The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes put it that if horses could draw then they would draw pictures of gods like horses. The more familiar point, for us, being that man creates gods, or God, in his (that is, man’s) image and not the other way around.
Stephen Prothero’s book American Jesus is an excellent guide to the history of this fashioning as it relates to the figure of Jesus in American culture. From humble beginnings (at the time of the Revolution America was not a particularly religious nation, and Christianity was more grounded in the Old Testament), Jesus became a figure “as multiform as Proteus” and a national icon. In large part due to the demands of consumer culture and the needs of the “sovereign audience,” Jesus was truly all things to all men, and women: “When Americans demanded a feminized hero, he became sweet and submissive. When they demanded a manly warrior, he muscled up and charged into battle. As feminism and the civil rights movement gained momentum and baby boomers tuned into the New Age, he became a black androgyne as comfortable with his yin as he was with his yang.” Not to mention the syncretistic way Jesus became (even more) Jewish, fusing his identity as liberator with that of Moses, before also being adopted by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Through all of this Jesus became not the saviour or religious leader that we needed or that we deserved but only the one we wanted at the time. Or, when we didn’t want him, he was made to disappear. It’s a process of transformation that was already underway in the first century CE, as described by Paula Fredriksen in her book From Jesus to Christ. And no doubt the evolution of the divine will continue into the age of Artificial Intelligence. It’s part of being a living God.
Lessons in Stoicism
Stoicism has always had a broad popularity, both for being grounded in an ethics of self-help and personal improvement and for its simple, direct statements of how to go about being a better person. It’s a practical and universal philosophy that also gets points for its tough-minded manliness.
My own feeling is that it’s based on a number of principles that sound good at first blush but don’t stand up to close examination. What does it mean to live one’s life in accordance with nature? How can we evaluate if we’ve done our best, or all that we could have done, in any past situation? What if one’s duty to one’s self is in conflict with a social duty? Is everything (anything?) in our life either under our control or incidental? To what extent are reason and emotion separable?
John Sellars has written a quick introduction to questions like these but doesn’t clear any of them up. But I don’t think they can be. This isn’t to say Stoic philosophy is without value. It can provide comfort and be the basis for a constructive kind of personal therapy. It might even change your life. But you have to go into it aware of its limitations.
Every history of the Crusading era that I’m familiar with has spent a lot of time addressing the question of the crusaders’ motivation. The usual explanation for why the nobility of Western Europe invaded the Holy Land is the same as that traditionally given for the conquest of the Americas: faith and gold.
I don’t think it’s because we live in an especially cynical age that today we tend to emphasize the latter. Even at the time, crusaders were being called out for their shabby materialism. Dan Jones takes as his epigraph for this highly readable new history a quote from Adam of Bremen (ca. 1076): “In those days, men cared as much for furs as they did for their immortal souls.”
It’s a leitmotif sounded throughout. A later chapter heading will quote the 1108 Magdeburg Letter’s call for Christians to go on holy war “so save your souls and, if you wish it, acquire the best land in which to live.” “These were not wars of religion,” Jones kicks things off by telling us, “indeed, religion was often very plainly secondary to commercial and geopolitical considerations. But they were wars between religious men . . .” I don’t know what to make of that qualification. What of it? Everyone was “religious” in the middle ages.
Gradually, and I guess predictably, what began as a Christian mission became a business and then turned into a racket. It’s only in a footnote that Jones lets us know about how the innovation in Innocent III’s bull Quia Major (1213) allowed financial donations to bestow the spiritual benefits of actually going on crusade. It’s a parlour game as to when the Crusades finally ended, but by that point (at least) it’s clear they were dead.
Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917 – 1921
Instead of revisiting more familiar battlefields, in his new book Antony Beevor looks at one of the most important, destructive, and least well known conflicts of the twentieth century, the Russian Civil War. Often seen in the West as just a coda to the First World War, the fighting in Russia drew in armies from all over the world (including Canada) to finally settle the outcome of the Russian Revolution.
The action is very hard to keep straight, with numerous armies led by an odd assortment of generals moving about a vast landscape. This confusion, in turn, was one of the main reasons the Bolsheviks emerged triumphant, as the motley alliance against them had trouble pulling in the same direction. Beevor does a great job though using biographical sketchwork and telling anecdotes to pull things into a coherent narrative that makes sense of the brutal and chaotic origins of Russia’s great tragedy.
Lifesavers and Body Snatchers: Medical Care and the Struggle for Survival in the Great War
Given the number of books already published on the First World War, especially after its various centenaries were commemorated from 2014 to 2018, you might figure that there wasn’t much more to say. In particular, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tim Cook, who has already written so extensively on the subject, would have much to add about the Canadian experience.
Remarkably, with Lifesavers and Body Snatchers he has.
In this book the focus is on the Canadian Medical Corps, which provides a different perspective on the sorts of damage done, the fallout from bullets and gas, artillery and shell shock. But the background is also well developed, and especially the often bitter political infighting.
Cook has an unrivaled mastery of the archival sources and reveals here for the first time the program of harvesting body parts from fallen soldiers for medical study, without the knowledge or consent of the soldiers and their loved ones. “This was not grave robbing in the deep of night, but an open act of forcing dead soldiers to once again serve their country: having fallen in combat they were now to contribute to victories in future medical battles.”
The King Is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII
Suzannah Lipscomb’s little book doesn’t aim to be much more than a footnote in the family history of the despicable Tudors, but it’s still a treat. Among historians there’s long been a suspicion that the will of Henry VIII was tampered with in some way, but Lipscomb looks at the evidence and sees no grounds for believing in a conspiracy. In the family power politics of the time it was pretty clear even to court observers at the time that the Seymours were going to be in and the Howards out after Henry died.
Nor was it all that surprising where Henry’s succession plans went awry. Could anything have been more predictable than Edward Seymour attempting to take over as Lord Protector and set himself up as de facto king? Given the nature of politics in the sixteenth century I don’t think it likely that conciliar rule was going to work.
Did Henry think it would? Power does that to people. “What is most striking,” Lipscomb concludes, “is the disjunction between [Henry’s] professed belief that he would be obeyed and loved – that even after death, he would leave a forceful imprint on his closest companions – and the reality that they so quickly, and thoroughly, shrugged him off.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the will became wastepaper though. It was invoked successfully by Mary against Lady Jane Grey, and the only reason the Stuarts eventually came to power was because of the surprising barrenness of Henry’s direct line. Instead, like all such attempts to map the future – think of the money laid aside for prayers to be said for Henry’s soul, or modern naming rights to sports stadiums – it had a diminishing shelf life.
Liberalism and Its Discontents
I don’t think Francis Fukuyama is saying anything new in this little book, but what he does say is representative of a lot of mainstream elite thinking on the subject in ways that are worth taking note of.
A believer in classical liberalism, Fukuyama sees it as threatened on two fronts: from the Right by neoliberalism and libertarianism, which leads to gross inequality, and from the Left by the woke revolution and identity politics, which leads to social breakdown. Pulled to the Right the result is nationalist oligarchy or fascism, to the Left there is anarchy.
While I don’t like either extreme, I have trouble understanding the equivalence made between the different threats. Neoliberalism has been the dominant political and economic ideology, worldwide, for going on fifty years. And on the other hand we have the mobocracy of cancel culture, campus free speech drama, and Drag Queen Story Hour? The excesses of the Right and the collapse of democracies into illiberal authoritarianism continues apace, even while, as Fukuyama admits, “It does not appear at this moment that anything like the full progressive agenda is likely to be realized” in the U.S. or anywhere else.
This sort of both-sidesism is a kind of propaganda, with socialism and wokeism invoked as bogeymen by the Right to justify ever more extreme, reactionary policies. But there is no equivalence. The Right poses a very real threat to liberalism, democracy, and the rule of law, while the Left raises the spectre of culture wars that mostly exercise people in the media and universities. Fukuyama may sincerely believe that it is the undermining of “modes of cognition” and speech that is the most acute threat to liberalism today, but that’s only because he’s an academic.
The sins of the Right are grounded in vicious selfishness, those of the Left in cynical hypocrisy. The latter is despicable, and far from even being the debt vice pays to virtue, but it’s not as great a present danger.
Prisoners of the Castle
As well as being a chronicle of horrors, the Second World War also provided many thrilling stories of heroism and adventure, not all of them taking place on the battlefield. Ben Macintyre, perhaps best known as the author of Operation Mincemeat, revisits one of the most famous of these in this history of Colditz Prison, a converted castle which was used during the war to hold captured allied officers who had proven to be high risk.
Of course, every prison story is an escape-from-prison story, and Prisoners of the Castle is no exception, as breaking out of the castle became a sort of high-stakes game fought not only between prisoners and guards but between different national teams of inmates. Tunnels were dug, papers forged, uniforms made, and there was even an attempt at building a glider (that might have actually worked!).
Much has already been written about escaping Colditz, and it’s also been the inspiration for movies and a television series. Macintyre tells the story well though, and lets us marvel again at all the ingenuity and resourcefulness on display.
The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock has long been a favourite subject for biographers, and I’ve even reviewed a couple of the more recent ones by Patrick McGilligan and Peter Ackroyd. But there’s always room for another, so . . .
The attraction comes from Hitchcock’s cultural impact and the air of mystery that he both cultivated and came by naturally. Personal contradictions are fertile ground for biographers, and Hitchcock had plenty. Was he a man of deep faith, or no faith at all? Was he asexual (“Hitch . . . without the cock”), lustful, or gay? Was he auteur (that is, an artist, a label he rejected) or entertainer? Even in terms of Hitchcock’s working style we can get into arguments. Did he really storyboard every shot in each of his movies, so that he could just snooze through the actual filming? Was that how he worked, or was it just a myth fed to the media? It all depends on whose anecdotes you value more.
There’s evidence pointing in every direction, and Edward White looks at a lot of it in chapters that present twelve different ways of looking at the Master. He doesn’t resolve the contradictions, but then nobody else has and I think it’s safe to say that no one ever will. What he presents instead is a range of entry points that deepen our understanding and appreciation of Hitchcock’s life and work in a fresh way.
Did Jesus Exist?
The evidence for the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t overwhelming or incontrovertible, though all things considered it’s pretty good. I’m not a religious man myself, but it seems to me almost certain that Jesus was a real person who lived and died at the beginning of the first century CE. And indeed this is a point that has never been much in question. As Bart Ehrman writes, “Every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumed that he actually existed.” But then some fringe characters began suggesting Jesus might have been made up, a point of view adopted, for various not always complementary reasons, by today’s “mythicists.”
In this timely book Ehrman puts forward the case for believing in Jesus the man (his status as divinity or son of God lying outside the remit of a historian). I say timely because in the twenty-first century the mythicists have been enjoying a resurgence, largely online. While admitting that their position “is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world . . . that deserves a clearheaded sociological analysis in its own right,” this is another direction Ehrman avoids going in. I think that’s probably wise, but it’s still something readers will find hard not to speculate on.
What is there about our own post-truth, Internet-sourced, anti-expertise knowledge ecosystem that leads to the flourishing of so many crank theories? As I began by noting, the proof of Jesus’s existence isn’t so great that it’s irrefutable, and I even found myself resisting some of the points Ehrman makes here. So I get being skeptical of the traditional story. What I don’t understand is why the mythicists believe what they believe. The road of doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to the house of conspiracy. Or at least it shouldn’t.