Lent sacrifice: whisky
Lent reading: St. Augustine’s Confessions
On the latter:
I’ve had a copy of the Penguin Classics Pine-Coffin translation on my shelves for years, but never got beyond the first few chapters. Now I’ve bought myself a crisp new copy of the Oxford World Classics edition, translated by Henry Chadwick, and resolve to read some every day until Easter (Incidentally, I love the way Amazon describes the book as being by ‘St. Augustine and Henry Chadwick’ – a co-authoring partnership spanning nearly 2,000 years!).
Until now, my knowledge of the Confessions has been mostly second-hand: for instance, via Wittgenstein’s use of Augustine’s account of learning to speak, to illustrate the conventional understanding of the relationship between language and thought. (Fergus Kerr has a helpful discussion of this in his excellent Theology after Wittgenstein).
As before, I’m finding the old saint’s opening sections tough going. His habit of interlacing the narrative of his early childhood with frequent biblical quotations is somewhat off-putting to the modern reader. I find it interesting, too, that most of these extracts are from the Old Testament, and it struck me how odd it must have been for these Romans and North Africans to ‘take on’ the scriptures of another people – the Jews – and make them their own.
And that in turn reminded me of one of the many doubts that hold me back from a full return to faith. I think most modern biblical scholars accept that a substantial proportion of the Old Testament narrative is myth. And yet the early Christians – and much more significantly, Jesus himself – clearly believed in it as a true account, and built their own faith on these foundations. Moreover, the Christian Church asks us to accept the Jewish Testament as ‘sacred’ scripture, as much as the New or Christian Testament.
I’m wary of falling into the heresy of Marcion, who held that the ‘Gods’ of the Old and New Testament were two different deities. Nor is my scepticism prompted by antisemitism, as much pseudo-Christian disdain for the Jewish scriptures has been. Indeed, I’m a huge admirer of Judaism and the Jewish people, and a strong supporter of Israel. But one of the things that some newcomers – or returners – to faith find odd and difficult is the habit Christian preachers have of relating stories from the Old Testament as if they were true (‘when the Red Sea parted…as Abraham said to Isaac…’), when you know that most of them now accept that these are legends rather than historical accounts.
Can something (Christianity) be ‘true’, if rests on foundations that are mostly mythical?