My book club group met the other night to discuss William Manchester’s book A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. The title is something of a misnomer. It’s only a “portrait of an age” if you want to read a thousand years of medieval history crammed into a single chapter, and written in a style that’s a cross between the National Enquirer (in its pre-Carol Burnett, dishonest days) and Vanity Fair (in “full disdain for conservative shibboleths” mode). The book is distinguished by being salacious, ill-informed, and anti-Catholic — and it is, for a history book, a very easy read. I think all these factors explain why it is a regular part of high school and college curricula.
Of course, not all of Manchester’s book is a biased muddle. One of the things he does well is to describe the way in which the Roman world, with its Christian sub-set, collided with the pagan world. This collision, and the subsequent “conversion” of the pagans, resulted in the medieval Catholic faith.
The word conversion in the previous paragraph deserves those scare quotes because most of those conversions did not involve informed people making a genuine commitment to the new Christian faith. Instead, the vast majority of those conversions were nominal only. If a pagan king converted, all of his subjects “converted” too, although few, if any of them, embraced Christianity’s teachings — including monotheism and the acceptance of Christ as their savior.
The end result was that these newly baptized Christians, many of whom inevitably ended up working within the Church itself, simply grafted their still-existing pagan beliefs onto the completely unfamiliar gospels. Sometimes this grafting was innocuous. an good example was the way in which Christ’s birth, which didn’t have a fixed date in the Bible, ended up getting blended with the date of a pagan winter celebration. No harm, no foul. Sometimes this grafting was magnificent, since the doctrine of transubstantiation put a final end to the pagan obsession with both animal and human sacrifice. I don’t know about you, but I consider that one of the greatest leaps forward in human civilization.
Sometimes, however, the intermingling of paganism and Christianity was quite damaging. The specific damage I’m thinking of is the way the pagans co-opted Christianity as an arm of the state. I don’t need to remind any of you that this was not Christ’s intent. He anticipated the founding fathers by more than 1,700 years when he said “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21.) In the pagan world, however, church and state had long been inextricably intertwined, and the newly Christianized pagan rulers continued to believe that religion and the state were one and the same.
This meant that pagan political and social ideologies were woven into Christian doctrine. Now, I’m not Christian, and I haven’t read the New Testament closely in about 30 years, but I’m pretty darn sure that Christ never talked about the Augustinian notion of forced conversions and the merits of religious war, about death for heretics, about saints and relics, or about myriad other practices and procedures that became regular fare, both inside and outside of the walls of the medieval church. Christ’s silence notwithstanding, all of these beliefs and practices became, in the minds of the common people, core religious doctrine, inseparable from Christ’s teachings. In other words, popular culture became one with the Gospels, never mind what the Gospels themselves actually said.
Anyway, that’s my take on the worst excesses of the medieval Catholic church, excesses that were cleared away by both the Protestant reformation and by the Catholic Church’s own counter reformation in the wake of the 16th century upheavals. While Christianity may ostensibly have been in the ascendant by the 6th century or so, the fact is that paganism itself didn’t really vanish for another 1,000 years.
And where does Anne Rice come into all of this? She comes in because, after her much-heralded “kiss and make up” with the church of her childhood (an announcement that allowed her to publicize a new line of books imagining Christ’s life), she’s now in the process of a much-heralded “break up” from the church of her childhood. On facebook (what better place to discuss faith), she announces thusly (emphasis mine):
I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
In other words, Rice is upset that the Christian churches refuse to layer over Christ’s teachings the beliefs of modern liberalism. Just as the pagan rulers wanted (and were able to) overlay their political and religious belief systems directly onto Christ’s original message, Anne Rice wants to put the modern Democratic playbook into Christ’s mouth.
The Bible (Old Testament and New, together) was written over the course of almost about 1,500 years, with the first 1,000 years encompassing the Old Testament, followed by a few centuries’ pause, followed by the short window in time during which the New Testament came into being. There are, therefore, thousands of ideas and edicts in the combined books of the Bible, although I’d argue that the core tenets that inform modern Judeo-Christian culture are the Ten Commandments and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
However, much to Rice’s manifest distress, in all those books, and all those hundreds of years, neither God, nor the Prophets, nor Christ himself remembered to say the following:
We will lead to defeat the epochal, man-made threat to the planet: climate change. Without dramatic changes, rising sea levels will flood coastal regions around the world. Warmer temperatures and declining rainfall will reduce crop yields, increasing conflict, famine, disease, and poverty. By 2050, famine could displace more than 250 million people worldwide. That means increased instability in some of the most volatile parts of the world. Never again will we sit on the sidelines, or stand in the way of collective action to tackle this global challenge. Getting our own house in order is only a first step. We will invest in efficient and clean technologies at home while using our assistance policies and export promotions to help developing countries preserve biodiversity, curb deforestation, and leapfrog the carbonenergy-intensive stage of development.
We will reach out to the leaders of the biggest carbon emitting nations and ask them to join a new Global Energy Forum that will lay the foundation for the next generation of climate protocols. China has replaced America as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Clean energy development must be a central focus in our relationships with major countries in Europe and Asia. We need a global response to climate change that includes binding and enforceable commitments to reducing emissions, especially for those that pollute the most: the United States, China, India, the European Union, and Russia.
This challenge is massive, but rising to it will also bring new benefits to America. By 2050, global demand for low-carbon energy could create an annual market worth $500 billion. Meeting that demand would open new frontiers for American entrepreneurs and workers.
You may recognize that language as coming directly from the Democratic Party platform for 2008. When Rice castigates the Church for being “anti-Democrat”, it’s pretty obvious that she thinks that modern Christian Churches ought to make the above words part of their official doctrinal position, tracing them right back to the Sermon on the Mount.
In other words, Rice is a neo-Pagan. She doesn’t want to take the Bible on its own terms. Instead, she wants to graft her own belief systems right onto the Bible. This is quite different from our (appropriate) modern decisions to ignore some of the Bible’s more difficult passages, such as its instructions to kill witches. Cherry-picking a little is one thing. Doing what the pagans did, and simply grafting non-Biblical values on top the old, is something else entirely.
UPDATE: The Anchoress, who has a deep and rich knowledge of Catholicism, and an abiding love for the faith, takes Rice to task for her silly outburst. Bruce Kesler weighs in too, quite beautifully, in both poetry and prose.
UPDATE II: Since I opened this post by saying that William Manchester’s anti-Catholic diatribe is required reading at many schools, this seems like an appropriate place to link to a take-down of Howard Zinn, who dominates America’s U.S. History studies.