Thursday, 7 April 2011

The gospels as infomercials

Years ago, the publisher Canongate produced a series of “Pocket Canons”; individual books from the Bible (authorised King James version) published in bite-sized separate editions. It’s a good idea; although the language of the Authorised Version is a joy to read or hear, bound into one book, it’s easy to be put off by the sheer bulk of the whole Bible (along with some of the more impenetrable proverbs, exhaustive rules and, regulations and the tedious lists of “so-and begat so-and-so; and so-and so begat so-and so, yea, even unto the nth generation…”).

I decided to take some Pocket Canons down from the bookshelf recently, in order to read the four canonical gospels in the (probable) order they were written. I wasn’t motivated by anything more than a vague curiosity about Christianity’s source material and how the story had developed and changed through four iterations.

Slipping the tiny volume into a pocket to read on a train, or taking it off the bedside table, where it takes up little more space than a drinks mat, is a curiously liberating experience. It puts you in a much more equal relationship with the text, in a way you never are when listening to a few de-contextualised passages being quoted by somebody trying to make a point, or when the rest of your hefty Bible silently sneers at you because you’ve only read about 25 pages out of 1,200-odd, you lightweight.

Each of the Pocket Canons has a short introduction from a well-known figure (some religious, some not). Some of these commentaries might be interesting, but I didn’t purposely read them, as the whole purpose of the exercise was to read the original stories without the overlay of commentary. Of course, it’s hard to deliberately not read things and my eye slipped over Nick Cave’s introduction to Mark. I don’t think it detracted very much from my reading – the gist of it was that Nick was an Anglican who’d been turned off by the namby-pamby  “gentle Jesus meek and mild” presented to him in Sunday school, but had been re-engaged when an Anglican vicar suggested he read the spare, lean, direct account of Jesus’ life in Mark. He has faith, I don’t, but his comments were quite interesting. Fair enough, I thought, and read Mark.

After Mark, Matthew. This had an intro by A N Wilson. Again, I wasn’t intending to read the intro, but I skimmed over it. This time I didn’t think ‘fair enough’ but thought the commentary was frustrating and annoying. Although I hadn’t intended to get side-tracked, Wilson’s comments are worth thinking about, because they highlight an enormous gulf of understanding between a lot of mainstream believers and non-believers. It’s possible that he was making a subtle point that I’m too dense to understand, but to me his thinking sounded confused and evasive. Whoever’s right or wrong, it’s worth examining what the problem is.

Wilson rhetorically supposes that the reader, born into a ‘post-Christian age, into a world of newspapers and investigative reporting and science’ will look at Matthew’s account of the virgin birth, the journey of the Magi, the various miracles and the resurrection and ask ‘is it true?’

He then tells the reader not to ask this question. Wilson says that although it seems reasonable to ask whether specific events in Matthew’s account are literally true, asking the question ‘can lead only to the most pointless, arid negativism.’

‘Your educated, scientific, modern mind’ says Wilson, ‘will decide that no one ever walked on water; no Virgin ever conceived; that corpses do not come to life.’ True enough. I’m no expert in hydrodynamics, obstetrics or (thankfully), death, but my experience of the world and what I’ve been taught and read suggest that such things don’t happen. But according to Wilson, if we make the mistake of ‘rejecting the Gospel’ because we think these are intelligent reasons to doubt it, we are in fact just ‘too hemmed in by our imaginative limitations to see the sort of things this book is doing’, and risk ‘rejecting one of the most extraordinary books ever written.’

Instead of applying ‘supposedly rational’ tests to the text, he suggests that we should think about Matthew in the context of Bach’s sublime setting in the St Matthew Passion or ‘old women in Stalin’s Russia … who stubbornly continued to chant the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount in defiance of the KGB.’ He goes on to extol the power and passion of the Gospel, in all its terrible wonder, its truthfulness and its self-contradiction. He speaks of irreconcilables, ‘rather than being fudged’ being ‘held together in self-contradiction’ whatever that means. He tells us that the author did not attempt to write a realistic, post-enlightenment history, but crucially fails to say directly what the author did write.

The point I think he’s trying to make is that there is some sort of deeper truth than historical truth and forms of understanding that transcend mere facts and if we don’t appreciate this, we’re missing something important.

I agree that you don’t have to take everything in the world literally, or on face value, but I can’t for the life of me, see how the key events related in the gospels can be anything other than either true or false. There are, of course, parts of the Gospels that are neither. When Jesus told parables about vineyards, or of seed falling on good earth or stony ground, or the widow’s mite, nobody this side of the extreme end of the autistic spectrum would think of asking about the real vineyard, field or widow. They’re made up stories, intended to illustrate a point. Everybody knows that. We all get it; that’s why nobody objects that foxes and pigs don’t really talk when reading Aesop or Animal Farm. It’s fiction with a point, it doesn’t pretend to be anything else and there are few people so imaginatively limited that they don’t understand this.

In more general terms, you can learn lots of things from literature and art, even when the story being told is the figment of somebody’s imagination. Empathy, seeing the world through different eyes, dealing with difficult situations, the nature of heroism and cowardice, prejudice, honesty and deceit, that thing we call love, loss, the nature of society, they’re all in there. You can be moved, changed or enlightened by a fictional story in a book, or a film, TV, radio, the theatre without the story being literally true or the characters ever having actually existed. But here’s the important point – those works of fiction are clearly labelled and you look for them on the fiction shelves. You watch a film and words like these pop up on the screen:

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The Gospels contain no such disclaimer. If we exclude parables and proverbs that are clearly not meant to be taken literally, we’re still left with a narrative. The events in it are either true or they are not. Maybe I’m imaginatively limited, but I can’t see how they can be neither, or both. Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t. He either walked on water or he didn’t. He died and rose again, or just died. Either there is a God or there isn’t. If there is, either Jesus was his son or he wasn’t.

There are religious people who aren’t worried by this. Fundamentalists, who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. This position contradicts a consistent meticulously-constructed account of how the world works that’s been painstakingly pieced together over two thousand years of patient observation and discovery, but at least it’s consistent – the Bible is true and anything that says different, ain’t. Of course, even if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, you still have to deal with the Ned Flanders problem of internal inconsistency:

Why me, Lord? Where have I gone wrong? I've always been nice to people. I don't drink or dance or swear. I've even kept Kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.
Or, as A N Wilson put it:

The irreconcilables rather than being fudged are held together in self-contradiction.

Nope, I still don’t understand. Is A N Wilson saying something really clever here, something I’m too dim to grasp, or is he just Ned Flanders gone to college?

But most religious folk aren’t Ned Flanders. They accept that not all of the Bible, or all of the Gospels can be literally true. Fair enough – every historian, every person who hears or reads a news report has to deal with distortions, errors and omissions. It doesn’t invalidate a belief in the reality of historical events or current affairs. Neither does it absolve us from having some sort of view, however provisional about what’s true and what isn’t. However powerfully written an account of some event is, however influential, it is either fact or fiction.

I just don’t get the distinction that Wilson makes between ‘a realistic narrative of the kind that we might expect of a post-enlightenment historian’ and the vaguely-defined alternative kind of narrative that he implies the gospels must be. Sure, a lot has changed in two thousand years, but it seems unlikely that the nature of events has changed, such that things could simultaneously happen and not happen at the time of Christ.

Rather than thinking about allegedly real events in the context of literature, which seems like a category error to me, perhaps it would be better to think about events in the Bible as if we were a jury, trying to decide what had probably happened. Legal systems may have changed, but then, as now, people were judging their fellows for alleged crimes and had some idea that the accused either had or hadn’t committed a certain act. There have been documented legal systems since Hammurabi drew up his code in about 1,700BC. Leviticus is famously full of laws. The Jesus of the gospels is all too aware of law.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
Matthew 5:17

Then, as now, people didn’t have perfect knowledge, but if somebody was accused of a crime they’d go through some sort of process to establish what had actually happened. Even if there is, or was, insufficient evidence to know whodunnit, people then, as now, knew that something either happened or didn't happen.

Let’s say that the body of X is found in a ditch, showing obvious signs of violent assault. Y is brought to trial for the crime. Maybe there’s enough evidence to convict Y, maybe not. But in those circumstances, people would know they had to decide whether or not Y’s guilt could be reasonably established. They would know that he must be either guilty or innocent. There might be mitigating factors, self-defence, being of unsound mind, whatever, but there’s no getting round the fact that X has been killed and Y either did do it or didn’t do it.

There might be a world of cultural difference between a judge trying to decide such a case in First Century Jerusalem and the members of a modern jury, but all would have an idea of literal truth and objective reality – Y either battered X to death or Y didn’t. Regardless of mitigating circumstances or insufficient evidence, the objective truth is out there. Maybe there’s enough evidence to pronounce judgement or maybe there isn’t, but Y either did it or didn’t do it. There’s no ever-so-subtle pre-enlightenment world where a Judge might think ‘you know what, actually, it’s wrong to even ask whether it’s true that Y killed X; it may seem like a reasonable question, but asking it would lead me into the most pointless, arid negativism.’

Yes, the gospels have inspired great literature and art, along with debates about morality, authority and the individual conscience, they’ve caused people to impose and challenge systems of government, given comfort to the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable (and sometimes vice versa), they are the basis of the most widespread religion on earth, and they contain great poetry. None of which is relevant to questioning the assertions that Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, was crucified and rose from the dead. These events either happened, or they didn’t and A N Wilson hasn’t made an understandable case that convinces me it’s somehow wrong to even ask whether or not these things are true.

Wilson seems all too typical of mainstream religious people. They think themselves too sophisticated and intelligent to accept the evidence-denying certainties of fundamentalists, so reject a too-literal interpretation of scripture. But when you ask them what they actually do believe, what they literally believe to be true, it’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Ask the direct question 'do you think X is literally true?’ and instead of a direct answer, you get a lecture on how simple-minded and limited your question is, without any coherent explanation of how an actual event can pull off the impressive trick of having both not happened, yet (in a very real sense), happened.

All of which is a bit annoying. People who ask simple, straightforward questions stand accused of being shallow and literal-minded, yet as far as I can see, the people making these accusations are fudging the issue, refusing to say what they believe and leaving the events recounted in the gospels in some sort of convenient limbo in between fact and fiction.

Once upon a time there was news, there were features and there were advertisements. News was a more or less accurate accounts of stuff that had happened. Features were more or less factual and informative articles about something or other. People trying to sell stuff wrote adverts. Simple. These days we have amphibious things called “infomercials”, things that look at first sight like informative features, but turn out to be thinly-disguised attempts to sell stuff. I don’t have a problem with adverts that come out and advertise that they are adverts. I ignore most of them, or, on the rare occasions that I see something advertising a good or service I’m interested in, I might take a look. Infomercials, though, are uniquely irritating – anodyne filler features, written in an attempt to flog something by sneakily flying in below your critical radar. I find their bland slipperiness particularly off-putting.

For all their talk of the wonder, power and majesty of the gospels, people who refuse to even engage with the question of whether specific events are likely to have been true are demoting the gospels to the status of infomercials in their fence-sitting attempt to have the best of both worlds. Is it a feature or an advertisement? Neither; it’s an informercial. The virgin birth – fact or fiction? Neither; it’s something that transcends your crude categories. To me this all smells of fudge and intellectual dishonesty.* My working theory is that the people who tell us that we’re asking the wrong question because our minds aren’t subtle enough just want to kick the question into the long grass because it’s too uncomfortable for them, or challenges their authority or preconceptions. If somebody can demonstrate in clear, understandable language that there's more to this subtle, truth-transcending, pre-enlightenment way of knowing than fudge and wooly language, I really would be interested to hear the point made clearly. Until then, I don't understand their point and I don't think it's my fault that I don't understand.

*which, coincidentally, are among the whacky ingredients that go into Heston Blumenthal’s radical re-invention of the  fairy cake, his first recipe to actually  include an abstract concept alongside the more traditional freeze-dried yew berries, bergamot oil with a hint of eau-de-cologne and tiny squares of gold leaf