Friday, January 16, 2009

Booker and religion

I've now finished "The Seven Basic Plots", by Christopher Booker. I will miss it. It is the most interesting non-fiction book I've read for a couple of years, and whilst I may not agree with everything in it, there was a great deal which I found eye-opening. About the only issue I had with it was not to do with the content. The silver lettered title on the cover is not securely fixed, and eroded whilst I was reading it - a less glamorous printing job would mean that the book was less likely to disappear into anonymity!

Christopher Booker commented on my last post that, given my assertion/assumption that the book was not Christian, he'd be interested in my reaction to chapter 33. This is called "Of Gods and Men", and traces the development of religion, and the balance between Self and ego, from the neolithic era through to the beginning of the 19th Century. (The following chapter, "The Age of Loki" brings the analysis up to date.) So this is a reaction specifically to Booker's approach to Christianity.

The first thing to say is that what Booker writes takes Christianity seriously, and certainly does reflect a particular strand of Christian tradition, so despite my earlier guesses, it is probably unfair to describe it as "not a Christian analysis." Booker identifies Christianity as being distinct from just about all other religions - particularly in the sense that the person of Christ demonstrates both the "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics required to make a whole, integrated person, and identifies those as being expressions of the nature of God. That's a technical phrase, which I will explore more in another post, but in short, whereas many religions encourage adherents to integrate "masculine" traits (power and rationality - "strength and mind"), Christ taught - and demonstrated - that this should be integrated with "feminine" traits (emotion and spirituality - "heart and soul"). The only other place in religion in which this can be seen, Booker argues, is possibly in the Buddha - about which more in a bit. From this point of view, Booker is suggesting that through what Christ showed his followers, it is possible to be a fully integrated, mature human being, in a way that is not possible through most religions or in a belief system that doesn't specifically direct a person beyond their own ego.

Which of course begs other questions ... like, why should that be considered desirable at all? Why shouldn't people be ego-directed, if they choose to be? Again, subjects for another post!

However, I would still argue that Booker's analysis does not reflect orthodox, historic Christianity. This is because Booker's treatment of the Bible fundamentally approaches it as myth, whereas the Bible itself does not regard itself as mythological. This is the sense in which Booker's approach reflects a particular strand of Christianity - I'm sure Jon Mackenzie would be able to tell me which one! But Jesus is not a mythological figure, like Odysseus - the writers of the gospels record their stories as faithful accounts of events, not to portray Jesus simply as an archetype - a kind of idealisation of the personification of masculine/feminine. The escape of the Israelites from Egypt similarly, whilst it has aspects in common with the "Defeating the Monster" plot, is not recorded as a mythical account, but as a matter of historical fact.

What are we supposed to do with the fact that there is a real, historical person in whom we can see these archetypal traits fully expressed? I would suggest that this means at the very least, we should be looking closely at this person and his claims - and I will argue in a later post that this may be the real point of narrative. Booker certainly concludes by arguing that narrative may be designed to bring us back into contact with "the One", but he avoids explicitly defining what this might mean - perhaps he has in mind a direct connection with religious belief, but I suspect he is thinking more in terms of a general closeness with what we are to be as humans.

I disagree with Booker's analysis of various sections of the Bible, although I accept they are consistent with many mainstream commentators. For example, he argues that the God of the Jews in the Old Testament expresses masculine characteristics but not feminine ones. This is reflected in God's opposition to all other nations, and the special status granted Israel. However, it fails to take into account that even as the Israelites are given this favoured status, God tells them that he has in mind the blessing of the whole earth - it was the role of the Israelites to bring blessing to the world. This was only seen in flashes in the Old Testament - for example, in the stories of Ruth and Rahab, both Gentile women, both part of the line of Jesus, and also in God sending Jonah to Nineveh. This was God's stated intention (he promises Abraham that the whole earth will be blessed through him), and it was the failure of the Israelites to live up to God's purposes that resulted in this not working - and, in "big picture" terms, led to the inauguration of the New Covenant through Jesus.

Finally, let's consider briefly Buddhism and Christianity. Booker suggests that both demonstrate a means of leading to a person being fully integrated. However, there are still ways in which they diverge - they shouldn't be considered equivalent simply because they have similar effects in this area.

The first divergence is in terms of their content. Buddhism ultimately leads to the idea of silence and inexpressible truth. Joseph Campbell writes of Buddhism:
The point is that Buddhahood, Enlightenment, cannot be communicated, but only the way to Enlightenment. This doctrine of the incommunicability of the Truth which is beyond names and forms is basic to the great Oriental, as well as to the Platonic, traditions. Whereas the truths of science are communicable, being demonstrable hypotheses rationally founded on observable facts, ritual, mythology and metaphysics are but guides to the brink of a transcendent illumination, the final step to which must be taken by each in his own silent experience.... Though [Buddha] is the founder of a widely taught world religion, the ultimate core of his doctrine remains concealed, necessarily, in silence.

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces", Joseph Campbell, p.33, footnote
But this is very different from orthodox Christianity. The God of the Bible makes himself known through speaking - to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets; Paul the apostle, speaking to intellectuals in Athens says that he is going to introduce them to the one whom they worship as "The Unknown God", who is not far from any of them; Jesus says that anybody who has seen him has seen the Father. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity proclaims that it is a religion of knowledge - knowledge that is knowable to everybody, not only to those people who have meditated sufficiently to approach Nirvana.

Also, it is important to point out that the wholeness that comes from Christianity is not something that can be achieved by somebody setting their mind to it - people are unable to help themselves. Booker talked about "sin" resulting in the hero of a tragedy being unable to escape from hubris. This is an idea which strongly reflects the idea of the fallenness of humans.

Finally, the wholeness in Christianity has a particular focus - the "heart, soul, mind and strength" formula in Christianity is attached to a verb and an object - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength." In other words, whilst Christianity does seek to see these aspects united, it seems to suggest that they can't simply be united "independently". They have to find a focus in something.

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