I’m a big fan of Clive James. He’s witty and charming, and he chooses to hide a very keen mind behind a self-deprecating facade. Although he’s usually very funny (his recent piece about a writer’s desk is one of the funniest things I’ve read in years), there always seems to be an air of profound melancholy about him which, as a fellow melancholic, I definitely respond to. But it has to be said that, very occasionally, he talks through his bottom, and this is one of those rare occasions.
He’s writing on the subject of christmas, and the ‘necessity’ of the christian faith, and he comes from a perspective that seems more agnostic than atheist, to me at least:
I know that my redeemer liveth? Well I doubt if he can redeem me. I wish he could. But I do have faith that he lives on, as an ideal.
This seems to me to be an expression of doubt, rather than certainty – it seems to allow for the possibility that christ exists, but that he lacks the capacity to save Clive James. It looks more like an aspect of that melancholy I talked about, rather than any kind of reasoned intellectual position.
Now, agnosticism has, frankly, always annoyed me. If you’re a rationalist (as I am, or at least would like to be), then, since there is no rational reason to accept the validity of the christian myth, you have to reject it. If, on the other hand, you are a religionist, then you dismiss rational evidence as irrelevant, and in that case you can’t use it to partly undermine your own beliefs. Either you accept that there is no evidence for the existence of god, and therefore disbelieve absolutely, or you dismiss the lack of evidence as wholly irrelevant, and believe absolutely. There isn’t – and there never can be – any room to sit on the fence. Fence-sitters (or agnostics) are either people in the process of changing their minds, or they’re cowards. I suspect Clive James fits into the second category. I know that sounds very harsh, but to me it does seem most likely that he doesn’t actually have any faith whatsoever, but he’s still vaguely worried about dying and waking up in hell, and so he tries to fudge the issue.
The main way that he fudges the issue is one that’s quite familiar – he allows his divine nature to fall into question, but insists instead on the remarkable nature of Jesus the man:
We can debate the difficult points of interpretation, hit each other over the head about the truth of what he said here and what he did there, but the essence of his personality still deserves to be cherished as a salvation, a redemption. It won’t, I think, redeem our sins or save our souls for heaven, but it will give us a measure for how we should lead our lives on earth, even if we are bound to fail.
From my perspective, this paragraph is massively disingenuous. The disagreement between christianity and atheism isn’t a matter of ‘difficult points of interpretation’, or arguing ‘about the truth of what he said here and what he did there’, it’s about whether, on the one hand, you believe christ was the living incarnation of god on earth, or, on the other, you don’t. These aren’t minor squabbles. They’re absolutely irreconcilable differences.
Clive James also seems to have made the same mistake as a lot of agnostics, and assumed that the gospels are a true and accurate historical record, except for all the mystical stuff about miracles and resurrection. They aren’t. The gospels were written up to 110 years after the events they describe, by people who had no first-hand knowledge of what actually happened, and in languages that none of the participants would have understood. The anonymous authors based their work on folklore and, in some cases, previously written versions of the story. 180 years after the presumed birth of christ, it was suddenly decided that each of the gospels should be attributed to a named disciple of Jesus – there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any of the gospels have any connection whatsoever with their alleged authors.
Furthermore, the gospels were written and promoted by people who were intimately involved in the process of trying to convert a minor desert cult into an acceptable state religion for the roman empire, and the world more generally. It was vital for them to portray christ as super-human, as the most charismatic, the most compassionate, the most incorruptible man who had ever lived. They were trying to make him a hero, in exactly the same way that a Hollywood action flick tries to make its leading man a hero who can dodge all the bullets fired at him. Neither portrayal is remotely plausible. This is what invalidates all of Clive James’ attempts to talk about how remarkable Jesus was as a man. We have no reliable evidence whatsoever to say what Jesus was like as a man, or even whether he ever actually existed at all – he might be nothing more than an amalgam of various desert mystics glued together with a large dollop of wishful thinking.
Clive James gives two main examples as evidence for the remarkable character of Jesus the man – when he allegedly saved an adulteress from death by stoning, and when he apparently promised a place in heaven to a reformed prostitute. He goes on to put an extremely modern, extremely liberal spin on these examples – he pretty much writes about Jesus as the first recorded champion of women’s rights. Well, I’m sorry, but no.
Quite apart from anything else (and please bear in mind that I’m not anything approaching an expert on this – there are probably loads of better examples), Clive James is wrong on a purely historical basis. We can assume that the Minoan civilization on Crete, which was in existence from somewhere around 3000 – 1000 BCE, was pretty keen on women’s rights, given that women filled many of the major administrative and ceremonial roles within it. A specific, historical example of an individual championing women’s rights (and getting into trouble for it – she spent part of her life in exile) can be found in Sappho (c.630 – c.570 BCE). It’s very stereotypically male to assume that poor defenceless women needed a big strong man to come along and be their champion before they could even think of doing anything for themselves.
I also think Clive James is way off the mark in terms of the way he interprets the stories he refers to. The point of the stoning story isn’t to prove how committed Jesus was to gender equality – he doesn’t tell the crowd they shouldn’t punish the adulterous woman because they’re not also punishing the adulterous man. I’d even question how much it has to do with showcasing christ’s compassion. The main point of the story is to demonstrate that the existing religious establishment didn’t have the authority to punish or pardon ‘sinners’, and that only christ (and, by extension, his representatives on earth) could judge, and then punish or absolve. In other words, the story is designed to reinforce the status of christianity as the ultimate arbiter of authority – exactly what you would expect a desert cult trying to establish itself as a world religion to want to reinforce. Equally, the story of Mary Magdalene (the reformed prostitute) is not intended to demonstrate christ’s compassion, but rather that anyone can convert to christianity and be ‘saved.’ This is again exactly the kind of message you would expect from a movement dedicated to the wholesale expansion of its membership.
The fact of the matter is that the tremendous ‘personal force’ that Clive James detects in christ has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus the man. What would happen if any of us were asked to write an inspirational account of the life and personal characteristics of a relatively obscure man (lets call him Mr Jesus Smith…) who was executed a hundred years ago, but who we now regarded as a living god? Unlike the people who wrote the gospels, we could hope to have some documentary evidence from the time to base our account on – we’d expect to be able to find out the details of his birth, and whether or not he married, and the exact date of his death. There might be other information as well – prison records, newspaper reports of his trial, perhaps even letters or a diary written by Jesus Smith himself. Even with all these advantages, any account we gave of his personality would have very little to do with the man, and a whole lot to do with the kind of picture we wanted to paint. In other words, the kind of man we made him out to be would be decided by what we wanted him to be like, not what he actually was like. It is so transparently obvious to me that this is precisely what happened with christ.
Clive James writes about the way da Vinci or Michelangelo painted christ as a muscular athlete, and assumes that this is evidence of the personal force of christ, but I don’t see it like that. Both artists were creating works that were based around a particular individual. In order for the paintings to work, the central figure (whoever he is) has to dominate. Both Michelangelo and da Vinci idealised the muscular male as the perfect version of the human form, and so this was the obvious and natural way for them to paint christ. It’s important to bear in mind that the decisions to paint works depicting christ as a figure of supreme importance weren’t taken by the artists themselves. They were commissioned by people who believed that christ was god, whatever the personal beliefs of the artists themselves (and James’ suggestion that they were atheists is pure speculation). What Clive James sees as evidence of the personal force of christ is really just evidence for the fact that an artist commissioned to paint a religious subject will produce a painting that reinforces the beliefs of the person who commissioned it. I would suggest that’s not a particularly surprising state of affairs – he who pays the piper calls the tune, and all that.
The final thing that annoys me about Clive James’ piece is when he suggests that a knowledge of the details of christianity is essential even for non-believers:
I first heard about these things in bible class when I was very young, and I can’t think of how the same permanently necessary message about tolerance could have been transmitted in any other way. No matter how intolerant the churches got in all their years of power, not even when they were burning people by the thousand, they never managed to wipe out the impression of his understanding spirit. Those moments in the gospel would alone be enough to prove the importance of keeping alive all we can about his story.
This is so crassly stupid on so many levels that I find it very hard to believe that someone as intelligent as Clive James could have written it. In the space of the same brief paragraph he argues that the christian myth contains a timeless message of tolerance that couldn’t be promoted in any other way – then goes on to give details of the way in which the most ardent believers in the myth have been, and continue to be, spectacularly intolerant. Well, clearly this timeless message of tolerance isn’t being very well served by the christian trappings that surround it. Certainly, the pope’s recent outburst on the subject of ‘gender-benders’ would seem to suggest that tolerance is not uppermost in the mind of most christians.
One of the major rhetorical devices used by the christ-figure in the gospels is the parable, which is essentially a story told to communicate a particular idea. A good example is the story of the good Samaritan, which the christ-figure tells in order to communicate the idea that someone we may be used to thinking of as an enemy can turn out to be more capable of good deeds than people we are used to thinking of as friends. Given that he has apparently dismissed the idea that the actions described in the gospels are literally depictions of the acts of god, it’s fairly obvious that Clive James is treating the accounts of Jesus’ life as parables – the story of the pardoning of the adulterous woman communicates the ideas of compassion, and so on. This means that his assertion that there is no other way except religious indoctrination to teach children ‘the permanently necessary message about tolerance’ is patently nonsense. Any other story designed to communicate the same idea would work just as well. In fact, real-life stories taken from verifiable history would work a whole lot better.
Ethnically speaking, I’m part jewish, and my paternal grandmother (my dad’s mum) lost almost all of her family and childhood friends during the course of the nazi occupation of Europe (she had a lucky escape because she happened to be studying to become a translator, and was in the UK spending a year learning English at the fateful moment). Even with that personal connection, I don’t hold to the idea that the nazi atrocities are the worst on record, or that they embody a particular level of horror that has never been reproduced before or since. But I do think that the stories of the nazi atrocities should be told and re-told, precisely because they provide such a clear demonstration of the dangers of intolerance. It seems to me it would be far more effective to teach children ‘permanently necessary’ tolerance by talking about Anne Frank, or someone like her, than about some shadowy figure who, if he ever existed at all, has been so wrapped around with myth and superstition that it’s impossible to ever know who he was, or what he stood for.