History lessons for critiques on Christianity

May 13, 2021

Before we worry too much about school students, it’s the adults who need remedial history lessons if two recent articles are anything to go by.

In 2020-2021 the culture wars honed in on ACARA, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s recent review of the Australian curriculum. ACARA, it turns out, shifted the emphasis in history studies to focus on indigenous culture. Personally, I support that. But as recent articles in Crikey and here on Pearls and Irritations show, we actually need some remedial Western history for adults.

Let’s start with Tory Shepherd in Crikey (6 April 2021) and her article entitled ‘Saints preserve us’ telling us what George Pell’s 2021-Easter article in The Australian “gets wrong.” Not being an Oz reader, I missed it, but it was clearly vintage George: out-there, up-front, slaying dragons. What got Shepherd riled-up was Pell’s claims about “the Christian origins of Easter.” According to her, this is “self-indulgent tosh.” Easter’s origins “are pagan … derived from the pre-Christian goddess Eostre,” with Christianity later taking over the pagan feast. She also lambastes Pell and those who “believe … in the son of God crawling out of a tomb to ascend bodily to heaven,” later commenting, “You can’t make this shit up.”

Abstracting from gratuitous insult to Christians, especially given she hasn’t the slightest understanding of the Christian meaning of the resurrection, its Shepherd’s own howlers that left me gobsmacked.

She is unequivocal: “Easter’s origins are pagan.” Hang on a minute! First, it’s not at all certain that the word “easter” is derived from the name of the goddess Eostre. The sole mention we have of her comes from the monk-historian Bede (c.673-735) from Jarrow in Northumbria who, in a passing reference, loosely connects her with easter. However, Eostre has no equivalents in Norse or Germanic pre-Christian religion and the scholarly consensus is that Bede’s reference is probably a mistranslation or misunderstanding.

What Shepherd completely misses is that the actual religious roots of Easter are in the Jewish Passover feast, from which our English word “paschal” is derived. This is reflected in French where Easter is Pâques, in Italian its Pasqua, in Spanish Pascua. Passover commemorated the Hebrew exodus from Egypt and, explicitly within this Jewish context, that the early Christians commemorated the death of Jesus and belief in his resurrection. Our word “easter” most probably originates in the Old High German word eostarun (Ostern in modern German), which is carried over into English as Easter. No Anglo-Saxon goddesses here.

I wrote a letter to Crikey pointing this out, but it was ignored, probably dismissed as mere pedanticism.

But Shepherd isn’t alone in not doing her homework. There are similar problems with Noel Turnbull’s “Our Christian heritage and the culture wars” in P&I (4 May 2021). Focusing on ACARA’s new syllabus, Turnbull quotes Education Minister Tudge telling us that teaching indigenous history should not lead to “dishonouring our Western heritage,” which sounds reasonable to me. But not to Turnbull, who proceeds to refer to the Christian heritage as “more exciting than a slasher movie,” regurgitating examples of Christian violence, while ignoring the Christian contributions to music, art, literature, spirituality, civilization and building-up society.

Now I’m on the public record criticizing Christianity and specifically Catholicism, but I try to be factual. Christianity, like all religions, has behaved violently, but it’s not the church’s exclusive preserve. However, balance doesn’t suit Turnbull’s political point-scoring against Tudge and right-wing culture warriors, so Christian history becomes “a slasher movie.”

There’s another howler in Turnbull’s article that calls for comment. He tells us that what we in the West “know about the past, the classics and the development of mathematics was due to its continued existence in Muslim countries while it was being destroyed in Christian ones.” Excuse me!

A few dates here might help. Muhammad died in 632CE. Driven by jihad, the Arabs had overrun the Byzantine provinces of Syria, Egypt and North Africa by 708. So where did the Greco-Roman tradition survive between the late-Roman world and the Arab arrival? The answer: in Christian Byzantium, especially in Syria and Egypt, where the Arabs first encountered classicism. So much for its being “destroyed in Christian [countries].” Also, Christian theology itself was profoundly influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophy; Augustine of Hippo is an obvious example, but many other Eastern church scholars built their theology on Greek philosophy. In other words, what the Muslims inherited of classical culture came via late-Roman Christianity.

Turnbull also assumes that Islamic enlightenment stood in stark contrast to the “dark ages” of barbarism, superstition and economic stagnation in Western Europe. This disjunction is nowadays largely rejected by historians. The reality was much more complex.  Back in 2013, I published a book on Europe in the tenth century, The Birth of the West (New York: Public Affairs) in which I devoted a chapter to Islamic Spain, often promoted as Islamic culture at its best. The picture that emerges, however, is far more complex than civilization versus Western barbarism. Al-Andalus – Islamic Spain – certainly reached a cultural high point under the Caliph Abd al-Rahmān III (912-961) who, interestingly, was three-quarters Hispano-Basque and only one-quarter Arab, and his son Caliph al-Hakim II (961-976).

But it was certainly not the tolerant paradise, especially for Christians, that some imagine.  Even under the caliphs mentioned, it was a highly stratified society with a strict demarcation of roles, including wearing identifying badges for Christian and Jews, especially under the Caliph al-Mansūr (d.1002), a dictator who carried on constant jihad against the Christian north of Spain. As well as Christians, even more, liberal Muslims of the Mu’tazilah school were martyred in Islamic Al-Andalus.

And Western Christianity was not lost in barbarism as Turnbull suggests. The Irish monks in the seventh century preserved Latin and Greek learning – they “saved civilization” as Thomas Cahill says – and from the Carolingian renaissance onwards the Greco-Roman classics were often taught in continental monasteries and the trivium of grammar, dialectic (logic) and rhetoric was basic to monastic education. Scholars like Alcuin of York, Charlemagne’s education “minister”, Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) were polymaths, thoroughly schooled in the Greco-Roman classics and in Gerbert’s case in mathematics, science, astronomy and music. He was “ecumenical” enough to go to Spain to learn from the Muslims.

In conclusion: I’m flummoxed as to why, in order to encourage and enhance First Nations and Muslim history, you have to denigrate your own. Surely, we can do both?

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