Just started reading Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Transcription (just appeared in paperback — whee!) and I come across an epigraph which includes the translation of this Latin inscription in the foyer of Broadcasting House.
“This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”
“…That the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness…”
In the present car crash of British politics: the Brexit referendum, the implosion of the Tory party, the unfathomable triumph of the Brexit Party whose only policy is that they want to crash us out of the European Union even if it means leaving with no deal … I’m wondering if the first Governors of Broadcasting didn’t pray hard enough? Or, more likely, whether it’s ‘the people’ who have simply squandered their precious inheritance of honesty, good report, wisdom, uprightness and faith.
(The title of this post is from Jeremiah 22.29, the prophet’s lament over God’s people’s wilful deafness, refusing to hear and heed God’s message to them: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!”)
Since my last post accompanied by the image of Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Resurrection, when I said it was one of my favourite images of the Resurrection of Jesus, I’ve been thinking it over and over, and may have changed my mind…
There’s no doubt that the image powerfully represents the triumph of the Risen Lord. It also dares to portray the actual moment of Resurrection, and so is different from the great majority of images which portray the aftermath: the empty tomb, or the women or disciples first encountering their risen Lord.
I’ve since been reading John Dominic Crossan’s latest book, Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the original vision of Easter. It recounts a succession of pilgrimage visits to historic sites of the Western Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, searching for evidence of the thesis that it was the East which retained the original vision of what the Resurrection meant. It’s an attractive book, lavishly illustrated with images taken by Crossan’s photographer wife Sarah Sexton Crossan.
Whereas Western art, when it shows the moment of Resurrection at all, emphasises the individual nature of Jesus rising from the dead, Eastern iconography came to focus on the universal aspect of Resurrection: that Jesus did not rise from death alone, but brought with him the whole of humanity, all who had “died in Adam”. This idea seems to have originated from the words in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion:
Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27.50-53)
So, in this typical icon of the Anastasis or Resurrection, the risen Jesus is depicted with a cross-shaped halo, enclosed in an almond-shaped mandorla representing his luminous, risen glory. He stands astride the shattered gates of Hell, beneath which the chained figure of Hades or Satan lies crushed. With his two hands, Christ reaches out and grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, the first parents of the human race, and draws them out of their graves and into the light and glory of the Resurrection and of heaven. Behind Adam stand three other figures: King David, King Solomon (beardless) and John the Baptist. The figures behind Eve differ in different versions of this icon: here they seem to include Abel as a shepherd, and Moses. For a fuller description, see this post in the Orthodox Road blog.
After all, this Eastern icon tradition seems to me to present an image of a ‘better resurrection’. Not the ‘heaven and hell’ destiny that has so often been preached in Western Christianity, but a grand vision of a redemption that will embrace the whole human race, which believes with the Epistle to Titus that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”. (Titus 2.11 NRSV)
Do we believe in a big enough, and loving enough God, to accomplish this?
I’m currently reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, in the course of which my attention was grabbed by his almost throwaway remark about preaching, in which he describes sermons as:
that peculiar, intense form of dramatic mass communication that early Christianity seems to have invented: a struggle between the speaker, his God, the text of the Bible and an audience of believers.
That ‘struggle’ is a good word… Preaching is not about a speaker learned in theology who pours his or her knowledge into the empty minds of sheep-like hearers who know so much less. However much some (chiefly Evangelical) preachers seem to think it is, or would like it to be. Those hearers will always have their own ideas about whether, and how much, they will accept the speaker’s words as true, helpful, credible or relevant. They may have been schooled not to voice their dissent, or indeed to offer any comment beyond the conventional “Lovely sermon, vicar”, but whether they will allow what they’ve heard to change their lives or not, is another matter. And then there are the other characters in the conversation: God, and the biblical text, both of whom may have something to say about it, whether the preacher will or not.
For 37 years, and to some extent still, from time to time, I have dared to venture into that struggle. I’m ashamed to say I have sometimes believed that I was the one who knew, delivering the very word of God to those who knew not. After all, it can’t have been for nothing that I had spent all those hours and years studying the Bible and theology – can it? But as the years passed I came to what I thought in the end was not only a more honest, but also a humbler and more effective attitude to what I was doing in the pulpit. No longer the purveyor of all truth, but someone who had been given the privilege of standing among believers (and sometimes unbelievers, too) with the Bible open, and saying to them as it were: “These are the words which many of our forebears have believed to be, or to convey, the Word of God. A message from God! Let us sit here together and see if we can make sense of it: discover if it is indeed such a message to us, and if so, what it is saying to us.” Of course, I may have been in the position to have learned more of the text and its background that some of the listeners; but many of them knew much more of life than I did. My sermons were rarely in the form of a dialogue or discussion; but I hope they came to be speech in which I imagined and offered not only what I (the expert?) had to say, but also what any of the hearers might have had to say in response.
And one of the questions I found myself asking, and asked myself again as I listened to this morning’s preacher, was: Who are we preaching to, when we dare to stand in the pulpit and open our mouths about God? So often (like this morning) I think we preach with the assumption that out hearers are unbelievers whom we are trying to convince. Really? There may be some churches where people with no faith or understanding pitch up on a Sunday morning thinking, “I’ll just go in here and see what these Christians have to say for themselves.” But I’d be astonished if they were ever more than the tiniest minority. Perhaps – in the spirit of the shepherd who expended such effort in searching for the one sheep out of a hundred that was lost – we should preach to that person. But this morning I found myself thinking: Most of the people here believe, in some sense. What is the Gospel message, the good news, for those of us who believe?
I wasn’t sure that there was much that wasn’t thin fare indeed. It seemed to amount to: If you believe this, go out and tell everybody! Which seemed more guilt-news than good news. But I don’t mean this as (much) criticism of this morning’s preacher. I have been there myself, and done just the same. But now that I’m not so preoccupied with what I am trying to feed, and to whom, I find myself thinking more and more about what kind of spiritual nourishment I and others need to receive.
Often the words, and the preacher who delivers them, seem to be more of an obstacle to nourishment than a provider. We love our words so much! But sometimes I feel less nourished by the sermon, than by the words of the liturgy, or the words or melody of the hymn (not so often the ‘worship song’) we are singing, or a picture. It’s hard to depict the Resurrection… so I find myself wondering why one of my favourite representations of it is Piero della Francesca’s, dating from around 1460. It captures a moment before the women arrived at the tomb, when Christ rose triumphant while the guards were sleeping (Matthew 28.13). The risen Christ stands with his (curiously English-looking) victory banner in hand, his foot raised to lift himself out of the tomb (a very Italian, above-ground kind of burial place). But why does he look so spaced-out and joyless, as if he’s just awoken from a bad trip? His gaze is directed straight at us, but I wouldn’t call it warm, or attractive, or inviting. When, or if, he opens his mouth to speak – what will he say to us?
Will thinking and wondering about a question like that, do as much or more good, than all the words of those of us who preach to the unbelievers who aren’t even there?
Often sung during Lent (and at weddings?) is the well-loved traditional hymn, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us. Written by James Edmeston (1791-1867), an architect, surveyor and prolific hymn writer – though this is the only hymn penned by him that appears in any of the hymnals I know – it takes a trinitarian form in which the three verses are addressed in turn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as we pray for their presence and guidance through life.
The second verse, addressed to Jesus, appeals to his humanity which enables him to understand, because he has shared, all our experiences of weakness and temptation:
Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us all our weakness thou dost know; thou didst tread this earth before us, thou didst feel its keenest woe; lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go.
The last time I sang this in our parish church, I found that something strange had happened to the 5th line of this verse. Perhaps some bright spark, or possibly committee, felt it sounded a touch too, well, defeated, for the Superhero Saviour that we want to present Jesus as nowadays? So that the verse we sang went:
Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us all our weakness thou dost know; thou didst tread this earth before us, thou didst feel its keenest woe; tempted, taunted, yet undaunted, through the desert thou didst go.
Three little adjectives, in place of Edmeston’s four; yet the third somehow undermines the effect of the first two, by making Jesus’ victory sound easier and more heroic. Am I the only person who thinks this might even reflect a kind of Docetic tendency in modern Christology? The heresy which teaches that Jesus only seemed to be human, over against orthodox teaching which has always been that it was only by being really, truly, fully human in every way, sharing every weakness of the human condition, that Jesus was able to be a Saviour at all?
Anyway. All of this (possibly anorakish?) hymnological rant is really only to serve as an introduction to the account of my long, long, not lone, but certainly dreary, faint and weary Lent. Most often the virtue of Lent is that you choose the disciplines of giving something up, or taking something up, in order to try and grow spiritually. Some new discipline or personal prayer or reading. Some self-denial of abstaining from a pleasure like alcohol or chocolate.
But then, sometimes, life whacks you with the kind of Lent you don’t choose for yourself, like the extended Lent I’ve been having. Weeks of pain from the osteomyelitis bone infection, so that I’ve been virtually housebound and unable to do many of the things I would have liked to do – even just going for a walk, walking to church, going out to the pub or for a meal. A whole pharmacy-full of antibiotics and pain medications and accompanying laxatives. And yes: no alcohol. What I’ve rarely been able to achieve for a whole Lent by choice, I’ve had to do because alcohol is strictly forbidden if you’re taking codeine. And I’m not even sure that this imposed Lent will end with the joyful Resurrection of Easter on April 21. The six-week course of antibiotics, which may in any case need to be extended, doesn’t end until Easter Week. I’ve been hoping the pain would have gone before the antibiotics finished, and I’d be able to come off the codeine and start making up for all the glasses of wine I’ve missed. But we’re over halfway there, and who knows?
And what about the spiritual aspect of all this? My spiritual director or soul-friend is going to be asking, “And what do you think God is saying in all of this? What have you been learning?” These are good questions… But the answer is mostly, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it’s a message about mortality. About the inescapable fact that we are not in control of our lives, our destinies, our health or our future. Perhaps it’s some kind of training in trust, patience, courage, simply accepting whatever bad stuff life throws at us, and getting on with it. Perhaps it’s one of those times you’re supposed to count your blessings, like I did when I was in hospital for a couple of nights and all the other guys in the room were much worse off than I am. Perhaps it’s a preparation for relief, joy, or gratitude when (or possibly, if) it’s all over and I’m better. Perhaps it’s all of these.
But in the mean time, it’s still a long, long Lent. That I’d often rather be doing without.
At the Network of Biblical Storytellers International we prefer to call this ‘learning by heart’, because it’s a kind of embodied, whole-body learning, much more than the ‘in the brain’ stuff the word ‘memory’ evokes. But it’s the same thing when it comes to it, and it’s certainly something that all Christians should take seriously, not just the ones who make such big claims to be ‘bible-believing’ (and don’t always seem to know their Bibles that well).
Somewhere on my bookshelves, I used to have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Its pages slightly browning, because even though I never read it, it must be over 20 years ago that I bought it, and for some of those years it sat on a window sill in the sun. But had it survived the downsizing, and terrible cull of books, that took place when we moved to Thame?
It didn’t take long for me to find it, and yes, it had survived, and is still on my list of Books To Read. Some time. (Being able to find it so quickly, incidentally, is an indicator of how few books remain…)
This search happened after I was reminded of Rushdie’s book by the recent BBC2 documentary, The Satanic Verses 30 Years On. In this film, presenter Mobeen Azhar examines the lasting effect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on the Muslim community and how the events of 1989 continue to have an impact today. Those ‘events’ followed the book’s first publication, when Muslims in Britain were scandalized by Rushdie’s fiction, convinced that it was a blasphemous affront to Islam. Huge demonstrations took place in Britain, where the book was notoriously burned in the public square in Bradford, and in other countries, especially Iran and the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwah calling upon faithful Muslims to assassinate Rushdie, and death threats were also made against the book’s publishers and all the individuals who had been involved in its publication. 59 people lost their lives in the most violent demonstrations around the world.
At the time there were laws against blasphemy in England and Wales, but they only protected the Christian religion. For a time there was some discussion, supported by a number of liberals and Christians, about extending the law to protect Islam and other faiths. In the end this did not happen: instead, the blasphemy law was repealed in its entirety in 2008, and may be considered to have been replaced (in part) by legislation against religious and racial hate crimes.
It was nothing but a good thing for the Blasphemy Law to have been repealed. It was ridiculous and out-dated, had hardly ever been used by Christians in the hundreds of years of its existence, and the possibility of it being used by Muslims in a case such as the Rushdie case, simply appalling. It’s also an unfortunate reality of the differences between the world faiths, that there are passages even in the sacred Scriptures that could be construed as blasphemous by the adherents of other religions. Christians ‘blasphemously’ (to Muslims) believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran ‘blasphemously’ (to Christians) asserts that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that he did not die on the cross. This is just the start of the problem…
Mobeen Azhar’s documentary followed up the events of 1989, interviewing some of the men who had been involved in the protests. His conclusion was that, although the protests had given the Muslim community the opportunity to make a protest which was, as much as anything, about the racial intolerance and disadvantage they had suffered, it had also had many negative consequences. In particular, the caricature of the Muslim bogeyman was born, because of the way the tabloid press reported the riots. Azhar’s final comment:
“It ushered in this age of division, with Muslims being seen as the other. But we’re not outsiders. We’re a really important part of British society. But we have to be able to stomach debates about our culture, and actually our religion as well. Even if we find them offensive, we have to be able to do that. And it’s only when we can do that, that the ghost of The Satanic Verses will truly be put to bed.”
That blasphemy is still considered a crime anywhere in the world, in the 21st century, is a scandal. We only have to look at the terrible way it is used in Pakistan and other Islamist countries, where not only Christians and ‘apostates’ from Islam are routinely lynched or murdered, but also Muslim politicians and justice officials who try to protect them. And this in a country which, as a member of the United Nations, is supposed to subscribe to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, with its protection of Freedom of Religion. (Including guarantees of the freedom to choose one’s religion, to hold to any religion or none, and to change one’s religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.)
Are human beings offended by material insulting to the God they believe in? They need to just get over it. Is God offended? I think God is likely to have a good laugh about the presumption of us thinking that God might be. But even if God is offended, I’m pretty sure God knows how to deal with it. Probably by grace, mercy, and love, and (I hope) opening the blasphemer’s eyes to see the foolishness of insulting the Divine.
We’ve been worshipping in our current church for nearly 2½ years now, and I must have lost count of the number of times I’ve been aware of the elephant in the nave. The huge Thing that may not be named, that has almost never been named, that (presumably, for some reason) no one dares to name.
The elephant is called Brexit.
Surely it would have been possible to mention it at least in the intercessions, when we pray for this country. You wouldn’t have to take sides and pray for a swift and brutal no-deal Brexit, or for no Brexit at all; surely you could pray for ‘a successful outcome to the Brexit negotiations, that would ensure the best and most prosperous outcome for all people in this country, and for Europe’. And people could entwine that neutral form of words with whatever meaning they wanted to attach to it. But no, it has barely had a mention of any kind.
This morning our curate, greatly daring, preached on The Politics of Jesus, from Luke 4.14-21.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“I’m not talking about party politics,” he says, “I’m not telling you who to vote for.”
And he goes on, “No one gets left out, or left behind, in Jesus’ kind of politics.”
Disingenuous, I call it. If that’s not telling us at least who not to vote for, I don’t know what would be.