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The human right to claptrap

The time must have been the early 1970s. The scene a small sitting room in a house in a pleasantly leafy suburb on the northern outskirts of Derry, where a young man (myself) is sitting with his father and mother and an aunt, the mother’s sister, who is on a visit, perhaps for Christmas. We are watching television, a BBC documentary on the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In one scene a class of very small children in uniform is chanting the sayings of Chairman Mao while rhythmically waving “The Little Red Book” above their heads. The kids of course look impossibly cute, but my father is not impressed. “Isn’t it a terrible thing,” he remarks, “to be filling up little children’s heads with propaganda like that?” My mother says nothing, but my aunt offers the thought “It would put you in mind of the penny catechism”, a humorous sally which, as usual, is followed by her characteristically hearty, almost horse-like, laugh. This is greeted by silence until, just a few minutes later, my father says: “Well, I think I’ll go to bed.”

I always looked forward to my Aunt Eileen’s visits. I liked all my aunts and uncles, but Eileen was a particular favourite. Living in Dublin, unmarried, a civil servant in the Department of Agriculture, she would stride home for her lunch every day, from Kildare Street down Merrion Row and Baggot Street to her top-floor flat in Herbert Street near the Grand Canal, hoping to avoid running into Patrick Kavanagh, a near enough neighbour at home and now again in Dublin and a sometime patron of her uncle, Eddie Kelly’s, pub in Essexford. Mildly anti-clerical herself, she drew me out and humoured my more bitter teenage resentments – “Oh you better not say that. The Bishop’ll put horns on you!” (horse laugh). She read The Irish Times (we were an Indo family), swore by “Backbencher” and “Man Bites Dog”, voted for Noël Browne and was scornful of “John Charles”. My father, in contrast, had great respect for the majesty and authority of the church and largely blamed Browne for the collapse of Clann na Poblachta, of which he had been an enthusiastic member in the 1940s. My mother’s siblings had the name of being great talkers, which meant great arguers. My father was a rather mild though humorous man who abhorred “bad feeling”: his brothers and sisters liked to sing as much as to talk – if not more so.

I was reminded of this little contretemps, and the subjectivity with which we may define what is propaganda and what is simply instruction, while reading recently about the early decades of Protestant “Reform” and its intersection with the (then relatively recent) invention of printing. Catholics had often interpreted history in religious terms, seeing the divine hand in famines, plagues and other natural disasters – God was punishing His sinful people. Protestants may not have dissented from this world view, but they also, more optimistically, tended to see the hand of Providence intervening in human events to advance the cause of truth. Printing in particular, though its origins in Europe predated Protestantism by seventy years, seemed to them almost to have been specifically invented to further the new reformed religion. For Luther, it was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace”, through which He “desires to drive forward the cause of true religion to the ends of the earth and to make it available in all languages”. The English martyrologist John Foxe gave thanks “to the high providence of almighty God for the excellent art of printing ... now commonly practised everywhere to the singular benefit of Christ’s Church”.

In the somewhat longer run, Protestantism, in so far as it was seen to be in opposition to superstition, priestcraft and unaccountable authority, could be linked with civility, progress and freedom ‑ even, at a stretch, democracy. The English scientific writer and reformer Gabriel Plattes was hopeful that “[t]he art of Printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties will not be governed by way of oppression”, an anticipation perhaps of the Enlightenment thinker Condorcet’s belief that knowledge was not just a necessary condition for happiness but a sufficient one. Elizabeth Eisenstein commented: “Protestant divines differed from Enlightened philosophes on many issues. But both viewed printing as a providential device which ended forever a priestly monopoly of learning, overcame ignorance and superstition, pushed back the evil forces commanded by Italian popes, and, in general, brought Western Europe out of the Dark Ages.”

Protestantism may have been immediately concerned to wipe out abuses, such as the sale of indulgences to finance papal expenditure, or superstitions, like the veneration of supposed saints’ relics, but its big idea was to wrest religion from the grip of the priestly caste and give it back to the laity and the individual Christian conscience. And the main way in which that was going to be achieved was by translating the word of God into the vernacular languages and making it freely available, or as freely available as the generally low level of literacy at the time allowed.

Vernacular translations of the Bible, or parts of it, were far from unknown before the Reformation, but from the late fourteenth century in England (the Wycliffe Bible) the movement to put the Book in the hands of the laity was increasingly associated with heresy and proto-Protestantism. The invention of printing with moveable type, which facilitated the relatively easy production of an unlimited number of copies of a single text, could, the ecclesiastical authorities felt, only give heresy wings, and so they established methods of control and censorship and moved to seize vernacular Bibles in the territories that were under their control. Copies of William Tyndale’s English translation were printed in Worms and Antwerp on the continent in the mid-1520s and smuggled into England and Scotland. When they were intercepted, they were publicly burned. Tyndale himself was executed near Brussels in 1536 but his work was continued by Myles Coverdale and others, in a tradition that eventually led to the famous King James Bible of 1611, a literary masterpiece.

If bringing the Gospel to the people in their own language was a central proposition of Protestantism it was not one that was without problems, as Martin Luther soon found out. The first problem was a technical one: could a vernacular language really convey the precision and subtlety of the Latin, Greek or Hebrew versions that scholars consulted? Luther’s German translation is regarded as a significant literary achievement and a milestone in the history of the written German language, but the getting there was not easy:

I have sweated blood and water to render the Prophets in the common tongue. Good God, what labour and how many difficulties we encounter in forcing the Hebrew writers to speak German. Not wishing to abandon their Hebraism, they refuse to be poured into German barbarism. It’s as if the nightingale, having lost its sweet melody, was forced to imitate the monotonous note of the cuckoo.

The simple historical picture of Protestantism and literacy spreading quickly and irresistibly as a result of great popular enthusiasm for the unmediated word of God and a desire to shake off Papist superstition is one that has been challenged by some recent scholars. First, there is the question of the extent of popular literacy. The set of those people in early modern Europe able to read but unable to read Latin was at first a relatively small one, which suggests that much of the new reading that was going to be done in vernacular languages would be reading aloud to a group. Much of the early running in the explosion of print which did certainly occur in Germany in the 1520s came in the form of Flugschriften or pamphlets, which is to say works of propaganda rather than of theology or devotion, where a simple text could be read out by a literate person to a wider non-literate group and where sometimes the image, in the form of a woodcut or woodcuts, might be as important as the text; all the better then if the image was a shocking one. Judging, however, from the rapid spread of Protestantism in the 1520s, it may well be that propagandists about Romish corruption were – in Germany at least – knocking on an open door.

One problem about an explosion is that it is not always controllable. As regards theological works, Luther soon felt that “it would be best to reduce the number and choose the best. Nor should one read too much, but read good things and read them often”. Luther’s ally Philipp Melancthon moved from a position in 1521 of encouraging everyone to read the Bible to a much more conservative one in 1543, when he insisted on the important place to be occupied by

ministers of the Gospel, whom God wishes to have trained in seminaries. It is them he wishes to be guardians of the Books of the Prophets and the Apostles and of the true dogmas of the Church.

If there seems here to be a significant retreat from the notion that every man or woman can be his or her own priest, his or her own interpreter of Scripture, the reason can at least partially be sought in some of the uses made of the Bible in the earliest decades of Protestantism, when people found justification in its verses for the most heterodox theological and even social doctrines, a process which was to continue and sharpen in the following century with the rise of Puritans and levelling “sectarians” in England, for example. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the mid-1520s, the peasants had risen against their lords and masters, sometimes arguing that the laws which kept them poor and in bondage were not “godly laws” and therefore need not be obeyed. Luther may have initially sympathised with the peasants’ economic plight but he was firmly opposed to rebellion. It was the duty of a Christian, he wrote, to “suffer injustice, not to seize the sword and take to violence”. And he defended the harshness with which the authorities punished the rebellious peasants, since “a rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist, until the sweat drips off their noses.” The “fist” in this case, it seems, involved the deaths of at least 100,000 rebels.

Perhaps the most detailed response to the perceived threat posed by the wrong sort of person reading the word of God was the splendidly bureaucratic but perhaps unenforceable one formulated by Henry VIII in England. English Christians, it was decided, could for practical purposes be divided into three groups: nobles and gentlemen could not only read the Bible in English privately but could read it aloud for the benefit of members of their household, including servants; bourgeois, and women of noble family, could read it for themselves, but not aloud to anyone else; finally, women in general, artisans, apprentices and journeymen in the service of an employer equal or inferior in status to a small landholder, farmer or manual worker could not read it at all.

So if the book, or at least the Book, was to be seen as dangerous, what was there instead? Well there were the priests or ministers, formed by the seminaries in correct thinking. “For me,” wrote Luther, “it would be far preferable to increase the number of living books, that is to say the number of preachers.” And if there were to be a book in circulation, well for most people it would have to be something less confusing, or even dangerous, than the Bible, something simple that the faithful could learn off by heart and which could serve as a guide to correct thinking.

The catechism is the Bible of the layman; it contains everything that the Christian should know of Christian doctrine.

And so the rolling back seems to be almost complete. (In practice, however, that is not how it was to work out: Luther’s second thoughts and anxieties over making the Bible available to the laity did not in the long run stop its wide propagation: over time it was to become a staple item in literate Protestant households, along with prayer books, hymnals, catechisms and secular books like almanacs.)

When my aunt made the comparison between the catechism that infants were taught in all Catholic schools in Ireland and “The Little Red Book” that was in favour in the 1960s in People’s China the point I suppose she was making was that in neither case were the children making what we might call “an informed choice” about what they should believe; rather they were being “formed”, as indeed to some degree they still are, even though their parents are in general a lot less religious than would have been the case in the 1970s. But can we ever expect children to make an informed choice, and in its absence what are they to be taught? The essence of the scientific world view, do I hear you say?

Hilary Fannin, in a recent Irish Times column (December 8th), wrote of “the religious claptrap that was drummed into us as we sat behind our little wooden desks” in school. While there is a suggestion in the particular example of “claptrap” she furnishes – the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – that being taught exaggerated notions of “purity” may have damaged some children, perhaps we need to question more generally the notion of “claptrap”, even, perhaps, posit a human right to claptrap. If we want children never to be told things that are not true, we have a lot of work ahead of us, particularly at this time of year: for Santa Claus in fact is not coming to town, and his gift-buying surrogate will only in extreme, indeed scarcely imaginable circumstances, draw a harsh line between the large number who have been naughty and the tiny nice minority. But if we forsake all the claptrap, will we find sufficient sustenance, as children or as adults, in those things that are literally and demonstrably true? Hilary herself would appear not to think so, for the partner in the amusing conversation she is engaged in over the abstruse matter of the Immaculate Conception is none other than her cat. Talking angels or talking cats? Well I’ll have both please.

It is certainly true that original sin (or in this case Mary having been created free of it [immaculate = unstained] – a strange notion perhaps but one which has virtually nothing to do with sexuality) may not mean a great deal to an eight- or nine-year-old. Perhaps we might say that, strictly speaking, it does not exist, yet the concept can be a useful one, as useful, let us say, indeed as real, as anomie or alienation, two other things you can’t exactly put your finger on. In my childhood I was taught – yes, in those little wooden desks ‑ to memorise the seven deadly sins. It’s true that they didn’t have much purchase on me at the time, but from the perspective of a good number of decades later, pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, envy, anger and sloth are surely things that we can all discern in the behaviour of those around us every day of the week. Nothing unreal about them, I’m afraid.

In December I generally try to keep out of shops and shopping centres as much as possible. It’s not the crowds; it’s not even Mammon (Mammon I can live with – it provides employment). No, it’s Slade and Sir Cliff, Sir Paul and Sir Bob, even, God forgive me, Bing, Frank and Ella. So even though I have some painful adolescent memories of compulsory carol-singing, I’ve largely got over that, and having gone back to have a look around, am finding some beauty and musical excellence in the English and German traditions (there’s also of course our own wonderful Wexford Carol). One piece I did discover in my trawl, new to me, is the haunting German Catholic carol Maria durch ein Dornwald Ging (Mary walked through a wood of thorn), a song based on a tradition which is an extrapolation from Luke 1.39-56, “And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda ... ”

Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,
Kyrie eleison.
Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,
der hat in sieben Jahrn kein Laub getragen.
Jesus und Maria.

Was trug Maria unter ihrem Herzen?
Kyrie eleison.
Ein kleines Kindlein ohne Schmerzen,
das trug Maria unter ihrem Herzen.
Jesus und Maria.

(Mary walked through a thorn wood / Kyrie eleison. Mary walked through a thorn wood / that for seven years had borne no leaves. / Jesus and Mary. // What did Mary carry under her heart? Kyrie eleison. A little child without pain. That’s what Mary carried under her heart. Jesus and Mary.)

Do I believe that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, who was the Son of God, walked through a thorn wood in Judea two thousand years ago on her way to see her cousin Elisabeth, soon to be the mother of John the Baptist, and that the wood, long barren, blossomed as she passed? No I don’t. Do I believe that I am necessarily a more fortunate or happier person than someone who once did believe this to be true? No I don’t. Do I think that people who are deaf to the symbolic language of renewal and hope in a code that is foreign to their habitual way of thinking may lack an important human dimension? Yes I do.

The Guarani indigenous people of South America, believe, or at any rate believed, that Tupã, the supreme god of all creation, with the help of the moon goddess Arasy, descended upon the Earth in a location in what is today Paraguay, and from there created all that is found on the face of the earth, including the ocean, forests, the animals and the stars in the sky. Finally, he created humanity, forming clay statues of man and woman with a mixture of various elements from nature, and breathed life into them.

The Jesuits who arrived on Guarani territories in the sixteenth century (and who consistently defended the people against enslavement) must have been pleased to see that the gap between fundamental Guarani beliefs and Christian ones on the origin of the world was not especially wide. Only a few corrections or additions were needed: the creation over six days of Day and Night, the Firmament, the waters and the earth, the beasts of the earth, the fish of the sea, the fowls of the air and finally man, and woman, who were “given dominion” over all the rest (no longer a popular notion this one, it seems).

It is arguable of course that the Guaranis’ belief in Tupã and Arasy was doing no harm to anyone and should not have been meddled with. Christians, however, were deeply convinced that it was untrue and that the version with Elohim and Yahweh (both names of the Jewish God) was true. As simple as that. I should perhaps say that I am not in any sense a believer in either the Guarani or the Judeo-Christian account of how we all got to be here, but I can see their force and their poetry. It may well be that I should be out there every day arguing with anyone who will listen to me that in fact the universe has no origin at all as we would understand the concept but was simply a singularity in both space and time with no boundaries in either dimension. This, I am told, is an eminently respectable position (endorsed by Stephen Hawking among others). Of course I don’t begin to understand it, though I’ve no doubt it has a lot going for it. But I hope if I persist in arguing for a little latitude too for the Guaranis and the Hebrews, the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist (patron saint of editors) and St Denise (protectress against bicycle accidents), the forgiveness of sins in so far as may be possible and Hilary Fannin’s talking cat, the stern atheistical Dawkinses will humour my illusions or give me a fool’s pardon ‑ well at least not put horns on me.

Sources: “Réformes protestantes et lecture” by Jean-François Gilmont, in Histoire de la lecture dans le monde occidental, edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Rogier Chartier. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, by Elizabeth L Eisenstein.
Illustrations: the pope raking in the indulgence money from Luther's 1521 Passional Christi und Antichristi; a pre-Reformation French portrayal of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) as a devil or Antichrist.