The one and only test

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience or devotional practice [is] that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine [makes] you kinder, more empathetic and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness this [is] good theology. But if your notion of God [makes] you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it [leads] you to kill in God’s name, it [is] bad theology.

Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

One fingernail at a time

When Christians try to exercise power as if it were God doing it, cruelty and suffering and tyranny follow swiftly. In short order, we get the steely-eyed monks of the Inquisition trying to drag the Moors and Jews of Spain into perfect orthodoxy, one fingernail at a time; we get the theocrats of Protestant New England hanging Quakers …; we get holy war, with weapons of ever-increasing sophistication. We get Guantánamo.

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

An evil book? C. J. Sansom on the book of Revelation

Revelation was the first C. J. Sansom book I have read, primarily because the plot is built largely around the seven bowls (or vials, as they are called in the King James Version) of judgement found in Revelation 15–16. I shall say more about the novel in an upcoming post, focusing on some of its comments on the book of Revelation for now. These comments are of particular interest to me, as Revelation is one of the biblical books that I am working on at the moment.

Sansom, a historian by training, has interesting things to say about how the book of Revelation was interpreted during the troublesome times of Henry VIII, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries and during the bitter conflicts between the radicals (i.e. those influenced by the Protestant reformers) and the conservatives (those wishing to preserve Catholic traditions).

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in conversations among the novel’s main characters is Revelation’s obscurity. Consider the following conversation between Barak, the assistant of Matthew Shardlake, the book’s protagonist, and the latter himself. They are discussing the seven bowls of judgement:

‘I remember our vicar reading about that once. I couldn’t follow it, it sounded like a mad dream.’
‘A mad dream. Yes, well put. …’

In another conversation they reflect on Revelation generally:

‘This book makes no sense,’ Barak said at length. ‘It tells the same story in different ways, different versions of how the world will end, angels and wars and vials. There is no …’
‘Narrative? I know. It is the only book in the New Testament that is so obscure.’

Indeed, the book’s obscurity is causing all kinds of problems, as Shardlake points out:

There are as many interpretations of Revelation as there are interpreters, each one saying his understanding is the true one. And most are ill-educated fanatics. This book is causing much trouble in the world.

It is Guy Malton, a doctor and ex-monk, who puts his finger on one of the key problems:

Thrown into a different world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal fact, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.

But it is not only the interpreters that are at fault. The book of Revelation itself is deemed to be deeply problematic, as both Matthew Shardlake and Guy Malton repeatedly suggest. This is how Shardlake characterises Revelation:

The last book of the Bible; full of wild, fiery, cruel language, hard to understand, unlike anything else in the New Testament. Erasmus and Luther both doubted whether Revelation was really the word of God …

He then goes on to stress how different this book is from the rest of the New Testament, especially ‘in its violence and cruelty, its representation of Jesus as God’s harsh judge, who holds the keys of hell and death’. Indeed, Revelation appals him:

I read its cruel barbarous message and I despair.

Malton, for his part, comments:

What an evil book it is, for it says that humanity is nothing, is worth nothing.

And so he concludes:

Christianity would be better without that book. It preaches nothing but cruelty and destruction. It teaches that the destruction of human beings does not matter, is even to be rejoiced over. It is evil.

That these characters express Sansom’s own views about the book of Revelation is confirmed by the ‘Historical Note’ that concludes the novel. Here Sansom talks about ‘a London increasingly divided between radical and conservative parishes’ and notes that:

the radicals, with their view of themselves as persecuted saints, often comforted themselves in the belief that Revelation foretold their eventual victory against the ‘Beast’ of Rome. Many believed then, exactly as Christian fundamentalists do today, that they lived in the ‘last days’ before Armageddon and, again just as now, saw signs all around in the world that they took as certain proof that the Apocalypse was imminent. Again like fundamentalists today, they looked on the prospect of the violent destruction of mankind without turning a hair. The remarkable similarity between the first Tudor Puritans and the fanatics among today’s Christian fundamentalists extends to their selective reading of the Bible, their emphasis on the Book of Revelation, their certainty of their rightness, even to their phraseology. Where the Book of Revelation is concerned, I share the view of Guy, that the early Church Fathers released something very dangerous on the world when, after much deliberation, they decided to include it in the Christian canon.

Most of what Sansom says, especially about fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation, is very well taken. But his novel also leaves us with the question whether the book of Revelation is indeed evil in and of itself. And that is one of the issues I shall have to ponder in the coming weeks, as I reflect, among other things, on ‘Revelation, Apocalyptic Worldview and Violence’.