For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further. Read more
Last month’s Wired UK Carried a host of mini-articles by various techie, business gurus and Apple groupies about the phenomenon that is Steve Jobs. One of the standouts though was Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, an account of his address at Stanford University in 2005. Read more
I’d never heard of Arthur Stace before a week ago. But that’s because I have never visited, let alone lived in, Sydney, Australia. But he left an extraordinary, even weird, but compelling legacy. For he was converted to Christianity as the result of walking into a Sydney church in 1930 and hearing a sermon by R. B. S. Hammond. Two years later he heard another sermon from John Ridley entitled “echoes of eternity”. Read more
A good friend of mine, Drew Wolff, has recently got back from a trip with his family to help on a Habitat building programme in Tijuana, Mexico. He sent these great pics. You’ll see at the centre of the first is a rather interesting biblical reference – which will be well known to U2 fans the world over.
Jeremiah 33:3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.
For it superimposed onto the Gate number at CdeG Airport Paris on the cover of their 2001 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And it also gets a nod in one of the best songs of the last album (IMHO), No Line on the Horizon, Unknown Caller. It is particularly fitting for the latter because of the title (though note that the numbers are fiddled around a bit because obviously, there’s no 33 o’clock!).
I thought this one was pretty poignant, too. I struggle for ways to stretch my imagination but it seems to describe the Christian life. The bleakness of what is in the foreground is not changed. However, behind it all is the bright light that dominates the picture. It helped in trying to imagine the light that illuminates everything in the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation. And also in the foreground, is a group of believers helping build a house. A good metaphor for God’s answer to everything
Last Sunday, I was teaching on the last bit of Hebrews 12. I found it a hugely challenging passage, inevitably. But throughout my prep, my mind kept drifting back to one of my Turkey jaunts just over a year ago. I met with some believers in a small, very remote town – where they are of course vastly outnumbered in the local population. This is a shot of the small room where they meet.
It struck me that to understand how this passage works, we need to restore some vocabulary sadly fallen into disuse. I put it like this:
Now at the risk of sounding like I’ve just walked off the pages of a Jane Austen novel, I want to resurrect the old-fashioned use of two words: Sensible and Insensible. For the original meaning of sensible was not being all boring and level-headed. No – if something was sensible it could be sensed whether through sight, taste, hearing or touch. If something was insensible, it couldn’t. Simple as that.
And we are so indoctrinated in our culture to believe that if something is not sensible (in the old sense), it’s not real. But that’s nonsense. We all know that human senses are too weak and limited to notice all kinds of things. Just try looking for butter in the fridge just by standing in front of it. But still the idea persists. And it is something that we must reject. If I can put it like this, we most open our eyes to the invisible.
The room doesn’t seat more than perhaps 25 or 30 – it no doubt gets pretty cosy in summer when they all come. And when they meet, they can still hear the sound of the imams’ call to prayer echoing around the city. And I tried to imagine something of the feelings and thoughts of the huddle of believers when they meet. Which is not perhaps that different from how many of the Jewish Christians might have felt back in the 1st Century: surrounded, perhaps even hunted down; pressured to return to the Jewish faith culture of their childhood and families.
And so I imagined how Hebrews might have sought to encourage them, using particularly the words of 12:22-24.
- You walk into this unassuming Turkish house. But you’ve actually come to Mount Zion: the rock on which the Jerusalem Temple was built – but not an earthly city, a heavenly city.
But it doesn’t look like it, does it?
- When you sing the opening song with your 15 out of tune friends in that room, you’re actually joined by 1000s of 1000s joyful angels in heaven.
But it doesn’t sound like it, does it?
- When your small group meets, you actually join the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. In other words, the billions of fellow believers living around the world.
But it doesn’t feel like it, does it?
- You recall risks you took to get to church in the first place, but remember: you’ve also come to To God, the judge of all. He knows it all and will do something about it.
But it doesn’t seem likely does it?
- But in case you pay the ultimate price, remember that many others have and are cheering you on – they’ve gone ahead of you and are with you, those are the spirits of the righteous already made perfect.
But that doesn’t look possible, does it?
- But what makes it possible, worth it, above all, real? Well, when you meet, you come To Jesus and his precious blood shed on the cross. This blood brings forgiveness, it brings hope and it brings reality.
And supremely, it convinces us that this is no fairy story – but the reality and truth. It convinces us that the insensible is as real as the insensible. So much more is happening when we meet together than meets the eye. So in a way, yes, we are in heaven. Wherever we meet…
Came across this lovely story from Bede while reading Gene Fant’s God as Author. It’s a book I enjoyed and picked some lovely gems from it. May post some more sometime. But he recounts this story to illustrate the way in which our experience of the world (as general revelation) interacts with our understanding of worldviews and life, especially when we encounter special revelation.
The Venerable Bede (c673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
The adviser was stating the insight that something he had observed in nature had created in him an imbalance, a longing for something more. Clearly drawn on a personal experience of watching such a sparrow’s flight, the adviser heard the gospel of redemption and eternal life as the restoration of that balance that had been lost. Moreover, Coifi, the chief priest, revealed that he too had found in his own observations of life and nature an imbalance.
“I have long realized that there is nothing in our way of worship; for the more diligently I shought [sic] after truth in our religion, the less I found. I now publicly confess that this teaching clearly reveals truths that will afford us the blessings of life, salvation and eternal happiness. Therefore your majesty, I submit that the temples and altars that we have dedicated to no advantage be immediately desecrated and burned.”
God as Author (pp82-83)
Now Bede was probably indulging in not a little bit of artistic licence and historiographical imagination here (especially with Coifi’s speech – that seems pretty unbelievable – or am I just being an old cynic?). But I did find the image of the sparrow a very powerful and suggestive one indeed.
I was given My Name Is Charles Saatchi & I Am An Artoholoic for Christmas and have only just got round to it. Not a heavy read by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Saatchi admits at one point to having comics as his most regular reading. This is essentially a compilation of scores of questions from different people on a wide range of subjects.
It is as revealing as one can reasonably expect from one of the most creative advertising geniuses of the 20th Century – i.e. I suspect not so much. He’s sharp, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, occasionally insightful and quite fun. His obsessions for the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are well-documented, and they are a regular topic of conversation. As are some of the highly influential exhibitions around the world that he has instigated.
This is the sort of book to have on the go in the loo (if you like that sort of thing) or to read in an hour or two.
I was struck, though, by the rare occasions when he revealed (albeit rather flippantly) his worldview perspective. He is an Iraqi-born Jew whose family fled to London in 1947, so no doubt has quite a few stories to tell. But these all-too-brief remarks are quite suggestive…
Does a love of art, particularly Renaissance art on a biblical theme, make one feel closer to God?
I believe God must be very disappointed in his handiwork. Mankind has clearly failed to evolve much in all these years; we’re still as cretinous and barbaric as we were many centuries ago, and poor God must spend all day shaking his head at our vileness and general ineptitude. Or perhaps, we might just give him a good laugh. But of course, I hope God likes our art enough to forgive us our sins, particularly mine. (p14)
Then even more briefly…
What do you buy apart from Art?
I have a shocking Frappucino habit, so what doesn’t go on art goes to Starbucks.
What is the one thing you now really wish you could buy?
My way into Heaven. (p112)
One wonders whether or not he might have had much to talk about with another, wealthy influencer of public opinion from a former age…
I posted a number of spots soon after the U2′s recent album, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON, came out. Then the opportunity to do a more formal review for Damaris’ CultureWatch came up, but it has taken a while – both a combination of time pressures and the fact that i needed to live with it for a bit longer to get more of a sense of it. It’s definitely a less accessible album than some – and like it’s awesome predecessor Achtung Baby, it takes a bit more effort and careful listening to get into it. But it is all the more spirited and ultimately overwhelming for that.
So here is the result – just out today: GRACE BREAKS INTO A SOUND. I know lots of bods have done this, and it feels rather late in the day (esp since things are evolving all the time with the songs on tour) – but that’s life. What particularly struck me was the album’s structure, which is not something people often think about. But the most profound thing about the album is the theological oxygen that it breathes (and breathing is wonderful central metaphor of the album). There are lots of things about it that i wondered about saying on the musical side – but this is primarily but not exclusively an engagement with it lyrically.
Oh and while we’re on matters cultural, Ally Gordon has done a fine piece for EA’s Slipstream on ART FOR THE GLORY OF GOD – he even manages to find an excuse to give a nod to Bono’s intro to the Psalms!
Have been fascinated by Anneke Kaai’s paintings for a while, faithfully published by Pieter Kwant (of Piquant Publishing – cool name, don’t you think?) over the last few years. She is a Dutch artist inspired in her art by a clear Christian faith and the images she creates are often very striking and have both an ethereal and sometimes monumental quality.
So far, four books have been produced of her work, each of them inspired by biblical or theological themes:
- 10 Commandments
- The Creed
- Apocalypse (inspired by the Book of Revelation)
The great thing, and the reason for posting this, is that the images are now available for use in presentations in church on CD-Rom. Check it out – it’s only £10 +p&p. Bargain! And well worth it. Here is a bit of a flavour from her website:
Had some fun with this title for a guest service talk on Sunday night. No, this was not an excuse to play Belinda Carlisle’s less than fabulous 80s hit. But it did mean I could play this promo for Richard Branson’s Necker Island resort (starting price is £16,000 per couple per week).
You can hear the justification for using the whole thing in church (!) and rest of the talk here. And remember, what we’re offered is ∞% BETTER!!
The chaps at New Word Alive Media have been slaving away to get all the talks and seminars from both New Word Alive weeks available online. At only £1 per mp3 download they are certainly more reasonable than some pay per download sites.
They even have 2 downloads for free, which are not to be missed: Q&A with Don Carson from week 1, and Richard Cunningham’s Bible Reading from the start of week 2. Hopefully the Carson Q&A will be available at some point in the future.
Wasn’t at week 1, so don’t know the highlights. But from week 2, by all accounts, check out:
- Liam Golligher on Jonah
- Garry Williams on some key figures from history (esp Anne Bradstreet)
- Graham Beynon on the Shape of Things to Come (an excellent intro to all things eschatological)
Plus lots lots more (you might even find a bible overview by yours truly, if you look hard enough – but then it has been free on iTunes for a while).
- Carson on the New Perspective(s) on Paul – have been listening to these 3 from RTS on iTunesU. REALLY helpful. If you’ve not discovered RTS’ stuff there’s a lot of treasure to sift through.
- Some naughty sacred treasure (if that’s possible) - the most anti-essential Christian books. (HT – The Simple Pastor)
- In case you missed it, here is Ally Gordon’s compelling picture for the The Factory, in Wimbledon.
- Is Food the New Sex? – interesting article from Washington Post (HT – Paul Carter)
- We’ve forgotten how to face death – brilliant piece by Johann Hari in the Independent (HT – Nancy Heeb)
- Obama’s prayer partners/pastors – interesting article in New York Times. (HT – Ben Witherington) Interesting to read there that George W Bush never joined a Washington church in the 8 years of his presidency.
- Now this is a GREAT idea – every mayor should be weighed at the start and end of his/her reign (see right). Weight gain is deemed to be the result of tax-payer’s expense! (HT Futility Closet)
- Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch bears a secret message inscribed by his watch repairer!
- Welsh toast cutter – for Welsh people who like toast… and Wales.
- Why Facebook is for Old Fogies! Intriguing Time article! (HT Raquel Medina Megolla)
- Wiki has a wonderful compilation of modern misconceptions. As you look down the list, I bet you fell into a few traps.
- Lethologica is the inability to remember a word – can you remember these? Answers here.
And finally, there’s this:
- Telecoms in the 90s; Check out this retro (if rather slow-moving) joy – esp. note the narrator’s rather crazed gaze into the camera, and the completely wooden acting. Roll on the 90s…! (HT John Naughton)
I had a fascinating conversation with some friends last week about the Celtic concept of ‘Thin Places‘. These are places around the world where the gulf between heaven and earth is smaller than in other spots. This was the sort of thinking that led to places like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or the island of Lindisfarne off the north English coast being regarded as holy and spiritual in some sense. There was even a tradition that heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart, but in the thin places, the distance is even shorter. There are a kind of portal, I suppose.
Now, whatever one makes of that, I wonder if this is the sort of metaphor that lies behind the album’s title and ethos – as well as obviously the opening track. Bono has spoken of the view over the Irish sea from his Dublin home – and anyone who knows anything about the Irish weather will know that there are days that are so grey, it’s impossible to tell where the sea stops and the sky begins. And what this seems to allude to is the fusion between the temporal and eternal, the secular and sacred, and even the intervention of the divine in the mundane. On this, actually, hangs the Christian’s hope because it points us towards the incarnation as well as the now and the not yet. But the imagery seems to evoke (to my mind) the sense in which trusting the Christ means eternal life starts NOW: I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS eternal life and will not be judged but HAS crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). The eternal has invaded the temporal.
But isn’t that the way that God always seems to work? Isn’t he as much the God of the mundane, pedestrian and commonplace as he is of the spectacular and miraculous? So often, you can’t immediately spot where he’s rolled up his sleeves to get involved – it’s only clearer in retrospect. As if there’s no line on the horizon, until you’ve passed through it.
There’s cathedrals and the alleyways in our music. I think the alleyway is usually on the way to the cathedral, where you can hear your own footsteps and you’re slightly nervous and looking over your shoulder, and wondering if there’s somebody following you. And then you get there and realize there was somebody following you: it’s God.
More on Unknown Caller
Incidentally, as I was leafing through Bono on Bono by Michka Assayas again, I found this bit on the very last page. Surely, here is the spine-tingling chorus of Unknown Caller in embryonic form (cf. previous post)?
Assayas.: You said about your father: “He would disappear into silence and wit.” I think that in your case, you do disappear into volubility and wit. [Bono bursts out laughing] What do you make of that?
Bono: Guilty, your honour.
No further comment?
‘Be silent and know that I am God’ That’s a favourite line from the Scriptures. ‘Shut up and Let Me Love You’ would be the pop song. [laughs] It’s really what it means. If ever I needed to hear a comment, it might be that.
Ultimate question, then you’re rid of me. What leaves you speechless?
[sighs… 20 second pause, continuous sound of cicadas] Does singing count?
I’m afraid not. Songs have words.
But not when I start. Usually, it’s just a melody and nonsense words. Hmm… Songs are about as succinct as I get. I’m just sparing you. [laughs then ponders for a moment] ‘Forgiveness’ is my answer.
You mean ‘being forgiven’?
This song a great opening to the album. Musically pulsating, driving, teeth-gritting as well as uplifting; it shouts, “we’re back”. The question is – what with? Well, bizarrely enough, it’s a French policeman who’s got claustrophobic in his routine life. And like Get on your boots, it’s essentially a non-sentimental love song.
I’m a traffic cop, Rue du Marais, The sirens are wailing, But it’s me that wants to get away – this is what fired Anton Corbijn’s creative juices for his ‘silent’ companion film of the album, Linear (a word quoting this song). His heart’s elsewhere – a girl for whom he’s desperate to escape. She’s the dreamworld beyond the mundane and banal.
The interesting thing is that she is one who gives the narrator the stepping stone into a larger world. I know a girl who’s like the sea // I watch her changing every day for me… One day she’s still, the next she swells // You can hear the universe in her sea shells. … She said infinity is a great place to start… She said “Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear”. She’s vibrant; she’s truly alive, like the ocean – in apparent contrast to his life.
I just wonder, therefore, if this love affair is a sort of relational thin place. Of course, I’ve already mentioned in this little series of posts what the apostle Paul said about marriage in Eph 5? But could this also be touching on what John was on about in his somewhat elusive discussion of love (cf. 1 John 4:7-12). There’s certainly an elusiveness to this cop’s yearning: The songs in your head are now on my mind // You put me on pause I’m trying to rewind and replay… Every night I have the same dream // I’m hatching some plot, scheming some scheme. He’s spellbound – and has to ‘get out’.
But could it be that actually what he needs is not so much to escape his life (in contrast to Corbijn’s take in his movie, which opens with the cop burning his motorbike and heading off into the sunset) as to get it together with the girl? For she is his key to the eternal; in her there is no line on the horizon. Relationships are what matter – especially eternal ones… If that’s on to something, it would rescue the song from being gnostic anti-materiality/reality – and actually the antithesis of an incarnational thin place. And so, like every great love song, it is an intimation of the love song of the Christ.
I gave this song the benefit of the doubt when it was released as a single. But i have to say that it feels a bit silly. And IMHO it’s the weakest on the album. Nevertheless, it has a real energy and humour – which is why I don’t ‘mind’ it very much. Bono, (in what’s quite a fun interview with the band for New Zealand TV) has said that it’s basically a pretty simple song – a love song without the sentimentality. Well, it certainly isn’t sentimental!
I suppose it’s a Make-Love-Not-War appeal – the closest this album gets to U2′s well-established pacifist anthems – but it’s more a case here of let’s put the grimness of it all out of our minds for the moment. Night is falling everywhere // Rockets at the fun fair // Satan loves a bomb scare // But he won’t scare you… I don’t want to talk about wars between nations // Not right now… Still, in a bomb-scared world, the only hope is Here’s where we gotta be // Love and community // Laughter is eternity // If joy is real. Love… community… others. For love is the only thing that can overcome hatred – Luther King again.
But the main question is who’s the ‘you’ who has to put on her sexy boots, the ‘you’ in the bridge passage: You don’t know how beautiful // You don’t know how beautiful you are // You don’t know, and you don’t get it, do you?. Well, it’s obvious it’s a girl – but could it not be more than a girl? Couldn’t it be THE bride? For there is a theory around that Bono’s ‘you’ is very often God’s people – they too often are the ones who don’t get it. Is that too far-fetched? Well not if the sound is the sound of Amazing Grace – cf. earlier post on the album. Let me in the sound becomes a shared experience: Meet me in the sound. He then gets more desperate: God, I’m going down // I don’t wanna drown now // Meet me in the sound. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…
Now of course, it might be much more straight-forward than all of that. For as Neil McCormick discovered, ‘Get on your boots’ is East African Slang for use a condom. Well, i suppose that’s topical, in Africa at least, after the pope’s recent utterances. Make love not war.
But perhaps the song does a rocking shimmy between both spheres – in true Bono style.
Is this the same guy as the Paris traffic cop? Corbijn certainly seems to think so. But whoever it is, (and he feels to me more like the soldier in White as Snow, longing for home and love) this is a lost soul in the Middle East. It’s a beautiful song – beguiling and troubling. There are some profound reflections on what it is to live in a war-ravaged reality:
This shitty world sometimes produces a rose // The scent of it lingers and then it just goes – there are occasional intimations of life and love – this side of the horizon. This is a darker side of the experience in the first song No Line – this is back to reality. This is a world where a child has to drink dirty water from the river bank.
The worst of us are a long drawn out confession // The best of us are geniuses of compression. NONE of us (not even the best of us) is what we could and should be. Now I’ve got a head like a lit cigarette // Unholy clouds reflecting in a minaret // You’re so high above me, higher than everyone // Where are you in the Cedars of Lebanon?. Cedars of Lebanon clearly have biblical resonances – both from descriptions of the geography of the ancient near east and more specially as illustrations of the Lord’s blessing: e.g. Psalm 92:12 and 104:16. He’s looking for ‘you’ here. Is this God?
Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you // Make them interesting cos in some ways they will mind you // They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends // Gonna last with you longer than your friend – this echoes a line in Heaven on Earth (from All You Can’t Leave Behind) which goes: Where there [were many trees] we’d tear them down // And use them on our enemies // They say that what you mock // Will surely overtake you. For all their pacifism, there is still a war to be fought in this world it seems.
But the appeal, all the way through, is to return the call to home. This is a homesick exile, trapped and lost. And yet the person he seems to be talking to says ‘you say you’re not going to leave the truth alone // I’m here cos I don’t want to go home‘. Is that just what ‘you’ think? Or does he genuinely want to keep searching for the truth?
But if there is a hope to it all, it is beyond the horizon. That to my mind is the message of the whole album. Thank God there is no line on the horizon, because he brings the beyond-horizon world to bear on this-side-world; and without that, we’d be left with a shitty world of despair.
At last been catching up with House Season 4 on DVD. Watched what has become one of my favourite episodes ever last night: 4:9 Games (old news, I realise, as it was first aired in the US in Nov 07)
House is at his most Machiavellian in this episode as he is forced to whittle down applicants for his team down to the last 2 or (will it be 3?). He uses his famous whiteboard in the Diagnostics Office to keep the scores of the 4 candidates, and has found the most complicated case for them to work on – a nihilistic rock musician druggie with every symptom under the sun. One of the 4 hates druggies, one of them has great sympathy. Here House grills the latter, otherwise affectionately known as Thirteen (because that was her number in the original crowd of applicants). Of course, one of the undercurrent themes is that House himself is addicted to painkillers…
GREG HOUSE: Why do you love drug addicts?
“THIRTEEN”: I won’t pigeonhole the patients, so that means I’m…
GREG HOUSE: I’m perfectly capable of drawing my own conclusions. Are you capable of answering a question?
[The third degree begins... yet again.]
“THIRTEEN”: I think there’s more to him than the drugs.
GREG HOUSE: Admirable. Why?
“THIRTEEN”: I need a reason for doing something admirable?
GREG HOUSE: There’s always a reason. He’s a patient, you don’t know him. Why do you like him? The alcoholic parent? Druggie youth? There’s no such thing as a saint without a past.
“THIRTEEN”: Or a sinner without a future.
GREG HOUSE: What makes you so sure that drugs are a mask for something else?
“THIRTEEN”: Drugs are always a mask for something else.
GREG HOUSE: That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard in my life.
[She smiles and leaves. House goes to the Diagnostics Office and changes her points to 102, a small smile on his face.]
Well, surprisingly enough, there’s some pretty good theology in there…
STOP PRESS – Some Source Criticism
I’ve just discovered that this is based on a line by Oscar Wilde in his play A Woman of No Importance:
Lord Illingworth: The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.
It’s a classic and packed with treasure. But I just came across this little gem today in Lewis’ great Mere Christianity, having never picked up on it before. Trenchant but constructive, direct but hilarious. Fantastic.
There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.
Mere Christianity (Fount 1994 edition) p119
Great having a brother-in-law, Jem, who’s in the same line of business. Except unlike Nestle South Africa, we don’t simply offer celestial short-stays – the deal we hold out includes the whole of eternity as part of our package.
A Very Happy New Year to all our readers!
Please understand – i am certainly NOT about to indulge in an anti-Catholic rant. That is not helpful, productive or fair (not least because I have a number of valued friends and relatives who are Catholic). But I have to say that I’m a little surprised about this: Indulgences are back. Or to be more accurate, they never really went away.
This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the compendium of official church doctrine) has to say about the matter:
Section 1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
What is an indulgence?
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
So I suppose the news (on the BBC here) that the current Pope has approved special indulgences for the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearance at Lourdes is not surprising, and in fact entirely consistent with official teaching.
But it is surprising that the issue which sparked the Reformation is still an issue. It was the selling of indulgences which spurred the young monk, Martin Luther, to post his 95 Theses almost exactly 500 years ago (31st October 1517). The corruption which lay behind it in his day was rampant – and of course the issues today are not entirely the same. But Libby Purves, writing on The Times’ Faith Central, has a pretty fair take on this, I’d say.
The medieval concept had fallen into some disuse (not before time, say many modern Catholics) but the last two Popes have been keen on them. Catholic teaching tries to make them seem more sophisticated than the old idea of get-out-of-Hell-free cards, but a sense remains that Martin Luther – whose outrage at abuses over ‘indulgences’ triggered the Protestant reformation – had got a point. And why should an ability to afford the fare to Lourdes make anyone more worthy than someone who stays home doing good works
You may have seen the brouhaha that (eg picked up by Ruth Gledhill’s blog) recent remarks of General Sir John Dannatt has caused. He is Chief of the General Staff in the British Army and therefore the most senior soldier in this country. The reason for the fuss – not just the fact that he is a Christian, but the fact that he thinks this has an impact on his job. This is what he said at the recent Spring Harvest Excellence in Leadership conference.
In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal, and I think there is very much an obligation on …a Christian leader to include a spiritual dimension into his people’s preparations for operations, and the general conduct of their lives. Qualities and core values are fine as a universally acceptable moral baseline for leadership, but the unique life, death, resurrection and promises of Christ provide that spiritual opportunity that I believe takes the privilege of leadership to another level.
Of course, similar convictions have been open to abuse over the centuries – people have been urged to die/be martyred for dubious if not downright immoral causes over the centuries: eg Crusades or 9/11. But given that armies are necessary in the modern age for national defence or prosecution of injustice (the official MOD page outlining the many countries where the British Army is currently deployed is fascinating), surely it is appropriate for someone facing death all the time to face it with eyes open? The risks for a soldier serving in Helmand province or on the Kuwait border are huge. Of course, no one should be compelled or deceived into believing anything (which is a ludicrous and totally counter-productive notion anyway); but it would be a total dereliction of duty if an army padre failed to spell out the claims and promises that the Christian faith makes about death.
The thing is death must force us to ask what it is all about. It always has – and it always will. For it leaves nowhere to hide when it comes to life’s purpose. Death pierces every facade, shatters every mask and undermines all but the most robust of confidences. Take this quote from Woody Allen (who, it has to be admitted, has a bit of a one-track mind about death!)
‘Let me tell you, when I go for a walk in Central Park on a beautiful day I have to set myself mental tasks, prepare a speech, think about casting. Otherwise I know I will want to run up to people and shake them and say, ‘Why are you bothering to sunbathe? What’s the point of your pregnant belly? Why are you walking your dog? Toward what end? We’re all going to die one day. AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO SEES IT? Am I the only person in the concentration camp who knows what’s going on behind the hedge?’
He spreads his arms, fingers splayed. ‘I will look around the park and think, “We can cut to this scene 100 years from now and all these people will be dead.” Every 100 years a big toilet will have flushed and a new group of people will be in their place. The Islamic fundamentalists, the baseball players, the beautiful models, everybody who is here now will all be gone. ALL GONE. You and me. It is hard to combat this thought. It’s constantly nagging at me. Our seemingly busy busy lives ultimately mean nothing in this cruel and hostile universe.’
From an interview with Woody Allen, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 17 March 02
The weird thing about the timing of all this brouhaha (after all, the general made his remarks two weeks ago) is that Rachel & I managed to get to the Terracotta Army exhibition in the British Museum this morning (having booked ages ago). There’s been a lot of hype – on top of the queues and the not inconsiderable cost, the exhibition is pretty small (with too many crowding around the individual exhibits). They’ve borrowed only a handful of the 7000+ terracotta warriors found in 1974 in Xi’an. Still, despite all this, it is still well worth it. Ying Zheng, 1st Emperor of China, was by all accounts rather a nutter – and yet a pretty successful one. He was the first person to unite the warring regions of China and to impose unifying writing, legal and mercantile systems. He was not without ambition. For not only did he declare himself Emperor of China, but also Emperor of the Universe – building palaces around his empire to echo to the constellations in the night sky. But despite this, he was petrified of death. This is what the official British Museum book says:
The first Emperor of China controlled a vast territory and wielded enormous power. He ordered 120,000 families to move to the new capital, Xianyang; he summoned 700,000 men to build his tomb and other structures; and he was self-consciously aware of his authority and of the new era that this marked…
Yet this powerful ruler was assailed at the same time by his human frailty: he feared conspiracy and death by human or by supernatural forces. he consulted occult specialists and insisted that his whereabouts be kept secret. In search of eternal life, the First Emperor urged his officials and associates to seek out herbs and plants that would enable him to evade death and live for ever. Several fruitless exhibitions were sent out into the eastern sea to find the mythical islands of Penglai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang, where these plants were believed to flourish. None of these efforts succeeded. How then did the emperor resolve his fears of death and make them compatible with his claims to be a universal and eternal ruler? His solution lay in preparing a great tomb for himself on the slopes of Mt Li near present day Lintong to ensure his power on the journey into and throughout eternity.
What the First Emperor created astonishes us today with its haunting lines of soldiers, officials, acrobats and servants to do his bidding, frozen for all time in clay… It must have been astonishing for his ministers and officials as they laboured at the immense task to bring into being this universe for the emperor. Nothing on such a scale had been attempted before. In death, as in life, the First Emperor was unique.
From The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army chapter 4, by Jessica Rawson, p115-18 (publ British Museum Press)
But I think I would also want to add that in death, as in life, the First Emperor wasn’t unique at all. He was just like everyone who has ever lived – for death has always had a sting. And as General Dannatt believes, (and I of course agree with him), it would take an emperor of emperors (born only 200 years or so after Ying Zheng died) to remove that sting.