The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. Read more
Well, the boy’s done good again. For most of the weekend, Joshua (aka Bananamationman) worked on a very ambitious white-board stopmotion narrating the story of the Creation from Genesis 1-2. It’s frustratingly brief – but then when you realise it took around 11 hours of drawing and photographing each move, you can understand! There are some lovely touches – my particular highlights are the waves, the fish and the bird.
Awesome. Beams of paternal pride pour forth!
I really don’t think this book lives up to its hype, but I did work my way through roughly 3/4 of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s epic Jerusalem, The Biography. It is a very uneven and, at times, curiously flat read. It is also (perhaps inevitably) littered with sweeping statements and an over-reliance on just a few partisan scholarly perspectives. This was especially frustrating when it came to plumbing the huge depths and breadths of biblical and archaeological scholarship. But there were clearly some gems and insights. And so thought I’d share just one or two. Read more
The book that has occupied my thoughts for much of the summer is that almost hidden gem of the OT, the Book of Ruth. It was the focus of this year’s All Souls week away, and so my talks are issued as a free podcast. What blew me away is that of all the books in the OT, it is perhaps the most unrelentingly positive and inspiring. This is despite the fact that its dark historical and literary context was the Book of Judges, and that the suffering and vulnerability of 2 of the protagonists, Naomi and Ruth, were very real. Read more
It’s an ambiguous title. It can mean two very different things. Either I can’t stop myself (e.g.I have little self-control when it comes to resisting temptation, whatever that might be) or I can’t rescue myself (and I’m stuck). It seems to me that western culture is in denial about both. Control and autonomy are our post-Enlightenment mantras (in the name of personal freedom of course). And much to our frustration, neither are truly attainable. Read more
Here’s another gem from Elaine Feinstein’s lovely anthology of city recollections and reflections. This time though it is of a more historical nature, the tribute from of a contemporary Jewish Briton about another, one of the great leaders of the Victorian era, Benjamin Disraeli (aka Dizzy). Read more
A gentle, initially distant, rhythm guitar draws us into this album Half You Half Me by New York duo Girls in Trouble. But when the gorgeously fluid voice of Alicia Jo Rabins begins, one is stopped short by the arresting incongruity of the opening line: We are androgynous, double-faced beings. Read more
Our small groups are studying the book of Hosea this term and so last week I had the job of giving an overview and providing background for it.
In my prep, I was particularly struck by the effect of reading the relevant chapters of 2 Kings (ch 13-17) alongside Hosea, because these give the historian’s verdict on each of the Israelite kings who were Hosea’s contemporaries. I also found it very helpful having preached on the life of Solomon last term (see post last Dec) because that puts everything into perspective.
You can download the talk here (you may have to get a free login to get it – and beware – the sound quality is pretty rubbish for some reason). Here is the accompanying handout and talk outline.
Came across this fascinating morsel in a short New Yorker article by David Remnick from the run up to the recent Mikhail Khordorkovsky trial in Moscow. This fallen oligarch, it seems, has taken on the mantle of the dissenter from the Soviet era – not least because he is being pursued by former KGB agents and sent to the gulag. And so some unexpected comparisons have been made with those who genuinely work dissenters. And an archetypal example was Josef Brodsky. The article makes for some pretty chilling reading
In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:
JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.
The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”
Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad.
What struck me most about this is the sheer incompatibility and even clash of their worldviews. The judge who can only see things in institutional or societal terms – ie to be a poet you must be taught or commissioned by the state etc; against this young Jewish poet sees that we are far more than biological machines (see previous post).
Sunday morning brought the not entirely straightforward prospect of starting our series on the life of Solomon from 1 Kings, and doing it on Remembrance Sunday. The passage (1 Kings 1-2) is certainly a tricky one – an account of ancient realpolitik with all kinds of court machinations and skullduggery.
But part of the challenge from the passage was simply the problem of OT narrative. There are many things we need to be aware of when tackling it, as well as a number of good books to help get into it. A good start is the classic Fee & Stuart How to read the bible for all its worth. But two things in particular struck me as requiring clarity. With OT history, we must:
- Remember to draw our own conclusions – the writers tend to offer minimal editorial comment, let alone divine comment. This is partly a matter of style; partly because of what is assumed. They assume that the Torah is known and the basis for interpretation of events. Therefore we are invited to apply what we know from that to what we read in the narrative. Of course, that is a problem in a biblically illiterate age such as our own, and so it is one of the reasons people are so quick to dismiss or condemn such narratives. The job of the teacher today then is in part to fill in those gaps, to explain the moral benchmarks we should be working with.
- Remember it’s grey and not always black and white – this follows on. We are not to assume that the protagonists can always claim the moral high ground. In fact, often they do terrible things which must, rightly, be condemned (e.g. raping a sister, fratricide, coups d’état etc etc). When it comes to human politics, there are always problematic decisions are at best somewhere on the sliding scale of shades of grey. And the Israelite monarchy is no exception, even at its best. In fact, the only king and ruler who can truly be said to make clear cut, black and white decisions, is Great David’s Greater Son, King Jesus.
These then provided a methodology for expounding these two big chapters. The two big ideas are relatively easy to dig out because of the repeated phrases, so these formed the two main sections of the talk.
- 1 Kings 1: one phrase is repeated 9 times (1:13, 1:17, 1:20, 1:24, 1:27, 1:30, 1:35, 1:46, 1:48), of which the first example is – “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne“.
- 1 Kings 2: one phrase is repeated 4 times (2:12, 2:24, 2:45, 2:46), of which the last closes the chapter – “The kingdom was now firmly established in Solomon’s hands.”
The other problem with these chapters is the blizzard of names, unfamiliar to most. So I took that ultimate expression of Court Politics and rivalries, the game of chess, to illustrate it. So here is the outline:
Click here to download the talk.
Some years ago, I found myself in the middle of an awkward, and at bizarre moments heated, discussion. It was all to do with how one understands scriptural unity, and what the best way to articulate and summarise that unity. In other words, what’s the best way to do a bible overview? One side suggesting it didn’t really matter; the other side was strongly advocating that the only way was to follow the Graeme Goldsworthy Kingdom model (as articulated in his Gospel & Kingdom trilogy and According to Plan amongst others). I found myself more or less disagreeing with both, for different reasons. Read more
If you had to sum up postmodernism in one word, I think a strong (but by no means only) contender would be the word SUSPICION. Suspicion of power, suspicion of motives, suspicion of truth claims – in short, suspicion of absolutely everything and everyone. And of course what is one insidious but pervasive manifestation of suspicion? The Conspiracy Theory.
The twentieth century seems to have bred such theorists – they’re everywhere. And they have their audience over a barrel – if you question or disagree with them, you’re just a patsy, gullible putty in the oppressors’ hands. Then if you present a substantial case against them, well, you can hear the lines already:
- ‘aah, but there’s no smoke without fire…’ (that cowardly retort of the gossip);
- ‘hey, I’m just asking questions’ (when of course, they’re doing no such thing);
- ‘but what about Watergate?’ Well yes, that was a conspiracy, and yes, politicians are often corrupt. But think about it. Watergate was such a grubby and unambitious conspiracy (i.e. covering up the business of eavesdropping on political opponents) compared to the more extreme theories people tenaciously hold to.
And they are often extreme and extraordinarily ambitious. If true, many of these would need not just scores but hundreds and even thousands of accomplices (unwitting or otherwise) – who ALL keep quiet (by force or voluntarily). Just glancing down the list of conspiracies tackled by the journalist David Aaronovitch in his recent book, Voodoo Histories, makes clear how ambitious some of these are:
- Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (now clearly proven to be a fraud – and yet scarily, still touted in Islamist circles as a justification of their opposition to Israel’s existence)
- Stalin’s purge of Trotskyites incl Pyatakov in 1937
- President Roosevelt knew (and even wanted) Pearl Harbor – even people like Gore Vidal subscribe to this view
- Senator McCarthy’s suspicions of communists in government
- The ‘mysterious?’ deaths of popular ‘deities’: JFK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana
- Doubting whether or not the moon landings ever took place
- The ‘mysterious?’ death of Hilda Murrell & nuclear conspiracies in the 1980s (a conspiracy championed by the otherwise redoubtable Tam Dalyell MP)
- Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s thesis about the descendents of Jesus in Holy Blood and Holy Grail, as picked up by Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code
- Erich Von Daniken’s theories and books Chariots of the Gods? Was God an Astronaut?
- 9/11 & 7/7 conspiracies – from the ”let it happen on purpose” (LIHOP) types to the ”made-it-happen-on-purpose” (MIHOP) types.
- David Kelly’s suicide after his Commons Select committee testimony about Iraqi weapons evidence
- The ‘birthers’ who doubted Obama’s birth certificate & rumours of the Clinton “body count”.
It’s an extraordinary, comprehensive list – and these are just some of the most prominent ones (go online and you’ll find a conspiracy theory to suit every conceivable taste and obsession). This book is a fascinating but chilling read. Some theories are very popular – and even regarded as de rigeur if you don’t want to look a fool (e.g. JFK was shot by two shooters at least. Wasn’t he?).
Aaronovitch is clearly a sceptic. But his research methods and approach seem impeccable, logical and at times exhaustive. He presents a convincing case at many points. He produces clear evidence to prove their idiocy, even if it has appeared long after their fashions has waned. There is so much common sense here – that it is a book worth lending to any with conspiracist inclinations.
Bizarrely enough, one of his most compelling chapters (I’d not anticipated this at all as I’d not even noticed its inclusion when I picked the book up), was his merciless dismantling of the ludicrous theories behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Many Christian apologists have done a great job at approaching the evidence from an ancient historical perspective. What was so compelling here was his observations of the evolution of this particular narrative: a nineteenth century catholic parish priest who mysteriously becomes rich. So of course, that clearly means that was paid off by Rome to keep schtum about what he’d uncovered – i.e. the genealogical line of Jesus & Mary Magdalene. Well Aaronovitch shows that this whole business bears many of the hallmarks of other conspiracy theories.
What is not often appreciated (I certainly hadn’t realised this) is that practically ALL the main perpetrators in France of the Merovingian mythology have since admitted that the whole thing is a hoax. Here’s a flavour of Aaronovitch’s style (himself from a Jewish Marxist background with certainly no axe to grind in favour of Christianity):
The playful Henry Lincoln [one of the co-authors of Holy Blood & Holy Grail] has also been fond of using the partiality and contradictory nature of New Testament interpretations to sanction his own liberties. Is it more likely, he asks, that a man should have been born of a virgin, been able to walk on water and rise from the dead than that he should have been born as other men are born, married, and raise a family? It’s a good line, but the trouble is that while the Gospels do create some evidence for a man called Jesus who led a religious movement in the early years of the Roman empire, there is no evidence whatsoever from any source at all for that man being married or having children. None. (pp199-200)
This is how he sums up the chapter – the main protagonist, Pierre Plantard, being the centre of the story’s attention as the one claimed to be a descendent of Jesus Christ himself.
It was all a hoax, every bit of it. It began with a story, which then developed into a massive fantasy, support for which was manufactured by forging documents. Many of these were lists of names copied from other genealogists and registers, and then tinkered with; others were invented travelogues. The motives of the participants are varied. De Cherisey was interested in surrealism and in the 1960s was involved in an organisation called the Workshop for Potential Literature (Oulipo), in which the members played around with puzzles, ciphers and codes. Plantard, as we have seen, had been trying most of his life to give himself some significance through shadowy or secret organisations, joining the many people through the centuries who have been attracted to the idea of membership of a clandestine society with elite, and sometimes occult, powers to organise the world. Finally, there were those motivated simply by money. (p204)
There are some great lines. In a previous section, referring to Princess Diana’s death in a Parisian tunnel, he refers to the theories put by some ex-MI5 agents, and draws in a magnificent line from Umberto Eco’s breathtaking Foucault’s Pendulum.
Studying the competing claims of various secret sources, one can see that to believe one is to disbelieve the others. Whether the authors who used these sources were complicit in what must, at the very least have been a series of hoaxes is impossible to say. But if one were to ask the old conspiracist question Cui bono? (Who benefits?), the answer seems obvious. I say ‘seems’ because in this world every debunkable theory could in fact be disinformation put out by the Establishment/security services to throw investigators and the public off the scent. Such a hypothesis was put forward by former MI5 officer Annie Machon on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy in 2005. It was the very stupidity of some of the theories surrounding Diana’s death, she told her interviewers, that first convinced her that the accident was in fact murder. She had been alerted to the conspiracy by the classic MI6 disinformation technique of suggesting conspiracies. Or, as Umberto Eco put it, “The Rosicrucians were everywhere, aided by the fact that they didn’t exist.” (p150)
Or take this, about the death in the 1980s (subsequently proven to be the result of a break-in gone horribly wrong) of Hilda Murrill a known anti-nuclear activist. This was taken up as a cause by the famous Labour Old Etonian MP, Tam Dalyell.
While the notion of members of the British security services going around bumping off little old ladies in English market towns (more or less the exact opposite of their official role) may have amazed most MPs, it simply angered Mr Dalyell. (p175)
And I like this idea of an ‘equal-opportunity conspiracist‘, in his analysis of Gore Vidal’s various political theories!
Vidal, like Philip J Berg, was an equal-opportunity conspiracist, and was comfortable whether accusing FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, of complex and dastardly secret acts for various nefarious purposes – usually as pretexts for war or domestic crackdowns. (p303)
So what do these theories have in common? Well, in drawing various threads together, 4 features particularly struck me (from the perspective of a Christian worldview)
In early 2009, the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion gave an interview in the Guardian in which he lamented the pervasive ignorance about the Bible. He made it quite clear that he is not a believer; he is merely concerned about biblical illiteracy for cultural reasons. For such ignorance effectively closes the shutters on swathes of English literature, not to mention generations of western creativity. Consequently he calls on schools to teach the Bible with far greater rigour. That this is needed is not in doubt (as CODEC’s recent research in Durham demonstrates). Maggi Dawn’s new book, The Writing on the Wall, is one positive and timely response to this need, coming as it does in time for next year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Maggi is both an accomplished professional musician and theologian – and she’s now a Cambridge college chaplain. As a result, she is eminently qualified to write a book designed to introduce people to the biblical moorings and roots of western culture. As she says in the preface, it comes as the result of undergraduates knocking on her door to ask about various biblical allusions. Her aim is thus to offer an all-too-brief introduction to the bible’s impact. This is clearly ambitious! After all, how on earth do you justice in 240 pages (with nicely spaced text) to a complex and ancient anthology (with 1500 double-columned and densely spaced pages)? And that’s before you even begin to think about 2000 years of cultural influences and trends. But she makes a really good stab at it – readable, informative, and, occasionally very illuminating. She covers the ground succinctly, from Genesis to Revelation, focusing a few pages on each major development or biblical genre. Inevitably, it is uneven in its treatment and the decisions on what to focus on will have been relatively subjective.
Pearls before swine?!
But it is important to recognise that this is no one-volume commentary, nor a comprehensive history of interpretation. Nor is it a history of western art and culture. Instead, it is in the business of making connections and touching on allusions, in everything from medieval frescoes to Led Zeppelin, via Jonathan Swift and Wilfred Owen, Rembrandt and Banksy, Handel’s Messiah & Daniel Lanois, and The Shawshank Redemption and CS Lewis’ Narnia. If anything, it felt as if there was more high art than popular culture, not that this mattered particularly. It would be interesting to know, however, whether or not that was as much a reflection of Maggi’s interests as of a declining influence of the Bible.
Because it is aimed at biblical novice, it is excellent that the various scriptural passages are quoted in full, and sometimes at length. People do then actually read the texts themselves. And because the precise phrasing of early English versions (such as Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s or the King James) is what Shakespeare (for example) alludes to, she helpfully places them side by side relevant passages. So as a provocation for getting people to read the BIble for themselves, this book is a useful resource.
There were many pearls, too:
- I’d no idea, for instance, about the suffragette origins of Hubert Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem (and remember singing it lustily, but obliviously, in the last chapel of every term at my straight-laced all-boys school!) (p238). The irony is rather delicious!
- It was also very moving to read of John Coltrane’s appropriation of Nunc Dimittis (p163) and heart-breaking to reflect on the misappropriation of Mary Magdalene’s name in the so-called Magdalene laundries (p191).
- It was good to find a fellow-enthusiast of van Gogh’s colours (p183) which I’ve raved about before,
- and to discover the patristic origins of the common misconception of there being 3 kings visiting the infant Christ (rather than an unspecified number of astrologers) (p159).
So for all these and many other reasons, this is a very enjoyable book indeed.
Any quibbles, I suspect, derive from Maggi’s sheer ambition with the book. I felt that there were moments when the lines between literary context, textual interpretation, and subsequent artists’ creative licence got blurred. For instance, in a fascinating, extended section on Handel’s Messiah, one could be forgiven for concluding that the notion of Jesus’ royal identity was contrived by the librettist Charles Jennens to suit his controversial non-juror political views (p138). Of course, I’m sure that’s not what is intended – messianic expectation is consistent in the OT and Jesus’ Davidic credentials is a pervasive NT motif. Monarchy is not just Jennens’ preoccupation (intriguing though it was to learn about his views) but the Bible’s too. And one might expect an entire work called Messiah to have such a royal preoccupation!
Secondly, because the book is aimed at the uninitiated, I felt that there was a bit of an opportunity missed to offer a theological framework for the actual nature of the Bible. I know space, readability and trade descriptions are all issues here. But what is it that holds the controversial and difficult elements together with the more beloved and comforting aspects? Is there an overarching, binding narrative? And how does that affect the way the Bible itself treats previous texts? Furthermore, there is a tendency to accepting a more historically sceptical view, especially of the OT (although there were exceptions such as the sections on the Genesis flood (p39) and the fall of Jericho (p75)). Compounded with the sometimes anthropocentric handling of stories (I was mildly surprised to see the story of David & Bathsheba without mentioning God or the courageous intervention of Nathan (p96)), one could be forgiven for concluding that the Bible is merely a collection of stories and responses to the human search for the divine. For there is enough within the texts themselves that has caused believers for millennia to see that there is more to these writings than that. Such an approach is perhaps the reason for some of the hardest aspects of the Bible being avoided – the section on eschatology at the end was notable for not having any bible texts quoted but dismissed as a result of the so-called “kinder theology” of F D Maurice (p233). This was a shame because the handling of the similarly tough Egyptian Plagues earlier was sensitive to their appropriation by victims of injustice like the African-American slaves (p70). Working as I do now with many who were, or are, victims of religious persecution, I’m not sure they would be as quick to define the dismissal of future justice as ‘kinder’.
A guide for further discoveries
Having said all this, though, these do not undermine the value of the book – especially because it is arguable that they go beyond its inevitably limited scope. I enjoyed and learned a great deal from The Writing on the Wall. I found myself regularly underlining and making notes of things to follow up. I guess for those who are familiar with the Bible, this will be a useful guide to extra-biblical paths not yet travelled. And for those familiar with western culture, vice versa! It was a huge shame (and perhaps frustration to Maggi herself) that it wasn’t lavishly illustrated (I guess copyright nightmares made that prohibitive) – and I didn’t always have the patience to look up things she discussed. But I have started working through a few of the pieces that I didn’t previously know. (For those interested in going even further, below are one or two other more specific sources that some might want to use). As a readable introduction, this is a really helpful addition to any bookshelf (and even more so when it comes out in paperback!). It takes us on a thrilling cultural adventure.
Staying with the folks in Norfolk again for half term. In a nearby village, a friend of theirs (Lorie Lain-Rogers – see below) is part of a group (Call2Prayer) that has set up a 1:1 scale reconstruction of the OT Tabernacle. I don’t know much about this group, but recreating the Tabernacle is a fascinating idea. It travels the country apparently – so I suppose you can book it if you want to.
They’ve tried to do everything as authentically and faithfully as possible (from the clear and explicit instructions in the Pentateuch) – though I’m not 100% clear about whether or not the original had provisions for parking
Most striking to me was its size – despite not being in a desert but enjoying glorious Norfolk sunshine in a fabulous garden, one could well imagine the tribal elders gathering in the space within the linen walls. Anyway, here are a few pics – click to get to the rest…