February 08, 2004

Faint praise

While I've always loved the notion of damning with faint praise, I suppose there are times when one can offer faint praise as just that. I finished reading The Trouble with Islam by Irshad Manji. There's plenty to quibble over in her book, there are a few substantive issues raised, but I don't think this book is all that much different than one that, say, I -- a nonbeliever -- could have written were I a little less polite. That said, it is an engaging read. I thought the biographical passages were the most interesting things in the book, and I wish there had been more of that. I'm far more excited about reading Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World by Nazih Ayubi, a volume I stumbled across the last time I swung by Borders.

Since then, I've visited two other bookstores with the five year old in tow. At a local Barnes & Noble, I picked up Mr. Bean -- The Animated Series on DVD for him. I don't know how he came to love Mr. Bean, exactly, but when most kids were watching Sesame Street, he was watching Rowan Atkinson's Bean. (I happen to think Bean is one of those archetypal characters made possible by mass media, like Chaplin's little tramp, Bogart's Sam Spade, or Connery's James Bond -- hmm... maybe it's not so hard to figure out who introduced him to the character.) The animated series isn't too bad -- it's not on a par with Spongebob, but it has its clever moments and it's accessible to kids. But it doesn't quite capture the anarchism of the live action Bean, which is a shame.

On our second bookstore visit, he picked a "How to Make Halloween Costumes" book out of the bargain bin; I got Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. The book is an encomium to Michael Servetus, the 16th century heretic who got burnt at the stake for being, well, a heretic (not that there's anything wrong with that!). Seriously, though, apologists for Calvin argue that Servetus, who denied the trinity, left Calvin no option but to burn him when he (Servetus, that is) showed up in Geneva. Bernard Cottret, whose biography of Calvin is quite good, argued that Calvin saw Servetus largely as a pain in the ass yahoo who kept writing letters insisting on a theological duel over the trinity. According to Cottret, the idea of burning Servetus at the stake was appealing to Calvin only because he too had been accused of denying the trinity; burning Servetus would signal the world (and particularly Rome) that while Protestants and Catholics disagreed, there were certain lines that could not be crossed. In other words, it was politically expedient for the Protestants for Servetus to be reduced to ash.

So how do the Goldstones treat Calvin? Here's how he's introduced:

[Servetus] was found guilty of the charges brought by a council and prosecutor hand picked by his archrival and sworn enemy, Jean Chauvin, an obscure failed humanist who had reinvented himself as the reformer Jean Calvin and risen to be virtual dictator of a great city.

Leave aside the fact that Geneva (with a maximum population of roughly 20,000 in the 16th century -- a fraction of that of Rome, Paris or London) was hardly a great city. Calvin was hardly the sworn enemy of Servetus, or for that matter, a "failed humanst." I suppose I'm in for a polemical treat with this work -- I suspect that the five year old will find more utility in his purchase than I will in mine.

Posted by Ideofact at February 8, 2004 11:33 PM