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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London