Unfortunately, I listened to this on Audio CD in the car and was unable to take even cursory notes so what follows is a list of impressions it made upUnfortunately, I listened to this on Audio CD in the car and was unable to take even cursory notes so what follows is a list of impressions it made upon me and "things" that stuck in my mind.
* As a whole, the book looks at the relationship between violence and religion. Carroll argues that religious practice developed because humans had to reconcile the necessity of violence (if only in killing animals to live) with the pangs of conscience that arose within them. That need to sacralize violence only became more important after the Agricultural Revolution c. 12,000 BC, which saw the rise of sacrificial cults. (He interprets the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac as a myth justifying the end of human sacrifice, for example.)
* But religion is like a game of whack-a-mole. It doesn't eliminate violence, it channels it into socially acceptable actions. It's in this context that he discusses the development of Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, setting it against the near constant state of revolt that afflicted Roman Judaea from about 60 to 138, when Bar Kochba's rebellion was savagely suppressed. The Jewish Christians were eliminated along with their nonbelieving Jewish cousins (the Romans not being big on doctrinal distinctions) and the Gentiles and Hellenized Jewish converts of the Diaspora carried on Jesus' legacy. The disastrous consequence (in Carroll's argument): Two millennia of anti-Semitism.
* I wish he would have spent more time on a notion he raises in discussing America's relationship with Jerusalem and that's the infantilization of religion as an unintended consequence of the US's separation of church and state. This is common to Western civilization as a whole as the apparent separation between knowledge and faith becomes more pronounced but is most evident (according to Carroll) in America.
* I was also fascinated by his discussion of how the notion of not sacrificing the youth of a nation (his interpretation of Abraham & Isaac, see above) was turned on its head to justify just that, particularly in the context of the First World War, Zionism and the current Islamist reliance on suicide bombers.
In the end, I enjoyed the book (though not enough to track down a physical copy - not at this time, anyway). Philosophically, Carroll and I are often on the same page, and his idea of "good religion" mirrors my own. But I think that's its problem when it comes to speaking to a broader audience. Carroll can be very persuasive in his interpretations of what the Bible is "really" saying but - in the end - he can muster no greater justification for them than others whose interpretations differ. I'm reminded of Stephen R. Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, where that author argues that the "God" of the world's major religions is not the same entity. And even within a religious tradition, "God" means different things to different people. Carroll's "God" and his "religion" will appeal to certain people but will remain unconvincing - if not downright blasphemous(1) - to others.
Recommended if only because of the provocations Carroll offers to our considered understanding of religion. In that regard, he's particularly good for the ancient Israelite material and the European Reformation; he's relatively light, however, on Islamic and doesn't even consider non-Western Christian movements.
(1) In his final chapter, Carroll gets all New Age-y and mystical, writing statements of seemingly profound wisdom that turn out upon reflection to not say much at all. And - to the dismay of Christian readers, at least - rejects the need for salvation entirely. This last part is the weakest section of the book, no question....more
“(T)he truth of the Bible is never obvious, but always in need of further thought and study.” (p. 244)
Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The B“(T)he truth of the Bible is never obvious, but always in need of further thought and study.” (p. 244)
Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire should terrify fundamentalists of any stripe. It should make even mainstream and liberal believers squirm in their seats for if her logic is carried to its end, her argument undermines the idea that there is a “Word of God” that is a meaningful, universal guide to human conduct. In her conclusion, the author emphasizes that readers of the Bible bring their own desires to the reading, and impose their own interpretations on the texts. To illustrate her point, she writes that Paul in his letter to the Galatians didn’t care about the historical or social context of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. He needed to find a justification that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish law. And he found it after some creative theologizing that reduced Ishmael and Isaac to symbols for those who lived “according to the flesh” and those who lived “according to the promise” (p. 242).
Knust’s conception of what a believer’s proper relationship to scripture deserves to be quoted in full:
“Nowadays, the sense that reading scripture is a creative, imaginative act has too often been lost, despite the creativity it took for New Testament writers and early Christians to claim that the law and the prophets are, when read correctly, all about Jesus Christ. Paul, Matthew, Irenaeus, and Origen came to the Bible with convictions about what should be found in its pages and, employing a variety of interpretive methods, they found what they wanted. But, unlike many contemporary readers, they did not attempt to hide their interpretive work from their audiences. Instead, they sought to persuade their readers that their interpretations were valuable by revealing the principles they brought to bear on the texts they read, whether they were arguing that Gentiles should come to God as Gentiles, that Jesus’s birth was miraculous, or that the church is the best arbiter of divine truth. They did not assume that quoting a few choice verses out of context could serve as sufficient proof of what the entire Bible says and therefore of what God says as well.
“It is time for us to admit that we, too, are interpreters hoping to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along. Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can lead only to disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies, as the material presented in this book demonstrates. If one set of biblical books interprets polygamy as a sign of God’s blessing, another set argues that celibacy is the best option for the faithful. If one biblical writer condemns those who engage in sex before marriage, others present premarital seduction as central to God’s plan. Just about every biblical commandment is broken, and not only by biblical villains. Biblical heroes like Abraham, Moses, and David also violate the commandments of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, and Jesus is represented radically reinterpreting earlier scriptural teachings, including commandments regarding divorce. When it comes to sex, the Bible is often divided against itself.
“It is therefore a mistake to pretend that the Bible can define our ethics for us in any kind of straightforward way; such an interpretive strategy will only lead us astray while also preventing us from taking the Bible as seriously as we should. Even more tragically, a refusal to acknowledge that we are active interpreters might make is seem as if the only possible choice is between accepting the Bible as literally true or rejecting the Bible altogether. Christians should not and need not be asked to make this choice. Since neither the Bible nor a particular interpretation can limit what particular stories and teachings must mean, it is up to readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like. If the New Testament writers were willing to admit that they were constructing their theological and moral perspective with biblical texts but not because of them, then what is preventing readers today from adopting the same strategy? The Bible provides neither a shortcut to the real work of interpretation nor a simple solution to the important task of figuring out what it means to be human and yet in love with God.” (pp. 244-45)
Where is the Bible’s authority if you can find nearly any interpretation reflected somewhere within it? Why is Fred Phelps’ interpretation that “God hates fags”* less authoritative than Chris Levan’s that “It (scripture) simply asks if the relationship is functioning according to principles of justice and dignity? Does the partnership demonstrate mutual trust and compassion? Is so, it is blessed by God” (website Religious Tolerance.org, accessed July 2011)?
This is a problem I have with the conclusion, not with the rest of the book. The bulk of this work is devoted to what the Bible says about sex, desire, marriage, gender, purity, and other issues. It’s lively and well written and will provide plenty of ammunition to those who like to debate such matters with conservative religious friends and relatives (however fruitlessly).
* Or the less obnoxious interpretation that says God may not hate homosexuals but he certainly doesn’t think their behavior is OK....more
Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries wCraig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries whose inmates asserted themselves against the severe boundaries that delimited their lives. Despite its title and this picture which graces the back of my edition’s dust jacket –
there’s little that’s salacious. Anyone hoping to read about orgies or demonic rites a la The Monk will be disappointed. In fact, in regards to sex and convents, Monson writes:
“Those who would spin nun-priest fantasies in the world, whether today or in eighteenth-century Bologna, would be surprised and probably disappointed to learn that contacts between male and female celibates in post-Tridentine Italy usually centered on less salacious intimacies than those that might take place in bed. Often characterized by words such as amicizia (friendship, amity), intrinsichezza (intimacy, close inwardness), domestichezza (familiarity, acquaintance, conversation), these relationships commonly involved activities that seem positively “domestic” by most notions of shocking behavior. Cooking treats, mending clothes, sewing, washing, passing letters, exchanging gifts – these were the “crimes” the church often considered scandalous. Or, of course, there were the expected incidents of carnival silliness. All in all, when the post-Tridentine cloister wall became virtually impregnable, interpersonal preoccupations seem generally to have shifted from the more explicitly lascivious to what was more realistically practical. While some of these relationships might borrow elements of secular courtship or marriage, evidence suggests that in most cases the relationships were scarcely physical, much less overtly sexual.” (pp. 169-70)
Monson is a professor of music at my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, and I found it interesting how he came to write this book. He ran across a manuscript of songs sung by nuns and was surprised to discover verses like this:
“You who’ve got that little trinket, So delightful and so pleasing, Might I take my hand and sink it ‘Neath petticoat and cassock, squeezing.” (p. 2)
From there, he descended into the Vatican archives and uncovered a trove of stories about convents and their often tumultuous relationships with the Roman Church hierarchy. Most of the stories are incomplete, fragments of transcripts that break off mid-investigation, leaving the reader without a resolution. Monson managed, however, to piece together the five cases presented here. Neither Monson nor his protagonists have any agendas. Monson is not arguing that these cases represent a proto-feminism in early Modern Italy. And the nuns have no motives beyond trying to exercise some control in their own lives.
Chapter one is an overview of convent life in Catholic Italy, and I enumerate below some of the interesting things I learned:
1. Respectable women were either married or in a convent, which was the “sink” for a family’s otherwise useless daughters. (Dowries went from the bride’s family to the groom’s, so a surfeit of girls could impoverish even the wealthiest of families.)
2. Because of #1, a city’s population could comprise a large number of nuns (14% of the citizenry of Bologna c. 1630).
3. Not surprisingly, most nuns did not have a real vocation.
4. Despite vows which forbade contact with the outside world, these women kept in touch with relatives and friends and the gossip of the city via the parlatorio, a grated window to the world, and the convent chapel.
5. In the 1500s, convent singing expanded beyond the plainchant to the polyphonous chants their male brethren were singing, much to the dismay of many (male) churchmen.
6. Convent choirs and individual singers, for a variety of reasons Monson touches upon, became popular tourist attractions in many Italian cities, even getting mentions in the “Lonely Planet” guides of the period.
7. A convent was nearly the only place a reputable woman could sing.
8. Convents were divided into two classes of nun: the professe – the upper class/aristocratic daughters of the well-to-do who labored at the more genteel arts of weaving and such, and the converse – the daughters of commoners who kept the cloister running.
9. Despite the lack of real vocations and their severely restricted lives, many professe had – potentially – more fulfilling lives than their secular counterparts. (A relative measure, of course, since they were still powerless outside of the convent’s walls and wards of their male superiors.)
As a quick and dirty primer on conventual life, I found this part of the book very useful. The remaining chapters are self-contained case studies about individual convents, beginning with the scandals that plagued San Lorenzo in Bologna in 1584. For lovers of Gothic romances like The Monk, it’s this first case and that of San Niccolò di Strozzi that come closest to the sordid escapades one finds in that genre. At San Lorenzo, the inquisitor discovered evidence that the sisters had conjured a devil to help find a missing viola (unsuccessfully). But they were restored to a respectable state after a mild penance. (Monson points out that it is ironic that an inquisitorial investigation operated under stricter guidelines and almost modern models of investigation than its secular counterparts.) At San Niccolò, an ill-considered conventual establishment and a clash between the nuns and an obnoxious archbishop culminated in arson.
At the end, this glimpse into the lives of these women fascinated me and I would recommend it. It also left me melancholic, seeing so many lives stunted by the social and religious demands of their culture. E.g., in the eyes of Cardinal Paleotti, the corruption at San Lorenzo began when the nuns were allowed to sing to adoring public audiences. In answer, he forbade any songs other than plainchant and then only in the privacy of the cloister. Or that in 1703, Pope Clement XI banned carnival and opera for five years, hoping to avert the wrath of God for Italy’s licentiousness (expressed in a recent series of earthquakes). In 1708, Santa Cristina della Fondazza’s young singing star and opera fanatic, Christina Cavazza, defied her vows to attend performances at the reopened Teatro Malvezzi and endured ten years of house arrest and imposed silence for it.
In his epilog, Monson mentions modern-day examples of Catholic nuns (and congregations in general) defying the male hierarchy: In St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke excommunicated three sisters for getting ordained, excommunicated the board of the city’s Saint Stanislaus Kostka parish for refusing to relinquish control of the church and its endowment, and he forbade Saint Cronan’s parish from hosting in its sanctuary a Jewish rabbi (female) whose synagogue had played host to the ordination mentioned in the first item. (The parish got around the prohibition by sponsoring the rabbi in a tent pitched in the church’s front yard; and Saint Cronan’s church experienced a surge in attendance as the faithful expressed their support against inordinate episcopal pressure.)
It should come as no surprise that Archbishop Burke has since gone on to become head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern Inquisition).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I've been looking for something to listen to on the drive to work and this is just the ticket. _________________________________________
I listened to tI'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....more