What might an adult in the 21st century say if a child asks, “Why do we have seasons?” It’s a reasonable question, with rational means to explain the idea to anyone at almost any age. What might your reaction be if you heard someone tell that child, as a serious response to that question, the tale of Persephone? It’s one thing for a story to have symbolic meaning and literary value, but it’s another thing entirely to hold that up to the scrutiny of modern understanding, would you not agree?
Now let’s turn this around a bit. The full title of this book is Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, The Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith. It’s a sort of thing that would make many a devout Christian scoff, prickle in defense, or perhaps even react in outright hostility. I live in Texas, where the Deep South meets the Old West. People here absolutely get violent about these things, and while it’s rare, sometimes it does come down to Reformation levels of hullabaloo. But what if I told you the author of this book, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, is a devout Catholic, holding a doctorate in her faith and is the chair of History of Religion at the University of Duisburg-Essen? For her beliefs, she has been stripped of her license by the Church to teach in the Catholic tradition, which is no real surprise. For her, it’s because the Church holds power by teaching fairy tales — her words — thus denying people the powerful foundation of true faith. For her, a faith built upon lies is no faith at all, whereas the true power of Christianity lies in the actual teachings of Jesus. His words, not the supernaturally cloaked stories that distract from them, are what’s most important.
You wouldn’t think that would be so controversial, especially in the post-Enlightenment world. But for the faithful today, it very much is, especially these days when seemingly every little thing is challenged as “fake news” or needs to be part of some larger political agenda in order to be validated. It can even be confrontational and hurtful. For Ranke-Heinemann, it’s a simple matter of “the truth shall set you free.”
I’ve repeatedly said here, and I’ll say it again for purposes of perspective in regards to this review: I’m not a Christian. I’ve experienced angels for myself, which is a far more satisfying experience than any amount of Church service. Knight of Angels is not just a catchy title. [Note: Chapter Four is all about Angels through the lens of the Gospels, which is ironic given that The Bible is the absolute worst source for information on them.] Simply put, I have no dog in this fight when it comes to arguments of dogma. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that I swore I’d leave Christianity alone for a while simply because the faithful on my side of the screen were making me crazy. But… one cannot call herself a Medievalist nor a Tolkien aficionado without an appreciation of Christianity and its influences upon history. And besides, when a friend makes a recommendation of a book that might legitimately interest me, I’m not likely to ignore that. My Sherlock Holmes buddy reader, BrokenTune, offered this one up in the wake of my last upset. It’s scary when friends know you better than you know yourself. The simple fact is that, regardless of what I think of the dogma, I do rather enjoy history, spiritualism in all its forms, and a quality rabbit hole of rock solid research and academic argument.
That, in a nutshell, is what this book is. It breaks down the various stories of the scriptures, compares them to history and to one another, and essentially strips the dogma right off. It’s not a brutal massacre by any stretch. Rather, it’s an intelligent, rational explanation in the spirit of “teach, don’t preach.” Each step of the way, the full power of academia is laid out, variables discussed, and conclusions reached. Then, when the “what’s left?” question is raised at the end of the book, that’s when the author offers her compact but sincere belief in the power of the teachings themselves.
As one who has been on the receiving end of Christian abuses throughout my life, all I can say is it’s a good thing I didn’t have this book to use as a weapon in my younger days. But now that I’m older and am no longer interested in such fights, having done the research for myself and having long since found greater rewards in continuing my studies, I find this book to be more in line with the author’s intent. She’s not looking to attack anyone. Quite the reverse, she’s looking to return the Christian faith to its legitimate foundations, free of any party’s ability to control or manipulate. It’s actually quite beautiful. Much like with my readings of Tolkien, it’s the kind of thing where, in a different reality, this might be the very thing to restore any faith I had and to help that candle burn brighter.
This is not an easy book at all, though it is a straightforward one. It’s a scholarly tome, and the author requires the reader to be at least familiar with the basics of the Gospel stories. I think, however, this is one of those books that does teach to the converted. I can’t readily imagine a scenario where the dogmatic would read this book with an open mind or an open heart for even a single page, let alone cover to cover. Still, it’s an honest attempt, and I do appreciate the effort that went into it. It’s not one that you simply crack open and read like a novel. I found myself stopping to contemplate frequently, often after only a paragraph or two, sometimes after a single sentence. One chapter in a sitting is overwhelming, and it required some downtime between chapters to process what I’d read. And that’s for a practicing heathen like myself. I can only imagine what this might be like for one of the faith.
This is the author’s second book. My understanding is that the first book is an argument against the criminal and/or inhumane practices of the Church itself (perhaps the sort of things which most Protestants would be readily familiar), which would make this book easier to swallow in the event a Christian didn’t want to rely on the Church. I own that first book, but I’ll readily admit I haven’t cracked it open yet to know what’s in it. I’ll get there eventually. In any case, I don’t really know that it’s necessary to read the first book to understand this one. They are complimentary arguments to be sure, but they are also separate.
Ultimately, I think that with few exceptions, those who would be the intended target audience are not going to read this book, while those like my much younger self who would get more out of it for the wrong reasons would ultimately miss the author’s point. It’s unfortunate now matter how you present it. Still, for what it’s worth coming from the likes of me, I think this is an excellent book. The message I found is, hopefully, closer to that of the author’s intent, which is to say that faith, like any other belief, needs to be tested in order to have meaning.