Friday, June 24, 2011

The Raging Debates of our time By Gordon McLauchlan

Books on the Bible, religion in general, ethics  and the philosophy of everyday life are crowding the shelves of books shops.

          The reasons are manifold but are mainly that the world is in the grip of serious social, political and economic unease; the King James Bible is 400 years old this year; and public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are strutting their opinions in public in a way atheists have seldom dared before.
          These debates are healthy but we don’t have local versions, so we must attend to the words of foreigners.
          I have come across seven books in honour of the quatercentenary of the publication of the King James Bible. I have read four of them and have one more I would like to read.
           The latest salute to the great translation is The Book of Books (Hodder and Stoughton) by English cultural critic Melvyn Bragg; and what a disappointment it is. Uncharacteristically, Bragg charges breathlessly into the subject with unnecessary superlatives and insubstantial claims.
          First, he implies the Authorised Version was an instant and widespread success when published in 1611, which other, more scholarly accounts, suggest is not so. The Geneva Bible that preceded it held pride of place in churches and homes for decades after the new translation was published.
          He says, in a very Anglo-centric way, that the book has ‘a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written’. I am devoted fan of the great work but let’s say ‘pivotal’ means ‘of crucial and central importance ‘. I doubt it has, historically, had as much pivotal importance as the Analects of Confucius, the Koran and the Vedas.
          Then he makes the very dubious claim that among those ‘whose work and life had been shaped by the King James Bible’ was William Shakespeare. The playwright was forty-seven, five years from death, and had completed all his major work by 1611.
          Later in the book, Bragg tries to justify this claim by saying Shakespeare would have been brought up reading the Geneva Bible, which contained translation passages by the great linguist and writer William Tyndale, whose work also contributed to the later translation. That is a stretch, to say the least.
          Bragg also refers to ‘a teasing possibility that Shakespeare worked on Psalm 46’.  The teasing possibility is built on an alleged coded message in the Psalm, which puts the ‘possibility’ out there with Baconian mythology.
          So, although he writes briskly and well, flaws around things I know about make me nervous about what he offers that I don’t know about.

          The most reliable and readable of the four commentaries I have read so far is Bible by Gordon Campbell, published by Oxford University Press. Campbell also edited a new version of the 1611 text.
          Meanwhile,  the British scholar, A C Grayling, has produced what he calls a ‘secular Bible’, The Good Book (Bloomsbury), an easy to read book deeply steeped in philosophical and religious texts. Its brief, numbered chapters resemble the format of the Bible and it is an instructive book.

          In an age when people have been largely freed from the strict authority of church and conventions, Grayling is among a few philosophers who have concerned themselves with offering advice to people as they face everyday moral and ethical dilemmas. His latest is Thinking of Answers (Bloomsbury), a book at once learned, sensible and accessible.
          In the foreground of debates about ethics and religion are the blunt and energetic books by atheists, most notably The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and god Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Both had a huge impact on conventional beliefs in both the US and Britain, and Hitchens followed it up with a public debate in Toronto, Canada, with the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Blair converted to Catholicism when he retired from leadership and claimed in his memoir, A Journey, that religion had always been more important to him than politics.

          Immediately after the debate, which Hitchens won comfortably according to the audience, Allen and Unwin published, Hitchens Vs Blair, the Debate of Our Time, from a transcript. It is a riveting read in which Hitchens, terminally ill with cancer, emerges as briskly penetrating in his argument and Blair as --- inevitably I suppose -- defensive, and occasionally unctuous.
          But the field has not been left to the unbelievers alone. A British philosopher and Christian, Keith Ward, has written Is Religion Irrational? (Lion Books) in which he attacks the aggressiveness of the new surge of atheism, and claims that a strong belief in God is actually more reasonable than the case for atheism, even in the modern world of scientific progress.
          Ward is a fellow of the British Academy, a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and has held professorships at both Oxford and King’s College, London. Readers of this book will emerge with an amplified understanding of religion. His case is well made, especially on the subject of evolution and the often argued issue of God and the presence in the world of evil.
          Faith, he says, ‘is concerned  in a much more practical way with identifying the nature and causes of existential discontent, identifying a goal of intrinsic value, and implementing a particular way of realising that goal…there is no doubt that religion calls for more introspective self-analysis and practical commitment to a way of life than does most philosophy.’

          After reading all this material, my position remains charged but unchanged. On the issue of atheism, my answer is Shakesperian: ‘Nothing comes from nothing.’  On faith, I am unpersuaded.

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based writer and commentator, and occasional reviewer on this blog. Photo right - NZ Herald.

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