Humor Magazine

Is God Laughing Or Crying?

By Davidduff

I ask, you see, because I have 'got religion'!  No, no, I'm not banging on your door asking if you believe or any of that sort of thing, but ever since I read Jonathan Sachs's superb book The Great Partnership I have become interested in the history of religion, or to be precise, mainly the Christian religion.  What nags away at the back of my mind is the incredible speed with which, in those ancient times, it spread round the Roman empire and was lapped up so quickly by the populations of so many different countries.  Of course, now I think about it, I can see the attraction for ordinary people in a religion in which prince and pauper are equal before the eyes of God.  Even so, the speed of its spread was amazing.

Talking about this with a friend before Christmas prompted her to buy me another book, The History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill.  I am only partway through it but already, like God in my title above, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.  If indeed God did despatch his Son to earth to preach a simple but hugely powerful and persuasive message of morality to be easily understood by the great unwashed and ignorant, then surely he must have realised that it would only be a matter of time - a very, very short time - before the intellectuals got at it!  Amongst the first was Justin Martyr, about a hundred years after Christ, and after Justin it was downhill all the way.  Endless 'picking of nits' and 'dancing on the heads of pins' was undertaken by sundry bloody intellectuals so that the simplicity of the original message was buried under a slag-heap of contradictory interpretations, many of which would in time be enforced by axe, sword and fire.

And then yesterday, via the good offices of Arts & Letters Daily, I came across an excellent review of a book called Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg.  The reviewer, R. I. Moore at The Nation, begins with Nirenberg's unique (as far as I know) interpretation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in which he proposes:

“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,” Antonio wonders at the outset of The
Merchant of Venice. What could seem more universal, more culturally neutral

than melancholy? Yet if David Nirenberg’s argument in Anti-Judaism is correct, by Shakespeare’s time the negative associations of Judaism were so universal, and so close to the surface of Christian consciousness, that Antonio’s words immediately prompt the suspicion that he might be a Jew. Other characters soon echo the suggestion. His friend Salerio attributes Antonio’s mood to anxiety about the safety of the ships carrying his merchandise overseas, thus taxing him with excessive regard for his money; then, when Antonio repudiates the accusation, another friend, Gratiano, charges him with hypocrisy. Either way, Nirenberg writes, Antonio “appears to be, in the vocabulary of Christianity, a ‘Jew.’”

Well, I have lost count of the number of times when Shakespearean experts have offered up a new way of looking at his plays which have left me open-mouthed and my own pet theories in ruins about me.  This way of looking at Antonio is certainly new to me but . . . but . . . now you mention it  . . . !  Anyway, both the book and the review are concerned with wider matters.  They both draw attention to the way in which the early 'Church Elders' (or bloody intellectuals, if you prefer!) felt the need to differentiate themselves from Judaism despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that they both drew their inspiration from the same early chronicles.  This need to distance themselves from the Jews went hand-in-hand with the necessity of crushing any Christian sects who failed to abide by the totally man-made creed of the early church, and , of course, any pagans still surviving who preferred their old, semi-human and therefore recognisable Gods.  Over the centuries these habits, which might be described as 'getting your retaliation in first' persisted with increasingly bloody results.  But through it all ran the over-riding necessity to mark the differences between Christianity and Judaism with results that live - and die - with us today.

I think He's crying!


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