Page 6, 14th June 1996

14th June 1996
Page 6
Page 6, 14th June 1996 — Never mind the cover, try the doctrine for a change

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Never mind the cover, try the doctrine for a change

Fr SEAN FINNEGAN welcomes a book which hits back at unbelievers

The Gospel Jesus: Fact or Fiction? by Peter Bartley. Veritas, £5.95 AS MGR RONALD Knox commented: any stick to beat the Church will do, and if it breaks in half, well then you've got two sticks to beat the Church with. The past few years have seen the publication of a large number of works with greater or lesser academic pretensions, attempting to present the "truth" behind Christianity, that "truth" being almost anything except what Christians generally hold. There is a certain immature air of knowing cynicism about these works: I'm so grownup, I'm not taken in by these old myths. It rather reminds me of children smoking behind bike-sheds, or sneaking a glass of their parents' sherry while they are out, simply to convince themselves and their friends of their deep sophistication.

Mr Bartley briefly outlines the ideas of several of these authors, and proceeds to demolish them. He wades in like Jonah Lomu into a Cub Scouts' game of murder ball: AN Wilson flies out of the window, Karen Armstrong ("who deserves a chapter all to herself... when it comes to having it both ways") hurtles out of the door, to be closely followed by John Allegro and his mystic magic mushrooms.

The book is a short one, just over 100, and is really a series of essays, well written and presented, designed to rebut the charges that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith are two different people. It needs to be read by many. The tragedy is that so many people take these books as justification for their irreligion. One only hopes that Mr Bartley's book will reach some of them.

I am in two minds as to whether the cover of the book gives exactly the right impression: it reminds me of the sort of book that you find in Evangelical Christian bookshops, with lots of zoomy colours and trendy typefaces, designed to catch the eye and save the soul. In fact this book is not of that sort of all, though even the title might suggest that it is, but rather

a serious and quite scholarly critique of books that scarcely deserve the attention that Mr Bartley gives them.

In case you were wondering, let me reassure you that Mr Bartley is not a fundamentalist: he is well aware of genuine biblical scholarship, and has a sharp eye for credulousness, of which he finds far more in the authors that he is assessing than there is to be found in traditional Christianity.

I would like to think that Veritas will publish more by

Mr Bartley: the Church seems rather lacking these days in good controversialists. Maybe instead of being a reagent to these faintly ridiculous books he would consider writing some work of his own, positively asserting and presenting the evidence for the historical Jesus being the same as the Jesus of faith.

And what about Wilson, Armstrong and their friends?

I have an image in my mind of these as people hurling themselves against the great pillars of St Peter's Basilica: doing the building no harm at all, but only looking rather silly. Jesus will still be here when Wilson, Allegro and Armstrong are long dead and forgotten, their work making, maybe, an amusing paragraph in the great history of Christian Theology.

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