Christopher Hitchens on "Wolf Hall" & the Reformation

Thanks to Aaron Lewis, who saw my praise for Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell and sent me a link to a review of her Wolf Hall by the late Christopher Hitchens.  He may have been an atheist, but he was an atheist who supported the Reformation.  An excerpt from the review:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.

These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”

via The Men Who Made England – Christopher Hitchens – The Atlantic.

To be sure, Hitchens sees the Reformation in terms of breaking the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, neglecting its positive emphasis on the Gospel, the Word of God, and Vocation.  And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.   But still, Mantel’s books present a sympathetic portrait of the English Reformation, including aspects that have generally been papered over.  (Such as Sir Thomas More–now St. Thomas More–having a rack for torturing Lutherans in his own home!)

Since Reformation Day is coming, we should discuss the notion that Hitchens thinks is a good thing and Catholics think is a bad thing: namely, that the Reformation began the dissolution of the church, leading ultimately to secularism and to Hitchens’ atheism.  What is true and what is false about that charge?

Great quotes of St. Francis that he didn't say

Luther is not the only one that gets credited for quotable lines that he didn’t really say.  (E.g., the principle of voting for “wise turks,” as we discussed.)  St. Francis of Assissi gets the same treatment.  Here a Franciscan priest, Father Pat McCloskey, responds to a question about that phrase, which I have heard even from people who should know better, that suggests preaching the Gospel doesn’t require words.  He throws in a debunking of the “peace prayer”  (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” etc.)

Q: I keep seeing St. Francis of Assisi credited as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” I have looked in several places but cannot find where St. Francis said this.

A: This is a great quote, very Franciscan in its spirit, but not literally from St. Francis. The thought is his; this catchy phrasing is not in his writings or in the earliest biographies about him.

In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

I had been a Franciscan for 28 years—and had earned an M.A. in Franciscan studies—before I heard the “Use words if necessary” quote. That was during Msgr. Kenneth Velo’s homily at Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin’s funeral in 1996.

About a year ago, a friend of mine used the Internet to contact some of the most eminent Franciscan scholars in the world, seeking the source of this “Use words if necessary” quote. It is clearly not in any of Francis’ writings. After a couple weeks of searching, no scholar could find this quote in a story written within 200 years of Francis’ death.

This saying and the “Peace Prayer,” which Francis certainly did not write, are easily identified with him because they so thoroughly reflect his spirit. Unfortunately, they would not have become as widespread if they had been attributed to “John Smith” or “Mary Jones.”

Exhaustive research on the origins of the “Peace Prayer of St. Francis” has led to Christian Renoux’s new book in French. This 210-page study (ISBN 2-85020-096-4) is described at www.electre.com under Les Editions Franciscaines.

An 11th-century French prayer is similar to the first part of the “Peace Prayer.” The oldest known copy of the current prayer, however, dates to 1912 in France. The prayer became more well known in other countries during World War I.

This prayer is sold all over Assisi today—but always under the title “A Simple Prayer.” Whoever linked it to St. Francis guaranteed a wide diffusion of the text. The same is true for the “Use words if necessary” quote. Both reflect St. Francis very well.

via Ask a Franciscan: Great Saying But Tough to Trace – October 2001 Issue of St. Anthony Messenger Magazine Online.

Thanks to Pastor  Matt Richard for the link.  Read his post for an important critique of the notion that we can preach the Gospel without words and the Word.

Machiavellian reformer

British author Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.  This is the second time she won this top award for British fiction.  The first time was for Wolf Hall.  Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell, the consigliere to Henry VIII.   And they are both spellbinding.

Cromwell is typically presented as a Machiavellian villain who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn and then cynically framed her and engineered her execution.  Mantel, though, in her thoroughly-researched imagining of those tumultuous times, presents him sympathetically.  Her Cromwell is a man of high ideals who wants a more just society and will do what it takes to make those ideals reality.  Specifically, he is a man of the Reformation, someone with a brilliant intellect who has memorized the Bible, possesses books by Luther that would earn him the death penalty, and who does what he can to rescue Protestants from the torture chambers of Sir Thomas More.  But his effectiveness depends on how well he can work with the volatile, passionate egotist who is the King of England.

Mantel’s books capture the texture and nuances of a complicated time, and her characters are complex, historically-grounded, and utterly believable.  And her handling of the religious issues of 16th century England is especially illuminating.  King Henry breaks from the Pope and makes himself head of the English church because of his marital intrigues, but he retains the medieval Catholic dogmas, inquisitorial spirit, and  hatred of the Lutheran Reformation.  (Did you realize that it wasn’t the Catholics but King Henry after his break with Rome who had Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English?)

Anyway, if you like historical fiction written at the very highest, most sophisticated level, and if you enjoy tales of intrigue, you will love Hilary Mantel’s books.  You need to read them in order, so start with Wolf Hall.  Then you will want to read Bring Up the Bodies (which deserves another prize just for its title).  She is reportedly working on another volume to round out the Cromwell trilogy, which may well earn her a third Booker prize.

 

How Bonhoeffer, his wife, and brother-in-law opposed the Nazis

The New York Review of Books has published a rather remarkable article by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, a  detailed account of  the ways Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his family opposed the Nazi regime.  You might be familiar with Bonhoeffer’s activities–though I learned a lot I didn’t realize–but the actions of his wife Christine and, especially, his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, who was a major mastermind of the German opposition to Hitler, are not known nearly as well as they deserve to be.  It is a moving story of courage and of faith.

via The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern | The New York Review of Books.

Jesus’ Wife

I’m kind of behind, with my surgery and all, so this has already gone around, but we must post it.  Scholars have found a small fragment in the Coptic language from ancient Egypt that has Jesus referring to “my wife.”  Now first of all, as the historian who made the translation insists, this does NOT prove the thesis of the Da Vinci Code, nor does it prove that Jesus did, in fact, have a wife, since this was written centuries after his time on earth and it has affinities to Gnostic texts.  But still, let’s look at the story:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.

Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.

The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.

Dr. King gave an interview and showed the papyrus fragment, encased in glass, to reporters from The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine in her garret office in the tower at Harvard Divinity School last Thursday.

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”. . .

[Scholars] examined the scrap under sharp magnification. It was very small — only 4 by 8 centimeters. The lettering was splotchy and uneven, the hand of an amateur, but not unusual for the time period, when many Christians were poor and persecuted. . .

The piece is torn into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top and bottom — most likely the work of a dealer who divided up a larger piece to maximize his profit, Dr. Bagnall said.

Much of the context, therefore, is missing. But Dr. King was struck by phrases in the fragment like “My mother gave to me life,” and “Mary is worthy of it,” which resemble snippets from the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. Experts believe those were written in the late second century and translated into Coptic. She surmises that this fragment is also copied from a second-century Greek text.

The meaning of the words, “my wife,” is beyond question, Dr. King said. “These words can mean nothing else.” The text beyond “my wife” is cut off.

Dr. King did not have the ink dated using carbon testing. She said it would require scraping off too much, destroying the relic. She still plans to have the ink tested by spectroscopy, which could roughly determine its age by its chemical composition.

Dr. King submitted her paper to The Harvard Theological Review, which asked three scholars to review it. Two questioned its authenticity, but they had seen only low-resolution photographs of the fragment and were unaware that expert papyrologists had seen the actual item and judged it to be genuine, Dr. King said. One of the two questioned the grammar, translation and interpretation.

Ariel Shisha-Halevy, an eminent Coptic linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was consulted, and said in an e-mail in September, “I believe — on the basis of language and grammar — the text is authentic.” [That is, not a modern forgery.]

Major doubts allayed, The Review plans to publish Dr. King’s article in its January issue.

via Historian Says Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife – NYTimes.com.  That site includes  a translation of the full, though fragmentary text.

Mollie Hemingway posts a compendium of evidence that points to forgery.

But here is the point:  Jesus did and does have a wife:  Her name is the CHURCH.

A previously unknown scrap of ancient papyrus written in ancient Egyptian Coptic

 

Why do we even have a president?

Historian Kenneth C. Davis looks at the origin of the office of the President, something our Founders went round and round about at the Constitutional Convention.

In that steamy Philadelphia summer of 1787, as the Constitution was secretly being drafted and the plan for the presidency invented — “improvised” is more apt — the delegates weren’t sure what they wanted this new office to be. To patriots who had fought a war against a king, the thought of one person wielding great power, at the head of a standing army, gave them the willies.

Still, Hamilton asserted in the Federalist Papers that this experimental executive must have “energy” — a quality characterized by “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.” Hamilton knew that the times demanded bold action. Operating under the Articles of Confederation, a weak Congress had dithered through crisis and conflict, unable to collect taxes or raise an effective army. And the presidents of Congress — 14 of them from 1774 to 1788 — wielded nothing more threatening than a gavel. They couldn’t even answer a letter without congressional approval.

As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention sweltered behind closed windows, in the same Pennsylvania State House where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted 11 years earlier, they disagreed about many things. But no issue caused greater consternation than establishing an executive office to run the country.

Would this executive department be occupied by one man or a council of three? What powers would the executive have? How long would he hold office? How would the executive be chosen? And how would he be removed, if necessary? (Without an answer to this question, Ben Franklin warned, the only recourse would be assassination.)

On these questions, the record points down a tortuous path filled with uncertainty and sharp division. While some delegates feared creating a presidency that could become a “fetus of monarchy,” others called for an executive who could negotiate treaties and make appointments — or command an army if the nation was threatened. Or at least answer the mail. . . . [Read more...]


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