Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve - A Book Response

Stephen Greenblatt is a professor of humanities at Harvard University, a New York Times bestselling author, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  While these are admirable accomplishments all but .0001% of us went to Harvard and even fewer of us will be invited to the Pulitzer gala.  Yet most all of us who struggled through English 101 in college share a kinship to Greenblatt.  If you remember the behemoth text The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Greenblatt is your man.  Greenblatt helped you realize that they do print big books and that some of history’s greatest literary works are manuscripts without pictures.

Greenblatt’s latest work The Swerve tells the story of the recovery of an ancient poem that served to influence the great minds of the Renaissance.  The poem was Lucretius’ first century De Rerum Natura, or On The Nature of Things.  Lucretius used the cultural vehicle of the poem to propagate the idea that the world was not created by gods.  Instead the world is simply comprised of atoms and the void between them.  Life is not tied to divine determinism but is left governed only by the free will of man.  Therefore man should not deceive himself by living for pleasure in the afterlife, but rather he should seek pleasure in this life for it is all he is and has.  Lucretius’ poem represented the popularization of the atheistic ideal in a polytheistic culture.  In short Lucretius did for Epicureanism what Ayan Rand did for Objectivism.  He transformed philosophical thought into a media form for the common man; the book.  It is at these moments, when thought becomes pop culture that everything changes.  Greenblatt, taking note of Lucretius, calls this moment of culture shift, “the swerve.”
An obscure byline to the swerve that spawned the Renaissance began with a curious scribe, Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), who after losing his position as secretary to an infidel Pope, pursued his curiosity for antiquities and became a book hunter.  Discovering Lucretius’ poem in a monastery, Poggio begins to copy and distribute the work producing new manuscripts of a literary treasure that was nearly lost forever.  As a great historical writer, Greenblatt is able to carry the book by sharing the story of Poggio, the events that shaped him, and the back stories of the cast of characters he encounters on his quest.  While the story of Poggio is enough to keep the reader in the book, the historical and literary information Greenblatt weaves into the manuscript is highly resourceful.  For the price of the book ones gets a great story about a hunter of antiquities as well as vivid lessons on the world of the Roman scribe, the precarious life of a manuscript, and the historical backdrop of the Renaissance.
Though Greenblatt’s work purposes to be a simple historical tracing of an obscure, influential by-line of the Renaissance, the reader’s mind will not be left in the 1400’s.  Such is the nature of good historical writing; it challenges us to ask why we are as we are?  Yet in making this connection the book could also be subtitled, The Swerve, The Seed of the Historical Argument for Evangelical Atheism, for Greenblatt’s  historical account offers many of the same historical critiques of Christianity as the contemporary faces of the new atheism.   The most notable of which being the question; if Christianity/religion is bad in history, is Christianity/religion bad for humanity?
Is Christianity/religion bad for humanity?
A subplot of Poggio’s quest to find the rare books of antiquity is the plight of the book to survive.  In the ancient world texts were often scraped clean due to the high cost of papyrus and parchment.  Natural decay and natural disasters such as fire and volcanoes were ever a threat.  Then there were the bookworms who would den in the scrolls and literally eat the pages of some of antiquities greatest works.  Yet the greatest threat of all was the theist.  In the ancient polytheistic culture of the Greeks there was little tolerance for the thoughts of atheists such as Epicurus or Lucretius.  Yet in the medieval times in which the Christian God ruled, there was even less tolerance for antithesis.  One God created the world and He ruled it with an iron fist.  God’s deputies, the church, were to not only burn the books, but the heretics who dared to write them. 
Though Greenblatt does not overtly offer his opinion on the matter, his historical retelling would certainly support the charge of the new evangelical atheism represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens.  These men point to the church’s bloodiest episodes and surmise that religion, more particularly Christianity, is bad for society and humanity.  It is the period that Greenblatt chronicles, medieval Christianity, which is often the era that is cited in support the argument offered by evangelical atheism.
It is true that church history contains some horrible episodes.  At times the church, through its various denominations and groups, has tried to offer apology for the descendents of the victims.  The Catholic Church pardoned Galileo for saying that the sun was the center of the universe in 1992.  The pardon came 350 years too late.  Galileo died in 1642.  This is often the case whether it be the church’s blind eye to the holocaust, its support of slavery, fostering of prejudice, or support of segregation in the South.  These apologies seem noble but sound trite and they often come two to three generations too late for anyone to care.
Yet there are some important facets to the new atheism’s historical charge that must be noted if the argument is to hold true intellectual weight. 
a)   If the horrible episodes are to be magnified, then the grand scale of church history should not be ignored.

Each evening we watch the news.  In 30 minutes the broadcaster shares 20 stories that shape a city for a day.  Of those 20 stories 18 of them will involve theft, murder, a tragic car accident, and political corruption.  When these episodes that are repeatedly used to tell the story of the city night after night it is not long before one comes to believe that their town is nothing more than a cesspool of corrupt politicians, murderers, and bad drivers.  Yet in reality there are an infinite number of stories that occur daily that are too mundane to ignore.  It is these stories that go unnoticed that are the norms.  Unfortunately the worst of us represent the rest of us.

So it is with evangelical atheism.  Whether it be Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins, these men will run the same gambit of bad historical Christianity repeatedly: the crusades, the inquisition, the Klu Klux Klan.  As often as these episodes are referred to, it would seem that these are all that we are, or at least all that we do – discriminate, retaliate, and torture.  Yet for the more than 2000 years that Christianity has existed, any decently intelligent reader of the Bible would know that the horrible episodes and people of church history that burned books and heretics in Jesus’ name do not represent Christ nor the rest of us.  In fact it can be argued, “these” are not “us” at all.  Yet, remaining on point, these are relatively brief swatches of church history that unfortunately seem to be given the loudest voice while the rest is categorically ignored.    

b)    Jesus warned us about the charlatans would blow it for the rest of us.

In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus said that there would be false prophets who would come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they would be ravenous wolves.  He then gave us the right to judge history for ourselves, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”  Simply examine the ends and the means.  There is nothing of medieval Catholic Christianity that in any way represents Christ.  It was corrupt, unscrupulous, superstitious, and adulterous.  Medievel Catholicism was little more than paganism in Jesus’ name.  Greenblatt tells us good story, but we should not be inclined to believe that the church that sought to burn Paggio’s books is the church for which Christ died.  Historians refer to these people as the church, for this is what they called themselves, but the church in the Biblical sense of the term they were not.
c)   Comparatively speaking we must ask that if Christianity is bad for humanity, is atheism even worse?

If we were to concede the horrible episodes of church history (which we should not) and were to keep score (which we should not), we must ask what has atheism done for humanity?  Epicurus’ atheistic ideal serves as the seed of thought for Greenblatt’s entire historical episode.  Epicurus sought freedom from any thoughts of divine sovereign control or of an afterlife dominated by the judgment of a deity.  Ridding oneself of such unwarranted speculation would then grant liberty for man to seek pleasure in the present life, for this is all he has.  If we do good historical homework we will find that throughout history atheistic societies that try to rid the world of theistic thought end in persecution, oppression, crimes against humanity, and massive amounts of bloodshed.  We usually call these tyrannical dictatorships.  There is little pleasure in them.  If atheism demands that the church account for medieval Catholicism we should demand an answer of atheists for Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, or Mao Zedong.  Some may argue that Hitler indeed used the name of God and even Luther’s rants against the Jews (which were Luther’s greatest mistake) to justify the holocaust.  Yet no true intellectual would attempt to support the argument that Hitler was a theist to any degree. 

Greenblatt does offer some interesting commentary on societies that have attempted utopia built on the Epicurean/atheistic ideal.  Ironically those who seek utopia most often end with a form tyrannical communism (230, 231).  Oppressive control and intolerance become the ethic of utopia.  If evangelical atheism would have us to believe that Christian societies make their citizens miserable, then they must be honest that Epicurean utopias accomplish a much greater degree of misery.   If Christianity has been bad for humanity, historically atheism has been far worse. 

For a fuller treatment of the historical charges against Christianity by evangelical atheism see Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? and Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig.

Parting Thoughts

Christianity survived atomism and Epicureanism.  I believe Christianity to be about 25 years away from surviving evolution, and in the end we will find that we will outlast atheism as well.  In the meantime Greenblatt’s work and survey of history serves as a reminder to the church that we are not to check our brains at the threshold of faith.  Faith is intelligent and following Christ accurately requires a serious Biblical hermeneutic.  The gospel calls for us to build a Kingdom for Christ in this world, not out of this world.  It is at the moments of history when people try to merge science, culture, and politics with the gospel so that each becomes unrecognizable that the church makes a serious mistake.  This we call, as Greenblatt has aptly explained, the swerve.  Some who read this book will read it from the perspective of a culture that courageously freed itself from the church, but for the discerning Christian reader the book serves to tell of the days just before some equally courageous souls freed the church from the grips of cultural charlatans in Jesus’ name.  Pop-history calls the cultural escape from Christianity the Renaissance.  Church history calls the church’s escape from culture the Reformation.  It’s all a matter of perspective; and such is the case with historical retelling and reading.

The humanism that inspired both the Renaissance and the Reformation has brought us to interesting ends.  In the beginning humanism revived the idea that man is important and that he is wonderful enough to learn.  For the Renaissance this ignited an enlightenment mentality that validated the secular idea that man can do well without God.  For the Reformation humanism inspired a return to the Biblical text.  If man were to have faith he must learn once again to use his brain and investigate truth for himself.  Ex-cathedra would no longer suffice a world that was once again filled with Greek manuscripts.  People began to ask if the church was really saying what God has said.

Humanism, running its course in both culture and the church has brought us to an interesting place.  I would explain it simply as, we are bored with ourselves.  The ethic of the Enlightenment has taken all the wonder out of nature, censured moral absolutes, and brought us to the intellectual hypocrisy of political correctness - we must tolerate all thoughts but one – there is a God.  We are to think like secularists.  In 1400 the church was the voice that told us what to think.  Now it is the government.  As a result we are passive hearers desperate only for pleasure.  We say much but think little.  Our conversations are trite and because we are so consumed with images we take little time to actually discern what they mean.  We have long left our most important conversation – why are we here?  This is the question that inspired us to explore.  If anything Epicureanism/Hedonism/atheism has done it has caused us to swerve away from being people who want to do more than survive.  We are no longer a people who desire to create.  My charge is manifest most notably in the cultural media we once measured and critiqued by the aesthetic ideals.  Is this book, movie, or work of art truly beautiful?  We are infatuated with smut.  We no longer seek beauty but shock value.  Our arguments are little more than emotionally charged rants void of logic rather than civil debates in which real intelligence wins.  People like Bill Maher and Jerry Springer make money in cultures like ours.  Our cultural elites are truly cultural idiots – even worse – we believe them.   

In the church humanism may have initially inspired us to return to the texts, but half a millinea later it has taken us too far, for we have, like culture, abandoned God.  We may preach that there is a Savior, but we do not live as if we need one.  We have forgotten that the Book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospels.  The church has exiled the Spirit.  The Westernized church has once again become a powerful cultural machine, propped up by money, measured by crowds, and seeking desperately to merge with culture.  We masquerade attractional power as Spiritual power.  Biblically, these are not the same and we have lost the ability to discern which is which.  In my estimation, we are long since the swerve and once again in desperate need of reformation.  We learn more than ever, spend more than ever, and are more talented than ever – but we are desperately lacking what it is that makes us the church – the leadership of Christ manifest in us by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.  The contemporary, post-reformation “protestant” church has made the same mistake as the medieval Catholic one we protested – we believe we can speak for God without consulting Him at all. 

We have suffered the swerve.  It is time to return to course.     


Popular Posts