13 December 2007


Currently reading Jesus Christ: The Gospels, part of Verso's ongoing repackaging of important revolutionary texts (other titles include the Declaration of Independence and "Terrorism and Communism"). While the bulk of the book is just the text of the four gospels themselves--which is, of course, readily available--it's a different experience to read them all at once uninterrupted, which is rarely done. The English Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote the introduction, which you can read an excerpt from at the Guardian's website.

I hope to have more to say about the book itself later, but first a thought came up while reading the comments at the link above:

It's a favorite parlor trick of the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens crowd to play--as a grand finale after they've been working you up and down--the final trump card in their deck by claiming that no historical person named Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. Ta-da! I bet you hate religion now. Seriously, though; I've actually studied under mainstream scholars at a secular university (hardly rightwing Christian partisans all) and this isn't taken terribly seriously among them, primarily because it's based on a desperate, 2nd century dating of the gospels that is generally rejected. Certainly the historical personage of Jesus didn't say or do a great many of the things attributed to him, but claiming total nonexistence, while possible, requires an enormous amount of skepticism (of which our friends have no lack).

It's that last point which makes me question the wisdom of such an assertion in the first place. If you're trying to discredit the literal miraculous and supernatural elements of the gospel accounts as actual events, there's ample ammunition to be found from the same mainstream scholarship. So why the need to jump the extra hurdle? Is it shock value, scoring cheap points, or is there something else going on?

I'm also (slowly and intermittently) working my way through Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God, a history of modern fundamentalism. Armstrong argues that our contemporary fundamentalism didn't come about in opposition to the Enlightenment so much as a adaptation to it. The Enlightenment debate between rationalism and empiricism as the only avenues to truth, and the re-defining of truth as the tangible or reasonable, shutting out religious and mystic notions of mythos. Thus, religion had to adapt to to the new, logos-dominated world, and thus was born the fundamentalist obsession of searching for historical proof of all events in the Bible, and a denial of scriptural metaphor or allegory. If Jonah wasn't really in the belly of the whale for three days, the entire satire of haughty, self-righteous prophets loses all meaning.
If Marx or Kant (pick a philosopher, any philosopher!) hadn't existed, but instead their works were cobbled together by anonymous scribes and given a supernatural bent (the adventures of SuperLeibniz!), would that change the worth of the message? If you were to claim, as some do, that Jesus was merely repeating a collection of Hellenic myths, would you also dismiss the works of, say, Eugene Debs for being recycled from Marx and other socialists? Or Martin Luther King for reinterpreting Christian myths about justice? (I love how those start to pile up).

The new anti-religious, again resembling and complementing the fundamentalists, are rank modernists. They lend no weight to the worth of mythos, and agree that the fundamentalist view is the only way religious texts can be read. Both, therefore, equally scorning the mainstream-to-liberal religious as revisionists. I don't dispute that their call for reasonable pluralism and common ground in the civic and political realm is a laudable one, but their rhetoric often goes much further. They see an idealized version of humanity in the Vulcans of Star Trek; coldly rational, calculating, emotionless. This ascension of "Enlightenment values" to such a personal level as a replacement for religious mysticism not only threatens to emulate the worst religious proselytizing in its arrogance, but likewise deny us of basic components of humanity which have existed for as long as we can gauge. Empirically, of course.