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.