maandag 24 december 2007

A happy Christmas

To whoever reads this.

Spiked Online has put up a review, by Michael Fitzpatrick, of a new book by Terry Eagleton on Christ and the gospels. As I figured out it might be fruitful for an ex-Marxist-turning-Christian to read an ex-Christian-turned-Marxist, I did some reading on Eagleton recently - After Theory and most of his study on tragedy, Sweet Violence. His writing style is brilliant and infuriating at the same time - brilliant because I think he's one of the sharpest polemicists in the Anglophone world, infuriating because he tends to hop from subject to subject in a way I occasionally find hard too follow. Especially with Sweet Violence, I am of course handicapped by literary theory being not my own subject.

The Spiked review points out Eagleton's new book is about the same kind of theme that more than occasionally occurs in his other writings as well: that of Christ and political radicalism:

The presentation of Jesus as ‘homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful’ has ‘an obvious popular resonance’. Eagleton explains Jesus’ austere lifestyle – and his celibacy – not as asceticism or Puritanism, but as sacrifices made in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

I'm not at all unsympathetic to the idea, though (from a religious viewpoint) I think it's important to not try too hard to fit Jesus into categories of zealot, or revolutionary, or moral teacher - as they all seem to miss something essential. My own interest in Christianity was kindled by the notion that, taking the New Testament on the face of it, Jesus was not a Spartacus or a Seneca, but someone quite... different. In some kind of dialectical fashion, Jesus seems to me to encapsulate the notion of political liberation within the higher notion of the Kingdom of God, which is somehow already here, intermittently, in the solidarity between human beings - yet still infinitely far away at the same time. Or the notion of morality within a higher notion of God's love and mercy. In the same way that Jesus indeed did not abolish death but conquered it.

I'm curious as to Eagleton's treatment of these matters, and will look to pick up the book at some point.

Michael Fitzpatrick's review ends, somewhat predictably and anti-climactically, with Spiked's usual humanist pep-talk:

The fact that past attempts to realise the dreams of reason and freedom through the quest for social progress have ended in failure indicates the need to deepen the humanist project – rather than surrendering to the baleful doctrines of original sin promulgated with renewed fervour in the void of the new millennium by Pope Benedict. While Benedict insists that hope depends on faith in transcendental redemption, Eagleton rightly insists that our source of hope lies in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’.

There's my usual gripe with Spiked. They remind me at times too much of the International Socialist meetings I occasionally attended. They always ended the same. A discussion about, well, whatever - Palestine, peace in Northern Ireland, the education system - would meander on for a little until an obviously planted IS cadre member would stand up from the crowd and spontaneously elucidate the need for a genuine socialist revolution to solve the problem at hand, with joining the IS or at least buying a subscription to their newspaper being a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for aforementioned event to occur. Likewise, with Spiked, for all their refreshing optimism, their disdain for political correctness and their willingness to slaughter the sacred cows of environmentalism, the animal rights movement, etc. always end up with a starry-eyed vision of tough self-reliant humans, liberated from their infantile fears of technology, progress, disease and death, and guided by the light of reason, marching off into libertarian socialist utopia. Can't they hire some appropriately curmudgeonly rightist, say an Anthony Dalrymple, as a guest columnist?

This said, they're more readable than just about anything else on the political Left.

Incidentally, I think Michael Fitzpatrick draws a false dichotomy in his conclusions - that between hope depending on "faith in transcendental redemption" and lying in the "in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’". Though I am ever more sceptical of the latter - not so much of the potential of humans to evolve towards the better as of attempts to help that evolution along - I do not think the two hopes exclude one another. The big thing for me about the Christian narrative lies precisely in the way the universal and the symbolic (the reconciliation between God and man, the redemption of the latter) is played out in the very particular and concrete (a specific historical event concerning some specific people in Palestine). The transcendental, it seems to me, envelops and frames the particular, the historical, the here-and-now, without denying it. Likewise with the religious hope for some kind of reconciliation at the end of history and the here-and-now need for social justice, political freedom, etc.

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