“Full and Empty:”James Wood on the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

The 1662 edition, that is. But Wood’s focus is on the genius of Cranmer. He also discusses the lingering influence of the BCP on English writers, including Austen and Woolf:

For Austen, belief was stable enough so that the liturgy could be mocked, fondly and without danger, exactly as a silly vicar could be safely made fun of. Both Woolf and Beckett approach Cranmer’s words without easy mockery but with something closer to reverent irony. Yet they both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are “vouchsafed” something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.

Other reflections on the anniversary and the significance of the BCP for culture, language, literature include James Fallows in The Atlantic and Daniel Swift on Huffington Post.

Atheism–more links

A brilliant essay by James Wood on atheism and belief.

Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a “personal God”, so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism. The God of the New Atheism and the God of religious fundamentalism turn out to be remarkably similar entities. This God, the God worth fighting against, is the God we grew up with as children (and soon grew out of, or stopped believing in): this God created the world, controls our destinies, sits up somewhere in heaven, loves us, sometimes punishes us, and is ready to intervene to perform miracles. He promises goodies in heaven for the devout, and horrors for the damned. Since militant atheism interprets religious faith, again on the evangelical or Islamist model, as blind – a blind leap of faith that hurls the believer into an infinite idiocy – so no understanding or even interest can be extended to why or how people believe the religious narratives they follow, and how often those narratives are invaded by doubt, reversal, interruption and banality.

That should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched or read “Hitchkins.” But I think Wood is also on to something when he says:

Part of the weakness of current theological warfare is that it is premised on stable, lifelong belief – each side congealed into its rival (but weirdly symmetrical) creeds. Likewise, in contemporary politics, the worst crime you can apparently commit is to change your mind. Yet people’s beliefs are often not stable, and are fluctuating. We are all flip-floppers.

Atheist Adam Lee ponders why the numbers of non-believers is rising and postulates:

What all this means is that the rise of atheism as a political force is an effect, rather than a cause, of the churches’ hard right turn towards fundamentalism. I admit that this conclusion is a little damaging to my ego. I’d love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted. By obstinately clinging to prejudices that the rest of society is moving beyond, they’re in the process of making themselves irrelevant.

After an appearance on a Fox News program, Blair Scott, of American Atheists, Inc., was subjected to more than 8,000 death threats.

James F. McGrath asked, “Are Atheists just like liberal religious believers?” He points out that:

When atheists point out errors, historical issues and stories that defy belief or moral acceptance in the Bible, for the most part that information (when it is accurate) derives from the scholarship pioneered and for the most part carried out by liberal religious believers. Liberal Christians have been denouncing much of popular piety as superstition long before atheists, advocating pioneering, expanding and embracing scientific understanding even when this infringed on what was traditionally considered God’s turf.

McGrath would do well to ponder Wood’s analysis in the essay pointed to above.