Northumbria, in its heyday the most advanced country in the island of
Britain, was converted to Christianity by a single sparrow.
If you want to know how, just listen to this ancient Anglo-Saxon
unlocking his word-hoard more than 1350 years ago:
"It seems to me, beloved king, that the present time on
earth, compared with that time of which we have no
knowledge, is like when thou art sitting at dinner with
thine ealdermen and thanes in winter-time, and the fire lit
and thy hall heated, and it's raining and snowing and
hailing; and there arrives one sparrow from outside and he
flies swiftly through the hall, entering through one
door, leaving through the other. Now, while he's inside he's
not touched by the winter's storm; but that's only a
twinkling of an eye and the shortest space of time, and from
a winter he immediately returns to a winter. So man's life
appears for a short interval: what went before it, and what
comes after it, we don't know. Therefore, if this new
doctrine brings forth anything more certain, it only
befits us that we should follow it."
Thus spoke this counselor at the 'Witenagemot', the memorable meeting
of the wise ('Witan') held by Edwin, the king, to decide whether to
embrace the new faith. And embrace it they did.
The translation given here is a rather plain one. Other, older
renderings give a more graphic description of the sparrow's
flight and embellish the story by making the courtier's speech
more logical and literary than it really was (and probably more moral).
Where its reasoning was rather pragmatic the modern words
may not unambiguously convey this. What is more important is
that a part of the story, namely an earlier speech by another
counselor, may not be retold at all, as it almost never is.
The first counselor, who had until then been the chief priest of the
Northumbrian polytheists (denigratingly called "pagans" for ages to come),
advised the king to accept the Christian belief system because it would be
prudent to do so.
His own devotion to the old Germanic religion had not done him much good,
he explained, complaining that he had always obeyed the gods more
zealously than others, had joined in their observances more
carefully and joyfully than others, and yet had received fewer
gifts and less benefit from it.
Also this person fell for the new Abrahamic religion from Southwest Asia,
since the old Northwest European faith of his fathers turned out to hold
nothing of use anymore.
To be honest, it was not one respectable sparrow all on its own
that converted the king and his nobles and with them the whole
of Northumbria, even if in name only. There were also the
materialistic concerns so well expressed by the first counselor
with almost equal pathos but considerably less imagination; and
there was the fact that the king's Kentish wife was already a
member of the church.
It is the second counselor's speech tho, which —at
any rate among British Christianists— is, perhaps, the best-known
passage from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.
It has been offered as a key, not only to the success of Christianity,
but to the general conditions and cultural mood in the Early Middle Ages.
The brevity of life and existential uncertainty are recurrent themes in
the literature of the time.
And indeed, if the exotic faith with its much more spectacular stories
did manage to lengthen (human) life, did reveal any 'true
knowledge' not revealed by any other discipline (science included), and
if that knowledge were of a relevance not realized in any other
product of the mind, it would only seem and remain right to join the
sparrow and not let it go.
But when i, in this day and age, look at the old state
religion that has reigned until recently or even now, not only in the land
between the Humber and Firth of Forth but in numerous other territories
across the world as well, from the standpoint of a new
the sparrow is not convincing anymore.
First of all, there are weaknesses, if not fallacies, in the simile itself
which ought to have been noticed immediately when it was introduced.
The ancient assumed the weather outside
the hall to be severe, with storms of rain, snow and hail
raging, and 'e likened these wintry conditions
to the times before and after people's short lives.
So, in spite of what 'e said, 'e did claim to know certain basic
things about the period before birth or conception and the period after
death, about human pre- and post-existence or nonexistence, that is.
And also life itself, of which everyone may be sure to know something, is,
however short, not a feast in a banqueting hall, safe from discomfort, not
even for the elite of the land.
The hall will not only see the sunny side of life; it will see the seamy
side too, and this will be experienced so long as there is life.
Where there is no life at all anymore happiness nor unhappiness can be
When i look at the old denominational paradigm that has reigned until now
(or until not very long ago) from the standpoint of the one to come, i
seldom see a sparrow flying in and out of a banqueting hall.
Believing it to be snugly safe and comfortable inside, with a wonderful
fire warming the hall, by far the greater majority of the sparrows of the
stay inside, not in the least planning to vanish into the unknown; and
definitely not planning to fly out on their own.
Ignorant of what is to be found beyond the supernatural pale of
heaven and hell, of deity and demon, they prefer to sojourn on this
middle-earth for a short while only. The hall has doors but they
will not open them.
The sacred birds of Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty and lust, content
themselves with the hot air near the ceiling, the bread crumbs on the
floor, the liquid left over in the cups.
They still sing, but their dull song has not changed for centuries, not
Likewise, most people may have followed and may continue to
follow religion for selfish, limited social or utilitarian
reasons (just as others may oppose it for the same, improper
reasons). It seemed pleasant to them, was comforting and
promised a happy afterlife for those who submitted to it. They
did not and do not want to be bothered with questions of truth:
Can the happy afterlife be made good? Has the world really been
created by an anthropomorphic being, by one such being?
With questions of relevance and neutralness: What matters first, norms
and values or gods and demons? Whence does nature come, whither
does it go, when it is being made the defenseless victim of an
ideology that lacks any notion of harmony and equilibrium?
With questions of personhood: Is someone chosen, perhaps conceived, to
be a Christian, a Muslim, or does 'e choose 'imself to be
May the state be abused to gratify one community of faith with
their symbols and practices?
Most remarkably, they do not even want to be bothered with questions
of happiness: Does it serve humanity's, even the individual's
own happiness in the long run to believe in a tribal, male,
anthropoid god that epitomizes power as something perfect in
itself? Is there no connection with ethnic troubles, with sexist
attitudes, with a speciesist lack of respect for nonhuman beings,
with power struggles in general, and religious warfare in
questions which have a direct bearing on the tenability of
'er total world-view are evaded by the sparrow of the old
faith: 'e runs away from contemporary answers to them, 'e flees
This is the flight of today's sparrow.
Rather than supporting a denominational doctrine that presents the best
principles and means to deal with such questions in a considerate and
adequate way, the convert to Christianism embraces a faith that does not
pose them or that equivocates when asked about its scriptural tales, its
Worshiping one god instead of several (or many) the convert to
monotheist religion embraces a faith that is as theocentric as
before, obstinately supernaturalistic, stubbornly exclusivistic and
extremistic; sometimes less so, often more so.
After having lingered in the King's banqueting hall for so many hundreds
of years it is high time for the sparrow to leave thru that
one door that opens all up to not only a more moderate, well-balanced
and harmonious life but also to an existence which, wherever it may be,
is inclusive and genuine.
Languishing for want of a fresh view of contemporary matters and torn
apart by its fundamental and symbolical contradictions the monotheist
successor of polytheist religion is about to collapse itself today,
after, perhaps, one or two short —but goodness knows how bloody or
oppressive— revivals tomorrow.
Just as the gods once became idols to be abandoned in favor of the one god,
so let that one God in turn become Idol to be abandoned in favor of
the Norm, the
primacy of norms and values over gods and demons, in the plural
and in the singular.
"Therefore, if this new doctrine brings forth anything more certain,
it only befits us that we should follow it."
If this new doctrine brings forth anything more relevant and less
untrue, anything more respectful to persons and less extreme,
it is evident that we should hail it as the one to adhere to.
M. Vincent van Mechelen
||where there is some existing orthographical variation
preference will be given to the (more) phonematic variant
||i refers to the writer if and when not considering
'imself a Supreme Being or something else of that
||'e, 'im(self) and 'er are used here as
third-person, that is, gender-transcending, pronouns referring
to one person in a context in which both procreation and sexuality are