*Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity*

by on December 8, 2017 at 2:16 am in Books, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

Imagine a German-born, ethnically Iranian (Sunni?) Muslim — Navid Kermani — wandering around the religious art of Western Europe and telling you what he really thinks, in fairly analytical terms.  I am very much enjoying this book, here is one excerpt:

One reason why the zest that Catholic art has for Jesus’s suffering leaves such a bad taste in my mouth is no doubt because I am familiar wit it, and unfamiliar with it, from Shia.  I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition, a dissuasion from making the world a better place instead of just lamenting its condition.  [Guido] Reni does not glorify pain; he doesn’t show it at all.  He accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.

And this:

If the Greatest Master of Sufism claims that the contemplation of God is most perfect in women, the Christians’ images confirm it.

Definitely recommended (for some of you), and I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.

1 Chip December 8, 2017 at 2:30 am

The Sufis have at times been the most evangelical and radical Islamic zealots, but their mysticism also gave us a beauty that seems non-existent in Islam today.

It’s a shame that the skirling hypnotic music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is less the sound of Islam than the unceasing oppressive call to prayer that sounds across so many cities today.

2 dude December 8, 2017 at 8:18 am

Can you explain what work “but” is doing in the first sentence?

3 Ali Choudhury December 8, 2017 at 6:10 pm

There are few thigs more beautiful to hear than the call to prayer. 5 times a day is not frequent to be reminded of spiritual concerns. Though yes, it can get a bit much if you are in a cramped neighborhood with all the mosques belting it out on loudspeaker.

4 Chip December 8, 2017 at 11:30 pm

“Everything within the religion, nothing outside the religion, nothing against the religion.”

(With apologies to Mussolini, American Democrats, British Labourites and others who believe this about the state.)

5 tjamesjones December 8, 2017 at 3:50 am

“I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.”

How many?

6 dearieme December 8, 2017 at 4:47 pm

“A man who shrinks from quantification is ill-suited to become an economist.” Maynard Keynes. Or maybe Albert Einstein. Or was it Thomas Jefferson? Anyway, Mark Twain.

7 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 5:46 am

Are there historical references to Jesus besides the one in Tacitus’s annals where he talks about the mischievous cult arising in the eastern provinces governed by Pontius Pilate during the rule of Tiberius?

Or is that the only historical reference?

Also curious to learn more about the spread of Christianity in pagan Europe. When and how did each of the countries fall? I know about Ireland and its conquest (in a spiritual sense) by St Patrick. Who were some of the major figures who spread the faith in Germany, France, Netherlands? To what extent was force involved?

8 dan1111 December 8, 2017 at 7:07 am

Yes: the New Testament, most of which was written when eyewitnesses of Jesus were still living, as well as a vast corpus of Christian writings from the first century onwards. Whatever one believes about their bias, historicity, etc., there is no plausible way to explain all of these documents without the historical existence of a first-century Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans.

9 John S. December 9, 2017 at 9:53 am

Mythicism seems perfectly plausible to me, and explains much — e.g., Paul’s ignorance of and lack of interest in anything Jesus did or said while supposedly wandering around Judaea just a few decades before he (Paul) wrote his letters.

Christianity began as a cult of Judaism built around certain passages from the Torah which referred to (or could be construed to refer to) the Messiah. Jewish (Old Testament) scripture and visions were the only sources of knowledge about Christ — and certainly the only sources mentioned by Paul and other early writers.

Around 90 CE, someone composed an allegory around those passages, setting it in a specific time and place. This story (and further embellishments by later authors) eventually won the day and became accepted as fact.

10 P Burgos December 13, 2017 at 11:36 am

Well, Jesus was definitely associated with John the Baptist, and no one seems to doubt that he was a historical figure, and none of the ancient sources doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure either, which given that the ancient Mediterranean world, including Palestinian Jews, held Christians in contempt, would seem to indicate that Jesus was in fact a historical person. Why wouldn’t the Rabbis of the time have left some record that Jesus never lived and was a myth (which surely would have been mentioned by Josephus)?

11 dude December 8, 2017 at 8:29 am

Assuming you mean non-Christian historical references, probably Flavius Josephus. Does your Google machine not work?

12 Lewis December 8, 2017 at 10:56 am

You should read about Donar’s Oak, a very interesting story about St. Boniface that is only one part of the general war of Christian Europe against the pagans to the north. You can also read the Wikipedia page about the Northern Crusades. How interesting that, just three hundred years before Columbus, Christians in Europe were still battling pagans.

13 cjared December 8, 2017 at 1:00 pm

… re: “Also curious to learn more about the spread of Christianity in pagan Europe” …. when Christianity spread across Europe, it was the pagan religion. Pagan = a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. Christianity did not quality as a “main world religion” when it spread across Europe.

14 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 5:55 am

Another question that is nagging me – What is the degree of influence of the Zoroastrian faith on Shia Islam of Iran and Iraq?

Always surprised at the rapidity with which these countries fell to the sword of Islam. Atleast with Europe, I can understand Christianity’s conquest, as Paganism in Europe didn’t have much intellectual sophistication. And couldn’t withstand the superior theological / philosophical tradition represented by Christianity. But unlike Northern Europe, Iran was a more sophisticated culture, and Zoroastrianism a religion dating back to the times of the Hindu Vedas. It’s a little shocking to note the ease with which this great culture surrendered to Islam.

15 dude December 8, 2017 at 8:38 am

Paganism had a great deal of sophistication if one counts neo-Platonism and Stoicism. Of course, the best of Stoic and Neo-Platonic thought was compatible with and maybe even further elucidated by Christian theology.

16 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 8:55 am

I am talking of Pagan religion not Pagan philosophy

None of the pagans ever made an attempt to integrate philosophy and religion unlike say the Hindus.

Also Platonism and Stoicism are not from Northern Europe. I was primarily interested in Christianity’s conquest of Northern Europe.

17 dude December 8, 2017 at 9:11 am

“None of the pagans ever made an attempt to integrate philosophy and religion unlike say the Hindus.”

This is crazy wrong. The Eleatics? Empedocles? Plato himself? What do you think the Timaeus is?

18 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 9:41 am


None of them made an attempt to integrate religion and philosophy. They were primarily philosophers. No attempt made by any of them to link mythology / theology with philosophy and metaphysics (leave alone ethics)

19 Heedless December 8, 2017 at 10:04 am

The Greeks and Romans converted to Christianity when Constantine converted. The Roman state has a great deal of experience at enforcing imperial orthodoxy, so the philosophical robustness of Hellenic paganism was a moot point.

The northern European pagans had a very limited intellectual framework and were much more vulnerable to conversion. They also had a tradition of trading in weak gods for stronger ones, so Christian military victories brought pagans permanently into the fold, while pagan victories merely brought political advantage.

20 JonFraz December 8, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Many of the religious cults of the imperial era in Rome were full of Neoplatonic elements– and too was Christianity.

21 peri December 8, 2017 at 2:04 pm

I am reading an interesting book called “Destiny Disrupted,” about the Islamic view of Islamic history (it’s not about Islam per se, and so is for me a perfect book – I can’t pretend to be interested in doctrine or faith). I was wondering the same thing. The writer offers what I suppose is the conventional explanation that the Sassanid empire (Persians) was exhausted from warring with the Romans (or Byzantines as we now say). But then the Persians transmitted some of their culture as Islam spread, so it wasn’t exactly a vanquishing …

I think another explanation might lie in what Zoroastrianism lacked that the Christianity and Islam offered – the hope for life after death – seems to have been in the air. But that wasn’t in the book.

22 Cyrus December 8, 2017 at 4:19 pm

1. Although the Persian state fell quickly due in part to exhaustion from protracted conflict with other external powers, the Persian religion dwindled away over centuries, with greater or lesser help from persecution depending on the prevailing opinion as to whether Zoroastrians were monotheists or pagans.

2. There’s a lot we don’t know about late Persian antiquity.

3. It’s possible (see point 2) that 7th century Zoroastrianism wasn’t that accessible to the general population, and when the new ruler said convert, most of the population had weak prior commitments.

23 Moo cow December 8, 2017 at 5:34 pm

My first thought was the Iranian (and now, Shia world) celebration of the ancient Zoroastrians spring festival Nowruz.


24 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 6:02 am

” I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition”

It’s interesting how his mind works. So the martyrdom obsession of the Shias is folk belief and superstition. However the revelation of Gabriel to Mohammad is somehow not folk belief? What makes that a more sacrosanct tale than the associated Shia legends? By the same token, Jesus’s last supper is also a superstition.

This artificial barrier drawn between the so-called “true religion” and “superstition” always amuses me.

When enough people sign up for a legend, it is “respectable” while the local faiths / beliefs are somehow ignoble and superstitious.

25 A Truth Seeker December 8, 2017 at 7:44 am

“However the revelation of Gabriel to Mohammad is somehow not folk belief?”
Because the founder of the religion itsef started that part? Hey, what Mohamed knew about Islam?

“This artificial barrier drawn between the so-called “true religion” and “superstition” always amuses me.”
Which is better than artificially conflating a bunch of disjointed cults and calling it a religion, which is the case with Shinto and Hinduism. “Hey, these folks here worship this demon, those foks over there worship that other demon. The guys all kinda have the same skin color and speak languages we don’t understand, so they must share the same religion.”

26 dude December 8, 2017 at 8:39 am

I’m guessing you are around between 19-24 years old. Am I right?

27 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 8:53 am

Kids often ask the best questions.

Nope you are wrong by a long margin

28 dude December 8, 2017 at 9:28 am


29 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 9:47 am

Nope. I am a precocious 7 year old scholar.

30 dude December 8, 2017 at 10:26 am

Lol. A scholar who thinks that the Timaeus makes no attempt to integrate religion a philosophy. 🙂 Don’t worry, they will probably teach Plato in third grade.

31 Jeff R December 8, 2017 at 10:17 am

Not sure why you’re getting criticized so heavily. One guy who think his supernatural beliefs are Serious, Important, and Deserving of Respect or whatever, while other people’s are silly, absurd, folksy, etc. is pretty rich, no matter what the context.

32 Hazel Meade December 8, 2017 at 11:26 am

I generally agree, but Mormonism?

33 dearieme December 8, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Is Mormonism intrinsically dafter than Roman Catholicism? The main difference is that Mormonism is so much younger that its fraudulence is obvious, whereas the fraudulent claims of Peter going to Rome to become Bishop and get crucified can be passed off as ancient traditions, as if somehow an old lie is more respectable, or more plausible, than a younger one.

34 Hazel Meade December 8, 2017 at 10:28 pm

The old lie does have the benefit of not being as easily disprovable.

35 dearieme December 9, 2017 at 7:01 am

A zillion things are not easily disprovable: the burden of proof lies on the tale-tellers.

36 blah December 9, 2017 at 6:13 am

The irony is that it is Tyler, and not Shrikanth, who does precisely that in this post.

37 clockwork_test December 8, 2017 at 7:04 am

Being Iranian, the odds of him being Sunni are close to zero.

Then there is the textual (though not really Straussian) approach to determining the author’s religious background – ‘I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing ….’

38 whahae December 8, 2017 at 8:01 am
39 A Truth Seeker December 8, 2017 at 8:06 am

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. “Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them.”

40 clockwork_prior December 8, 2017 at 9:01 am

Well, maybe I should have said Persian? But then, pointing out that ‘ethnically Iranian’ is absurd as another example of the sort of imprecision that this web side revels in (Kurds, to give one example from your example, are not Persians, and many of them would prefer not to be Iranian), and then being accused of pedantic trolling, I decided to skip it. Mea culpa.

Basically, Persians are normally Shia, and Turkomens, Arabs, Kurds, etc. normally aren’t. Neither are Armenians or Assyrians, groups of people who also live in Iran who are properly left out of a discussion of different strands of Islam, as they are Christian. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnicities_in_Iran

41 Prior_Fired December 8, 2017 at 9:37 am

Quoting wikipedia every three sentences and accusing others of imprecision…hey!

42 clockwork_prior December 8, 2017 at 11:12 am

Would you prefer a blog instead? http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/12/16/iran-more-than-persia/

(One thing to note about this comment section is not all links can be published, for whatever reason. Wikipedia links always work, saving a fair amount of time figuring out that some site is not allowed. Though as is the case in years past with the New Yorker, a cynical person might assume it was in connection with something that the New Yorker published that prevented links from the New Yorker being possible to include in a comment.)

43 Prior_Fired December 8, 2017 at 11:25 am

I’d prefer you grovel in shame over your hypocrisy!

44 Alex FG December 9, 2017 at 3:37 am

Even Speaking German cost me quite some time to find any Information about Kermani‘s faith: Shia.

Makes sense that He tries for readers to not have his religious upbringing result in presumptions.

And what Label would be the best fitting one anyways? Futurama-eske pre-„First amalgamated church“?

45 Roy LC December 8, 2017 at 8:32 am

That Kermani finds a bad taste in his mouth at looking at the reality of the blood of a Christ he does not accept just makes him a modern German. Luther himself was embarassed by much of the Christian religion and even the Bible, after all objected to more than the alleged apocrypha he objected to various Epistles and Revelations itself.

This is from my Catholic view the essence of Protestantism. That ecstatic religion is somehow less legitimate and deformed than some allegedly purified and rationalized strain. That the irational must be presented in a supposedly rational manner is the hallmark of fundamentalism everywhere. A lot of Catholics in the modern world, and especially in the essentially protestant English Speaking world are embarassed by the defining elements of their professed religion.

46 dude December 8, 2017 at 8:47 am

Can you clarify? The Western tradition of the use of reason to understand ultimate reality obviously predates Christianity. It has long been the teaching of the Church that the existence of for example God can be demonstrated through natural reason and does not rely on revelation. In fact, one difference between Islam and Christianity is that in Christianity the essence of God is rationality (logos) and thus creation must be intelligible. In Islam God is pure will. The idea that Truth would be contrary to rationality would be incompatible with Christianity.

47 Anonymous December 8, 2017 at 9:44 am

“The idea that Truth would be contrary to rationality would be incompatible with Christianity.”

We live in strange times.


48 TMC December 8, 2017 at 9:59 am

Used to be only Clintonites would say yes to this.

49 Anonymous December 8, 2017 at 10:04 am

Right. Because they pictured consensual affairs between adults, not politicians banned from the mall for perving on teens.

50 dude December 8, 2017 at 10:24 am

Politics is always stupid, but Donatism remains a heresy.

51 Anonymous December 8, 2017 at 10:33 am

You seem quite knowledgeable on religion, but I wouldn’t wave away that ethics should be lived.

52 dude December 8, 2017 at 11:26 am

Of course, they should. That’s more or less the definition of ethics.

53 Gareth Morley December 9, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Voluntariam/rationalism is orthogonal to Islam/Christianity. Duns Scotus and al-Ghazali were voluntarists, Aquinas and Avicenna rationalists.

54 rayward December 8, 2017 at 8:53 am

The passion (suffering) of Jesus was the explanation for a crucified Jesus: the Jewish Messiah wasn’t supposed to suffer, He was supposed to return God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish profit: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power.” Instead, Jesus was crucified, and the apocalypse kept not happening; thus, the rationalizations, the suffering, the martyrdom, the predictions of a coming apocalypse, all meant to explain the inexplicable to an audience, Jews, who were skeptical of a crucified Messiah. By far the most creative explanation for the crucified Messiah is that the Jews did it: blame the Jews, not the Gentiles who actually committed the deed, and present Jesus as a Gentile Messiah even though Jesus was an observant Jew, as were His disciples, who preached only to other Jews, and for good measure, demonize Jews as having killed God and shift the Jesus movement from Jerusalem to Rome even as Jerusalem was under siege and, along with the Temple, would be destroyed by the Romans (Gentiles), and the Jews who were not killed enslaved by the Romans. It’s a tale that could only be believed by Gentiles. As for martyrdom, Stephen was the first martyr. What separates martyrs from the rest of the believers is that the martyr goes straight to Heaven to be with God, while the rest must wait until the Second Coming; no, grandma and the family dog are not in Heaven, they must wait with the rest of us until the Second Coming and the resurrection of the body. As for the Catholic’s obsession for the suffering Jesus, it’s true that Protestants at one time did not emphasize the passion of Jesus: the sign of Jesus in Protestants churches was an empty cross while in Catholic churches it is the crucifix. But more and more Protestant churches are emphasizing the passion of Jesus, and that includes adding a crucifix to the sanctuaries. As for the New Testament, it is a theological document not a historical document, and for the most part was not written by eye witnesses; indeed, Paul, the founder of the Christian faith and whose letters (especially Galatians and Romans) define the faith, was not an eye witness, having never met Jesus except in his visions. And the Gospels are anonymous, and don’t even purport to have been written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, their names having been added centuries later.

55 JonFraz December 8, 2017 at 2:59 pm

The Gospel of John does state that it was the eyewitness account, not of John by name, but of the Beloved Apostle. But written down by his disciples. (The eastern icon of St. John the Apostle shows him as an old man discoursing to a young St Polycarp who is writing down his words, presumably of the Gospel)

56 rayward December 8, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Anybody can believe what she wants to believe. The Gospel of John is very different from the three synoptic Gospels. It was the last Gospel, written some 70 years after the death of Jesus, obviously not by an eye witness. You won’t find parables in the Gospel of John and you won’t find the apocalypse (after 70 years I think the author got the message that the apocalypse wasn’t imminent). It also has the highest Christology of the four canonical Gospels – Jesus always was – and as such comes closest to the Christianity we know today. Again, the New Testament is a theological document, not a historical document. I both believe that and I am a Christian – I’m just not willing to accept nonsense as historical fact.

57 Willitts December 8, 2017 at 9:19 am

The author states, perhaps correctly, that within the Catholic church there are celebrants of martyrdom.

Church doctrine, though, does not teach this. Tales of martyrdom emphasize forgiveness, peacefulness, and perseverance through adversity. They do not aggrandize victimhood. The latter phenomenon arose from the conflation of revolutionary ideas with religious teaching. Jesus would not be a Marxist or a Jacobin.

58 aguy December 8, 2017 at 9:31 am

One is supposed to be willing to die rather than sin, but courting martyrdom is a big no-no in Christianity. Not sure about Shia.

59 Johnny A December 8, 2017 at 2:41 pm


60 blah December 9, 2017 at 7:19 am


61 Johnny A December 8, 2017 at 10:54 am

Based on Tyler’s excerpt, Kermani does not understand Christianity very well. Christ and the martyrs suffered, but the faithful do not need to suffer to know Christ’s love. Self-mortification is sure not a part of modern Christianity (though I’m sure it was more prevalent in the early years.) The purpose of martyrs’ suffering depicted in paintings is to show how great their faith was.

Kermani also seems wrong about the centrality of Christ’s suffering in art. The Vatican’s collection – which seems to be the best thing to focus on – is just as full of the Nativity, the suffering of Mary, the importance of Christ’s death and thus resurrection, the martyrs, and finally Greek and Roman myth. Where is Christ’s suffering in the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, or any other of the key painters?

62 shrikanthk December 8, 2017 at 12:23 pm

“Self-mortification is sure not a part of modern Christianity ”

I thought Quakerism revolves a great deal around martyrdom and self-mortification. Isn’t Quakerism a part of modern Christianity? William Penn, Mary Dyer…those are modern names..

63 Johnny A December 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm

shrikanthk – I wasn’t counting self-denial as a form of mortification but you’re right, that does have an important role in Christianity. I assume that’s what you’re referring to.

64 JonFraz December 8, 2017 at 2:57 pm

There was a controversy in eastern Christendom over whether Christ actually experienced suffering on the cross. It got mixed up with the much larger Monophysite/Monothelite dispute and nothing ever came of it. However eastern icons of the Crucifixion still show an impassive Christ and deemphasize the physical wounds (though they do show a leering skull and cross bones at the base of the Cross, and a grieving John and Mary beside it).

65 Ali Choudhury December 8, 2017 at 6:06 pm

Yeah, going around an art museum or a cathedral in Catholic Europe featuring religious art can get oppressive. Too many pictures of a poor man’s visible suffering and pain.Paintings of classical subjects, Hercules, Artemis etc tend to be more fun.

66 Ray Lopez December 8, 2017 at 9:32 pm

Jesus Christ, is this simply a Sunni Muslim in Germany talking his book? (dissing the Catholics and the Shia Muslims?) Christ I’ll pass!

67 blah December 9, 2017 at 6:09 am

I had always suspected that Tyler, like most western Islamophiles, gives higher status to sunnis than shias, and undeserving reverence to sufis. This article seems to confirm it.

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