‘Shed your contemporary prejudices!’ cried the man who taught us Old English. ‘We will visit the world of the Anglo-Saxons, gentlemen, so far as we may, on their own terms.’
Of course, Professor Tolkien was right.
No text can be read intelligently outside its context. The best lessons in criticism of Anglo-Saxon literature (tantalisingly topical, yet passing strange as it is) remain Tolkien’s own imaginative recreations. ‘The Homecoming of Byrtnoth, Bryhtelmes Bearn’ (his masterly completion of ‘The Battle of Maldon’) teaches more about entering into a world of ideas not one’s own than acres of pedestrian lectures by lesser men. To know what our distant ancestors were saying you have to think their thoughts after them. It is a process that mingles humility, piety and sensibility.
These truths, alas, are lost on our modern revisionist theologians. They are bulls to the textual china shop; imperialists of a past they do not respect and so cannot understand.
Take two examples.
Galatians 3: 28 has been so sloganized by the supporters of women’s ordination that it is hard now to remember that they are attributing to its author notions of equality and sexual interchangeability as strange to his world as Freudian psychology or nuclear physics. Whatever Paul meant by that enigmatic phrase (and there are plenty of clues, in context, to help us) he could not be agreeing with them – for the simple reason that he did not have the conceptual tools to understand what they might mean.
Now the Archbishop of Canterbury elect tells us that the New Testament condemnations apply only to homosexual activity by heterosexuals. We are being asked to believe that Paul could make a distinction between homosexuality as a condition (innate and effectively irreversible) and homosexuality as an activity and personal choice – a distinction which has only recently become current and remains, even now, disputed and controversial. And we are being asked to believe that such a distinction was readily comprehensible to his contemporaries.
These exercises in inventive anachronism signal the birth of a new fundamentalism: a dogma that ancient texts are to be construed in our context and not their own, so that our views and presuppositions can effectively obliterate theirs.