Cake or Death

•July 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

It occurs to me that this:


is a pretty good analogy for this:

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have not life within you.”


He is also right that it is a pretty easy question to answer.  And yet somehow, so many of us still  manage to prefer death instead.





The Power of Inessential Things

•July 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Flight into Egypt, Book of Hours, French, 15th c.

A few years ago, I read one of the more illuminating articles I have ever come across regarding the internecine struggles within the Catholic Church over its liturgy.  It was entitled, “All Your Church Are Belong to Us,” and was written by a self-proclaimed Catholic traditionalist named John Zmirak.  You can access the article here.  The whole article is very much worth one’s time.  In it, Zmirak tries to explain why he, as a traditionalist, takes so seriously certain aspects of the liturgy which he admits are “inessential” and not of absolute, dogmatic importance.  According to Zmirak, what traditionalist Catholics have realized that their merely “conservative” brethren have not is that “inessential things have power.”  Zmirak is thinking here of the attitude that many Catholics, even if they adhere to the Church’s moral teachings in full, treat items such as sacramental and other devotions as negotiable elements of faith that are dispensable rather than as important elements of the faith, if they give them any thought at all.  But Zmirak takes an opposite and interesting view of the matter.  Describing his childhood as a Catholic in the 1970s, he talks about how all of the liturgical changes to “inessential” things led to an atmosphere in which it became easy to question essential Church teachings; by altering the trappings of the liturgy so quickly and so comprehensively, Zmirak argues, it conditioned people to think of all of the Church’s teachings as basically mutable and therefore up for discussion.   He makes reference to the practice of the Nazis and Soviets of hanging their “satanic” banners in every public place, in order to change the mindset of the people’s, by “changing the flag” as he puts it.  (Which make me suspect there is a by-law somewhere in the official rule book of Catholic traditionalists, which requires one to scourge the “commies” in your articles, or else you will be thrown out of the brotherhood of Catholic traditionalists. But I digress.)  He explains it better when he asks what one would think if you woke up tomorrow and saw the Mexican national flag flying over the White House.  The answer is obvious:  you would likely be appalled, but in any case, you would notice the change, and wonder what changes would come next.   Thus he defends his traditionalist obsession with inessential things like Latin, which he says he does not think is essential at all, on the grounds that by taking such items seriously, traditionalists seek to defend the integrity of the church’s core teachings–to use those powerful but inessential things (like the rosary, Latin, holy water, etc.) to defend the Church against those who would alter its basic teachings by attacking those very same “inessential things.”

Zmirak’s article is about divisions within the Latin Church as it stands at this moment in history, and I think he evinces a somewhat conspiratorial mindset in that article, but his main point hits upon what I take to be an important, and largely neglected, perennial truth.  Most people do know the teachings of church or government, or what you will, through adiaphora, and not through a firm grasp of those principles or doctrines in the abstract.  This emphasis on the power and importance of “inessentials” in the life of faith–particular prayers, devotional practices, and the like–admits of both a positive and negative aspects, but it is the second which I want to look at in this post; I will discuss the positive aspect of inessentials in a later blog post, one which I hope will be a bit more encouraging to read.  But in this post I would like connect this idea of the power of inessential things to a concrete historical situation:  the Reformation as it occurred in England, as depicted by a very excellent modern historian.  I hope this will shed some light on the concerns that people like Zmirak, and myself, seem to share.


Attacking Traditional Religion:  The Stripping of the Altars

The Stripping of the Altars:  Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, was one of the landmark works of historical revisionism published in the past thirty years within academic study of the Reformation.  It was one of those books you have to read if your field of study is early modern England, though for various reasons I was never assigned it in my course work, and have only recently found time to read this very weighty tome (very literally, weighty: it checks in at almost 600 pages not counting its bibliography and index).  Its author, Eamon Duffy, is an esteemed Cambridge historian of religion in early modern England who has also written about Catholicism for a popular audience as well, something I will return to at the end of my little essay.  The argument for Stripping of the Altars which made it such a groundbreaking work was this:  that the religion of the vast majority of people in late medieval England was neither superstitious (mostly), nor were people apathetic about it (mostly), but was on the contrary widely popular, and practiced with a good amount devotion by a wide cross section of English society prior to the Reformation.  Far from being either a superstitious corruption of a more sophisticated set of beliefs espoused by the clergy, the “traditional religion” of late medieval England was, on Duffy’s account, a fairly coherent and rationally defensible set of practices, many of which represented not the oppression of the uneducated masses by the clergy but rather the appropriation of clerical and official liturgical ideals of the medieval church by increasingly literate lay men and women, in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In short, Duffy was saying that all of the bigoted canards about the religion of the late medieval period–that the clergy didn’t teach people anything, didn’t preach, espoused or allowed idolatry, to flourish–were largely unfounded.  I won’t burden my readers with the details of Duffy’s argument, but sufficed to say, many of these misconceptions about medieval Catholicism originated with late medieval reformers themselves, and have been passed on quite uncritically by academic historians who ought to have known better for a very long time.  And this was the great effect of Duffy’s and other historians’ work–most notably, that of Christopher Haigh, J.J. Scarisbrick, and Margaret Aston–to overturn much of the received wisdom about the Reformation in England.  Along with the writings of historians of Protestantism, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, who have emphasized that the Reformation in England was very much a Protestant one from the very beginning, have largely succeeded in altering the academic consensus concerning late medieval religion, though I do not think this has penetrated that far outside of the academy (alas!).

Restored rood screen at Houghton St. Giles, Walsingham

Restored rood screen at Houghton St. Giles, Walsingham

Duffy contributed to this by doing what good historians do:  taking a long, hard look at the evidence for what people actually believed.  Of the 593 pages of text in the book, 376 of it is dedicated to a detailed discussion–sometimes, a rather tediously extensive discussion–of the various types of evidence for the belief of ordinary English men and women on the eve the Reformation.  This included items like prayer books (official and unofficial), primers (works designed to teach the basics of the faith), church wardens’ accounts (records of items bought and kept by the parish), in addition to architectural and visual evidence, such as that of rood screens and icons.   The first part of the book examined what Duffy calls “traditional religion,” and started in the first section with the structures of belief (“The Structures of Belief”), dealing mostly with the liturgy, which he contended was the main point of contact for people’s religion, moved through a section on how people actually practiced within the structure of their beliefs (“Encountering the Holy”), followed by a chapter on how they appropriated elements of the liturgy for their own use (“Charms and Spells”) and finally a section on how they dealt with death (“Now, and at the Hour of Our Death”).  While noting that there were much evidence by lay people of an atropopaic kind (meaning to use the liturgical items as charms to ward off evil) which stretched and often crossed the boundaries of orthodoxy in the eyes of late medieval clerics, Duffy contended that, for the most part, the sacramental uses to which people put things such as holy water, blessed bread, and various other religious items, were structured by ideas drawn from the official liturgy and teaching of the medieval Church.  Moreover, as his ample documentation amply demonstrates, this was often done with a fair amount of sophistication, belying the notion that people were passively receiving their religion from priests in a sort of stupor of indifference, as historians in the past had sometimes claimed about late medieval England.


The Wracks of Walsingham

Duffy’s examination of late medieval religion was both thorough but also moving, as it lovingly described the practices that often brought the local community together in late medieval England.  But the first part of the book was also the context needed for the second part, which describes the process by which much of this traditional religion was dismantled by Henry VIII’s government and its successors.  Duffy examined the process by which Henry VIII and his councilors, and then later the Duke of Somerset and the more thoroughly Protestant advisors around Edward VI, went about dismantling the “traditional religion” of England.  What he found was that precisely all of those “inessential things”–holy water, the rosary, the Lenten fast, many of the medieval saint’s days, even stained glass windows–which he had described in the first part of his book, were precisely those things which Henry and his successors attacked, at first tentatively in Henry’s reign, then more openly later under Edward VI.  The fact that it was the long standing devotional practices that people like Cranmer attacked as having blinded the people of England “through ignorance…with the goodly show and appearance of those things, that they thought the keeping of them to be a more holiness…than the keeping of God’s commandments”  was not a coincidence (449)  Proceeding slowly, by changing those devotional practices that were not taken to be “essential,” the reformers over time hoped to changes to “essential things” as well, by softening them up for the removal of more “essential” practices and doctrines, such as the sacrifice of the mass.  This was not lost on the councilors who came along with Queen Mary after Edward VI died; her main advisor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, said in a sermon during her reign that

the heretics maketh this the first point of their schism and heresies, to destroy the unity of the church by contempt or change of ceremonies; which seemeth at the beginning nothing.  As it seemed nothing here amongst you to take away holy water, holy bread, candles, ashes, and palm; but what it came to, you saw, and all felt it.  (531)

Even with the coming of Elizabeth, and a restoration (more or less) of the church structure concocted by Henry VIII, it still took many decades for the traditional ceremonies and devotions of the middle ages to die out:  until 1570s, the Corpus Christi plays were still performed in many areas, in some even into the 1580s.  (581-2)   As late at the 1570s, episcopal visitations and other ecclesiastical proceedings were still dominated by efforts to root out “popish superstitions” as they were now called; Duffy produces evidence of questionnaires which focused on items like mass books, holy water, and other popular devotions. (572)  By the end of 1570s, however, a new ethos was emerging, centered on the bible and the Prayer Book, though it was often tinged with virulent hatred of things “popish,” encouraged as it was by endless homilies and sermons, to say nothing of the new popular culture emerging at the time.   The fact is, which Duffy more or less admits, is that despite their attachment to the old religion, most people in England were content to obey authority, and once the king had triumphed over the pope definitively with Elizabeth, people, in one contemporary’s view, thought that “it is safer to do in religion as most do.”  (591)  Duffy proved, beyond a doubt, that it was the accident of the health of monarchs that made for lasting religious change in the Reformation, and not the desires of the people, but nonetheless it did change by the end of the 16th century.  Had Mary lived longer, things might have been different, but it was not to be.

The ruins of the medieval abbey at Walsingham

The ruins of the medieval abbey at Walsingham

All of this makes for pretty depressing reading if you are a papist, which I happen to be.  There are of course even modern Anglicans who regret the manner in which the Reformation played out in England, though not necessarily with the aims of the Reformers, but  in the end what strikes me about it is the similarity to what has happened within the Latin Rite Church since Vatican II.


Signs of the Times

Of course, by making the comparison with the contemporary divide over liturgy, I don’t mean to suggest the council was the cause of it.  Far from it.  There were plenty of problems with the way that the liturgy was celebrated before the council (which is why there was a liturgical reform movement afoot before the council, initiated in large part by St. Pius X–who ironically made greater changes to the Divine Office than had ever been made in the history of the Latin rite, something that still rankles many who care about the Office of the Church.  My point is only to draw attention to the importance of “inessential” things with regard to the liturgical and devotional life of the church, and the power they have to shape the way people understand the faith.  And, if you haven’t yet guessed where I’m going with this, given that the intellectual aptitude of most people isn’t that great, I’d have to say “inessential” things are decisive in the religious experience of the vast majority of Catholics.  Yes, there may be some who can quote catechism and scripture (and occasionally encyclical) chapter and verse, but this is quite rare.  Most people simply don’t have the drive or the patience to learn and be able to articulate the basic doctrines of Christian faith in the abstract, and certainly not the often very complex form which it takes in Catholic Christianity.

So this is probably where you would expect me to bitch and complain about the liturgy, but I’m not going to do that.  (Besides, it has been done, and that on a regular basis, for quite some time.)  It’s true that I’m not terribly fond of papa Francesco’s liturgical sensibilities, to say the least, and I don’t think it’s very helpful to call the desire of young people for the Extraordinary form of the Latin rite a “fad.”  Nor do I think much of those traditionalists who blame the council for all of the ills that have beset the Catholic Church since the 60s.  My point is larger than the liturgy, or the council itself:  what the Holy Father doesn’t seem to recognize, and what many Catholics don’t seem to recognize, is the importance of those inessential devotional practices which mediate to us the essential truths of the faith, and allow us to experience them intimately.  Of course, not everyone experiences the faith in the same way; our experiences are largely subjective, and that is part of the reason we fight about things like music, and liturgical dress, precisely because their value is debatable.  But just because there is a subjective element involved in those “inessential” aspects of worship and devotional practice does not mean that just anything will do for the sacred liturgy, or that any devotional practice is fine, as long as it has ecclesiastical approval.   And visible continuity with the past, with those have died and gone before us, one would think would be a no-brainer as a criteria for the Church’s ritual and devotional life.  Those traditionalists (such as this one) who blame the council for all the ills that followed in its wake are mistaken, but they have a point when note that the “hermeneutic of continuity” has been mostly an intellectual construct, and has had little effect on the practical, devotional life of the Catholic Church.  The council sought to renovate the teachings of the church in the abstract, as a matter of officially declared doctrines, and indeed in this sense it may be said to have succeeded.  But the council Fathers did not seem to think much more was required, and seemingly made no provision for how these renovated teachings were to be squared at a practical level with what preceded them.   I suspect this is because, as is apparently the case with the current successor to Peter, they seem not to understand the power of “inessential” things, as Zmirak rightly pointed out.

What is more, I think the failure to appreciate this point indicates something more deeply ingrained in Catholic life.  This is that the Catholic belief in the infallible authority of the church is so strong, it is sometimes seems as if most Catholics believe that this authority is all that is necessary for the preservation of the faith.  We don’t need any particular type of devotional practice as long as it is approved by church authorities and isn’t obviously heretical, as long as it draws people into the faith; insisting on this or that type of devotion  (because it connects us with the past, because it is more objectively in keeping with Church teaching) is, on this view, not necessary, and perhaps divisive as well.  The only thing necessary is that people in the present like it well enough to make it to mass on Sunday.  The sort of legalistic thinking that lies behind this tendency is not hard to spot, but it is probably in some ways unavoidable, given what Catholics are supposed to believe, at least for the foreseeable future.

However, as Duffy’s book proves, things weren’t always this way.  And Duffy himself, as I have hinted at the beginning of this essay, has written a book on the subject of Catholic ritual and devotion, called Faith of Our Fathers.  In that book, Duffy criticized the decision to release people from the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays, arguing for its value in creating a widely shared sense of being Catholic, one that connected it with solidarity to the poor.  Duffy has written elsewhere of what he takes to be the excessive emphasis on the authority of the pope amongst modern Catholics, and though it was the papacy above all that made me enter the Church’s communion, I tend to think he is correct.*   Without a healthy, vibrant communal, ritual and devotional life–one that is not in flagrantly visible discontinuity with the past ages of its existence–is necessary for the Church to flourish.  It can exist on authority alone, it is true, but that is not optimal, and probably not even healthy.  No doubt, the Church will always have a need to call on the Rock of the faith to secure its moorings directly, but it should not be a normal state of affairs to have the pope being the only thing that seemingly unites all Catholics at a practical level.  But how could this be done in the present moment, when Catholics are so seemingly divided on precisely these questions of liturgy, and devotional practice?  That is a question to which I will return in my next post, where I will take a look at the positive role that “inessential things” could play in the life of the Church today, and in particular–with no little sense of irony, given what I have just written–what Catholics might learn from the Anglican tradition on this score.




Alypius Minor




* I am aware that Duffy has been, to say the least, critical of recent popes, especially St. John Paul II, for having censured academic theologians.  I certainly disagree with Professor Duffy on this point, as on others, but I do not think it detracts from his general point about the excessive focus on the papacy in the modern world.  Some of this is the result no doubt of modern media, but it is also not unrelated to the concerns Duffy and others have raised about the devotional and ritual life of the Church.

The Lady’s Slipper: A Review

•July 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Lady's SlipperThe Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Lady’s Slipper is a historical novel, set in the Restoration period (1660-1688) of English history, and revolves around the theft of an extremely rare flower—the title name—by Alice Ibbetson, a painter and amateur botanist. She steals it from its owner, a Quaker named Richard Wheeler, who immediately suspects her of the theft, but the flower is also coveted by Alice’s patron, a nobleman named Gregory Fisk who suffers from a skin ailment and wants the flower for its medicinal properties. Alice hides the flower from Wheeler but it is noticed by a local herbalist named Margaret Poulter, who is killed accidentally by Fisk but whose death is pinned on Alice. Animosities between Fisk and Wheeler lead to Wheeler’s imprisonment with Alice, but they are broken out by Fisk’s son Stephen, who comes to embrace Richard’s religion after spying on Quaker meetings for his father. Alice and Richard buy passage to America to escape but find themselves on Gregory Fisk’s ship. Fisk attacks Alice but Richard manages to fight him off and wounds him. Fisk dies aboard ship, and Alice and Richard make their life in New Hampshire.

The book’s main strength lies in the basic premise of the book, and the colorful background of its characters: Alice’s botany and painting pursuits, Fisk’s interest in chemistry and medicine, Wheeler’s religion, Margaret’s “witchcraft.” The intertwining of Wheeler and Fisk by their civil war experience, and religious differences, was also well done. Characters such as Margaret and Dorothy Hall give the books color and variety. The book is consistently entertaining and colorful, if not always satisfyingly so. The book has several flaws, the most noticeable of which is the lack of direct connection between the inciting incident—the theft of the flower—and the rest of the events that lead to the denouement of the story. The events which lead to Alice’s condemnation and scheduled execution seem rather coincidental, as does her and Richard finding their way onto Fisk’s ship at the end of the book. At one point, Swift’s narration of Alice’s thoughts has her saying to herself that all the events that led her to her imprisonment were inevitable, but reading the novel they felt more like a series of coincidences. Nor despite the juicy conflicts with which the book begins does the story feel like it escalates very much after the first few chapters, which is probably why, for all the color she gives her main characters, few of them seem to have much of an arc. It’s not clear what has changed in Alice from start to finish, most of all, but even in the two most interesting characters—Stephen and Richard—the inner tensions that make them interesting in the first place dissolve as the story unfolds. For Stephen, the tension between his loyalty to his father and his friendship with Richard are undermined by the fact that Gregory is portrayed so unsympathetically; in the case of Wheeler, the tension between his religion and his desires (for nice clothes, for Alice) is dissolved by the seeming ease with which beds Alice, and goes back to soldiering. The whole change seems rather mechanical, and undermines the thing which made Wheeler compelling, his unique but challenging religion.

With regard to the historical aspects of the novel were mixed, I give the book mixed reviews. Her depiction of the civil war and its causes was totally off the mark—at one point Richard says he fought on the side of Parliament because he thought the people should govern their own affairs, while Gregory Fisk remained attached to the “old system” but this is horribly anachronistic, and no academic historian would take such an portrayal of the war seriously. On the hand, her depiction of Quaker meetings and beliefs were sympathetic, and fairly accurate, as was her sometimes moving depictions of their sufferings. But she doesn’t seem nearly as interested in depicting the nuances of those characters who are Anglicans in the book, whose religion she doesn’t seem to care for very much. She seems to prefer religious belief and practice that is closer to modern concerns, apparently. This would be in keeping with what appears to be one of the themes of the novel, which has to do with respect for the natural world; the character of Margaret exemplifies this most clearly, and at one point I though Swift might make more of this theme, but doesn’t seem to exploit it as much as she could have. This may or may not have been a bad thing; personally, I don’t have much sympathy with what seem like a neo-pagan philosophy at times in the book, but it could have been utilized to give the novel a more effective theme had tied more closely in with the events of the work, rather than merely being interjected by the narrator a few times, as was the case.

In the end, however, this was a highly readable, entertaining effort by a first time novelist, even if it didn’t reach the heights of great literature. But I think it had the potential to do so, even if it didn’t reach it, and who knows? Perhaps Swift may reach those heights sometime in the not too distant future. There are certainly worse things to say about a novel than that it was entertaining, and for my money, nothing worse could be said about The Lady’s Slipper.

View all my reviews

History: A Very Short Introduction–A Very Short Review

•May 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

History: A Very Short Introduction, by John Arnold (Oxford, 2000)

I have recently begun writing lectures for two halves of an American history survey I will be teaching in the fall, and I wanted to assign a book that will describe for my students what the actual practice of history amounts to, and not just give them a narrative of American history.  (That is for the textbook I’ve assigned them.)  I chose John Arnold’s contribution to Oxford’s A Very Short Introduction series, and I just wanted to give my two cents on it.  I know you’re just dying to hear it!

I am fond of the “Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford, but this is the first time I have ever assigned one of its books in a class before.  The first chapter “Questions About Murder and History” starts off with a description of a murder, written in the 14th century, by monk:  Arnold uses this to introduce the study of history.   “This then is history:  a true story of something that happened long ago, retold in the present.” (3-4)  Arnold stresses that history is a process, one that is fraught with limitations (of evidence, of bias, etc.); he also stresses that every history has an argument to make, one that must agree with the evidence but which is also bound up with interpretation:  “historians tell stories, in the sense they are out to persuade you (and themselves) of something.” (13)

The next two chapters deal with historiography up until the beginnings of academic history in the 19th century.  Chapter 4, “Voices and Silences,” looks at sources, and tries to give the reader some example of how one might interpret a source which gives some information about who wrote it, and why, but not very much.  Chapter 5, “Journey of a Thousand Miles,” deals with what might be called approaches to history–social, economic, cultural, and the like, as well as dealing with sticky terms such as “origins” and “cause and effect” with regards to historical judgments.  Chapter 6, “The Killing of Cats, or Is the Past a Foreign Country?”  examines the tricky terrain of “mentalities,” of looking at evidence not only for what happened in the past, but what people in the past thought about it, how they made sense of it. (96)  The issue of language is prominent in this chapter, not only the language of people in the past but of what types of language historians use as well.  Finally, in chapter 7,  “Telling Truth,” deals with the tricky issue of whether there is one single True history that one can write, or merely histories plural about a given issue.  Without wanting to assert that there are times when evidence does more or less settle a debate (he mentions the overwhelming evidence for the reality of the Holocaust as an example) he comes down on the side of what I would call a moderate relativism:  no, there is no one single history that encompasses them all, but that does not mean everything is up for grabs. He ends by suggesting three more limited, but very good reasons, for writing history.

On the whole, I liked the book, obviously, enough to put in on order at the campus bookstore.  My only caveats are a couple.  First, for an audience of American students, I’m afraid the historical examples he gives (which, with one exception, are drawn from medieval and early modern European history–Arnold is a medieval historian) might not resonate too well with my students.  The second is that, though I thoroughly agree with his strictures on the limits of what a historian can tell us about unchanging verities (after all, we study change, don’t we?) I’m not sure I’m comfortable with his assertion that historians are “not, and should not be of much use” in “divining essences of things,” and seems to think we do not need to trouble ourselves about “essential links between different peoples and times.”  (121) I agree that history can’t establish the truth of “essences” for human nature, but that it has nothing to say to it I think goes a bridge too far for me.  He apparently does not believe in unchanging “essences” or think they are important; I disagree with this obviously, but more than that I do think history has something to tell us in regard to questions like this, even if such questions (is there a God? what does it mean to live a good life?) are more philosophical in nature, and cannot be determined by historical inquiry alone.   Nevertheless, I do believe Arnold’s book is a fine introduction to the discipline of history; I just hope my students think so in the fall, too.



Alypius Minor

Seek, and Ye Shall Find Your Selves: A Review of 1913 by Charles Emmerson

•May 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (Public Affairs), 547 pp.  by Charles Emmerson


It is an axiom of writing history that you always begin with a question:  why did such and such a thing happen, and at this particular moment, etc.  It is also the case that such questions are usually prompted by some sort of burning desire to address issues or questions we have about our world in the present, and it is inevitable that such concerns will color our view of the past.  The key for a good historian is to be conscious about such concerns, as with his assumptions and beliefs, and that he or she try to be as forthright as can be expected with their readers, so that they can make their own judgments on what they have written.

Recently, I have taken to reading books about the First World War, this being the centenary of the start of the Great War, and having listened to a podcast with the author, I recently finished reading 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson.  I wanted to read it because it sounded like a genuine attempt to try to capture some of what was going on around the globe just before the Great War altered life in Europe forever.   In his book, Emmerson set out to paint a portrait of what life was like in both the major cities of Europe and America before WWI but also in great capitals and cities around the globe, such as Shanghai, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires.   Part of Emmerson’s goal was to make the pre-war era more familiar to readers, but also to stress how similar civilization was in 1913 to what it is today; in particular, he wants to stress the already globalized nature of civilizations across the globe.

Emmerson’s book is written for a general audience, I presume, and if one is seeking an very generic introduction to the relative political position occupied by Western and other nations vis-a-vis each other in 1913, one will find the book more or less meets that standard.  Utilizing mostly newspaper and journal accounts, mixed in with some secondary sources, the book is made up mostly of vignettes from those sources, without any other real attempt at a unifying theme or argument. Mostly, it simply tries to offer a brief snapshot of the basic political and social situation in a variety of places around the globe.

However, if you are looking for more than this, you will be disappointed.  The book does not offer any reflections on the various peoples and nations that it catalogues, nor does it seek to connect any of the events that it relates leading up and including 1913 with events that occur afterward.  For example, Emmerson’s chapter on Peking and Shanghai goes into detail on the Boxer Rebellion, and the end of the Quing dynasty but fails to link this to Communist Revolution.  Perhaps this was done for the sake of brevity (the book itself is 547 pages long, including footnotes) but it was disappointing, in a book claiming to make clear how similar the world of 1913 is to that of 2013, that he almost never makes any explicit comparisons between them.

Also troubling to me were certain factual errors and omissions that I noticed in the book.  For example, in his chapter on Vienna, Emmerson claims that the Viennese made a habit of leaving their great composers destitute in the 19th century at their deaths citing Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as examples with Strauss being the only counter example:  “the city had an unerring tradition of celebrating its greatest composers after it had allowed them to die in poverty—Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert.  The only exception to this was Johann Strauss, the waltz king.”  (115) Never mind the fact that Beethoven did not die in poverty, or that it is absurd to say the Viennese “let” Mozart and Schubert die in poverty.  More importantly, the list omits Hydyn, Brahms, and Bruckner, all of whom enjoyed success in Vienna,  and none of whom died in poverty.

Pointing out a seemingly minor mistake like this might seem like a quibble, but Emmerson made several other errors, most notably on religious subjects, that stood out to me, and quite frankly made me question his competence, or at least his editor’s competence.  One was his description of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as the “site from which Jesus was said to have risen into Heaven.”  (336)  Actually, the gospel of Luke specifies that it was Bethany where Jesus ascended into Heaven; there is a chapel dedicated to the Ascenscion there to this day that marks the spot.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the other hand, is supposed to be built over the tomb where Jesus was buried, and resurrected from.   (Presumably, he simply confused Jesus’ resurrection from the dead with his ascension into heaven, but it is hard to tell.) In another example in his chapter on Rome, Emmerson refers to the  “spiritual infallibility” of the Pope as a reason for continuing enmity with the new Italian kingdom, whereas the actual Catholic teaching on the Pope’s infallibility refers to doctrinal matters, namely that he cannot teach serious error regarding faith or morals when teaching with the full authority of his office. (97)  Nor does Emmerson seem any more well versed on the subject of Islam either; he refers to “Islamic clergy” in Algeria in 1913, presumably referring to imams, but this is confusing, since the Sunni Islam predominant in North Africa (as in most Muslim countries) does not make any special status among its adherents that is equivalent to the “clergy” in Christianity, though it is a different matter with the Shia.  (286)  Lastly, he seems to think of the Caliphate as having combined a sort of religious and political authority, like the medieval popes, in his discussion of Istanbul, but doesn’t seem to realize that the Caliphs had no real authority in religious matters, which were the province of religious scholars in Islamic societies.  (365)  What is disturbing about all of this to me is that all of these facts can be ascertained from reliable  sources using a quick Google search, and Emmerson seems to have thought they did not matter much in a book purporting to be about “the world.”

Emmerson’s tin ear for the nuances of two great world religions is symptomatic of a deeper issue in his book, however.   It appears that his view of the “world” is that of a secular, liberal, Westerner, but is never announced as such.  This shows up not only the factual details he was apparently not interested in getting right, but also in omissions from his book.  For example, in his chapter on Los Angeles, Emmerson dutifully notes the first inklings of what will become Hollywood in the era just prior to 1913, but never mentions that one of the most important religious movements in the world today began in Los Angeles in 1905, namely the modern Pentecostal movement, which had its origins in the Asuza Street revival which began that year in L.A.  Notice the distinction:  for Emmerson, Hollywood is part of the “world” deserving of treatment; Pentecostalism is not.  As is, one suspects, religion generally speaking, perhaps because he thinks it is not sufficiently “modern” enough to be part of the “world.”

A similar distinction arises in regards to his discussion of the Ottoman Empire.  In his discussion on the Young Turks who forced constitutional changes in the Ottoman state in 1908, he informs us that in 1908 “10,000 Armenians had died in inter-communal violence” in Istanbul.  (365) What does he mean by inter-communal violence, you ask?  I had to look it up on the internet to find out.  He was referencing the Adana massacre of 1909, in which, according to most accounts, not 10 but 20-30,000 Armenian were killed, and which was precipitated by a counter coup against the Young Turks.  I note this because Emmerson makes the Young Turks, with their modernizing political program and drive toward nationalism, the main protagonist in his narrative on the Ottoman Empire.  Nor does he link this violence against the Armenians in 1909 with the genocide of Armenians in 1915, even though he mentions it in passing in the epilogue. (457)  In fact, he seems to laud them as being progressive, modernizing; he characterizes Ottoman society thus:  “To be an Ottoman, in the fullest and most political sense of the word, was to understand and celebrate these different religions and cultures as part of a whole, whatever one’s own background.” (365) Somehow I’m not sure the Armenians would agree.  Compare this description with the way he talks about the Austro-Hungarian empire, another declining power in 1913, but whose government was not quite progressive enough, it seems, to suit Emmerson’s tastes.  In discussing the term “Imperial and Royal” which the Austrians used to describe their system of government which gave the Hungarians autonomy as a kingdom yet still within the empire, Emmerson comments thus:  “empire and kingdom were indeed separate, and yet part of the same body, a concept which no doubt made sense to those brought up with the mysteries of the Holy Trinity.”  (104)  Emmerson’s narrative clearly favors one empire over the other, as his Gibbon-like barb at Christian belief makes clear, but he never really tells us why he believes this is the case.

All of this brings up the most important omission of all in Emmerson’s book.  He writes as if he is merely giving a description of the world as it is by describing a few global patterns in some major cities, and not a historical snapshot which presumes a very particular world view.   Now, some superficiality in a book like this is inevitable, as are some minor errors of fact given the limitations all of us have in terms of our knowledge.  But reading 1913 left me with the impression that this was not merely a matter of missing a few details but a matter of avoiding the real question which his work raises but never answers, primarily because Emmerson thinks he knows the answer already.  Emmerson says in the introduction that “in 1913, our world was alive and kicking”; my immediate response upon reading this passage was, “who is ‘we’?”   Emmerson seems to presume an answer to this question, but never makes it explicit:  “we” are the wealthy, progressive, secular Western elites who, for good or ill, still govern much of the institutions that shape civilizations.   And rather than write a genuine history of how this came to be, and how the world before the War plays into this, he simply reads his the world view he knows and is familiar with back into several of those civilizations in 1913, and finds it there.   Emmerson ends the book by saying it was meant as a spur for his readers to “consider our future, not as a foregone conclusion, not as a pre-determined course of events, but as a future we have yet to build.” (463)  This must be comforting, I suppose, to people already share his beliefs, but to those don’t, it might give one pause to consider questions that Emmerson simply ignores.





Alypius Minor

Argumentum ad Complexitem

•April 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I sometimes wish I could add another entry to the standard list of logical fallacies you find in textbooks on logic. If I could, I would call it something like “the argument from complexity.” That is, I often find when people are arguing a point and they would like to avoid a particular conclusion which seems to result from their argument, they invoke the putative complexity of the problem at hand. Or else they simply refer to the existence of other “perspectives” on a question to avoid dealing with the one they dislike but which is likely true. I think of it as the opposite of the “false dilemma” fallacy: whereas the one posits a false dichotomy between two options only by eliminating other options, the other treats all view points as equal, or treats a question as a matter of degree, when in fact there are only one or two possible answers to the question.  (After all, some questions in life are if fact either/or, pass/fail type questions.)  In other words, whereas the either/or fallacy relates to an oversimplification, the argument from complexity relates to making things overly complicated, either by accident–or as I suspect–by design. Think of it as the argumentative version of someone responding to your question with the phrase, “it’s complicated,” and you’ll catch my drift. Alas, I don’t think it will be on the books anytime soon. Pity.  One can dream, I guess.




Alypius Minor

Christ is Risen From the Dead

•April 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Sunday of the Resurrection of the Son of God:


“Today all things are filled with light / earth and heaven and the world beneath. / Then let all creation celebrate / the resurrection of Christ. / In Him is the firm foundation of all things.”

“O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!

This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.”

“Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”

“As it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said.”


From Ode 3 (Orthodox Matins for the Resurrection)
From the Exsultet {Easter Proclamation} Easter Vigil (Roman Rite)
Isaiah 60:1 (Authorized Version)
Gospel of Matthew, 28:1-6 (Authorized Version)


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