Friday, 22 February 2013

Francesca Stravrakopoulou - Think Week

Of the events that I attended in Oxford Think Week, Saturday afternoon's talk by Professor Francesca Stravrakopoulou was the most interesting, comprehensible and entertaining.  (Peter Atkins was a close contender though!)

She explained how much she loved studying the bible.  As an atheist she claimed that anyone suggesting that the bible should only be studied by religious scholars was doing a disservice to it.

She started with an amusing tale about a conversation with her grandmother who told her that the classical demi-gods, the Greek heroes, were the offspring of a god and a human.  She said "Oh, like Jesus then?"  Apparently though, the suggestion that Jesus is a demi-god doesn't go down well with Christians, and this was the beginning of her rejection of Christianity and fascination with the bible as a human-written book.  After some years of study in Oxford in the minority position of being an atheist in a community of theologians she has risen to the position of Professor of Biblical Studies in Exeter.

From this position she was asked to host a short BBC series called The Bible's Buried Secrets, (e.g. here) which I remember enjoying.  The seemingly controversial claims of the series led to something of a furore.  The BBC was inundated with complaints that it was not appropriate for a series about the bible to be presented by an atheist.  She received a lot of personal hate mail which was rather disturbing, but on balance the 'love mail' was even more disturbing!  She has also been accused of being anti-semitic, anti Israeli, and more amusingly, 'really stupid' because she has read the bible and knows it well but apparently hasn't understood it.  I think she has understood it very well!

Worse still, some have said that she was 'too young-looking', complained about what she was wearing, that she was a woman and worst of all an atheist!  One fellow scholar claimed that she had 'betrayed the guild' and another said that she had 'discussed things on TV that should only be examined in the safety of the lecture theatre'.

She likes to show her students the core and difficult stuff in the bible, like the partly hidden presence of a wife of Yahweh, namely the goddess Asherah.  In particular she is interested in the tension between biblical views and historical realities.

For the remainder of the talk she moved on to the subject of Think Week's theme - namely 'Death'.

The concept of hell has only become so widely believed because of Christianity.  Before that time it was believed that you would go to the underworld and you would be united with the ancestors or 'gathered to the ancestors'.  The way that material remains were treated was important.  The very idea that the dead are unclean is a modern one.  In ancient times the period of decomposition was an important part of confirming your place in the underworld, and your bones would have been gathered into an ossuary some time after your death.

Furthermore, death was not regarded as breaking the bond with the living, and rituals were important to maintain this link.  Now we are increasingly segregating the living and dead and she teaches that this is completely different from the ways of ancient people.

In one special case, namely that of Jesus, his resurrection and the lack of a verifiable tomb to venerate diminishes the value of what it is to be human.

Summarising, she emphasised again that biblical texts are incredibly alien to modern eyes, but that, on the other hand, the bible and religions that gave rise to the bible are incredibly important to human society.

I suppose that last claim is a matter of opinion, but it is one that I can respect and not reject out of hand. 

All told, this was the best Think Week event that I attended.  How sad that the audience was only 29 people.  I for one am looking forward to any new TV series involving Francesca's fascinating insights into the bible.

BBC might resist controversy . . . 

Go to Channel 4!

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