Princeton University Press is publishing a series of books about books: Lives of Great Religious Books. Among the first batch is (perhaps predictably) The Book of Genesis: A Biography. And, though brief, it is excellent. (See a good review of the book here.)

Having traced the book's 'biography' from its textual and literary-contextual origins, Ronald Hendel takes us on a journey through apocalypticism, Platonic worlds, the figuralism of Dante and Rashi, the 'realism of Luther, the science of Copernicus and Galileo through to Spinoza, Darwin and Fundamentalism, the literary explorations of Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka to Erich Auerbach. And his concluding sentence?

We live on the far side of tradition… In our exile, we can read Genesis as it is now – an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came. (p.241)

In fact, Hendel has done more than concoct a narrative thread; he has fitted the book of Genesis into a brief history of biblical hermeneutics as they are shaped by the wider intellectual, religious and social movements of history. En route he places an implicit question mark over those who assume that the biblical text is self-evident in meaning – that is to say, without reference to the unarticulated assumptions we bring to our reading of it. (Which might usefully be considered by those orchestratedly bombarding bishops like me this week with their – remarkably identical and sometimes offensively expressed – views on bishops and the Pilling Report. The phrase “the plain meaning of Scripture” is used with what used to be called 'gay abandon'.)

There are points where I would wish to quibble with what I think are wrong or generalised observations, but these are hardly worth noting in a book which is clearly and vividly written for a general-interest audience. And there are statements that concisely say what might usefully be expanded on grounds of interest and importance. For example, on 'translation':

The Platonic flavor of Creation in the Greek [Septuagint] Genesis does not mean that it is a bad translation, but simply that it is a translation. All translations mingle the concepts and categories of the source language with those of the target language. The words and the ideas of Genesis take on Greek color because they are now written in Greek. The Septuagint became the standard Scripture for Greek-speaking Jews and for most Christians, including all the writers of the New Testament. And this means that Genesis described, for them and their descendants, a Platonic world. (p.90)

Now, you have to read on to see how the language itself, as well as the impact of the act of translation, shapes – and is shaped by – an assumed world view.

I would love to have read some reference to Robert Crumb's cartoon version of Genesis! But, reading this book did remind me of Alan of Lille's great aphorism: “God is the intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” (p.115)

Discuss…

 

A great lunch with the Bundestagspräsident, a former Ministerpräsident of Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (Bernhard Vogel), a French theologian and a Jewish academic – we discussed the NSA revelations, spying on Merkel, the Holocaust and other things – and then back to work.

Wo Sprache endet: Das Verhältnis von Literatur, Transzendenz und Politik was a paper delivered by Professor Dr Lydia Koelle (Bonn). I expected some sort of treatment similar to that by Rowan Williams in his book on 'Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', but what we got didn't seem to address the theme of the title. However, it led to a good question about the transference of 'trauma' from a generation of Germans who did not 'live' the Holocaust, but reads 'trauma' back into an experience that was not actually lived as a trauma by those who actually went through it. (I might be doing this session an injustice, but it was the post-lunch slot and we had wine with lunch…)

Zwischen Medialisierung, Religionskonflikt und Rückkehr der Figuration: Religion in der Kunst am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts saw Dr Johannes Rauchenberger (Graz, Austria) illustrate how contemporary morally-challenging events are handled in art – for example, Razoume (?) on the recent Lampedusa migration deaths.

Ulrich Khuon, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, was really interesting about theatre and film as he addressed the theme Glaube, Welt und die Kunst des Spiels: Kino und Theater als Seismographen der Gegenwart. He began with Pasolini observing Jesus from a distance in his 'Gospel of St Matthew', then ranged widely around Friedrich Schiller, Mallick and Julian Barnes in relation to death, suffering and the human condition.

Zwischen Skandal und neuer Kunstreligion: Das zwiespältige Verhältnis von Künsten und Religion in der Öffentlichkeit, an exploration of how art provokes and challenges, saw Professor Dr Wolfgang Ullrich (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) tackle public responses to (a) Gerhard Richter's east window in Cologne Cathedral, and (b) Martin Kippenberger's 'Crucified Frog'. Both caused huge controversy: the former because it subverts both the architctural form and the received nature/purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, and the latter for obvious reasons. The window substitutes traditional biblical images with 11,500 four-inch 'pixels' cut from original antique glass in a total of 72 colours, dividing opinion between those (like the bishop) who hate it and those who say that “all the saints, all the parables, every thought, every idea, transcendence itself are all here in these windows”. Richter observed that the critical bishop had actually understood it: [it is] “gar nicht katholisch.”

Interestingly (and pertinently), the symposium has heard no reference in today's papers to music – a surprising omission. Mind you, there isn't time to cover everything…

I need dinner…

 

I need to confess my cultural ignorance. I have never read some of what are often called ‘the classics’. This deficit doesn’t usually make a massive difference, but, having now visited the wonderful Haworth – only a few miles from the wonderful Bradford – several times in the five months since we moved back up north, I am embarrassed by knowing a good deal about the Brontës without having read any of their books.

I can feel a bout of Jane Austen coming on as well.

I once made the mistake of telling the Archbishop of Canterbury that I found Dostoevsky boring – three attempts at ‘Crime and Punishment’ had never got me beyond page 82 as “nothing really happened”. After a short silence in which he probably wondered about my credentials, he replied that he was about to write a book about Dostoevsky. (I went out and read everything Dostoevsky had ever written – my next conversation with Rowan Williams might need to be a bit more intelligent and a bit more informed.)

Anyway, embarrassment aside, I am half way through ‘Wuthering Heights’ – despite being told by a clever literary friend that, not being a 17 year old girl, I might not quite ‘get it’. Discouragements aside, I am now intending to read the Brontës. Then I’ll be able to go back to Haworth with my head held high(er).

So far – I am half-way through- it is OK. But, I am still not sure how to judge whether or not it is (or should be regarded as) a ‘classic’. Which criteria do we use to make such a judgement? Or Is it merely subjective? Is there any… er… evidence?

While writing this, the news has broken that Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend have won their appeal in Italy against their convictions for murdering the Surrey student Meredith Kercher. What is amazing is the stuff flying around Twitter and the blogosphere celebrating their release or condemning it. It isn’t clear what has led to which response. Does Knox look guilty? Does her lifestyle make her more likely than not to have been guilty? Or what? How do people in England or anywhere else know with such certainty whether they are guilty or not?

Cases such as this one get acres of media coverage because of the mixture of sex, violence, mystery and character – hyped in the tabloids at every stage of a complex presentation of evidence. There are heroes and villains and the language used of them suggests who is which. It isn’t clear that hype encourages good or wise judgement, but I am equally unsure how to judge the guilt of ‘foxy Knoxy’ as to decide what makes ‘Wuthering Heights’ a classic of English literature.

Maybe when I finish it…

The great writer Philip Pullman was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show this afternoon (BBC Radio 2) and the piece can only be listened to for the next seven days – unfortunately. Pullman’s new book is published tomorrow and is called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Obviously, I haven’t read it, but I have read and heard enough to make me want to read it.

According to the interview, the novel basically attempts to distinguish between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Christ appropriated by the Church: the former was a good bloke, but the latter went astray and got it all wrong. Several things can be said about this:

1. This isn’t new thinking. Many twentieth-century theologians tried to make a similar distinction between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. Of course, the distinction was arbitrary and often a convenient way of dealing with the difficult or inconvenient bits of the New Testament. So, the reaction by some Christians to the idea of Pullman’s book simply demonstrates that they are a bit behind on their theology.

2. The Church should not feel the need to hide from its history and especially from its mistakes. Pullman and others often do us a service by shining a light on us that can only be directed from outside the Church – illuminating our weaknesses and inconsistencies. What is the problem with this? The Church has a good theology of failure (and redemption) and shouldn’t be scared of being seen as it is and as it has been. OK, Pullman is a bit preoccupied with it and not all his critiques stand much scrutiny, but some of it does.

The interview was interesting, dealing with the nature of the Gospels, the status of the Bible and the mindset of those nutters who threaten Pullman with death. Pullman respects the Gospels and the biblical text, but sees them as works of human inventiveness. What disturbs him is not the witness they bear, but the use made of them (for reasons of power) by subsequent generations of Christians. He acknowledges the apologetic power of the inconsistencies in the Gospels – particularly in relation to the resurrection accounts – and recognises that unified narratives would have been the product of propaganda.

However, the subtleties of biblical literature are clearly lost on some of those who then called in to comment on these matters (as, again, George Pitcher points out):

  • ‘The Bible is just fiction’ demonstrates a stupid ignorance of both (a) what fiction is and (b) what the Bible is. The Bible is made up of a range of different genres of literature and (as one example) poetry cannot be read in the same way as prophecy or a New Testament letter. To write off the whole ‘book’ as ‘fiction’ just proves that the contributor hasn’t bothered to read it as it is written.
  • ‘The Bible cannot be questioned or re-written’ is simply sad. I agree that it can’t be re-written (it is what it is) any more than Hamlet can be re-written without it becoming a different play. But if the Bible has to be protected from scrutiny, debate, argument or challenge, then it isn’t worth reading in the first place. Pullman stated that ‘the Gospels do not belong to the Church’ – and he is right. Jesus made it clear anyway that he was for the world, fulfilling what had always been the vocation of Israel: to live and give his life in order that the world might see who and how God is (and respond accordingly). The Bible must be able to stand in the marketplace or it cannot be what it claims to be. Jesus (and the Gospels) cannot be caged by the Church.
  • ‘We wouldn’t do this to the Quran’ simply exasperates me. Do we really think Christians should consider emulating the worst of Muslim extremism? As George Pitcher admirably and clearly explained in yesterday’s Telegraph, we shouldn’t confuse the woeful (and often silly) ignorance of secularists and some atheists with some bizarre and inappropriate notion of ‘persecution’.

Christians are in danger of saying by their defensiveness that Christian faith and the Bible itself are so vulnerable that they must not be challenged and must be protected. As I have remarked in an article in the Easter edition of the Radio Times (no link available), we have no reason to be afraid of challenge or scrutiny – Christians need to be a little more confident and a little more intelligent in articulating their faith and their understanding of the story told by the Scriptures. As Pullman pointed out, a Christian notion of ‘inspiration’ is not the same as an Islamic one – but plenty of Christians treat the Bible as if it were.

The answer to Pullman is to write something better and more convincing – not to threaten him. Pullman is at least able and willing to have a reasonable and informed conversation with Christians – unlike some of the New Atheists he is often lumped in with.

Bishop Alan Wilson has an interesting ‘take’ on the interface between Christians and atheists in his comment on Peter Tatchell. Worth a look in conjunction with these observations on Christian confidence when in engagement with writers like Philip Pullman.

It has been a strange week. Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, grand imam of the Al-Azhar mosque and head of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo (Sunni Islam’s pre-eminent centre of learning), died on Wednesday 10 March while staying in Saudi Arabia. Tantawi was an enigmatic man – but be careful of quotations taken out of context – and one of courage and vision. He was one of Islam’s leading spiritual authorities to champion Islamic moderation across the globe – incurring the wrath of Muslims who took a more militant approach to their faith. A good obituary can be found in the Guardian.

I met Tantawi several times in Kazakhstan at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. He was always rather inscrutable, but he handled challenge extremely well. In July 2009 when the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, stood to speak – driving the Iranian delegation to loudly evacuate the room – he maintained his presence and took what could have been seen as provocation in his stride (at least publicly). Several years ago he refused to rise to the deliberate provocation by Chief Rabbi Metzger and maintained his position. Whatever differences some of us might have had with some of his views, he certainly gained respect by his behaviour in such circumstances.

Tantawi will be missed. It will be interesting to see if his shoes will be filled by someone of equal spiritual authority, political wisdom and personal courage. Moderate Islam needs it and so does the rest of the world.

Last night I went from ruminating on Tantawi to the presentation by the Russian Ambassador to Archbishop Rowan Williams of the Russian Order of Friendship, for his “outstanding contribution to the cooperation and friendly relations between Russia and the UK”. The Archbishop

The honour, which was awarded by Russian presidential decree by President Dmitry Medvedev, was presented by the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Mr Yury Fedotov, who said “What the Archbishop is doing helps tremendously to establish better understanding and to set a better climate in relations between Russia and the UK.” Dr Williams is hugely respected in Russia for his interest in and mastery of Russian religious philosophy. He has written and spoken widely throughout his career, notably in his doctoral thesis on the theology of Vladimir Lossky, on Sergii Bulgakov (Towards a Russian Political Theology, 1999), and his recent book on Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction , 2008).

It was – as they say – a good gig at the Residence of the Russian Ambassador in London. The honour, which was awarded by Russian presidential decree by President Dmitry Medvedev, was presented by the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr Yury Fedotov, who said

What the Archbishop is doing helps tremendously to establish better understanding and to set a better climate in relations between Russia and the UK.

 Rowan responded with (as usual) an erudite and witty speech (without notes), remarking that:

The depths and challenges of the Russian world have continued to play a crucial part in my own life, in my mind and in my heart… It is a very special personal honour, and an immense personal privilege to be recognised in this way so unexpectedly.

 My wife and I went to support Rowan, but also because I continue to be intrigued by what Rowan referred to as “the new Russia still being built”. My own background in Russian language and politics was something best kept quiet about, but it was a really good evening among some very interesting and nice people. The Russian diplomatic hosts were generous, welcoming and open to all the questions I (at least) asked. A nice touch came at the end when the Director of the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature, Dr Ekaterina Genieva, surprised the Archbishop with the presentation of a special bilingual edition of his selected poems printed in Moscow for the occasion. All guests came away with a signed copy – and I am already struggling with the Russian translations. I have forgotten too much…

Just for the record, my conversations with Rowan about Russia have usually ended up with me being embarrassed. After a dinner several years ago during which we discussed Zimbabwe, we eventually got on to Russian literature. I could blag my way through Tolstoy, Lermontov and Turgenev, but then blew my cover with Dostoyevsky. I mentioned that I had attempted Crime and Punishment three times and never got beyond page 82: it was boring and nothing seemed to happen except in the head of the ‘hero’. After a short – pregnant – silence Rowan said: “I’m about to write a book on Dostoyevsky…”

I’m sure he’s been suspicious of me ever since…

I decided that my next conversation had better be a bit better informed. So I have now read everything Dostoyevsky wrote – OK, I’ve got the last half of The Brothers Karamazov to finish.

At last – a shaft of light penetrates into the murkiness of much public commentary on Christianity and religious matters. Today’s Guardian newspapercontains two articles about the call by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, to teach our children the Bible. His reasoning? You can’t understand English (or global) cultural or historical heritage – particularly art, literature or theatre – unless you have a basic familiarity with the biblical text.

the-holy-bible1Andrew Motion is an atheist, so he is not banging a theistic drum here. Rather, as an intelligent man with his brain engaged, he is stating the blindingly obvious in the face of a culture that has largely lost its ability to be rational about anything to do with religion, Christianity or the Bible.

john-miltonHis point is simply that successive generations of students are ignorant of the stories that formed the worldview of a couple of thousand years of western people. So, you can’t understand them or their art if you don’t understand to what their art refers. Motion recalls teaching students of the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674) who had no idea there had been a Civil War in England and understood nothing of the references that are integral to Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained (for example). This isn’t about evangelism or indoctrinating children with religious fables; rather, it is about equipping children and young people with the basic tools they need to understand their historical and contemporary culture.

No surprise, then, that the ridiculous and irrational National Secular Society spokesman should respond with this enlightened nonsense: “It’s a bit excessive – children already get 45 minutes of religious education a week for 10 years. They also attend compulsory acts of worship which includes reading the Bible. Isn’t that enough?” So says Keith Porteous Wood, executive director and former general secretary of the National Secular Society. It is so silly (and a prime example of missing the point) that it isn’t worth spending any further time on it.

I think Andrew Motion has been able to say what many of us have been saying for years, but without the ‘credibility’ that comes from being an atheist. Motion asserts that study of the great stories (classical, biblical and other religious stories) would form part of a general studies programme – somthing that has long since dropped off the syllabus at many schools because of an obsession with targets, exam preparation and narrow specialising in limited fields.

shakespeare300He says: “I can imagine every teacher in the land saying, ‘not more to do’, because the pressure on the curriculum is so enormously heavy already” … I’m not suggesting this as a ‘bolt-on’, but part of a broader rethinking about what education is meant to be. What is probably required is a more radical conversation about how the curriculum is structured.”

The Guardian article also notes that “aside from the Cross Reference Project, which is supported by the Bible Society, and provides resources to help students to understand how literature has been shaped by the Bible, there is little out there” to help teachers who have also been brought up without the knowledge they need to teach this stuff.