Sunday, December 25, 2011

this pestilent art of the Renaissance

John Ruskin linked the health of Christianity to the arts, and especially to architecture. His thoughts are my first encounter with a deep and angry dismissal of the Renaissance.

Here are his very words (not I hope, so wrenched out of context as to
change his meaning):

XXXVII. Instant degradation followed in every direction,—a flood of folly and hypocrisy. Mythologies ill understood at first, then perverted into feeble sensualities, take the place of the representations of Christian subjects, which had become blasphemous under the treatment of men like the Caracci. Gods without power, satyrs without rusticity, nymphs without innocence, men without humanity, gather into idiot groups upon the polluted canvas, and scenic affectations encumber the streets with preposterous marble. Lower and lower declines the level of abused intellect; the base school of landscape gradually usurps the place of the historical painting, which had sunk into prurient pedantry,—the Alsatian sublimities of Salvator, the confectionery idealities of Claude, the dull manufacture of Gaspar and Canaletto, south of the Alps, and on the north the patient devotion of besotted lives to delineation of bricks and fogs, fat cattle and ditchwater. And thus Christianity and morality, courage, and intellect, and art all crumbling together into one wreck, we are hurried on to the fall of Italy, the revolution in France, and the condition of art in England (saved by her Protestantism from severer penalty) in the time of George II.

this pestilent art of the Renaissance.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Buddhism in South-east Asia

I've just finished reading a book review of a history of Buddhism in south east Asia - Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar [Burma].... etc.  Very interesting indeed - I must get this book and read it carefully.  What jumped out at me was a novel look at what I have been calling syncretism.... but will have to modify perhaps - or modify for different places and different religions.  Apparently the ordinary Buddhists of this region - not the monks - but ordinary people, picked and chose which religion they would practise, depending on what the particular need was at any particular moment. Also some religions were considered appropriate in their place - that is, royal families were expected to be Hindu [properly speaking, followers of Brahamic religion], while ordinary people were Buddhist....

What jumped out at me though was that people in south east Asia do not understand the need to have one religion that is True, and have no need to reject other religions for one true religion.  It would be something like Christians going on the Hajj, and Muslims going to Confession, and Jews praying five times a day.....

Here is the review:

and here is the book:

Prapod Assavavirulhakarn.  The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia.  Chiang Mai, Thailand:  Silkworm books, 2010

Monday, December 12, 2011


I wrote theodicy at the top of this post, but actually this is a little post on un-theodicy.  Theodicy being that branch of theological rumination that asks, 'If God is good, why is there evil?'

Great brains and people far more knowledgable than I will ever be have batted this one about for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

But, I got to thinking today about the lot of most people in most historical epochs, and as an historian - not as an amateur philosopher or theologian, but as an historian - and as a human - that the question may be backwards.

Given that most people live miserable lives most of the time and have done so for most of history - shouldn't the question be, Why is there any good?

For most of the human race throughout history, each day brings a struggle to survive, let alone relax and play.  Beyond that, for many in many times and places each day brought disease, war, injury, hurt feelings... lost loved ones, lost things, things that don't work as they were designed, frustrations.... well, I have just thrown a few out there... but the list is very long.

So, when a brief moment of satisfaction, or joy, or calm contentment arrives - it is a rare jewel for most.  It seems so out of sync with normality though - if normality is unhappiness then why is this equilibrium of evil thrown off balance every so often by good?

I do understand that there may indeed be people who are happy more often than not - I see them in the streets smiling, laughing, talking, etc. etc.....but they are a tiny minority of the 6 billion or so of us presently crowded here -- and a tinier proportion of the vast numbers who have ever lived.

So, why is there happiness, I would like to know ---- to try us?  to let us more deeply appreciate evil? What?!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

cave paintings

Cave paintings are sometimes seen as evidence of early religion.  So-called 'nomadic' peoples hunted, fished and gathered berries or fruit in season [depending where they were located in the world].  We do know from anthropological studies of indigenous American peoples that power-control [as defined my the late Mary Black Rogers] was ascribed to all living and non-living things.  Thus hunting was not a matter of technical skill, but of degree of power-control of the hunter vis a vis the hunted.  From this it seems reasonable to extrapolate the possibility that cave paintings of animals were connected somehow to having a successful hunt.

In one set of paintings at Pech Merle in the Pyrenees region of France, images of spotted horses intrigue scholars.  Recently DNA testing has shown that spotted horses indeed did live in this era and that the paintings were of real animals and not imagined animals.

Read the link below to get the full account.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The purpose of historical analysis

Many who learn about the clash between native and newcomer in the Americas note how evil, or wrong or terrible the behaviour of Christians was - as it is felt that native cultures should have been left alone.  This may well be true, depending on your point of view.  But.... the task of the scholar who studies history is to understand.

 I will give an example from a very different time period and place.

Many historians spend their careers studying Nazi Germany. This does not mean they are Nazis - nor are they doing this in order to publish op-ed pieces in remembrance of the Holocaust - they do this in order to understand this period and to grasp why and how it happened.  You simply cannot do this effectively without setting aside your own ethical sense for a time - 'holding your nose' as it were.  You must be able to at least temporarily adopt a neutral attitude - play Mr. Spock on Star Trek - and look at a time period with a coolly analytical attitude.  In this manner you will gain a deeper understanding.

 Understanding the missionary effort - the conquest of native peoples by Europeans - is also to understand a large part of the history of the human race --- for roughly a million years, humanity has been migrating - and once initial settlements were made in different parts of the world, others migrated and cultures already formed clashed -

In other words, this descriptive word syncretism is describing something that has occurred in many times and many places in the past - and no doubt will again.  The only difference here is we have written records and living communities to study.  Who knows how the neanderthal felt when Homo Sapiens Sapiens moved into the neighbourhood?  The Christianity brought by the Spanish, French and English to the Americas was itself a product of a sycnretism of Germanic tribal culture and this eastern Mediterranean religion called Christianity.  In the territories of the Rus - the ancestors of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe  - in the year 988, the local ruler forced his people at sword point into the Dnieper river to be baptised - and in 1988 the Ukraine celebrated a millennium of Christianity.    To add to this, we even know now that much of the native Buddhism of south east Asia was forced on people by rulers.....

So, understanding the how, the why and the what of the migration of human cultures is the goal.....

The Jews of Venice

This is not a peer-reviewed article - but is worth reading anyway to get a grasp on the uncertain and fluctuating position of Judaism in Europe in history.

History Today: The Jews of Venice

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day 2011

I watched part of the Remembrance Day ceremonies from Ottawa on TV this morning. This always makes me cry. This year was especially touching as the Silver Cross mother was SO young! In the past, as Canada's last war was Korea, Silver Cross mothers were little old ladies with white hair. This sad woman looked to be not much more than 40.

Persentio, ergo sum.

Lest we forget.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Individualism, Reform & the Book

A draft prezi that attempts to map the interconnections in Early Modern Western Europe that resulted in the Reform, the slow rise of individualism to a hegemonic position and the book produced on movable type

Individualism, Reform and the Book Prezi

If you have a correction, or some element is missing - post a comment below & I might just alter the prezi....

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Virtues of Architecture

For those writing about architecture and religion, some words of wisdom from John Ruskin written in the 1850s

In the main, we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

Then the practical duty divides itself into two branches,—acting and talking:—acting, as to defend us from weather or violence; talking, as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly. We have thus, altogether, three great branches of architectural virtue, and we require of any building,— 1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.

2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.

3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

- from Chapter II The Virtues of Architecture in The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin (1851-53)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

some photos of the Reformation

I couldn't get online today so
here are some random photos I had hoped to show in class.

Hay Bay Methodist Meeting 
House, Ontario Canada 1792
Martin Luther
Dexter Ave Baptist - Martin Luther King's church - but note the 'Reformation interior'
The Bible in German, (trans.  M. Luther)

Friday, September 30, 2011

prezi ....

The prezi seemed to go well - i used it in conjunction with regular slides.  It does a better job of giving an overall view of the interconnections - but I must learn to design with multimedia...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Prezi for Judaism final lecture

Judaism and Modernity

My first live prezi file - to be used tomorrow, September 28, 2011 in lecture..... we shall see!  I have back up keynote/powerpoint slides in case!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Shi'a Islam in south Asia

Today, I began listening to a series of podcasts sponsored by an excellent service in England called Back Door Broadcasting.  The lectures are from a conference of experts in Shi'a Islam, who look at this branch of Islam in south Asia, an area little studied.  Apparently around 15-20% of the Muslim population there are Shi'a, but they have historically occupied a more important position in the various societies there than numbers would indicate.

It is very difficult listening for the non-expert!  There is, however, information to be gleaned for anyone with a general interest in Islam.  For example, it used to be said in the popular media, that Islam, unlike Christianity was largely unified with only a politically-based division existing between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims.  These podcasts should put that myth to rest - there are multiple divisions within Shi'a Islam alone.  When the West looks at the Shi'a also, we most often talk about Iran and now after the Iraq war, Iraq.  But the keynote speech dealt with south Asia in general, and the first specific paper presented at this conference focussed on the Indian sub-continent around 1910, and divisions among Shi'a in Karachi.

I hope to listen to them all over the next few days....

Here is the link:

Shi'a in south Asia conference podcasts

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I have just finished the second week lecture for a course called Judaism, Christianity, Islam, where I looked at the early history of Judaism - beginning with Abraham, the progenitor of all three.  Then we looked at others - Moses, David, Solomon, trying to discern underlying principles such as law, order, fear of chaos, a religion of written rules vs one merely lived.  I reminded everyone that although we were jumping through centuries in minutes, and talking about grand ideas and movements, that we were in fact dealing with individual people, deciding on the basis of their circumstances - their work, how they lived, family, who they loved, who they hated, desires and wants.

Sorting out the communal from the individual seems impossible.  Is religion a matter of public or communal ritual and the human need for fellowship - or is it firstly an individual need for meaning found in a connection to the divine?

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Over the past month I have been re-thinking and re-writing my World Religions in Historical Perspective course.  Along with that I am finally making decent progress on the Religions of the World Portal for the Northern Blue Publishing Company ..... and, working away at my book length essay on religion and society in the Atlantic world.  This may sound like an awful lot of work, but it is not as much as it seems.  There is so much overlap that notes I take from one secondary source illuminate my thinking for all these book length essays.  For example, today I was reading J. Heath Atchley's, Encountering the Secular:  Philosophical Endeavors in Religion and Culture.  In this, Prof. Atchley brings a philosophers eyes to the secular.  He draws on many others, but is particularly entranced by Paul Tillich's 1964 book Theology of Culture.
To give one example how he has made me re-think basic concepts for all my studies of religion in history, he looks at the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and his thoughts on immanence.  He notes that Christianity claims to be both immanent and transcendent because the transcendent God came into the world as Jesus Christ.  Yet, the emphasis and focus of Christianity is on transcendence, on this immanent world as temporary and broken, and on a goal which is transcendent and eternal.  This led me to meditate on Judaism, which emphasized the immanent.  Judaism always had a weak concept of an after life.  In Judaism, the 613 mitzvot are rules for the here and now - how one lived now in the immanent is the focus of Judaism.  I thought too of Islam, which shares a focus on the transcendent with Christianity.  I then went through in my mind other religions in my World Religions course and writing, noting which combined immanence and transcendence, and which focussed on one or the other.  I have not yet come close to any fuller thoughts on this, but obviously I will need to integrate this philosophers' ideas into my courses and essays.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The King James or Authorized Version of the Bible

A BBC report on the re-re-discovery of an original printing of the KJV - my favourite translation of the Bible - not for its textual accuracy - scholarly understanding of Hebrew and Greek is more advanced now than in the 17th century, so modern translations are more technically accurate - but because I tend to see the world through the eyes of a poet, and the Authorized version, or as it is usually labelled, the King James version, is pure prose-poetry and elicits all the responses good poetry should in the human heart.

Here is the link [also linked if you click on the title of this post]

Wiltshire copy of KJV Bible

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Academic Study of Religion and Objectivity

On a listserv I follow, a poster cited the historian Garry Wills as an authority on Catholic history. Here is the response I posted:

Gary Wills?  No.  Email needs a gentle sarcasm emoticon.  Gary Wills is an example of a phenomenon labelled by anthropologists as 'going native'.  Let me explain.  Anthropologists do basic research using a technique called participant observation. They live over extended periods of time with the group they are studying, the object being acceptance to a degree that they see and experience things an outsider would miss. At the same time they must keep enough mental distance to retain a social scientific objectivity. Anthropologists all know stories of colleagues who went over this indistinct, shifting line and became members of the group they had set out to study, losing objectivity and becoming defenders, supporters, advocates rather than researchers.

Gary Wills was an excellent historian whose work can be read with profit.  Alas however, he did the equivalent to 'going native' for an academic historian. He became an advocate,
supporter, defender for a particular point of view rather than a researcher.

When I began my training as an historian of religion, my first mentor taught that one should study primarily outside your own faith group in order to avoid the temptation to 'go native'. This like most sage advice is most often ignored, but is still wise. Garry Wills's books on American history are highly thought of by fellow academics, but his books on Catholicism are not. He went native and lost the ability to be a good historian.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Judaism in the Roman Empire

Finally found some decent work on the place of Judaism in the Roman Empire - not as part of the usual tale of Christians and Jews - but from the point of view of Judaism itself and the degree of social integration with both pagans and Christians - 'The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire' "Lieu, North and Rajak, Routledge, 1992  - the chapters are derived from seminars held at the Institute of Classical Studies in London.  I am mining some interesting nuggets on ordinary believers, which is my principle research interest.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reginald Bibby and the Sociology of Religion in Canada

I might make this article the focus of one of the last two discussions this term for students of my World Religions in Historical Context class - but offer it here for anyone to reflect on...

Just click here or on the blog title...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Heritage & History

This post is not about religion, but about what it is to study the past in general. Take an hour from your day and listen to this talk by Sir Keith Thomas. Prof. Thomas wrote a seminal study of religion and magic 40 years ago Religion and the Decline of Magic

Listen here:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Religion and Homosexuality

There!  I'll bet that title grabbed some attention!

These are just a few hurried, rambling thoughts sparked by a comment I heard an evangelical Protestant Christian make wherein he opined that the public acceptance of homosexuality meant a civilisation was only a generation away from collapse....

I doubt this is so, though I must admit I have not made a study of this.  Usually when statements like this are made, references to ancient Rome follow quickly [as they did in this case].  It is amazing actually that the fall of the Roman empire [in the West.......] still looms so large in our perceptions here in the 21st century.  

But, back on track, in classical Greece, homosexuality was an integral part of its culture -  not a sign of its end, or approaching end.  My reading on this is way out of date, but the last time I looked at the literature by specialists, heterosexuality was a viewed as a regrettable necessity to ensure children and the running of a household.  Love was properly confined to older male with younger male.  

Rome, on the other hand,  in its traditional morality was a warrior culture, a legalistic culture, an engineer's paradise - and homosexuality was not part of this schema.  The conquest of Greece by Rome brought not only philosophy, poetry, history, art... but also homosexuality.But for Romans this was delectable forbidden fruit - and may indeed have been a part of a long, slow decline.  It did not take a generation, however, but many generations - Greek culture entered Rome several hundred years before the collapse in the West.  

When Rome began to integrate Christian morality into public morality, I would guess [but simply do not know] that there were sparks flying.  I do know that part of the internal debate in Christianity in the ancient world, was whether to integrate Greek philosophy into Christian theology.  But, I suspect that the rejection of the homosexual component of Greek civilisation was easier for the Latin West to accept as it accorded more closely with traditional Roman morality.  I wish I knew how the cultural Greek Christian East handled this, but I do not.

Today, we have a rapid acceptance of public homosexuality -but this acceptance is a very different thing than the situation in ancient Rome. We have, not a kind of decadent, prurient pleasure in forbidden fruit, but the gradual construction of a moral system which integrates homosexuality as evidence of a positive 'good'.  There is an obvious irony here, or maybe not so obvious.......   This new moral code rests on individualism as the ultimate good in society.  The irony comes from this elevation of individualism to being next to godliness - for western individualism comes out of Christianity and its concern for the individual soul as a primary focus of a relationship with God, of preaching, of practice [taking communion, confession, evangelical conversion experiences, doing good, doing evil, strictures on speech, action] ... in short a profound individualism is integral to Christianity.  Being social animals westerners formed 'church' - but 'church' almost immediately split into factions, which grew out of individual thinkers disputing other thinkers.  Christians concerned about the fractiousness of their faith go on a lot about 1054, or 1517, forgetting those who rejected 325. or forgetting the churches that Paul spent a lot of time chastising......

I doubt [and here I am farther out on a limb] that Islam will ever accept homosexuality as Islam is not at heart an individualistic faith, but more essentially communitarian with its concern for the ummah, for example.  I wish I knew more about Hinduism in this regard, which is very different....Buddhism is popular in the West as it is highly individualistic......well, another thought strikes me as I go over different faiths in my mind - only Christianity, Judaism and Islam seem to care all that much about homosexuality.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Atheists and Christians

I was thinking [meditating?] the other day on atheists - not atheism as that seems intellectually hollow at its core, but on atheists, the preaching, evangelical kind, that is.  Not your everyday atheist, the person who prefers not to think about ultimate things, or consider all that much the question 'why' ..... but those who make a lot of noise in this world, preaching in newspapers, magazines and in great public fora where ever they can get a congregation together.

What strikes me is their essence seems to be a kind of anti-Christianity.  Oh, they often use the word 'religion', but they mean Christianity.  I think they are a kind of reverse to the obverse of the same coin - that evangelical atheism is a counterpoint to Christianity, and were it not for this religion of the West,  the alternate religion of the West, materialism, would not exist.  I wonder if it is an outgrowth of that process I call dis-integration.

By this I mean that religion, once integrated into society to such a degree that asking 'what is your religion?' would make as much sense as asking someone today, 'what is your physics?' - that religion is now dis-integrated, as is everything else by the habit of thought we call science, and placed in its separate category.  Once 'religion' [aka Christianity] is one category of analysis amongst many others, it is subject to vivisection, analysis, sub-categorization, erudite studies of function, etc. etc. - that is, it is no longer 'real' in the way 'atoms' are not real.....

Just sayin'

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

online religion

The other day I found I might be able to get some funding to revise my World Religions course.  When it was first produced in 2004, there was not a lot available on the net that was up to a scholarly level.... The situation is very much better today in 2011.  To this point I have fiddled, and adjusted and added piecemeal to bring better linked sites and links to journals and eBooks.  But, I  might be able to get some cash to spend good time over the summer making the course more interactive and with more mulimedia, the second being more important in terms of understanding religion.  Why?  Because religion is an experience.  It is usually taught in terms of doctrines or dogma - which is how religious professionals see religion - lists of things good and true followers must memorize, and perhaps live, but mostly memorize.  My research interests have always been, however, to look at the disjuncture between what the ordinary follower perceives as properly religious, and what any  particular religion's leadership defines as properly religious.

Thus far, the difference lies in that dichotomy between dogma and living a religion.... mostly the dogmas are unreachable by the ordinary follower - unrealistic ideals to be strived for, but never reached.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Atheist U?

Dawkins & AC grayling - notably the Guardian article ignores this.....

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Categorization and the Study of Religion in history

A very satisfying first discussion in my World Religions in Historical Perspective course at the University of Guelph has just concluded.  When I wrote this course about six years ago, I labelled a category of religion 'primal'.  In the proposal at that time to the university Senate committee I noted that this was a far from satisfactory term, but that I could not think of one better.

In the discussion, I asked the students to supply a critique of the term, and suggest alternatives - which produced a lively and scholarly discussion.

But what I wanted to consider here is not the alternatives suggested [though I will mention one: non-literate or oral], but to ruminate on the usual practice of studying religion using the tools of scientific thought.

Newtonian science has flourished providing the world with all sorts of physical and material comforts and aids.  That its fundamental precept of positing an underlying order to the universe has been challenged over the past century or so makes no practical purpose in the provision of a multitude of gadgets for all things.  But, from the time I wrote this course, I began to doubt the efficacy of the methods of science in bringing a good understanding of human society in general, and of religion in particular.

Standard world religions text books [and I have a slew of these sent me free by eager publishers] have chapters on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. etc. - each one hermetically sealed from the other.  Each is written by an expert in [and often follower of] the particular religion in the chapter.  The book's editor or editors try to tie them together in a general introduction which talks about the nature of religion in general - and sometimes in a concluding chapter.  The overall impact, however, is of isolation - of each religion existing in isolation from the other - even where something must be said about other religions in one of the chapters, the analysis is usually perfunctory, and surprisingly to me, wrong.  Even an excellent general study of one religion, such as Arthur Goldschmidt Jr.'s history of Islam 'A Concise History of the Middle East', which does present religions and other forces which had an impact on Islam accurately, still has misunderstandings, or perhaps it has a sense of preferring Islam to any other.  [The link is to the 8th edition - the 7th is available in the Trellis system as an eBook, and there is an audio version 9th edition which is superbly done, also]

The only text which has come close to avoiding this problem of categorization is the now old [1998] second edition of 'The World's Religions' by the late Ninian Smart.  Perhaps because it is a book with only one author, I don't know.  In this book, categories and definitions and glossaries are abundant - but he attempted to show the profound and frequent and regular interplay of religions one with the other.  It does not attempt to separate religions into their own houses, but to present them within cultural context.

I think that dividing religions into discrete categories presents a false picture of the reality of religious institutional structures, of individual faith, of doctrines, of history, of theology, of philosophy - not because each of these approaches produces wrong data - but because the whole is indeed greater than, and more importantly, different than, the parts.  Religion to be grasped by the inquiring mind, must first be looked at in whole, not part.  The proper method would be what I call the Sound of Music approach - like that venerable movie which begins in the air, and the camera angle gradually descends from the big picture, to the image of one person on the ground, religion should be studied first in its entire context, then one should begin to look at the individual facets.

I don't see, however, how this could be effected using a printed text, or a lecture class, or even the online course as I have it structured right now - which is basically a printed book, or series of lectures, appearing on a computer or mobile device screen, with links and pretty pictures as enhancements.  I would like to devise a means where students [including myself here as a permanent student] could see the whole, then delve down into any particular facet or part - to surf the site, that is.  If you wanted to compare death rituals across religions, you could do that... or if you wanted to look at a particular religion by itself you could do that too - but the course would not be structured in a linear fashion, except where that made sense, such as a narrative history of change over time.

A possible model is found in a series of multimedia eBooks from a partnership between the American Historical Association and Columbia University Press.

Just meditating.....

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Procrastinator's thoughts while marking exams

I have been ruminating on the difference between Islam and eastern Christianity on the one hand, and western Christianity on the other.  I am speaking about cultural differences of course, but also 'of course' religion and culture are one and the same - even in the so-called 'secular' West.  Despite an overt separation of church & state, despite the vagaries and vacuousness of modern atheism, western civilization is inextricably bound with the history and reality of Christianity -- but of a form  of faith which is formed by and informing the unique context of the West.

In the world of Islam and of Greek/Russian Orthodox Christianity, faith was deliberately and unconsciously integrated with the state - the emperor of the east Romans had a paramount position over the Christian church beginning with Constantine and his first great council - and lasting after the fall of the city in 1453 in Russia, where the Tsars assumed that authority and christened Moscow as the third Rome.  Islam had a similar office in the Caliphate - a position in the early centuries of both civil and religious authority, simply because Muslims could not conceive that the two were separate, but rather aspects of the same authority devolving from the one God.   This 'ummah' for Muslims, and empire for eastern Christians was Truth with a capital 'T'.  It did for a time have its counterpart in the West in the concept of Christendom - but the West was different from the 5th century on.

What happened then, of course, was the collapse of a central imperial authority, and its replacement by a multitude of civil authorities in the persons of tribal kings, and a separate but unified religious ideal inherent in the papacy.  Now this is all very simplified, but I think does get to the roots of the difference - from the 5th century onward sacred and secular began slowly, glacially to separate.  This is a leap, but what followed was the rise of individualism and intellectualism in the Renaissance - evidenced firstly in art, architecture, poetry and prose - still religious in focus, but aimed at a wider audience and expressing the individuality of the artist as much as the subject matter of God.  

Once on this track, the West produced the Enlightenment, science, and overt atheism and overt secularity.  It is the Enlightenment which engages my meditation.  This cultural movement produced an ummah of individuals who were trained in and practised at the art of looking at oneself and at one's own culture as though it were a foreign place - I would submit that the eastern mentality of Muslim and Greek Christian never did experience this cultural alteration - that the mindset is one of a holistic integration of body and soul - or church and state, or faith and secularity - that the ability to look dispassionately at oneself is not a skill set found outside the West.

OK!  That off my chest, and back to marking......

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Red bird

Red bird in the tree Branches bare for all to see The world was silent Watching waiting quietly He sat he breathed (both in and out) Not wanting a sound to make The bird it flew Towards the sun Seeking warmth it knew would come The world began to breathe once more Freed

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Thoughts [a very few]

The fragmentation of Christianity by means of Protestantism bothers some devout Catholics, going back as far as Thomas More.  What seems noteworthy to  me is the removal of holiness from the physical and real world, and its imprisonment in words alone - that Christian holiness was made a matter of argument and logic and evidence, rather than a ‘Way’, a mode of living, of perceiving reality - of something one breathed in and one breathed out.  

As a questing historian I understand the forces that impelled the reformation movement we label Protestant - a fear that the essence of Christ’s message in the Resurrection was lost under layers and layers of ritual and artwork and music - that there was too much icing and too little cake, as a result.  Too much time is wasted debating points of doctrine - all great fun no doubt, but wasted time nonetheless. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

The King James or Authorized version of the Bible

This year the 400th anniversary of the King James translation is being marked in England. It should of course be noted in the entire English-speaking world. The language of this translation entered into common speech and the cultural mentality of the English-speaking world until we pretty much decided to toss our heritage into the trash from the 1960s onward.

When remarking on this to classes, I like to mention such things as Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse taken from Revelation chapter 6 verse 8, And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was death, and Hell followed with him.

Linked in the header is the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford's commemoration of the translation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is there a Christianity?

I teach a course at the university of Guelph/Humber called informatively 'Judaism, Christianity,Islam'. Recently I ended the component on Christianity rather unsatisfactorally. On the drive home that evening I thought about how I should and could have summarized my lectures on christian history. The thought occurred to me that there did not seem to be one religion, but rather many operating under a very loose label called Christianity.

Does anything tie the ultra Calvinist 'everyone but us is going to Hell' churches (plural even here), with the Anglican 'I will give communion to your dog' church?

I suppose a belief in Christ - but none of these many thousands of separate organizations seem to view, or understand Christ in the same way. There is an old saying among Jews that a room with seven Jews will produce eight opinions - but hard history has kept a sense of 'nation' alive in a real sense. Muslims have the Qur'an which is authoritative only in classical Arabic to centre their Ummah or sense of oneness in community. But Christians have thousands of translations of the Bible in thousands of languages. Christians of the main churches also venerate two thousand years of differing interpretations of the main language translations. Orthodox and Catholic Christians also venerate 'Holy Tradition' - the guidance of the third person of the Trinity.

I will leave this here as I certainly do not have the answer, but would love comments!

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Concise history of the Middle East

I am in the process of listening to an audio book version of Arthur Goldschmidt Jr.'s A Concise History of the Middle East  [9th edition].  I won't get it finished as I borrowed it online from the Hamilton Public Library and I am not half way through yet.  But.. I found the 7th edition available as an eBook through the University of Guelph library - so I will either read the remainder, or borrow the audio version again later.

It is a good introduction to the history of Islam in the Middle East - and not as the title suggests, a history of the Middle East.  Generally it is excellent in terms of understanding Islam as it developed [though a bit too much towards political, rather than social or cultural history for  my taste].  The book suffers from the usual flaw in books by Americans on Islam - that is, a lot of time is spent making erroneous or just plain wrong comments about Christianity, or western Christian civilisation in comparison to that of Islam in the Middle East.  But, these flaws are few and far between.  For fun [!!!] I tried reading the Complete Idiots Guide to Understanding Islam - a dreadful book - the entire first section filled with errors of fact and misunderstandings of Christianity - which seems to be the whole thrust - very little talk about Islam until well into the book - mostly just half understood nonsense about Christianity and 'ra ra' cheering about the superiority of Islam.  As they say these days on the net... 'meh'

Sunday, February 27, 2011


I just finished reading an article on musicology and Henry VIII.  I always incorporate music and material culture into my History courses - but seldom see good historical research into these.

Here is the official stuff:

Early Music History (2010) Volume 29. 􏰀 Cambridge University Press 

S A C R E D P O L Y P H O N Y 

‘ N O T U N D E R S T A N D I D ’ : M E D I E V A L 
E X E G E S I S , R I T U A L T R A D I T I O N A N D 
H E N R Y V I I I ’ S R E F O R M A T I O N 
For John Caldwell 
This study focuses on the ritual ‘conservatism’ of Henry VIII’s Reformation through a new look at 
biblical exegeses of the period dealing with sacred music. Accordingly, it reconsiders the one extant 
passage of rhetoric to come from the Henrician regime in support of traditional church polyphony, as 
found in A Book of Ceremonies to be Used in the Church of England, c.1540. Examining 
the document’s genesis, editorial history and ultimate suppression by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it 
is shown that Bishop Richard Sampson, Dean of the Chapel Royal (1522–40), was responsible for 
the original drafting of the musical paragraph. Beginning with Sampson’s printed commentaries on the 
Psalms and on the Epistles of St Paul, the literary precedents and historical continuities upon which 
Sampson’s topos in Ceremonies was founded are traced in detail. Identified through recurring patterns 
of scriptural and patristic citation, and understood via transhistorical shifts in the meaning of certain 
key words (e.g. iubilare), this new perspective clarifies important origins of the English church’s 
musical ‘traditionalism’ on the eve of the Reformation. Moreover, it reveals a precise species of exegetical 
method – anagogy – as the literary vehicle through which influential clergy were able to justify 
expansions and elaborations of musical practice in the Western Church from the high Middle Ages to 
the Reformation. 

It is the term anagogy which particularly caught my eye.  Meaning roughly [read the article to get the nuances explicated] a form of theology dealing with that which draws the Christian from things of this world to those of the unseen reality - principally music, which has the capacity of wordless praise, causing the iubilare - the shout of pure, wordless joy on encountering the divine.  Lots to think about here!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reading sacred scriptures as a scholar?

James McGrath looks at how a scholar can read the Bible as a scholar and as a believer.... comments which apply to scholars of Judaism and Islam also..  [just click on the title to get the link]


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I wonder.... is this gentleman's movement a religion?

look also at the wikipedia article

and there are books by him available in university libraries.....

Sunday, January 16, 2011