Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (2)

"Open up Mark's Gospel, which is the probably the oldest and certainly the shortest, and pretend I am reading it for the first time."

That is always my starting point. What if it was 1977 and you were going to see a new space film you had heard was pretty good? What if it was 1963 and Kennedy had just been shot and you'd turned on some new kids TV show and had no idea why the old guy lived in a phone box?

It isn't the only way of reading a text. It is not necessarily the best way. Star Wars is certainly a film which came out in 1977; but it is also the fourth chapter in an eleven part trilogy, and the big fix-up universe is just as much a thing as the very old art house movie. More so, arguably. You can sit down and watch parts Star Wars Episodes I - VIII this weekend. But it will never be 1977 again.

And, in fact, very few people did see Star Wars for the first time. Most of us saw it in the context of the comics; the toys; the cultural phenomenon. And, in fact, hardly anyone saw Doctor Who for the first time: there were trailers and playground gossip and spoilers in the Radio Times. But it is true, very nearly, that when my grandfather brought me that first Spider-Man comic, I had no idea who Spider-Man was. 

Some years ago, for reasons I do not choose to remember, I was talking about Astrology. I remarked that it was something of a category mistake to ask if Astrology was true. I said that it was more interesting to ask what people do with Astrology. Some people (I argued) like newspaper Astrology because it provides a simple social ritual and conversation starter: they read out each other's star signs in the office over coffee and have a little laugh about how right or wrong they are. Other people (I suggested) like the more complicated casting of horoscopes because it helps them talk to girls at parties: "So, what is your Star Sign?" is a gentle way of saying "You seem nice. Tell me about yourself." Some people sincerely believe that astrology works. Others think it's quite obviously a load of old rubbish. But that's not the point. The point is that it has a social function.

I forget who it was who said that the Bible was like a guitar. If you didn't know what a guitar was, you might think it was a wall decoration; a racket used in some kind of sport; a weapon be used in a martial art; an implement for punishing naughty children. And you could, in fact, use it for any one of those purposes. But you would have missed the point of guitars. Once you have worked out what the guitar is, almost anyone can get some kind of noise out of it; and it only takes a lesson or two to make it play some chords. But to play a guitar well takes a lifetime. And there is more than one kind of music to be got out of it.

Point being: there is a right way and a wrong way of reading a book. But once you have figured out the right way, there are still good readings and bad readings.

What is the Bible for?

The answer is printed on the front page. "Appointed to be read in churches", it says.

The Bible is a collection of texts to be performed in a liturgical setting, six a week, three in the morning, three in the evening. If you go to church every morning and every evening then you will hear the entire text, minus genealogies, read out loud in four years. In particular, the Bible is a collection of short verses for clergymen to base homilies on. ("Now Jacob was an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.")

For nearly all of us, that is the function of the Bible: that is what we do with it. The Bible is the big book they read to us from in Church. Church is where we go to hear people reading to us from the Bible.

For a very small number of exceptionally holy people, the Bible is also a component of a smaller social gathering called The Bible Study Group in which people take it in turns to read verses out loud and try to say what they mean. At the end of the session the leader tells you the correct answer and you all drink coffee. (The Tolkien Society do something very similar with the Lord of the Rings.)

For an even smaller and holier sub-set, the Bible is the focus of a private guided meditation exercise called Personal Devotions or (god help us all) The Quiet Time. This tends to involve reading a very small number of verses and a short homily by an American evangelical clergyman, and then saying very specific prayers for people and causes that are important to you. 

It can be used in other ways as well. St Ignatious thought it was all about imagining yourself in the situation, pretending you were on the river bank seeing Jesus getting baptised; imagining that you are one of the fisherman he called out to. Some people use it like the I-Ching or the poems of Nostradamus: they search it for codes and clues and allegories about the future development of the State of Israel. 

But hardly anyone just reads the thing. Was anyone ever really meant to?

I have a mental image of a very old man with a beard, wearing a toga and sandals, solemnly reading from a scroll to a very earnest group of equally sandal-wearing saints, somewhere dark, and secret, possibly a cave or a catacomb. I also have an image of a much younger man (blonde, curly haired, clean shaven) extemporizing the story with much gesticulation to a band of eager young children, also with sandals.

Mark's Gospel is definitely a text; it definitely exists; so there must have been some particular moment in history when someone read for the first time. But even if my bearded story-teller is something close to the truth, he doesn't bring me any closer to the original meaning of the book. I am not a rosy-cheeked child. I am in no immediate danger of being thrown to the lions. My feet are quite the wrong shape for sandals.

There has been fad for producing editions of the Bible which look like novels. The whole text, translated as colloquially as possible, printed in single columns with no chapter or verse numbering. There is nothing terribly wrong with this. People translate the Iliad and the Odyssey into chatty modern prose so those of us who know no Greek can get the gist of the story. Poetry is lost in translation, but it's probably no more lost in a chatty modern translation than in a ponderous archaic one. Rocketing through your Living Bible in Modern English is a good enough way of distinguishing your Zebulons from your Zephaniahs and knowing what St Paul actually said about marriage. But I am a little unconvinced. If I sat down in Cafe Kino and tried to whip through 100 pages of the Old Testament at the speed of Dickens I would feel irreverent, or pretentiously hyper-spiritual, or both.

Even if we were reading the Bible for the first time, I think the stories would come crashing down with total familiarity; like going to see Hamlet for the first time and discovering that it was full of quotations. I don't think that there has been a single person who, when he first heard the Gospel, thought that the Prodigal Son's dad was going to send him on his way with a flea in his ear and a boot up the backside. We may not sing Tell Me The Stories Of Jesus in infant school assembly any more, but we can hardly avoid The Greatest Story Ever Told and Monty Python's Life of Brian.

If it is hard to remember when I first heard about Sherlock Holmes, it is naturally going to be ten times harder to say when I first heard about Jesus. I wish I could. I wish I could give you one of those full throated evangelical testimonies. "Brother, I was in deep sin, injecting pornography into my artery and chain smoking women of ill repute; I even listened to role-playing games while playing rock and roll. But then someone said did you ever hear of Jee-zuz and I swear I have never smoked a drop since." But I can't even run to "The first time I heard about Jesus was from a book my Granny used to read me." (You could get a country and western song out of that, at least.)

I have a dim, dim memory of a small room, near the top class room of my nursery school. (We say "nursery school" in England, not "kindergarten" although the idea that toddlers are a kind of rare flower is implicit in both names.) There were morning children, afternoon children and all-day children. The top class room was the one inhabited by the all-day children, those strange creatures who brought packed lunches and had a nap around noon. I think that the room may possibly have been the head teacher's office. The office of the head teacher of a pre-school is not as awesome as the office of the head teacher of a Big School, but still, you normally had to be very good or very bad to be asked inside it. I remember putting on some kind of robe, made of fake red velvet, and a cardboard crown; and being given an old shoe box covered in a gold foil. Two other little boys had crowns and boxes of different colours. We walked along the corridor, and onto the stage in the all-day-children's classroom, and gave our shoe-boxes to the baby Jesus.

Before that, before I was a person at all, there was Sunday School. There was a square room with white walls flecked with black; and a framed pictures of lots of little children hovering around a man with a beard, all in silhouette. Each time a new baby was Christened the Minister wrote his name under the picture with a fountain pen. My Daddy showed me where my name was written, an unimaginably long time ago, three years ago, maybe even four.

Mrs Someone who ran the Sunday School sang hymns while an older lady accompanied her on the piano:

Jesus bids us shine first of all for Him
Well, He sees our noses, if our light grows dim
In this World of Darkness we still can shine
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

(Years later the jolly Srilankan clergyman from the Baptist Church said he hated this song because it suggested that religion was a solitary thing and left the church out completely.)

Dropping dropping dropping
From each little hand
Tis our gift to Jesus
From His little band
Now while we are little
Pennies are our store
But when we get older
We will give Him more

Someone who lived in a place called heaven, then. Luminous, like a light or candle or the moon. Likes shiny things, like gold cardboard boxes a new pennies.

A sum bean a sum bean
Jesus wants me for a sum bean
A sum bean a sum bean
I'll be a sum bean for Him.

There was a tiny little strip in one of the smallest children's comics, with a name like Playland, about a family of moonbeams. So Jesus was inexorably connected with the moonbeams in my head. There was also a comic strip about a talking hot water bottle. Perhaps I invented them both. There may have been a weekly bible stories. And koalas. We will come back to the koalas. I am on the very threshold of consciousness.

Jesus. Wandered around in sandals. Chums with fishermen. Particular thing about people with skin conditions. Said how great it would be to be nice to people for a change. The Scribes and the Pharisees wouldn't dance and they wouldn't follow he. Did anyone ever hear this story for the first time?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Chapter 1 vv10-13

And straight-way coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens opened,
And the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
And there came a voice from heaven, saying,
"Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Mark's Jesus isn't set apart at birth. His arrival isn't announced by angels and stars, but by a semi-naked wild man. Either Mark never knew the more famous versions of the Origin of Jesus, or else he knew them but didn't think they mattered. His story begins with a singular cosmic event. 

A man from the North arrives and is baptised with all the others. And suddenly the universe breaks. A hole opens up in the sky, and a part of God flies down and lands on the newcomer. And then God — who hasn't said anything in five hundred years — breaks his long silence. Not spiritually; not "in a very real sense": an actual voice, from heaven, which we can hear, because the sky has split open. Only the voice is talking, not to us, not to John, not to the people, but to Jesus.

Not "He is my son!" or "This is my son!" or "Look at my son!" but "You are are my son!"

None of us momentarily think of Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando at the North Pole. That would be far too irreverent.

Mark is writing in Greek. "He saw the heavens opened" is Eidan schizomenous tous ouranous. Anyone can see that schizomenous is related to our word "schism". It means "divided" or "torn in two". It is the word used later in the story when the curtain in the temple is "rent in twain". And ouranous is just "the sky." (Uranus was the Greek god of the sky before he was a planet.) So what the King James version renders as "the heavens opened" could just as well have been "the sky split apart".

In Olde Englishe "heaven" simply meant "the sky". Only gradually did it come to mean "the place where God lives". The word now has a much narrower sense; it primarily means "wherever it is that people go when they die". We are told that in the olden days people thought that God lived in the sky. But couldn't we just as well say that in the olden days people thought that the stars were part of the supernatural realm where God lived? People who don't particularly believe in the afterlife still look up at the sky when talking about their dead parents.

(While I have the dictionary open: anabainon, "coming up"; and katabainon, "descending", are antonyms; if Jesus "comes up" the Spirit ought to "come down" but if the Spirit "descends" Jesus ought to "ascend.")

Why a dove?

We all know the story about how a dove brought an olive branch to Noah on his ark, signifying that the great deluge was over. In that story, the point of the olive branch is that the flood is going down and trees are growing again. The crisis is over; God isn't cross any more. But the image of a dove and olive branch has become an icon (I almost typed "emoji") which irreducibly signifies "peace". We talk about hawks and doves and people offering each other olive branches without any particular sense that we are making a Biblical allusion. So if a dove flies down from heaven and sits on Jesus it very probably represents peace and the end of the quarrel between humans and God.

Right at the beginning of the Bible we are told that, before the universe was created, the spirit of God fluttered over the ocean. The ocean is whatever existed before the universe was created; it's what the universe returned to when God got angry and uncreated it. So Noah's dove fluttering over the flood water makes us think of that God is starting Creation all over again; and perhaps this dove fluttering over the Jordan makes us think that God is giving everyone another chance to get things right.

Then again; doves are sacrificial animals. If you were a former leper or had just had a baby or were icky in some other respect, the blood of a dove could be a component of the cleaning up process. 

But I wonder if this is all a little too subtle? John perceives the Breath of God — the Wind from the sky — as a white flappy thing, flying down through the hole in the heavens and landing on Jesus. This isn't a metaphor or an inward change. It's not a flowery way of describing some subjective experience. ("And haven't there been moments for each and every one of us when in a very real sense the heavens have as it were opened for us too?") It's a cosmic, mythological event.

"Ascending from the water he saw the Sky torn in half and the Breath like a dove descending on him. A voice from the Sky said: 'You are my Son, the Beloved. I am pleased with you'." 

The word "dove" could feasibly have been translated as "pigeon".

And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness
And he was there in the wilderness forty days,
tempted of Satan;
And was with the wild beasts;
And the angels ministered unto him.

Naturally, the Hero confronts the Big Bad right at the very beginning of the story. It is a foreshadowing of the decisive battle in the final reel.

It's a great scene. Jesus on the mountain. Good looking guy with a goatee beard who speaks in iambics, challenging him to jump off it. Go on, jump. I am sure someone will catch you. Join with me and together we can rule the universe. Unfortunately, it isn't a scene which appears in Mark's Gospel. 

I remember a preacher, years ago, telling me very definitely that when it said Satan it obviously didn't mean Satan. That would be very silly. All the jumping from pinnacles and ordering rocks to turn into bread rolls were just bad ideas running through Jesus' head which he rejected. Jesus wasn't immune from bad thoughts; he just never acted on them. It was a very vivid sermon.

I have mentioned before that Hiawatha was the first poem I ever loved. Hiawatha also spends forty days and forty nights fasting. I spotted at an early age that this made Hiawatha very much like Jesus. (Longfellow had very probably read St Mark.) Joseph Campbell points out that heroes who fast for forty days and forty nights are rather common in literature and this proves that all stories are the same story. Spoilsports have pointed out to Joseph Campbell that forty days and forty nights is about the maximum time a human being could survive without eating.

But Mark doesn't even say that Jesus fasted. It would be more natural to read it the other way. Jesus was all by himself in the desert, but don't worry, he didn't have to make do with sticky sweet insects like John. The Angels brought him food. Of course they did. There is a hole in the sky, and one of God's own pigeons has landed on Jesus. Obviously there are going to be Angels. In the text we are trying to read, the story of Jesus' first confrontation with the Enemy takes exactly three words: "tempted of Satan".

My eyes slide over the "with wild beasts" part. What does that even mean? Jesus went to the wild places to spend some quality time with the wild animals? Or Jesus went to where the wild things are but it's okay, there were angels protecting him?

I know the story of Jesus and Satan. I don't know any story about Jesus and the Animals. The words "he was with the wild beasts" have no traction.

The story of Jesus temptation can also be found in the book we call Matthew's Gospel, and the book we call Luke's.

Matthew's version begins: 

Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted of the devil
and when he had fasted forty days and forty nights
he was afterwards enhungered.

Which is as close to Mark's text as makes no difference. Matthew also ends in exactly the same place as Mark:

Then the Devil leaveth him
and behold angels came and ministered to him.

But in between come seven verses which contain an elaborate description of Satan trying to trick Jesus into doing a bad thing; and Jesus responding by quoting the Jewish scriptures at him. 

What happened? Did some ancient writer read Mark's short version, decide that "he was tempted" was insufficient, and spin a sophisticated, theological temptation-narrative around those three words? 
Or did the writer we call Mark see that long version, decide that the detailed temptation story was superfluous, and cut it out?

Maybe he thought it was unreliable: how did anyone know what had passed in private between Jesus and the Devil? Or perhaps he thought his version was more dramatic: better for the first big event in Jesus career to happen in secret. Secrecy is going to become more and more important as we read the story. There is nothing so dramatic as a closed door. 

The great Synoptic Question — who copied what from whom — is not the one which is troubling me. The hard question for me is "Given that the Long Version exists, what is the Short Version doing in the Bible? How are we supposed to read it? What is Mark's Gospel for?"

Are we to say that this bare skeleton is the original story, the totality of the facts as Mark knew them? The story, according to one ancient source, as Mark heard it from Peter? In which case do we have to say that the other, longer, more familiar versions are literary embellishments, expansions to the story added after the fact. Stuff that someone made up.

In which case does it follow that we should give most of our attention to Mark, and treat Matthew as simply a commentary on it. A commentary which has been venerated and revered for close to two millennia; but a fictional commentary nevertheless. 

Or do we have to say, more strangely, that the long embellished version came first, and that Mark is a synopsis: a good-parts summary of Matthew. We are told that Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible and deleted all the passages involving miracles. We are told that if Gideon leaves one of his Bibles in Sir Ian McKellen's hotel room, he redacts Leviticus 18:22 with a pair of scissors. But what is the value of a Readers Digest version of Matthew (however ancient and pious and reverently done) when we have the full version in front of us?

Holy cut-and-paste; or holy fan-fic. Neither idea is appealing. And yet for seventeen hundred years (at least) Christian tradition has put both versions, the long and the short, side by side in the text we call the Bible. Perhaps the Church Fathers themselves couldn't decide. 

I tried the mental exercise. I couldn't do it. I tried to concentrate on this version of the story: angels, wild animals, a singular "temptation", fasting not mentioned explicitly. I couldn't do it: Matthew and Luke (and Milton and Passolini) kept smuggling themselves into my head.

This passage was the brick wall that my plan to just read the text collided with.

The story I know: the story, everyone knows. Reading the words on the page is no longer a possibility.

COMING SOON: The Exorcist! Married Popes! Geography!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written

When my Granny was a little child, most houses in the countryside did not have running water; but there was a pump near her garden gate. From time to time a farmer or traveler would politely knock on the door, and ask if he might have a bucket of water for his horse; a request which was always granted. 

Imagine her surprise when one morning a man knocked at the door and said "Excuse me: could I possibly have a bucket of water for my elephant?"

So far as I know, this story is true. My Grandmother died in her 90s when I was in college; so the story took place, I suppose, 120 years ago. If I tell it to my nephew and he lives to be 80 then at least one person at the beginning of the twenty-second century will know that there were elephants in Cornwall at the end of the nineteenth.

I don't know where my Grandmother was living: I have a mental picture of the house we used to visit when she was a very old lady (which also had a pump, long since dried up) but that was her married home. I have an image of a man walking along a country path with an elephant on a lead: but for all I know there was a fleet of caravans making up a small travelling circus. And naturally I don't really know what he said; or whether Granny or her mother opened the door.

Once upon a time, a man knocked on a country cottage in England and a asked if he could water his elephant....

Events from the past only come down to us if they turn into stories. 

There was a small bookcase at the back of Miss Griffiths classroom, near the gerbils, on the left of the cloak room and the toilets. We were allowed to pick a book to read during quiet periods. Most of the books were much too babyish for me. But there was a creased up paperback edition of Islands in the Sky and a hardback copy of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; one of those library editions in a white dust jacket. I read a Scandal in Bohemia, which I didn't really understand and The Red Headed League, which I liked. I liked the crazy idea of a man being hired to copy out the encyclopedia long-hand; I liked the bit where Watson has to test Holmes' memorization of all the street names in London. I was incredibly proud that I spotted that the encyclopedia was a ruse to get the clerk out of his shop for a few hours before Watson did, though not, of course, before Sherlock Holmes. 

A whole floor of the public library was given over to children's books; with a whole silent reference section for people wanting to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica by hand. Most of the books were very babyish; but there was an Older Readers section which contained stuff that I liked. That was where I found the Tripods and the unbearably boring first volume of Cities in Flight. (I have since read the other four volumes. They are unbearably boring.) If you wanted Tarzan or John Carter, which I did, desperately, you had to go downstairs to Adult Fiction.  

There was a Sherlock Holmes book in the Older Readers section; it was a "best of" anthology with the Speckled Band and the Copper Beaches and an except from Study in Scarlet and some background material about how the Victorians had gone crazy for it when it was first published in the Strand magazine in 1887. (My Granny was alive in 1887. She remembered the fireworks for Queen Victoria's Jubilee. She stayed up way past her bed time and fell asleep in a the back of a cart.) The description of Watson setting up home with his evidently mad flat mate I read over and over. I liked the funny hat and the slippers more than I liked the actual mysteries.

So: the first and only true reading of A Scandal in Bohemia the one which took place in the pre-fab at Church Hill School one rainy lunchtime in 1975. That is the reading I try to hold on to: the reading which informs all the others. That is why "spoilers" are such a terrible sin. They make it impossible to ever read a books for the first time. 

But I am sure I knew who Sherlock Holmes was long before I found Miss Griffiths' book. We all know — from Basil Brush and Sesame Street and the joke about painting the door yellow (*) — that a person trying to solve mysteries would be expected to wear a deerstalker, have a curly pipe, a magnifying glass and say "elementary" a lot. By 1975 Holmes had long since escaped from the printed page; Conan-Doyle's text was preceded by my cultural idea of him. 

(I wonder how long it will be until Holmes is only a man who says "elementary" a lot, in the same way that pirates are only men who say "Arrr!")

So perhaps I came in far too late and the the first and only true reading of A Scandal in Bohemia took place 81 years earlier. To find out who Holmes really is and what the story really means we have to imagine that we are Victorian gentlemen, hunched under the gas lights, reading our new edition of the Strand Magazine. 

It isn't quite true to say that that first reading is unrecoverable. I bet we could find letters and diary entries in which people mention in passing that they have been reading a spiffing new story about a clever chap who catches criminals by the power of induction. Possibly someone is writing a PhD on that very subject as we speak. 

But that would be an exercise of scholarship and imagination, just as much as a clinging to the Church Hill School version is an exercise in memoir and nostalgia. Try to bring the text closer and you end up pushing it much father away. 


Two and half years ago I seriously considered writing a book about the Amazing Spider-Man and Jesus Christ. 

My idea was to alternate chapters about my favorite comic book and with chapters about the four Gospels so Amazing Spider-Man #3, "Spider-Man Meets Doctor Octopus the Strangest Foe Of All Time" might have been juxtaposed with Mark 3, "Christ healeth the withered hand, and many other infirmities and rebuketh the unclean spirit". 

It would have suited my sense of the ridiculous and my liking for what might be called "conceptual blogging". It is quite funny to write about Tom Baker's first Doctor Who story on the night everyone is expecting me to talk about Jodie Whitaker. At least, I think it is. So it would have been quite funny to follow an essay on the central text of western civilization with one the New Testament.  

I had an idea that the proposition that "fans treat comic books like religious texts" was one that was worth exploring; and what better way to do that than by treating a religious text as if it was a comic book. Is theology really just a matter of sorting out continuity errors? Could preaching usefully be regarded as Gospel fan-fic? Is St John basically doing a soft reboot of St Matthew?"

My first clear memories of Sunday School go back to when I was about eight years old: approximately the same time as my earliest memories of reading comic. So I thought that maybe "How did the eight year old Andrew understand comic books?" and "How did the eight year old Andrew understand the Bible?" might turn out to be related questions. 

The experiment is worth trying. 

Pull the Old Book down from the shelf. 

Falling apart copy belonging to my grandfather. 

Pretty much fallen apart copy belonging to my grandmother, with the words of Jesus printed in red. (Someone, presumably my other grandfather, has redacted the word "piss" from Isaiah 36:12.) 

Pocket size N.I.V from my Christian Union phase. 

Huge illustrated Good News Bible inscribed by one D. Wynne of the First New Barnet chapter of the Boys Brigade " from when I was confirmed. 

Tiny little New Testament, also with a Boys Brigade inscription ("for Bible class attendance during the 1976-1977 session" apparently.) 

Another N.I.V with a purple cover and the words "study Bible" rather hopefully penciled on the inside front cover. 

A New English Bible, inscribed by one of my Sunday School teachers "a present for learning the books of the Bible by heart". (Which I can still do, give or take a minor prophet.)

Open up Mark's Gospel, which is the probably the oldest and certainly the shortest, and pretend I am reading it for the first time:

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Chapter 1 vv 1-9

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God

Pretend you have never heard this story before.

You are sitting in the cinema. The lights go out. A fanfare starts. The title appears. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

"What is christ?" says someone sitting behind you.

"I think it is an old-fashioned word for king".

"What is gospel?"

"Shh. I'm sure that will become clear as we go along."

Some text scrolls across the screen. A messenger is preparing a road. A different messenger is telling everyone else to prepare a road. Or possibly the same messenger preparing the same road twice?

"When it says lord does it mean god or just boss?" says the person sitting behind you.

"Shh. It's starting."

As it is written in the prophets:
"Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."

Who are these prophets? When did they do their propheting, and in what context? Are we supposed to know already? Or are we supposed to go away and look it up?

Perhaps it doesn't matter very much. They certainly lived a long time ago, in a land far, far away, and they are important and holy and religious and mysterious. And perhaps that's all we really need to know. Perhaps "As it is written in the prophets" means no more than  "This is the first line of the kind of story which begins with a quote from some important, holy, religious and mysterious writings." (We have talked before about how "Once upon a time..." means "This is the first line of a fairy tale". "Twas in the merry month of may..." means "This is the first line of a folk song.") 

The anonymous story-teller who is telling the story which has come down to us as Mark's Gospel (both hereafter referred to as "Mark") recites a few holy verses. This story is going to be about a road, and a Lord, and a king. And without more preamble, he throws us in at the deep end. 

John did baptize in the wilderness
And preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, 
And they of Jerusalem, 
And were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins

A clever man once ask how Homer would look if we translated ancient Greek names in the way that we tend to translate native North American names — Laughing-Water and Sitting-Bull and Black-Elk and Dances-With-Wolves rather than Achilles and Hector and Petrocolus. Thus: "Distress-of-the-People was angry and killed Hold-Fast because of the death of his lover, Glory-of-the-Father."

Tony Harrison's translation of Aeschylus left the Homeric names intact, but created ad hoc English composite words to represent concepts that had no direct equivalent in English. He-god and She-god rather than God and Goddess;  God-Space rather than the Heavens; bed-bond and blood-bond for various kinds of familial relationship. And he did it all in a Leeds accent.

Mark's Gospel is full of dusty words that say "church, church, church" to us. "Baptism" and "Sin" and "Repentance" only exist in an ecclesiastical context. "Jordan" pretty much means "a religious river", one particularly popular with the black slaves and Welsh rugby fans. And hands up all those who hear "Judea" and think immediately of Life of Brian? Even "wilderness" mainly means "a place where Israelites wander; a place where prophets cry out". 

I almost wish that Mark's Gospel could be presented in some kind of Tony Harrison pidgin:

God-Is-Gracious dips people in the Desolation. 
God-Is-Gracious heralds dipping to change their minds and undo their near-misses.
Everyone from Praise-Land comes!
Everyone from  Peace-town!
They are all dipped in the Flowing
Acknowledging their near-misses....

Harold Bloom (a clever man) tried something along these lines with the book of Genesis. But I guess that's also misleading. Metanoia and aphesis may not have smelt of candles and cassocks when Mark first spoke the words; but they presumably didn't sound strange and alien either. 

Literalism kills texts dead. It isn't literally true that everyone from Judea or the entire population of Jerusalem walked down to the river. The High Priests didn't go. Mrs Miggins from the pie shop didn't go. Literalism forces you to read poems as instruction books and parables as repositories of factual information. ("Are you saying that a certain man didn't get attacked by bandits on the road from Jerusalem to Jerico? Are you calling God a liar?" "Are you saying the world doesn't have four corners? But it says so in your own holy book. Har-har Christians are silly.")

Some people will tell you that John was part of some religious community in the desert, possibly one near the Dead Sea, with a habit of copying things out onto scrolls. But today I am trying to read Mark's story; not some different story based on what some people think Mark must have meant. Mark isn't talking about a cult or a sect or a few people following a guru. He has chosen to say "all" and "everyone"; not "lots" and "many."

Pretend you have never heard this story before. The curtain rises on a crowd scene. The whole darn country is going to get dipped by this John person. And then, rather oddly, we jump-cut from the crowd to an extreme close up.

And John was clothed with camel's hair,
and with a girdle of a skin about his loins;
and he did eat locusts and wild honey.

Everyone in the whole country is plunging into a river. And the one thing we are asked to pay attention to is John's clothes. Is this merely corroborative detail? "All sounds a bit unlikely? But if you don't believe me, I can tell you exactly what this John fella was wearing..." 

Or is it part of a holy crossword clue?  Are we supposed to say: "Aha: and you know who else was an hairy man, girt with a girdle of leather about his loins? The prophet Elijah, that's who!" One of the Prophets who talks about making straight roads through the wilderness for the Lord to walk down also says that Elijah is going to come back to earth in advance of the Great and Terrible Day of YHWH. It's the very last words of the book we call the Old Testament. So perhaps we are supposed to infer that camels hair and loin-cloths is the standard dress-code for a Forerunner? 

Or is the point simply that John is a wild man from the wilderness, oh-so-different from those coach parties pouring in from Jerusalem?

I personally can't shake off the irreverent idea that Mark is simply saying "Yes, of course, they took their clothes off before getting into the river, but don't worry, they kept enough on to stay with in the bounds of decency." Greeks and Romans didn't have a problem with communal bathing facilities, but I think Jews did.

But maybe the point of the verse is its pointlessness. Maybe the act of describing the clothes matters more than the actual clothes, in the same way that the act of quoting the prophets counts for more than identifying the text.

Everyone is pouring out of the city to be baptized. One very important person is even now making the long journey down from the north. Something big, something cosmic is about to happen. So stop. Pause. Look closely at Wilderness-Man for a few moments. And breathe...

And preached, saying:
"There cometh one mightier than I after me,
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
I indeed have baptized you with water:
but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost."

In modern English "Ghost" means "a frightening but ludicrous creature dressed in a sheet". In Olde Englishe it still meant "spirit" in the religious sense. If you said someone was your "ghostly teacher" you meant she instructed you on spiritual matters, not that she looked a bit pale this morning. A "ghostly father" was a priest, not Hamlet's dad. (German uses geist in both senses: I suppose zietgiest could be Time Ghost if you wanted it to be.)  

The Greek pneumos, as everyone knows, covers both "ghost" and "spirit" and also "wind" and "breath". Perhaps if you go back far enough the breath that you breathe and the spirit which goes to heaven when you die and the wind which blows through the desert were all one thing. "He gave up the ghost" means both "He stopped breathing" and also "His spirit left his body." 

There was a small fuss in the reactionary press a few years ago because some educational guidelines had suggested that R.E teachers use the word "Holy Spirit" rather than "Holy Ghost" when talking about Christianity. Virtually all Sunday Schools and Bibles have used that form for the last fifty years. 

We have been told from the beginning that this is a story about God. So it is not at all unreasonable for translators to prefer a religious word like Spirit to a mundane word like Breath. But we need to be very careful. "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit" drag in some very sophisticated Christian ideas about the Holy Trinity and Pentecost, which aren't really present in the text, however much we might want them to be. I baptise with Water. He will baptise with Wind. (If someone were to revise this text, might they not be tempted to add "and then with Fire"?)

And what about all those people who were washed by John? What happened to them? Did his baptism do any good? There are scattered hints that people carried on being disciples of John long after John had departed. (There are, in fact, a few hundred people in Iran who say they are his followers even today.) But these verses pretty much exhaust his role in the story. People who stalk the Great Historical Jesus think that this part of the story must be historically true for that very reason: there would be no point in making it up. 

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time. We are in a place called Judea; near a desert. There is a wild-man, dressed in fore-runner appropriate clothes. Everyone is being dipped in the water by him. And his whole message is "Not me. Someone else."

And it came to pass in those days,
that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee,
and was baptized of John in Jordan.

"And it came to pass in those days" is emphatic. Not "and it so happened". More "And sure enough, it came that very time!"

There is lots of dipping and washing in the Jewish religion. There is a word for it: tevilah; and for the special bath you do it in: mikveh. It's a kind of ritual cleaning up after doing something dirty which isn't really your fault. Former lepers need a holy wash; so do men who've had a wet dream; so do menstruating women. (I know. I know.) A proselyte may have to undergo a holy bath as part of the process of becoming Jewish. But the word "baptism" is a Christian coinage, derived from the ordinary word for washing.

Presumably the people listening to John would have understood him to be saying "The whole country — all of us — are like gentiles and need to get washified to become properly Jewish again. The whole country has soiled itself and needs to get spiritually cleaned up." And one of the people who comes to get cleaned up — one of the people who has traveled all the way from the North, a four or five day trip, specially for that purpose — is Jesus. He's introduced here simply as Jesus from Nazareth; but advertised on the cover as King Jesus, God's Son.

If Mark sees this as a problem, he doesn't mention it. Either he thinks that Jesus needs to be washified as much as anyone else does or else he is reciting core facts, like a litany, and doesn't think that it is his job to explain them.

John baptised. Jesus was baptised. Make of it what you will.

Tell me honestly. In your mind, do you see John pushing Jesus down under the water, and then helping him stand up again, dripping wet, shaking the water out of his hair? Or do you see John pouring water over Jesus head, possibly using a little sea-shell as a scoop? Do you see them both standing waist deep in the river? Or are they on the banks of the Jordan, in a little shelter, with a font? For centuries pilgrims went to see that very shelter, or at any rate the place where it had definitely stood. 

You had some kind of picture in your head. And the details of that picture depended on the kind of Sunday School you went to and what kind of illustrations there were in the Big Book of Bible Stories which your godfather gave you at your Christening. (Or your Baptism. Or your Service of Thanksgiving After The Birth of a Child.)

We have known who Jesus is, shepherds and star and angels and sandals and cross and fishing boat for our whole lives. We don't see Mark's Jesus. We see some composite Jesus, some synthetic Jesus, made out of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John and Tim Rice and Graham Chapman and Franco Zeffirelli and Piero della Francesca and Pier Paolo Pasolini and that one the BBC did in claymation a few years back.

The story of the baptism of Jesus is not limited to this text. It exists as part of a ceremony; read out in a solemn voice at particular times of the year; part of the turning of the seasons in which pancakes follow brussels sprouts and bunnies follow pancakes and always have done and always will do. (The story of John the Baptist, confusingly, is part of the build up to Christmas, which marks the birth of Christ; the story of Jesus temptation, which comes next, is part of the build up to Easter, which marks his death.) No-one  ever reads this story for the first time. 

Coming soon: The Ultimate foe! Holy pigeons! Wind from Uranus!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Andrew's Folk Pile

The Dovetail Trio
There is still a £1 price sticker on this little EP, so I think it must have come from the bargain bucket at the Black Swan folk weekend in York last year. It's not a band I've ever heard, although once I looked at the small print I realized that I knew all the performers individually. Jamie Roberts is one half of Gilmore and Roberts; Rosie Hood knows more about folk-songs of the upper Thames than anyone has a right to and Matt Quinn was the folkie who  legitimately blew me away at the "folk rising" events at Sidmouth last year.

If the Devils Doorbell were to be imagined around a campfire, the Dovetail Trio are clearly playing on a village green, or perhaps in the corner of some conceptual tavern in an imagined village. English folk music deals with all the most basic and fundamental shared human experiences. Randy soldiers. Beer. Shape changing blacksmiths. And of course, ladies dressing up as men so they can join the army.  Some of this material is relatively dark: John Barleycorn is arguably about human sacrifice. The Two Magicians is arguably about rape. But the Trio has gone for cheerful, not to say jolly versions. It's the kind of music which make you want to dance, very probably with bells and hankies. 

Sing the last chorus a couple more times. Play it through again on the instruments. Maybe do it once more a capella. Pour another beer. We'll still be doing this material in six hundred years time. I love this album to bits.

Where there are traditional sources, the band sticks quite closely to them. "When I was a young maid..." is relatively well known as "The Female Drummer" from Steeleye Span via The Watersons. It an old story: girl dresses up as a boy; joins the army; learns to play the drums; gets away with it for a bit; gets found out; has to quit; is allowed to keep her pension. But there's a 1955 field recording of a Scottish lady singing it in a pub, and that seems to be the version Rosie Hood is following. It has less rub-a-dub-dubbing but a much better melody. It's rather franker about cross-dressing than some ballads:

While taking off my trousers I often gave a smile
For to think I was a solider and a maiden all the while

There are those who say that until you understand John Barleycorn, you don't understand folk music. There are also those who say that it's a late and artificial concoction, but we don't pay so much attention to them. In the hands of Chris Wood, for example, it can have an unsettling Wicker Man undercurrent. It is, after all about a man being tortured and mutilated, even if it is also about brewing beer. But this version as all rhythm and refrain and will creep up behind you and force you to sing along, even in the most gruesome party. 

They hired men with great big sticks to beat him out at once
Swish swash all over his head til the flesh fell from his bones
Poor boy, the flesh fell from his bones

"Flesh fell from his bones, poor boy, flesh fell from his bones.." (Roy Bailey did a version which ended up going whack-fal-de-diddle-all-the-day, and why shouldn't he?) This isn't a Barleycorn who strengthens labouring men to do their jobs; it's  Barleycorn who gets you pissed and under the table 

Let any man be strong as he will as I've oft told you before
If he takes too much John Barleycorn he'll put you onto the floor

Put you onto the floor, poor boy, put you onto the floor. Let's hear that chorus one last time...

The Two Magicians is an everyday story of country life, in which nasty, husky, dusky, fusky, musky coal-black smith tries to have his wicked way way with a young lady. She magically transforms herself into a hare, as one does, so he transforms himself into a greyhound; and so on, for as many stanzas as the audience will tolerate. The Carthy/Swarbs version is disconcertingly rapey, with the Smith promising to lay down the woman's Mighty Pride. (Joshua Burnell, of whom more anon, has added a verse in which the Woman promises to pay the Smith back in kind.) But the Trio's version is more a game of kiss-chase than a seduction; an exhilarating romp through the woods which both sides seem to be enjoying. 

Hello, hello, hello, hello you coal blacksmith 
You have done me no harm 
But you never shall have my maidenhead 
That I have kept so long 

Admittedly the lady wants to "die a maid and be buried all in my grave", and the black smith seemingly wins the day after she transforms herself into a corpse and he transforms himself into the earth she's buried in. So maybe this version is still pretty dark. But by the time we've run through a couple of a choruses it's hard to think that anything awfully bad has happened.

There's quite a bit of seduction on this short record, come to think of it. On Yonder Old Oak is pure Copper Family; unadorned, unaccompanied, full-on harmony singing of the kind that they'd been passing down through families Round These Party for half a dozen generations. The guy asks the girl out; the girl vows and protests that she never will be kissed by no such a fellow as he, and its all over bar a verse about Bright Phebus and King Cupid. But the man may get a little further during the gorgeous and familiar "Lady and the Soldier" ("to hear the sweet nightingales sing") depending on whether or not you think "hearing the sweet nightingales" is a euphemism.

I love this album; it sums up pretty much everything I love about folk music. Rooted in traditional music, and I assume in old recordings of traditional music; fine old melodies telling fine old tales; fine young musicians going round and round the melody, getting stuck into the tunes without ever being tricksy or flashy.

Pour the nutbrown ale and and I may just join you on the village green. 

The Dovetail Trio's EP is available on their website for £6, (they'll sign it for you if you want, which is a nice touch.) 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Frequently AskedQuestions

Hey Andrew: what did you think of the last season of Doctor Who?

I have put a short (6,000 words) collection of reactions to the adventures of Bradley Walsh and his Whacky Companion on my Patreon Page (PDF, Kindle and Epub format.)

Back me on Patreon and you can read them right now. 

How much does it cost to back you on Patreon?

Most of my Patreon backers give me $1 for each essay I write, which comes out as $4 or about £3 a month. If everyone reading this donated at that level, I could pay myself £8,000 a year for my writing.

I don't want to join Patreon but I still want to know what you thought of the last season of Doctor Who

I know some of you, quite understandably, don't want little bits of cash dribbling out of your bank account each month; so I am very happy to make the little e-book available to non-Patreons on a "pay what you like" basis. (I'd suggest about a fiver, but no donation is too small.)

Just push this magic button, and hey presto, happy blogger. (Include your e-mail so I can wibble the files in your general direction.)

Are you going to write any more about Doctor Who?

I have added some more tiers to my Patreon

At $145 I will put my short book on the Capaldi years together, including brand new essays on Season 9

At $150 I will steel myself to watch Class and tell you what I thought of it.

Further down the line, I also intend to work my way through Tom Baker's canon.

Are you going to put the Spider-Man Essays together into a book?

I have added this as a tier on Patreon as well: at $175 I'll start work on the Big Spider-Man Collection. (My plan is to make it available for free as an E-Book to all my loyal Patreon Fans; and to initially sell it at cost price on Lulu so my Loyal Supporters don't end up paying me twice.) Three will doubtless be some Special Features which we will talk about nearer the time.

Patreon is all about Micropayments. Don't feel you need to put a large sum in the pot: if everyone pledged $1 I could go professional.

What are you going to next?

My Lent series will start in a few days. Watch this space.