IT WAS during Reverend David Robertson’s opening talk on Thursday (November 1st) night that three strands of Faclan serendipitously met.
In the Q&A session following the talk, his presence until then unbeknownst to the audience and indeed the speaker, Professor Richard Dawkins raised his hand from the lower right of the auditorium to contest Reverend Robertson’s definition of faith.
Following that, another voice came from the upper left of the room which belonged to Professor Philip R. Davies, due to deliver his own talk on the Dead Sea Scrolls once Reverend Robertson’s event was finished.
Professor Davies is a historian of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield and as such represents the part of the Humanities which analyses the texts from which religious practises are derived and attempts to verify their claims while also searching for the point at which ‘inky human fingerprints’ become evident on ‘supposedly inspired and unaltered texts’ - as Dawkins’ sometime colleague, and a recurring subject of David Robertson’s talk, Christopher Hitchens once had it.
Professor Davies began his lecture by saying that one thing he aimed for was to show how a history can be written for epochs which provide us only with very sparse or difficult sources - something which this occasional student of Dark Age history can vouch for as being often invidiously difficult.
Beginning with an overview of the scrolls’ discovery by Bedouin shepherds in 1947 and the academic and political debates which followed this, the Professor used a combination of textual and archaeological evidence to provide a narrative for the centuries of their composition and to reveal the political and religious motivations by which this process was driven.
As he described the changes in religious custom which can be gleaned from this period and the various schisms occurring in ancient Judaism he made sure to emphasise the similarity which these events, and the motivations behind them, had to our own world - usually through allusions to comparable phenomena in Christian history and with a final reference to events in contemporary China.
The point with which he finished was the frequent discrepancy there is between outward displays of devotion and real inner conviction, and how often this has been an agent in human history.
The following night Professor Davies was spotted at Richard Dawkins’ talk, vigorously nodding or shaking his head at various points, and it would certainly have been interesting to hear his own inner conviction on the issue being discussed then.
Keeping to our theme but leaping forward a millennium and a half, Professor Donald Meek delivered his talk ‘Am Biobull’ on Saturday morning (November 3rd).
In contrast to Davies, Professor Meek was retelling the composition of a religious text which falls within the purview of modern history, and whose development and impact can still be discerned today.
Adapting John Lorne Campbell’s idea of the vertical and horizontal planes of Gaelic culture - where the vertical plane of history and tradition interacts with the horizontal one of contemporary influence - he provided a history of Gaelic Christian texts.
Beginning with John Carswell’s 1567 translation of the Book of Common Order - which utilised the existing classical Gaelic tradition as a medium for bringing the Reformation to Gaeldom - he made clear the connection which current Christianity in the islands has with Gaelic culture in its evolution from the 16th century to the present day.
In the hour following Professor Meek’s talk Morag Macleod discussed ‘Na Salm’ and through various recordings from the School of Scottish Studies and elsewhere she provided the audience with examples of that Gaelic culture.
Her juxtaposition of Gregorian chant with unaccompanied Gaelic singing of the mid-20th century was singularly striking. Her session ended with a Q&A where the audience responded enthusiastically to an assertion that both Morag and Donald were national treasures.
An earlier piece of speculation, quoted by Donald from a Derick Thomson poem, that St Peter could be a Lewisman wasn’t revisited. Perhaps a topic for next year’s Faclan?
For more Faclan Book Festival reviews see the Stornoway Gazette newspaper, out today (Thursday, November 8th).