Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

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PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; others as an argument about why it is important to investigate the issue of God’s existence in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. You have more to gain in believing than not believing. We need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth. I think the opening of the wager section imploring us to investigate is fine. However, there are many objections to the Wager proper.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)

Christine de Pizan is a rare example of a literary woman from the Medieval period. She was raised in the French Court after her Italian father took a job there as an astrologer and physician. There she achieved a high level of education that wouldn’t have been possible in the male-dominated arenas of the Italian City-States. Married at fifteen to a court official and widowed from her happy marriage, she attempted to support herself and her children through her writing.

The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the slander that women are by nature full of vice and evil. Ancient and contemporary writers often accused women of being lewd and unable to control their sexual desires, as being weak and cowardly, as being unfit for government or law, as unintelligent, who brought nothing but unhappiness to their husbands, and were the cause of humanity’s downfall through Eve.

“[J]udging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators . . .  it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice (4).”

All of this anti-female discourse found in the great works fills Christine with low self-esteem, self-hated, and loathing of her own sex.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature (5).”

Christine is confronted by the female allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Like much medieval allegorical work, Christine is influenced by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in which Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort Boethius at the dawn of his execution and correct his mistaken views about divine justice. Like Lady Philosophy, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice have come to comfort Christine in her distress, challenge the lies of these male writers, and help her build a City of Ladies for future generations whose walls will defend the virtue of women.

“What more do you want me to tell you, my dear daughter? It seems to me that I have brought sufficient proof of my intention, which was to show you, through reasoning and example, that God has never held, nor now holds, the feminine sex—nor that of men—in reproach (97).”

Reason points out that those who blame Eve for humanity’s Fall ignore the more important contribution of the Virgin Mary who provided humanity’s salvation. Reason acknowledges that there may be some merit in attacking “lewd” women, but writers that do so often go beyond these reasonable boundaries and assume all women are dissolute. Reason tells Christine that these male writers attack women due to their own vices, jealousy, and enjoyment of slander.

In response to the claim that women should have no place in law, government, or dispensing justice, Reason offers many examples of women leaders who were known for their just rule such as Nicaula the Empress of Ethiopia and Fredegund the Queen of France. To counter the point that women are physically weaker, cowardly, and have less strength, Reason notes how nature often makes up for defects in one area by giving an advantage in another. Aristotle was misshapen physically, but had a first-rate mind. Alexander the Great was ugly and sickly, but his courageous heart and virtuous qualities made him a first-rate warrior and leader. Likewise, some strong men, far from being virtuous, have committed such heinous acts during war that they’ve damned their souls and would’ve been better off being born with weak feminine bodies. Reason goes on to list the many women who have demonstrated courage and strength in history. She mentions Semiramis of Nineveh who conquered Babylon, Assyria, Ethiopia, and India. Another exemplar is Queen Thamiramis of the Amazons who defeated the Persian King Cyrus, and then chopped off his head, and threw it into a bucket of blood as ridicule for his never-ending bloodlust. While the Amazon warriors Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed Hercules and Theseus in battle, and Penthesilea the Amazon took on whole armies of Greeks to avenge Hector’s death. She could only be stopped when Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, ambushed her with all his forces.

Reason next addresses whether women can be as clever and intelligent as men. The perception that women know less than men arises from lack of equal access to education and that women spend their days running a household rather than participating in a variety of human activities that would require of them and provide them with a broader education. Examples of educated women include Conficia who went to school with her brother and became a famous poet mentioned by both Saint Gregory and Boccaccio. While Proba mastered all seven liberal arts and knew all of Virgil’s works by heart. The Greek Sappho who also gets a mention was not only well-educated, but a celebrated poet. Reason elaborates on this claim further by pointing out that many women have invented new fields and technology. Nicostrata also called Carmentis was the first to institute laws in the Italian lands that would later become Rome. Minerva invented techniques for making armor. Indeed, she was so wise and so skilled that according to Reason the pagans mistook her for a goddess. Ceres invented the science of agriculture and farming, while Isis invented the art of gardening and planting.  The last part of Reason’s discussion involves prudence or the discipline to complete what needs to be done. Here Reason buttresses her argument by offering a gloss on the biblical proverbs. Some of her prudent women include Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Opis, and Lavinia who marries Aeneas in the Aeneid.

 

Next it is Rectitude’s turn who calls out the foolishness of parents that desire sons over daughters. She argues that sons are more likely to resent their parent’s poverty or desire their parent’s death if their parents happen to be rich in order to inherit property quicker, while daughters tend to be more loyal. Rectitude then gives example of daughters loyal to parents through tough times. Next, Rectitude challenges the stereotype that marriage is filled with unhappiness for men because of controlling, disloyal wives. Indeed, often the opposite is true.

“How many women are there actually, dear friend—and you yourself know—who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens? My God! How many harsh beatings—without cause and without reason—how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help? And consider all the women who die of hunger and grief with a home full of children, while their husbands carouse dissolutely or go on binges in every tavern all over town, and still the poor women are beaten by their husbands when they return, and that is their supper! (119).”

This denunciation against abusive husbands challenges the slander that women make men unhappy in marriage. In reality, it is men who often make women unhappy in marriage.  Still, women often remain loyal to their husbands, despite this mistreatment.

To challenge the claim that women are unfaithful, Rectitude turns to well-known mythological examples such as Dido’s loyalty to Aeneas, Medea’s loyalty to Jason, Thisbe to Pyramus, Hero to Leander, and the Griselda tale, which is such a prototypical tale of constancy in the Middle Ages, that it is retold in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s the Decameron as well. Rectitude tells of Portia who is so loyal to her husband, Brutus, that after he is defeated in battle during the Civil War that follows Julius Caesar’s assassination, she swallows burning coals to commit suicide in solidarity with her deceased spouse.  Rectitude also lists women who helped save their people from destruction or danger such as the biblical figures Mary, Judith, and Queen Esther. Rectitude shows that men are often happier or would be happier if they listened to their wives’ sound advice to keep them out of mischief. One such example is Veturia the wife of Cornelius who convinces her husband not to destroy Rome.

The final allegorical figure is Justice who comes to complete the city. The Virgin Mary is brought to reign as Queen of the City of Ladies. Justice speaks of female saints who suffer and survive many tortures at the hands of tyrannical Roman Emperors and zealous pagans. Christine saves these figures for last because they have the most unimpeachable virtue. She provides countless examples of saintly women who were chosen by God Himself to suffer in His name and convert the pagans. Any male writer who wishes to claim all women are nothing but vice and evil will struggle to rebut the many examples of female saints who represent the most virtuous of people in the Christian worldview and the exact opposite of their claims. Not only is Christine making a statement of who is most deserving to occupy the choicest places of her allegorical city, but seen in terms of a rhetorical strategy she is saving her best arguments for last.
Christine should be viewed as a proto-Feminist who focuses on women’s issues and questions the stereotypes men have of women, yet she is also a product of her times. It is inaccurate to envision her as a feminist in the modern sense fighting for complete liberation from patriarchal society or who supports free love. As Reason says earlier women who live dissolute lives should be criticized; in so far as this reflects Christine’s views, she is not someone who’s going to argue that women should be able to sleep with as many partners as they want. Her ideal women are chaste virgins who devote their lives to God, as shown by her female saints occupying the highest mansions of the City of Ladies, and those who do choose to get married she argues at various points should be subject to their husbands as St. Paul suggests. However, she does call out bad husbands explicitly and doesn’t shy away from challenging male authority when it is wrong or immoral by those same Christian standards. Her devotion to Christianity doesn’t come second to her advocating for women’s rights; the work is a synthesis of the two where the slander of men is wrong in part because women are often good Christians demonstrating virtuous behavior and productive members of society.

With her Christian beliefs in mind, Christine adopts a euhemerist model to handle her pagan mythological references. This view of mythology argues that the figures of myth are real historical figures, usually great men and women, whose actual history has become exaggerated, obscured, and transformed over time into myth. When she mentions Uranus and Vesta, they are no longer the progenitor sky and earth deities, but Uranus is reduced to “an extremely powerful man in Greece (95).” Saturn is not the King of the Titans anymore, but rather he is the King of Crete. Christine applies these assumptions with many other classical gods and goddess, claiming they were humans whose wisdom or excessive virtue led the pagans to incorrectly believe they were gods. In this vein, Rectitude talks about the ten sibyls. It was a medieval belief that one of the sibyls prophesied Jesus and spoke out against paganism. This bring us to an important point in Christine’s literary strategy. She wants to be able to use ancient sources steeped in paganism, but obviously can’t use them wholesale due to Christian social mores. So in the case of the sibyls she turns them into proto-Christians and in the case of the pagan deities she uses a euhemeristic understanding of mythology to make these exemplars more palatable to a Christian audience and reconcilable to her monotheistic beliefs.

This leaves us with the City itself, which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice help build with their arguments. The walls and structures of the city are built out of all the virtuous qualities the women of history, literature, the Bible, and mythology have shown. By erecting the city on these arguments, they are designed to protect women from future slander.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (trans. Betty Radice and M. T. Clanchy).

In his first letter, titled “Historia Calamitatum”, Abelard tells an anonymous friend the story of his tragic early life. He was born on the borders of Brittany to noble parents. As the eldest son, he stood to inherit lands and a castle, but his father also encouraged his children in their learning, which led Abelard to abandon military life for the life of learning.

“I renounced the glory of military life, made over my inheritance and rights of the eldest son to my brothers, and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be educated in the lap of Minerva (3).”

He went to Paris to learn dialectic under William of Champeaux, but after disputing with him on some points of philosophy his former teacher became an enemy. In many ways, the life of a scholar and teacher was far more treacherous than the military life. The world Abelard describes in his letter was one of cut-throat competition where a teacher’s reputation could make or break them. After falling out with William, Abelard goes off to setup a rival school. The more William and others denigrate him, the better his reputation becomes and the more students he gains.

 

After studying and teaching philosophy, particularly Aristotelian logic, Abelard decides to go off to study Scripture with Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with the better known St. Anselm), who was the preeminent scholar of the Bible in his day. Abelard finds Anselm unintelligent and not very insightful, often being unable to answer simple questions and leaving his students more confused about a particular point than when they began. Some of his students start speaking poorly of him to Anselm, especially after Abelard decides to start skipping lecture. On a challenge from his fellow students, Abelard writes his own lecture on a particularly difficult passage of Ezekiel. Everyone is so impressed with his interpretation that he soon gains the ire of Anselm too. However, this backfires as well and soon gains him students who want his Biblical interpretations.

It’s at the height of this worldly success when he first meets Heloise.

“In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her most renowned throughout the realm. I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love (10).”

Abelard convinces her uncle to hire him as her private tutor. They have a secret passionate love affair. She gets pregnant. Abelard takes her away into his own country to deliver the baby. This, of course, means the uncle learns of the affair.  He tries to appease the uncle by marrying Heloise, but hoped to keep the marriage a secret so it doesn’t damage his reputation. Heloise tries to convince him that this is a bad idea and won’t really satisfy her uncle who feels his honor has been damaged. Once they are married the uncle reveals their union to everyone and constantly berates Heloise. Abelard sends her to a convent, which leads the uncle and her family to believe he is preparing to divorce her. Angered by this final insult, they break into his house by bribing a servant and castrate him.

 

 

Humiliated and mutilated, Abelard retires to a monastery, which at first welcomes a man of his reputation, but once he starts criticizing some of their evil habits they begin to resent and hate him as well. He writes his first major book on scripture. Heloise goes off and becomes a nun for real at exhortations of Abelard. Meanwhile his intellectual rivals convince higher officials that the book is heretical and this causes him to be summoned to a trial. During his first trial of heresy, they struggle to find any evidence in his book that could be deemed heretical and are about to let him go with no charges, but his rivals at the last second convince the heads of the trial to punish him anyway. They misrepresent his views about the trinity, force him to recant views he doesn’t hold, and then burn his book.

 

Abelard returns to the monastery where everyone hates him. The monks trump up charges against based on some comments about the origins of the French Church and plan to bring him to justice before the king. He flees to the protection of Count Theobald, a powerful neighboring lord, whose strength is equal to the king’s. He then retires to the wilderness where his students follow him. They help him build a monastery to house his school, which he calls the Paraclete. Shortly after, he gains a post as an abbot at St. Gildas. The unruly monks hate his strict rules and try to poison him.

He gives the Paraclete to Heloise and her nuns as their new convent once their old one was confiscated.

Abelard views his early intellectual successes as sinful pride and leads to his carnal lust. He believes God punished his pride and lust through his subsequent castration and having his books burnt at the first heresy trial. At the end of his letter, he explains that he views his tribulations as tests from God. The Bible shows that this is the nature of the world and all these misfortunes that have befallen him are part of God’s plan.

After being out contact with Heloise for many years, they begin writing letters to each other again. In this letter, written by Heloise, we get to hear her take on the events Abelard has recounted of their past life together. Despite her high position as an abbess in charge of nuns, she says her time with him as his lover was the highest point of her life and she still loves him more than anyone.

“In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet – they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers (68).”

She still lusts for him even after these many years. She seems to regret the course of events their lives have taken. She knows she should repent, but she still longs for the past.

Abelard in his next letter responds that their entrance into religious life should be seen as divine mercy rather than as divine punishment. God gave them the opportunity to use their intellectual gifts for the good of the faith and not spoil it on selfish concerns. In an obvious rationalization, Abelard argues that this tragic event was actually a good event when you look back on it from a different lens.

Seeming ready to move forward, Heloise wants guidance on the proper way to run a convent according to religious principles. She enquires about the history of nuns. She points out that there are many who join the monastic orders who aren’t prepared to live by their rules.

Abelard writes a letter that discusses how monasteries and convents should be properly run. His letters are often peppered with copious examples from the Bible and quotations from the church fathers as well as the occasional reference to Ovid and Cicero. He turns to these sources for the origin of the nuns and monks and using these sources he makes a strong argument for women playing an important role in the Church.

Unsurprisingly, Abelard couldn’t keep himself out of controversy and soon ended up in a second heresy trial at Sens in 1140 led by Bernard of Clairvaux.  Peter the Venerable, the abbot of the powerful Cluny monastery, took him in Abelard and supported him in his final years. Along with the letters between Abelard and Heloise, the collection also includes a brief set of correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Heloise concerning Abelard.

“He was engaged on such holy occupations when the Visitor of the Gospels came to find him, and found him awake, not asleep like so many; found him truly awake, and summoned him to the wedding of eternal life . . . For he brought with him a lamp full of oil, that is, a conscience filled with the testimony of his saintly life. As the time came for him to pay the common debt of humanity, the sickness from which he suffered worsened and quickly brought him to his last hour (222).”

We find out from their letters that after his Abelard’s death, Peter the Venerable transported Abelard’s body to Heloise and her nuns and that Peter granted him absolution for his sins.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about the Christian Life, which depicts the trials and tribulations of a believer as they attempt to maintain their faith in the face of all the temptations of the world. More particularly, it is the story of Christian, an everyman figure, weighed down by the burden on his back (his sin), living in the City of Destruction, and afraid that a terrible fate awaits him if he stays. After hearing a message from the Evangelist (the Gospel), he abandons his family who thinks he has lost his wits. He desires to reach the Wicket Gate where he can escape the fate of the city of destruction and his pilgrimage to the Celestial City can begin. This part symbolizes the line from Matthew 10:36, “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The idea here is that one must abandon one’s family for one’s faith if it comes down to that. The reaction of his fellow villagers also implies that many in the world will look upon the life-style of a Christian with disdain and treat them as if they’ve lost their mind.

In order to reach the Wicket Gate and the path towards salvation, Christian must sludge through the Slough of Despond (a muck created from the sins of humanity). One of his fellow villagers, Mr. Pliable temporarily follows him, but turns back after experiencing the Slough of Despond, fearing he will drown in the muck (i.e. he will drown in sin). Before Christian reaches the gate, he almost loses his way when he seeks after Mr. Worldly Wisdom, thinking maybe Worldly Wisdom has the answers to relieve his ills, but the evangelist finds Christian and remonstrates him for this action. The message here is that worldly wisdom is a deviation from the true path of salvation and doesn’t cure anything.

Finally he gets to the Wicket Gate and receives entrance as a pilgrim, but this is only the beginning of his quest. Inside, he must climb the Hill of Difficulty, fight a mortal combat with Apollyon (presented as the monstrous king of the material world who dislikes that he has lost his servant, Christian), traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death where hobgoblins roam, travel off the approved path where he is captured by the giant Despair and beaten in Doubting Castle, watch his companion, Faithful, get sacrificed at Vanity Fair (where all the vanities of the world are for sale: kingdoms, jewels, women, etc.), ends up almost snared in the nets of a Flatterer, and then finally crosses the river of death to reach the Holy City.

A second part follows in which Christiana, Christian’s wife, and her children decided to follow in his footsteps and become pilgrims. They revisit many of the same places, but this time they are accompanied by Great Heart, who protects them from most of the dangers. There is a lot less drama and tension in this recapitulation. Likewise, many companions join Christiana, such as Feeble Mind and Mr. Ready-to-halt who walks about on crutches. This second part emphasizes that Christ’s salvation is for women, children, and the weak just as much as it is for healthy strong men.

The work does a fine job as an allegory for Christianity. It allegorizes the many difficulties that stand in the way of maintaining belief; the world itself, our vanities, want to snare us and take us off the path of faith, according to the text. The key idea in the work is that the true path to salvation is recognizing and admitting our sinful nature and asking for the grace of Christ for forgiveness, which is open to anyone who sincerely accepts it. The text holds no punches in that Bunyan is challenging other versions of Christianity that don’t believe in this way, often depicting them as ignorant and misguided. Many of the people they meet on the pilgrimage road profess Christianity, but often they are depicted as hypocrites who don’t really believe (it’s all external appearance) or believe in incorrect doctrine. Indeed, he even names an allegorical figure, Ignorance, who holds a discourse with Christian and Hopeful about his beliefs. In this discussion, it is revealed that Ignorance believes in Christ and has done his best to be a good person and serve Jesus, but doesn’t believe in humanity’s sinful nature and thus isn’t asking for forgiveness for his sins. Ignorance is a type of Christian as he claims to serve and believe in Christ, but the wrong kind apparently. In the end, when Ignorance walks up to the gates of Celestial City, the King refuses to recognize him and orders that he be bound and sent to the hell.