FATHER FRANK’S RANTS
Rant Number 360 25 August 2009
The Qur’an: a Defence
‘History repeats itself’ opined Karl Marx. First as a tragedy and then as a comedy, he added. Was he right? In the 80’s, the notorious Rushdie case. Now we may have a Faulks affaire. The latter somewhat more farcical, methinks.
In a Sunday Times interview, English writer Sebastian Faulks expatiates on his new novel, A Week in December. He bemoans literary critics, by whom he has been savaged in the past. (Can you blame them?). Also, he has a jolly go at Islam. Some of the novel’s characters are Muslims, so he ‘has turned to the Qur’an for his research’. He was ‘appalled’. ‘A depressing book...just the rantings of a schizophrenic’, this eminent author asserts, somewhat unsubtly.
Now, in my ministry as a priest I have met quite a few unfortunate sufferers from the cluster of illnesses termed schizophrenia. In Oxford as a seminarian, I did a stint in a drop-in centre for schizophrenic patients. Some depressed me, some elated me. One claimed to Jesus, another Queen Elizabeth I. Some appeared, outwardly, quite ordinary fellows. But I have not known many schizophrenics who went on to found a worldwide religion with more than a billion of adherents. Something doesn’t quite add up in Faulks’ inelegant exegesis, I fear.
Is Faulks a good writer? I have tried to read one of his big novels – I gave up after two pages. But I did read Devil May Care, a James Bond adventure. As a fanatical 007 devotee, I’d read anything which resurrects Bond. However, I found Faulks cannot hold the candle to Ian Fleming. The effect is flat, perfunctory, monotonous. Faulks’ Bond is utterly lacking in life and sparkle. Sad.
The Qur’an has had its detractors. Even the Victorian critic Thomas Carlyle, a notable fan of the Prophet Muhammad, whom he included in Hero and Hero Worship, could not make head or tail of it. ‘A toilsome reading...a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite...’and so. But then the great Schopenhauer also thought the Gospels ‘lacking in metaphysics’, a philosopher’s euphemism for ‘shallow’ or even stupid. And Bertrand Russell regarded Jesus as prone to childish tantrums and vindictive. Well, even great minds have their blind spots. But at least those thinkers knew what they were talking about. Does Faulks? I wonder.
A writer is essentially a story teller and our Sebastian avers a liking for Bible stories. But ‘with the Koran there are no stories’, he peremptorily informs us. Funny information. The priest is no Quranic scholar but, off the top of his head, he seems to remember the enthralling Joseph’s story in Surat Yusuf. The story of Solomon and Bilqis in Surat An-Naml. The charming narrative of the Companions of the Cave in Surat Al-Kahf and a few others. Stories, which, by the way, are partly paralleled in the Bible and in the Christian tradition. Has Faulks perused only an abridged, Reader’s Digest kind of Qur’an, perhaps? Too bad.
‘Jesus, unlike Muhammad, had interesting things to say. He proposed a revolutionary way of looking at the world’, you learn. One of such revolutionary concepts, Sebastian thinks, was the injunction ‘to be kind to people’. That puzzles me a bit. Being kind to people is very nice and right, of course. But do you really need an envoy from on high, a messenger of God, a prophet, the Redeemer of mankind, the Son of God Incarnate to tell you that? Come off it, Seb! I suspect that the Jesus Faulks admires is a pretty emasculated kind of figure. Hardly a revolutionary, actually. More likely, he is the Jesus ‘meek and mild’ of soppy church hymns. A roi fainéant who can’t really change a fig in the real world. The darling of wishy-washy Anglican vicars and sundry chinless wonders. The fantasy, in other words, of that effete liberal Christianity rightly exploded by Albert Schweitzer in his great Quest for the Historical Jesus.
To be fair, our writer also mentions ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘love your enemy’ amongst Jesus’ interesting stuff. You don’t expect me to disagree with that, do you? But while Sebastian also rips up the Law of God in the Old Testament (‘which is also crazy’) he seems to ignore, poor man, that virtually all of Christ’s message has its roots in that dispensation. Love your neighbour and do good to your enemy can also be found in the Law of Moses. Christianity gave them a new emphasis and universalised them, but they are all developed out of the OT. Rightly so, as the Messiah, the Christ, is the living fulfilment, the embodiment of the Old Testament’s hopes and prophecies.
Another schizo, according to Sebastian, is St John the Baptist, a figure Christians and Muslims both revere. The prophets’ description in the Bible proves it. Huh! Given that St John was Jesus’ kinsman, baptised him and pointed him out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, you would have thought Faulks might have had a less gross view of the holy martyr. I wonder what it is about the New Testament’s description of St John that irks him. That he called people to repentance? What on earth does he expect a man of God to do? To hand out condoms to the young in the street? No, sorry, Seb, that ain’t on.
Or is he troubled by St John’s appearance? Being clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, and eating wild honey is probably a tad unusual in trendy Notting Hill, our author’s comfy habitat. Of course, if he had taken the trouble to look up a straight Bible commentary he would know how St John’s clothing in the Gospels isn’t just eccentric. It alludes to his prophetic mission. The prophet Elijah was similarly apparelled. But I am asking too much of our bright novelist, I know...
What are you supposed to do when confronted with astonishing degrees of religious incomprehension? ‘My dad told me the Bible is a load of old cobblers’ a pesky school kid once told his RE teacher. To get that lad to shed his prejudice would be an uphill struggle. But what may be excusable in a youth from a deprived background, in a bog comprehensive school, is less so in a Wellington College old boy. A member of our putative literary elite. Groan...it makes you despair.
I dismiss as unworthy the suspicion that Faulks’ interview may be a cynical attempt to court controversy and so increase his book’s sales. Charity demands that you should assume the best motives in everyone. Surely Seb is not out to hurt the beliefs of millions of decent Muslims and Christians and Jews just for the sake of a few shekels? Above all, I do hope and pray that Muslims will not take the bait and give the book the oxygen of adverse publicity. Another, even smaller rerun of the Rushdie hoo-hah would not do their/any religion any good. To ignore it is the best policy. Still, this Ramadhan the message to Muslims is clear. Like Christianity, your religion is fair game. Welcome to post-modernity.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli