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
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....more
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 theI 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....more
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 ChristiaA 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....more
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....more