Unusually tumultuous

Crucible of Faith, Philip Jenkins, Basic Books.

We understand the Bible is a collection of books with much variety in style, authorship and date, but we tend to notice less its theological variety, exacerbated by the tendency within the churches to read selectively from the Old Testament in order to make resonances with the New. After-all, such inconsistency might trouble conservative Christian notions of divine inspiration and the infallibility of Scripture.

Scholars note the development throughout the Old Testament of Jewish ideas of God, and of the practice of Jewish religion. Philip Jenkins, author of many books on the history of religion, argues that much of what we would think of as core doctrines of Judeo-Christianity came late in the piece, in the Inter-Testamental period – what he calls the ‘crucible’ era because it was an unusually tumultuous and heated time that forged new ways of thinking about how God interacted with people. He argues that these new thought-worlds remain with us, even beyond the walls of the Church, so influential have they been in the West.

This period, when the Scriptures that became the Tanakh (our Old Testament) were compiled, is neglected because of its comparative lack of documentation, but in it developed a more individual spirituality, focussed on the home and synagogue rather than on infrequent Temple sacrifices, and the ideas of a universal God, Satan as a rival to God, and an afterlife for all. There was also a new focus on sacred texts, where God’s Word and, especially, laws could be encountered.

The Jewish God moves from being the local god of the Hebrews to the only god, a more aloof, pure figure, betraying the influence of Greek culture, which at this stage had a more abstract concept of God than the human-like gods of Hesiod and Homer. That influence can be seen in the opening to John’s Gospel, with its description of Jesus as abstract Truth (‘Word’).

Angels become more tangible in this period, after having a fuzzy meaning in the older Old Testament, where they were as much ‘message’ as ‘messenger’, according to Jacques Ellul. Jenkins suggests that the concept of many gods morphed into the myriad of (lesser) heavenly beings. Satan, though, gets an upgrade, from the figure in Job who is described sometimes as God’s justice minister, though prosecuting lawyer might be more to the point. (Some readers will likely have no problem identifying Satan with lawyers.)

Satan becomes key to theodicy. Previously, bad things were thought to have happened because of the Hebrews’ disobedience, but perpetual warfare led some to offer an alternative explanation of malevolent forces manipulating reality. Jesus takes this attitude, saying that you can’t directly attribute someone’s misfortune to sins they have committed.

Rather than a person’s worldly status being a sign of blessing or curse, the ‘crucible’ period saw a rise in belief in the afterlife, and Heaven and Hell as places of reward and punishment. A clear lack of worldly justice meant that God would need to put things right in the next life. As we know, in Jesus’ time some had embraced this concept (the Pharisees) and some had not (the Sadducees), usually in inverse proportion to how prosperous they were in this life.

Some may be unsettled by this suggestion that the Bible contains a development in theology. (Is doctrine simply made up as we go along?) But Scripture is the catalogue of a process of gradual revelation, through various authors and styles, being a collection of books and not one book, and the long story of the development of a relationship between God and his people, unlike, say, the Koran or the Book of Mormon. In the New Testament we see, of course, the most radical development in Jesus’ messiahship, to the extent that the majority of Jews in Jesus’ time could not accept it. And we see development in church history. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is not obvious from the New Testament, which is why it took decades for the early church to clarify it. On the other hand, Jenkins’ book may prompt us to question some of these ‘basics’ of Christian doctrine, how much they gel with Jesus’ ministry, or Pauline theology, and how fundamental or dispensable they are.

Jenkins also notes the parallels with our own time, and the issue of accommodation with the world outside the church, which might entail re-evaluation of our harsher beliefs, about exclusive favour from God, retreat into tradition, over-correction, and the assertion that current beliefs have always been with us.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Journey magazine.)


The president’s chaplain

The late Billy Graham preached to millions, and reached tens of millions through television and books. He established Christianity Today, America’s biggest religious magazine and his radio show was the most listened-to religious program. More than simply an American phenomenon, his reach was global, attracting crowds rivalled only by the pope. When he toured Australia and New Zealand in 1959, it was the biggest show the country had seen. Australians saw him as curiosity, spectacle, inspiration and, for many, a turning point. He put his finger on a deep need in people.

He was a constant throughout the tumult of the second half of the twentieth century. But he was foremost an American. The half century in which he worked was a particular time in US history, when Graham’s largely middle class, small town, family-oriented audience was enjoying and being seduced by post-war prosperity, yet also fearful of societal change and the Cold War, and, like Abraham Lincoln, Graham was a man suited to the age. He spoke in American terms, of us and them, of Americans and communists. He was also at the right moment to harness the new technologies, from air travel to TV, which saw America lead the way in enabling greater saturation by national celebrities.

It was a time when religious figures could be national figures. Theologians could appear on the cover of Time magazine, and Christianity still had a largely uncontentious place in the American psyche. It was a time when Americans trusted their celebrities and leaders more than today, and Graham routinely headed the list of the most trustworthy. He was the model of the moral American dream. He reassured his audience that one could be Christian and American, and in fact, the two belonged together. George Bush Snr labelled him simply as ‘America’s pastor’. Really the only smear on his character rubbed off from Richard Nixon, when Graham joined in with Nixon’s anti-Semitism and was caught on the White House tapes.

More than America’s pastor, he was the president’s chaplain. He knew them all, and was particularly friendly with presidents as different as Johnson, Nixon and Carter. At times the difficulty of siding with a friend while trying to straddle the bipartisan line caused him to pull a muscle, and he was called naïve. He was intrigued by politics, but insisted he was there in the White House not to influence policy, but because presidents were like everyone else, as sinners in need of Christ, who, as George W Bush famously said, changes your life. The recent portrayal of Graham in the TV miniseries ‘The Crown’ was accurate in that he hung out with world leaders but used it as an opportunity to talk about the universal need for a personal relationship with God. But there were always questions about how much this was evangelism and how much it was an excuse to be seen with the rich and famous.

The simplicity of his message was part of his success, but he is not so easy to pin down. Behind the simple façade are contradictions and paradox, as Grant Wacker writes in a recent book on Graham’s legacy (Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, Oxford University Press). Critics say Graham equivocated; others might see a skilled balancing act. He tried to appear both moral and inoffensive. He used the mainstream media to get his message across. A TV interview with Woody Allen is a fascinating watch: Allen is funny but cynical, Graham is easy-going but insistent, taking the jokes well but always circling back to his core spiritual message.

Although he emphasised the personal decision to accept Christ as saviour, he was also a prophet to America (and the West), denouncing in hyperbolic terms the moral decline of society. He encouraged Americans, over half a century, to view the present as the worst crisis in the nation’s history, and to recover the values of a golden age. America might be Babylon at times, but Hollywood and New York weren’t the real America, which was supposed to be a light on the hill. He didn’t portray Christianity as an alternative to the mainstream, but rather part of the correct state of mainstream America. His ministry to presidents was part of his desire to reform the moral state of the nation.

In his rallies, he emphasised both the public and the private. He would begin with what was wrong with the world, but the righting of everything that was wrong came down to a personal decision. Changing the world flowed back out from this decision. In this he was a typical American individualist. The strength of the individual came first, flowing out to strengthen church, community and country.

The personal decision for Christ was the point of his ministry. In this he was sincere, but of course his ministry also had the trappings of showbusiness. Bob Dylan once commented that Graham was the first rock’n’roller, a master at holding an audience. And his campaigns were thorough. Everything was well planned, with advance teams moving into cities two years before an event took place. But Graham tried not to imitate the flashiness of other crusades; even so he still received criticism for manipulating emotions.

It was often said that he was not a good preacher intellectually, but stirred something in the heart. He spoke often of alerting people to their desire (for Christ). In a way he was an example of American advertising: figure out what the people want and tell them how to get it. In this he was also a student of the religious revivals of American history. But Graham spoke contradictorily about the emotions involved in conversion. He said emotion was important. One accepted Christ with heart as well as head. Yet he would tell his listeners to put their trust in Christ rather than the emotions, and would use the cool word ‘decision’ in his rallies, in order to differentiate himself from more frenzied revivalists. The personal decision was, in the end, the individual’s listening to the still, small voice.

Graham’s style changed over the years, as Wacker also emphasises, moving from theatrical to more sober and subdued, as America went the other way, from the staid 50s to the cacophonous twenty-first century. Graham always said he was on a journey himself, awakening to race relations and global poverty, and moving to more universal views on salvation, which didn’t win him many fundamentalist friends (who were never his key supporters anyway). He became more distrustful of politicians, more focussed on social justice, crusaded against nuclear weapons. He ditched the talk of hellfire and anti-communism. In all this, his core message never changed, though. Central to the life of the believer is their relationship with Christ, which doesn’t go out of fashion. But how that relationship relates to, and how it is conveyed to, the wider world has changed, meaning Graham was a man of his time, and is now a figure of the past.


Made up

Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews, Profile.

Anti-Freud campaigner Frederick Crews’ relentlessly negative but engrossing biography has been criticised as a character assassination, but there is much to dislike in Freud’s character. In Crews’ account, Freud was a charlatan. He had little regard for his patients’ welfare, yet drew out their therapies in order to make more money. He made friends in order to benefit from their support before stealing their ideas and turning on them.

He switched theories to explain his patients’ troubles, made up case histories and used dubious methods and medications. An atheist, he was never-the-less susceptible to numerology and the paranormal. His dream interpretation theories were so vague as to render any extrapolation plausible, and he made the circular argument that his patients’ refusal to accept his wild diagnoses simply proved they were in denial. (Crews is not much kinder to Freud’s disciples.)

Freud’s prescription of cocaine for his patients was problematic. While its dangers were not widely known, there was evidence from his own patients that it was not doing them any good and yet he continued to promote its use, often based on the assumption that it wasn’t doing himself any harm. (Eventually he came to regret its use.)

Of course he is more famous for grand theories than rigorous clinical practice. He was important for identifying what formulates us and how we contain a mix of competing conscious and subconscious desires. His identification of darker, subconscious forces mirrors Christian notions of original sin, but he was perhaps too quick to apply particular diagnoses to the population in general. His portrayal of religion as wish-fulfillment and the result of problems with one’s father ultimately says more about Freud’s own issues than that of humanity in general.

Signs and wonders

Miracles: A Very Short Introduction, Yujin Nagasawa, Oxford University Press

You may know a miracle when you see one, but they are not so easy enough to define. Or so it seems from this book in Oxford’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series. For a small book, philosopher Yujin Nagasawa spends a lot of pages discussing what are not miracles, but that is because he is carefully winnowing potential cases and moving towards the definition of a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature that is caused by an intentional agent and has religious significance’.

That explanation may indicate, correctly, that the book is less a celebration of miracles and more an attempt to figure out philosophically what miracles are, and, crucially, whether they are possible and why people still believe in them. Nagasawa writes that they are impossible from the standpoint of the laws of nature, but logically possible. Whether they actually happen is a question he leaves somewhat hanging, perhaps reflecting the fact that in the modern world we are not sure exactly what to make of them. After-all, one can be religious and reject miracles. Conversely, more Americans believe in miracles than they do in life after death.

It would be almost miraculous to discuss miracles without discussing eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, who famously made the somewhat circular argument that miracles don’t happen because they can’t happen, though he also sniffily discounted them because they tended to be believed by the lower, uneducated classes. It’s good to be sceptical about miracles. If they happened every five minutes their currency would be devalued. But then again it is no good to suggest that the laws of nature prohibit miracles, because that would be to misunderstand that miracles are by their very nature unnatural.

Miracles can take many forms: levitation, teleportation, bilocation, transfiguration, walking on water, controlling the elements, transforming matter and finding the image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast (supposedly). Jesus was known primarily for his miracles of healing and exorcism, as noted by the ancient historian Josephus. But Jesus also warned not to get carried away by signs and wonders, which prompts Nagasawa to go somewhat off-topic again to suggest that what is most remarkable about religion is, even if it is not exactly miraculous, its tendency to inspire altruism.

(Originally reviewed for Insights and Crosslight magazines)

Unintended consequences

Rebel in the Ranks, Brad Gregory, Harper One.

The Reformation might be sometimes thought of as, yes, creating the proliferation of churches we see today, but otherwise as concerning religious matters that have little relevance for the majority of society outside the churches where believers still cling to dogmatic nitpicking.

But for Brad Gregory, the Reformation is still with us, as it ultimately created the individualistic society with pluralist views that often cannot be reconciled and that flare up in so-called culture wars. In this, Rebel in the Ranks is a distillation for popular audiences of his large and important The Unintended Reformation. This latest book is one of the many publications to ride on the coattails of the Reformation anniversary and tell Luther’s story, but its point of difference is Gregory’s insistence on and elaboration of what the Reformation means for the world today, beyond the life of the church and the state of the soul.

Unlike current, often atheist, champions of the Enlightenment who think the modern world began then and everything before was impenetrable dark ages, Gregory traces modern pluralism and freedom back to Luther’s questioning of the Catholic Church’s authority (triggered by his deduction that indulgences simply had to be money-making charlatanism), and its replacement with the individual’s right to interpret Scripture. Luther would not have put it that way exactly, and the word ‘unintended’ recurs in Gregory’s narrative because Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers would throw up their hands and ask ‘how was it come to this?’ if they surveyed the modern separation of church and state, the decline of public Christianity, the compartmentalisation of spirituality and the freedom to even reject religion altogether. Instead of the spiritual penetrating deeper into the everyday (as it arguably did for a few years), the opposite has occurred.

It had to, in some respects, because the affirmation of the right to believe what you liked was, ironically, the only way to hold society together, after the horrific wars of religion that accompanied the Reformation. And, although this history is complex, Gregory suggests that overall as religion gradually became a private matter it was not Enlightenment values that took the driver’s seat, but consumerism, led by the Dutch Golden Age. Religion, Gregory decides, lost out to money.

The sea is space

On the Ocean, Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press.

Barry Cunliffe is an archaeologist familiar with both the broad sweep and the intricate detail, and his books are rewarding sites for the archaeologically and historically inclined reader to dig. His most recent books have a distinctive style, in between coffee table book and popular history, with carefully selected illustrations and maps, and non-specialist readability. Usually he considers what happened between the oceans (as the title of one of his books on Eurasia has it), but here he concentrates on what Europeans did on the oceans.

In more reflective passages he conveys the tension for land-dwellers on a planet dominated by oceans. As he says, land is a place – a home, safe – but the sea is space – a region to explore, with opportunities. To set sail required bravery and skill, and Cunliffe’s book records the developments in technology that kept pace with human beings’ curiosity and determination, from paddles to sails, and from hollowed out logs to intricately constructed plank-sided vessels.

They also needed special awareness – mental maps aided by stars at night, and landmarks and memorised distances during the day. This to offset the forbidding nature of especially the Atlantic, the ‘Sea of Perpetual Gloom’ (hardly a glowing travel recommendation). The Greeks thought the exceptional Phoenicians, who had ventured into the Atlantic probably by 600 BC, were mad. For Julius Caesar, the Atlantic shore was as far as the Roman Empire needed to go, though ever practical, he noted for potential future naval battles the superior characteristics of the Atlantic people’s boats. Arabs likewise feared the sea, and one Arab leader rode his horse into the Atlantic, not as a Canute-like show of hubris, but to indicate that the Arab armies had reached their limit.

In the Bible the ocean is generally out of bounds. Quite literally, to the biblical writers, ‘here be monsters’. No wonder, as the Jews had no decent sea ports, and with little familiarity with seafaring, they turned their backs on the sea. For others facing the Atlantic, it inspired the imagining of distant lands, exotic peoples, myths and gods. The ocean was a liminal space between heaven and earth, and the dead were often farewelled in boats, pushed out toward the afterlife which surely lay beyond the watery horizon. Yet for the Portuguese, the Danes or the Irish the Atlantic beckoned. It was dangerous, yes, but held potential.

Why did people take to the waters? For some, it was the sheer adventure and the potential for fame. Wanderlust, says Cunliffe, is a persistent human characteristic. The challenge could also reap material reward. There was the simple issue of sustenance – fishing was an early lure, pulling fisherman further and further out. It is likely that fisherman after cod discovered North America long before Columbus.

And there was trade. Cunliffe maps out in detail the pottery finds that confirm the large trading networks of Neolithic peoples. Wine, spices, leather, silk and gold flowed into Britain, in exchange for wool and tin. Forays down the coast of Africa produced ivory and slaves. Later, of course, the Indies and their spices enticed the Spanish and Portuguese to head west (rather than the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, which was named by a Portuguese king hoping for riches from the East). Contrary to popular belief, they had long understood the world was round, and from quite sophisticated calculations reckoned China was an easy sail across the Atlantic. And if you couldn’t trade, you could always steal, as the Vikings proved.

Patterns of trade and migration led to cross-cultural pollination. Along with the ills of Spanish conquest of the Americas came the desire to evangelise. Irish monks had a contrary idea. The search for isolation led them to make challenging sea journeys to uninhabited islands. They were called peregrini, related to our word peregrination (or wandering). It is beyond the scope of Cunliffe’s book, but crossing the ocean became for the American pilgrims the only way to ensure their religious liberty.  Like coconuts, Christianity was carried by the ocean waves to the corners of the earth.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church magazine Insights)

Getting out

George Monbiot’s recent How Did We Get Into This Mess? is a worthy book, not what you would call enjoyable exactly, but a series of chapters on what ails us in the modern world, penetrating and clear. But the cumulative effect of his litany of ills is a metaphysical bludgeoning, and the diagnoses call for a prescription, as he notes in his latest book, where he writes that his editor at Verso pressured him into writing this sequel of sorts, Out of the Wreckage, which, as its name suggests, offers some advice on getting out of the mess.

As he rightly suggests, getting out of the mess requires not just recognition of the mess, but a new narrative to inspire the getting out. He suggests that information per se (‘being informed’) doesn’t really help us in our politics – it usually just reinforces cherished beliefs. It is where we get these beliefs from that matters. He begins by suggesting that the success of neoliberalism, in such comprehensive fashion that most of us don’t recognise the extent to which neoliberalism has seeped into our bones, means that we unquestioningly accept economic models that assume innate selfishness and individualism as opposed to altruism and community spirit. And therefore we accept all the neoliberalist ideology of free markets and less regulation and efficiency and not inhibiting competition because it fosters innovation (could, for example, cooperation alternatively foster innovation?). Just like how F1 racing improves car design, so the fierce competition of the market improves… well, more competition. (And what about the pollution?) His simple quoting of neoliberal icon Hayek (he doesn’t even have to infer or ‘interpret’ Hayek) should indicate to any reader with any inkling of fairness just how diabolical this philosophy is.

The alternative, one might rightly gather, is community, honesty, shared prosperity, justice, cooperation, and the like. And if the quasi-neoliberal reader happens to be skeptical of such utopian talk, he goes on to offer examples of just where in the world and how these things are being undertaken in alternative politics and governance and community enterprise and how we can learn from them. (Not to mention be heartened by them.)

Of particular note is his analysis (the essence of which is not exclusive to Monbiot, to be sure, but it is a model of clarity) of the US election, where Hillary simply offered a watered down version of Republican policy, backed by big money, not an alternative to the current mess, which is why many responded to Bernie Sanders in hope, and why many others threw their lot in with Trump, who at least wasn’t going to give them the same-ol’. (Though of course in many ways he is, being from the same moneyed monopolist class that so influences American politics.) Monbiot suggests that the (reasonably successful, if you think about how radical his ideas were) example of Sanders’ grassroots, populist campaign uncorrupted by compromising for the sake of rich donors means there is actually an alternative to media manipulation, spin and the like, which is real people responding to real people.