26 October 2007

Upon this Rock

A month or so back I was talking to a friend of mine of how much I like Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, who always strikes me as a model educated Christian, being thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and sincere.

'Well, of course you like him,' said my friend, 'he's a historian. But my faith means much more to me than that.'

I'm afraid this attitude baffles me, not least because it assumes that approaching the Bible as a historical document precludes us from approaching it in a prayerful manner. That's absurd. When Our Lord calls on us to welcome the Kingdom of God like little children, it's humility, not stupidity, that he's demanding of us. Innocence, not ignorance. We've been given brains, and we're called upon to use them.

We shouldn't be afraid of facts. Look at 1 Corinthians 15, where St Paul makes no bones about the fact that Christianity would be pointless if it weren't based on a real, historical resurrection, and reels off a list of witnesses to back up his story. I think that approach still works. It does for me, anyway. It gives me somewhere to stand when I pray.

All of which leads me to Hilaire Belloc, and to Eamon Duffy.

Duffy, as recognised in this review, has 'a genius for recovering worlds we have lost'. He unforgettably achieved this in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional religion in England, 1400-1580, where:
His meticulous and beguiling reconstruction, along with his exploration of the psychological and spiritual devastation caused by the Tudors’ wrecking of the physical culture of the late-medieval Church, demonstrated that the Reformation was “a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past”—a past that over merely three generations became a foreign country, impossible for the English to regard as their own. The book stirred the English popular and scholarly mind from a historical and cultural complacency bred of Protestant and Whiggish triumphal­ism.
As this fellow Chestertonian has noticed, there's more than a whiff of Belloc's Europe and the Faith about such a project. Europe and the Faith is a remarkable book, where Belloc as polemicist trounces Belloc the sober historian in a heroic attempt to redress the scholarly imbalance. It does the job with panache, but for these drier times I think a modern, scholarly edition with some footnotes to put academic meat on Belloc's perceptive bones would do it even better.

Still, if you're willing to check the facts yourself afterwards or just take the ebulliently erudite Belloc at his word, take a look at chapter two in particular. Belloc draws on the few documents we have to sketch a remarkably compelling pen-picture about of the Church in the Second and early Third Centuries:
It is a highly disciplined, powerful growing body, intent on unity, ruled by bishops, having for its central doctrine the Incarnation of God in an historical Person, Jesus Christ, and for its central rite a Mystery, the transformation of Bread and Wine by priests into the Body and Blood which the faithful consume.
He points not just to the canonical books of the New Testament - which at this point had yet to be canonised! - but to the writings of St Clement of Rome, of St Ignatius of Antioch, of St Justin Martyr and of Tertullian, in order to show that the things which now are the hallmarks of the Catholic Church have been the hallmarks of orthodox Christianity for as far back as we can speak with any certainty.

All of which is a long-winded way of bringing up how BBC Radio 4 has started what looks like a marvellous series of short radio documentaries on the Papacy, presented by Eamon Duffy. The first one is, rightly, about St Peter, and focuses at some length on his puzzling disappearance in Acts and the discovery in 1939 of what seems to have been his tomb under St Peter's in Rome.

Seriously. Listen to it.

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