of the Bible. After all, what need would God have had to reassert his power when survivors of the worldwide – WORLDWIDE – Flood were still breathing in Abraham’s day?(less)
Bart Ehrman writes about very interesting subjects in (usually) an interesting way and he's probably quite good in a seminar but, Lord, he's not a goo...moreBart Ehrman writes about very interesting subjects in (usually) an interesting way and he's probably quite good in a seminar but, Lord, he's not a good lecturer. Which is the worst thing I can say about this collection of lectures produced by The Teaching Company for their The Great Courses series (which is only part 1, bringing us up to c. AD 250, and a final talk about what caused the persecutions).
I have a pretty good, generalist's background in the period from my misspent graduate days and later reading so I didn't learn much new in a "macrocosmic" sense; I did, however, learn some interesting things on a "microcosmic" level:
The Apostle Paul (lecture 5): Though he would have cringed to be so described, Paul was one of the greatest innovators in religious thought and was decisive in turning Christianity from being a purely Jewish apocalyptic sect into something that appealed to Gentiles. He first elevated Jesus' death and resurrection as the keys to salvation, and first argued that it came not by observance of the Law (no matter how "good" as it came from God) but by faith in Jesus.
Origins of anti-semitism: Ehrman focuses on two important themes the emerged in the expanding Christian community. The first is Justin Martyr's, who argued that the Law was given not as a sign of Israel's "chosen" status but as a sign of punishment - these Jews were too recalcitrant and stubborn and needed to be strictly kept in line. Jesus was always present in Scripture but the Jews never discerned him (e.g., "Let us (i.e., God and Christ) make man").
The other point of view Ehrman brings up is represented in the Epistle of Barnabas, whose author argued that the OT wasn't even Jewish - It was instead a prefiguration of Christ not to be taken literally (as the Jews had been doing for thousands of years). A view, which taken to its logical conclusion, would hold that the Jews had never been chosen; that status had to wait until Jesus came to set the Law's interpretation correctly and then it fell to his followers, the Christians.
Christian evangelism: Ehrman also covers the latest research into the spread of Christianity as if you're not a believer, the new religion's success needs more explanation than "it's God's plan." Here, he mentions Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity. Stark is a sociologist by training and his early work focused on modern religious conversion - that is, why do people convert? He took the techniques and results from that research and applied it to antiquity to show that many of the same reasons applied: alienation and efficacy. Converts, for some reason, feel dissatisfied with their native religion + the new faith shows that it makes a positive impact on the converts' lives. Once even a small group makes the conversion, they raise their families in the new faith. Relatively soon, a group of c. 50 followers of Jesus becomes 2-3% of the Roman Empire by AD 300.
Another point Ehrman brings up here is that pagan (or Jewish) religious culture was not moribund. Graeco-Roman culture was entering a period of religious enthusiasm and ferment (similar in some ways, perhaps, to today), whose wave Christianity rode successfully.
Roman persecution: The final point I'll mention is the Roman government's response to Christianity - They largely tried to ignore it. No systematic persecution by the authorities is attested to before Decius' in c. AD 250. The chief problem, from the Roman viewpoint, was Christian refusal to offer cult to the Emperor but it wasn't that big of a deal before the crises of the third century. Before then, most governors followed Trajan's advice to Pliny - don't seek the Christians out but if you do find a cell, and they don't make offerings to the Emperor, execute them.
Despite Prof. Ehrman's deficiencies as a lecturer, I'm definitely going to pick up Part 2 from the library soon.(less)
Bart Ehrman is joining Jonathan Kirsch as a writer whose earlier books I admire and enjoyed but whose more recent works are largely rehashes and (wors...moreBart Ehrman is joining Jonathan Kirsch as a writer whose earlier books I admire and enjoyed but whose more recent works are largely rehashes and (worse) often poorly written and edited. Jesus, Interrupted doesnt' cover any territory not already covered in Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus or Lost Christianities. It also reads like Ehrman threw together his lecture notes - it's repetitive and slapdash. I could envision him using this to good effect in a lecture hall but as a book, the style has serious problems.
There are better introductions to critical Bible studies elsewhere (and in Ehrman's own oeuvre mentioned above).(less)
If I were better at time management, I'd have had this reviewed by now but I have put pen to paper (finally) and should have a r...moreFor my myriad fans :-)
If I were better at time management, I'd have had this reviewed by now but I have put pen to paper (finally) and should have a review of this ultimate volume of my religion-themed reading quest soon.(less)
I will say this, despite its brevity (less than 200 pages in print), Wills' manages to present a surprisingly complex and insightful portrait of the man and his thought. He actually managed to turn the saint into a sympathetic figure. I've never liked Augustine much as a person but the author's interpretation made me sympathize with the decisions Augustine made in his life (like sending his long-time concubine and mother of his son away).
Highly recommended, print or audio (in fact, I should read the print version because I know I missed a lot just listening to it). Garry Wills is a brilliant writer and anything he authors is worth the effort to read.(less)
A People’s History of Christianity is not so much a “history” (either scholarly or general) as it is an argument for a return to the roots of Christia...moreA People’s History of Christianity is not so much a “history” (either scholarly or general) as it is an argument for a return to the roots of Christianity that finds fault with both modern expressions of “liberal” and “conservative” religion. As Bass argues in her introduction, liberal theologians and congregations tend to lose their “devotional” memories; their conservative cousins lose their “ethical” memory. The result is a liberal tradition that’s often little more than a social club; and a conservative tradition that’s often reactionary and mean spirited.
Bass comes from an unabashedly liberal perspective by which I mean she rejects – or is, at least, chary of – Christologies used to justify the state, the Church (in the “big C,” institutional sense), church wealth, war, etc. Her Christ is the preacher who counsels the rich young man in Mark 10:21 to “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” and says in 12:29-31, “The first of all the commandments is: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind, and will all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these”; or the Church as represented by the spirit of Vatican II (though Bass isn’t Catholic herself – I gather she was raised Methodist, and now professes Episcopalianism).
I am not the audience for this book, or not the primary audience. There’s too little in the way of history to engage my interest, and too much theology whose foundation I reject. Full Disclosure: I was raised Catholic in a thoroughly secular, middle-class American family in Missouri. Before my parents’ divorce, we didn’t even go to church. When mom did begin taking us and enrolled my siblings and me in weekly religion classes, I fell in love with Catholic ritual, history and tradition, and the cool robes the priests got to wear, but I was not wedded to (nor even terribly aware of) its theology until I got interested in such topics in college, and then I became an Origenist. It’s been downhill (from the Vatican’s POV) since then.
Which is not to say that I didn’t get something from reading this book. I have scads of post-it notes littering its pages reflecting what I learned of the variety of ways Christians have interpreted Christ’s teachings through the ages, and how the “popular impulse” – often co-opted or suppressed by the institutional Church (cf., the Franciscans** or the Beguines, respectively) – keeps bubbling up to the surface to discomfit the privileged and the comfortable.
**If you want to learn more than you could ever possibly want to know about the medieval Franciscans and the related popular movements that bedeviled the Roman Church, I can’t recommend enough Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
After the Introduction, Bass divides her narrative into five parts:
“The Way” – Early Christianity (AD 100-500) “The Cathedral” – Medieval Christianity (AD 500-1450) “The Word” – Reformation Christianity (AD 1450-1650) “The Quest” – Modern Christianity (AD 1650-1945) “The River” – Contemporary Christianity (AD 1945-present)
And within those sections (except for the last), each is further divided into a look at “devotion” and at “ethics” – How Christians interpreted the New Testament and how they implemented what they learned in the real world.
For example, in the “Ethics” of “The Way,” Bass recounts how early Christians lived a Christ-centered life: 1. hospitality - all comers were welcome; 2. communalism - all property was held in common by the faithful; 3. peace making - early Christians were pacifists by and large*; 4. aliens - all humans were “neighbors,” even if they remained outside the church.
*St. Valentine, whose feast day we recently celebrated, was a soldier who refused to fight, as was St. Martin of Tours; and one of the chief “crimes” committed by Christians was their refusal to serve in the legions.
An example of some insights found in Bass’s “Devotion” sections: In “The Cathedral,” she devotes much ink to Peter Abelard and Heloise, arguing that they were representative of the interpretation of Christ’s Crucifixion as an expression of God’s infinite love for Man, and not a sacrifice to atone for his myriad sins and to satisfy justice.
There were some fascinating figures in modern Christianity whom I had never heard of such as Vida Scudder (1861-1954). This woman’s interpretation of Christ’s life resulted in a Christian socialism – a vision of an extended monastic society where extremes of wealth and poverty were eliminated so all could pursue devotional works without hindrance. Or Harry Fosdick (1878-1969), who preached “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in 1922 and embraced evolution because it makes Christianity a religion of hope, implying (as it does) that people can bring about positive change. Evolution leavened with religious yeast transforms humanity’s material existence into human life. (This reminds me of the Buddhist idea that knowledge unguided by wisdom is dangerous. It also reminds me of a short story I read ages ago (written in the ‘50s) where a scientist is convinced to not develop a devastating new technology when an alien gives his toddler a gun and asks him, “Would you give a child a gun?”)
Each period deserves, at a minimum, a book-length treatment of these subjects.(less)
I wonder why Rodney Stark wrote this book. He claims there is a “sinister” (p. 4) trend in Crusader studies that characterizes the Muslim world as the...moreI wonder why Rodney Stark wrote this book. He claims there is a “sinister” (p. 4) trend in Crusader studies that characterizes the Muslim world as the innocent and culturally and morally far superior victim of this first manifestation of European colonialism. That “during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam” (p. 8).
Twenty years ago I was entering the world of Medieval Studies as a UCLA grad student. In fact, the period under discussion (c. 1100-1400) and this very region (the Mediterranean) were the areas I was interested in. Even back then, there was no serious expert in the field who would argue that provocations, massacres, brutality, looting, rape, etc. didn’t occur on all sides, that anyone had the moral high ground. Nor would any student of the period argue that purely material interests motivated the Crusaders. Did the Marxist/materialist interpretation dominate a certain era of historiography? Sure. But like all academic fevers, this too passed (though not without a lot of groundbreaking and revelatory data in its wake). A new generation came up through the ranks that accommodated the less material, more idealistic motivations. So Stark’s cabal seems to be a straw man. It’s illustrative that the handful of specific authors he cites as evidence of a conspiracy are all nonexperts in the field. In particular, his bete noire Karen Armstrong, a fine scholar in her own right but not immersed in the sources as a specialist would be. Though, perhaps, she too is as guilty as Stark of slanting her own interpretations. (I tend to agree with Stark’s assessment: IMO, Armstrong, in her recent work on Islam, has evinced an annoying tendency to whitewash its “sins” in comparing it to Christianity. An argument against selecting facts to fit a political/philosophical agenda, but not evidence of an academic conspiracy to demonize Christianity.)
My problem may stem from the book’s subtitle: “The Case for the Crusades.” The case for the Crusades? Is he seriously arguing that a religiously motivated military campaign (jihad) is justified? Is he hypocritically arguing that you shouldn’t use selective data to support one’s opinion yet does so to exonerate Urban II and his successors? Or is his objective of a more contemporary nature? A backhanded justification for the West’s (primarily America’s) response to recent Islamic fundamentalist terrorism? If so, then the facts of his own book doesn’t support his interpretation. If anything, they argue against a military response: Despite better technology and amazing logistical capability on the part of the European princes, no Crusade after the first achieved any lasting success and most were utter debacles*).
*The Fourth Crusade, indeed, perpetrated one of the worst cultural and political crimes in medieval history – the sacking of Constantinople and the utter ruin of the Byzantine state, threatening nary a Saracen.
When Stark sticks to the facts and doesn’t attempt any interpretation, he’s generally spot on. It’s his interpretations that I found fault with in his latest work. I am still amazed and enthralled by The Rise of Christianity How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force ..... He marshaled ancient sources and applied modern sociological research on religious conversion to present a powerful case for how and why Christianity prospered even in the face of sporadic but usually fatal persecutions. And his description of life in ancient Antioch, in the same book, is still one of the most harrowing and interesting I’ve read. For the first 2/3rds of Discovering God The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, he presents a cogent argument for how and why the concept of God developed across time. Then in the final 1/3rd, he begins proselytizing, abandoning the admirable evenhandedness of the first part to shill for the Christian version of deity, and he lost me.
In this book, too, Stark marshals the facts to lay out a mildly revisionist history that brings a more balanced viewpoint to the general reading public. I’ll cite two examples here: First, he debunks the notion of a “dark age” in Europe (already pretty thoroughly a relic in academe, starting with 19th century historiography!) but it never hurts to reemphasize the technological, economic and political innovations that were transforming ancient society from the 5th century on and earlier. He also correctly, IMO, points out that the brightest intellectual lights in the Islamic firmament were often Christians (though not Latin), Jews or otherwise non-Arabs, and that quite soon an intellectual rigidity set in which retarded any exploitation of their insights. He scants a similar, if later, phenomenon in Christianity – though in that case happily, the Church was too weak and intervened too late to do more than delay the advent of the modern world.
A second example is Stark’s corrective to the overly materialistic interpretation of the Crusades, which reduced the movement to a matter of economic and social factors forcing humans to act as they did. For many knights, going to the Holy Land was anything but in their best economic interests. But their zeal (fanaticism, to be less charitable) fueled both their personal ventures and profound economic and political changes in Medieval Europe.
There are some indications of a less-than-complete grasp of regional histories as, for example, when Stark mentions the “oddity” of Charlemagne attacking the Basque (Christian) city of Pamplona in 778. Knowledge of the enmity between the Basques of northern Spain and the Franks of southern France may have made the soon-to-be emperor’s actions less “odd.” Or there is the arbitrary decision to exclude the non-Levantine crusades (i.e., the Reconquista or the Albigensian Crusade) as unrepresentative of the “true” Crusading movement, which goes unjustified.
As a corrective to overly materialistic interpretations of the Crusades, Stark deserves at least 3 stars, and general readers could do worse than to learn a bit about the period from this book.** However, for his conspiracy theories of malfeasance and his (possible) attempt to justify modern “crusades,” he loses a star.
**They might be better served, however, by reading experts in the field like Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, vols. 1-3, dated in many respects but still a brilliant, exciting, well written narrative of the campaigns; Kenneth Setton; or Christopher Tyerman’s recent God's War A New History of the Crusades. And, while Wikipedia is never to be trusted as a source itself, the bibliography sections of the Crusade entries can direct interested parties to interesting books (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_cr...).
A final thought that has nothing to do with my praises, objections or opinions of the book but which came to me as I was reading: Stark’s discussion of why Crusaders took up the cross and justified their actions reminded me of Wendy Doniger’s discussion of a similar moral dilemma that faced the kshatriya caste in her book The Hindus - see my review: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52.... In the “Bhagavad Gita,” Krishna explains to Arjuna that though the warrior’s dharma (to commit acts of violence and murder in service to his ruler) goes against general dharma and accumulates bad karma, the warrior who can act (karma) without desire (kama) can satisfy both dharmas and avoid bad karma. It seems to me that, in a similar vein, Christianity resolved the problem of controlling its warrior class with theories of “just wars” and plenary absolution of sins committed.(less)
God and Sex is a short discussion (195 pages text) of the many places in the Bible where “sex” and related subjects come up. There’s no real discussion of any particular passage but Coogan’s point in this brief book is that the Bible says many things about sex, marriage, divorce, homoeroticism*, etc., and that much of it is contradictory, ambiguous and culturally relative. He does provide citations for all the passages he quotes and a useful bibliography at the end for people who want to explore the subject further.
This is not solely a refutation of the Biblical literalist however. I don’t know whether Coogan is Christian or Jewish but he is a believer and wants to affirm that the Bible, for all its contradictions and unsavory stories, is an important foundation for a moral life. To do that he is forced to concoct a theory about the scripture’s subtext. As he writes in his conclusion:
“One can thus trace a kind of trajectory from biblical times to the present and into the future. The trajectory moves toward the goal of freedom for all, in an inclusive community. This goal, this inspired ideal, is the underlying principle of the Bible – its subtext, as it were. Any specific biblical text is an incomplete formulation of the ideal because it is historically conditioned, and so it should not be taken as absolute in any sense. Moreover, no single biblical text adequately expresses the ideal, and in fact some texts clearly are counter to it from our perspective. Taken as a whole, however, the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons, regardless of social status, gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. How…a particular text speaks to an individual or a community in the present must be determined by testing it with the touchstone of fair and equal treatment of the neighbor, as seen in the strikingly similar sayings of Hillel and Jesus.” p. 194-95
As a “weak” atheist, I find the argument forced. If anything, my take on Western intellectual history is that the Bible is a touchstone against which thinkers created our modern, Western notions of individuality and liberty. I’m also not sure how this would appeal to a believer who wants certitude. Coogan would throw up biblical interpretation to a continual reinterpretation by each generation. A prospect I find exciting but not one I think many believers want when they go to Sunday school (or its equivalent). I’m reminded of a sentence I recently read in Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln where he’s discussing the concept of “democracy.” Substitute the words “freedom of conscience” for “democracy” and I think the point’s equally valid:
“Democracy is never a gift bestowed…. It must always be fought for…. Democratic successes are never irreversible.” p. xix
I’d recommend it, nevertheless, as Coogan performs a valuable service collecting the information in an easy-to-read-and-use format and (as I noted above) provides a nice bibliography for further study.
TANGENTIAL ASIDES: • The binding of this book is interesting: It’s black, faux leather with endpapers of Jacob Jordaens’ “The Temptation.” When the librarian brought it from the hold shelf and handed it over, I felt like I was buying a copy of Hustler. A forbidden, salacious tome that no self-respecting person would be caught in public with.
• I liked Coogan’s characterization of the Bible as not a book but a “library,” a collection of disparate, if related, writings.
• I was also powerfully struck by Coogan’s discussion of women in the Bible. I know that there’s not much in the book for a feminist but the author’s juxtaposition of citations and clear-headed discussion makes it all the more apparent that even in the best and most enlightened of circumstances a woman was nothing more than the property of some man, whether father or husband or son.
* Coogan prefers the term “homoeroticism” because our notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality are modern inventions.(less)
I've been looking for something to listen to on the drive to work and this is just the ticket. _________________________________________
I listened to t...moreI've been looking for something to listen to on the drive to work and this is just the ticket. _________________________________________
I listened to the audio version of this book so, as usual, I wasn't able to take notes and succeeded only in jotting down some thoughts when I got to work or back home from the drive but I'm minded to track down the hardcopy version of this book and give it a proper read.
I often listen to radio programs or visit websites where evangelicals/fundamentalists square off against secularists (or they're commenting on their opposites). I cringe when the former claim the Founders were Christians and that the United States is a Christian nation. I cringe as well when the latter claim that the Founders weren't all that Christian and that the United States isn't a Christian nation.
They're both wrong, and Stephen Prothero's Religious Illiteracy is a good introduction as to why that's so.
Technically speaking, the secularists are right: America is not a "Christian" nation. "God" is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution and the federal government (and, after the 14th Amendment, states) is forbidden from establishing or restricting the exercise of religion, and there are no (formal) religious tests for office, but in all other respects, America is profoundly Christian.
Or it was. In the last century we Americans have had to accomodate and live up to the ideal of religious tolerance to a far greater extent than the Founders ever imagined (and present-day right-wing evangelicals want).
All this is secondary, though, to the purported chief purpose of this book and that is to document the appalling religious illiteracy of the American public. "Illiteracy" has two forms: The first is ignorance of other faiths. The second is ignorance of one's own faith. It's this latter that Prothero focuses on - how did it develop and why does it matter?
As to development - The "fault" lies in the nature of Christianity as it evolved in America. Correct doctrine dominated religious dialog from Luther's theses down to the Revolution. The smallest differences in liturgy or theology could set two communities at each other's throats and informed believers knew why they were Puritans or Methodists or Congregationalist or Quakers, etc., and not something else. The marketplace of religions that arose in the wake of the Revolution fostered competition among creeds and the triumph of evangelical Christianity* in the 2nd Great Revival meant that the emphasis fell on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ at the expense of doctrine.
The accidents of history made further dumbing down inevitable:
1. The Catholic "invasion" of the country in the 19th century prompted Protestants to draw together against the tyranny of the papists and de-emphasize any differences.
2. The threat of Godless Communism prompted Christians of all kinds to band together.
3. Today, it's the "threat" of Islam that is bringing Christians together in an effort to define themselves against the Other.
I would think the importance of our illiteracy is self-evident. How can you understand your own motivations much less another's when you can't even recite the basic tenets of your faith? (It's the rare American Christian who can name the four Gospels or recite the Ten Commandments, and don't even attempt to get into transubstantiation with a Catholic. And American Jews shouldn't get too smug - many of them are just as ignorant of their scriptures as Christians.)
If there's anything this survey lacks it's a concommitant look at American Muslims (or Buddhists, Hindus, etc.) to see if there's a similar level of ignorance amongst their congregations.
I'd recommend the book, especially the first chapters. Chapter 6 - the dictionary of religious literacy - makes for some dry recitation; the meat of Prothero's argument is in the first chapters and more interesting. If you're a believer it may spur you to take a closer look at the distinctiveness of your beliefs; and whether you're a believer or not, Prothero's overview of American cultural history is eye opening and instructive.
* Don't make the mistake that present-day evangelicals make of equating their beliefs with those of 18th and 19th century evangelicals. The problem with modern evangelicals claiming that the Founders would be on their side is twofold. One, the Founders, by and large, weren't evangelicals; and, two, the evangelicals of the early Republic had different concerns and beliefs than their modern counterparts.(less)