The book of fragments

As shown by Christianity itself, America is not united by any one faith. 

Steve Hanson
10 March 2017

The book of Habakkuk. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of Christianity as the 'one true religion' is back with a vengeance. In America the focus is on the Muslim travel ban as it bounces in and out of court. But we don't need to look outside America or Christianity to see that this return to evangelical fundamentalism is rotten to its core.

A very big American story is that of the Christian non-conformists. This isn't new—it dates back hundreds of years. Certainly, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread. Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution's 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite' and, in many cases, slave ownership.

Like contemporary Muslims they were moving westward to escape intolerable circumstances. There is something sick about the idea of the west being 'invaded' coming from people whose ancestors moved west, and this sickness is widespread.

I put this to friends and one pointed out that the Spanish settlers may object to being called non-conformists. This is true—many were of a Catholic orthodoxy. But all over America, the non-conformist story can be found. Because of this diasporic history, some Christian sects have very different cultural rituals to the mainstream—polygamy for example, the taking of multiple wives  as practiced by some Mormon sects.

These examples are very much the anomaly nowadays, but I haven't heard a raging polemic directed at Mormons lately. I have heard a lot of anger being directed at Muslims over their supposedly terrifying alien values. It is, in fact, much more difficult to identify a single orthodoxy within Christianity than it is to describe its differences. It is also possible to get to a point where the Muslim religion appears to have more in common with 'mainstream' Christian beliefs than with a Christian sect that practices polygamy.

In the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the repression and abuse of women and girls can be horrifying. Yet I have heard so many easy lines about the repression of women under Islam. It is undeniable that in places Islam has a domineering patriarchal hierarchy, but in the west many Muslims simply get on with their lives just as Christians and atheists do.

But see how the colonial logic saturates my language? That there is a Christian 'centre' and outside there are different spectra of belief to be 'tolerated'. This isn't the case.

A similar narrative to the non-conformist story can be found within Islam too. Islam, essentially, is undergoing a cultural crisis, and its crisis has much to do with its settling in the west. But this isn't the whole story. In Mosul, war is being waged street by street against Isis. Within this battle there are other, older conflicts, like Sunni versus Shia.

I had the most bizarre conversation last week with someone who suggested that Islam's inner turmoil and violence was 'primitive,' and that is why Christianity must be held on to. He went further and suggested that unless Christianity was defended 'as the one true religion' we would receive a Caliphate by default.

I reminded him that over in Ireland a blazing religious conflict dating back to Henry VIII had only recently been extinguished, and still showed signs of heat. He confirmed this by growing angry, an internalised rage that now had no outlet because I had blocked its path. This anger is dangerous—in him, on the right and on the left; in the atheist, the agnostic and the zealot alike. And I am angry too.

What is being lost in post-truth, specifically, is the anthropology of religion. The oldest book of the bible, Amos, is constructed from fragments of notes taken from just a few days of 'prophecies' he delivered. Except when Amos delivered them he was a shepherd. He was only designated 'a prophet' later on, and worse, his prophecies were completely hopeless. At least one earthquake didn't happen when and where he said it would. But to laugh at Amos is to miss the social function of his 'prophecies'.

When this shepherd stepped out of his wandering existence, the elites of the region, used to living off the fat of the land, were living off the lean of the land. The poor simply starved to death. Assyrian rule was breaking down and there were revolts due to the lack of goods and materials as supply chains faltered. There were domestic revolts as a result in Assyrian cities across 763-760 BC.

So Amos went to the temples around him and blasted each of them with the only rhetoric available to him in the accepted form of delivery of the time—the prophecy. The content of Amos's speech is not very original. It has a formal structure very similar to most of the lay preaching of the time. Remember that ‘The Bible’ did not exist at this point, and the birth of Christ was the best part of a millennium away.

Amos tells the priests that they are corrupt and blind to the abuses all around them and that 'for three transgressions as well as four' they will suffer, as Yaweh (God) will bring wrath upon them. This fourth transgression is widely interpreted as 'the last straw'. The social function of this story is little different to a schoolboy explaining to a bully that his big brother is going to get him, although here it has moved up several scales to a situation where the lowest of the castes is calling out the heads of what passed for the state during his time.

But it is never Amos calling out the priests: Yaweh 'speaks through' Amos. But the formulaic nature of the speaking tells us that this is a social rite, not a vision. The form of the delivery is part of its social contract; shepherds can go up to the temple proclaiming that they have been told by Yaweh to go there, and they can tell the priesthood that Yaweh will break the fortresses, bring fire and make the bodies of the oppressors pile up in the rubbish dump and float, bloated, in the river.

This is a very different thing to Amos simply marching up the temple steps and declaring a takeover. Death would surely follow. The underlying social contracts of the bible have been lost. The temple elders can't have angry shepherds murdered every few months either, there really would be a takeover.

Mary, walking around clearly pregnant and out of wedlock—what do you do? You invent a story to cover this inconvenient bump in history. Or more likely, you retrospectively airbrush the history of the birth of the Son of God with a can of Miracle Gloss.

We might now turn to the Grand Canyon visitor centre, where fear sometimes makes the dating of the canyon any further than a couple of thousand years ago rather awkward. Believers see the canyon as evidence of a global flood, and therefore proof of the existence of Noah, the only pure individual in a world of sinners who all must die. Creationism and post-truth are not bedfellows, they are Siamese Twins. We might turn to Creationism in schools. But when we turn, we might see that the shock now being expressed at post-truth politics as a new phenomenon covers a much longer incubation period.

The bible that is referred to by fundamentalists is usually a version of the King James version of 1611. This is also a collage of fragments, and each fragment, as we can see from the story of Amos, is another collage. Fundamentalists might have a better time with the Qu'ran, because as far as we know it has a single author. I refuse to base my understanding of the universe, or how I live in it, on either book, although both clearly contain wisdom. Both books also contain things that disturb me. But then so does the writing of Karl Marx and Bobby Seale.

The point to make is that Christianity is not some settled, stable or agreed-upon thing, and clearly nor is Islam, despite its story of sole authorship.

I dislike Richard Dawkins just as much as the peddlers of miracles. The only intelligent response to existence in the vastness of the universe is agnosticism, just as the best philosophers understand their lack of knowledge first and foremost.

But we need the spirit of Amos, and we need the ritual toleration of the accused. We need new language, calibrated to cut through the suffocating smog of post-truth, as well as the cut-throat words and deeds of fundamentalism. 

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