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Christopher Hitchens & the KJV

Via Vanity Fair, here’s a fine account from Christopher Hitchens of the—King James Version—greatest of all the English translations of the Bible.

As always with Mr. Hitchens, there’s room for a good anecdote:

After she was elected the first female governor of Texas, in 1924, and got herself promptly embroiled in an argument about whether Spanish should be used in Lone Star schools, it is possible that Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson did not say, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.”

Those were the days.

And then there’s this:

Until the early middle years of the 16th century…torture and death was the attempt to print the Bible in English. It’s a long and stirring story, and its crux is the head-to-head battle between Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale…Their combat fully merits the term “fundamental.” Infuriating More, Tyndale whenever possible was loyal to the Protestant spirit by correctly translating the word ecclesia to mean “the congregation” as an autonomous body, rather than “the church” as a sacrosanct institution above human law. In English churches, state-selected priests would merely incant the liturgy. Upon hearing the words “Hoc” and “corpus” (in the “For this is my body” passage), newly literate and impatient artisans in the pews would mockingly whisper, “Hocus-pocus,” finding a tough slang term for the religious obfuscation at which they were beginning to chafe. The cold and righteous More, backed by his “Big Brother” the Pope and leading an inner party of spies and inquisitors, watched the Channel ports for smugglers risking everything to import sheets produced by Tyndale, who was forced to do his translating and printing from exile. The rack and the rope were not stinted with dissenters, and eventually Tyndale himself was tracked down, strangled, and publicly burned. (Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece historical novel, Wolf Hall, tells this exciting and gruesome story in such a way as to revise the shining image of “Saint” Thomas More, the “man for all seasons,” almost out of existence. High time, in my view. The martyrdoms he inflicted upon others were more cruel and irrational than the one he sought and found for himself.)

One can only agree, pausing only to note that, during the course of his recent visit to the UK, the current pope had the gall to lecture the English on the virtues of the bleakly proto-totalitarian More.

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A Culture of Life?

We could debate the International Criminal Court at some other time (I’m no fan, to put it mildly) and, indeed, the rights and wrongs of the Balkan wars, but the last sentence in this extract from a Guardian account of that court’s jailing of two Croatian commanders is striking:

Judges in The Hague found Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač guilty on eight of nine counts for commanding operations that included the shelling of civilians, the torching of Serbian homes in south-west Croatia, the murder of hundreds of elderly Serbs and the forced exodus of at least 20,000 from the Serbian minority rooted in the Dalmatian hinterland for centuries…For many Croats, especially on the right, Gotovina is a national hero. Catholic bishops this week denounced the tribunal, accusing it of deliberately confusing victim and aggressor.

What, I wonder, will Benedict XVI have to say about this?

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Godwin’s Pope (5)

Fresh from his remarkably disingenuous claims about atheism and the Nazis, that “subtle historian” Benedict XVI is (it appears from this report on his current visit to Spain) once again offering his own, distinctly unorthodox, take on the past:

On his way to Santiago, Benedict told reporters that the anticlericalism seen now in Spain was reminiscent of the 1930s, when the church suffered a wave of violence and persecution as the country lurched from an unstable democracy to civil war.

Reminiscent? Really?

Somewhere between five and seven thousand priests, monks, seminarians and nuns are thought to have been murdered, sometimes under circumstances of peculiarly revolting cruelty, during the course of the Spanish civil war by anti-Franco forces. Pope John Paul II beatified some five hundred of these victims. To his credit, Benedict himself beatified a further 498 in October 2007.

Now, however, he insults their memory.

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Godwin’s Pope (4)

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on a new exhibit on Berlin dedicated to the Third Reich.

This passage in particular caught my eye:

BERLIN — As artifacts go, they are mere trinkets — an old purse, playing cards, a lantern. Even the display that caused the crowds to stop and stare is a simple embroidered tapestry, stitched by village women. But the exhibits that opened Friday at the German Historical Museum are intentionally prosaic: they emphasize the everyday way that ordinary Germans once accepted, and often celebrated, Hitler. The household items had Nazi logos and colors. The tapestry, a tribute to the union of church, state and party, was woven by a church congregation at the behest of their priest.

And yet the pope, a “subtle historian”, people tell me, is a man, who despite education, heritage and, quite possibly, the experiences of his youth, who chooses to claim that the Nazis were atheists. Odd that.

And it’s not just the pope. Here we have Chris Patten, a less than positive presence in British public life and the individual given the task of extricating the recent papal visit from the chaos to which the church’s incompetence had reduced it, writing in the latest European Voice:

Many secularists argue that ever since the Enlightenment, reason has been enough to guide governance and policymaking, buttressed by the rule of law if a community is lucky. But Benedict asserted the importance of faith alongside reason and law in safeguarding our civilisation. Europe’s foundations lie not just in Aristotle, reason, and classical Greece, and not just in Rome with its understanding of the importance of the law, but also in Jerusalem and the Abrahamic faith groups – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Reason devoid of ethics can prove insufficient to support the survival of civilisation, a point that the pope’s own homeland, Germany, discovered in the 1930s.

“Reason devoid of ethics” has to be one of the more boneheaded descriptions I have yet read of Nazi ideology, a mish-mash of beliefs that were, at their core, not only profoundly irrationalist but also explicitly and perversely “moral”. That morality may have been grotesque, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was quite deliberately intended to supplement and, where necessary, supplant the exercise of reason.

The whole Patten piece is instructive reading, both for its exaggerated sense of the importance of the papal visit (in the end, a modest success that confounded some of its more dunderheaded critics, but which is likely to prove of little lasting significance) and for the usual hymn to Thomas More, a man who certainly stood up with some courage for what he believed to be right, but also an apparatchik with relatively few qualms about using state power to crush the freedom of conscience of others. More should be judged by the standards of his time, not ours, but it is still possible to discern within this tough, convinced and clever thinker the first glimpses of the Bolshevik nightmare to come. I’ll pick someone else to mourn, thank you.

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Benedict & Bruni

Le Canard Enchainé is far from being the most reliable news source, but this story is too entertaining not to repeat (via the First Post):

The Pope reportedly told French president Nicolas Sarkozy that his wife, Carla Bruni, was ‘not welcome’ at the Vatican when he visited for a private audience last week. Sarkozy was hoping the half-hour meeting with Benedict XVI would allow him to claw back some of the Catholic voters who have deserted him following his deportation of Roma gypsies over the summer – a policy that has also elicited criticism from the Vatican. But Sarkozy’s visit to the Pope was unusual because it was arranged at such short notice – and because Bruni did not travel with him. Now the French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine has claimed that the reason she stayed in Paris is because “Carla Sarkozy is not welcome at the Vatican.”

But why? Carla Bruni has history with the Pope. Last year, she hit out at the pontiff after he said that Africa’s HIV epidemic could not be solved with condoms. She said she felt the Church ought to “evolve” on this issue. “I was born Catholic, I was baptised, but in my life I feel profoundly secular,” she added.

But apparently that is all water under the bridge. According to Le Canard, the real reason for Bruni’s ban is because the Vatican does not want coverage of Sarkozy’s trip to be illustrated in the Italian press with pictures of the Pope juxtaposed with older, saucier pictures of Bruni, who made her name as a model…

Good grief.

For a different approach, here’s a photo of another elderly German (Britain’s Prince Philip), with Ms. Bruni during a recent French state visit to Britain. The good duke does not appear unduly worried by the thought of those old pictures. Nope, not worried at all.





Godwin’s Pope (3)

One academic’s (the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College) response to the pope’s claim that the Nazis were atheists (in reality, some were and some were not) can be found here. An extract follows:

Christian theologians, Catholic and Protestant, reassured Germans that Nazism was in full accord with Christian principles. This was not a marginal effort; at the 1934 Oberammergau passion play, watching Jesus being hoisted on the cross, the audience saw a parable of the Third Reich, calling out: “There he is. That is our Führer, our Hitler!”

Hitler became Christ, the redeemer of Germany, thanks to a reinterpretation of the Gospels: Jesus was not a Jew, but an Aryan who came to redeem them from the Jews who sought their destruction. Karl Adam, the prominent German Catholic theologian, affirmed in 1933 that Hitler was the one “prophesied by our poets and our wise men” who suffered in his fight for Germany’s salvation. Adam continued in 1941: “Christ’s teaching was entirely anti-Jewish in its tenor (that is why he was crucified).”

Nuts, of course, but atheist?

Well, here is Hitler (cited in Table Talk) on October 24, 1941:

It’s senseless to encourage man in the idea that he’s a king of creation, as the scientist of the past century tried to make him believe…The Russians were entitled to attack their priests, but they had no right to assail the idea of a supreme force. It’s a fact that we’re feeble creatures, and that a creative force exists.”

Hitler’s comments on this topic are often contradictory, and often self-serving, but those remarks do not sound like the opinions of an atheist to me.

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More is Less

Here’s the Pope (speaking in London’s Westminster Hall last week) on Thomas More:

I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ”good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

And here’s an extract from the largely sympathetic biography of More by the British writer (and Roman Catholic) Peter Ackroyd:

[More] epitomized, in modern terms, the apparatus of the state using its power to crush those attempting to subvert it. His opponents were genuinely following their consciences, while More considered them the harbinger of the devil’s reign on earth. How could there be moderation in any confrontation between them? He was, in large part, successful; he managed to check the more open expression of heretical opinion and thereby prevented it from being accepted piece by piece or gradually condoned. He also disrupted the community of ‘newe men’ in Antwerp and helped to diminish the flow of banned books into England.

In assessing More, we should, of course be careful to see him within the context of the times in which he lived. That said, for the pope to praise him to a modern audience as some sort of fighter for freedom of conscience is, once again, to reveal Benedict XVI as a man with a very selective view of history.




Godwin’s Pope? (2)

One of the pleasures (really) of blogging away on an interesting topic is when a reader alerts you to an angle or a source of which you were previously unaware. That brings me to a book called The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-45, by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Cambridge University Press). To say that it appears to be relevant to my earlier post concerning the pope’s curious comments on the “atheist” Third Reich is an understatement.

Here’s part of the publisher’s blurb:

Analyzing the previously unexplored religious views of the Nazi elite, Richard Steigmann-Gall argues against the consensus that Nazism as a whole was either unrelated to Christianity or actively opposed to it. He demonstrates that many participants in the Nazi movement believed that the contours of their ideology were based on a Christian understanding of Germany’s ills and their cure. A program usually regarded as secular in inspiration – the creation of a racialist ‘people’s community’ embracing antisemitism, antiliberalism and anti-Marxism – was, for these Nazis, conceived in explicitly Christian terms. His examination centers on the concept of ‘positive Christianity,’ a religion espoused by many members of the party leadership. He also explores the struggle the ‘positive Christians’ waged with the party’s paganists – those who rejected Christianity in toto as foreign and corrupting – and demonstrates that this was not just a conflict over religion, but over the very meaning of Nazi ideology itself.

The work of a crank? Well, when one reads extracts from reviews like this one by Richard Evans (Regius Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge), you are inclined to think not:

‘There has been a huge amount of research on the attitude of the Christian Churches to the Nazis and their policies, but astonishingly until now there has been no thorough study of the Nazis’ own religious beliefs. Richard Steigmann-Gall has now provided it. He has trawled through a lot of very turgid literature to show that active Nazis from the leadership down to the lower levels of the party were bitterly opposed to the Catholic Church, but had a much more ambivalent attitude to Protestantism and to Christianity in a wider sense … Far from being uniformly anti-Christian, Nazism contained a wide variety of religious beliefs, and Steigmann-Gall has performed a valuable service in providing a meticulously documented account of them in all their bizarre variety.’

The book’s introduction is online here, and it concludes with these words:

“For many of its leaders, Nazism was not the result of a “Death of God” in secularized society, but rather a radicalized and singularly horrific attempt to preserve God against secularized society.”

I’ll have to actually read the book (of course!) before coming to any judgement. On the basis of its introduction, however, it seems that some of my own assumptions about this whole topic may well not emerge unscathed. Much more importantly, to the extent that the author’s arguments hold up, they will (again) raise the question of what the pope, who must be assumed to be well-versed in these matters, thought he was doing when he described Nazism as an atheist creed.

I note, incidentally, that among the reviews extracted by the publishers is one by Michael Burleigh, a fine historian of the Third Reich, a great historian of ‘political religion’, a conservative and, I should add, a devout Roman Catholic. The extract reads as follows:

‘The Holy Reich is both deeply researched and thoughtfully argued. It is the first comparative analysis of the religious beliefs of leading Nazis and a timely reminder of the intimate relations between liberal Protestantism and National Socialism. This is an important and original book by a talented young scholar that deserves as wide a readership as possible.’

So many books, so little time.

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Godwin’s Pope?

Here’s a curious passage from the first speech that the pope made on arriving in Britain:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society…As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’ (Caritas in Veritate, 29).”

Why curious? Because of this phrase:

“a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”

The pope is not only a clever and highly-educated man, he is also someone who grew into adolescence under the Third Reich. He will thus know perfectly well that the Nazi attitude towards religion is a highly complex topic. It is true, of course, that a number of leading Nazis were atheists. It is also true that the Nazi accommodation with Germany’s Christian churches was largely a matter of cynical political calculation (at its core National Socialism was profoundly anti-Christian), but if and when the time came to replace Christianity the best guess is that the regime would have adopted some form of neo-paganism rather than the nominal atheism of the Soviet or Communist Chinese states. At the same time (and as discussed before on this site), Hitler himself does not appear to have been an atheist, and atheism was not something required of those in his inner circle.

None of this would be news to Benedict, so why then did he say what he did?

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Jean Vianney

Author and historian John Cornwell may be a Roman Catholic but, as his writings frequently reveal, he is no great friend of the Vatican, something that always has to be remembered when reading his commentaries on that particular institution. Nevertheless I was intrigued by his description (in a Guardian piece from yesterday) of Jean Vianney, a nineteenth century French parish priest being pushed by the current pope as some sort of role model for today’s clergy:

Vianney, born in 1786, worked as a farm labourer until called into Napoleon’s army. He went awol but amnesty was declared for deserters and, though virtually illiterate, he entered the seminary. He was appointed priest of Ars in the Rhônes-Alpes – a parish that was, according to his view, sunk in sin. In fact his parishioners were sunk in toil, hardship and poverty. Occasionally they drank and danced in the tavern – for Vianney, “the house of the devil, and the market where souls are lost”.

Dancing was a prelude to sexual sin. He paid the bar owner to move away, so that dancing would be abolished. Remove the temptation and you remove the sin, that was his take-home message. When he discovered that village children were scrumping apples from his orchard, he chopped down the trees. He obliged the children to come at six every morning to be instructed in the catechism, to be learned by heart.

To prevent his own susceptibility to sin, Vianney whipped himself nightly with a scourge made of bits of metal, leaving blood up the wall for his housekeeper to clean up. Next to his skin he wore a hair shirt, a metal chain, and a tight cord or discipline. He slept on the stone-flagged floor with a log for a pillow. He rose repeatedly during the night to pray face down in the church.
These activities, he believed, warded off the devil, who constantly, he claimed, tormented him with noises and on one occasion set his bed on fire. For food he would cook a pan of potatoes, and eat them cold through the week. Sometimes he ate grass as a supplement. At the end of the week there would be a few rotten potatoes left which he devoured before boiling up a new pan.

The villagers now spent their free time in church listening to his sermons, which mainly featured the devil and the torments of hell. He convinced his parishioners of the need for frequent confession. Eventually he was spending 14 hours a day in the confessional. If a parishioner was known to have danced he would refuse absolution. Vianney turned himself into a rabid ascetic and his village into a monastic gulag.

An accurate account? Well, judging from a quick wander around the Web looking into the life of this most peculiar saint (he was canonized in the 1920s), pretty much so. Here’s an extract from an admiring account of his life:

One meal sufficed him for the whole day. He abstained from alcohol except wine at holy Mass and normally ate only a little black bread and one or two potatoes cooked in water: he would prepare sufficient of these to last him the whole week, keeping them in an earthenware pan, and often they were covered with a coating of mold. Frequently he fasted for a whole day until, overcome, he would collapse from physical weakness. In view of this mode of life he had no need, of course, of a housekeeper – apart from the fact that his house stood almost empty anyway. Since he considered that his self-mortification was all too inadequate, he had a special penitential garment made, which he wore next to his skin, and which, by reason of the constant friction against his body, was soon stained a reddish brown. For the most part he slept on a bare mattress when he was not sleeping on a bundle of wood down in the cellar.

St. John Vianney’s assiduity in the confessional and the hardships entailed thereby would, of themselves, have sufficed to raise him to high sanctity. However, he thirsted for mortifications as others thirst for pleasure, and he never had his fill of penance. He laid on himself the sacrifice never to enjoy the fragrance of a flower, never to taste fruit nor to drink, were it only a few drops of water, during the height of the summer heat. He would not brush away a fly that importuned him. When on his knees he would not rest his elbows on the kneeling bench. He had made a law unto himself never to show any dislike, and to hide all natural repugnances. He mortified the most legitimate curiosity: thus he never expressed so much as a wish to see the railway which passed by Ars at a distance of a few kilometers, and which daily brought him so many visitors. During the whole of his priestly life he never indulged in any light reading, not even that of a newspaper. The Annals of the Propagation of the Faith are the only periodical that he ever perused.

A curious choice of role model, I have to say.

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