Friday, February 27, 2015

Diabolical LIberty




"The fact that devils are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to a picture of something in red tights and and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old text book method of confusing them) he cannot believe in you." 
The Screwtape Letters

The Church of England has removed Satan from the Prayer Book. They've finally given up on the dark medieval version of Christianity, in which people are all totally depraved and need to repent and replaced it with a shiny upbeat New Age version in which everyone is basically good.

This was exclusively reported in all British newspapers last week it is. It almost entirely untrue.

A lot of people apparently believe that the prayer book today is exactly the same as it was when they last attended church, in 1950, and that childhood prayer book was exactly the same as the one which Henry VIII invented in 1556. (They also believe that Radio 4 is exactly the same as the old Home Service, and run a news item about how D.C Thompson is going to introduce a new, politically correct version of Dennis the Menace every 5 years, without fail.) The Daily Mail charmingly suggested that the rite of Baptism hadn't changed in 400 years: the Church of England kindly pointed out that it had been revised 3 times in the last 40 years alone.

When new things come in, it by no means follows that old things have been ditched, scrapped, abolished or banned. Clergy persons who wish to continue to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are still perfectly entitled to do so. Most churches now use a book called Common Worship which replaced The Alternative Service Book in 2000. What has happened this week is not the burning of the Book of Common Prayer or the casting out of Satan from Common Worship. It's the publication of a simplified version of the Christening service which some clergy might want to use on some occasions.

It is perfectly true that this alternative alternative version of the Christening service does not mention Satan or the Devil by name. But Gilesfraseriswrong (all one word) to say that this is because the church is no longer worried about evil. Itsmorecomplicatedthanthat. 

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) asked people being baptised to renounce the Big Three - the World, the Flesh and the Devil. It added a few choice words about each of them. 

I demand therefore, dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

The older I get the more I feel that if you are going to have a liturgy, this is what it needs to sound like: ceremonial, dramatic, one twist of the dial away from spoken English. I understand that some people are freaked out by "thou" forms, in the same way that some people switch off if a film is in black and white or has subtitles, but you could keep a lot of the sonorousness while fixing the archaic grammar. "I ask you therefore, do you, in the name of this child...." In Olde English "you" stands in for vous and "thou" stands for tu. "Thou art my friend. You are my king." Someone decided, for good and adequate theological reasons, that we ought to be on familiar terms with God, and everyone ever since has been hopelessly confused.

It was actually the 1980 Alternative Service Book that took Satan out of the Christening service. 

Therefore I ask these questions: 
Do you turn to Christ? 
Do you repent of your sins? 
Do you renounce evil?

I think I understand why "the world", "the flesh" and "the devil" are three different things that you need to disown: I am not fully sure that I understand the difference between "sins" and "evil" (or, indeed, if repenting and renouncing are different or the same) and I do wonder if the ASB means by "sins" the same thing the Christian Union meant by "sin". But still, this can hardly be said to be a watered down, hippy version of Christianity.

Twenty years later, Common Worship reinstated the Devil:

Therefore I ask: 
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? 
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? 
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour? 
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour. 
Do you submit to Christ as Lord? 
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

This seems a lot to ask of a baby. He has to reject and/or renounce the Devil and Evil and he doesn't merely have to "turn to" Christ, but also "submit to him" and "come to him". Again, I don't really understand what the religious reason is for making "rebellion against God" and "evil" two different things, and quite what the difference is between turning, submitting and coming. The over all effect is to make the whole thing seem so amazingly difficult and pious that casual church-users who just want the spog Christened as a matter of good form will run a mile. Which I suspect is the point.

And that's the big question, isn't it? People who hardly ever come to church and aren't quite sure what "carnal desire" means may still think "Christenings" are important. At worst, it's a good excuse for some pretty photos and a party; at best, it's a way of marking the arrival of a baby and showing that you are taking family life seriously. What's the Vicar to do? Does he say "I don't care if you don't believe in anything; I'm just delighted that you want to not believe in it in my Church?" That's rather cheapening one of the Sacraments. Or does he say "This is a holy rite: I would no more allow a non-believer to become a Godfather than I would allow a communist to run the Conservative Women's sewing circle." That's not exactly presenting his church as a welcoming kind of place, and may not even be legal. Or does he take some middle position -- letting anyone who wants to come to the Christening service, and then haranging them with a fire and brimstone sermon and shaming them into coming to the Alpha Course? The religious wing of the Church of England have even suggested having a separate "thanking God for the birth of a new baby" service and reserving the sacrament of baptism for people who take it properly seriously.

This new "experimental" version in "accessible language" seems to be going for a perfectly sensible compromise. No making windows into men's souls; anyone who wants a baptismal service can have one; but present the service in very clear language, with as little theological jargon as possible, so everyone is quite clear that what they are taking part in is a religious ceremony. It includes a few words the Vicar might like to say at the end of the service, the point of which it would be very hard to miss: "Bringing up a child as a Christian has its challenges. They will need to learn the story of Christ‟s birth, death and resurrection, the pattern of his loving life, and the teaching that he gave....Being a Christian involves going to church, and more..."

I wonder if that's really why the Common Sense Brigade gets upset about prayer book revision? As long as the liturgy is in archaic, elevated language, it is fairly easy to treat it as a magic: a form of words which the Priest is reciting, which he believes in and which may therefore give you or your baby good ju-ju. This is particularly good if you see religion as an adopted ethnicity -- a spiritual vaccination to ensure that you stay properly English and don't catch Foreign off the Islams. Comprehensible, modern words quite literally break the spell. Someone who believes that Christianity Makes You English might well prickle at a service which says that Christians ought to go to church and Godparents ought to tell children the stories of Jesus. What the hell right does some vicar have to tell me to believe in all that mumbo jumbo? I'll believe in whatever mumbo jumbo I want, thank you very much.

If that's your approach, preferring "evil" to "devil" seems like a good idea. You are not, pace Fraser, removing the Dark Side from Christianity. But you are avoiding an unnecessary difficulty. I can imagine a perfectly sincere Godfather seeing the words "devil" in the service and saying "Hang on, does the church still believe in Satan? With horns and a tale? Like in the Dennis Wheatley? Can you really repel him with garlic?..."

Do you reject evil?
And all its many forms?
And all its empty promises?

avoids those kinds of problems. And seems pretty uncontroversial to me.

I do still have two general questions.

Why are angels so much less controversial than devils? So far as I know, all the prayer books retain the bit in Holy Communion which goes something like "Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we proclaim your great and glorious name..." No-one is telling us to remove Gabriel from the Nativity play.

I can see why a deist or someone might object equally to angels and devils: they are multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily; it's hard enough work persuading people to believe on one big God without confusing the picture with loads and loads of little "gods"; Christians have historically wasted far too much time wondering about what language the angels speak and how many of them can dance on the head of a pin;  the modern craze for testimonies about dying children encountering angels before car accidents is rather disreputable... But how did we arrive at the consensus that angels are okay but the devil is definitely not okay? Apparently, the Church has been right to say that there are rational supernatural beings other than humans who serve God, but wrong to say that some of those beings have turned to the Dark Side. Dante and Milton were mistaken to use the idea of bad angels in their religious fictions; St John was mistaken to picture a war between Good and Bad Angels at the end of time and your man Jesus was totally wrong to spend so much of his time as an exorcist because there ain't no devils for him to exorcise.

If I was going to engage in liturgical nit-picking; I would say that there is a problem in using "evil" as a synonym for "Satan". "Evil" is really a tabloid term -- a description of things we really really disapprove of, serial killers, child molesters and war criminals. "Evil" people, people who do those terrible things, are different from us -- alien. In that sense, I don't think Christians really believe in "evil". At any rate, telling a sincere person who hasn't been instructed in the finer points of turning and submitting  to "renounce evil" is potentially as misleading as telling him to renounce "Satan". He might well take it to mean "I'm quite definitely not to going to murder any small children or engage in any genocide."

Christians see everybody as being in the same boat, all equally likely to slip up, all equally in need of God or Jesus or someone to help them out. So the problem with the new book is not that it leaves out "Satan"; but that it has very little to say about "sin". Granted "sin" is a technical term; and granted your non-church-going family may not know what it means -- but leaving it out arguably leaves out the point of the service, and arguably the point of the church. Perhaps a future prayer book could adopts Francis Spufford's brilliant translation "UHPTFTU": "the universal human propensity to fuck things up". Even the Daily Telegraph could hardly object to that.


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FORMAT



Monday, February 23, 2015

-298


To put it simply: I liked Michelangelo because the obsession and extreme torsion of his figures was so obviously derived from that of Jack Kirby.
        Geoff Dyer "Comics in a Man's Life"



The Venus books were the best: honestly life-changing. Who could resist a book called Pirates of Venus? Corum is better than Elric or Hawkmoon. Venus came before Corum, but was Mars before or after Tatooine? And where did the Shire fit in? Wagner stole the idea of the broken sword from Tolkien, certainly, but did Narsil and Sting come before or after lightsabers?

Before there was Star Wars, there was Planet of the Apes. Before there was Planet of the Apes there was very probably something else. It might, god forgive us, have been the Wombles. (The Wombles were big. Really big. The Wombles were bigger than Harry Potter.)

There was a competition in the Daily Mirror to win a real Planet of the Apes mask, not available in the shops. I desperately wanted to win it. I don't know why I want to be an ape so badly. Possibly I just liked Roddy McDowell's persona? He appears as a villain in one of the Adam West Batmans. "Galen without his makeup" evoked the kind of confused awe normally reserved for Barbary Coast and T.J Hooker.

But mostly Planet of the Apes was a spectacle. Apes riding horses, leather tunics, and lots of cowboys and Indians action. It was a Western, but a Western where you were on the side of the poor humans, confined to their reservations by the oppressive colonial monkeys.

There was a comic. It was a very accurate adaptation of the movie, only they weren't allowed to use Charlton Heston's face. One of the characters said "bloody" and someone takes their clothes off and you see their bum. It was the most grown up thing I had ever read.

I went back and watched the movie again recently but they'd changed everything: added lots of stuff about Darwin and the Scopes monkey trial and a running misanthropic sub-text about anything being better than the human race. That never used to be there. It was all just monkeys with rifles.

Why did the world go Womble-mad? Someone had done something very clever with the design, of course. (Ivor Wood, his name was, who isn't nearly as famous as Oliver Postgate but was probably more popular with actual children.) Rat faces with furry manes. And the idea that that they lived in a real place but were very timid but if you were lucky you might possible spot one is very appealing at a particular age.

There was no preachy subtext. They weren't "recycling". (This was before The Environment.) They were just cuddly scavengers. You never see them but they grab things that you leave behind and make good use of them. Big furry tooth fairies.

There were Womble toys but I didn't want to have a Womble. I don't think I even wanted to be a Womble. I suppose possibly I would like to have met a Womble, or glimpsed one from a distance on Wimbledon Common. But basically, I was just excited by Wombledom. The burrow made of papier mache, the stylized "W", Bernard Cribbens' wonderful voice, the friendly folk rock theme song with the whimsical intro.

Wombles, nineteen seventy three. Planet of the Apes, nineteen seventy four. Star Wars, nineteen seventy eight.

Facts are troublesome. My friend Flash has a vivid memory of seeing the first run of Star Wars, at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road wondering how it could be "Episode IV" and if he had missed something. He knows this to be chronologically impossible: but this doesn't make the memory any less vivid. The BBC showed the whole of Flash Gordon in December 1976 (over the Christmas holiday); followed by Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars in June and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe the following Christmas. Star Wars was released in the USA in May '77, but no-one in the UK saw it until 1978.

It premiered at Christmas, and there was still a concept of "first run" cinemas where a film ran in one prestige location in London for some weeks, and was only subsequently released to local cinemas. All through 1978, you emerged from Tottenham Court Road tube station to see a huge 3D rendition of the poster above the Dominion cinema. Ben Elton's We Will Rock You has been showing there for the past 12 years. I still walk past it and think of it as The Star Wars Cinema. I didn't see Star Wars there, but my friend Shaun has a grown up cousin who took us to see Battlestar Galactica.

So, thanks to the BBC, every little English boy who saw Star Wars in the spring of 1978, was as familiar with the thirty eight year old movie serial that Lucas was doing a homage to as their father's were. More so. Daddy pointed out it would have been a very lucky boy in 1936 who managed to go to the same cinema 15 weeks in a row.

I saw Star Wars a dozen times in the summer of 1978, and more times than I can count since — 30 or 40 more viewings, I suppose, at least one a year. There are people who don't understand why anyone would watch any film more than once. You already know how it is going to end. Most people who actually like movies think that this attitude has got it backwards. You only enjoy a film on the second viewing; you have to know "how it's going to end" before you can watch it properly. You can't pay attention to the symbolism while you are on the edge of your seat to find out who Rosebud is.

Jonathan says that the hype around big movies nowadays is so vast that he can only really watch them the second time round: the first time, you are so caught up in The Event, desperate to know which rumours were true and which rumours were not true and whether or not there's a post-cred to actually have a good time.

I hope he is wrong. If he is not wrong, then I would need to go and see Desolation of Smaug again, and I am not sure I could survive that.

But to see the same film a dozen time in one summer holiday. That takes a special kind of Crazy.

I once remarked to the editor of Sci-Fi Now that the point of Star Wars is that so much is implied and so little is said so that you seem to be seeing this vast universe out of the corner of your eye. He is kind enough to have implied that this is one of the wisest remarks ever made: at any rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars, or at rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars by me. But I do think this goes a long way to explain why we watched it so many times. To see the aliens in the Cantina again; to get a proper look at the lightsaber; to memorize the controls on an X-Wing. Watching it over and over to see all the stuff that wasn't actually there.

Everything else followed from that: Star Wars blueprints; attempts to construct life-sized X-Wings out of carboard boxes and lightsabers out of tomato canes. Because when Luke handles the-lightsaber-that-was-his-fathers for the first time, we wanted to reach out, through the screen, and grab it, and keep it forever. Not the lightsaber itself. That moment.

It's a feeling I've never had for anything else. I didn't want to be a Jedi Knight, necessarily; or an X-Wing pilot; or even to be friends with Luke and Han. I just wanted to be there. On the other side of the screen. Inside.

Which is why everything since 1977 has been such a let-down. Walkers and Snowspeeders and Jedi Fighters are all very well, but I want squads of X-Wings and a single blue lightsaber. We've been back to Tatooine, but it's not the Tatooine of our childhood. 

Planet of the Apes had sequels. We can chant their names: Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle. But it is fairly obvious that no-one actually wanted to make them. The second film was a 70s Logan's Run dystopia; they added a few grudging apes and then killed Charltan Heston and blew everything up. B movies, C movies, Z movies. The TV series I quite liked was the very last echo of something which had once been quite a good idea. That was how it worked in those days: you expected the sequel to be cheaper and less spectacular than the original. Each Star Wars movie was newer and bigger and louder and more serious than the one before, and in the end they drowned out Star Wars altogether.

Here is a scene from one of the sequels to Star Wars:

"Everything okay back there, Artoo" he called into his pickup. A cheerful beep from the stubby droid locked in position behind the cockpit assured Luke that it was. The destination was the fourth planet out from this star...."

This is from Splinter of the Minds Eye, published only a couple of months after Star Wars hit the UK, and a full two years before Empire Strikes Back. It sends shivers down my spine in a way that Empire Strikes Back never did. I like Emprie Strike Back very much. But this isn't Luke riding a snowbird in Friggia, years after the movie we loved. This is like picking up the thread, seconds or minutes after we dropped it. Luke and Artoo, where they ought to be, in an X-Wing.

So, that's my theory.

We don't want to go back to 1978 and see Star Wars again for the first time. We don't want to experience the sense of wonder we felt when the first Star Destroyer flew over our heads. We want to go back to the moment just after Star Wars finished: when the main march has played and the names of the technical crew are scolling and Grandad is making for the Gents.

A time when Luke and Leia were living in a tree house on the 4th Moon of Yavin and Han and Chewie paid them visits in the Millennium Falcon and there were many, many battles with the Empire still to come. A long time ago. A time that never was. A time we sometimes think we can see out of the corner of our eye.





Sunday, February 22, 2015

Now, that's mighty interesting

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. ....At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1959)


One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace 1935 for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious – because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)


“(Harper Lee) goes on and on each time I see her about CS Lewis. She would not miss an opportunity to impersonate CS Lewis, who gave lectures in Oxford when she was there,” said (her) agent.

Guardian, 2015

Hedge: Update

The Mail, Telegraph and Express all back tracked from the original story, stating that no-one is being exhumed and no-one asked for anyone to be exhumed. The leader of the Atheist Community has yet to comment. Mr Kahn has turned out to be "top Banker" as well as a Muslim. 

Where did the exhumation story come from in the first place? The original news item, removed by the local paper after the council published it's rebuttal, but still available on various anti-Muslim hate-sites, was substantially about the hedge. "Council asks to buy back part of gypsy grave plot to grow hedge on; gypsies say no." would probably not have made national news. The Smiths refused to allow the hedge because they didn't think it would make a difference, since Mr Kahn and Mr Smith would still be side-by-side six feet underground. This suggests that they hadn't understood that it was a religious requirement and felt they were being singled out for personal animosity because they were gypsies. ("They want to push us away and hide us.") This happens quite a bit in religious news stories. Cultural protestants just don't get that rules and laws about eating and washing and burying people are a big part of Jew's and Muslim's religion. ("It isn't antisemitic to say that Jewish children have got to eat bacon on Tuesdays or not have any lunch at all, after all, pork is much the same as any other kind of meat. I suppose Christians can say that they don't like sprouts because it's part of their religion, can they?")

When a journalist is dealing with dry, abstract issues, he very often tries to come up with a punchy opening sentence that gives a concrete example of the kind of thing he is talking about. "School kids will be sitting in detention doing extra Latin prep if Tory MP Bufton Tufton has his way..." reads better than "A Member of Parliament today remarked that modern schools should emulate the curriculum and disciplinary practices of his youth." "A Romany family are afraid they might have to exhume a recently buried relative..." might have been a fair, if overheated, opening sentence. But "Romany family face having to..." is how these things come out after being passed through the Quick Quotes Quill. The Smith family are indeed quoted as saying "We don't want any of the bodies exhuming but it looks like that is what might happen": there is no claim that anyone has directly said that this might happen. (Some people might wonder if the reporter got that quote by asking something along the lines of "What would would you say IF they said you had to dig him up".) 

The opening remark was arguably a fair spin on the story: a little over dramatic, but that's what journalism is about. How could the Hinckley Times possibly have known that the national papers would read the first sentence and treat that as the whole story? And how could those national papers possibly have guessed that racists would take them at their word and report the exhumation as if it had already taken place. 

And there is nothing that can be done. "Muslims are always digging up dead Christians" is now another of those things that "everybody knows".