Friday, October 12, 2012

Satanic Verses

Back in 1988, in London's East End, you couldn't get a copy of Salman Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie had produced a fictional narrative of an early Islamic story telling of three verses removed from the Qu'ran after the Prophet saw them as a satanic temptation. A fatwa was issued against Rushdie's all-too-human retelling, making it an undesirable item to be held in our high-street book store. The satanic verses had become doubly satanic: first in their traditional sense; second as a modern deconstructive novel which appeared to challenge the purity of Islamic revelation.

My experience of the revised Roman Catholic mass (during a recent retreat weekend) suggested to me a reflective thought of "satanic verses," and in both senses. Here was a liturgical and theological reform responding to a previous form of words now rejected as deviant and deconstructive. Let me develop that thought.

The language of the mass changed initially, after many hundreds of years, as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It went from Latin to English, and from formal to conversational. This 20th-century-style speech is the only language of the mass any Catholic under forty has known. The recent revised version is an English translation of a third edition of the Latin Roman Missal published in 2002. In other words, the new English translation is of a brushed-up Latin edition of the mass. 

Language, as we all know, is the world. Language is pictures, stories, ideas, all strung together and held in front of us by the amazing phenomenon of words. The history of the original satanic verses is disputed, lost in the mists of traditions about the Prophet. In contrast, the past forty years of language of the mass is vivid living memory, and for it to be revised in this way amounts to a deliberate exercise in rewriting religious experience.

Arguments in favor of the new ritual claim it is richer, less chatty, more mysterious and spiritual. Attending the new mass for the first time I had a somewhat different reaction. Everything I heard was an uncanny repetition of verbal and mental themes I had last experienced as a boy, and they came across loud and clear: as hierarchical, scholastic, metaphysical and dualist.

These three examples stuck in my head. First, the famous "And with your spirit" is repeated in various places. It is an evident translation of Et cum spiritu tuo, the words I used to parrot as an altar boy when the priest spun around from mysteriously facing the altar and let out a doctrinally dense, hierarchically awesome Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord be with you." The new English is plainly a reversal to the traditional Latin and carries with it all the old privileging of a separate "spiritual" part within us destined for an immaterial heaven.

The introduction to the Lord's prayer was this: "At the Savior's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say," followed by the beginning words "Our Father.." Again this awoke from dim caves of memory the ghost of forgotten words, in this case Audemus dicere, "we dare to say." It is the Latin I used to hear a half century ago, and which even then filled me with a feeling of the remoteness and dangerous character of a God who otherwise--in the narrow ritual space of the church's mediation--could be considered the Abba/Daddy taught by Jesus. The reversion to this very Latin Roman formula--from the previous much simpler "Let us pray in the words Christ taught us"--had the clang of iron about it, the cruel reconstruction of an old imperial heaven.

And then there was the one that caught me fully in the throat. It was in the words of institution, "Take this...and drink from it...the blood of the new and eternal covenant...," replacing "new and everlasting covenant." The priest who was celebrating, himself stumbled on the word "eternal," his brain clearly wanting to say "everlasting." As Freud said, a slip of the tongue will often be the sign of something repressed trying to come to the surface. In this case it was the time-filled sense of "everlasting," the meaning of a history-produced and history-producing relationship with God, rather than the other-worldly, metaphysical, Platonic "eternal." With this one word the revisionists played the minds and souls of Catholic Christians back into a two-tier, power-brokered universe, with the amazing human intervention of the cross carried off to a motionless, dead beyond. The game was essentially up (pun intended).

The other form of words, now abandoned, is relegated to the status of satanic verses. The 2nd Vatican Council which inspired these words and the theological energy which produced them are now frequently called an aberration, a mistake. All the so-called leveling out, the loss of majesty and awe, the engagement with history and social activism, all this is a massive humanizing temptation to be cast in the dustbin of bad verses, along with the actual council of bishops which instigated it. An emerging sense of a Jesus Messiah who fills his disciples, and the world, with a transforming meaning both of God and humanity, this is in there too.

But history does not disappear that easily. The repressed returns. True satanic verses are those which accuse the human, which put humanity under judgment of violence. Meanwhile what is accused may well remain the source of life and hope.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian


  1. Tony,
    I've done my own reflections on the two translations on the September issue of my Arise reflection / letter. You can peruse it at this address ~

    All the best,

    Bob Traupman

    I'll try to see you Friday night in Hollywood (Fl)

  2. Thanks for your commentary, Bob. Exactly! And I loved the scene-setting of the Council and Papa Roncalli's words opening the event. The Council "blazes a trail that leads toward that unity of the human race, which is so necessary if this earthly realm of ours is to conform to the realm of heaven..."