A little while ago I wrote a review of a book on the Bible that it’s fair to say I didn’t like very much. wrote a long comment that I am only just getting around to because, to be frank, responding to smart people when not actually having a face-to-face conversation can be hard work and you all know me and hard work…

Chris said:

>> The authorial voice in the book has far from a neutral point of view.
> Should it have to? I think that a lot is lost in the fetish for "NPOV", as Wikipedia rather crassly calls it.

Perhaps, I think it depends on what the author is trying to do. In this case it is pitched as a ‘history’ book. To me that should mean displaying purely the facts (ma’am) with appropriate references to similar things from other places and times. If someone wants to write about their opinion of a historical event I’m all for that but if that had explicitly been the case for this book it should have been "Karen Armstrong’s personal history of the Bible". The difference is subtle but, I feel, important between someone who is trying to produce a ‘scholarly’ work and an opinion piece. Both have valid places in the market but it should be obvious which is which.

> If you think that something is true, why should you not be able to say so, boldly and openly? The end result is an anodyne
> inability to say anything of real meaning.

I think people should be not only be able to do so but should be *encouraged* to do so – as long as it’s made plain that that’s what they are doing. I think whether texts stripped of personal opinion are "anodyne" largely depends on what the individual reader expects or demands. I’m thinking of perhaps something like Guns, Germs and Steel as an example of an excellent ‘history’ book where the author doesn’t (as far as I remember) give such strong examples of their opinion.

> Neutrality, especially on such a topic, is impossible and pretending to oneself that it is otherwise only results in ones inevitable
> biases being less clearly stated and thus more disruptive to the text than if the reader could assess your statements in the > knowledge of your lean.

That is probably true but I think that if people are not going to be explicit right up front about their PoV they should at least attempt to refrain from insert the most obvious statements of bias if they find themselves doing it.

> For example the book of Revelations is described memorably as "toxic" in one passage. I can understand that comment – and, as
> I say, you’re reading her opinion. Would you rather she pretended to be neutral while secretly thinking that Revelations is toxic?

If she is writing what I would call a ‘scholarly’ work (i.e. not an explicit opion-lead book) then yes, absolutely.

> Far better that you can read her views of Revelations and assess them in that knowledge.

I’d rather just hear the facts and make up my own opinion, thanks.

>> Although a significant time is given over to discussion of Luther barely a line or two is mentioned about Nicaea
> Given that Nicaea never discussed the Bible, whyever would it be afforded more than a line or two in a book about the Bible?

Neither is Luther but he rates a whole chapter.

The first council of Nicaea decided the status of the divinity of Christ – that must 

> Nicaea was about the Creed, and that’s an entirely different thing. Luther, by contrast, is one of the most important people in the
> life-story of the Bible, and I’d be disappointed by such a book that DIDN’T spend a long time on him.

Oh, I very much agree that Luther should be in there. However, the first council of Nicaea decided, amongst other things, the status of the divinity of Christ. That must have had an effect on how Biblical exegesis was conducted from then on.

> I love the hilarity of the fake gospels as much as anyone, but they’re all absolute bollocks. 90% are just the ordinary ones but with
> extra ludicrous chapters tagged on in which Jesus is basically a first century Superman – no ideological disagreement, just over-
> enthusiasm. The remaining 10% are explicitly gnostic and were written long after the fact in an attempt by the shadowy gnosis
> cults to infiltrate the new religion. If she didn’t mention the fake books at all then I’ll agree that that’s a poor showing, but I get the
> impression that you merely wanted more details on what the other books contained.

It’s a question of timing. If, as is often stated, there was a lot more text in various versions of the Bible that were around at the time of the first Nicaea and they cherry-picked ones to include that reflected the current dogma at the time then that’s very important.

> As a side note, I want to emphasise that there is a strain of thinking that says that "challenging the current orthodoxy" is in itself
> always a good thing: this is nonsense.

I would disagree with that statement – that’s precisely what science is based on.

> Gnosticism was a very dangerous doctrine that the world is better off without (although it has continued, altered, through history
> in the form of first Protestantism and then fascism); more on this below.

Fascinating – I’ve learnt more from reading the Wikipedia page of Gnosticism (which I’d barely heard of before now) than I did from reading that book.

>> There is barely a mention of the multiple simultaneous Popes caused by the Western Schism
> The antipopes have nothing to do with the Bible either. It’s not a history of Christianity; it’s a history of a book.

Perhaps, but either it’s a discussion of the history of the Bible as it was written *and* how it has been interpreted or it is not. If it is then the Schisms are important for how doctrine was produced from the book. If not then it should have stopped at the creation of the last entry in the modern accepted book (accepting Nicaea and translations) and ever Luther should be absent.

>> and perhaps most worrying was Ms Armstrong’s opinions on the Inquisition that they were just doing a hard job in difficult >> times…
> The Inquisition *were* just doing a hard job in difficult times. The Inquisition was founded to oppose the gnostic death cult known > as Catharism. It was started as a humane process of debate and reconciliation, INSTEAD OF the purely violent approach that > some wanted. Faced with Cathar violence in the form of assassinations and sporadic insurrection, the Insurrection had to treat
> the leaders of the movement more violently in turn.

"Had to"? Leads to questions on modern justification of torture – but that’s another conversation…

> Like all good gnostics and all good death cults, the Cathars believed the physical world to be evil, and as such had no qualms > about dying – bin Laden himself would love followers like that. But in the end Catharism was extirpated, a process which would > have been impossible had the original Inquisition really been as evil and as hated as later Protestant and atheist propaganda has > painted it: the hearts and minds of the Occitans would never have been won that way. Later instantiations of the Inquisition all > faced that same age-old dilemma: how to deal with an infiltrationist cult. Still, though Catharism died in the Provence it was only > ever but one instance of the wider malign spread of gnostic cultism. Eventually, the consequences of this boiled over in the > Protestant Reformation and then European fascism, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Indeed, and one that sounds really interesting to do in person some time. If Gnosticism was prevalent right up to European Fascism in the last century has it actually gone away since…?