Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Darkening Preconceptions

This is a comment on the reaction to a book, rather than the book itself.

Catherine Nixey has written a new book called The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, about the transition from the ancient Roman world to a Christian world. She studied classics at Cambridge, but is now a journalist. It's clear that this book is a polemic, aimed at redressing the imbalance caused by the Christian-good, pagan-bad narrative that has (mostly) dominated since then, at least in the West, and because of that it has received very contrasting reviews.

I've not read the book yet, partly because of the polarising nature of those reviews; is it too polemical for a layman? Christians and those sympathetic to religion and the early middle ages have damned it, while classicists seem to mostly like it. It would be nice to have an objective view of this era, but the subject is emotive and the events discussed are multi-factorial, which allows prejudices and preconceptions to dictate one's interpretation of those events. Is it too glib to say that classicists defend the classical world and experts of the middle ages and Christianity defend theirs?

Here is a sample of the conflicting reviews:

Anti Nixey

Averil Cameron (professor emerita of Late Antique and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford) in Catholic magazine The Tablet: "Hearts will sink among historians of early Christianity and late antiquity, as well as medievalists and, needless to say, Byzantinists, when they see the title of this pugnacious and energetically written book. The words  ‘darkening age’ evoke everything they have been trying for years to overturn."

Levi Roach (lecturer in the early and high middle ages) in The Literary Review: “does not seek to present a balanced picture (…) this is a book of generalisations. (…) Nixey (…) is unwilling to see shades of grey.” (from here)

The most damning review comes from Tim O'Neill (anti-new-atheist-atheist historian blogger) here: "...this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in year."
"While Nixey does indeed detail several incidents of Christian violence and several more of Christian destruction, the problem is that she highlights these while neglecting or lightly skipping around other, similar incidents perpetrated by her heroes, the pagans. This makes for a good story – one with clear “good guys” and “bad guys” – but it is hopelessly biased, deliberately distorted and bad history."
"Anyone reading Nixey’s book is likely to come away thinking they know and understand more but will actually have learned things that would have to be unlearned or corrected later. Nixey’s is not a good history book. It is, as Dame Averil said so pithily, “a travesty”."

Josh Herring (Christian evangelist) for the religious think tank The Acton Institute: "The best of historical writing is accessible to educated adults of all disciplines, and it furthers our understanding of the human person; The Darkening Age is not such a work. Instead, it reveals more to us about Catherine Nixey and her understanding of history. The scholars she assembles are uniformly opposed to Christianity, presenting it as a destructive force that ended the “merry, jolly days” of pagan festivity. The prose she uses is filled with judgmental adjectives, indicating that she does not trust readers to draw their conclusion from the evidence; we must be told how to feel about the person she describes. Her book was several years in the making, but it does not reflect a clear understanding of Christianity, the complexities of Late Antiquity, or the nuances of historical craft. While this book is sold under the guise of popular history, treat it instead as an insight into how a secular journalist views Christianity in the year of our Lord 2017."

Pro Nixey

Gerard DeGroot (professor of 20th century history at the University of St Andrews) in The Times: "The Darkening Age is a delightful book about destruction and despair. Nixey combines the authority of a serious academic with the expressive style of a good journalist. She’s not afraid to throw in the odd joke amid sombre tales of desecration. With considerable courage, she challenges the wisdom of history and manages to prevail. Comfortable assumptions about Christian progress come tumbling down."

Bettany Hughes (professor of classical history) in the New York Times: "Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance. Her sympathy, corruscatingly, compellingly, is with the Roman orator Symmachus: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?”"

Emily Wilson (Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania) in The New Statesman: "Nixey is a funny, lively, readable guide through this dark world of religious oppression. She wisely insists at the start of her book that this account of cultural violence should not be read as an attack on those who are “impelled by their Christian faith to do many, many good things”. It is instead a reminder that “monotheism” (or, one could say, religion in general and Christianity in particular) can be used for “terrible ends”. The book is also an essential reminder, in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, that intolerance, ignorance and hostility to cultural diversity are sadly nothing new."

Tim Whitmarsh (professor of Greek culture at Cambridge) in The Guardian: "But this book is not intended as a comprehensive history of early Christianity and its complex, embattled relationship to the Roman empire, and it would be unfair to judge it against that aim. It is, rather, a finely crafted, invigorating polemic against the resilient popular myth that presents the Christianisation of Rome as the triumph of a kinder, gentler politics. On those terms, it succeeds brilliantly."

It's also worth bearing in mind the experts who gave Nixey a blurb:

Engaging and erudite, Catherine Nixey's book offers both a compelling argument and a wonderful eye for vivid detail. It shines a searching spotlight onto some of the murkiest aspects of the early medieval mindset. A triumph. Edith Hall (Professor in the Classics Department and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King's College London)

Captivating and compulsive, Catherine Nixey's debut challenges our whole understanding of Christianity's earliest years and the medieval society that followed. A remarkable fusion of captivating narrative and acute scholarly judgment, this book marks the debut of a formidable classicist and historian. Dan Jones (journalist and historian)

Nixey's elegant and ferocious text paints a dark but riveting picture of life at the time of the 'triumph' of Christianity, reminding us not just of the realities of our own past, but also of the sad echoes of that past in our present. Michael Scott (associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick)

Reading through the reviews it feels like they are talking about two different books, such is the discrepancy in their takes. The 'anti-Nixey' reviews make a lot of apparently valid points, and decry Nixey's bibliography. But then why would classicists and others find so much to approve of in the book? I think I know the answer: it's because it's a polemic against the presupposed goodness of the triumph of Christianity, so it's not supposed to be a balanced academic piece. In the end I guess her fans applaud that approach while her critics decry it.

I dare say one would have to study the era for some time before being expert enough to form one's own conclusion and, just as I'm not going to study cosmology to form an opinion on cosmology, I'm not going to study the history of that era either. I'm going to have to form a judgement based on scholarly consensus, and currently I lean toward the classicists. I know that science, technology and art was lost from antiquity; Christianity is prima facie culpable. The nuance that apologists for Christianity too often offer is sufficient to show other factors in play but insufficient to exculpate Christianity.

That betrays my prejudices and preconceptions too, but I've grown up in a Christian culture and have slowly realised how other cultures have been automatically and unthinkingly othered by the Christian narrative, so Nixey's book may well be a much-needed corrective.

It's interesting how the Christian persecution complex comes to the fore when there is push-back against the prevailing Christian narrative, and this push-back doesn't just come from Christians. All of us raised in a Christian culture are rather too quick to defend the atrocities committed to perpetuate our culture, and find it difficult to push against our own culture. Nevertheless, push against it we must, because we now live in a multi-cultural society and our cultures need to be reconciled. It's time to reassign the credit Christianity claims, and the blame it disclaims.

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