Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The three A's: the other side of the coin

From time to time in these pages I have shared segments of my sweeping, acerbic critique of the three Abrahamic religions. When it is not expository (sometimes dully so), the narrative is relentlessly negative. The various parts are collected in my Abrahamicalia.blogspot.com.

Yet is this the whole story? Belatedly I have sought to set forth, very briefly, what might be termed the case for the defense, that is, some major positive 3-A contributions. What follows is just a sketch, and additions and comments are welcome.


In Abrahamicalia.blogspot.com, emphasis has fallen on the prescriptive, often repressive aspects of the Abrahamic faiths. These are indeed salient. Still, there is another side of the coin: the creative harvest of these traditions in literature, music, and the visual arts. (There are also significant effects in the sphere of political theory and action, to be discussed at the end.)

The enumeration of the positive contribution requires some qualifications. Laudable as the cultural achievements are, most of them are, to be blunt, in the past tense. Today we cherish them as historical landmarks and not, for the most part, as components of living traditions. The explanations for this decline are complex, but one such reason, surely, is that they depended on a credulous and precritical understanding of the Abrahamic scriptures and the associated institutional structures that enforced them as norms. Then was then, and now is now. Such religion-based cultural endeavors are no longer in synch with the cyberuniverse that has come to dominate the twenty-first century.

In what follows I note, in the briefest possible compass, some salient aspects of this religion-based heritage. First come the cultural contributions, with a brief discussion of political ramifications at the end.

1. Literature. The Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, to take one example, drew upon the imagery and prosody of the Hebrew Bible. Yet prior to modern times, their writings had little impact outside of Jewish circles.

More massive was the impress on literature in Indo-European languages, those in use among Christian peoples. Already in pagan times, Longinus had noted the sublime effect of of one Biblical phrase: "Let there be light." In a different way, Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate introduced a new appreciation of simple, humble discourse, the Sermo Humilis, as Erich Auerbach has shown. Later, this text served as the vehicle for the first great monument of the art of printing, the Gutenberg Bible of 1450-55,

In the evolution of English literature, the King James version of the Bible (1611) ranks as the single most important influence. Three major poems of John Milton (1608-1674)--Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes--revisit Biblical subjects.

Yet the formal properties of the Hebrew Bible were not fully appreciated until the analysis of Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787). In 1754 he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity by Oxford University, for his treatise on Hebrew poetry entitled Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews). Lowth seems to have been the first modern Bible scholar to have observed the poetic structure of the Psalms and much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. In Lecture 19 he sets forth the classic statement of parallelism which still today is the most fundamental category for understanding Hebrew poetry. He identifies three forms of parallelism, the synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic (i.e. balance only in the manner of expression without either synonymy or antithesis).

In modern times, the free verse of Walt Whitman stands out as the most influential exemple of dependence on Hebrew poetry--mediated of course by the King James Version.

2. Music. Quite naturally, the liturgy of the synagogue migrated into the monodic early Christian chant. Later, beginning in the twelfth century, Leoninus and his successor Perotinus, both associated with Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, introduced polyphony, a revolutionary achievement.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), arguably the supreme composer of the Western tradition, preeminently composed Christian choral music (his B-minor mass, passions, and cantatas). Hymns and spirituals continue Biblical and Christian themes on the popular level.

Today, the influence of religion is less evident in classical music. Yet two living composers, the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tevener, have achieved striking effects by returning to older religious modes.

3. Architecture. The emperor Constantine’s adaptation of the Roman basilica type set the course for all subsequent church architecture in the West, a tradition that achieved its highest flowering in the Gothic cathedrals (ca. 1150-1550).

4. Representational arts. In part based on Jewish exemplars, early Christian iconography became the norm for narrative cycles for at least one thousand years. These effects may be seen today in frescoes on church walls, panel paintings, metalwork, and monumental sculpture. Biblical scenes are central to the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and countless other artists.

5. Film. At one time the genre of Biblical films occupied an important place in Hollywood’s array of production. For example, Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur has been filmed at least three times (1907, 1925, and 1959). Probably the supreme example of a religious blockbuster was The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille’s tour de force.

Twenty years later the mood had decidedly changed, witness Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Based on the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical, this entertainment gave a counterculture twist to the genre. This was followed by Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which was decidedly irreverent. Finally, in 2004 The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s controversial vision of the death of Jesus, seemed to have given new vitality to the genre of religion-themed films, but the effect did not prove lasting.

6. Islam and its arts. During the nineteenth century, Western awareness of Islam was mainly evident in the picturesque canvases of the Orientalist painters. In the following century, however, there was greater appreciation for the nonrepresentational works of the minor arts of Islam as seen in tiles, metalwork, carpets, and other such objects.


There is one other sphere, too vast to be adequately covered here, in which religion has made important positive contributions. That is the area of social change.

I begin with a somewhat remote example, the career of Pope Gregory VII, who died in 1085. Following in the path of some earlier reformers, Gregory confronted head-on the then-urgent problem of imperial domination of the church, and by extension the whole of Western European society. Boldly, he engaged Emperor Henry IV in a fundamental power struggle, with the aim of making the papacy supreme, not the imperial power. The result, fortunately for society, was a kind of compromise in which the principle of separation of powers emerged. Today, the churches have (or should have) withdrawn from institutional participation in public life, but the principle of separation of powers is enshrined in the very structure of United States government.

Another major issue is that of slavery. To be sure, the Bible has been used to defend the practice of chattel slavery. Yet in the latter part of the eighteenth century a group of prelates in England began to call for an end to the slave trade, on the grounds that all individuals are equally children of God. This tradition was picked up and carried further by the Abolitionists in North America. It reemerged later in the civil rights movement, where a major, probably indispensable role was played by Dr. Martin Luther King and other black clergy.



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