Imagined reconstruction of old London Bridge; pencil drawing by Paul Stroud
There’s an argument on the Wikipedia page for the story of Dick Whittington and his cat about whether young Whittington could have heard the ringing of the Bow bells from Holloway. Sometimes I love Wikipedia. Also, that delightful story is a rare example of a genuine folktale arising almost in modern times – possibly as late as the early 17th century – and based on a well-known historical figure.
There are impulses at work in the Church, on both the right and the left, a desire to sweep away the tired old past and to start over again. This desire is founded on an illusory hope. The demands of “justice,” “love,” or “truth” will not sustain the weight pressed upon them as the single interpretive tool to order the Church’s life. These demands cannot trump orthodoxy, or the rich experience of the Church in the past, which is the context of orthodoxy. History is where God works and reveals his will. Those who want to sweep away the mistakes of the past by escape from it are more likely to perpetuate those same mistakes, in the very process of wielding their own theological and pastoral “broom.” The history of the Church is littered with examples; of course, you have to have a commitment to history to notice.
So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other.
So, let’s start with the facts. The historic record is clear. The Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
— Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans. Not “the wrong side of history,” that fatuous and overused phrase: the wrong side of humanity.
The conviction that everything that happens on earth must be comprehensible to man can lead to interpreting history by commonplaces. Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be.
— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
The city of Liège, Belgium in 1914, under siege, and in 2009. When, in August 1914, the German armies decided to cut through Belgium on their way to France, thereby mocking the treaty Germany had signed to protect the integrity of Belgium, they expected no resistance. They got resistance.
Their immediate response was to burn a nearby village to the ground, shoot a good many random civilians, and round up Catholic priests and execute them on the totally spurious, invented-on-the-spot grounds that they were spies working against Germany. All that happened on the first day of the German invasion. When those actions did not lead to a Belgian surrender, the Germans sent zeppelins over the city to terror-bomb it into submission.
The notion that the Great War was fought in a relatively civilized way, and that it was only World War II that introduced terror against civilians as an essential element of military strategy, is belied by these first events of the earlier conflict. The German army didn’t continue in this vein simply because it couldn’t: it had limited access to major population centers for the rest of the war. But from the moment the war began the Germans were prepared to destroy anyone who stood in their war, without regard to any other consideration, no matter how time-honored or essential to humanity.
This head depicting the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis is from a colossal statue that stood over 4 metres tall. The statue is thought to be from the Temple of Serapis, a huge sanctuary measuring 101 metres by 78 metres, which once stood in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. The impressive remains of this sanctuary were recently discovered by underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio.
In this statue, Serapis wears his characteristic headdress, a corn measure known as a kalathos, symbolising abundance and fertility. Alongside his funerary and royal roles, Serapis was worshipped for his healing powers, which according to ancient historians were particularly potent in Canopus. People came from afar to sleep within the temple complex in order to be healed by ‘incubation’, when miraculous cures were delivered in a dream.
The god Serapis is said to have been introduced to Egypt by the ancient Greek ruler Ptolemy I. Serapis was aimed at Greeks living in Egypt and his worship developed where Greek presence was prevailing, notably in Alexandria and Canopus. The popularity of this universal god also flourished outside Egypt in the Greek Mediterranean world, then later in the Roman Empire.
Colossal head of Serapis. Canopus, c. 200 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk.
© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
On August 2, 1100, the English king William Rufus was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest, probably in an assassination, possibly by a genuine accident. We really don’t know. In modern times, though, that story developed an unexpected afterlife through the work of a bizarre scholar called Margaret A. Murray (1863-1963). Murray was a distinguished Egyptologist, who developed a grand unified theory of European witchcraft. She argued that the records of witch-trials were not simply fictitious, but actually contained accounts of genuine underground pagan cults that flourished within a notionally Christian Europe.
This theory was not wholly new to her, and she had plenty of predecessors over the previous decades, including feminists like Matilda Joslyn Gage. However, Murray brought the idea to a mass audience. That theory was expressed in Murray’s enormously influential 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and in The God of the Witches (1931). These books inspired countless horror novels, and Murray’s writings are even cited in H. P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu. They also largely inspired the actual creation of the Wicca movement, the supposedly revived witchcraft created by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. Notionally, that too was a revival of an ancient pagan cult.
Today is the Feast of Saints Basil & Gregory Nazianzen, which reminds me that some years ago I wanted to write a book for the church that took the Cappadocians as our models. I never got beyond the proposal, in part because the editors I talked to weren’t enthusiastic; my idea seemed neither fish nor fowl, too churchy for an intellectual audience and too intellectual for a churchy audience. So I set the idea aside and am not likely, now, to return to it. In lieu of that I’m posting the proposal here.
Heroes. One of my heroes is Paul Farmer. Farmer is a physician who teaches at Harvard, co-edits a journal called Health and Human Rights, and leads an organization he founded called Partners in Health. That last role leads him to spend much of his time in Haiti, Rwanda, and other parts of the world where health care for the poor has traditionally been poor or nonexistent. For a couple of decades now Paul Farmer has done as much as anyone in the world to save the lives of people whom the world in general thinks not worth saving. And key to his devotion is his lifelong Catholic Christian faith.
I have other heroes. Some of them work for Care Net, an organization founded in 1975 by evangelical Christians to provide pregnant women with alternatives to abortion — and to provide counseling and compassionate attention to women who have had abortions. The people of Care Net also share the good news of the Christian gospel with the women whom they serve.
I have at times been in groups of people who know and respect the work of Care Net, but if in those contexts I mention my admiration for the work of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, I am liable to get some suspicious looks. Paul Farmer’s theology is on the liberal end of the spectrum, as are his politics: for instance, he is a vocal admirer of the Cuban government’s health care system. He has had a book written about him by Tracy Kidder, also a political liberal and a thoroughly secular writer; Sixty Minutes, even, has done an admiring segment on him. He’s the liberal elite’s ideal do-gooder. What does that have to do with Christianity?
In other groups, people join enthusiastically in my praise for Paul Farmer — but become nervous when I mention my admiration for Care Net. They hear of an organization trying to provide women with alternatives to abortion and they think of large photographs of bloody fetuses held aloft by abortion-clinic protestors; they think of reactionaries who want to control women’s bodies and keep them barefoot and pregnant; they think of a conservative evangelical church in thrall to the Republican Party. If they saw the institutional history Care Net provides on its website they would be even more worried: “Care Net was influenced by the evangelical leadership of former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and Christian apologist, Dr. Francis Schaeffer.”
And yet both Partners in Health and Care Net are pursuing the Biblical mandate to care for the weakest and most helpless among us. In so many ways they are doing the same work, and even are dedicated to the same goal — the preservation and healing of the lives of people made in the image of God. Why must we see them in opposition to each other? (And for all I know they may even see themselves in opposition to each other.) Such an attitude is simply tragic.
And the cause of the tragedy is this: that the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.
There have of course been attempts to bridge this political gap, primarily through Catholic social teaching. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago was particularly associated with the notion of the “seamless garment” of life, the necessarily interwoven character of all attempts to promote human survival and human flourishing. Others have adopted the phrase “consistent life ethic” to indicate much the same emphasis. But often these voices have been ignored because they have been perceived as coming from a particular “side” in the already-existing political debate. (Similar criticisms have been directed against Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics: many a reviewer has commented that God’s politics seems to be indistinguishable from that of recent Democratic Party platforms.) Moreover, these movements tend to be grounded very specifically in Catholic theology, in ways that can be daunting or confusing for people who do not know that tradition well.
What is needed at this moment is a way of approaching these immensely complex yet utterly essential issues that evades our usual and comfortable political categories. We need to be taken out of our own time and place, so that we might see what a real Gospel of Life looks like to Christians who didn’t look much like us, think much like us, or live much like us. We need to travel to Cappadocia during the time of the Church Fathers. There we will find one family who, among themselves, practiced the Gospel of Life in all its fullness.
The Cappadocians. Cappadocia is a region in what is now central Turkey. In the time with which we are concerned, it was an economically and culturally vibrant place. To the north is the district of Pontus and the Black Sea. To the west are the shores of Asia Minor, then dotted with great cities — Ephesus particularly well known to us because of Paul’s visit and letter to the churches there. Due south one would have found Tarsus, Paul’s home town, whose great Mediterranean harbor was even then silting up and landlocking it. To the southeast is Palestine. In the late Roman world, Cappadocia was a great crossroads.
Sometime around the year 270, probably in the Pontus region, a woman was born named Macrina. Later she married — we don’t know her husband’s name — and had children. She was a faithful Christian, which it was not good to be in that time and place, for in the year 303, when Macrina’s son Basil would have been around eight years old, the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his colleagues Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius began issuing a series of repressive edicts aimed directly at the Christians of the empire. Eusebius, the great historian of the early church, who was around forty when the persecutions began, described the situation in this way:
This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in March, when the feast of the Saviour’s passion was near at hand, and royal edicts were published everywhere commanding that the churches should be razed to the ground, the Scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty.
And such was the first decree against us. But issuing other decrees not long after, the Emperor commanded that all the rulers of the churches in every place should be first put in prison and afterwards compelled by every device to offer sacrifice [to the old Roman gods]. Elsewhere in the Empire, particularly in the far west and north, these edicts were enforced half-heartedly or not at all; but in Cappadocia and Pontus the officials pursued Christians with real, and frightening, enthusiasm. Macrina and her family fled into the countryside, probably to the shores of the Black Sea, and waited out the persecutions.
The attempts to suppress Christianity waned over the next few years and were officially ended in 313, when Constantine the Great and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom for Christians. Pontus and Cappadocia were safe again, and Macrina raised her children in the Pontine city of Neocaeserea. Later her son Basil would marry a devout Christian woman named Emmelia — her father had been martyred in the persecutions — and move to Ceasarea, which would become the center of this family’s life. Basil established himself as a teacher of rhetoric and, more important, a lay teacher of the Christian faith, celebrated throughout the city for his wisdom and piety.
Basil the Elder, as he came to be known, and Emmelia went on to have ten children. We know the names of five of them: Macrina, Basil, Gregory, Naucratius, and Peter. We know those five names because all of them became recognized as saints of the church — as did Basil the Elder, Emmelia, and the matriarch Macrina the Elder.
Let us pause to contemplate this for a moment: one family; three generations; eight saints.
What did these people do to earn such lasting fame and praise? Here I will offer just a brief account:
- Macrina the Elder was canonized for her faithfulness in time of persecution;
- Basil the Elder for his powerful and influential teaching;
- Emmelia largely for the extraordinary family she raised, though she may also have had an active role in the ministries of some of her children;
- Macrina the Younger for her teaching of her younger siblings, and as the founder of a community for widows, abandoned women, and orphans;
- Basil, later Basil the Great, for his work as priest, bishop, scholar, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, champion of the poor and hungry, and founder of the Basileion, the first Christian hospital;
- Gregory, later Gregory of Nyssa, for much the same work as his older brother Basil did, though on slightly less titanic a scale;
- Naucratius, for his holy life as a hermit and as a servant of, especially, the elderly poor;
- Peter, later Peter of Sebaste, for his work as priest, monk, bishop, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and as partner with his sister Macrina on behalf of the poor.
It’s all really quite overwhelming, and, when related in detail (as this book will do), deeply moving and encouraging. What’s especially noteworthy for anyone interested in the Gospel of Life is how seamless the family’s garment of service is. This can be seen with particular clarity in the career of Basil, who moved so easily from advocating for the poor in the pulpit to building the first hospital to combatting Arianism and other heresies of the time. It was one Gospel to him — and, I think, to the rest of his family — one unified model of human flourishing in Christ.
In order to understand why the way of life offered by this single Cappadocian family is so important an example for us, we might turn to the thirty-fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Here Ezekiel is lamenting the circumstances that led to the collapse of Israel and the carrying off of its people, including Ezekiel himself, into captivity in Babylon. The fault, he says — or the Lord says through him — lies with the “shepherds,” the elders of Israel. The Lord denounces the shepherds thus:
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. . . . My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Several things are noteworthy about this passage: the powerful condemnation of sins of omission, for which most of us tend to excuse ourselves; the opposition of ruling “in force and harshness” — domination — to compassionate care; and especially the bringing together of very different forms of suffering.
There are five categories of sufferers in this passage: the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. It’s pretty clear that the first three apply in equally literal ways to sheep and to people: the Lord is accusing the elders of Israel of neglecting the physical sufferings of the people. But the remaining two categories have an equally clear metaphorical meaning when applied to people, as they do throughout the prophets (“All we like sheep have gone astray”). The Lord clearly says that the elders of the nation have neglected the spiritual as well as the physical needs of the people — they have been shamefully negligent across the board, obsessed instead with maintaining their own power to rule.
The behavior of the shepherds of Israel is a lamentable inversion, then, of the gospel that our Cappadocian family practiced. What the shepherds “did not” the Cappadocians did, like the two groups Jesus contrasts to each other (“those on his right” and “those on his left”) in Matthew 25, a passage that strongly echoes Ezekiel 34. It is by striving to see ourselves in these two distant mirrors — and not by situating ourselves or others on today’s American political map — that we 21st-century Christians can find our proper roles in Christ’s Kingdom, can find the genuine Gospel of Life.
I plan to narrate the story of this great Cappadocian family immediately after the book’s introduction (which will say in more detail many of the things I say in the opening paragraphs of this proposal). The family’s story is a powerful one, and will provide a host of examples that I can draw on throughout the book.
The Image of God. The next stage will start from a question: What was the biblical-theological model that our Cappadocian family was living out? What were their key principles, their core convictions? (Note that for us, as for Basil and his fellow Catholic bishops, sound orthodox theology and reverence for Scripture are indispensable to our lives in the Kingdom, and properly inseparable from the kind of work usually called “social ministry” or “compassionate ministry” — as though it is neither social nor compassionate to preach to all the story of Christ crucified.) My answer will follow a sequence of propositions that follow from the belief that all of us are made in the image of God. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in his great sermon “On the Love of the Poor,” “Do not despise those who are stretched out on the ground as if they merit no respect…. They bear the countenance of our Savior.”
- To be made in the image of God is to have dominion over creation.
- To be made in the image of God is to be in communion with God and with one another.
- Because we are fallen beings, the image of God is defaced in us, but it is not erased. We still show it imperfectly.
- We sin against the image of God in our neighbors when we fail to see that “they bear the countenance of our Savior,” and try to exert dominion over them instead of embracing communion.
- To follow Christ, to live in him and be conformed to his image, is to have the image of God in us restored.
- We are made in the image of God and yet — sometimes because of sin and sometimes because of the variety of created beings — we are all in some sense weak.
- The Biblical picture of God centers on his compassion for all forms of human weakness.
- Insofar as we are conformed to the image of Christ, we too will exhibit that compassion for weakness.
- And we will do so all the more because we too experience weakness and hope that people who are stronger will have compassion on us.
- To be in communion with one another is to give and receive help appropriate to our weakness — to be blessed through giving and receiving compassionate love.
- To be in communion with one another is to acknowledge that we are many members (organs) of the body of Christ and will therefore pursue different aspects of the one Gospel of Life.
- We are not the primary agents in the economy of love: as the Lord says later in Ezekiel 34, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
The unpacking of those propositions, and their relation to one another, will occupy more than half of this book.
What to do? The last major stage of the argument will simply ask “What do we do now?” The answer will involve five categories of action:
- Discern the weak among us;
- Identify the different forms of weakness;
- Know our own weaknesses;
- Pray to see the image of God in all other human beings;
- Trust in the strength of the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13).
With our hearts encouraged by the example of one great ancient family, and our minds fortified by the theological principles they embraced, and our wills committed to the necessary forms of action, we twenty-first century Christians will be prepared to live out the real, the full, Gospel of Life.
The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society. The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity. From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. … Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life. Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war. The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. … The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action] though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture. The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous. In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena. In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic.
To all of us, I believe, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Roman Empire is like a mirror in which we see reflected the brutal, vulgar, powerful yet despairing image of our technological civilization, an imperium which now covers the entire globe, for all nations, capitalist, socialist, and communist, are united in their worship of mass, technique and temporal power. What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash but that … it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope.
(What follows is a post I wrote this morning for one of my class blogs, which are private.)
Erasmus is sometimes referred to as Erasmus of Rotterdam, but that’s primarily to distinguish him from his namesake, St. Erasmus of Formia, also known as St. Elmo, patron saint of sailors. (That Wikipedia page also says he’s the patron saint of abdominal pain, whatever that means.) But our Erasmus really wasn’t of Rotterdam at all, even if he was born there. He considered himself to belong to that international group of scholars and writers that would later come to be called the Republic of Letters. His “countrymen” were Thomas More, who happened to live in England, and Aldus Manutius, who happened to live in Venice, and Johannes Frobenius, who happened to live in Switzerland.
Centuries later, as World War II was breaking out, the poet W. H. Auden would write of that same sense of connection with people separated by citizenship in the modern nation-states:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
In contrast to this highly cosmopolitan vision, we should be aware that Machiavelli is much more aware of himself as a citizen of one particular city, Florence, whose greatness he wishes to restore. He is as local and particular as Erasmus is universal and general.
And yet, when Machiavelli was in exile from Florence he wrote of how central to his life was his reading of, his conversation with, the great writers of the past. Here he sounds like the truest possible humanist:
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.
Machiavelli was a complicated guy.
Not everyone agreed that gout was a malady, or a bad thing. Some saw it as Nature’s warning, or as a deliverance from worse afflictions (it was better than haemorrhoids, for instance), and had no desire to be cured of it. As this book says, it was often regarded as a life assurance, not a death sentence. Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles II, ‘supposedly offered £1000 to any person who would “help him to the gout”, looking upon it as the only remedy for the distemper in his head, which he feared might in time prove an apoplexy; as in fine it did and killed him’. William Cowper congratulated a friend on contracting the disorder, ‘because it seems to promise us that we shall keep you long’. Hester Piozzi’s husband grew worried and alarmed if his gout did not return regularly.
Besides, gout was very much a mark of status. Lord Chesterfield said it was ‘the distemper of a gentleman, whereas the rheumatism is the distemper of a hackney coachman’. It attacked not only the wealthy but the creative, which meant that no man of letters could afford to be without it. Some thought it was the hallmark of genius, a view obstinately perpetuated by Havelock Ellis. In short, it was an honour to have gout and the phrase ‘the honour of the gout’ was in free use. The authors quote Earl Nugent’s apology to the Duke of Newcastle for failing to wait on him: ‘He received the Honor of His Grace’s card here, where he has been detained by the Honor of the Gout.’ For a person of the lower orders to aspire to the honour of the gout was unthinkable. Artisans and crofters did not know their luck; hard work every day kept uric acid at bay. ‘Live upon sixpence a day – and earn it’ was the cure for gout advocated by the surgeon John Abernethy.
[James] Wood praises [Hilary] Mantel for her “cunning universalism”, a slicker version of CS Lewis’s unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past’s fundamental difference: William Golding’s The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.
It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the “literary fiction” genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood’s frustration is with “historical romance” in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.
Stuart Kelly. I like Kelly’s defense of the historical novel here, in opposition to Wood’s prim condescension, but he seems not to know that Lewis coined the phrase “the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart” in order to refute that doctrine. As a shrewd and learned student of the past, Lewis knew that those people didn’t think as we think at all.
Which leads to the chief problem with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England. Wood likes what he calls the “universalism” of making Thomas Cromwell seem modern, but that’s what’s wrong with the books. Mantel could only pick as her protagonist a figure whom she can plausibly construe — or so she thinks — as rather like a modern educated Englishman: shrewd, skeptical, tolerant when it serves him but ruthless when he needs to be. As Wood points out in his New Yorker review (not online at the moment) of the new book, Mantel seems neither to like nor to understand her “religious” characters, like More and Cranmer. (Operating in the narrow royal and aristocratic world that she does, she doesn’t have to confront someone like Tyndale, which is just as well.) Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that Cromwell was the pure pragmatist she portrays him to be, it’s also possible that his attitudes towards religion were more complex and more interesting.
By making Cromwell her protagonist, the one through whose eyes we see much of what happens in these books, and then making Cromwell so much like herself, Mantel evades the most serious challenge a writer of historical fiction can face: how to make characters vivid and human when they’re not at all like us.
For the early-twenty-first-century literary writer, the primary way that people from the past are “not like us” is in their religious beliefs. Aside from Marilynne Robinson, how many highly-regarded writers today even make an effort to imagine what religious belief might feel like from the inside? It’s odd that James Wood, who has written so intelligently and movingly about the displacement of religion from the center of European high culture, and from his own life, is blind to the problems this neglect poses.
Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.
— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.
Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …
I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery prayer of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.
If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.
From a letter W. H. Auden wrote to his father in October of 1942, explaining his decision to use a largely contemporary setting for his long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’m working on a critical edition of that poem for Princeton University Press, and goodness, it’s fun.