Princeton, £27.95. Order at the discounted price of£22.95 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Why Can The Dead Do Such Great Things? By Robert Bartlett: Book review

The jury is out on the cult of saints and martyrs in this magisterial work

The great thing about this magisterial work of scholarship is that it will supply evidence for both the prosecution and the defence of the cult of the saints in Catholic Christianity. It is written in a tone of such sympathetic neutrality that it is hard to figure out the author's own views on the subject; but as I read on I was reminded of the words of the Roman dramatist Terence, who said that since he was a man nothing human was alien to him – and whatever else may be said of the cult of the saints, it is human, all-too human.

Bartlett describes it as "the invocation of powerful invisible beings, human in form" – who happen to be dead. The title of his book comes from a question asked by Augustine of Hippo as he pondered the miracles wrought by the saints and martyrs of the early Church. The idea of living holy men and women with extraordinary powers derived from their closeness to God is common to many religions; what is distinctive about Christianity is that it took this idea beyond death and cherished what was left of the corpses of the saints as continuing sources of supernatural power – and it's the word supernatural that's the key to the issue here.

Since they emerged on Earth, humans have been wondering if they were alone in the universe or whether they came from another world to which they would return after death and with which, even now, they could have commerce. You can define the world's religions by the way they respond to these questions; and of them all, Catholicism is the most certain that there is indeed another world that interpenetrates and interfuses this one – and the best way to make contact with it is through the mediation of the holy dead. Their proven heroism gives the saints clout in the courts of heaven, so they are worth petitioning for favours.

What comes through Bartlett's encyclopaedic study of every aspect of this ancient phenomenon is a sympathetic understanding of the human need that prompted it: "…the cult of the saints met needs, in particular the need for the hope of a cure in a sick and suffering world." You can still see that need being expressed in Catholic churches throughout the world, where the poor and downtrodden get comfort from lighting candles and praying before the shrines of their favourite saints; and even if we think the whole set-up is a fraud on the gullible and needy, the generous-minded among us will acknowledge the comfort it brings to them.

At the Reformation, Protestant Europe threw this whole colourful and corruptible system overboard, claiming it was based on bad theology: Christians already had a mediator in heaven, Jesus Christ, so no others were needed. And so vehemently opposed were the Scottish reformers to the cult of the saints and the imagery that expressed it that hardly a trace of pre-reformation ecclesiastical art survived north of the border.

To experience the desolation that resulted, make a pilgrimage to St Andrews – where Bartlett is himself a professor – and stand amidst the bare ruined choirs of the ancient abbey and think about what was lost. It was here that John Knox preached against the cult of the saints, and we are told that "…the sermon was scarcely done when they fell to work to purge the kirk and break down the altars and images and all kinds of idolatry... before the sun was down there was never an inch standing but bare walls..." We saw that same brutal iconoclasm at work in 2001 when the Afghani Taliban destroyed the great statues of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, proving that Puritanism never dies, it just assumes new forms.

Well, I don't believe praying to the holy dead will help any of us solve our problems, but next time I am in church I will light a candle to Our Lady to show whose side I am on in the endless struggle against the spiritual fascists who arrogate to themselves the right to tell the rest of us what we should or should not believe.

Richard Holloway is the former Bishop of Edinburgh. His latest book, 'Leaving Alexandria', is published by Canongate

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy