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Blithely browsing my Facebook feed, I came across astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s 8 books every intelligent person should read. I’m always interested to read these kinds of lists. I always presume knowledge and expertise, as well as good will, on the part of the book selector. Boy did I bomb out on this one.
Here is the first item on the list:
1.) The Bible (eBook) – “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”
Seriously? That’s the only reason to read the Bible? Any book list that begins with such a potshot at the Bible is an automatic and complete FAIL. It’s such an ignorant, dishonest, and arrogant statement that I can not possibly let it slide.
First of all, if the Bible’s adherents were so eager to be told what to think and believe, then why did they resist the Romans (and other powers before them) to the point of enduring torture, death, and all out genocide? They could have easily saved their skins and their way of life by just offering incense to the State Gods to appease their oppressors. They didn’t. Why is that?
Secondly, the Bible didn’t just fall out of the sky saying “Here, this is how you have to think and act and believe. Do it or die.” Rather, the Bible–not one book, but a diverse collection of books–came about over centuries and centuries, growing up from the thoughts, insights, religious beliefs, life experiences, and aspirations of a people. The Bible was a result, not a dictator.
It’s a full, rich body of literature, comprising everything from historical chronicles to songs, apocalyptic literature to erotic poetry. It’s full of profound wisdom, brutal honesty, a magnificent comprehension of human nature, and glorious artistry. And if the human writers, and we who have followed, have believed that their inspirations came from God, then fine–respect it and assume that they and we are sincere in that belief, even if you personally don’t believe it.
But whatever you do, if you care about being regarded as intelligent, don’t hold up a book you obviously don’t know or understand and misrepresent it to make yourself look superior.
Any true striving for knowledge requires humility and liberal-mindedness–they are required, not optional. Tyson betrays his lack of both, right from the beginning. And I bet there are lots of people who will gladly take his word for it. Hopefully there are also people who will take his recommendation and find out for themselves the true value of reading the Bible, be they a detached scholar or a religious believer.
Tyson concludes by saying: “If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”
Come now, sir, for that to be true, the list should have included at least one classic work from the Greeks, Romans, or Medievals. Machiavelli and Sun Tsu are the best you can offer? Western Civilization is neither impressed nor amused, Mr. Tyson.
Inspired by talking about music with an old friend of mine, I rediscovered this beautiful medieval song: “Palästinalied” (“Palestine Song”) by the great German poet, Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170-ca. 1230), a contemporary of St. Dominic. It’s actually a song I learned back in the mid-90s, where I often heard it played in the goth clubs I frequented (!).
This song is written in the vernacular Middle High German. I read a translation sometime back, and if memory serves, the song tells of a crusader coming to the Holy Land. He is stricken with wonder and devotion at the fact that this is the land where God became man, where He was born, lived, worked, taught, suffered, died, was buried, and was resurrected. Basically, the poet was making a case for the Crusade, that Christians had a right to the Holy Land.
[UPDATE]: I did find one modern English poetic translation, though apparently not of the entire poem:
Now my life has gained some meaning
since these sinful eyes behold
the sacred land with meadows greening
whose renown is often told.
This was granted me from God:
to see the land, the holy sod,
which in human form He trod.
Splendid lands of wealth and power,
I’ve seen many, far and near,
yet of all are you the flower.
What a wonder happened here!
That a maid a child should bear,
Lord of all the angels fair,
was not this a wonder rare?
Here was He baptized, the Holy,
that all people might be pure.
Here He died, betrayed and lowly,
that our bonds should not endure.
Else our fate had been severe.
Hail, O cross, thorns and spear!
Heathens, woe! Your rage is clear.
Then to hell the Son descended
from the grave in which He lay,
by the Father still attended,
and the Spirit whom none may give a name:
in one are three,
an arrowshaft in unity.
This did Abraham once see.
When He there defeated Satan,
ne’ er has kaiser battled so,
He returned, our ways to straighten.
Then the Jews had fear and woe:
watch and stone were both in vain,
He appeared in life again,
whom their hands had struck and slain.
To this land, so He has spoken,
shall a fearful judgment come.
Widows’ bonds shall then be broken
and the orphans’ foe be dumb,
and the poor no longer cower
under sad misuse of power.
Woe to sinners in that hour!
Christians, heathen, Jews, contending,
claim it as a legacy.
May God judge with grace unending
through his blessed Trinity.
Strife is heard on every hand:
ours the only just demand,
He will have us rule the land.
I love that first line: “Now my life has gained some meaning.” Today, many people have this view of the Crusades as this horribly corrupt, unjust war, a disgrace to Western civilization. And I don’t deny that there were instances of corruption, injustice, and disgrace (the sacking of Constantinople comes to mind). But I think the poem suggests the deeper, purer motivation–the Holy Land was precious and of great importance to the medievals and to their religious and spiritual lives. They had a deep-seated love and reverence for it, as the land where God became man. They needed it and longed for it. It was the very heart of the world to them. It was worth holding, keeping, protecting, fighting for, and dying for. I can understand these sentiments; they resonate with me. I can also understand how they could be lost on many people today. [END UPDATE]
What makes the Palästinalied especially exciting is that the original melody seems to have survived as well, and I think it’s a real beauty! I’ve heard several modern renditions, some more beautiful than others.
Here is an instrumental version, with the straight melody and drums beating out a steady march. Click on the play button in the black box at top right.
Here is a version by a group called Unto Ashes. It has simple instrumental accompaniment and harmonization:
And here is the very modernized version by a group called Qntal, which they played in the goth clubs. So of course, the music is more synthesized, with more harmony and rhythm added in. But the vocals are beautiful, the melody still takes precedence, and even with the electro-gothish stylings, you still get the medieval feel:
If you click through to the Youtube page for this last video, in the information box, it gives the M.H. German lyrics and what looks like a translation into modern German. In case that helps anybody.
So, there’s our medieval culture lesson for today.
Maybe it’s just me, but medieval culture should be very near and dear to the hearts of western Catholics. It’s such a tremendous part of our heritage and patrimony. It wasn’t a perfect age–what age is?–but I would consider it a golden age. I think the medievals strove for perfection. That’s what all Catholics in every age should be doing. No matter how bad or difficult or dark an age we live in, and no matter how outnumbered we are, we can always strive. I would say that it’s every Catholic’s duty to strive for perfection–all through the grace of God (that has to be understood–I’m no Pelagian!). Personal perfection first, and then who knows, you might bring bits and pieces of society along with you!
Nothing annoys me more than Catholics (usually in the political arena, as candidates and as voters) who try to excuse themselves from this striving by throwing up their hands and saying, “Oh, it’s no good, we’re never going to make this a Catholic nation, people won’t support us if we practice our faith, and then we’ll never be able to accomplish anything, it’s just useless, I tell you, blah blah blah.” Giving into despair is no excuse, people! Strive as though your very life depended on it! Your eternal life just might.
But I digress… My point being to suggest that our modern society–and individuals–could really stand to have some good old medieval boldness and crusading spirit injected into them.