The kirk, the hill and the lighthouse

Mariner, Malcolm Guite, Hodder & Stoughton

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the tale of an adventurer, a traveller and his epic journey, reckless acts, a descent into an earthly hell, rescue, a kind of baptism, prayer, the path home, the growth of wisdom and the desire to share that wisdom. The hero is a sailor, but it may as well be Coleridge himself. Writing when he was young, Coleridge seems to have a premonition of what would befall him; the drama matches the ensuing drama of Coleridge’s own life, with his marriage and financial troubles, and his opium addiction.

It is Malcolm Guite’s contention that scholars have missed the religious significance of the poem, not only in its symbolism, but in the way it echoes Coleridge’s own spiritual journey, as he sets off full of hubris and is humbly reduced to prayer and rescued from near-death by the grace of God. While it is good to recognise, as John Milbank does, that Coleridge, like many of us, changed his views over his life, Guite makes a case for Coleridge’s significance as a spiritual writer.

Coleridge is sometimes pegged as a skeptic, sometimes due to the perspective of his biographers (as in the case of Richard Holmes), but he was as immersed in faith as in other areas. In his youth he was part of an ill-fated radical Christian community, and it was not an anomaly when he wrote a letter to a friend with 3000 words on the Trinity. He was particularly interested in prayer, or, let’s say, prayer featured significantly in his life, and in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Guite tells us, the mariner’s prayer is the pivotal point on which the poem moves from despair to redemption.

The poem is also a Romantic response to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, which, according to Coleridge, like dissection, kills the thing it explains. It is not that Coleridge was against reason; he believed in a hidden, Platonic, spiritual world that had explanations beyond the scientific ones, and that an immersion in nature helped uncover. Furthermore, nature was simply God’s good creation and to delight in it was a complement to reason, not a rival. This is a very Christian vision of the world. We see this synthesis in the beginning and end of the poem, when the mariner notes the kirk, the hill and the lighthouse of home, which Guite suggests stand for faith, nature and the life of the mind.

The poem, according to Guite, also has much to say about our own times, just as Coleridge thought the ancient literature he so enjoyed had much to say about his. Guite sees in the lines ‘water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ a metaphor for our consumerist society, where we have material abundance but a soul-destroying dislocation from nature and subsequent crisis of meaning.

(Reviewed for Crosslight magazine)

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Had his principles

Thomas More: A very brief history, John Guy, SPCK

As well as the anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses, this year marks 500 years since the release of Thomas More’s Utopia, a justifiably famous work of science fiction and surprisingly radical critique of More’s hierarchical society. More of course is equally famous as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, and for refusing to support Henry’s divorce and break from the Catholic Church. No wonder, explains John Guy, an expert on this period of history, in his new, short summary of More’s life (one of a series of short religious lives from SPCK) as More had just fired off broadsides at Martin Luther, at the behest of Henry, the ‘defender of the faith’. When Henry made his dramatic U-turn, More could not follow.

More had his principles. He was a ‘lawyer who loved justice’, a combination perhaps rarer than it may seem, and More might have seen in his service to Henry the possibilities for contributing to society’s stability. Certainly his fight against Luther was underpinned by such, as was Utopia. Indeed, More’s loyalty to the Catholic Church was more for civic than theological reasons. For More, heretics were as good as thieves, who put themselves above their community. Guy cautions us that, distasteful as it seems to us today, More’s heretic hunting was to him a service to society, not to mention a job requirement. Anyway, the religious and the civic were then not the separate categories we recognise today.

More was not a fanatical, crude follower. He was well-educated and with his friend Erasmus chuckled over Greek satire, from which Utopia borrows in its critique of power held disproportionately by individuals and used for their personal gain. So opposing Henry was true to form, and More did so as long as he was able. He saw the wider Reformation in the same light, as driven dangerously by individual conscience, at the expense of centuries of tradition. (That some of that tradition was dubious was perhaps beyond More’s vision. Or – more likely – he ignored the imperfections for the sake of civic unity.)

It is a testament to More’s contentious place in history that Guy spends as much time in this short book on More’s legacy as on his life. In Protestant England More was vilified as a traitor. Rehabilitation occurred with Robert Bolt’s play, which portrayed More as consistently principled. What Bolt got utterly wrong was the place of individual conscience in More’s thinking – this was exactly what More opposed in Luther and Henry. Partly influenced by Bolt’s portrayal, More was rated in the 1970s by The Times as more inspiring than Shakespeare and Churchill, the epitome, ironically, of Protestant values, and only corrupted by ‘popery’. On the Catholic side, he was canonised, and John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall de-rehabilitated More, and he became the obligatory cartoon villain, even if Mantel understood better than Bolt More’s loyalty to the Catholic Church. It makes for good fiction, but the trouble with historical fiction is that the line between history and fiction gets blurred. Guy does acknowledge the uneasy fit of More’s supposed principles and his powerful political role, but suggests this is exactly why More was wary of entering Henry’s service. Utopia had hinted at the conflict between pragmatism and idealism in public life, and he had put off working with Henry because he knew of the compromises it would involve. In the end, it was his lack of compromise that sealed his fate.

The good-hearted side of colonialism

In his day Albert Schweitzer was a supernova, as famous as Gandhi, Einstein or Mother Teresa, but his star has dimmed somewhat today, not the least because his work in Africa as a doctor is now seen as paternalistic – a good-hearted side of colonialism. He was a Lutheran, but a liberal one, influenced by the Enlightenment, who studied philosophy and theology and famously wrote about the historical Jesus. He also famously turned his back on an academic career to study medicine and apply his skills in the African jungle. There he not only built (literally) and ran a hospital, but also wrote best-selling books about his experiences. He was also a famous organist and organ builder, and wrote a biography of Bach. In 1953 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Nils Oermann describes all this in his slim Albert Schweitzer: A Biography (Oxford), with the concision to be expected when covering the ‘life, thought and work’ of someone who did so much. While not shying away from Schweitzer’s faults, Oermann suggests Schweitzer remains an inspiration because he was a genius with a practical side, able to put his intelligence to good use.

A pencil rather than a computer

The World-Ending Fire, Wendell Berry, Allen Lane

The Amish have been something of a joke among the non-Amish for many years – examples of backward-looking, technophobic eccentrics who will eventually be eclipsed by modern life. Or so the theory goes, but it is becoming more apparent that the joke is on the rest of us. The Amish are starting to seem like the sensible ones, as they are operating in a manner that is, importantly, among other things, sustainable (that contemporary buzzword).

In a similar fashion, novelist, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has been preaching his brand of back-to-basics philosophy, a mix of what we might crudely call conservative and radical, for decades. A self-described ‘crank’, a critic of technology and the idealism that comes with it, a Kentucky farmer who uses horses instead of a tractor, and a writer who uses a pencil rather than a computer, he has been criticised as an unrealistic Luddite, but the problems of the Western lifestyle that he has articulated for so long are becoming so increasingly obvious, despite the willful blindness of some, that the solutions he proposes, or at least the lifestyle that he advocates, can be the only answer.

It is somewhat depressing to note how long he has been writing on the same subjects. Far beyond the disputed issue of global warming, he has been writing about issues of pollution, extinction, large scale farming, pointless materialistic waste, urban ugliness, the tyranny of corporations and their lackey politicians, and the hollowing out of communities. If this sounds like an indictment of the Right and their followers – and make no mistake, it largely is – he is also a critic of radical causes of the Left that, he says, aren’t radical enough. He is critical of calls for widespread change that eschew personal responsibility, or focus too narrowly on one issue, or end up in self-righteous pontification. And he critiques a modern libertarianism that confuses freedom with individualism, at the expense of tradition, culture and family.

Berry is a conservationist, but for the places where people live, and this book collects decades of essays that amount to, as he says, more-or-less one argument: we depend on nature, which is not something that can be sealed off in order to be preserved. A national park, good in itself, surely, does unfortunately give the impression that we have to reserve pristine countryside as a trade-off for the ability to inevitably pollute and exploit the countryside where human beings live. The hopeful side of Berry’s prophetic writings is that he insists human beings can, have and must live in harmony with their surroundings. Nature is something with which human beings must interact with reverence and care. We must be able to produce food and shelter, in our local communities and in a way that means our descendants will be able to do the same. He is a critic of an economy based on false premises. He criticises economics where economic rationalisations are the final arbiters. He is critical of agribusiness that is reliant on long-distance fossil-fuelled transportation, of quick fix chemicals, of the myth of endless growth, of profit and greed ‘debited to the future’. He doesn’t blindly reject technology, but proposes a more sceptical approach: asking if the technology is necessary, and environmentally sound.

There are alternatives. Unfortunately, they involve hard work, giving up particular pleasures, recognising that our present Western lifestyle is unsustainable. I say ‘unfortunately’, but part of Berry’s point is that a return to slower, more local, more meaningful ways of doing things actually increases our health and wellbeing.

It is an insight that is being recognised in the West; in pockets, unfortunately not widely enough, but it is there nevertheless, in unlikely places such as inner suburbs where recycling, growing your own vegies, buying less, appreciating craft rather than mass-produced junk, are embraced. Berry agrees that change begins at home, that too often movements based on ideology become wayward and dictatorial. That if we are to have hope for the future, we must start with ourselves. And starting with ourselves, we need to look to our neighbours to collaborate with, and to counter the individualism and sense of hopelessness in the face of enormity that modern society presents.

(A shorter version of this review appears in the August issue of Crosslight magazine.)

The era of belief, not just belonging

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Carlos Eire, Yale University Press

You don’t want to drop this massive book on your foot, but you might like to lug it back home from the bookshop, as it is a history of the period that is wide-ranging and careful. It seems ridiculous to say this about a 700-plus page book, but its author, Carlos Eire, also has a knack for summary, enlivened by anecdotes and well-chosen woodcut illustrations, meaning the narrative never gets bogged down.

Eire speaks of reformations plural because, as scholar Eamon Duffy says in his recent book on the English Reformation, the progress of reform was anything but linear. There were many conflicting movements happening at once, pushing and pulling.

Additionally, historians no longer point to Luther’s 95 Theses as the start of the Reformation. Luther merely lit the bonfire compiled by others. Eire’s book is so large partly because – to switch metaphors – he carefully points out all of the features of the medieval edifice as it stood before the Reformation knocked it down.

There were cracks in the structure as a result of Renaissance humanism, which promoted a ‘return to the sources’, a more scholarly analysis of scripture (and other texts) in the original languages. Though the Church was often enthusiastic about this, it did undermine claims for the inerrancy of the Latin Vulgate, not to mention various non-biblical doctrines and practices that had built up over centuries.

Although it is hard to judge the extent of belief in the period because religion was so intertwined with society as to make it almost meaningless to speak of religion as a separate entity, there was an enthusiasm amongst laity for spiritual revival (as is evident from the case of Savoranola), coupled with rising literacy and a distaste for the excesses of the Church’s hierarchy. What is also clear is that a renewal of piety and theological controversy ushered in an era of belief, not merely belonging.

Eire eventually narrows down to monastic practice, and Luther’s eventual rejection of the elitism of monastic practice. He shows how mysticism, Augustine, the Renaissance, faith over reason and conciliarism (the movement within the Catholic Church that questioned the centralisation of power in the figure of the pope) all contributed to Luther’s particular brand of dissent. Eire deals with Luther in only a couple of chapters, moving briskly on to how Luther’s Reformation quickly ran away from him. He battled left and right, both the intransigence of the Pope and a host of radicals, from hair-splitting theologians to violent peasants who, Luther said, misinterpreted him.

Fragmentation seems, in hindsight, to be inevitable once Luther and his fellow Reformers were understood to be advocating for the freedom to interpret Scripture in the light of conscience. Except that people weren’t free – Protestants persecuted heretics as much as Catholics. It could be argued the Reformed branch was the most zealous. Luther emphasised the spiritual, and contrary to his fiery image, was reasonably relaxed about everyday life. The Reformation of Zwingli, Calvin and the like was all-encompassing, and, says Eire, considering the US, probably more influential globally than Luther.

On the Catholic side, there were much-needed reforms, especially in education, and also a renewal of practices Calvin and company deemed superstitious. Calvin, much more than Luther, dismantled the world famously described by Max Weber as ‘enchanted’, and Peter Brown as ‘porous’. Ironically, considering his puritanical reputation, here Calvin sowed not only the seeds of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ but also the seeds of modern doubt.

We can see how the focus on the individual and a splintering of views made room for those who doubted or who were openly hostile. This situation, says Eire, led to the need for new modes of unifying peoples, leading in turn to our secular society and the marginalisation of religion as merely one aspect of life, and a private one at that.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church)

Starting with the body

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women takes its clever title from her art criticism, but the heart of the book is a long, compelling, riveting, thoroughly researched and intricately thought-through essay on the mind/body philosophical problem, with personal touches often missing from discourses on the subject. She attacks it from a feminist angle, in the sense that she starts with the body, especially the female body, and the bond between mother and child, beginning in the womb, and unravels the masculine bias often submerged in Cartesian or evolutionary approaches (such as that of Richard Dawkins, whom she labels, interestingly, a Platonist). Importantly, she criticises over and over the stridency of arguments and the lame assertions that evidence for particular points of view (that consciousness is an illusion, we are just machines, etc., that we will soon create AI) will be forthcoming, just you wait and see. (Such lame ‘we don’t have the answer yet but we will, therefore our hypothesis is correct’ arguments are also roasted by, amongst others, David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God.)

Instead she pleads for recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the problem, and argues for the need to genuinely express doubt (perhaps another masculine area of weakness), especially, she says, since doubt is often a catalyst for innovative thinking, and not merely a weakness in argument or a reluctance to learn.

Giving hermits a bad name

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel, Simon & Schuster

One day in the 1980s a young man fed up with the modern world abandons his car by the side of the road and disappears into the woods of the northeast United States, where he remains for the next 30 years, living in isolation in a makeshift campsite.

Christopher Knight, described as the last true hermit (a problematic term as becomes evident), sustains himself by breaking into nearby holiday cabins and thieving food and clothing, sparking a decades-long investigation. The Stranger in the Woods opens with the heart-racing account of his arrest by a policeman increasingly frustrated by Knight’s panther-like elusiveness. Before his entry into the woods Knight worked as a security alarm installer, and this knowledge enables him to elude detection. Upon his eventual arrest he becomes something of a celebrity, the subject of marriage proposals and songs. Michael Finkel finds Knight in jail, from where this intriguing story unfolds. (Knight is eventually released to perform community service.)

The back cover of Michael Finkel’s book suggests that ‘occasionally [Knight] would have to venture to holiday cabins in the dead of night to pilfer a bit of food’, but this is a gross understatement. Actually he did this regularly, also stealing clothes, bedding, reading material and, crucially, gas canisters for his camp stove. Upon his arrest, he replied that virtually everything he ‘owned’ was stolen. Rainwater was the only provision he didn’t steal. He didn’t grow or hunt any of his food.

Finkel suggests Knight’s ‘back was fully turned to the world’, but Knight did not live in the wilderness. He lived, his campsite camouflaged in the forest, within three minutes’ walk of civilisation (a form of it, anyway), and even stole a flat screen TV which he powered with (stolen) car batteries. He read (stolen) books and magazines and listened to a (stolen) radio. Like the Japanese individuals whom Finkel mentions and who stay shut in their rooms, interacting with the world only via the internet, Knight simply turns his back on face-to-face interactions with living, breathing people. He describes himself as ‘kind of an isolationist’.

Finkel ruminates on how a thousand years ago we lived in small communities, in the bush, in a quiet environment, and opines, ‘This is who we truly are’, forgetting for the moment that Knight can only survive in his patch of peace and quiet with the modern conveniences of a gas stove, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and manufactured, long-life food. Knight does, however, show extraordinary tenacity and survival skills, many learnt on the job, because, Finkel explains, Knight lacked any training in bush survival before going bush. To survive the harsh Maine winters Knight rose at 2am, did exercises to stop freezing and thawed out precious drinking water on his camp stove.

Hermits, typically, are rather high-minded about what they do, and though living in isolation, they tend to make some communication to the world, particularly in a sage-like capacity. Knight himself, though, is puzzled by the ‘hermit’ label, preferring to think of himself as normal. He makes no attempt at manifestos or communicating his experience to the world. It is as if he made an impulsive decision and then, increasingly, finds it impossible to go back. Despite his thieving, of which he is ashamed, he has principles – he doesn’t steal expensive or obviously sentimental stuff, and he is a polite house-breaker, re-sealing doors and windows. He is not uninformed about the modern world and is a devourer of books, discerning in his reading unless, Knight says, the alternative is nothing to read. He admires Socrates for his recommendation of hermiticism, but detests that great populariser of back-to-nature principles, Thoreau (above), because, as Knight sees it, Thoreau only pretended to be a hermit, and still went to town on the weekends for dinner parties. This is somewhat ironic, considering Knight’s own lifestyle.

Knight describes Finkel as his Boswell, but reading between the lines, Finkel is an annoying journo who is after the major scoop and who is constantly stepping over the line from familiarity to intrusiveness, despite knowing that Knight and his family value privacy. But Finkel is intrigued in, as well as full of admiration for, someone so determined to shun society. Locals are not so forgiving. Some hate Knight for ruining their idyllic peace and quiet. Others see him as a minor inconvenience. The last word should go to the online hermit community (yes, there is such a thing), who, after much deliberation, decide that Knight is not a true hermit, but a thief who gives hermits a bad name.