Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mark 2 18-22

and the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast
and they come and say unto him,
"why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast,
but thy disciples fast not?"

and Jesus said unto them,
"can the children of the bride-chamber fast,
while the bridegroom is with them?
as long as they have the bride-groom with them,
they cannot fast.
but the days will come
when the bride-groom shall be taken away from them
and then shall they fast in those days." 

In the early 1970s a certain Rabbi was conducting a Passover ceremony in a certain synagogue in a well-heeled part of Beverley Hills. According to the tradition, the youngest member of the congregation asked "Why is this day different from all others?" Before the Rabbi could give the liturgical response, the unmistakable voice of Julius Marx — Groucho — growled "Because I'm here" from the back of the room.

Religions sometimes involve deliberately having a bad time because you think it is good for you, or because you think it will please God. Protestants give up luxuries in Lent. Muslims fast during Ramadan. Catholics put a small piece of barbed wire in their underpants to remind them of the crucifixion. [Check this - Ed.]

So "Why aren't your disciples fasting?" is a perfectly reasonable question for the religious theoreticians to ask Jesus. The people listening would have probably expected Jesus to give an answer along the lines of "Because it's not Yon Kipur". The disciples of the Pharisees were probably keeping a customary or traditional fast, over and above what was required by the Torah. The disciples of John the Baptist were probably on a strict "insect and honey" diet, because that's how they rolled. So all Jesus needed to say was "My disciples follow God's word; not a lot of secondary traditions and accretions."

But he doesn't. Instead, he turns up the volume by another notch. Last week it was "I will show you who has authority to send sins away..." This week it is "No one fasts during a feast. As long as I am here, everyone is deemed to be at a party." 

—Why aren't your disciples fasting?
—Because I'm here.

It is very tempting to infer a story line in which the question about fasting follows on directly from the question about socializing with sinners. This may be why the Authorized Version places the question in the imperfect tense ("the Pharisees used to fast") where almost every other version goes with the past continuous ("the Pharisees were fasting.") If the Pharisees were fasting, then it makes no sense for them to be at Levi's dinner party. But if Mark is simply reminding us that fasting is something which Pharisees did from time to time then they might perfectly well have raised the subject over dinner.

Of course it is tempting to read the text in that way. "Why are you eating with sinners? And come to that, why are you eating at all?" But I think we stay truer to Mark's style if we think of him saying "One time, the Pharisees challenged Jesus about mixing with sinners. Another time, when there was a fast on, they asked him why his students weren't observing it..."

no man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment
else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old
and the rent is made worse.
and no man putteth new wine into old bottles
else the new wine doth burst the bottles
and the wine is spilled
and the bottles will be marred:
but new wine must be put into new bottles.

If it is a mistake to link all of Mark's little Jesus-stories into a single narrative thread, then it is also a mistake to think of Jesus's reported sayings and parables as forming a logically connected argument. Mark gives us Jesus's proverb about fasting at weddings; and then he gives us Jesus's mini-parable about patching clothes. If we are not careful we will imagine Jesus saying "No-one fasts while the couple are still at the wedding party; and from that it follows that you shouldn't patch an old suit with new material; so in conclusion, you shouldn't put new wine in old bottles." I think we are better off thinking of the different sayings as disconnected aphorisms; like a series of proverbs or I-Ching oracles. Mark is not saying "Let me summarize the main points of the Master's thesis; try and follow." He is saying "The Master said this. Another time, the Master said this. And here is a third thing the Master said. Listen to them carefully."

Sayings like "Only sick people go to the doctor" and "the wedding reception isn't over until the newlyweds leave" seem almost self-evident: more like popular proverbs than the voice of God. But once you start to think about them, they become more elusive. Is Jesus saying "Yes, indeed: tax collectors are sinners and need me to cure them. And yes, indeed the Pharisees truly are righteous and don't need my help." Or is he saying something more like "Well, okay... If you Pharisees are so morally healthy that you don't need  a doctor, I am sure you are right..."

But this third saying is rather baffling. I had to struggle to get my head round the basic imagery.

Wine ferments; as it ferments, it gives off gas. So if you put your wine down in a glass bottle, you seal it with  a cork to allow it to "breathe". A screwtop bottle could explode. If you are using wineskins made of leather, the leather stretches while the wine ferments. But leather can only expand so far. So if you reuse your wine skins—if you put unfermented grape juice in skins that have all ready been stretched—then as the wine gives off gas, the skin can't expand any further and "pop" the skins burst. Wasted wine, ruined wineskins. New wine goes in new bottles. Good. 

Similarly, cloth shrinks. So if you patch a well worn, shrunken coat with some new, unshrunken cloth, the patch gets smaller and the hole gets bigger. Wasted cloth, ruined coat, egg on face. Fine. 

But what follows from this? And does it in any way relate to the question about fraternizing with bad people on the one hand, or fasting on the other? 

A new thing is happening, or about to happen, and this new thing won't fit into the old containers. But what is this new thing? The idea that bad people need to repent? The idea that good and bad people can share a meal together? The idea that irksome religious duties are temporarily on hold? And what is the old container, which is about to get broken. Or torn. The synagogues? The interpretive traditions of the pharisees? Judaism itself? 

The House Church movement used to love this passage. Our new speaking in tongues and faith-healing won't fit into your old prayer book! We can't patch your dreary old organs with out exciting electric guitars! Come down to the mission hall and hear about how our new non-denominational denomination isn't going to have any buildings at all! Our new wine won't fit into your old bottles! We used to sing a worship song (as opposed to a hymn) which went "Come on in and taste the new wine/the wine of the kingdom/the wine of the kingdom of God..."

Is this the kind of thing Jesus is saying? My new faith is fluid and dynamic and your old faith is stretched to bursting point and full of holes?

There is certainly a lot of symbolism around wine in the Jewish faith, and there will be a lot of symbolism around wine in Christianity; but has Jesus actually said that the New Wine represents the Kingdom? And are we sure we know what the Kingdom is? And in any case, isn't old wine better than new wine? Isn't that kind of the point of wine? 

So: that's what I think we should take away from this passage, dramatically and narratively. 

Jesus's teaching was hard. Jesus's teaching was baffling. Sometimes Jesus spoke in proverbs that seem so obvious you feel you must be missing the point. Sometimes Jesus spoke in riddles that left everyone scratching their heads. 

If we go away from this passage thinking "What did he mean? What did he mean?" then we've probably understood it tolerably well.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Mark 2: 13 -17

and he went forth again by the sea side 
and all the multitude resorted unto him
and he taught them

and as he passed by he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus
sitting at the receipt of custom
and he said unto him
"Follow me"

and he arose and followed him

and it came to pass,
as Jesus sat at meat in his house,
many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples
for there were many
and they followed him

when the Scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners,
they said unto his disciples,
"how is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?"

when Jesus heard it, he saith unto them,
"They that are whole have no need of the physician
but they that are sick:
I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance."

Jesus goes and preaches on the beach again. Nothing special happens; nothing comes of it. 

Jesus passes a taxman's (1) office; he calls him; and he follows him. No conclusion is drawn. Nothing further comes of it. The tax collector is never mentioned again. 

Jesus eats a meal: the Scribes (again) and the Pharisees (for the first time) want to know why he is hanging out with bad people. Jesus replies with a statement of proverbial common sense. You don't go to the doctor when you are well. 

Three scenes; three vignettes; three moments in time. Jesus preaches; Jesus converts a bad guy; some religious guys ask Jesus a question. 

The first chapter of Mark's Gospel had a fairly definite narrative arc. Chapters two and three have no narrative continuity at all. Clearly, Levi had not set his tax booth up on the beach, near the fisherman and the lobster pots and the candyfloss vendor. "He walked by the sea" and "He passed Levi the tax collector" are two different events. Maybe the different events all happened on one day and in that order. It's possible. Jesus healed the handicapped man and then Jesus preached on the beach and then Jesus met Levi and then Jesus had dinner with some bad guys. But why that day in particular, rather than hundreds of others? And what difference would it make if those events had taken place in a quite different order or on different days?

The king died and then the queen died is a story: the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. Mark chapters 2 and 3 have no plot. 

At least two of Mark's original readers were unhappy with this fragmentary approach. They rewrote Mark's book; revised it and retold it. They stuck very closely to his sequence of events; they followed his text almost word for word. But they both, in quite different ways, tried to bring in a plot. Their names were Matthew and Luke.

I was about to type "I am afraid this next bit is very boring." But I only ever say that about things I find intensely interesting. What I really mean is "I've been thinking about this all week, and I am still not sure if I have explained it quite right. You may need to read it twice."

Here is Matthew, rewriting Mark. He has rehearsed the story of the cripple on the roof but skipped the bit about Jesus preaching on the beach: 

“And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” 

Matthew has turned "Levi son of Alphaeus" into "a man named Matthew". This is a big improvement, because an otherwise wholly obscure man named Matthew appears on the role-call of the twelve apostles. The story of the calling of Levi made Matthew think of the story of the calling of Simon and Andrew and James and John a few pages earlier. So Matthew has given the story of Levi a point. It isn't a random example of how Jesus called some fellow named Levi: it's about the conversion of one of the big Twelve. And it establishes that one of the hated tax collectors was a member of Jesus's inner circle. 

If you have spent a lot of time listening to Christian preachers then you probably just took it for granted that the apostle Matthew sometimes went by the name of Levi. Franco Zefferilli made a nice little scene out of it in the Jesus of Nazareth film. The tax collector introduces himself as "Matthew or Levi — I am known by both names" and Peter snarls "Yes, and others..." But Matthew-also-known-as-Levi is a continuity hack to smooth over the fact that Matthew changed Mark's text. 

Here, on the other hand, is Luke. He also skips the "Jesus went to the beach" part, but he leaves Levi's name unchanged:  

"And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them." 

Luke has found a different way of folding the story of Levi into the story arc. He draws a narrative connection between the calling of Levi and Jesus's argument with the Pharisees. Jesus, he says, is eating with the publicans and sinners because Levi invited him to dinner at his place. That is what has made the Scribes so cross. 

Mark wrote "while he was sitting at dinner at his house" ("reclining of him at the house of him"). If we treat Mark's vignette as a stand alone fragment we would probably assume that "his house" meant Jesus's house, and translate the passage along the lines of "There was this one time when he was having dinner at his house.." Once the story is placed alongside the calling of Levi, it is very tempting to take it to mean "while he, Jesus, was having dinner at his, Levi's, house" or, for that matter "while he, Levi, was having dinner at his, Jesus's house." English translators tend to redact Mark to make him more consistent with Luke (and therefore less consistent with Matthew). "While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house" says the New International Version. "Later on, Jesus was having a meal in Levi's house" say the Good News Bible.  

There is nothing wrong or heretical about the invention of Levi-surnamed-Matthew. There is nothing wrong or heretical about the idea of Jesus reclining at the house of Levi. Wikipedia tells me that there is at least one famous painting of Jesus-at-the-house-of-Levi. Many a good sermon has been preached about how Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator, and Simon the Zealot, a revolutionary, were both among Jesus twelve. But you could draw a good homily out of the disconnected Levi verse, as well. . 

"Jesus is preaching to huge crowds: but we don't know their names or what happened to them. But the Bible records the salvation of this one particular sinner by name. This shows that God cares about every one of us, individually. It reminds us that there is more rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents than over ninety righteous people. There were thousands of stories in the city of Capernaum: this was just one of them." 

We are inclined to resist the idea of Jesus's house because we have the image of Jesus as a wandering hobo with nowhere to lay his head fixed firmly in our minds. I think that "his house" means "the house where he was staying"—- which is to say Simon's house. I am attracted to the comic potential of the idea. Simon must have already been pretty cross with Jesus for healing his mother-in-law; then the house is besieged by sick folk; then Jesus runs away in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Jesus hasn't been back for five minutes before some stranger starts knocking holes in the roof; and then all the local ne're-do-wells come and gate crash dinner (leaving Simon to foot the bill). But of course, I am reading all that into the text. Mark is ambiguous: that is a fact about Mark's Gospel. Matthew and Luke are less ambiguous: that is a fact about Matthew and Luke.   

If you read the Waste Land and find it baffling then it is a pretty good working assumption that T.S Eliot wanted you to be baffled by it. The clever-clogs who comes along and explains that it's all about the death of Buddy Holly is treating it as a cross-word clue, not a poem. Clever critics can come up with clever theories about who Godot (2) was or why Hamlet (3) didn't stab the King right away; but when you are actually in the theater the only helpful answer is "nobody knows".  That has to be our starting point for talking about either Hamlet or Godot. The one fact we can all agree on is "They are plays which contain a question which has no answer." 

So. Try to accept the text of Mark for what it is. Three incidents. A walk on a beach; the calling of a publican; a religious argument over dinner. We are quite free to connect the dots if we want to. Very probably that is what Mark wanted us to do. The Church Fathers sanctified Matthew and Luke's adaptations. But we should pay much more attention to the dots which Mark actually drew and less to the lines which we have sketched in ourselves.

See also: "fan fiction". 

and he went forth again 
by the sea side
and all the multitude resorted unto him 
and he taught them" 

It's probably an accident of the King James Translators and our historical relationship to them; but I find that rather beautiful. Rather poetic. A kind of holy haiku. Don't you?

Next: Wine

(1) A publican was a civil servant; a civilian who was paid to do work for the Roman republic. But while our English versions says that Jesus was eating with publicans, Mark quite specifically says that Jesus was eating with telonai, tax collectors. When he called Levi, he was sitting at the telonion, the tax office. The telonai were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans — a distinctly shady business. All tax collectors were publicans, but not all publicans were tax collectors. In my Highly Inaccurate Paraphrase, "tax collectors" will be rendered as "racketeers."

(2) Death. Everything is filling time until he arrives. 

(3) Hamlet, Hamlet, acting barmy;
Hamlet, Hamlet, loves his mummy;
Hamlet, Hamlet, hesitating;
wonders if the ghost's a cheat and that is why he's waiting.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Mark 2 1-12

After my last set of essays, reader Aonghus Fallon commented that “Christ’s story isn’t really a very good story”. Mark’s gospel, considered as a whole, wouldn't score very highly according to the rules of Aristotelian poetics or a modern screen-writer's system of "beats". 

This may be true. 

But suppose that instead of one long and unsatisfactory story, you had a collection of small stories. Suppose that "stories about Jesus" are a genre, in the way that "stories about Robin Hood", "stories about Anansi" and, come to that, "stories about my friend Paddy who used to work on a building site….." are genres. 

There’s a crowd. There is this one person in the crowd who wants to get close to Jesus. They climb a tree or grab his clothes or shout out as he passes. But once that person does get close to Jesus, Jesus takes the wind out of their sails. He says something they weren’t expecting: a demand, a promise, even a reproach. Some religious theoreticians are in the background; complaining, moaning, plotting. Jesus undercuts them, perhaps indirectly. Then miracle actually happens. Jesus draws a conclusion. It's a very simple conclusion; almost a proverb. Until you start to think about it; and then suddenly it slips through your fingers. 

Let’s drop my idea of Mark the Elder, sitting in the catacombs, spinning a yarn to a group of enraptured children. Let’s imagine instead a Mark who comes up to us in the street, or in the tavern, or the synagogue... 

Hey. Want to hear a Jesus story? I've got a new one. It's one of the best…. 

and again he entered into Capernaum after some days
and it was noised that he was in the house
and straight-way many were gathered together,
insomuch that there was no room to receive them,
no, not as much as about the door,
and he preached the word unto them

A few pages ago, Jesus slipped out of Simon’s house, early on a Sunday morning, and went on a tour of the neighboring towns. Now he’s come home. He seems to slip into town fairly quietly, but once news gets out that he's back the crowd assembles again. 

This time, Jesus is not said to be "proclaiming" or "announcing" the good news; nor is he said to be "teaching" a new and authoritative doctrine. This time he is simply said to be “speaking the word”. "Word" has been loaded up with theological baggage over the years: but I wonder if at this point it needs to mean any more than "he was saying some words to them"? 

I think we have to imagine Jesus giving a seminar to a fairly small group who have managed to squeeze into an inside room, while hundreds of people are waiting outside. (Fishing is a steady job, but presumably Simon and his family were living in quite a modest property.) Jesus is sitting down; his students are sitting around him. There’s no room for anyone else to come inside. 

Jesus is becoming more and more famous. Last time he was here, all the sick people in town gathered at the door. This time there are so many people that most of them can’t even get as far as the door. 

and they come unto him
bringing one sick of the palsy which was borne of four
and when they could not come nigh unto him for the press
they uncovered the roof where he was
and when they had broken it up
they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay

"And the Lord said 'If I had to spent my whole life on a stretcher, I'd be pretty sick of the palsy too.' And they were filled with joy and cried out: 'Lord, thy one-liners are as good as thy tricks!'" 

Oh don’t be so pi. That's what you were thinking of it as well.

"Palsy" is a perfectly good seventeenth century word; we still use “cerebral palsy” to describe someone who is physically impaired as a result of a neurological condition. But the Greek word paralytikon maps perfectly well onto our word “paralysis”. 

"The press" is a very good seventeenth century word for a huge group of people. It conveys the sense of everyone being squished together and stepping on each others toes. The King James Version generally prefers "crowd" or "multitude." I always thought that modern English referred to reporters and photographers as "the press" because newspapers are printed on printing presses. But I suppose they are really "the press" in this older sense—the crowd that is perpetually pressing in on famous people. If I were writing a painfully right-on young-people's version of the Bible I would be tempted to say "They couldn't get near Jesus because of the paparazzi." 

Jesus left Capernaum because all anyone was interested in was his magical healing powers. Now he’s come back and he's sitting in a small venue doing an intimate gig for people who actually want to hear what he has to say. So, naturally, a person in genuine need gatecrashes the seminar. Through the roof. 

Yes, of course, roofs were much less durable in first century Capernaum than in modern Clifton. Yes, of course, it was a thatched roof, or maybe just some reeds to keep the rain out. Yes, of course, houses were often dug into the ground like on Tatooine, not built up with bricks like in Cockfosters. But don't spoil the moment. It's grotesque and it's funny and it's building up towards a great punch line. Even in the year zero, people wanting to attend a study group didn't generally enter via the ceiling.

when Jesus saw their faith 
he said unto the sick of the palsy
“Son, thy sins be forgiven thee”

Having lowered him in through the roof, the disabled man’s carers have no way of getting him out again. The only way he is leaving is through the front door. This is presumably what Mark means when he says that Jesus saw their faith. They were completely confident that Jesus was going to cure their paralyzed friend.

So Jesus pretends to have completely missed the point. Or, at any rate, he answers a completely different question to the one he is being asked. He does that a lot. 

If you were reading this story for the first time, I think you would expect it to be all about the paralyzed man's reaction. Was he disappointed? Did he beg Jesus for healing? Or did he understand that it is much better to be forgiven but handicapped than unforgiven and able-bodied? (Faith healers are normally good at that kind of thing. They put up posters saying that if blind people, deaf people and wheelchair users come to the mission tent tonight, God will miraculously heal them; and when no-one shows any signs of being miraculously healed they say “Oh, how shallow of you to assume I meant only physical healing.”) 

—Are you the guy who exorcises demons and cures people of leprosy….
—I am.
—Well have you seen my, like, legs….
—I have, and I have also seen how strongly you believe in me.
—So could you possibly see your way to…. 
—Yes; I could: your sins are forgiven.
—Oh. Great. Thanks a bundle.

But in fact, the story turns on a double twist. We don’t see the reaction of the paralyzed man or his carers: we turn instead to some of the students in Jesus's class. 

but there were certain of the Scribes sitting there
and reasoning in their hearts
“Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies?
Who can forgive sins but God only." 
and immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit 
that they so reasoned with themselves, 
he said unto them 
"Why reason ye these things in your hearts? 
whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy 'thy sins be forgiven thee' 
or to say 'arise and take up thy bed and walk?' 
but that they may know that the son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins" 
he saith unto the sick of the palsy 
"I say unto thee arise, and take up thy bed and go thy way into thy house" 
and immediately he arose 
took up the bed 
and went forth before them all 
insomuch as they were all amazed
and glorified God saying 
“We never saw it on this fashion” 

We have already heard about these Scribes. Remember the reaction of the people who first heard Jesus preach in the synagogue? They said "Well, he's better at this than the Scribes."

Our English translation is a little unhelpful here. What the Scribes literally say is "who apart from God has the power—the dynamai—to forgive sins. Jesus replies that he has the exousian, the authority, to do so. And that was what those who heard him preach on that first morning said. Jesus seemed to have authority. The Scribes did not. The Scribes have in fact understand the situation perfectly well. This is no longer about the paralyzed man. Jesus has just made, almost in passing, an incredibly hubristic claim about himself. 

—Your sins have gone away. They have been sent packing, says Jesus 
—Hold on a moment, say the Scribes. Does he actually have any right to say that? 

Remember C.S Lewis's knock-down, infallible, works every time proof of truth of Christianity? Jesus claimed to be the Son of God; and so it logically follows, unless he was mad or evil, that he actually was God. And he wasn't mad or evil. I don't propose to go through the strengths and weaknesses of that argument all over again. (My own position hasn't changed in the last thirty-five years: it is a very good argument to deploy against semi-Christians who think that Jesus was a great guy but not the Son of God; but completely unhelpful if you are debating with someone who is skeptical about the whole thing.) I only mention it because in this passage, Jesus does not claim to be the Son of God. Not exactly; not in so many words.

Jesus could have said: no, as a matter of fact, you are mistaken. Any good person has the power to make sins go away. God has delegated that power to everyone. To me, for example.

Or he could have said, yes, you bet your ecclesiastic boots that only God has the power to forgive sins. And look at me, here I am, forgiving sins. So what does that tell you about me?

Instead, he gives a rather coy, rather evasive answer, and then, almost casually, performs a miracle. 

—Does anyone but God have the power to forgive sin?
—Let me show you: I have the authority to forgive it. 

He doesn't even say "I". He says "ho huios tou antrhopoi": the son of the human. (In Aramaic that would have been ben adam, son of Adam. I expect C.S Lewis knew that.) 

"I need you to know that the son of the human has the authority on the earth to make sins go away." 

What does he mean? Perhaps he means human beings or people in general. That would be a reasonable way to understand “the son of the human”. Let me show you that the sons of Adam do indeed have the authority to forgive each other's sins. 

Or perhaps he was using a circumlocution; talking about himself in the third person. That makes some sense as well. Oh? So only God has the power to forgive sins? Well let me show you who else has the authority—this guy!

But in this context, it does seem that "the son of the human"—Son of Man—is being used as a title; almost a royal designation. 

—But….but….but….Only God can forgive sins. 
—No. The Man has that authority. 

"So", said Mark, "That’s my new Jesus story." 

"But what does it mean? Is he saying that he is God, or that God has leant him his powers for a bit? What does it mean to send someone’s sins away? What happened to the crippled man afterwards? Who fixed Simon's roof?"

"Yes", said Mark. "I expect those are the sorts of questions he intended you to be asking."

Next: Tax Collectors vs Lawyers 

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Christ, You Know It Ain't Easy...

You know how it is. You've been putting off some unpleasant task for years and years. One morning you think "Is there any reason today shouldn't be the day that I do it?" And you finally get around to it. And of course, it's never as bad as you thought it was going to be. You wonder why you didn't get it out of the way years ago. 

You know the kind of things. Fixing the boiler. Getting your teeth checked out. Watching Monty Python's Life of Brian. 

I was slightly too young to go and see Life of Brian when it first came out, two years after Star Wars, although lots of people in my class seemed to have managed. They also managed to get in to see Alien in the same year. Alien was an "X": it would now be called an "18", but "X-Rated" sounds much sexier. The first X-Rated film I ever saw was The Fog. I was only 17 and it was not very frightening. Monty Python's Life of Brian was a Double A, I suppose mainly because of Graham Chapman's penis. 

At University I started to move in evangelical circles, and "I have never seen Monty Python's Life of Brian" became a bit of a shibboleth. Oh, we said, we aren't like Johnny Muslim, we don't think the film should be banned and we certainly don't want to chop anyone's head off, we merely choose not to go and see it. All things are permissible but not everything is beneficial one Corinthians six twelve. You wouldn't expect me to go and see a film making fun of the death of my Grandfather, would you? Oh but Andrew the film isn't making fun of the death of Jesus. If anything it is making fun of the death of Kirk Douglas. Have it your own way. Perhaps I just don't think crucifixion is a very funny subject. 

So I rather got stuck with this as a point of honour. I had Never Done Drugs and I had Never Seen Life of Brian. I persisted in my obstinacy even after it was pointed out to me exactly what had been in those chocolate brownies I used to like so much. Time passed and it became one of those films I just never got around to watching. 

Last night I was editing the latest installment of my commentary on St Mark and felt the need to say a few words about the Messianic Secret. It is a curious fact that in Mark's Gospel Jesus doesn't want anyone to know who he really is. Demon-possessed people keep screaming "you are the Son of God!" at him and he keeps straightly charging them to hold their peace. 

"You might almost think" I found myself typing "That only the true Messiah denies his divinity." 

Oh come on, I thought, this is silly, and went to the back room and switched on Netflicks. 

It would make an excellent punch line if I could now say: "And do you know what? It really is the funniest film ever made. I can't believe I've been avoiding it for so long." It would be almost equally good to be able to say "All my worst fears were realized. It really is a desperately squalid and offensive movie." 

Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly shocked or offended, and I very much doubt that I ever would have been. But I am equally sorry to report that I didn't actually think it was all that funny. 

The film feels like a collision between two slightly different ideas. Someone clearly thinks they are making a comedy adventure, somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Inspector Cluesoe. A young man, Brian Cohen, joins a revolutionary sect because he hates the Romans. ("A lot.") He becomes involved in an inept plot to kidnap the governor's wife, spends a lot of the movie being chased by Roman guards, and is eventually captured and crucified. Some of the characters have Biblical names and the nominal setting is Jerusalem; but this material has only the vaguest connection to the New Testament. The central gag about revolutionaries who spend more time arguing among themselves than they do fighting their oppressors could have been set in any milieu. 

The humor is much broader and more mainstream than I remember Monty Python's Flying Circus being, depending as much on old fashioned slapstick as on surrealism. The idea that two different groups of rebels infiltrate the palace at the same time, and fight each other rather than joining forces is a little bit funny, but the actual fight seemed interminable. I kept wanting to shout out "Get on with it!" like Captain Blackadder at the music hall. In the years between Flying Circus and Life of Brian John Cleese had made two seasons of Fawlty Towers which is shaped like a sit-com but is actually a sustained piece of vaudeville knockabout, so maybe that the place Cleese wanted to be. But it is a little disappointing that a comedy troupe which made its name with jokes about Proust and Descartes is now basing entire routines around a character called Biggus Dickus. Pilate can't say his Rs and Biggus Dickus can't say his Ss and all the other characters find this incredibly funny. Perhaps "He wanks as highly as any in Wome" seemed cleverer at the time than it does in wetwospect. These were the days when you could hardly say "bloody" on the BBC. But I kept thinking of Eric Morcambe's advice to Andre Previn "We mustn't know it's funny. If we find it funny then the audience won't." 

This part of the film takes as a starting point that left-wing political organisations are intrinsically funny. The jokes have not worn very well: it is taken for granted that we will all find it comically absurd that Eric Idle's character thinks they should say "men and women" rather than "men" and issue press statements about the rights of "men and women and hermaphrodites". It's political correctness gone mad. "Stan" wants to stand up for the rights of women because he wants to be one, and the other lefties say that they are going to fight for his right to have babies even though it is biologically impossible for him to do so. You can be kicked off Twitter for saying that kind of thing. (Also: women with false beards.)

Credit where credit is due: I laughed out loud at one  gag. While they are arguing about the difference between "the Judean People's Front" and the "People's Front of Judea" someone says "What ever happened to the Judean Popular Front" and someone else says "He's over there." But even this seems to assume that chaps like us all agree that political disagreements are really only ever arcane disputes of nomenclature.  

This is most obviously problematic in the famous "what have the Romans ever done for us..." sequence. This is basically the same gag as "no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition..." and is probably the best sketch in the movie: "Reg" (John Cleese) won't relinquish his basic proposition no matter how many exceptions are made. Maybe we are supposed to infer that religion and politics are equally matters of faith and you can never convert a true believer with counter-arguments. Maybe the point of the running Judean Popular Front / Popular Front of Judea gag is that religion and politics are both equally prone to sectarianism and schisms. But what most people are going to see on the surface is that the whole idea of revolution is ludicrous and that these silly olden days people with funny hats and big noses can't see that they are much better off under the Roman Empire than they would have been without it. For all their irreverence, the Pythons have imbibed the 1950s English public school Kool-Aid. The Roman Empire, like its successor the British Empire, was ultimately a Good Thing. Take up the white man's burden. It was alright for the Roman's to conquer Britain because at that time the British were still natives. 

The spirit of the English public school hovers over the whole thing. (Some of the school sketches from Meaning of Life were originally going to be in Life of Brian, presumably as some kind of framing sequence.) Another pretty funny sketch involves Brian writing anti-Roman graffiti in Latin and being chastised by a Roman soldier because he has conjugated it wrongly. I suspect the joke itself would now get lost in translation: no-one automatically associates Latin with their schooldays, and a teacher who twisted a boy's ear in that way would get locked up. Or is the idea of a police officer correcting a vandal's grammar funny even if you don't know what public school Latin masters used to be like? In his infamous BBC 2 debate with the Bishop of Southwark, John Cleese was still fuming about a bad sermon he had heard at his Prep School, some thirty years previously. 

So far, so not quite as funny as Carry on Cleo. Kenneth Williams would have done a better job with "Welease Woderwick" and, come to that, Michael Palin would have had a good time with "Infamy! Infamy!" But the film's reputation depends on what is strictly a digression: while running away from Pilate's guards, Brian quotes some passages which he once overhead Jesus preaching and is pursued by a mob who think he is the actual Messiah. 

If the Bishop of Southwark honestly thought that Brian represented Jesus, or that the movie was contending that Jesus was like Brian then he hadn't been paying attention. (There is a persistent oral tradition that he had in fact missed the first fifteen minutes of the screening.) The exact point of the movie is that Brian is as unlike Jesus as anyone could possibly be: he is a rather ordinary man who has, absurdly and ridiculously, been mistaken for Jesus. That is what comedy professionals call "a good joke". But Life of Brian cannot get away from its origins in sketch comedy: the whole "Brian mistaken for Jesus" conceit is exhausted in two set pieces. There's a rather wearisome sequence in which Brian tries to hide out in a hermit's cave while his followers say things like "How should we fuck off, oh Lord?" and everyone says "juniper berries" a lot. And then there is a very much cleverer sequence in which a huge crowd gathers outside Brian's window. The idea that Brian has to debate with a huge mob of "followers" who all chant back at him in perfect unison is clever, silly and original, and it builds up to the famous moment where the crowd mindlessly chant "we are all different!" while one dissenter says "I'm not!" The Messianic leader whose only message is "don't follow leaders"; the followers who says that they'll only believe he's the Messiah if he says that he isn't; the man in the crowd who asserts his individuality by claiming to be the same as everyone else. Joseph Heller wrote an entire book based on these kinds of paradoxes. I forget the title.

Michael Palin said that if the film had a point, it was Brian's speech about not doing what other people told you, thinking for yourself, not following leaders and watching the parking meters. I think that the message most audiences would take away would actually be "religious people and (left wing people) are crazy" or "funny olden days Jews would say that anyone was the Messiah." Tim Rice had made that joke rather better eight years earlier. 

Chekov said that if you do something slowly, it's tragedy, but if you do the same thing quickly, it's farce. So perhaps the point of the angry mob is that the kinds of doctrinal arguments which take centuries to develop in real life are here shown breaking out in seconds. Or perhaps it is just quite funny for hundreds of Jewish people to stand outside a naked man's window and wave their shoes at him.

There are really only two or three scenes that could be said to directly mock or lampoon Christian iconography. In the first sketch, Three Wise men are shown worshiping a new baby. The character who appears to be the Virgin Mary turns out to  be Terry Jones doing his standard cockney housewife voice ("oh dear, Mrs Niggerbaiter's exploded"). She doesn't know what Myrrh is and neither do the Wise Men, who have to rush back in and reclaim their gifts when they realize they've come to the wrong stable. One could imagine this having been a stand alone Flying Circus sketch; with standard issue BBC costume and a painted backdrop: in which case it would have provoked a couple of stiff letters to the Radio Times but very little else. The trouble is that Life of Brian has, or at any rate is able to fake, Hollywood level production values. The opening shots (which quite specifically allude to Ben Hur) would not have disgraced a serious Biblical epic: desert, stars, Bethlehem street scene, lush pre-Raphelite stable, heavenly choirs singing something which is not quite Adeste Fidelis... The music and the cinematography say "This is something profound and awe inspiring" and then we transition to Terry Jones in drag. The presentation still has the capacity to shock: the actual material is essentially harmless. 

In the second sketch, Jesus -- played entirely straight and working from the New English Bible -- is shown reciting the beatitudes to some entirely sane followers. We pan back to the grown-up Brian and his mother who are at the back of the crowd and can't hear what's being said. The scene presupposes, contra Muggeridge an English school level familiarity with the material. If you don't know the text, then "blessed is the Greek" and "blessed are the cheese makers" aren't funny. But the sketch rapidly stops being about people mishearing the Sermon on the Mount and becomes about who has the biggest nose. Perhaps the sketch is saying "Isn't it sad that even when the greatest sermon of all time is being preached, some people will not pay attention and fight about trivia instead?" But I think it is probably mostly saying "Isn't it funny that Jews have big noses?" 

I don't, incidentally, think that the film contains what are now known as Tropes. It doesn't say that Jewish people are rich or mean or that they secretly control the media. But there are a lot of nose jokes. 

There is a set up, later in the movie, about Brian's father not being Jewish but Roman, but this doesn't particularly pay off either as a joke or a plot point. Terry Jones is a clever man -- he followed up Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a serious scholarly book about Chaucer -- so it is possible he has in mind the old libel that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. If you happen to be aware of the Panteras theory you might possibly stroke your beard and say "aha, we see what you did there". But it doesn't make a great deal of sense in the actual movie. 

The Sermon on the Mount sequence could also be imagined as a one-off sketch in a BBC studio. Imagine:  no actor playing Jesus, no crowd, just four Pythons in robes and sandals saying "Speak up!" as the viewer gradually spots which famous meeting they are ignoring. 

Two hundred years ago, if you had tried to imagine a scene from the Bible, you would have found that your mental stock of imagery came from stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations. Maybe water colour pictures in your children's Bible. Now, most of think in terms of Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told. (Life of Brian was largely filmed on sets which Zefferilli had left behind.) So unconsciously, we feel that we are looking at the actual nativity or the actual Sermon on the Mount. The idea is smuggled in that these people are talking over and mishearing Jesus's actual preaching. The fact that Jesus himself is portrayed respectfully accentuates, rather than mitigates, my sense of discomfort. 

And of course, that is the exact point. Nothing is sacred. No-one should ever take anything seriously; or at any rate everyone should sometimes take some things frivolously. Of course you would fly out to Tunisia, go to some trouble of enacting the Sermon on the Mount so it looked like an oil painting come to life, and then use it as background for nose jokes. If you could get Karl Marx and Che Guevara into a BBC studio, then of course you would ask them trivia questions about football.

The part of the film which made me most uncomfortable was the crucifixion sketch. Brian's crucifixion is not Christ's crucifixion: it is portrayed as a mass execution for insurrection and strongly recalls the ending of Spartacus. ("I'm Brian!") But that's a two edged argument: Kubrick's Spartacus becomes Christlike precisely because he is crucified. So, as a matter of fact, does Conan the Barbarian. Tens of thousands of people were crucified by the Romans, but two thousand years of Christian art means that any image of a body on a cross automatically makes us think of Jesus. (In Christian art, the two thieves are generally shown being bound to T-shaped scaffolds, specifically to avoid the sense of there being three sacred crucifixes, side by side.)  It takes some seconds for Brian to be attached to a cross. There are no jokes; it is simply part of the narrative. The imagery deliberately recalls that of Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps there is only one way to represent a crucifixion cinematically. But it still felt to me as if something holy and (depending on your point of view) horrible at popped up in the middle of a Carry On film. And maybe that's in itself a joke.

There is a whole genre of newspaper cartoons in which a man tied to a medieval torture wrack says something ironically chirpy. There used to be an advert in which a French aristocrat cheers himself up after having had his head chopped off by smoking a Hamlet cigar. Jokes of this kind specifically exclude any horror or empathy: we can't tell a joke about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman up before a firing squad if we are thinking about the horror of a military execution at the same time. We can't both laugh at a cartoon of a man on a desert island and imagine what it would be like to die of dehydration. A one-frame cartoon of a group of people being crucified while singing "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" could have been funny on precisely this level. It's not a joke about crucifixion or death or torture: it's a joke about the false optimism of chirpy musicals in which whistling a merry tune and thinking about your favourite things is the solution to all life's problems. 

But he have been asked to treat Life of Brian as a story, albeit a very silly one, and to think of Brian as a person. Graham Chapman plays him straight, and a lot of the jokes rely on us empathizing with him to some extent. (We have to share his embarrassment when he inadvertently appears nude in front of a huge crowd of people; we share his irritation at being chased by a crowd; we even think he is talking quite good sense during the "you are all different" sequence.) So are we supposed, at some level, to look at this scene as if a character we quite like is being hurt and killed? A whole sequence of people come to see Brian on the cross, momentarily raising his hopes and then dashing them. (Is it just me or was this riffing on the old English folk-song about the prickle-aye bush? (*)) Are we supposed to be hoping that Brian will get off? Or is Brian at this point merely a line drawing or a cartoon who we are not supposed to engage with? Or is the clash of registers the whole point -- that in this corner we have a moderately serious Hollywood depiction of the death of Jesus/Spartacus and in that corner we have some comedy Jews singing "for he's a jolly good fellow"? 

A very long time ago I saw a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in which, utterly bizarrely, the beheadings alluded to in the script are depicted on stage as Texas-style lethal injections. I didn't find it funny; it made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. I found the ending of Life of Brian unsettling in the same way. Maybe I was meant to.

Python always depended on surprise: the idea that there is a Ministry of Silly Walks or that a man named Ptang Ptang Olay Biscuit Barrel is running for election is funny exactly once. The endless repeats, revivals, and people who won't stop quoting it at you have infallibly destroyed the joke. I went into Life of Brian knowing the general concept, even if I didn't know all the punch-lines. Perhaps if it was still 1979 the general sense of shock and incongruity would have carried the day. "Oh. My. God. They look like Bible characters but they are making cock jokes." (Viz started in the same year Life of Brian came out: there, the joke was "Oh. My. God. They look like characters from the Beano but they are making cock jokes.")  

So anyway. I've seen it now. Wasn't particularly offended. Didn't think it was very funny. Can't get over the Bishop of Southwark's accent. I have never seen Bambi or Gone With The Wind either. The Last Temptation of Christ is rather good.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

What I Did On My Weekend Off

On my weekend off I went to Liverpool to have a look at the John Lennon exhibition at the city museum. I went on the train. It would have been cheaper to go on an aeroplane and change at Dublin, but it would have taken longer and been less good for the environment. I had intended to see the exhibition last Autumn, but my leg exploded and I went to see Southmead General Hospital instead. I decided that if I was going anyway, I had better stay a couple of nights and see some of the other Beatles related sites as well. I used to be rather nervous about hotels: I thought that they were enormous posh buildings with snooty staff who called you sir and expected a tip or else scary seaside bed and breakfasts where you have to make conversation with the landlady over breakfast. I have recently discovered that for fifty quid Travelodge will give you a bed for the night, complete anonymity and as much breakfast as you want.

The exhibition, entitled Double Fantasy, is very well done. There is lots of video footage; lots of photos; some music; some very informative text; and a fair smattering of holy relics: the green card; the New York tee shirt; the white suit; the bedspread.

Everything which can be white is white. The first thing you hear is the opening chords of Imagine. The last thing you see is a recreation of the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park. The beardy peace guru may have had some kind of musical career before he hooked up with the strange Japanese art woman, but this exhibition doesn’t cover it.

Yoko believed that audiences and artists should collaborate in the creation of works of art. We see the installation which first cut through John's cynicism about the avant-garde. Everyone knows the story. There is a ladder in a white room (everything is white) and a magnifying glass on a string. You have to climb the ladder and use the glass to look at the ceiling. What you see on the ceiling is the word "yes" in tiny letters. We have to take this on trust; the ladder is behind a barrier. We do each get a little white badge with "you are here" written on it to take him. I do not know if this is the actual ladder and the actual magnifying glass and I do not know if it would make any difference if it wasn't.

There is some footage of John and Yoko on the David Frost programme, early in their relationship. She is showing a white canvass (everything is white) into which members of the audience are invited to hammer nails. The canvass and the nails make the artwork. “How did that feel?” John asks Frost. "I am probably very shallow" Frost replies "But I feel like a man who has just hammered a nail into a canvass."

For this exhibition Yoko has created a large white wall and supplied a large quantity of white post-it notes, on which we are asked to write a thought about Love. I think we were intended to write about how much we love John Lennon, but most people have decided to write about a friend or family member. I think Yoko would still approve.

Someone has written "Jodie Whittaker is crap" on one of the post it notes. I take the liberty of removing it. Removing nails is part of the creative process too.

I heard Yoko Ono sing at Glastonbury. She is undeniably charismatic and for the duration of the show I believed everything she said. Some of the screaming was pretty moving. I still have one of the white pencils she was handing out to the crowd.

You can't really blame a dadaist for being ridiculous. I find some of her conceptual stuff quite funny and even moving. Typed instructions for creating un-creatable works of art are on display

Tunafish Sandwich Piece 

Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. 
Let them shine for one hour. 
Then let them gradually melt into the sky. 
Make one tunafish sandwich and eat it.

This eventually became the book Grapefruit and caused John Lennon's most famous song.

One whole wall is given over to an enormous enlargement of the back cover of the Two Virgins album. The album itself rests in a glass case, modestly wrapped in brown paper. "An image of them facing the camera was used on the front cover" explains a caption, tactfully. We are warned that Liverpool Museum does not endorse the lyrics of Woman is the N-word of the World.

There is a mini-cinema where you can watch hours and hours of John and Yoko's home movies. Self-Portrait, the 45 minute study of John's willy is mercifully absent; but I watch the beginning of Smile. It involves John Lennon looking directly into a camera and smiling. ("Imagine a painting which smiles once in a billion years".) It seems to be filmed in real time, but John doesn't appear to blink. He looks happy. I found it quite compelling in a funny way.  After ten minutes I went downstairs for a cup of tea. John was still smiling when I got back.

There seems to have been a moment when the sixties were turning into the seventies when everyone moved slowly and aimlessly and seemed detached from their surroundings. Beat in the way the beat poets were beat; exhausted, defeated, but somehow serene and beautiful. You can see it in Magical Mystery Tour; you can see it in Monty Python; you can see it in Jonathan Miller's riff on Alice in Wonderland. It is definitely there in Imagine, the TV movie which John and Yoko made to go with the album of the same name. The couple drive through their estate in a black car; they row across their private lake to a private house on their private island and play a game of chess; with white pieces on a white board. While John's vicious attack on Paul McCartney plays on the sound track ("the only thing you done was yesterday") the two peace gurus purposefully play snooker in blindfolds. It's much more watchable than Magical Mystery Tour although the tunes aren't so good.

Some wiseacre always says "Oh, that'll be the drugs" at this point. I Am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever are not the product of LSD. They are the product of something rarer and more subversive called "imagination". ("Imagine the moon was a grapefruit.") But there is no doubt that John and Yoko did abuse substances (including, as Yoko put it, "the big one") and perhaps these films do show what the world looks like after you've done that. Everything used to be monochrome; then it turned pastel shaded and psychedelic; but now everything is white and we are all at peace.

Was it just a dream? You may say I'm a dreamer. The dream is over. It is not dreaming.

The Beatle-themed site-seeing tour is called, inevitably, the Magical Mystery Tour and costs £20. It whisks you round Liverpool for just long enough to have your photo taken by various famous road-signs.

I suppose I expected Penny Lane to be in central Liverpool, perhaps a trendy street with cinemas and a night club. But the point of the song is that it is a nowhere street; no different from thousands of roads where thousands of Mums did their shopping. It is still possible to have your hair cut there and there is certainly a bus-shelter on a traffic roundabout. The fire station recently closed.

Some kids are about to start playing football on a school playing field. (It is one of eight schools which Brian Epstein was expelled from.) They look at us through the bars with what I hope is bemusement but is probably contempt. How many coachloads of old people stop outside their school to photograph that street sign every single day? It is not the original sign: that has been nicked hundreds of times.

Everyone assumes it is Penny Lane because everything there was so cheap; but in fact it is named after one George Penny. He was, almost inevitably, a slave trader.

Strawberry Fields is actually Strawberry Field, at one time a home for orphan girls and unmarried mothers. The Salvation Army still own it: they are planning to reopen it as a center to help unemployed youngsters get back on their feet. There is nothing to see but the gate. We look at the gate and take photos to prove that we have looked at the gate.

The bus parks at the bottom of the hill, on Menlove Avenue, the street where John Lennon grew up. That's the most valuable thing, to me, about this kind of trip. It allows me to visualize places which I have read about and see where they are in relation to each other. The point of Strawberry Fields is that John Lennon could jump over his garden fence, run across a neighbor's garden, jump over another fence, climb a tree...and spend a happy hour looking at the girls from the orphanage. He went to a boy's school. There's a lot of repression in his songs, and a corresponding amount of misogyny: all about guys wanting to "win" and "have" women and make them "mine" and tell the world in general and rival stags in particular that a particular "little girl" is their personal property. The harmonies are wonderful.

No: that isn't the point of Strawberry Fields at all. Strawberry Fields is a generalized dreamlike impression of childhood. Looking at the gate doesn't bring it any closer.

Other bus tours are available. The man providing the Magical Mystery commentary mentions that it is possible to see the inside of John Lennon's house. "But none of the original furniture is there. It's just a recreation." Considering that the tour is run by (and includes a free ticket to) the Cavern Club, this is a trifle unsportsmanlike. It is still possible to climb down four or five flights of stairs into the arched cellar with bare brickwork and a tiny little stage where a jobbing singer plays Beatles covers sixteen hours a day. (And other things. If you haven't heard Elvis's American Trilogy sung with a Scouse accent, you haven't heard anything at all.) He did a very good job of encouraging us all to go na-na-na na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey Jude, and added the line "never buy the Sun" into Here Comes the Sun. Pleasingly, everyone cheered. I assume that "everyone" is a tourist like me. I suppose a real Liverpudlian would no more go to the Cavern than a Dubliner would go to Paddy O'Grady's Irish Theme Pub. But it's another item ticked off the list: went to Liverpool; sang Hey Jude in the cavern club, booed Rupert Murdoch. Except....The original Cavern Club was demolished in 1973: this is very much only a recreation. One cellar is probably quite a lot like another, and the fake-Cavern gives a fairly good impression of what the original Cavern must have been like. And if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. From now on whenever I read something about the very early days of the Beatles this is the image I will have in my head.

On the waterfront is something called The Beatles Story, which also costs £20. It reminded me of one of those grottos that Santa Claus used to live in on the top floor of Selfridges. You are guided through a series of tableaux representing different stages of the Fab Four's career. This is a recreation of what the Mersey Beat offices probably looked like; this is a recreation of Brian Epstein's record shop; and this is a life-sized recreation of the Yellow Submarine. You even get to sit in a row of airline type seats to recreate the Beatles Conquering America. John Lennon's sister Julia provides a recorded commentary which is rather sweet.

John Lennon's original white piano is on display in a recreation of the white room where he filmed the Imagine video. While the Salvation Army were doing building works, the actual red gates of Strawberry Field were incorporated into a Strawberry Fields diorama.

In 2001 Yoko Ono bought the property where John Lennon had grown up and donated it to National Trust (along, conceivably, with a soap impression of his wife). The National Trust, which is more used to curating the stately homes of England already owned Paul McCartney's house, and wasn't quite sure at first if it wanted to collect the set. Menlove Ave is a real street of real houses with real people living in them; so you have to buy a ticket in advance (price £20) and get ferried to the site in an Official Minibus. Only those who arrive on the Official Minibus are allowed to set foot in the shrine; you have to physically hand your cameras over on arrival.

In the cold light of day, there isn't that much to see: a back kitchen; a hall; the morning room, the dining room, the lounge, and a bathroom "retaining some of the original fittings". The guide, who grew up in the area himself, paints a vivid picture of what life in the house ("an almost posh house on an almost posh street") was like. John's Aunt Mimi made everyone come in through the back door so they wouldn't get mud on the carpet. She approved of Paul ("your little friend") but thought George was a scruff. She didn't like John's habit of affecting a scouse accent because she thought she had brought him up to talk properly.

Then you go upstairs and you see John Lennon's childhood bedroom. And if you have studied all the biographies and seen Nowhere Boy and read Spaniard in the Works any kind of skepticism melts away, as I imagine it does in the Church of the Nativity. Or, come to that, Santa's grotto. 

This. Is. The. Room. Where. J*o*h*n L*e*n*n*o*n. Used. To. Sleep. John Lennon the little English schoolboy who wanted to be Just William. John Lennon who listened to the Goon Show and endlessly reread Lewis Carol. (His copy of Alice in Wonderland is placed neatly on a table by the bed. Goo-goo-g'joob.) There are a few pin-ups from contemporary magazines on the walls. The poster of Brigit Bardot which the boy John stuck to the ceiling above his bed for an obvious purpose has not been reinstated.

This isn't, in fact, how John left his room: it's how Yoko has asked for it to be laid out. "Everything that happened afterwards germinated from John's dreaming in his little bedroom at Mendips" she writes  "which was a very special place for him. An incredible dreamer, John made all those dreams come true - for himself and for the world...I hope you'll make your dreams come true too."

In the front room there is a big ticking clock inscribed with the name of John Lennon's grandfather. When John moved to the Dakota building in New York, he asked for the clock to be sent there, because the ticking reminded him of home. Understandably, Yoko cannot bare to part with it so she has had an exact replica made, at vast expense.

The replica has replaced the real thing. A better piece of conceptual art than all the ladders and willies and tuna sandwiches in the world.

Let me take you down 'cos I'm going to Strawberry Fields.

Nothing is real.

There is a statue of the Beatles on the docks. It looks as if they have stepped out of A Hard Days Night. The caption tells us that the Beatles are synonymous with the city and that they never really left.

But they really, really did.

I look at the school photos in Aunt Mimi's hall, and I look at the film of the beardy guy in the white suit.  It's like there are two entirely different John's.

When a young Canadian boy with a tape recorder interviewed John during the Montreal bed-in, John tells him to grow his hair for peace, take his clothes off for peace, piss for peace. It isn't always clear what he means. How is unorthodox coiffure or fouling the street going to cause the nations of the world to disarm? 

The reason he believes in peace, he says, in another piece of footage, is that he is actually a very violent person. On one occasion he nearly killed a man. Right at the beginning of his career, Beatle-John went on holiday to Barcelona with his manager. As you do. A Liverpool DJ drew the same conclusion that everyone else has always drawn, and John punched him.

So when John and Yoko are gallivanting around the world, talking about peace "as if they had personally invented it" they are really talking about inner peace; spiritual peace; personal peace. If I, John Lennon, who beat a man up for calling me queer, can renounce my violent side, then so can you. And if everyone embraced their inner Maharishi then armed clashes between incompatible political systems would come to an end. War is over if you want it.

John Lennon's message of peace is a decade long repudiation of the man he used to be. The John who sang about giving peace a chance in posh hotel rooms was actively repudiating the violent teddy boys who used to listen to rock and roll records and read dirty magazines in that little box room. The bus tours and the statues and the fake Cavern are trying to claim Liverpool-John back from Greenwich-Village-John. But it can't be done. As soon as he had some money he left that terraced house and bought a mansion. From swinging London, Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane seemed appareled in celestial light; but he never came back. I don't think Liverpool can ever quite forgive him. 

So, anyway, that's what I did on my weekend off.


Friday, June 07, 2019

locked myself away for the weekend. not talking to any humans, even the nice ones. some chance i will have something written my monday lunchtime

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

sorry for prolonged silence. might manage to write something over the weekend, who knows. 

assume this is 500 biting words on trump/farage/johnson

Thursday, April 25, 2019

I am inviting my Patreons to participate in a non-binding indicative vote about what I might do next. Why not join them?


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (3)

At least four Jesuses stand between us and the text of Mark's Gospel. 

There is Sunday School Jesus the luminous man who lives in the sky and is a friend to little children. 

There is Composite Jesus, stitched together out of the four contradictory Gospels. 

There is Folklore Jesus, who was born in a stable, liked cherries and hurt his little hand while his step-dad was teaching him woodwork. 

And there is Theological Jesus, of one being with the father, begotten not created, with two natures in hypostatic union. 

These Jesuses are not necessarily wrong or bad. But we know them so well that we see them before, or instead of, the Jesus that Mark writes about. We read a passage in which Jesus is firey or even bad-tempered; and we see a gentle Jesus of pure compassion. We read a story whose whole structure depends on a single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and say "They really went back and forwards between Judea and Jerusalem three times". We read a clear story in which God's spirit comes down on the man Jesus, and immediately start talking about Trinitarian formulas which weren't going to be codified for another three hundred years.

Here is a commentary I found online, talking about the Baptism of Jesus:

The earliest heretics took advantage of this statement to represent this event as the descent of the eternal Christ upon the man Jesus for personal indwelling. Later critics have adopted this view. But it need hardly be said here that such an opinion is altogether inconsistent with all that we read elsewhere of the circumstances of the Incarnation, and of the intimate and indissoluble union of the Divine and human natures in the person of the one Christ, from the time of the "overshadowing of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Highest." 

The first thing to know about the baptism story is how it can be forced to fit in with orthodox theological idea, and how people who assume that it says what it means are heretics. The second thing to know is how it can be harmonized with the other Gospels. The idea that we might read the story as a story hardly even occurs to us. 

By all means let's talk about the Jesus of the hymns and the legends; let's listen to the theologians explaining the hard bits in technical language; by all means let's think up some continuity hacks so that all the Gospels tell exactly the same story. We've been at it for seventeen hundred years; we are hardly likely to stop now.

But Mark's Gospel exists. And it is very old: older than any of the hymns or the creeds. Someone chose to write these exact words in this exact order, as opposed to some different words in a different order. Someone thought that these stories about Jesus, told in these forms, were the ones people needed to hear. And the Very Ancient Christians chose to preserve his text, and the Slightly Less Ancient Christians put them into the Bible, and the Early Modern Christians translated it into English and the Wycliffe Bible Translators are still working very hard to translate it into Ngbugu. 

So shouldn't we be at least a bit interested in what actually Mark said? 

Folk Lore Jesus, Synthetic Jesus and Theological Jesus are all defensible; even necessary. But there are also Indefensible Jesuses; Jesuses who don't so much overshadow the text as replace it. 

There is Political Jesus, the one who preached a very definite programme and who calls on us to bring about a thing called The Kingdom in our own age. The Political Jesus who agrees with my politics—the one for whom the Kingdom primarily meant the post 1945 socialist welfare state—is a lot more dangerous than the Political Jesus who preached Victorian Values and the Political Jesus who preached American exceptionalism. 

Very nearly as bad is Moral Jesus, Jesus the Good Example. If you are ever faced with a dilemma—if it ever becomes hard to see what is right and what is wrong—then whistle a merry tune, ask "What Would Jesus Do?" and everything will be okay. 

And of course, the History departments still produce Historical Jesuses by the sackful. Mark got Jesus wrong; the church fathers got Mark wrong; the modern church got the fathers wrong, but don't worry an academic in an American university can infallibly takes us back to what the True and Original Jesus really said.

Enoch Powell was quite right. (*) You can't possibly go from "Jesus supernaturally created food for 5,000 of his followers" to "Jesus would have supported my food bank policy but opposed your universal income idea." You can't get from "Jesus supernaturally healed sick people" to "Jesus would have supported the National Health Service but opposed mandatory private insurance schemes". And when faced with a hard choice—"Should I tell the truth, which will hurt a number of people unnecessarily; or tell a lie, which will trap me a series of deceptions for years to come?—then "Jesus was compassionate" is no help at all. Followers of Moral and Political Jesus general have the same morals and political beliefs as everyone else of their age and class. They are just a bit more insufferable about them.

Historical Jesus is more of a problem. I have heard too many Christians saying "Oh, you historians! You just make up whatever version of Jesus you like! The Historical Jesus industry is just a matter of looking into a mirror!" This is unfair and anti-intellectual. Your actual historian isn't in the business of making stuff up. She has a very large amount of actual historical data at her fingertips. She can't tell us if Jesus was the Messiah of Judaism. That isn't an historical question. But she can tell us a very great deal about what Jews at the time of Jesus understood the word "Messiah" to mean. (SPOILER: Lots of different things.) 

The Historians Jesus, so long as we are talking about actual Historians, I have no problem with. The bigger menace is the Historical Novelist's Jesus. 

I am not thinking mainly of Dan Brown. Dan Brown made up a lot of silly tosh in order to spin a good yarn. Spinning a good yarn is his job. I am not even thinking of things like The Last Temptation of Christ, Stand Up For Judas, or Jesus Christ Superstar all of which made selective use of the Gospel stories to create deliberately provocative works of art. Heck, I even defended Jerry Springer the Opera, up to a point. 

I am thinking much more of people like the Rev. Giles Fraser, who tells us that the Last Supper was "really" a provocative act of resistance against the Roman Empire. People like Simcha Jacobovici who asserts that the Gospels plainly state that Jesus was married to someone he calls "Mary of Magdela." The legions of well-meaning 1960s clergymen who said that Resurrection meant nothing more than "the disciples carried on trying to follow Jesus' teaching after he had died." I am thinking of Miss Govey who, who wouldn't have known what the words "radical" and "modernist" meant, but who quire happily told her class of ten-year-olds that everyone was so moved when that little boy shared his packed lunch to Jesus that all five thousand of them shared their packed lunches as well, so everybody got some. So we should share our packed lunches as well: that is the point of the story. People, in short, who have replaced the stories in the Gospels with different stories of their own. 

Maybe Jesus was a revolutionary. He might have been. Maybe the great Signs were just conjuring tricks with moral messages behind them. They could have been. Maybe the whole thing about Jesus having supernatural powers was a terrible misunderstanding and he was really just a goody-goody who wanted everyone to share their stuff. Maybe so. But that is not what Mark believed. Or, at any rate, that is not what Mark put in his Gospel. The Historical Novelist's Jesus produces a weird kind of cognitive dissonance. Intelligent people read about exorcisms and resurrections and the sky splitting open and then they say "Jesus lived such an exemplary life that after he died his followers started to use words like 'son of god' to describe him." It's a bit like watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and coming away convinced that you've seen a fairly accurate recreation of the life of a sixth century Romano-British war-band. 


My mother loved to tell a story about a Labour Party meeting in the 1980s. It was the time when a far-left cadre, led by an activist named John Lansman, was trying to take over party machinery, much to the dismay of the moderate old guard, who regarded them as Trotskyites. (It could never happen today.) 

On one occasion, after a particularly acrimonious session, an elderly invited speaker stood up to recount some of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. 

"We have heard much tonight about what Trotsky said" he began. "I will now tell you what Trotsky said to me." 

That's what we would love to have: not what Jesus said, but what Jesus said to me.

Some time in the middle of the second century, a Christian named Papias wrote that he didn't hold with this new-fangled idea of writing the story of Jesus down. In his day, you would find some very old person who remembered someone who remembered what one of the original disciples had told them about Jesus and get them to repeat the story. "The living and abiding voice" he called it. We'd call it oral tradition.  

Eusebius (the fourth century historian) says that Papias said that some of those very old people said that Peter had told Mark what he remembered of Jesus, and that Mark had written it down. (I make that five links in the chain: from Peter to Mark to the very old people to Papias to Eusebius.) Some people have seized on this idea and said that Mark's Gospel is the memoirs of Peter, pure and simple, an old fisherman spewing out fifty-year-old memories, as close to the Original Jesus as it is possible to get. "Mark" is merely an amanuensis, scribbling down the Elder's memories with a quill and a parchment. But I find it hard to imagine that a first-person eye-witness account could ever have been presented in such a simple, colourless form. It doesn't read like a memoir; it doesn't read like a folk tale. It reads more like a liturgy or a creedal statement. A recitation. 

I have an idea.

Almost certainly it is a silly idea. Very likely someone who has done a thesis on Aramaic story telling is laughing at me right now. But it describes something of how reading the New Testament feels. To me: 

Here is my idea.

Mark is a crib sheet. 

Mark is summary of the basic stories which a story teller needs in his repertoire. 

Mark is a skeleton which subsequent evangelists are intended to flesh out. 

Mark is a structure for future reciters of the story to follow. 

When Mark, toga and sandals and all, performed his gospel to an eager audience of Christian children, sometime in the eighth decade of the first millennium, he didn't speak the exact words of "Mark's Gospel". He tried to paint a picture. He tried to make it vivid in the audience's mind. And he tried to explain what some of the harder passages meant. How did the Adversary tempt Jesus? How did Jesus respond? What was the doctrine which so amazed the people of Capernaum? How could John possibly have been so presumptuous as to try and wash away the sins of the actual Son of God? Some of the elaboration would have come from a store of folk memories and oral traditions. Some of them he would have made up on the spot. That's how story telling works.

And the compilers of the Bible knew this. And they wanted us to know it as well. So they provided us with the text of Mark—his notes, his outline. But they also provided us with a transcript of two performances based on Mark's outline.

The first performance weaves pages and pages of the most beautiful preaching into Mark's story. Everyone on earth knows about the lilies of the field and turning the other cheek. The other gives us a glimpse of Jesus' childhood, and works in the most amazing parable-stories. Everyone on earth knows the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. 

Could it be any clearer? "Here is Matthew's recitation. Read that first. Now, here is the script he was working from. Read that next. Now see what Luke did with the same material. And if you want to see just how way-out some performances can be, get a load of what John did to it. Now take it and run with and tell it your own way. That's what it's for. A living story, not a dead text." 

That's my idea. Ridiculous. 

My starting point for this essay was "What would happen if I pretended to read Mark's Gospel for the first time?" 

I assumed that I would say "Some of the stories are not as we remember them; in some cases Jesus does things which are not the kinds of things which we imagine Jesus doing. And there are some more obscure tales that we have forgotten altogether." 

Before I got to the end of the first page, I realized that my conclusion would have to be "It is not possible to read Mark's Gospel for the first time. My religious and theological and cultural assumptions about Jesus have crowded Mark's character out of the text." 

But it was always a silly question. We say that we "read" Mark; and we also say that we "read" Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Eliot and A.A Milne. But we are not really talking about the same process. Middlemarch and Jungle Tales of Tarzan are both books. A good book and a bad book perhaps, but the same kind of thing. The long novel has depth and complexity and seriousness and importance, while the short adventure story is a short adventure story. But I read Tarzan to find out what happens next; to get to know the characters; to be excited, surprised, amused and moved; to feel happy and sad; to pretend that some made up people are real people. And I read Middlemarch for pretty much the same reasons.

But the idea of "reading" Mark in the same way that I "read" Tarzan is absurd, as absurd as the man who tried to use his guitar in unarmed combat. You might have an opinion about whether disco dancing is better than ballet; but "Which is better, ballet, marmite, or nuclear physics?" doesn't even qualify as a question.

I called this introductory essay "The Book That Refused To Be Written" as a nod to Frank Morrison. I should have called it "The Book That Refused To Be Read". 

And yet, Mark exists. It is a text, made of language. I have it in front of me. I can read it. 

15,000 words. Twenty pages. 

Chapter 1, verse 1, page 963. 

"This is the Good News about Jesus Christ the Son of God..."

(*) Kindly do not take this out of context.