Monday, 28 March 2016

It's too early for Easter!

I haven't had a rant about organised religion for ages. So, as it's Easter, what better way to get through the day without gorging on chocolate bunnies and eggs, fillet beef and Margaux and the latest episode of Thirteen than to examine, as I sometimes do, why people have such curious beliefs.

I will, however, be serving with the net up and returning likewise and I would expect you to have the courtesy to do the same. I will not seek to dissuade you from your faith since faith is an illogical response to what is, in essence, not amenable to rational discourse. Nor will I seek to persuade you that one particular God is preferable to others, although there are a plethora to choose from. Nor will I make an attempt to convince you that such an infinite God, an omniscent, omnipresent, all loving and omnicompentant being, makes no more sense than the fairies that may exist at the bottom of my garden. To be as infinite a God as most religions profess, full of omni-this and omni-that, he or she, would have to embody all those properties, which define their opposite; a stupid, all-hating, vengeful God, who was neither here nor there and was supremely incompetant. A bit like the Old Testament God, now I come to think of it, who screwed up so often that he was forever 'starting over'.

No. As it is Easter, we shall look at the Passion and the Resurrection.

I will start by saying that I hope you will agree that the early Church Fathers had vested interests; if you do not agree with that statement then I am playing with a busted flush and I might as well go back to An American in Paris and the beautiful Leslie Caron and leave it at that. I already have a short piece about Snorri Sturlasson prepared, which I can use as a substitute.

In playing the vested interest card, I am saying that the early Church Fathers, who had faith, had an interest in getting their brand of religion accepted by the Eastern Roman Empire, and by extension the Western one also; at the very least not the subject of persecution. They also had to make it acceptable to the Jews; after all, as far I can tell, Jesus was a practising Jew and merely sought to amend it in places. Those early Fathers had also to contend with the fact that organised religion costs; big time. So, the more converts, the more money would flow into their coffers.

By 325CE, at the Council Of Nicaea, they had started to get their act together and effectively proclaimed the New Testament, as they saw it, as not only largely synoptic but based on eye-witness, or second-hand eye-witness, account and largely convergent with Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah; the Council of Ephesus merely confirmed that Jesus, by Mary, was God made flesh. For added good measure, they included redemption by repentence. I do not know if the historical Jesus, if such a person actually existed, actually preached that but it would certainly prove to be a game-changer. To a largely ignorant or uneducated population of peasant farmers, small-time merchants and an effete aristocracy, that must have been really attractive. The Jewish God, the Teutonic, Roman and Greek Gods were such a let down; all they promised was sin and misery.

So, the Christians had a winner on their hands; a supremely benevolent God, so long as you believed that Jesus was the Son of God and truly repented before you died; it's surely no surprise that it swept the Western World.  The glory of everlasting light in the hands of some priest or other, and which it was easier to grant then not; the priests became not averse to welcoming a donation to the church in return for such absolution. (For goodness sake, get a handle on history! The issue of indulgences was a major concern of Martin Luther.)


These early Church Fathers were intelligent; they had education. No-one (I hope) would consider Cicero or Horace or Virgil stupid, even though Pliny the Elder could spout arrant nonsense at times, and those early Church Fathers knew exactly what it was that they were doing; propoganda has always been the tool of those who would aspire to religious or political dominance. Should we treat the Gospels as gospel just because the early Church Fathers thought that we ought to?

How much can we trust them?

Why so many miracles? All performed in Galilee where no could witness them. Wouldn't one have been enough to show the divine power? After the feeding of the 5,000 on the mount, anything else is just overkill! Why was poor Judas Iscariot hauled in as a scapegoat, if not to lessen the guilt of the Romans for executing the Jews' Messiah. The kiss, when Jesus must have been recognisable to the Sanhedrin or the Consulate, given his perfomance in the Temple? And if it was to be in secret, why the howling mob with clubs and torches? Surely, half a dozen legionaries would have been enough against an unarmed man, who had admittedly shown a propensity to violent outrage.

Why was Jesus sent from pillar to post in his vain bid for justice; the Jews, after all, had a punishment for blasphemy; death by stoning. The Sanhedrin did not need the Romans to execute him. And he denies, in front of Pilate (obviously a fiction) that he's not the Son of God - 'your words, not mine'. So much does not make any sense.

I will pass over the Resurrection. It has, as far as I can determine, not happened before or since and re-animation may be possible for a God but is impossible for a man. Therefore, you either have faith or you do not; I cannot bring myself to make that saute metaphysique. It goes against everything that I know or have learned about the world. Maybe I am mistaken and will find myself in fiery torment for eternity but that has lost favour over the centuries and, if I believed, the worst that I could conceive would be to be consigned to perpetual darkness; deprived of the light of the Almighty.

One question remains. If Judas Iscariot did perform the ultimate sin for the betrayal of the Son of Man, will he find Glory if he truly repents? Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a short story about a heretical, Swedish priest. He maintained that the greatest sacrifice a man (or God) could make would be to consign himself to Hell for all eternity; does not that describe Judas?

Friday, 25 March 2016

The BBC, real Television, Janina and Snorri

The BBC is often derided for its pandering to the whims of the lowest common denominator, vis 'Strictly Come Dancing' and 'EastEnders', but sometimes it transcends its role as a purveyor of dross, merely fit only for the unwashed hoi-polloi. (Yes I know that hoi-polloi means THE masses and the definite article is not required but. . .) I was reminded of this by an hour-long documentary by that BBC-favoured siren of historical documentaries, Dr Janina Ramirez; she is just so cute! The documentary was about the Icelandic Laexdala saga.

Who in their right mind would think that a documentary about a little known Icelandic saga would be worth spending money on? Thankfully the BBC did. In keeping with Lord Reith's avowed statement that the BBC was there to educate and inform, as well as to entertain, this was a simplistic, but not altogether crass, attempt to get the few viewers who may have been ignorant of the rich storytelling inherent in the sagas to maybe dip their toe into the water of the most wonderful of historical 'novelists' and poets, Snorri Sturlasson.

Snorri, by his connection with Jón Loftsson, a relative of the Norwegian royal family, who raised him from an early age following a costly legal suit, which left Snorri's father in somewhat dire financial straits, had received an excellent education and he could afford to indulge himself in literary whims and, later, politics. The Icelanders were fiercely democratic at the time; unlike their Norwegian and Danish cousins, who, it must be said, swopped kingship around between them like jelly beans.

Snorri is best known for the prose (not poetic or elder) Edda, which comprises Gylfaginning (The fooling of Gylfi), a narrative of Norse mythology, the Skáldskaparmál, a book of poetic language, and the Háttatal, a list of verse forms; the Heimskringla, the annals of the Kings of Norway that begins with mythical/legendary material in Ynglinga saga and winds its way through the more historical subjects up to the time of Magnus Erlingson, who died in 1184 following a lengthy and bloody civil war, which just went on and on and on....*. For stylistic and methodological reasons, Snorri is often taken to be the author of Egil's saga too.

How much credence that can be given to Snorri's historical accounts is in some doubt, although he would have had a rich store of, at least, oral history on which to base his accounts; he had major dealings with the Norwegian court, keen to elicit his acquiescence in Norway's annexation of Iceland. He was finally murdered in 1241, although I express some doubt that the King of Norway actually ordered what transpired (shades of Henry and Beckett perhaps) and it may have, perhaps, been over-zealousness or a 'land-grab' by the murderers. Politics in Scandinavia could be sometimes fraught at the best of times.

What Sturlasson and the other Icelandic saga writers left us with is an enormous wealth of material about Viking  and Old Icelandic culture, customs and politics. The sagas are, perhaps, some of the earliest examples of embryonic 'novels'; rich in detail and psychological insight but with a heavy emphasis on plot and perhaps realism. Yet, I have no doubt that those writers divined imagined motives and reasons and embellished their sagas with imagined conversation and dialogue just as historical novelists do now.

I still have a deep affection for the quote (from Harald's Saga), which Harold Godwinson almost certainly did not say at the Battle Of Stamford Bridge: Sagt hefir hann þar nökkut frá, hvers hann mun honum unna af Englandi: 7 fóta rúm, eða því lengra, sem hann er hæri en aðrir menn.  Which loosely translates as: Since he was not content with his own kingdom, said the rider, I'll give him 7 feet of English soil - or as much, perhaps, as he is taller than other men. They don't write like that anymore!

* Interestingly, Sverre Sigurdsson, only one of many claimant to the throne, who defeated and killed Magnus at the naval Battle of Fimreite, used tactics very similar to Nelson's victory, 'crossing the T', at Trafalgar; attacking lone ships with squadrons of his fleet, which caused Magnus' troops, heavily outnumbered in each longboat, to abandon ship and crowd into fewer and fewer ships, until they eventually sank with the weight of them.