Thursday, December 27, 2007


A cheering note arrived in my email box today, regarding the decidedly less-than-positive responses to my Guardian piece, Literally speaking. "Bad luck, Mr Barrow, that's what you get for trying to make people think outside their narrow little boxes." That's kind. Of course, I could also be wrong or have expressed myself poorly. Then again, as is often the way with Comment-is-Free, when it comes to anything connected with 'religion', you are left wondering whether people read to understand or read simply to dismiss. I don't usually reply, as I feel it is fair that I have had my say and people have had their response. When the reactions are vitriolic, there is little chance of persuading people to think again. But when people want to engage, they will.

For the record, I don't think the Gospel nativity narratives are "just a nice story". Far from it. The whole point of my piece was to try to explain, briefly, why they cannot be reduced either to groundless legend (though they undoubtedly come in legendary wrapping) or to some naive attempt at forensic, empirical reduction. These stories invite us to go beyond those attempts to "package" the possibility of God in our midst, while leaving us free not to do so.

Similarly, I'm neither a postmodern relativist nor an uncritical realist, in philosophical terms. The intertwining of fact and value, cognition and language, is much more subtle and complex than that, and depends upon what is being examined and what we are trying to describe. Broadly, what something is shapes how you come to 'know' it, and sometimes vice versa. It may seem obvious to say that planes are not people and people are not God, but from the way many people proceed to argue, it appears that they have not noticed this and keep seeking (fruitlessly) to conform one kind of reality to another - or to dismiss something without further thought if it does not fit what they regard to be the epitome of 'the real', as with some Dawkinsites.

Trying to discuss the way we speak of what is at stake in the Christian narratives isn't easy or straightforward in a culture of many perspectives and varied levels of learning. But there is no workable alternative to struggling with meaning, other than simply shouting and dismissing, it seems to me. Of course that doesn't mean I do it well. But I hope that I do better than those who simply call others "idiots" when they don't appear to share a wavelength with them.

“In Mary God has grown small to make us great.” St Ephrem


Mystical Seeker said...

Online newspaper comments are usually filled with nonsense and vitriol. Unfortunately, that is what comes with the territory. What you wrote was thoughtful and provocative, but for many people that doesn't matter.

I did find it interesting that you cited Rowan Williams, because he took an essentially literalist position with respect to Luke's birth narrative, simply taking that story at face value as a historical fact, rather than as a mythological narrative that is not even reconcilable with the other mythological birth narrative that is found in Matthew. I think that all the flak that he took from conservatives for his remarks was misplaced; what I think was wrong with what he said that he took mythological birth narratives written 80 or so years after the fact and treated them as historical--which puts him in the literalist camp.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan have written a very interesting book on the Luke and Matthew birth narratives, "The First Christmas", which very much point to what you are saying about the way we speak of Christian narratives. Their take is that is doesn't matter what you believe about the literalness of those stories; rather, what matters is what is the real, deeper meaning behind those stories.

Simon Barrow said...

Thanks, MS. I think Rowan was seeking to be gentle in the presence of a very broad audience, and of course he fully understands the complex intertwining of legend and history in the narratives. He would argue with Crossan (especially) and Borg that there is more history in the mix than they would credit, since the polar opposite of literalism is a kind of unremitting scepticism toward the sources. The reality is that modern standards of historiographical truth do not really provide a reliable guide to ancient sources, where signification seems to have been more important to many writers than description. So I don't think Rowan is in any way a literalist, any more than Bog and Crossan believe in a 'first Christmas'. They are using a figure of speech and culture.

As you say, vitriol comes with the territory. But we don't have to swallow it or accept it.

Thanks for your bogging, which I enjoy :)

Mystical Seeker said...

You're welcome! :)

I agree that we don't have to swallow or accept the vitriol. I just don't know what to do about it other than just know that it is there and try to focus on the positive discussions that you can find.

Simon Barrow said...

Finding the courage not to respond in kind (and thus to reinforce the dynamic) is one useful response - the fact that it's sometimes difficult not to hit back reminds us that the vitriol is not just in the heart of one's antagonist. Responding, but not in kind, is even tougher. But the best advice I ever had was akin to what you've just said. When I went to work in an Anglican Diocese in the early '90s, a wise person (a bishop, it may surprise some to know!) said: "The real challenge is to focus on where there's life, energy and hope, rather than getting caught up in trying to combat all the death, despair and anger people embrace as an alternative to costly living." Or words to that effect. I have learned the importance of those words by not infrequently failing to live up to them (of course). But the more years pass, the more important they seem - as the horizon of eternity begins to dislodge neuroses of the moment, I guess.