Tue, Feb 28, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Book review: Heretic Days: Writings from the Margins of Christianity

Eric Mader’s exploration of his world of faith and politics reveals many exotic species of belief

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Heretic Days: Writings from the Margins of Christianity, by Eric Mader

Eric Mader is one of Taipei’s most lively and entertaining expatriates. He’s the author of a surreal novel, A Taipei Mutt (reviewed in the Taipei Times on Dec. 14, 2003) and a large number of anti-establishment online columns on US politics, most easily seen, together with a great deal else, on www.necessaryprose.com. In addition he’s a Christian, with a very individual take on his faith. It’s this topic to which he’s devoted much, but not all, of his new book, Heretic Days.

One extremely interesting chapter is on the Muggletonians, a 17th-century sect whose founders, two London tailors, believed they were the “two olive trees” mentioned as standing before God in the 11th chapter of Revelation. Once they’d escaped the authority of the established church, English nonconformists began to spawn a large number of sects of this kind, each with slightly different takes on, for instance, the ancient problem of how an omnipotent and benevolent God could have created wicked human beings. The Bible was believed to be literally true at all points, and the permutation of its texts allowed for almost any shade of belief.

Mader happened on the Muggletonians because he’s interested in the poet William Blake. Scholars had for decades struggled to find a philosophical system that would explain all Blake’s enigmatic verses, but without success. Then in 1994 a book appeared by the UK historian E.P. Thompson arguing that it wasn’t philosophical systems we should look at, but the beliefs of the London artisan class to which Blake belonged. Central to these, Thompson urged, were the creeds of the nonconformist sects, especially the Muggletonians. Thompson had tracked down the last surviving Muggletonian who’d given him the sect’s entire archive stretching back 300 years. Thompson handed this treasure trove over to the British Library, and its texts are now available online at www.muggletonian.org.uk.

Heretic Days: Writings from the Margins of Christianity

By Eric Mader


302 pages

Softcover and Kindle: US

Mader is himself a kind of Muggletonian. He has an ingenious mind and a very honest heart, but the precise Christian position he’s worked out for himself, though he calls it, I’m unsure how seriously, Gnostic — in at least some senses of the word — is quite possibly unique to him. And it’s not surprising. Once you’re free from the tenets of the main Christian orthodoxies, and once you believe not all the Bible is literally true, and some of the more recently discovered texts such as the Gospel of Thomas probably contain much that is based on actual contact with Jesus of Nazareth, and if you then proceed to combine an unargued faith that Jesus was the Messiah with a whole range of highly intelligent opinions as to what is likely to be true in these ancient documents, Biblical or not, it won’t take long before you arrive at a position that is well-nigh exclusive to you alone.

There’s nothing wrong with this. I’m no believer in sacred revelation of any kind; by contrast, I could be called a scientific materialist with an eye for beauty. Mader’s belief in Jesus as Messiah simply has no meaning for me, and it would take at the very least a vision of angels playing trumpets to convince me otherwise. But that’s not the point. Mader has a right to his beliefs, bizarre as they seem to me, as I hope I have a right to mine. Millions believe far weirder creeds than he does, yet seem quite untroubled when encountered walking along the street.

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