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Reading several books at once may do your head in…

21 Sep

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.

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One response to “Reading several books at once may do your head in…

  1. Jim Belshaw

    September 21, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Three interesting choices, Neil. I had not come across the Axial age hypothesis before. The Wikipedia article is useful, but left me unsatisfied.

     

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