Friday, 20 November 2015

St Paul and the sword

St Paul is traditionally represented in art carrying a book and a sword. When I learned this today - in a lecture where Paul was described as 'the guy with the sword', accompanied by a big sword-waving gesture - I thought there was surely some mistake. The Paul I know from the Bible is just about the least likely person to wield a sword ever. Of course he wrote about "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6: 17), but a real sword? The kind of sword, perhaps, that we know only too well at the moment as an instrument of beheadings by jihadis? Er, I don't think so. Paul wrote of himself as very unimpressive, both physically and oratorially, so we can assume he was not the warrior type. If anything he was a geek, a very learned and clever person, who through a most powerful conversion experience went from from ordering the violent persecution of Christians to devoting the rest of life to preaching Christ crucified. One of the disciples did briefly wield a sword, cutting off the ear of a 'servant of the high priest' in an ill-judged attempt to defend his Lord at the time of his arrest, but Jesus swiftly told him off for it, and the damage was just as swiftly reversed when "Jesus touched the man's ear and healed him." (Luke 22: 51). The clue to the sword iconography in depictions of St Paul is in the way he himself was martyred by beheading - the more civilised way of doing things at the time, since Paul was a Roman citizen (as opposed to the drawn-out agony of crucifixion). Paul does not wield the sword, in traditional representations, he holds it, as saints also hold or are represented by the instruments of their deaths. Unfortunately, though, in these troubled times, the image of the sword is apt to be misinterpreted as an instrument of physical warfare. It's worth pointing out that, in a Christian context, this kind of assumption would be the opposite of the truth. Christianity is not a religion of the sword, it is a religion of the Holy Spirit, who is a sword of an entirely different kind: for healing rather than for death.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A Ban on God
 So now we know why God does not feature in Downton Abbey: He was banned from it. For all those years! All those hours of filming! All those times when we didn't quite notice that we never saw the beginning of a meal, only its middle or end, so as to avoid the potentially offensive matter of saying Grace. The actors knew it, inevitably; did not one of them object to such a systematic distortion of history? This Downton development is not as silly as one might think. One could say it's a sign of our times, and ties in grimly with recent events in this sense: that the glaring absence, in the reaction to the Paris massacre, has been the absence of any clerical figure either commenting or praying or advising. Not a single one. A desert of Christianity has descended on Western Europe. It's as if these outrageous, terroristic attacks have outed the West as a full-on secular society. And to see the rest of the world projecting the Tricolore blue, white and red as a mark of solidarity, or singing La Marseillaise, is almost surreally ironic. For of course France did declare itself a secular state in the late 18th century - not with peace and love, but with the streets of Paris awash with blood - in that instance, the blood of royals, nobles and priests. This secular West is also very sad. Confronted with young men who are all too eager to die in the cause of their version of Allah, all we can muster are small public gestures (flowers, candles), improvised symbols (Eiffel peace sign) and hashtag declarations. I doubt the ones who hate the West with a passion are trembling at this. They know that not one cafe patron is going to give up his life for the ideology of having a cup of coffee, or of eating dinner on a rickety outdoor table - which is what these 'values' everyone is talking about seem to amount to. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

Trendy religious pluralism

G.K. Chesterton, writing 90 years ago about the add-on gods of Classical paganism or, as it could be, religious equality and diversity today.

"It is regarded as a liberal and enlightened thing to say that the god of the stranger may be as good as our own; and doubtless the pagans thought themselves very liberal and enlightened when they agreed to add to the gods of the city or the hearth some wild and fantastic Dionysus coming down from the mountains or some shaggy and rustic Pan creeping out of the woods. But exactly what is lost by these larger ideas is the largest idea of all. It is the idea of the fatherhood that makes the whole world one. And the converse is also true. Doubtless those more antiquated men of antiquity who clung to their solitary statues and their single sacred names were regarded as superstitious savages benighted and left behind. But these superstitious savages were preserving something that is much more like the cosmic power as conceived by philosophy, or even as conceived by science."
(The Everlasting Man, 1925, Chapter IV, 'God and Comparative Religion'.My emphasis.)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Downton and God

Dear Downton Abbey, in its final series, is figuratively speaking clobbering us at every turn with feminist dialogue. Well and good, its characters have to be portrayed as vastly enlightened on the subject of pretty much everything, lest we withdraw our 21st century sympathies from them. Lady Violet is the exception, the dinosaur, and always good for a laugh although she is sometimes allowed to utter sensible lines, notably in the latest episode when she held up Family as the bulwark against State - though she was immediately shot down by her own daughter who was already surrendering the Family as dead despite being happy to continue availing herself of Family wealth, connections and practical advantages. Of course. But the place where Downton rings especially wrong is on the subject of God. I mean, where is He? Religious observance would have held a prominent place in a Big House, even if only in terms of going-through-the-motions rather than with spiritually integrity. This anachronistic absence gives rise to great infelicities in the dialogue, because this artifcial absence cannot be maintained in character conversation. God will out. So, in the latest episode, we had the following catastrophes of tone and taste. Lady Mary jibing than even a monkey, given enough time, would type out the Bible: meant as one of her usual taunts of her sister, in reality a shocking statement of pervasive ignorance. Lord Grantham and his sister (I think) exclaiming  'Halleluia' and 'there really is a God' with much feeling, over the mere fact that Mrs Carson will continue to be know as Mrs Hughes: no comment needed. And Mr Bates uttering 'My God' when his wife hints that she is pregnant even though she has previously said in a bald-faced lie that she was not hiding anything from him: one half-assumed it was uttered in choked-up rage and half-expected him to strangle her for her duplicity (am I the only who finds him sinister?), seeing as both the 'my' and the 'God' were meaningless in terms of his character so far. These examples are not nothing. They are especially not neutral. Their tone and values get absorbed in general Downton-ness without our realising it, all the while doing their insidious work of contributing to the rubbishing of the Triune, Christian God, as if that too were a mark of enlightenment.

Bake-Off and Motherhood

As the dust has settled a bit on the 2015 Great British Bake-off victory of Nadiya Hussein, let's highlight something else than her headscarf, to wit: that Bake-Off is that rarest of environments in contemporary Britain, one where it's ok to be a full-time mother. Hussein's pivotal role in her family passed largely without comment. Everyone, understandably, was excited about her throrough-going Britishness, as it was reflected in her general demeanour as well as in her bakes. Presumably though, religious observance had something to do with her decision to be at home, and all power to her. Assuming that is the case, I can't help wondering how viewers would have reacted if a contestant with Nadiya's winsom appeal had been equally obviously seen to be a Christian rather than a Muslim. (And I don't mean just by a cross worn around the neck, as that's often a mere fashion statement - except where it does it mean something and therefore must be visited with wrath by Health and Safety or Equality commissars.) Would there have been as much jubilation over a Christian Nadiya's win? Or would people have taken to social media to criticise her choice of work as privileged or elitist or, on the other hand - because one can't win at this - to denounce her oppressed status of wifey-at-home? Just a thought.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Inverdale v Balding, Part 2

"Wimbledon 2Day": about three seconds were enough for me. The pleasingly retro musical intro to "Today at Wimbledon" was kept, but after that it was all downhill. First, the ominous sound of the 'live audience' whooping for no particular reason, then a glimpse of a Teletubbies-type set, then a full and dire view of said whooping audience, then Clare Balding standing next to them but somehow detached, looking steely and dead-eyed, and saying 'well hello' as if she wanted to be anywhere but there. "Today at Wimbledon" with John Inverdale was a perfect piece of television, the unimproveable cap to the BBC's daily coverage. Axing it was some form of media crime. The only thing to do is bring it back next year, complete with Pimms on the table and its mellifluous host.

Friday, 26 June 2015

John Inverdale v Clare Balding

In its own strange wisdom, the BBC has decided to replace the "Today at Wimbledon" evening highlights programme with a new-fangled 'Wimbledon 2Day' show in front of a live audience. This means replacing John Inverdale with Clare Balding, and altogether getting rid of the cool and mellow daily recollections of previous years in order to bring in a 'fresh' take - so said the BBC representative who handled my complaint at this news. The representative also said the new format would be a sort of Balding 'brand', modelled on her evening highlights show at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Now of course Calre Balding is excellent in her way (mainly horses, or non-highlights Olympics presenting) - but so is John Inverdale excellent in his way. Inverdale was exactly right for "Today at Wimbledon" and so, incidentally, was its title (whereas "Wimbledon 2Day" is just desperate to be relevant and therefore risible). Those Sochi highlights were unwatcheable: bitty, noisy, over-active and yet overly personal and emotional. A very bad combination, and one would have thought they are totally unsuited to the Wimbledon vibe. And that thing Inverdale said about Marion Bartoli two years ago? She wasn' fussed at all, so why should we be? Now that was genuinely fresh: a refreshingly unguarded utterance in an age of Taking Offence.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

'Women and the Church', a fictional scene about the Church of England

From Excellent Women (1952), Barbara Pym; Chapter Six.

The narrator and main character Mildred Lathbury speaks with her neighbours Rocky and Helena Napier about a convert called Everard Bone (Helena's work colleague and the object of her adulterous infatuation):

" 'Of course it's more of an intellectual thing with him,' said Helena. 'He knows all the answers.'
'We certainly want people like that,' I said. 'The Church needs intelligent people.'
'I should think so,' said Helena scornfully. 'All those old women swooning over a good-looking curate won't get it anywhere.'
'But our curate isn't good-looking,' I said indignantly, visualising Father Greatorex's short stocky figure in its untidy clothes. 'He isn't even young.'
'And anyway, why should the Church want to get anywhere?' said Rocky. 'I think it's much more comforting to think of it staying just where it is.'
'Wherever that may be,' added Helena.
I made a faint murmur of protest, but it was rather faint, for between the two of them I hardly knew where I was, though Rocky's attitude seemed the more sympathetic. 'I'm afraid we aren't all very intelligent about our religion,' I said, slightly on the defensive, 'we probably don't know many of the answers and can't argue cleverly. And yet I suppose there's room for the stupid as well,' I added, for I was thinking of the lines in Bishop Heber's hymn,

Richer by far is the heart's adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Though obviously He must be very pleased to have somebody as clever as Everard Bone."

This is a clever little passage in itself. It's also, in retrospect, a neat encapsulation of two unproductive views of the Church: one, that it needs to 'get' somewhere (through progressive change) and two, that it should be privately cosy and and irrelevant to public life.

Bert and Ernie as poster boys

Bert and Ernie - what could be more innocent? Sweet, implausible pair of friends who manage to get on despite their differences of outlook (one sunny, one grumpy), staples of Sesame Street, cherished TV companions to countless children. But no! They're both male, they live together, therefore they must be gay. Thus, in the far-reaching culture grab of the rights movement, Bert and Ernie have been co-opted as poster boys for a form of confrontation that is alien to their purpose of amusingly educating pre-schoolers in the art of forebearance. In the Ashers bakery case about the 'queer space' slogan cake (not a wedding cake, as far as I know), much has been made of the company's refusal to write the 'Support Gay Marriage' slogan. Those who agree with them on this point might want to commend them for also, therefore, declining to produce the requested image of Bert and Ernie as a jolly married couple. Sesame Street has more than once refuted the idea of Bert and Ernie as a couple in the sexual sense, notably with the the charming and unanswerable observation that 'they are puppets, they do not exist below the waist'. Wouldn't it be amazing if Sesame Street were to issue a public statement to say they were grateful for the Ashers' bakery stance? Children - or their blameless entertainment - should not be dragged into adult strivings.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Dog on tightropes

That kerfuffle about which dog was walking the tightropes in the final of BGT: can we just agree that training any dog to walk on tightropes is just plain wrong? Did that dog look in any way happy while he was performing this pointless and dangerous trick? I think not.

Our Father

So an organisation called 'Watch' - Women and the Church - wants 'inclusive terminology' i.e. female pronouns and indeed nouns, to signal God's genderlessness and to make women feel more in the loop when in church. The organisation's hashtag rallying cry is that though 'we' now have women bishops, we're only 'just getting started'. This is such a daft an instance of wanting to saw off the branch you're sitting on that it's almost funny. 'Watch' may just be getting started but there will be nowhere to go: there will be no church left to transform when it is gutted of its gendered structure. The gender of the pronouns in the Bible - and from there, in church tradition - is not optional, let alone meaningless. On the contrary, maleness expresses fundamental truths about how the world is made, about who we are as human beings, and most of all about the nature of the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Fatherhood of God is the bedrock of the universe. No amount of campaigning can alter that fact. All that gender reforms can accomplish is to sever the intuitive and poetic connection between Our Father and His creation by making the church a place of desolation. This is not progress.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

BBC Young Dancer, Archie Sullivan

I'm sorry, what? Archie Sullivan didn't win the first BBC Young Dancer competition on Saturday? How is that possible? He was phenomenal. Harry Barnes very lovely too.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

50 Shades Too Many

I confess to having been left utterly cold by the tedious over-publicity surrounding the novels. The only heat they generated for me was the energy to write in protest when I found them casually for sale next to the 'wholesome foods' section of our local Waitrose. I further confess to having no interest in seeing the movie beyond the trailer and the unavoidable stills on show everywhere: too clean, too pretty, considering the subject matter. Anyone wanting that subject matter might prefer the 2002 film "Secretary" - as I'm sure has been pointed out before - an adaptation of a short story by the edgy American writer Mary Gaitskill, from her début collection Bad Behavior (1988). In "Secretary" you find a Mr Grey (really, that's his name) who doesn't do abs or model-like looks. He's just a schmuck with love and commitment issues who finds his match in a troubled, self-harming young woman and grows, in his own way, to love her and she him. Of course, it also does pretty where it shouldn't - a white dress that should be obviously soiled, bare skin that should be obviously scarred - and even changes the lyrics of a key song, from 'what a fool am I' into 'what a grace have I', but it also shows the silliness and tawdriness of the anti-vanilla thing generally, and doesn't indulge so much in what could be called money porn. The reason it works, and "50 Shades" works, for all I know, is that it taps into the very simple answer to the allegedly unanswerable question: what does woman want? Well, is that so difficult? Woman wants to be The One. We want to be the beloved, the Princess, the Queen, the one and only one. This goes right back to Woman (Eve) being presented to Man (Adam) as The One Made For Him and he, very appropriately,  rejoicing mightily and reverently. Let's not be fooled by the fact that the working out of marriage in this Fallen world too often falls short of that perfect beginning. The original impulse remains. It's simple, straightforward; no shades of anything come even close to satisfying this desire. The problem is that all contemporary mores claim that being the beloved is no longer a legitimate aim for a woman, and claim this quite intolerantly. Is it any wonder that this fundamental desire hits a huge mainstream nerve for women when sneaked in under cover of deviance?