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A Conversation with Thomas Cahill on A SAINT ON DEATH ROW
How a Forgotten Child Became a Man and Changed a World
Many readers might be surprised by A SAINT ON DEATH ROW: How a Forgotten Child Became a Man and Changed a World, since they were expecting your next book to be the sixth installment of your hugely popular series, The Hinges of History™. Who was Dominique Green? What about him and his story compelled you to so significantly alter the long-planned course of your work?
Dominique Green was a young man who spent twelve years on Texas Death Row before being executed. I met him only a year before his death—in Polunsky Unit, Livingston, the antipathetic Death Row facility that stands about an hour outside Houston—but he so impressed me as a remarkable human being that I could not get him out of my thoughts. My first encounter and my subsequent experience of knowing him made such an impact on me that I felt I had no choice but to write a book about him.
How did you come to befriend Dominique? After all, most historians don’t find themselves visiting death row very often.
A friend of mine, Sheila Murphy, a retired judge from Chicago, was helping with Dominique’s legal appeals. She knew I was going to be in Houston just before Christmas 2003 and she urged me to visit Dominque while I was there.
Did you have an opinion about death row and the death penalty before you visited Dominique? Were your feelings changed by the visit?
I have to admit that I was once in favor of the death penalty. I professed the usual unconsidered, knee-jerk opinion. The truth was I had never thought deeply about it or studied the issues surrounding it. By the time I visited Dominique, I had changed my opinion. This was because I had read too many stories about the convictions of innocent people. And I suppose more living and the wisdom that descends with age had given me a better appreciation of how many mistakes are made even by well-meaning folk. And when you add politics to any program—and the death penalty issue is fraught with politics—you might as well be lighting a fire. You are certainly unlikely to get the kind of calm deliberation that makes for better, gentler human actions and institutions. But my coming to know Dominique, who was basically railroaded into a capital conviction, left me with no doubt that the U.S. reliance on the death penalty is unjust and immoral.
In A SAINT ON DEATH ROW you describe the inner peace and innate sense of goodness that radiated from Dominique. What do you think others can learn from Dominique? How did he affect the limited number of people that he came into contact with on death row? How did he affect you?
Why do some people make peace and beauty, while others make war, contentiousness, and ugliness? God only knows—and I mean that literally. The only proposition I know of that makes sense of our human tendencies to both good and evil is that some of us respond to God’s grace while others turn away. It’s not important whether a person realizes that what he’s responding to is God; what’s important is that he or she respond to the good that is held out to them—principally by other human beings—and that they reject the whispered invitation to evil, to cruelty and destruction, an invitation we all hear at different times in our lives. Dominique responded to the good and became a saint on Death Row, a person whose astonishing example helped other prisoners respond to the good, as well. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to share with my readers his remarkable example. Though the book ends in his death, it does not end in despair. It shows a way to hope for us all, even for those who have been despised and rejected by others.
You’ve said that one of the first questions people ask you when they hear Dominique’s story is “did he do it?” Why, in your opinion, is that exactly the wrong question and what is the “right” one?
Which of us would want to be judged entirely by our worst actions? All of us need a certain number of free passes. In our society a good lawyer is one of those free passes. Recently, many financiers have collaborated in destroying the fortunes of millions of others. Which of those financiers will spend long years in prison to make up for the destruction they have caused in the lives of so many? Very few, perhaps none. Why is this? Because they will all have good lawyers. Why are all the people on Death Row from poor (and often from minority) backgrounds? Because they had no money to pay for lawyers and so could not “lawyer” their way out of their difficulties. Does anyone really believe that there are no millionaires on Death Row because no millionaire has ever committed a capital crime?
Justice in our country is a set-up for people with the money to pay lawyers. In certain parts of the country, such as Texas, the “justice” system is so stacked against the poor that they have no way of getting justice. The right question to ask about a convict is not “Did he do it?” but “Did he receive a fair trial?” and “Were his appeals handled fairly?”
At several points in Dominique’s short troubled life, interventions both small and large might have made the difference between the streets and a home, selling drugs vs. school, an abusive mother vs. a loving home, and, finally life vs. death. But none of these interventions happened until it was far too late. Why? What would you like to see done differently today and going forward for kids like Dominique?
As a society we have decided that we would rather not intervene positively in the lives of troubled children; we prefer to wait till the troubled child is old enough to be incarcerated. There was a place near Jerusalem where the ancient Canaanites used to offer their living children on a lighted pyre to evil gods; in later discourse the place is called Gehenna and it became a synonym for Hell. But offering children to evil gods is not just something that happened long ago: we are still offering our children to evil gods. We now have more people in prison as a percentage of population than any other country in the world. If Americans wish to reverse this trend, we must develop programs of effective intervention in the lives of troubled children and their troubled families. Are we so unimaginative that we cannot do this? Of course not. But we do not give the lives of children, especially poor children and minority children, the value they ought to have. My children are not just the ones who live with me in my house; in a sense, all children are my children. How can an adult love a child, his or her own child, and then refuse to consider the plight of other children?
Some readers might make the argument that criminals should be punished and that if one of your own family members were murdered that you would probably want the death penalty imposed, too. Essentially they are talking about the problem of anger and vengeance. What would you say to them?
The most likely estimate is that one of every eight persons condemned to execution is innocent. The amount of mistakes made by our criminal justice system—especially, but not only, in the Southern states—is staggering. A new project called the Innocence Project is gradually freeing hundreds and hundreds of wrongfully convicted prisoners throughout the country by effective use of DNA evidence. Some of these innocents have already served prison terms of twenty years and more. Eye-witness accounts are notorious for their erroneousness. So, let’s say a friend or family member has been murdered. Is that good enough reason for putting someone to death, someone who may later be found to have been innocent? Put the supposed murderer in prison for life, so that if he is later found to have been innocent, his eventual exoneration will be more than just a form of irony. Beyond the issue of justice there is also the issue of effective use of taxpayers’ money. Because, even in a state like Texas, which has scant regard for the lives of the poor and minorities, the use of the death penalty forces the state to spend tens of millions of dollars each year beyond the costs of incarceration—just in answering legal appeals by those who have been sentenced to die. The only way Texas or any other state could further curtail such appeals would be by tearing up the Constitution of the United States of America.
Did Dominique know there was a possibility that you or someone else might write a book about him someday? If he could speak to your readers now, what do you think he would say?
Dominique told Sheila Murphy, who became his best friend and substitute mother, that he hoped I would write such a book. With that in mind, he gave Sheila all his writings before he died. It is my hope that in “A Saint on Death Row” dear Dominique Green will speak to many readers in his own smiling, hopeful, playful words, words that can be of comfort to everyone.
A Conversation with Thomas Cahill on MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES
MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES: And the Beginning of the Modern World is the fifth book in your Hinges of History® series and this volume begins the series’ exploration of the modern Western world. Why does the modern world begin with the Middle Ages? What time period, exactly, are we talking about?
“The Middle Ages” is a wishy-washy term, first established by Renaissance humanists of the sixteenth century, who thought highly of the classical (or Greco-Roman) age and very highly of themselves in what they called the modern age. These humanists looked down their noses at everything that had gone on in the middle period between the classical age and themselves. Till fairly recently their prejudice was accepted by most scholars. But now, we are coming to realize that many of the things we consider characteristically modern – the gradual emancipation of women, university life, modern philosophy and science, realistic art, and even something as seemingly unmedieval as the separation of church and state – got their start in these so-called Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages are generally thought to run from the Christianization of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the early fourth century to Columbus’s first voyage of discovery in 1492. The first part of the Middle Ages, often called the Dark Ages and running into the eleventh century, was dealt with in How the Irish Saved Civilization, the Introductory Volume to The Hinges of History®. By the end of the eleventh century, however, an increase in scholarship, commerce, and the size of cities set the stage for a flowering of culture in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. This flowering, a true renaissance that is now referred to as the high Middle Ages, is the subject of Mysteries of the Middle Ages. By the mid-fourteenth century, however, the Black Death cut short this flowering and gave us the century and a half known as the late Middle Ages.
Some readers might assume they already know about the Middle Ages – that it was one big muddle of knights, lords, castles, and ladies with a few poor peasants toiling endlessly in homespun robes. In other words, not much important going on until the Renaissance. But your new book is full of surprises about the Middle Ages. Can you tell us about some of them?
I want to make sure there are still some surprises left for my readers to contemplate when they get to reading the book itself.
One surprise I might mention here is the rise of realistic art. Classical art was realistic in the sense that human anatomy was well understood. But only in the Middle Ages are the questions asked: What would it have felt like to be this or that person, to have such-and-such an experience? What would it have looked like? Here the physical and anatomical are combined with the psychological and the subjective to give us for the first time realism – in the modern sense – in both the plastic and the dramatic arts. The first great exponent of this new realism is the painter Giotto, whose pictures were so realistic that people of his own day often mistook the painting for reality, for “the very thing itself,” as Boccaccio tells us.
One of the central ideas of MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES is that the modern feminist movement has its roots in early Catholicism. Most people would be surprised by that idea. In fact, they might even go so far as to posit exactly the opposite given some of the current teachings of the Catholic Church. What are they missing? And can you talk a bit about the discrepancy between what medieval church leaders may have intended vs. what their followers did?
Religious practices often grow beyond the limits that their originators set for them. The cult of the Virgin Mary is a good instance of this. The desire to worship Mary in popular devotion came not from priests but from ordinary people, mostly women, and was at first only reluctantly allowed by the clergy. But as the cult grew in scope, many priests began to endorse it enthusiastically. Still, they could hardly have intended that the central placement in the church of an image of the Virgin – an ordinary woman with a child – would encourage a gradual rise in the status of women, a rise exalted enough for us to find in it the beginnings of modern feminism. This woman in the center of the church helped bring about an age of powerful abbesses, like Hildegard of Bingen, and powerful queens, like Eleanor of Aquitaine. It may even have triggered the beginnings of the romantic (and adulterous) poetry of the Courtly Love tradition – certainly not a development favored by medieval bishops!
You also credit early Catholic Europe with advancing art and science. But didn’t art and science really begin with the Greeks? Aren’t you giving Catholics too much credit?
To call the people of the Middle Ages Catholics is a bit of a misnomer. They were Western Christians. Only after the Reformation can we speak properly of Catholics (and Protestants) in our contemporary sense. But in the popular mind the medievals will always be Catholics.
The Greeks certainly gave us our respect for – and even obsession with – measurement and accuracy. And this obsession drives both our science and realistic art. But Christianity added something new, something the airy ancient Greeks could never have dreamed of: the orientation toward finding truth in flesh, because “the Word was made flesh” – that is, God became human in the person of Jesus Christ. This central truth of Christianity is the driving force that makes sense of all the best things in the medieval world, because it gave the medieval world a passion for human experience, a passion to look for ultimate truth even in the material world, a world the Greeks looked down on.
What exactly do you mean when you describe early Catholicism as a cult? That’s a pretty loaded word in modern times, bringing to mind dangerous extremist figures like Charles Manson and David Koresh.
I don’t believe I do. Rather, I describe first-century Christianity as a sect, “a hunted, marginal sect” of Judaism, which is what it was to begin with. The great question, which I deal with in the Introduction, is how this insignificant sect of a decidedly minor religion came to establish itself as the dominant faith of the late Roman Empire. It is a fascinating story, fraught with mystery. It is really the story of how the ancient Romans – those cruel, crucifying, blood-thirsty chaps – turned into the Italians, people who love to sing, eat, and make love.
I use the word “cult,” not in the contemporary meaning of a secretive, unhealthy sect, but in the ancient meaning of a form of worship. Both the cult of the Virgin and the cult of the Eucharist served as catalysts for many of the most important innovations of the Middle Ages.
We meet many fascinating historical figures in MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES, from Hildegard of Bingen to Dante Alighieri. Is there any single person in your book that you feel exemplifies the idea of “the great gift-givers” of the Middle Ages?
Though I would say that Giotto and Dante are my personal favorites, each of them a great storyteller in his respective medium, I would also admit that Francis of Assisi is almost certainly the greatest of all medieval figures. In some ways a difficult, maybe even a pathological, man, Francis nonetheless had the most lasting impact not only on his own time but on ours. His invention of the Franciscans and of the gentle, humble, life-loving, world-restoring, always-blessing Franciscan way of life is almost certainly the most important innovation in the history of Christianity after the life of Jesus himself.
Not only this, but Francis was, as his biographer Donald Spoto calls him, “the first person from the West to travel to another continent with the revolutionary idea of peacemaking.” He sailed from Italy to North Africa to meet with the sultan and bring the age of the Crusades to an end. He almost succeeded – and would have, had it not been for a curial cardinal who was certain of victory against the Muslims. Of course, he went down to defeat amid terrible loss of life. The lessons in this tragic story are almost unbearably contemporary.
You promised readers that in this book you would touch upon the question of Islam. How does Islam figure in the Western world in the Middle Ages and how does that history bear upon current events? You’ve said in the past that Islam was not a major source of western sensibility. Is this still true today?
Though Islam is on everybody’s mind these days, it has never exerted extensive influence over Western sensibility. The shared history of Christianity and Islam is almost entirely a history of people speaking and understanding at cross-purposes to one another. Could we ever get beyond this unfortunate state of affairs? We could, and Francis of Assisi shows us how.
MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES looks different from your other books. It’s heavily illustrated throughout with color photographs. Why?
The Middle Ages were visual, perhaps the most visual age in all of world history. They demand a highly visual book if the reader is to come to a true appreciation of their deeper meaning.
Your last chapter takes on the modern Catholic Church. What are your criticisms and what would you like to see changed? Why did you include this chapter?
I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church, if one takes the church to mean its people. My quarrel is with the higher clergy – the bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes – who have hijacked the church for their own purposes and deformed it to such an extent that if Saint Peter, the humble fisherman and friend of the outcast Jesus, were to rise from his tomb beneath the papal altar in the Vatican basilica and come upstairs to look around and listen in, he would have no idea that any of this was in any way connected to him – and even less so to Jesus! The people must take back their church from these imposters.
Since Mysteries of the Middle Ages concerns the magnificent Catholic contribution to Western sensibility, it seemed to me essential that I also acknowledge the contemporary failure especially of American Catholicism in the face of the priestly pedophilia plague and its episcopal cover-up.
Can you tell us what the next volume in the Hinges of History® series will be about?
Each volume of the Hinges of History® is intended to be read with pleasure and even surprise; it is not a series of academic obligations. Thus, in the past I have refrained from talking about the books to come, as if I was creating a syllabus. But now that there are just two volumes left to write, I imagine many readers can see where I am headed. So I will come clean: Volume VI will treat the Renaissance and, especially, the Reformation, thus tracing the Protestant contribution; Volume VII, tracing the secular-revolutionary-democratic contribution, will begin with the Enlightenment and go to . . . Well, I think that’s enough to say, for now.
Q & A Where Cahill Interviews Himself
Mr Cahill, Where Do You Get Off?
The author of “The Hinges of History” series interviews himself, posing the most difficult questions hurled at him during his book tours.
Mr. Cahill, I’d like to know where you get off writing one book after another about Western history. Most historians limit themselves to understanding a single century or a single culture. Nobody can jump from culture to culture and from era to era, pretending to understand everything.
Dear Reader, you’re right. No one can understand everything. But I am not really pretending to do that. My goal is somewhat more modest: I want to trace the effects to their causes; I want to read history backward, starting from where we are, the people of the Western world, here at the cusp of the twenty-first century. I am trying to answer one question: How did we get to be the people we are? Or, to put it another way: What is there in our history that is peculiar to the West, what gives us our characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and valuing that make us different from other peoples? By tracing only this thread through our past, I can stay focused and leave many complex and abstruse matters for others to deal with. For me, one of the problems with contemporary historians is that, as they concentrate on ever smaller patches of history in ever greater detail, we, their audience, understand less and less about the larger forces that have shaped us. I am trying to overcome this fragmentation by seeing our history whole, as a series of vast movements, often taking many centuries to reach their accomplishment. Of course, I shall fail, at least in some ways. But the human mind cannot turn aside from the attempt. In every age, we must ask again: How did we become the people we are?
You can’t be serious about the Irish saving civilization. Did you have any valid reason for starting with them, besides attracting attention to yourself?
Once again you’re right, Dear Reader: I did hope to attract attention. I wanted to shock readers into realizing that the history we tell ourselves, the history we learn in school, is full of holes. All sorts of things happened in the course of Western history that even well-educated people are ill informed about. The question I pose on the first page of How the Irish Saved Civilization is: ‘How real is history?’ This is a question I shall return to again and again in the course of The Hinges of History®. We are beginning to realize that we have written women out of our histories, as well as despised ‘minorities,’ such as the Africans and the Irish. As such a realization presses upon us, we come to understand that we must write history anew, reviewing deeds and texts of other ages from new vantage points. The Irish also make a convenient start for the series because they appear about halfway through Western history; and this gives us the opportunity to look backward to the ancient world and forward to the medieval world (which is, in many respects, the beginning of the modern world). Lastly, the Irish story is a simple one, the simplest of all the stories I have to tell, and I wanted to gather an audience and do some casting from the shore, as it were, before we went deep-sea fishing.
What’s this stuff you’re always spouting about the Jews standing at the fountainhead of Western Civilization. Everyone knows the Greeks came first and that most of the contributions of the Jews are derivative from the Greeks.
What ‘everyone knows’ is wrong. The ‘contributions’ you refer to are actually just impressions conveyed by many collegiate courses in ‘Western civilization,’ which have tended to begin with the Greeks or, if they mention the Jews, to give them short shrift. The Greeks have nothing to say to us before Homer, who lived in the eighth century B.C., whereas Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, lived more than a thousand years before that. The story of Abraham’s life, as told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, contains the germ of all the distinctively Jewish values that will eventually form the foundations of the West. Abraham’s story was told as part of Hebrew oral tradition for many centuries and may not have been written down until the kingship of David or a little later. But even if one insists on the highly unlikely theory that a writer of David’s time made up the story of Abraham, we must still date it two hundred years earlier than Homer, and not only Abraham’s story but the far more complex and influential story of Moses, as well as the whole history of the Israelite tribes from the time of Abraham to their gradual dominance of Canaan, their ‘Promised Land.’ In any case, the high point of Greek civilization, the 5th century B.C., comes more than a century after all the major Hebrew texts were completed. The Greeks, indeed, had to imitate the Hebrew alphabet (the world’s original alphabet!) in order to create the Greek alphabet. The Romans then copied from the Greeks. In effect, the Greeks were still in diapers when the Jews, or, more accurately, the Israelites, were elaborating a new moral universe and a new worldview and developing a profound devotion to literacy and learning.
You’re a Catholic, aren’t you? So don’t you see everything from a Catholic point of view?
I don’t think so. Of course everyone has unexamined biases. But I have spent much of my life trying to identify and shed my intellectual biases and even (so far as I can) my emotional biases. I am not comfortable identifying myself simply as Catholic. To my mind, as we cross into the third millennium since Jesus’s birth, it is too narrow a definition.
Because I have long seen the Jews as the true progenitors of the Western world and because I am in love with their literature and with so much of their culture, I often find myself thinking like a Jew, viewing the world much more from a typical Jewish than from a typical Christian perspective. In each volume of ‘Hinges,’ I try to get inside the mentality of my subjects, to view the world only from their point of view. When you have done your best to assume another’s spirit, to live within his world, you cannot help but become, in some sense, that person.
‘I am a part of all that I have met,’ Tennyson put in the mouth of Ulysses. We are all Jews. But in addition to coming to appreciate that our roots are in Judaism, Christians should also strive to be larger than the denomination they happen to belong to. We must be Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, in the sense that we must cherish the deep insights of each tradition. And we must also acknowledge, as I try to do at the end of Desire of the Everlasting Hills, that Christianity has failed in all its varieties and in nothing so much as in its centuries-long persecution of our Jewish brothers and sisters. (As a questioner at a Jewish Community Center remarked dryly, ‘So we gave the world all these gifts. But I don’t think we ever received a thank-you note.’) So, if we would be Christian, we must go beyond historical Christianity in all its forms. We need to get inside Christianity, as if for the first time, as did the first Christians, if we are to experience its potential to transform.
You give the Jews too much credit. Philosemitism is just as dangerous as anti-Semitism.
What I credit to the Jews are the values I find in the texts of ancient Hebrew literature, which we collectively call the Bible. There can be no doubt that the values of processive time, individual destiny, and social justice are so peculiar to the Jews that we can say that, for all practical purposes, they invented them. There is nothing like these values, expressed with such intensity of feeling and such sharpness of insight, in any of the world’s other ancient literatures. In the West, we have become so accustomed to these values, these ways of thinking, looking, and feeling, that we have come to assume that they are ‘self-evident.’ They are not, as a serious look at any other ancient literature will quickly show, and as I hope I demonstrate in The Gifts of the Jews.
If such an approach is to be labeled ‘philosemitism,’ I am guess I am guilty of it. To my view, it is simply the truth. The truth is sometimes dangerous, but I fail to see how my interpretation of ancient Judaism as the matrix of Western values could be a danger to anyone.
Why are there no pictures in THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS? They are in your other books.
Because of the Commandment against graven images (‘Thou shalt not have strange gods before me’), the ancient Jews had little art, and what they had was borrowed from the forms of other cultures, like Mesopotamia. Because the fragments we have of Hebrew art do not seem to me to offer much insight into the society that made them, I could not see distracting the reader by reproducing them. Celtic and Irish art, however, seems to me to offer just the sort of insight that I wanted to include; and paleo-Christian art seems to me to do the same. Thanks to the publisher, each volume in the series has beautiful, full-color endpapers. In the endpapers for The Gifts of the Jews we were particularly fortunate to obtain a reproduction from a recently excavated Egyptian tomb, showing just what the Israelites of the patriarchal period (like Joseph’s brothers) would have looked like as they traveled into Egypt.
I’ve heard that the Irish are the Lost Tribes of Israel and that’s why the Irish and the Jews have so much in common. Care to comment?
The Irish are not the Lost Tribes. Ancient Israel, a Semitic nation, was composed of twelve tribes, engendered by the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob (who was also called Israel). Ten of those tribes, settled in northern Canaan, were deported into slavery by the Assyrian king Sargon II about 722 B.C. and, at least as distinct social units, were never heard from again. But not everyone could possibly have been deported, so that genetic strains from the Lost Tribes must have continued to influence the Israelite gene pool. Some of the deportees probably maintained their religious identity, and this may be the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. Throughout history there have been fanciful ‘sightings’ of the Lost Tribes (none more unlikely than the ‘Indian’ tribes native to North America).
The Irish are not Semites but Celts, a very different genetic-linguistic-cultural strain. The Celts are first mentioned in Greek literature of the classical period. They overran much of Europe in the centuries before Christ, and it is likely that they originated in the Caucasus. Some Celts reached Ireland about 350 B.C. and established there a typical Celtic society, overcoming (and intermarrying with) a native population of which we know next to nothing.
What the Jews and the Irish have in common, especially a preference for the underdog and a wry sense of humor which gets such enjoyment out of deflating the pretensions of one’s ‘betters’, probably stems from the fact that both nations have so often been marginalized and demonized, the Jews by European Christians, the Irish by the imperial English. People on the margins are far more likely to see clearly a society’s injustices and absurdities than those at the fashionable center of events.
Wasn’t Irish Christianity really a form of paganism?
No. All religious traditions are born and grow within a cultural context; none drops from the sky fully formed. Judaism began in the culture of Mesopotamia and was influenced by both Egypt and Canaan. Christianity soon acquired a Greek cast, for Greek was the language of the New Testament and Greek cultural attitudes (as I show in Desire of the Everlasting Hills) infected the whole of the classical world.
Patrick, Ireland’s evangelist, brought with him the writings of both ‘Old’ and New Testaments and taught the Irish to read and write, so they might appreciate the sacred texts. But he did not try to make the Irish into Athenians or Romans. A most perceptive man, he took the Irish as they were, and tried to plant Christianity in an Irish soil that he thought was capable of nourishing it. This required great discernment: he could not build Christianity on the Irish slave trade or the Irish practice of human sacrifice or Ireland’s constant bellicosity; but he could build on Irish courage and generosity and on the Irish belief that the world was magical and full of divine messages. This grafting of the Gospel onto certain positive elements in Irish culture meant that Irish Christianity came to have a characteristic coloration that was given it by existing Irish cultural values, just as the Christianity of the early centuries A.D. had a Greek coloration. But far more important than this incidental pagan coloration was the way in which Gospel values transformed the cultures they were grafted onto. Even Luke, the most Greek author of the New Testament, is far more Christian than he is Greek. And in reading the deeds of Colmcille, the most Irish of the early Irish Christians, we have to say that his motivations are, in the end, far more influenced by Christian than by pagan values.
Of course, the pagan remnants within a society (like the pagan remnants within an individual) never disappear entirely and can sometimes charge to the surface with terrifying strength. (See my answer to the last question.)
There are already far too many books about Jesus. What could possibly be new about your new book?
There are too many books about Jesus, far more than one reader can master. This is because Jesus remains, even after two thousand years, the single most interesting and influential figure in the history of the Western world. But most of the books written about him recently have been of two kinds: debunking or academic. The debunking books, beloved by the media, are usually wedded to an exaggerated thesis, such as that Jesus never existed or that he did not die on the cross or that he was a completely different figure from our traditional portrait of him. The academic books tend to give such nonsense a wide birth, treating, rather, of complex issues of cultural background in a way that is often impenetrable to the common reader. So readers who pick up the first kind of book may be invited to entertain far-fetched theories no more credible than the stories in supermarket tabloids, while readers who pick up the second kind of book may be disappointed to find so much scholarly energy absorbed by issues of relatively minor importance.
In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, I have based my exploration of Jesus on the best scholarship I could find. But I mean to engage Jesus as a living figure. I hope I have avoided both crass debunking and the hermetic discourse of the academy. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than for a reader to say on finishing the book, ‘I feel I have met Jesus and now understand what he and his followers were about and how they have influenced the world I live in.’
I understand you translated from the original Greek all the quotations you use from the New Testament. But you didn’t bother to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew. Why?
For one thing, my Greek is much better than my Hebrew. For another, I found that I could not improve on the Fox translation (see ‘How to Read the Bible’), so why should I try? In The Gifts of the Jews, I did translate one passage from Hebrew, a hilariously inappropriate speech given by David’s foolish grandson Rehoboam, of which I could find no accurate translation. The speech is so crude that translators are afraid to let readers know what the Bible is actually saying here.
When I came to the Greek New Testament, I found a similar but more extensive problem. Jesus and Paul are often more down-to-earth, more playful, and even, on occasion, more vulgar, than any translation I could find of their words. Translators of the Bible have a fatal tendency to exalt even the most colloquial language. In the koine (or common) Greek of the New Testament Jesus and Paul sound like real people, not like piously stiff cardboard figures. I felt I had to restore to the English the lively openness and affectionate informality I found in the original.
How did you come up with the idea for The Hinges of History®? How long have you been working on it?
I have been working on The Hinges of History® since 1970, when as a young man I was a participant in an exotic rite in rural Ireland, a sort of prehistoric fertility festival (which I mention in the Notes and Sources to Chapter One of The Gifts of the Jews). I hope one day to write more about it. It convinced me that I had experienced a remnant of old European paganism and that the mainstream tradition of the West, shaped ultimately by ancient Judaism, worked according to a very nearly opposite set of values. I had had a good classical education and had read much of ancient Greek and Latin literature. I could see how the values of pagan Greco-Roman literature still lived in this cyclical, nature-bound backwater but that my values, our values, the values of all who live in the mainstream Western tradition, had been born, not in this isolated Irish farming community, but in the complex events of Judeo-Christian history.