People of the Books: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Happy February 1st!  It has long been a tradition in my family to try and outpace each other in greeting the new months.  My mother beat me to it this morning (in my defense, I had only been awake about 7 minutes), but now I’ve won against you, Reader.  My February may commence.

So, a lot happened last weekend, including a worship conference (that was AWESOME) and internationally grounded services at my church (that were EVEN MORE AWESOME) and meeting a guy who works for the World Council of Churches (who was himself AWESOME and the WCC is a pretty AWESOME [and necessary] CONCEPT).  As you can see, it was a pretty good weekend.  In fact, in the top 10 weekends in memory, I’d wager.

And then the week happened, and such awesomeness can’t sustain itself.  One of my dear friendships is being…odd right now, and the halves of my life get farther and farther apart.  So why am I giving you a book review instead of the details of awesomeness?  Because, frankly, I don’t have coherent details.  I haven’t sat down to work through last weekend myself, and I’d hate to try to wander through that with you.  Thus, I will continue mulling over that weekend and, instead, clear off one of the books cluttering my desk.  Because it is also pretty awesome.

The thing about Umberto Eco is that he is an Italian medievalist.  He’s a bit of a rock star in nonfiction, actually.  Therefore, we share footing and understanding that I realize not everyone will have, and truthfully, I have no real idea how anyone who’s not a medievalist would read this book.  Not because it’s not interesting in its own right—it is—but because there’s so much academic stuff to handle before you truly get to the plot.  Also, I do hate Eco’s frame narrative, as I hate most fake frame narratives claiming that somebody in the mists of time actually wrote this instead.

The Name of the RoseThe basic concept (even though there’s a film somewhere out there that I saw once and don’t remember) is that you get dropped into 14th century Europe with all of its infighting and not a whole lot of explanation, because Eco either assumes you know which side you’re supposed to support or (far more likely) makes you unsure from the get-go who the good guys are.  So you’re in a murder mystery at this 14th-century monastery—except, you’re also in a culture overview.  And a social commentary.  And a theological argument.

Yeah.  It’s a tome.

William of Baskerville, a brilliantly deductive English Franciscan monk (yes, nod to the Sherlock moment, which only increased my love) and his young sidekick Watson Adso (who started at an abbey to which I’ve been, Melk, which made me super happy to realize) arrive at a monastery seemingly in the throes of Revelation’s destruction, because monks be dropping like flies.  William and Adso discover that this monastery houses one of the Bestest Libraries in Europe that has its own host of secrets, because knowledge must be protected from people and people from it.

BRILLIANT.  While the mystery itself is really cool and twisting and entertaining, this side commentary that runs through the book is why it made my Blog o’ Religious Stuff:  all of the inter-Order politics and the sheer power of peoples’ understandings of what God “wants” or “needs” us to know is just phenomenally dealt with here.  The snark, the academic battles, the theological overlay of a really good mystery—even the ending, which made my historian bibliophile soul weep, were all very well thought out and presented as a hell of a murder mystery.

In reading this (and do be careful, Eco is a medievalist, so he has no qualms about using lots of other languages and not always translating them for you; this is itself translated from the Italian) there is the idea that people essentially don’t change.  We have the same idiocies now as we did then.  In this is an awesomely bizarre and incredibly strong current of the human need to understand the divine.  Not just connect with it, in a That Was a Great Service sort of way, but to get in close, to almost humanize it to a degree.

The Divine, however, is by nature not human.

This is rough.  Truly.  Christianity tempers this roughness with the mystery and insanity of the Incarnation, that God became Jesus the God/man so as to have that connection with us.  Marxism debunks the whole concept by saying that man is god, so no inferiority complex is necessary.  Islam has a chain of intermediaries, bridging the gap with Mohammed who is not himself divine but is sort of an anchor, a place of connection between us and That.

One of the running arguments in this book is whether or not Jesus laughed, because laughter is so terribly undignified that of course the fleshified God wouldn’t do such a ridiculous thing.  Or would he?  How human are we allowed to make God before it becomes blasphemy?  And if we ever get to “knowing” the answer, is that also blasphemy?  After all, the one tree we weren’t allowed to mess with in Eden was that of Knowledge.  How far is too far in asking questions, in seeking answers, in mapping out the entirely ineffable?

See why this is an awesome book?  And if that weren’t enough, there is one of the best quotes of all time lodged here in a discussion on what heresy really is and what St. Francis was trying to accomplish (through the eyes of William, at least):  “The people of God cannot be changed until the outcasts are restored to its body.” (237)

Yes.  If for nothing else, read this book for that, because there is SO MUCH here that begs to be dealt with in what religion is and what boxes we’re putting God in—boxes that have nothing to do with medieval monks and everything to do with how we humans approach a loving Creator Who nevertheless tells us that some trees are not to be touched.


Rating:  4.5/5 stars


2 thoughts on “People of the Books: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

  1. Sheila Bigelow says:

    Okay, this book has been kicking around the basement (or more accurately, has been lying under a thick layer of dust) for the past thirty years. I think I’m the only one in the family who has not read it. The line you pulled out gave me a great feeling of inner peace, but what tickled me is trying to wrap my minuscule mind around the image of a non-anthropomorphic God laughing. Because I. do think God laughs. And I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God. So do the stars dance? The dolphins feel compelled to do double back-flips? The waters ripple over the rocks a bit more melodiously? Whatever form the laughter of God takes, I’m sure it results in a feeling of joy throughout the cosmos, and just the idea of it makes me smile. Thanks.



Throw in your two cents

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s