Archive for June, 2012

Good ‘Christian’ novel: 30 June

June 30, 2012

A holiday reading recommendation: Romola by George Eliot.

Romola  takes you to Florence, between 1494 and 1498. Romola is a young noblewoman. Her life is tragically, although somewhat tangentially, linked to the life of the monk and reformer of Church and State, Savonarola.

Romola the book takes you engagingly into a more colourful, world. The plot moves on with interesting twists. As always, Eliot writes with huge sympathy for all her characters, the good and the not so good, explaining their motives, allowing them to express themselves fully and distinctly. Great themes are explored: self-interest and self-sacrifice, Classical philosophy and Christian faith, the possibility and process of democratic, anti-aristocratic, reform.

Romola, my Penguin edition Introduction assures us, is historically accurate. Eliot writes with a wealth of detail about medieval Florence, for which the notes are useful. It is possible also to gain the full gist of the story with only half understanding most of the references, not having to turn often to the back. Eliot writes with a mid 19th century expansiveness and slight ponderousness. Neither she nor her culture had embraced the narrative of short bursts to which, thanks to cinema and television, we are accustomed. Reading Romola is engaging not only with 15th century Florence, but with the slower mindset of the 19th century.

Romola shows its age. Characters speak at unrealistic length. Melodramatic coincidences intrude into the detailed reality. (Both here and in other novels Eliot uses boats, rivers, seas, as magical elements.) Eliot’s comments could have been edited down. I find her repeated mention of her characters’ ‘natures’, which explain and justify their attitudes and actions, both at odds with a story in which choices are important and a little tedious.

Romola also strongly, mostly through the narrative, portrays Christian, fallible, faith, as a force for good in the world. I think this is one reason why Eliot chose, and stuck with, her male pen name, as well as recognising the perceived male gravitas. As an unknown man, she could write more freely and positively of faith than her ‘cultured despisers of religion’ friends would like.

Early in Romola a monk speaks a prophetic vision which comes to pass. The learning of the Greek and Latin classics, which, to cultured Florentines and Victorians alike, was seen as the best education, is portrayed as morally incoherent and dubious, leading only to educated self-interest. The other-worldliness of the Christian religious, derided by the aristocratic classicists, is shown to be a surer motive for life.

Savonarola is a central and admired figure. His genuine divine inspiration is attested to not only by his supporters, but by his ministry to Romola which depends on what would be called today an accurate ‘word of knowledge’. Savonarola is dramatically highlighted by an opposite central character, Romola’s husband. The husband’s selfish scheming shows up the selfless steadfastness of the monk. Romola sees Savonaroa’s great flaw but comes at the end to revere him.

The views of Romola and of Eliot the author coincide. They share a similar attachment to both Christianity and classical philosophy. For Romola the classics were her original education after which she was drawn powerfully to Christianity by the inspiration of Savonarola. For Eliot evangelical Christianity was her original education, in which she saw too many human flaws, and was led to a more detached, classically influenced scepticism. But Eliot retained admiration for the genuine inspiration of John Wesley and others like him. She moved away from early Methodist emphasis on individual conversion and repentance to a later Methodist championing of the need to love our neighbour as ourselves, the Methodism which so inspired the early Labour Party. She recognised, not least in Romola, that the true root of such beneficial democracy was not in the Classics but in Christ.

Eliot ends by commending Savonarola for the inspiration he gave to selfless living and to democracy. She portrays old Florence as a fascinating seed-bed of contemporary politics. We see the competing claims of the stability of the status quo overseen by the wealthy and the deep corruption of the status quo seen by the democratic reformers. We are reminded that our democracy was instigated not by those steeped in Greek and Roman tradition, but by radical, reforming Christians.

We see also the perils of reforming politics. The story shows us the temptation to use ignoble means to a noble perceived end.  In Florence there was a strong personality for the people to follow and the temptation, not least to the man himself, of a developing personality cult. We see the enthusiasm of the people when they are treated as responsible and vote-worthy and the destructiveness of the people when they are led and manipulated as a mob. The perils are outweighed, in Romola, by historical hints from Eliot that the arguments and work of the flawed and failed reformer Savonarola were taken up later by others, by Luther and Wesley and many less famous, to help create the freer democracy we enjoy now.

I was not keen at first to read Romola, not having any initial interest in medieval Italy. But the book was on our shelves and I gave it a try. I am glad I did. Romola has been an enjoyable, engaging, memorable, thought-provoking read.

Roger Harper

Advertisements

Hell on Radio Nottingham: 21 June

June 21, 2012

Radio Nottingham this week took an instant interest in The Lie of Hell. Following a Press Release sent on Tuesday evening, I was on the breakfast programme today, Thursday. This is a general programme, not religious, certainly not Christian. See www.bbc.co.uk/radionottingham  Go to Listen Again, Andy Whittaker 21/06/12. My interview is 1 hour 20 mins into the programme.

Andy Whittaker, the presenter, began with the definition of hell from Collins Dictionary making clear that hell has satan as its ruler. It is amazing that this is the opposite of what Jesus said when He talked of ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’ In Jesus’ eternal fire, which He named Gehenna, the devil is the victim.

Andy had done his homework and asked me lively, serious, relevant questions.

‘What do you say hell is? It was great to be able to explain to a general audience that Jesus talked of 2 places, Hades and Gehenna. Andy later referred to me talking of the fire in which the wicked are burnt to a crisp. That’s a fair description of Gehenna. Andy also grasped that, before the fire, before the Final Judgement, there’s a nasty prison called Hades. He could see that what has happened is that the fire and the prison have been combined to form an eternal fiery prison. That’s the Big Mistake. Once we realise that when Jesus talked or Hades and Gehenna, He was talking about 2 different places, the truth follows.

Who put the two together? There’s a whole chapter on this in The Lie of Hell. Briefly, hell as eternal torment came from different philosophies and influences outside Christianity.

‘So at the Final Judgement, people could be released?’ asked Andy. ‘It’s better than that!’ I was delighted to reply. Jesus has the keys of Hades. He left it to us to work out what that means – that He has full right of access to Hades and can take people out of Hades well before the Final Judgement. This ‘second chance beyond death’ is most controversial to some Christians.

Does this take away a main point of becoming a Christian? There’s no hell so nothing to be saved from? All of us need Jesus to save us from Hades. The Church has exaggerated Hades into hell, but there is still a nasty fate from which Jesus can rescue us.  No sane person would want to be in Hades even half an hour.  After death, Christian souls live is Paradise / Heaven instead of in Hades.

Isn’t it about being a good person, not which religion we follow? Yes indeed! Jesus and the Bible are clear that we will all be judged on what we have done to others. We will then all need forgiveness and that forgiveness comes only from Jesus. Thank God that forgiveness is available now.

Andy Whittaker invited listeners to respond with their comments. Listeners proved that this is a subject of wide interest:

‘How do we know there is anything beyond death? Isn’t death just the end of everything? Isn’t heaven and hell different for different people? We know from Jesus, the most widely respected teacher in human history and across the world today. We know from people who have had ‘near-death experiences’ of both Paradise and Hades, of intense light and of horrendous darkness. These experiences have much in common across different cultures and beliefs.

For more detail on all these questions, and more, see The Lie of Hell – www.laddermedia.co.uk

Andy also invited listeners to make less serious comments: ‘Hell is ironing.’ ‘Hell would be waking up in a Derby County shirt.’ The weather forecaster also joined in – 12 hours of rain, on Midsummer’s Day, today, is ‘hellish.’

The main point, as I tried to explain, is that the God and Father of Jesus is more loving, kinder, than He has been made out to be.

Roger Harper

Theologian Bishop plays Dylan: 7 June

June 7, 2012

Edward Fudge, the great Bible teacher on hell, has recommended that we watch Tom Wright sing Bob Dylan: http://vimeo.com/41782945

I saw this just after reading John McCarthy’s account of being welcomed back to England after 5 years as a hostage, 4 ½ of them chained to a wall, in Lebanon:

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’

The comments are fun

is there anything Tom CAN’T do?!

I did hear that NT Wright and Superman once arm wrestled and the loser had to wear his underwear on the outside of his pants!

Roger

 

Immortality and the Origin of Hell: 4 June

June 4, 2012

Welcome also to readers from Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, India, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Sweden and Taiwan. It’s mind-blowing that you have all visited. I wish I could know more about you, picture you…

Recording for Unbelievable on Premier Radio was a delight – such nice people. Stephen Cave had beforehand ordered a copy of The Lie of Hell  which had been lost in the delivery system of the flat where he had been staying. Before recording, he asked me lots of hellish questions, showing a kind and knowledgeable interest. We continued being very kind to each other in front of the mikes. I wonder if I was too kind.

Stephen Cave makes much of the secondary question about resurrection – how exactly can it / will it work? He ignores the primary question – did Jesus really walk out of his own tomb? In his book there is no discussion of the historicity of the resurrection. I said that the historical resurrection of Jesus is the main point but did not challenge Stephen about avoiding it.

I was delighted that Stephen confirmed categorically that the concept of the immortal soul was imported from Platonism and not part of Jesus’ teaching, nor of the earliest Christianity. Hell as eternal torment is built on the assumption that human souls are immortal. If not all of such souls are eternally in heaven, there must be another place for them eternally, suffering punishment for ever and ever. When we see that human souls are not innately immortal, hell as eternal torment is revealed as a lie.

Stephen Cave, the atheist / sceptic, went so far as to say that the doctrine of the eternal soul contradicts the miraculous, gift—of-God, nature of resurrection. If our souls are eternal anyway, we don’t need resurrection In order to live for ever. In rising from the dead, Jesus has done something new, started a new creation, given immortality to people who never had it before.

Other scholars have pointed to Platonism as the foreign import to Christianity leading to the distortion of eternal torment. The Zoroastriansim of Augustine’s background also contributed. Yet, for many years after Augustine, the nature of hell, the fate of the unrepentant wicked, was still a matter of debate. The ancient tradition of ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ – showing hell to be a place from which Jesus can rescue people – continued alongside and in contrast to Augustine’s concept of a hell with no end and no escape. Yet by the time of Dante, Augustine’s view had won the day. Hell’s gate proclaimed ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ Hell was no longer harrowable. What had been a continuing matter of debate was now fixed hard in Church doctrine and Dante was deemed inspired by the Holy Spirit.

How did this happen? My research shows that Islam was the final influence from outside Christianity which firmly fixed the doctrine of eternal torment. Because the Koran is so certain that hell is a doom of eternal suffering, Christian theologians also proclaimed hell with more certainty. This is a new insight. Hell is a Graeco-Roman, Zoroastrian, Islamic lie. For more detail see the book.

The Lie of Hell can now be bought from Blackwells, Nottingham, Oxford and Cambridge, and from the bookshop at the London School of Theology. You can also buy it from Ladder Media Ltd either at www.laddermedia.co.uk or through Amazon.co.uk. I recommend you don’t order it from Amazon themselves. A friend tried, remonstrated several times with them for not supplying it, gave up, and now has a copy direct instead.

Roger Harper

Immortality: The Radio Discussion

June 1, 2012

Premier Christian Radio in London have a programme on Saturday afternoons where an atheist and a Christian talk about a matter of faith. This week I am the Christian, discussing with Stephen Cave his new book ‘Immortality.’ You can listen in London or on UK Digital Radio at 2.30pm and thereafter on the web: http://www.premierradio.org.uk/unbelievable  Comments welcome.