Thursday, July 29, 2010

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, 2009.

I don’t keep this reading journal as a way of crowing about what I have read; the blog doesn’t exist to trumpet notches on a bookshelf. Yet there are some entries, when I come to gather my thoughts on a book, that I can’t help but beginning by celebrating the fact that I finished reading it – even, and perhaps especially, when I really enjoyed the book, as in this case!

I first saw reference to MacCulloch’s magisterial monograph in Bishop David Hamid’s blog in October; Bishop Hamid reposts each month (with permission), the reviews compiled for the House of Bishops of the Church of England by that House’s Theological Secretary, Dr Martin Davie. I’ve been very tempted by more than one of the reviews, and a couple of the books have found their ways onto my shelves. Church history is in some ways one of my weaker subjects. Of all of my courses in the subject at seminary, only one wasn’t cross-listed to the Theology department and that was only because it was a reading course. My background, then, is more in the history of ideas, with the various other aspects of history sweeping in only as they affected theological developments. Reading MacCulloch, I was surprised both by how much I already knew and how much I did not. It’s a staggering, 1016 page, work that begins in the period well before the Church in both of the prominent cultures which would influence its early development (Greek and Hebrew) and extends through to the present day. Despite its length, the book’s vast scope means that the pace through the material is breakneck. MacCulloch’s prose is lucid and concise, and deeply funny with a simultaneously scathing and affectionate dry wit offering asides (I’m still laughing at bits about Moravians and a fascination with trombones, and the treatment of Henry VIII’s marital miscellany, but the humour is omnipresent; make sure to read the footnotes and the lists of major sources for each period, where even funnier bits lurk).

To attempt to offer a summary of the book would be audacious, given that it is in many ways itself a compendium. One observation I would make is that MacCulloch is interested not just in Christianity as we tend to think of it – that is, as a monolithic faith, albeit splintered into sects – but as it has been in varied forms and in possibilities. Much of what was new to me was about aspects of Christianity under- or mis-represented in most treatments, especially around non-Chalcedonian offshoots and local inculturations. The discussion of the Arian church in Europe was particularly fascinating.

MacCulloch has a gift for making the material deeply engaging, and introducing the reader to the major sources and gists of the various periods and types of Christianities that he elucidates. Many chunks of the book might seem deeply uncomfortable to anyone who comes to it with faith convictions that do not allow for serious consideration of other convictions. I think, as a whole, it’s a book that rewards the reader who already has at least a fairly familiar grasp on the history of the faith: the pacing is such that some topics receive short shrift, and background knowledge can help one fill in gaps. At the same time, as Dr. Davie noted in his review, much the fun of the book is deciding whether one agrees with the view MacCulloch propounds – or, perhaps, how one would nuance it. The thought I had throughout was that, if one needed to assess someone’s knowledge of Church History, asking them to compile a list of what they’d want to emend from the book in their own re-telling of the stories would be a very good assignment indeed.

I am glad that I spent the time with this work that I have; it has been a long read, and it has rewarded me richly. I have to agree with MacCulloch’s concluding words, about my reading experience as well as about the future of the faith he studies:
Original sin is one of the more plausible concepts within the Western Christian package, corresponding all too accurately to everyday human experience. One great encouragement to sin is an absence of wonder. Even those who see the Christian story as just that – a series of stories – may find sanity in the experience of wonder: the ability to listen and contemplate. It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful, yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets. (1016)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rachel Hawkins, Hex Hall, 2010.

I read this YA fantasy novel on the advice of K--, who’s mentioned some books from time to time that I’ve enjoyed. This one is unremarkable: it’s full of time-worn tropes, and feels somewhat like a True Blood crossed with Twilight crossed with the standard boarding school bildungsroman.

Sophie Mercer, a young witch, casts a spell that goes awry and is sent to Hecate Hall (Hex Hall for short), a boarding reform school for misbehaving witches, warlocks, weres, shifters, and fairies, and one vampire—who happens to be Sophie’s new roomie. Cue the stern but caring headmistress, the obligatory not-dead-after-all Romantic poet, the hot groundskeeper, the extra hot boy who’s involved with the new archnemesis who in turn is doing everything she can to make Sophie’s life impossible. Add in the complexities of a family history that’s anything but ordinary, and you’ve got yourself a novel. No stirring necessary. Now, that’s not to say this book isn’t decently written: I think it’s quite well plotted (if, perhaps a little too obvious in the foreshadowing and telegraphing what is to come). My lack of fulsome praise comes more from the pedestrian characters (even if three of them do ride brooms on occasion) and the insufficiently creative environs. I will use the cliché “two-dimensional” as the characters don’t rise to needing better description from me; for two examples about the milieu, I’ll point to the contrast the main character draws between the groundskeeper and Hagrid, as well as Sophie’s detention exercise (cataloguing magical objects which wander about from shelf to shelf).

For all these criticisms, it’s far more entertaining than the sexist and abysmally written Twilight pabulum. It's better plotted than the Potter novels, and yet not nearly as rich in the world the author spins into being.

All in all, Hex Hall made me long for decently done YA fantasy.

sic transit Gloria mundi, et ubi sunt

  • Robin Mickinley (See especially The Blue Sword)

  • Pamela Service (The Reluctant God)

  • John Bellairs (Anything you open will reward your time.)

  • Rosemary Sutcliff(Start with Sword at Sunset)
  • Friday, July 09, 2010

    Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, 2010.

    Pullman’s book is a fascinating retelling of the gospels. He uses a twist so widely-reported (and so nearly explicit in the title) that I’ll not attempt circumlocutions here as I try to blog about this book: Mary had twins, Jesus and Christ. Pullman tells the story with the former as a devout and wise teacher, frustrated by his inability to hear God’s voice; and with the latter as a manipulative editor who fakes the post-resurrection appearances to reveal what he hopes an institutional Church will be able to use as it grows and leads. The story is well-told and compelling, even as it will leave most readers who have a commitment to the Jesus of the gospels discomfited to varying degrees. I want to note in this blog entry two facets of the book which I find particularly interesting: the style of the telling, and the argument Pullman makes about God in general, Jesus in particular, and the Church which he feels should be damned.

    Pullman tells his story in short sentences as part of many short chapters. Stylistically, it reminded me of nothing so much as the gospel of Mark. There’s a distinct lack of the kind of descriptions present in most novels. As just one example, Joseph proclaims himself an old man when told to marry Mary–but we have no description of him, nor of the kind of flower that issues from his rod as a sign when Zacharias is trying to decide who should become Mary’s husband. There are also marked gaps in the story-telling: as Pullman relates the Annunciation, Mary allows an angel who “had assumed the appearance of a young man” in through her window. After his explanation that God wants Mary to have a child, there’s a glaring omission as the next paragraph simply relates that “And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.” Implicit or at least strongly possible is the idea of a physical role for the angel; yet I find interesting what Pullman is willing to hint at when later in the story he explicitly changes famous sayings and stories about Jesus—or has a character change them. Is this early non-change-but-hint an attempt to keep the religious reader unoffended for a bit longer? Is the desire not to drastically alter key moments with vivid associations? Or is it to keep some element of mystery present about the possibility of God acting? While the book’s sentences are crisp and active, impelling the story along with enough speed that the book may be easily read at a single sitting (again, like the Gospel of Mark), some of the alterations to the canonical stories are made more or less obvious by the adopted style that’s more like that of a gospel than that of The Golden Compass.

    I need to be perfectly clear when I speak about the argument Pullman advances in the book about God, Jesus, and Church. I am a priest, and my signed a solemn declaration at both my ordinations “that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” I don’t mention that statement to excuse my issues with Pullman, or to explain them away, but to make clear that I come to an interesting book which I did enjoy with biases that show forth in what I am about to write.

    I think that what I read in this book may justifiably be called an argument that Pullman advances in the book precisely because it is so continuous with what the reader encounters in the His Dark Materials cycle, and in Pullman’s varied public statements and interviews. And yet I find it less persuasive here because it seems too convenient, too easy: anything Pullman wants to explain away can be the editing or revising work of the scoundrel Christ rather than the good man Jesus. Moreover, a substantial chunk of what Pullman argues is fallacious even if continuous with widespread understanding. Enough generalities; some particulars. The character of Christ invents a dove and a voice saying “This is my beloved son” at Jesus’ baptism (compare Mt 3.13-17; Mk 1.9-11; Lk 3.21-22; Jn 1.29-34—I’m not going to give passages from all four for the rest of these examples, but just the one which I think Pullman is drawing from most heavily); Christ is the devil who tempts Jesus after his forty days in the wilderness—and, notably, changes the final temptation about temporal power to speak of a Church much like that of history as a means of control/help (Mt 4.1—11); Christ records the sharing of food as a miracle, the feeding of multitudes (John 6.1-5); Christ invents Peter’s assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, and that Peter has the keys of heaven (Mt 16.13-20); Christ invents the distinction between Mary and Martha’s roles (Lk 10.38-42); Christ plays the role of Judas from the gospels (Lk 22.47-53); and on, and on, and on, through the post-resurrection appearances (esp. Lk 24.1-12 and 24.13-35). This device of twins is a way of explaining away the miraculous, of keeping the anti-establishment teacher of Jesus as an honest man with no interest in Church—and clearly not as someone who would rise from the dead. As scribe and as actor, the character of Christ is a redactor who brings Church and faith in Jesus into being—and hence is the scoundrel of the title. It’s a device that explains away differences between the four gospels found in the New Testament, and which attempts to explain away an idea of a truth that is revealed rather than invented. In short, my problem with the argument is literary: it’s just too easy a solution, one that allows Pullman to craft a Jesus as an earthly teacher who’s politically naïve but essentially admirable who is then used by malevolent and/or self-interested others to their own ends of control. Pullman’s Jesus is a tool of hegemony, and it’s a much weaker story as he tells it than as I read in (especially) the canonical gospels and in other retellings.

    My other issue is theological rather than literary. Pullman’s idea of prayer is speech; his idea of prayer answered is God’s voice speaking clearly to an individual. This vision of prayer is made explicit in his retelling of Jesus praying in the garden before the crucifixion. It’s a popular notion and shared widely—but it misses the essential point that prayer is the offering of self to God and opening of self to grace. It’s especially odd to me that he works from this mode as he quotes psalms: to have been immersed in the psalms and not have some sense of what prayer is smacks either of inattention or simple pushing of agenda. And so the whole overwrought chapter is a continuation of the argument I describe in the paragraph of above, of Jesus not wanting church to become and existing as hegemonic tool. I felt more discomfort after this chapter than after any other, for while the church on earth through history has certainly been that at times, Pullman is ignoring the idea that the Church may exist more broadly than that as well—and that it may well also be ideal that we strive for, as well as constantly falling short in its erring human existence.

    Two long paragraphs of discontent might suggest that I disliked the book, despite my earlier assertion. I did enjoy it; I was challenged by it; I’m glad I read it. I’d certainly recommend it to others. If nothing else, it will ask the reader to return to Pullman’s sources and engage the Jesus one meets in those four remarkable sets of stories –each one of which is just as ideological and bound on conversion to a set of conclusions as is Pullman’s new book. Rowan Williams suggests a theme that he reads in the book that “the price you pay for transmitting a spiritual vision” can be very high in institutional terms, and that Christianity has paid too high a price. (On Start the Week, 5 April 2010)—and that he disagrees. I do too, but Pullman’s book is compelling nevertheless.

    Thursday, July 01, 2010

    Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl, 2001.

    I’m late to the party, on this one. I saw a reference to this book on a blog I read, and months later, grabbed it from the library. I'm glad I've shown up.

    Artemis Fowl II, 12, is a criminal mastermind with a missing father, a mother who’s missing her mental health, and a valet who is remarkably good at all sorts of combat. The Fowl family, long felonious, has had an economic downturn, and Artemis plans to reverse that by stealing fairy gold. Kidnapping a LEPRecon officer—the first female officer, Captain Holly Short—he holds her for ransom and works to fend off the LEPRecon squads under the command of the foul-cigar smoking Commander Julius Root. Mayhem and hilarity and death ensue. It’s a well-done fantasy novel for youth that is both more intelligent and lacks the pretension of the Potter novels.

    The puns are fun; the adventure is fun; the clever re-imagining of the fairy world is fun: the book is just plain fun. Enough so that I’ll read at least the next in the series (Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident). It was exactly the right sort of enjoyment in the midst of a couple of other long books.
    Tom Sharpe, The Gropes,* 2009.

    I loved Blott on the Landscape as a lad: it's funny, sharp, biting in just the right ways, and does a marvellous job of skewering people's self-importance. So given the opportunity to read another by Sharpe--my father bought it as a plane book, and then left it lying around--I picked it up. It's a palate-cleanser, but nothing more. The plot of The Gropes is well enough done: an odd, matriarchal family combined with a gormless bank manager, his doppelgänger son, and romance novel-obsessed wife combined with her brother who might be a minor or even major criminal leads to silliness and suspicion. It falls a bit flat at the end, although I suspect most readers will find themselves almost happy for the bank manager--but all in all, there's nothing in this book to make me want to recommend it to anyone. If you happen to be renting a cottage and it's lying around and you forget your newly acquired copy of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at home, sure, give it a read. Otherwise, buy and read Mitchell's new book instead.

    * Why no link? Well, Amazon was about my only option. While I do buy books from Amazon on occasion, I try to avoid it. So--if you want to acquire this book (or any other!) check out your local bookstore. In the Hamilton area, I strongly recommend Bryan Prince Bookseller, where I picked up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet yesterday...