Wednesday Book: The gospel according to Ludovic

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The Independent Culture
SEX IN anything other than the missionary position, according to Ludovic Kennedy's reading of the views of the 13th-century theologian St Thomas Aquinas, was an unnatural vice and worse than intercourse with one's own mother. But it is not just the sex that upsets the veteran broadcaster. There is the absurdity of those medieval cathedrals that claimed to have as relics a branch of Moses' burning bush, 204 bits of the babies massacred by Herod, or Christ's milk teeth and foreskin.

And it is not just the superstition. There is 2,000 years of violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity, from the holy wars of the Crusades and institutionalised murder of the Inquisitions to the persecution of hapless individuals - such as the 18th-century French aristocrat who declined to doff his hat at a passing religious procession. In punishment, he had his hands cut off and his tongue torn out and was then burned alive.

Kennedy has gathered an impressive catalogue of the madness and badness perpetrated in the name of Christianity over the centuries. He suggests that it not only undermines that faith, but proves that God does not exist. There is a leap in logic here, of course; for though the awful inventory may discredit the use to which religion has been put, it does not necessarily undermine faith itself.

It is not a distinction Kennedy wants to make. For his book is not an open-minded exploration of the role of 2,000 years of European faith; rather it is a vituperative polemic against the very business of belief. Hence he has just five lines on the cathedrals of Cologne, Chartres and Canterbury, the paintings of Titian and Tintoretto, the music of Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Verdi and the centuries of poetry and literature that Christianity prompted. He has virtually nothing on its care of the poor and marginalised. Against that he has almost 300 pages on the inconsistencies of the Gospels, the intransigence of dogma and what he repeatedly refers to as Christianity's "killing fields".

All of this is racily written and a romp of a read, though some of its intemperate asides impart a tone of intolerance that risks alienating all but avowed atheists. However, the thinking that draws it all together is sloppy. For a seasoned reporter, he draws unjustifiably wide inferences from ad hominem arguments. He assumes causal relationships between sequential events. He sets up false polarities between science and religion, inertia and change.

He makes clumsy assumptions, for instance that doubts in matters of morality and of metaphysics are the same thing. His account of the rise of modern English atheism is interesting but displays a constant lack of proportion, dwelling as long on the torn frock-coat of Britain's first atheist MP, Charles Bradlaugh, as he does on some of Christianity's truly shameful murderous righteousness.

Kennedy is right; most Christians today would agree about the failures of the past, though he does repeatedly fall into the fallacy of judging the past by the standards of the present rather than from an understanding of those times. He does not understand, for example, that "sin" meant something very different in first-century Palestine than it did in medieval Christendom or in later centuries.

But a greater fault than this ahistoricity is the stultifying literalism that underlies his view of the Bible. He describes the Gospels as docu- drama and seems to assume that, if they are not historically accurate, then they are devoid of truth of other kinds. This is surprising, for he writes a rather moving concluding chapter on his own personal spirituality - sparked by hearing bagpipes across a Scottish hillside. It is full of references to the poetic, the subconscious and the elliptical. Yet he will admit no sense of myth or metaphor in the Bible. Nor will he concede that his own sense of the transcendent in nature or art rests on assertions of belief rather than in the scientific rationalism he elsewhere lauds. This failure of imagination leads him to paint a monochrome Aunt Sally of Christianity.

When it comes to modern theology, which takes account of the psychology of Freud or the philosophy of the logical positivists, Kennedy's literalism prevents him from engaging. Tillich's sense of God as "the depth and ground of all being", Bultmann's attempts to demythologise the Bible or Bonhoeffer's notion of "Christianity without religion" are all pronounced "confusing" or "baffling", though that does not stop him from plucking lines from them to support his thesis.

The book dismisses in a single sentence the idea that human beings are hard-wired for religion as they are for language and music. Nor has it anything interesting to say on how the decline in established religions is being met by the blossoming of vague new age spiritualities. The book, Kennedy says in his introduction, will either be considered radical or old hat. Sadly, there can be little doubt as to what the verdict must be.

Paul Vallely