Bodies at play

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Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Revelatory Body (Eerdmans) makes two claims or appeals. The first is that we remember that the Bible is not solely the revelation of God but points to people themselves as revealing God. The second is that God continues to reveal himself through people, and this has implications for how we consider our bodies, which, contrary to more Platonic and less Biblical versions of Christianity, including that promoted by Pope John Paul II, that see us as souls in mere temporary homes, are part and parcel of our identity. Johnson then goes on to ask how we can think theologically about not only sexuality, but also our bodies at play, at work, in sickness and in health, and in doing so grounds the art of theology in messy, everyday life rather than lofty idealism.

Scatalogical frankness

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Of all the Martin Luther biographies spilling from the presses, Lyndal Roper’s makes a decent thud, her deep research, particularly in German texts, obvious from the detail and consideration. Roper’s biography is unusually detailed about the Luther (Luder) family’s mining interests, and how the stories around working underground and being beset by perceived demonic forces in these nether-realms may have influenced Luther’s theology. She is also particularly perceptive, in an aside, about Albrecht Durer’s famous self-portrait, and argues that rather than it being vain, it is theologically in line with medieval piety which suggested that one must imitate Christ as much as possible, which is why Durer seems to position himself as a Christ-like figure.

Roper has a certain admiration for Luther, mixed with disgust over his anti-Semitism, which always brings up issues of how much we judge figures outside of their milieu. Roper is, on the other hand, quick to remind us that Luther was a man of his time and that things that may cause us to double-take now, such as his scatological frankness, must be put into societal context. Roper in fact returns often to Luther’s earthy crudeness, which manifested negatively in his invective against opponents but also manifested positively in his attitude to the material. For Luther, denying the body was a mistake. His opponents charged that Luther denied himself little as he aged, proof that he had succumbed to a demonic hedonism, but Roper has admiration for his elevation of the everyday life (in contrast of course to the monastic life which he increasingly viewed as a twisted form of living), of sexuality, eating and drinking. In fact, it is not that he particularly thought those things holy, but that he viewed daily life as tainted by sin throughout and so, Roper argues, no sin was particularly worse than others. I am not sure Luther would have agreed that murder was no worse than theft, but he certainly argued against the futility of trying to be holy by escaping everyday life. Paradoxically, his insistence that human endeavour was corrupt and only redeemable through God’s grace gave him freedom to take a more casual attitude to everyday living, in contrast to, say, his colleague Karlstadt who clung to the monastic mistrust of the material.

Luther’s refusal to separate the spiritual from the material leads to what Roper thinks is the heart of his theology, the Eucharist, an area where, she says, many moderns find it hard to relate to Luther. Where other reformers were taking a symbolic view of Holy Communion, in line with their rejection of magical elements in the Church, Luther continued to accept real presence, while acknowledging it as unexplainable, as part of a theology of God working through the everyday elements, as spirituality not being divorced from the material, a theological thread that eventually pops up in places such as the work of Terry Eagleton, amongst others. Luther’s attitude to imagery in churches, and his advice against iconoclasm, was also consistent here.

In similar fashion, Roper argues that Luther’s insistence, against Erasmus particularly, that free will is illusory, may seem contrary to much current popular thinking about individuality and choice, but is psychologically insightful, and coincides with modern deterministic philosophy. There is a mix within Luther of the medieval and the modern (and of the pragmatic and the explosive) which is why he remains an object of fascination and, even for non-Lutherans, begrudging admiration.

Warmongers

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Henry Reynolds is one of those historians derided for their ‘black armband’ views. He has written on frontier violence against indigenous Australians and in Unnecessary Wars (New South) he writes on the not unrelated topic of the place of war in the Australian psyche. Australians think of themselves as an easy-going people, but the eagerness to get involved in foreign wars suggests we are actually a nation of warmongers, due possibly to a combination of adventurous spirit, jingoism and a national inferiority complex . Reynolds argues that the Boer War – a war most Australians know little about, and hardly a defensive war – set the scene for a century’s worth of military adventurism and began the mythology that war has ‘made’ the Australian nation (in turn, making it unpatriotic to question going to war). He is scathing about the blind acceptance of money being endlessly poured into commemoration, and the accompanying unthinking rhetoric. And, contrary to popular opinion, Reynolds outlines a long tradition of dissent against blindly following our allies into conflict, a tradition that we might want to maintain, in order to protect both our military personnel and our international reputation.

A microcosm

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The recent US election campaign confirmed, as if we didn’t already know, that America is deeply fractured. One of these fracture lines lies between those accepting of the general scientific consensus on evolutionary theory and those taking a literalist approach to Genesis. Luke Janssen, somewhat bravely perhaps, steps into this debate with his book Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Genesis and Human Origins. ‘Bravely’ because this is more than a polite debate about competing scientific theories. From the creationist side at least it implies heresy and secular inroads into religious territory, the devilish corruption of the faithful, and such. Or at the very least, creationists are wary that evolutionary theory will undermine respect for the Bible as much more than just another book.

Janssen acknowledges that while Christian faith and evolutionary science can sit comfortably, the science does imply some reconsiderations of some more traditional doctrines (though ‘traditional’ is a qualified term, as it is not simply the case that 2000 years of church history has seen uniform ideas on these matters). And part of his book is an exploration of the implications (in, it must be said, a fairly respectful tone). The rest of the book summarises current science, narrowing down to human origins and the results of recent studies in genetics. Overall, Janssen is keener than many to persuade rather than simply to browbeat.

Reminiscence and legend

Timothy Lull

‘Tis the season for Martin Luther biographies. With the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses this year, the floodgates have opened. Timothy Lull’s is an early entry,  from last year, a standard, comprehensive, readable ‘life’ that places Luther within the context of his circle of friends, colleagues and patrons, without whom he may have met a quick, smoky end. Unfortunately it is not helped by Fortress Press’s rather lacklustre printing job, which looks like a bad photocopy.

In contrast, Yale have done a nice job on Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. Diarmaid MacCulloch recently asked rhetorically whether we need more books on Luther. His answer was ‘yes’. He notes recent scholarship that suggests Luther’s status as a friar, rather than a monk secluded away from society, might have contributed to his attitude towards the common people and the worthiness of their everyday pursuits. Hendrix offers the example of glosses in Luther’s handwriting in humanist books discovered as recently as 2013. Hendrix revisits the argument that Luther may have been contemplating the entry into monasticism, and the thunderstorm might have merely been the catalyst. Hendrix also places Luther into a network of supporters, against the image of him as a lone hero. Additionally, he traces a gradual theological development, rather than the thunderbolts of inspiration that go with the Luther of later reminiscence and of legend.

 

First name basis

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Gareth Stedman Jones’s big new biography of Karl Marx (Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Allen Lane) properly places Marx’s developing political thinking into the intellectual and historical context of the time, an important thing considering how someone of Marx’s stature tends to be put on a pedestal, towering singly over everyone else, giving the impression of isolated, unique genius. Oddly though, in his attempt to rediscover the authentic man behind the myth, Stedman Jones decides he is on a first-name basis with Marx, addressing him throughout the text as ‘Karl’. The reasoning is that ‘Marx’ is so associated with Marxism, and the popular perception of Marx somewhat removed from the actual individual Marx, that it is necessary to draw attention to the fact. A fair point, but it is perhaps labouring that point to then draw attention by referring to him as Karl when pretty much everyone else in the text is referred to by their last names. Much better to simply remind readers on occasion – and even better show them – that Marx the person is not always the same as the Marx of popular perception. The silliness is reinforced by the fact that the publisher’s jacket blurb continues to refer to Marx as Marx and not Karl. I am reminded of James O’Donnell’s decision to de-capitalise ‘god’ when talking in his biography about Saint Augustine’s ‘god’. It’s a stubborn idiosyncrasy that merely draws attention to the author and the act of writing rather than the subject.

Certainly not brief

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Marlon James’ Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings is certainly not brief, but rather one of those ambitious Moby Dick-aping American novels aspiring to the American novel (even though it is set in Jamaica). Like Moby Dick, there is the plunge into the language and philosophy, in this case the crime world of the Jamaican ghetto. In this way, it is much like James Ellroy’s novels, with its knowing, seemingly insider knowledge of the crime world, its patois, its crooked philosophy. (Do criminals really philosophise so much about what they are doing?) In the manner of postmodernist novels, James is self-questioning about the task of the novelist, with one of his characters, a journalist who at times speaks for James, lamenting that it is impossible to properly describe or even photograph the wretchedness of the ghetto.

This wretchedness, and violence, is unremitting for pages upon pages. It is not a pleasant read, though one can admire and enjoy the enormity of James’ presentation of a distinct language and multiple voices, the cacophony and chaos of the ghetto and the narrative (which, incidentally, revolves around the real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley). In the case of the multiple cast of characters, and also the journalist’s complaint, it is no coincidence that Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy is referenced, as Russell begins that book by arguing that despite our normal assumptions, reality is very hard to pin down descriptively, and that the more we observe, the more ambiguities come into play. This is perhaps also summarised, though in a kind of reverse, in the Jamaican proverb quoted in James’s book, ‘if it no go so, it go near so’, meaning, essentially, ‘it happened something like that’. This also, of course, summarises the novelist’s task of putting into novel form a real-life event, as James does.