The Mother phoned up today, as she does regularly, to tell us all the latest exciting goings-on in her social circle. Her friend George, who she knew from church, has died aged 85, after a long illness. “Of course, he’d been ill for years,” she said, “and he was in great pain. By the end he was screaming. ‘Take me, Lord, take me!’ It was a blessing when he died.”
When it comes to religion, The Mother is a great fan of this sort of logic. If The Family Car Crash Of 1988 ever comes up in conversation, The Mother will no doubt say something along the lines of “You had such a narrow escape! It just proves that God was looking down on us.” Now, it’s true that I almost lost a) my life b) an eyeball;* but I’m not sure God deserves much in the way of credit. It is fair to argue, though, that the Family Car Crash Of 1988 was a Good Thing: the insurance windfall paid for a piano and a university education.
You can’t really argue, though, that taking the life of an old man after he’s had a long and painful illness, so bad he begs you to kill him, is a good way for any deity to behave. If God really wanted to bless a man who had been a devout churchgoer all his life, a churchwarden and church committee member for many years, someone who every Sunday had been up at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ devoutly believing that the said God had personally told us all to do this every week,** if He had really wanted to grant him a boon, wouldn’t he have saved him the several years of pain and suffering?*** But, no, in The Mother’s religious logic, bringing the death after George had been calling out for it loudly for a while is the kindly Godly way to behave, not letting him die after a short illness a few years ago. It leaves me thinking: just what does count as compassion, for the religious?
* Strangely, although my life was saved by a pretty narrow margin, I never realised until many many years later just how close I’d come to being killed. Instead, I concentrated on the irony that my eyeball was probably saved by my poor sight, as the thick plastic lens in front of it absorbed the impact of the shards of glass that hit me. With extra irony, the sight in my other eye is almost perfect.
** Although of course, Jesus didn’t
want me for a sunbeam do it on a Sunday morning.
*** Let’s not get into the tragic story of George’s wife, either.
Every time I’ve been to the cinema recently, I’ve had to sit through a trailer for newly-released film Evan Almighty. And it makes me slightly uneasy. Because – if you’re lucky enough to have managed to avoid the thing – it’s a lighthearted family comedy based on the story of Noah And The Flood, from Genesis. God comes down to Earth, visits an innocent politician, and tells him to build an ark because he’s decided to do the whole flood thing again.
Read that again. It’s a lighthearted family comedy, where God comes down to visit a politician, because (going on what happened last time) he wants to warn him that everyone else on the planet is going to be killed in the biggest natural disaster you can imagine. Did anyone even think at all about this film before it was made? Did they get beyond “comedy, sequel, some Bible story that everyone vaguely remembers”?* To my mind, the idea of writing a comedy about God breaking the only promise he ever made to the whole of mankind,** and apparently planning to kill everyone on earth apart from an American politician, is a little … well, perverse.***
I assume – not having seen the film – that not everyone (apart from the blessed family) gets killed at the end. Surely no Hollywood studio is going to release a big summer comedy where everyone on earth apart from a handful of people dies at the end? Drama, maybe, but not comedy. All in all, it sounds like a bit of a mess. Does God turn out to be nice in the end? Does he say: “Aw, I was only kidding. I just wanted you to learn how to be a better person.” How many people are killed by the flood that I did spot in the trailer? I really don’t want to find out.
* Although most people forget the bit at the end where Noah gets drunk, and one of his sons is forever cursed for seeing his drunken father’s tadger.
** Because it – the promise that “I’m not going to kill you all ever again” – was made before the Tower of Babel incident, when God scrambles everyone’s brains and makes possible the Tourist Phrasebook – so, as everyone was rather samey, there wasn’t any one Chosen People. And he never does kill everyone all together again – after that, he limits himself to smiting one city at a time.
*** And not in the good way
Given that today, in the news, there’s rather a lot about the slowly-growing and now likely forthcoming schism in the Anglican church, I thought I’d ask the average churchgoer in the street about it. Well, the average churchgoer who is also my mother, at any rate. She’s a fairly average “active” Anglican, though. She’s white, lower-middle-class, female, edging towards elderly, lives in a commuter village, and goes to church every week. She’s a Sunday School teacher, has organised the parish’s Christian Aid collections, sings in an ecumenical Christian parish singing group,* and generally is far more active and puts more effort into religion than most churchgoers, never mind the huge percentage of Anglicans who tick the relevant box on the census but never cross the threshold of a church for anything other than weddings and funerals.
So, I said: “what are you going to do if the church splits in two? Is anyone going to leave St. Nick’s over it?”
Her answer: “What split?”
“You know, the one that has been rumbling for the last few years.” I tried to explain how the rather homophobic Peter Akinola is a figurehead for a group of largely-American homophobic conservatives, who do not like the Archbishop of Canterbury and have been threatening for some time to lead a schism, sometimes in the hope of bending him to their will, sometimes apparently meaning it.
“I’ve not heard about any of that,” she said. “We don’t talk about that sort of thing at church. That’s nothing to do with us.”
So, there you have it. I don’t think The Mother is particularly ignorant. As I said above, I think she’s probably less ignorant than your average churchgoer is likely to be, because she takes a very active interest. But to her, the politicking of a motley band of Americans and Africans isn’t important. An earthquake in Lambeth Palace isn’t important. The Second Coming occurring in the Lady Chapel of our parish church probably wouldn’t disturb most of the congregation, so long as it didn’t disrupt the Mothers Union or the bellringers, and everyone still got a cup of tea (or coffee) after the Sunday communion service. For your average English Anglican, dogma is something you recite during the service without really listening or understanding. It certainly isn’t something to get all argumentative about.
* where “ecumenical” means “Anglican and Methodist”, because they’re the only churches in the village. I’m not sure what they’ll do if those often-suggested plans to subsume British Methodists back into Anglicanism ever make much progress.
Apparently, it turns out that tea is much more healthy if you drink it without milk. The news isn’t going to help me, though, because I will never ever drink the stuff without milk in. I’ve tried it. It makes me ill. Without milk in, without fail, it brings up my stomach. So the news that it’s healthy raises a bitter laugh.
More serious news: as I type,* people are protesting on the streets of London for their God-given right to be nasty people. More specifically, they’re protesting that homophobia should be legally sacrosant, on religious grounds. I’m not sure I understand these religions for whom “keep away from the gays, you might catch gayness” is apparently more important than “love thy neighbour”. Take the Christians, for example – Jesus famously didn’t say anything at all about sexuality. St Paul did, but St Paul said lots of things.** The Old Testament does, but the Old Testament also says that wearing mixed-fibre fabrics should attract the death penalty.*** If being able to turn people away because they’re gay is such a religious issue, how come it’s never been a major tenet of your faith historically? If it’s not, why are you being nasty?
* see, that’s damn topical
** Then again, most Christians probably pay more respect to the teachings of St Paul than Jesus himself. St Paul wasn’t even one of Jesus’s followers, but he still managed to invent most of Christianity. For one thing, he came up with the controversial and shocking idea that you didn’t have to be Jewish to be a Christian. Want to feel like you’re going to heaven but can’t give up the bacon rolls? Thank St Paul! Trying to get your child into an Anglican school, but don’t want to have to stay away from everybody when you’re menstruating? Guess who you should thank!
*** I will look this up and check it later, I promise.
First Christmas present bought already, but I’m still going to have to devote the weekend to running around the county hoping desperately to find something inspirational. I’m not saying what I’ve already bought. It’s for my dad, and I don’t think he reads this place, but you never know.
When I get up in the morning, I have Radio 4 on in the background. I like Radio 4, but I normally try very hard to avoid listening to Thought For The Day, in case of the very real risk that it will make me want to throw the radio through the kitchen window.* Today though, I caught a quick flash of it. I can’t remember the exact phrase I heard, but it was something along the lines of “lots of Christians use phrases like ‘God willing’ and ‘if God wishes it’ all the time”. Which left me rather puzzled, because even though I’ve known a large number of devout Christians over the years, none of them have ever said any such thing in normal conversation. Maybe one of the good aspects of Thought For The Day is that it makes you realise there are people out there whose view of the world is so partial and skewed, that they really do believe they are standard conversational phrases, just because that’s what all their friends say.
I was talking to someone last night about the next Book I Haven’t Read that I’m going to write about: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. “Oh, I don’t think anyone’s read that all the way through,” she said. “I don’t think you can.” So maybe I should invite additional contributions to the next Book I Haven’t Read post – if you have read House Of Leaves all the way through without cheating, let me know.
Big Dave says he’s found a flat now. A “one-bed studio flat”, or what people Up North** still call a bedsit. At least this means he has the weekend to do his Christmas shopping in, rather than worrying about property-hunting trips down to Barking and Beckton.
* especially if Anne Atkins is the writer/presenter.
** apart from if you’re a property developer, of course. Or you live in Leeds, probably.
I like to think that I’m a sensible, rational, clear-thinking person.
It’s not always the case, though. For example, I’m the sort of person who likes to watch their car mileometer trip over to a nice round number. I’ll spend half a mile looking from the road to the clock and back again so I can watch it change from 15,999 to 16,000. And, similarly, there’s a nice symmetry about today’s date: 06/06/06.*
That’s all it is, though. Symmetry. I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently bad about today’s date, just because if you take out the zeros it looks rather like a number mentioned in one of the stranger parts of the Bible. In the news, there are reports of superstitious mothers desperate not to give birth today, just in case they give their child bad luck – or, even worse, if he turns out to be the Antichrist. If they believe in all that, they should probably avoid watching the remake of The Omen that comes out today too.**
The apocalyptic parts of the Bible – particularly, Daniel and the Revelation – are cryptic to read. They were written for two very specific audiences, who would have understood the references and the context. They weren’t written for believers of a radically different religion, a couple of thousand years later. Naïeve, literal readings are always going to be misreadings, because they are impossible to do sensibly – a literal reading of apocalyptic literature cannot be done unless you believe that the world will suddenly change into one of magical fantasy. I wonder if, in a couple of thousand years’ time, C S Lewis’s The Last Battle will in the same way become misunderstood religious doctrine, because it, too, is an apocalypse, in both senses of the word.***
* If nothing else, it means Americans can’t get it the wrong way round. I’m still wondering why they keep going on about November 9th, because I don’t remember anything interesting happening then.
** Not just because they’ll believe it all, but because it’s probably not as good as the original anyway.
*** Plus, it’s got a better plot.
If this week seems to have gone quickly, it’s because I haven’t been blogging very much. My social life is getting the better of me.
Talking of blogging, one of the branch managers at work has apparently started too. I’m intrigued, but not enough to want to read it. The next thing you know, the Managing Director will be getting a Livejournal.
Update on last month’s post about Christian science fiction: whilst searching for something else, I discovered the book I was thinking of when I wrote it. It’s Operation Titan by Dilwyn Horvat. I’ve tried searching for more information about Horvat, but not very much has turned up. I’m not even sure whether Dilwyn is a male or female name.**
The book I was searching for, incidentally, was How To Travel With A Salmon by Umberto Eco, because I wanted to reread his essay “How To Recognise A Porn Movie”. It’s a long, long story,* but it’s tangentially linked to this post from last August, one of the first things I wrote here. I’ll post more about it soon, I’m sure.
* which, to explain, would take several pages of context, description, links to discussions elsewhere, links to political campaigning sites, links to sites you probably shouldn’t read at the office, and lots more explanation, and probably, diagrams.
** Update, August 26th 2020: Internet searches have become rather more sophisticated in the last 14 years, so nowadays it will tell you that Dilwyn Horvat is a Welsh male Christian SF author whose only books are Operation Titan and its sequel Assault on Omega 4. I vaguely remember that the sequel is not set on the moon Titan like the first book; instead it’s in a grimdark post-apocalyptic Oxford.
Well, I sat down at my computer to write a long serious post about how I need to lose my shyness. But then, I thought: hang on a minute! It’s Saint George’s Day! So, I dressed up in a suit of armour and went out to sing “Jerusalem” and stab a few dragons instead.
Actually, that last bit wasn’t quite true. I love the fact that other countries have deadly serious national days; England has a national day to celebrate a mythical Lebanese man who isn’t even a Catholic saint any more. Bulgaria, in fact, has much better St George’s Day celebrations than we do, although no longer on the same date.* England has, well, nothing at all, and most of the people who campaign for more of a celebration are rather nasty nationalists. We could do with a decent liberal and welcoming national celebration, if only as an excuse for a party.
* because they still date their saints’ days with the Julian calendar, which is a couple of weeks out by comparison.
As it’s Good Friday, good Christians everywhere should be eating fish and following the Stations Of The Cross. I’m not any sort of Christian, good or bad, but even so it’s a good day to think about self-sacrifice for The Cause, whatever that happens to be.
Of course, whether that’s what Jesus did is a moot point. It’s debatable whether the crucifixion even happened; even if you believe it did, was it more an act of self-sacrifice or self-promotion? An awful lot of Jesus’s acts in Scripture have an air of deliberate planning about them. The prophets had said: the Messiah will go out and do X; therefore, Jesus went ahead and did those things. He was like some modern evangelicals and millenarians, deliberately trying to push history into a sudden new phase by carrying out others’ prophecy.
So, self-sacrifice, self-advancement or self-promotion? You could ask the same question about Malcolm Kendall-Smith, dismissed from the RAF and sent to prison yesterday after he declared that as he thought the Iraq was illegal, he would not fight in it. The judges at his court-martial, however, ruled that by the time he received his orders the legality or otherwise of the original invasion was irrelevant.*
Kendall-Smith has sacrificed himself, and his career – he said himself that the RAF was one of the great loves of his life. The judge, however, accused him of being more interested in self-promotion: of trying to make himself into a martyr for the cause. I’m not in a position to judge this myself: my own best guess is that he wasn’t, but he should have realised that that accusation would be made. Whichever is closer to the truth, it’s a strangely apt story to appear in the headlines on Good Friday.
* The Guardian article suggests in one paragraph that the judge ruled that members of the services aren’t allowed to dispute something’s legality: if the government says something is legal, those orders must be followed. However, that wasn’t something that the ruling itself relied on.
You might be wondering, having read yesterday’s post, how I know quite so much about the founders of the Salvation Army. The answer: my mother.
My mother would frequently buy me lots and lots of books, usually from the local library’s “for sale” stack.* Every so often, though, she would pop down to our local Christian booksellers, housed in an old ice factory near the docks, and buy me something Moral and Improving.
Sometimes these would be factual books about the lives of great Christians, such as, for example, William Booth and Catherine Mumford. More often, though, it would be a children’s novel with a religious theme. They started off just like any other novel, but when it came to the crunch point, the characters would find that only God could save them.
One series I particularly remember was a series of science-fiction stories, set in a far-future solar system where Christianity had been long-banned, but was preserved by a group of secret space-age knights who had been very heavily influenced by the Star Wars movies. Their worlds were dark and gritty; but if the characters’ faith or energy-sword-waving skills didn’t save them, a deus ex machina surely would. Indeed, the whole point of these books was that God definitely is still about the place, and can pop into the story for the occasional bit of divine intervention when needed. The reader can see that God is real, even if only the “good” characters can.
* “Withdrawn from stock, 25p each”