Wednesday, July 31, 2019


I have just written 5,000 words about the Bible without once mentioning Star Wars. So this is me, mentioning Star Wars.

About half way through Episode IV, the Millennium Falcon blasts its way out of Mos Eisley spaceport through a blockade of Imperial Stardestroyers (the big triangular ones) and dramatically makes the jump to Hyperspace. In 1977 the Hyperspace jump was reckoned to be a stunningly impressive special effect; it was said to draw applause from first night audiences. It firmly drew a line under the films first act. The heroes have escaped from their first major peril and we go off and spend some time with the villains.

When we return to the Falcon, all is calm. The robot and the hairy alien are part way through a game of chess; the hero is being given fencing lessons by his mentor. Everyone has a good-natured bicker, and they arrive at their destination. The scene takes about three minutes.

George Lucas understands, although many of his fans and his detractors do not, that there is a distinction between screen time and narrative time. Three minutes is not very long for a space ship to cross the galaxy; but it is a very long pause in an action movie. The audience feels that our heroes have had some down time between act one and act two. When the action starts up again we perceive them as a group of Six Buddies, not some strangers who were randomly thrown together just a few minutes ago. Our imagination expands and fills out the narrative space. 

Mr William Shakespeare fools around with time in very much the same way. If you pedantically read the script, you would find that Romeo and Juliet knew each other for scarcely 24 hours before their mutual suicide. But the more important truth is that they fall in love in Act I and die in Act IV -- which is about as long as a theatrical love affair can possibly be. (Entire essays, and indeed entire books, have been written about the Dual Time Scheme in Othello. You probably don't need to read them.) 

A related technique, much used in American TV shows and rom-coms, is the montage. We are shown a sequence of vignettes, lasting perhaps three seconds each, in which the The Hero and The Heroine accidentally burn their dinner; paint the living room; open their Christmas presents; and (invariably) spray each other with a garden hosepipe. This conveys to the viewer that time has passed and a new "normal" has been established -- we've jumped in a few seconds from "moving in together" to "being an established couple". The montage was so over-used that it now hardly ever occurs except as a self-aware parody. 

Anyone who has ever been to Sunday School or attended the Christian Union has a very strong mental image of "the ministry of Jesus". We have a general sense of what happened during those three years. (Everyone knows that it was three years, but no-one can say how they know.) Jesus preached -- on mountains, on the sea shore and in boats. He healed people -- the blind, the deaf, cripples and lepers. Children came running to him. He taught his twelve special friends and got to know them. He went to parties with people who were usually regarded as the dregs of society. He argued and debated with religious leaders. He went to synagogue on Saturdays. He ate a lot of fish. And after a long period of relative tranquility, he makes a decision to go to Jerusalem. 

I have an overwhelming sense of those years as being peaceful and idyllic, possibly because of that darn hymn which always accompanied Miss Beale's black and white slides. ("Oh sabbath rest by Galilee! oh calm of hills above!") 

It is often said that Mark's Gospel lacks structure: that it is a higgledy piggledy collection of traditions about Jesus that tumble out in no particular sequence. It is also said that Mark gallops over Jesus's ministry and dedicates disproportionate space to the final week in Jerusalem. This is true, in the same way that it is true that you can get from Tatooine to Alderaan in three minutes and Romeo and Juliet only knew each other for an hour and a half. You certainly can't create a coherent chronology or time frame from Mark's text. Some people have tried. Your Sunday School Bible probably included a map of Israel, with a little wiggly line showing Jesus's to-ings and fro-ings from Capernaum to Gardarenes and back again. (The one of St Paul's missionary voyages is much more useful.)

No-one enjoys this kind of game more than I do. Last year I started entering the exact dates on which particular Spider-Man adventures happened on a calendar. It would be terrific fun to give St Mark the same treatment, but unfortunately Google Calendar doesn't go back as far as AD 30. 
  • Friday 28 April 0030, morning: Jesus returns to Capernaum. A crowd assembles, and he teaches them. Incident of the cripple on the roof. 
  • Friday 28 April, afternoon: Jesus leaves Simon's house and goes for a walk on the beach. A new crowd assembles, and he teaches them.  
  • Friday 28 April, evening On his way home, Jesus invites a tax-collector to join his entourage. Returns to Simon's house with his new friend Levi and a whole bunch of people from tax offices. Argument with Scribes.
  • Saturday 29 April, morning: Jesus heads out to Synagogue. Disciples munch on some raw wheat. Argument with Scribes. At Synagogue. Heals man with poorly hand. Argument with Scribes.
  • Saturday 29 April afternoon: Jesus goes for a walk on the beach. A new crowd assembles and he teaches them. 
  • Saturday 29 April, evening: Jesus Leaves beach and heads up mountain. Appoints Apostles.
  • Sunday 30 April: Jesus returns to Peter's house. A new crowd assembles and he teaches them. Huge argument with Pharisees. His family turn up to have him sectioned, but he refuses to see them. 
And once you have done this, it is possible and very enjoyable to start seeing all kinds of stuff which just isn't there. The disciples who go off to Synagogue with Jesus on Saturday morning are obviously the very same publicans and sinners who were at the party on Friday night. So obviously they aren't worried about the finer legal details of where breakfast comes from. If the big meeting on the beach comes straight after the incident of the man with the withered hand, then it must still be Saturday: having offended the scribes by healing one man on the sabbath he goes down to the beach and heals hundreds.

But no. It's a game. Mark Chapter 1 does indeed have a strong sense of forward motion; and as we will see, Mark 4 and 5 conflate multiple Jesus-stories into a single narrative. But Mark Chapters 2 and 3 contain about a dozen incidents, only one of which (the healing of the crippled man) comes across as anything like a story. There are four or five records of the sayings of Jesus, with a tiny little narrative wrapped around them; there are three or four incidents so short that you wonder what they are doing in the text at all; and there are several general depictions of Jesus ministry. 

It is impossible to misread a literary text. If the text means something to you, then that is what the text means. "I found Moby Dick quite boring" is a rock solid piece of data: it is a much more solid starting point than "Moby Dick is about the dichotomy between theism and pantheism" or "Melville was born". If you feel baffled by a passage, then the passage is baffling. It is the critic's job to record this fact; not to cure you of your bafflement.

If Mark presents the second section of this Gospel as a series of unconnected vignettes, our job isn't to connect them; our job is to say "how does this fragmentary form make us feel while we are reading it?"

I tried to imagine the first chapter of Mark as the opening scene in a movie, with sweeping longshots of crowds in the wilderness and sudden close-ups of camel-hair loincloths. I think we will get a better sense of Mark 2 and 3 if we imagine it as montage. Here are lots of short, fragmentary glimpses of kinds of things that Jesus used to do during those first years in Capernaum. Here is a picture of him sitting in Simon's house, teaching and arguing. Here is a picture of him getting into a legal argument with some Scribes (don't worry overmuch about the content of the argument: just see him, out-Lawyering the Lawyers). Here he on the beach, with a crowd; here he is, on a beach with a bigger crowd; here he is on the beach and the crowd is so big he's had to fall back into a boat. Here he is, calling a sinner, almost at random. (He did that a lot.) 

Speaking in the house; proclaiming on the beach; teaching in the Synagogue. Beach; house; synagogue. Small crowds, big crowds, huge crowds, crowds bigger than he can cope with. This is how it was. For weeks and months and years. 

Let me tell you a Jesus story. Jesus has just finished teaching at Simon's house. Jesus has always just finished teaching at Simon's house. That's how Jesus stories start.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, July 29, 2019

Mark 3 7-35

but Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea:
and a great multitude from Galilee followed him
and from Judaea,
and from Jerusalem,
and from Idumaea,
and from beyond Jordan;
and they about Tyre and Sidon,
a great multitude, when they had heard what great things he did, came unto him.

and he spake to his disciples,
that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him.
for he had healed many
insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him,
as many as had plagues
and unclean spirits when they saw him, fell down before him, 
and cried, saying,
"Thou art the Son of God."
and he straitly charged them that they should not make him known

Another vignette. Jesus goes down to the beach; crowds follow him; there are healings and exorcisms. Mark is still turning up the volume. This is biggest crowd yet. People are coming not only from Galilee in the North, but from Judea in the south; and from the other Jewish communities round about. 

Mark invariably begins a new section with a simple "and": "and he walked beside the sea..."; "and passing on he saw Levi...."; "and the Pharisees were fasting...". The Authorized Version has changed "and" into "but" in this passage; which suggests a narrative link between the Pharisees decision to seek Jesus's death and the meeting on the beach. "The Pharisees decided to kill him...But Jesus withdraw to the beach." But this link isn't in the original text. 

Jesus is still keeping his true identity under wraps, referring to himself cryptically as "the Son of Man" and "the Bridegroom". It is the supernatural forces which hover around the action that give him the bigger, more dramatic names. Godliterally Godcalled him "my beloved Son" at the outset. The first spirit he exorcised called him "the Holy One of God" and now demons in general are yelling "Thou art the Son of God" at him. 

Jesus does not reply "yes: I am the son of God, and so is every one of us". Neither does he reply "yes, I try to live a good life, and in that sense, I hope I am a son of God." In the 1960s, very many clergymen seemed to think that that is what he ought to have said. We're all sons and daughters of God. Jesus was no more the literal son of God than James and John were the literal sons of thunder." J.A.T Robinson thought that "God" meant "whatever is most fundamentally important" and to be "son of God" meant "to be completely committed to whatever you think is of most fundamental importance." 

But for Mark, "son of God" is a title of great significance; such significance that Jesus regards it is an important secret. It defines Jesus's identity: he wants the demons to keep quiet because they know who he is really is.

It almost sounds as if the true Messiah has to deny his divinity...

and he goeth up into a mountain,
and calleth unto him whom he would:

and they came unto him.
and he ordained twelve that they should be with him,
and that he might send them forth to preach,
and to have power to heal sicknesses,
and to cast out devils

and Simon he surnamed Peter;
and James the son of Zebedee,
and John the brother of James;
and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, the sons of thunder:
and Andrew,
and Philip,
and Bartholomew,
and Matthew,
and Thomas,
and James the son of Alphaeus,
and Thaddeus,
and Simon the Canaanite
and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him

We have been told that Jesus and his disciples ate with the sinners; that the Pharisees asked Jesus disciples about their master's policy on fasting; and that some of the disciples annoyed the Pharisees by plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath. Most of us, out of habit, assume that these passages refer to the twelve disciples: a special inner circle. But the word "disciple" simply means "student" and Jesus seems to have had a lot of students. This passage shows Jesus choosing twelve particular followers from among those students and giving them the specific job title of Apostles. Apo-stello means "to send away" or to "send forth" so these twelve Apostles are specifically Jesus's ambassadors or envoys. 

Simon we have met: he seems to have lent Jesus his house. James and John we will see a little more of. Andrew will get a couple more mentions, because he has the best name. Judas...well I think we all know about Judas. But the other seven never become more than names on a list. The other Gospel writers will give a few of them speaking parts.

Mark says that Jesus "added the name" Peter to Simon and "added the name" Boanerges to James and John. "Nickname" would sound frivolous; but "surname" doesn't mean now what it did in seventeenth century. "Simon, who he named Peter" probably says all that needs to be said. James and John are never called Thunder Brothers again; but (with one exception) Simon is exclusively Peter from now on. In Matthew he is "Simon called Peter" from the beginning; in the letters attributed to him he calls himself Simon Peter. "Peter" doesn't seem to have existed as a name at this timeCephas or Petros were simply the Aramaic or Greek words for "stone". Probably we should think of it as a title; "Simon the Stone". Under no circumstances should we imagine that anyone ever called him "Rocky."

I don't know whether James the son of Alphaeus was related to Levi/Matthew and neither does anybody else.

and they went into an house.
and the multitude cometh together again,
so that they could not so much as eat bread.

and when his friends heard of it,
they went out to lay hold on him:
for they said, "He is beside himself."
there came then his brethren and his mother,
and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him
and the multitude sat about him,
and they said unto him,
"behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee."

and he answered them, saying,
"who is my mother, or my brethren?"
and he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said,
"behold my mother and my brethren!
for whosoever shall do the will of God,
the same is my brother,
and my sister,
and mother."

Jesus's friends and the Scribes have apparently been studying C.S. Lewis. A mere human being doesn't have the authority to suspend the Sabbath and forgive sins. So either Jesus is more than merely a human being, or else he insane, or something worse.

"Friends" is a euphemism. The Greeks says "ho pe atous", those who belonged to him, which everyone not directly employed by King James agrees meant "his relatives" or "his family". And this is consistent with Jesus disowning his family, including his mother, at the end of the chapter. Jesus's family, Mary and Joseph and all, think that their son has literally gone mad. 

Why has the Jesus family picked this particular moment to challenge Jesus? Is it the "Son of Man" stuff which has made them think he is several matzos short of a Passover? ("You don't have to fast or keep the Sabbath while I am here. If I say your sins have gone away, they have gone away.") Or is it the more recent Sabbath stuff? "He's gone crazy. He's picked a fight with the most important legal experts in the country. If he isn't very careful, they will kill him." It is hard to see how the the mere fact that the house is too crowded for him to have a meal would make anyone think their brother had lost his senses. 

Jesus's family see Jesus wielding supernatural power and acting as if he had divine authority and decide that he has gone insane. It is very hard to see how this could make sense if Mark knew the stories (which we absolutely take for granted) about Jesus's wonderful, supernatural birth. For Mark, a change has come over Jesus since God spoke to him and sent his holy Dove down from heaven; and this change his mother and brothers see (not unreasonably) as an outbreak of insanity.

and the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said,
"he hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils."
and he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables,

"how can Satan cast out Satan?
and if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
and if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
and if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. "

"no man can enter into a strong man's house and spoil his goods,
except he will first bind the strong man;
and then he will spoil his house"

"verily I say unto you,
all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men,
and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:
but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness
but is in danger of eternal damnation"

because they said, "he hath an unclean spirit"

The escalation continues. The Scribes want to kill him; his relatives think he is mad; and now a delegation of legal experts sent specially from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed.

The Scribes have a kind of legal logic on their side. Jesus is, in fact, exorcising unclean spirits. So they can't say that he doesn't have some kind of Authority. All they can logically do is ask where that Authority comes from. 

Why they pick on Beelzebub is not clear. He's mentioned briefly in the Old Testament as a Philistine deity: "Lord Zebub". Milton gives him a bit part in Paradise Lost and William Golding named a whole book after him. Some people think he had wings and is therefore Lord Who Can Fly; some people think he was associated with rotting corpses and was therefore the Lord of the Flies. Perhaps the Scribes don't want to oversell Jesus. They aren't going to accuse him of being in league with the Devil, merely with one of the subordinate Devilettes. Or perhaps "Beelzebub" is a euphemism, like "Old Nick" to avoid using the actual word "Satan". 

The Pharisees accusation is kind of logical; so the first thing which Jesus does is use logic back at them: demonstrating again that he can out-scribe the Scribes. They say that he is using demonic powers to cast out demons. If that were true, it would follow that Satan's power was ended, or nearly ended. But Satan's power has clearly not ended, therefore the devils cannot be fighting among themselves, therefore Jesus cannot possibly be using demonic authority.

Whatever one wishes to say about the translators of the Authorized Version, they had a wonderful turn of phrase. It is now almost impossible to think about the American civil war, the English civil war, or the British Conservative Party without the phrase "a house divided..." coming to mind. 

The second verse is best thought of as a separate "saying", not an amplification or continuation of the first. Certainly, you don't need to posit a demonic civil war to see what Jesus is saying. He is not exorcising demons because he is Satan's friend: the fact that he is an exorcist proves that he is Satan's enemy. He is here to take Satan's stuff. So of course he is going to spend some of his time de-powering demons. 

And then comes the third verse.... 

If we have learned one thing over the last two chapters, it is that Jesus is all about forgiveness. He'd rather tell a disabled man that his sins are forgiven than fix his legs. He calls Levi to join his band even though Levi is one of wicked tax collectors. He says he has come to persuade racketeers like Levi to turn their lives round, not to have dinner with religious experts. And yet suddenly, here he is, telling the Scribes from Jerusalem. "Your lot can't be forgiven. You're going to hell. You've done something unforgivable." 

I was going to type that Jesus was angry at this point. "How dare you say that God's holy dove that came down on me in the Jordan is a dirty ghost. How dare you." But I don't think the text really supports this. It's almost like, having logically and calmly said "Don't be silly. Of course you can't exorcise devils using devilish powers" he makes a general, abstract point. "Oh, and by the way. God does forgive blasphemy; but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Just saying." This is sufficiently cryptic that Mark's editorial voice needs to chip in with an explanation. Although the Scribes may not realize it, by saying that Jesus is possessed by a dirty ghost, they have in fact called God's spirit unclean. And that's about as bad as it gets. 

A lot of evangelical ink has been spilled over the concept of Unforgivable Sin. Some people say that the only thing which is unforgivable is to think that God is not good enough or great enough to forgive you. If you don't think he can, then he certainly can't. Other people say its about going back and denying your conversion: once you have said "God didn't save me" then you've crossed a line and you can't cross back. In the olden days, school teachers used to tell little boys that the sin against the Holy Ghost was masturbation, which seems like overkill. But the tone of this passage suggests that it is the badness of the sin we should be focused on, not a technical question about soteriology. The message is not "God forgives 99% of all known sins. But not quite all of them." The message is: "Think of the worst thing you can think of. Saying that God's Holy Dove is unclean is even worse."

Relationships between Jesus and the Scribes are about as bad as they could possibly be. They are planning to murder him; he has told them that they are going to hell. And we are only in Chapter 3.

I once saw a production of Hamlet in which the Prince was played by two different actors simultaneously; a pair of identical twins. One represented Mad Hamlet, and the other represented Sane Hamlet. Lines were shared out between them. Sometime Sane Hamlet would be saying something quite reasonable, and Mad Hamlet would push him out of the way and say something crazy. The sane Hamlet was also Laertes and the mad Hamlet was also Hamlet's father and everyone spent a lot of time with no clothes on. It was that kind of show.

I could imagine dramatizing Mark in such a way that Jesus was played by two different actors: one a wise, learned and shrewd teacher; the other the actual literal Son of God. (*) Rabbi Jesus would be learnedly disputing with the Scribes and suddenly Son of God Jesus would butt in and speak the actual Word of God. Maybe he could pronounce the word of God in red, like Jesse Custer. 

You can imagine how it might work: 

"I think you'll find that according to the first book of Samuel the twenty first chapter the sixth verse it is permissible to glean on a Saturday Morning AND THE SON OF MAN IS IN CHARGE OF THE SABBATH." 

"No, that's completely illogical; if Satan is fighting against Satan then Satan has no more power; and clearly, Satan does still have power or I wouldn't be carrying out exorcisms AND ANYONE WHO BLASPHEMES AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL GO TO HELL." 

No, that wouldn't be an orthodox Christian position. No, it isn't how Matthew and Luke depict Jesus, and definitely not how John does. But it's a good description of how these passages in St Mark feel to me.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

(*) Larry Gonnick's Cartoon History of the Universe jokingly suggests that there were multiple "Yeshuas", including a mystic and a lawyer. Philip Pullman wrote a boring book called "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" in which all the lines which Philip Pullman agrees with are spoken by the "good Jesus" and all the lines he doesn't like are spoken by a "bad Jesus". Dave Sim theorizes that the synoptic Jesus and St John's Jesus are two entirely separate characters and that this is proven by the Beatles.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Halfling Laws @ The Alma Tavern, Bristol

still experimenting with workflows and being more spontaneous.

It is the autumn of 2010. New Zealand Actor's Equity has threatened to boycott Peter Jackson's Hobbit series unless Kiwi actors are paid the same minimum rate as their US and European counterparts. Warner Brothers say that if the boycott goes ahead, they will take production of the Hobbit out of N.Z altogether. The camera crews and set designers and caterers who will lose their job if the film is closed down are demonstrating against the actors' union, who even start to receive death threats. But they stand their ground and demand a living wage for their profession. In a back office of the studio where a big battle scene is being hastily rewritten, the union representatives meet Peter Jackson to try to find a solution. 

The Alma Tavern is Bristol's smallest theatrical space. One never knows quite what one is going to get there. Initial portents this evening were a little alarming: I was handed a small feedback form with my ticket ("was there any part of the show you didn't understand"); and there was a slight friends-of-the-cast vibe in the 50-seater auditorium. The action of the play starts with an ill-judged meta-textual cough in which everyone in the cast breaks character and starts to argue about whether the play can really be said to be "based on true story", points out that all but one of the characters is fictitious, that the the play is condensing weeks of industrial dispute into an hour and we could look up the facts on Wikipedia when we get home. This would have been better covered in the programme. (There was no programme.) 

False start over, "The Halfing Laws" -- rapidly retitled from "The Hobbit Laws" for obvious reasons -- quickly establishes itself as a very small but rather special piece of work: just the kind of thing which the Alma's intimate space is so well suited for. 

The actors side of the argument is represented by Hamish Lynes and Millie Walsman. Hamish, the more militant unionist, is (ironically) a Lord of the Rings enthusiast and fan of Peter Jackson; Millie is more willing to compromise but less invested in the material. The script resists any temptation to make Hamish into a stereotypical fantasy nerd. Millie isn't as anti-fantasy as she might have been, although she does describe the men of Harrad as "the evil maori elephant people"; which is fair enough. 

Jackson himself and his (fictional) assistant Charlie Dewberrie remain sympathetic throughout.  Jacskon wants to support the union case but is not willing to further endanger his already faltering production. (The news that the two film series as been expanded to a trilogy comes through during the negotiations.) As a further wrinkle, Jackson brings in Edward Hamilton who plays one of the dwarves ("the one with the beard") as a witness for the defense. Hamilton doesn't want the Union to kill the production -- after a long career it is his last chance to make it big. But he turns out to be bitter at about the endless delays and rewrites and because Jackson has cast Kiwi actors in subordinate roles while giving the big dwarf part to an American actor. 

The best moments are when the personal, the literary, and the cinematic come together. There is a very fine moment -- at least one member of the audience applauded -- when "Sir Peter" admits that the Hobbit is not going to be a very good film. ("It's turning into a Donkey Kong level"). Charlie, the P.A wonders if all the dubious changes of direction -- the extra movie, the dwarf/elf love story, the introduction of characters who aren't in the book at all -- are truly Peter Jackson's dramatic calls, or if they are being forced on him by the studio. Either way, she fears he may be losing his touch.  While everyone is despairing about the Hobbit, Jackson suddenly produces a copy of Mortal Engines and starts enthusing about it like a schoolboy. When it appears that he has stabbed them all in the back, Hamish tells Jackson just how much the Lord of the Rings means to him, and Jackson just replies "thank you".

In the end, the studio steps in and the New Zealand government redefine actors as freelance contractors with no right to unionize, so it has all been for nothing. Jackson starts to say that even this darkness must pass, and when the new days comes the sun will shine out the clearer...and Hamish roundly tells him to fuck off.  

The play doesn't really come to a point or offer any answers -- everyone just shuts the door and walks away. But in the hour we have learned a good deal about New Zealand employment law and the troubled history of the Hobbit; been made to think about idealism and pragmatics; and even seen how a decent person can start sending out death-threats Without being at all geekish, the play seems to "get" the importance that cinema and fantasy can have in all of our lives. Theater too. If we all valued tiny little productions in small rooms over pubs above billion dollar epics, it would be a merrier world.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Spooky Men’s Chorale @ St . George’s Bristol

still thinking about workflows

The Spooky Men’s Chorale as they always remind us, are not a Men’s Group. They are not really a folk group either, but they have ended up in a folkie space. (As a matter of fact they are playing Sidmouth next week.) They started out as a Georgian Choir, and they still do a couple of proper Georgian dance songs and an Icelandic hymn in the Georgian style in all their shows. ("You know what it is like", says the conductor or as he prefers to style himself, the Spookmiester. "You go to the theatre or the ballet, and there is no Georgian section. Or you just go out for a meal with the in-laws and feel vaguely cheated because there was a Georgian section, but it was shit.") Georgian choral music differs from other choral music in that there is no melody line: the different sections make no musical sense until they are put together.

I think that the men are “Spooky” in an Australian, Dame Edna sense — certainly there is nothing ghostly or creepy about them, although they do dress in black. It was a weekday evening so I went in my normal work clothes. The lady sitting next to me congratulated me for taking the trouble to look spooky. This happened at the Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, as well. I went dressed in my normal clothes and was congratulated on my steampunk gear.

Apart from the aforesaid Georgian section, the Spookies mostly sing contemporary music in a choral style. This fits into three boxes. Firstly, there are sensible covers of popular songs: we had Tom Waits Picture in a Frame and a remarkable version of Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum. They nearly always end with the folkie version of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, the same version which Jim Moray rocks up with False Lights. Proper not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house material. I shouldn’t like to chose between the two versions. [Mem to self: find a more obscure version that no one else will know and claim to prefer that.] They can also do extremely silly versions of pop songs. They finished their main act on a choral version of Bohemian Rhapsody which someone turned into a thigh slapping lederhosen inspired knees up. It turns out you can yodel “Galileo Figaro” quite successfully.

The most characteristically Spooky material, though, is essentially sung stand up comedy material: comic monologue set to exquisite harmony. Sort of like the Baron Knights only good. So we have the aforementioned “we all have unresolved issues with our fathers / but we are not a men's group” and “you haven’t got one/ everyone else has got one/ you think you probably need one / so you do decide to get one / but it doesn't fit” and a very clever piece about waiting for baggage reclaim in an airport which turns into a political metaphor.

Like Monty Python, this kind of material is funny only once, and also like Monty Python, the audience consists largely of people who have heard it a lot of times before. I was glad they had toned down the “blokish” element of their comedy material. I get that if you say “men and sheds” everyone laughs in the same way that if you say “women and shoes” everyone laughs but it doesn’t actually apply to nay real life man or woman I ever met.

The Spookies  mak shau better than almost anybody. Their encore was possibly a James Brown number about love raining down during which which as many of the audience as possible were pulled up on to the stage to join in and sing along. I sometimes have a problem with bands that have become brands, cults, or even franchises; but the Spooky Men’s Chorale do it so well it is impossible not to be uplifted.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

thinking about workflows

Thinking about workflow.

Went to Priddy folk festival last week end. I had hoped to write a review, but by the time the festival is over, it almost feels too late to write about it. I live tweeted some of my reactions at the time, and that was quite fun. There is some down time at any festival, after all. So here I am in my 53rd year, trying to type with my IPad on my knee. Oh, Susanna, don’t you for me. Typing into the Ipad is easy the hard thing to do is edit particularly if you write the way I do, chucking words down and working out what order they come in afterwards. One really needs a mouse for that.

I am off to another Festival next week, and I am wondering how it would be if I wrote a daily diary, pretty unedited, and chucked it straight onto this blog with links to MyFace and Twitter.

I could even do a certain amount of dictation although text to speech is not infallible.

Only yesterday I found myself telling a friend that I was going to the Fuck festival at Shit Mouth

Monday, July 22, 2019

There is a new way to tell me how much you like my writing....

Buy Me a Coffee at

Mark 2 23-28 & Mark 3 1-6

My father told me that his Wesleyan Auntie Janie used to distinguish between Sunday games and week-day games. Snakes and Ladders and Happy Families were unacceptable on the Sabbath because they involved dice and cards. Drafts and Chess, on the other hand, were permissible. I myself am old enough to remember the last days of Christian England, when newsagents were allowed to sell newspapers on a Sunday but had to rope off that part of the shop which sold chocolate and magazines. I guess that is what most of us think of when we think about The Sabbath. Scottish Sabbatarianism and the Lord's Day Observance society; joyless fanaticism or arbitrary hair-splitting.

If we are not very careful, we are going to read this very English attitude into these stories. Jesus represents the relaxed liberals who don't mind a cup of tea and a dance and some scones and perhaps even a couple of pints of beer. The Pharisees represent the uptight old matrons who close down the taverns and won't let kids play football on Sunday, even if that means forgoing their Olympic gold medal. Jesus represents sensible English people and the Pharisees represent Johnny Foreigner with his rules and his rosaries and his prayer mats. Jesus represents us and the Pharisees represents them. Roses are reddish, violets are blueish, if not for Jesus, we'd all be Jewish.

There was once a schoolboy who was suppose to write about this passage for his R.E homework. His essay began "The Pharisees were very wicked men, and thank God that we are not like them!" Somewhere along the line a point seemed to have been missed.

As a matter of historical fact, the Pharisees were a sect within Judaism: they believed that the tablets of the Law were supplemented by an oral teaching which God told Moses about, but which Moses never wrote down. (This oral Torah eventually became the Talmud, so today's orthodox Jews are indirect descendants of the Pharisees.) I was brought up to think of the Pharisees as obsessive literalists; but in fact, it was the Sadducees, who will hear from in a few chapters, who believed in following the exact text of the Torah. If anything, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for being too free and easy in their interpretation.

That kind of split is not at all unusual in religions. Some Muslims follow only the literal text of the Koran; others think it has to be interpreted in the light of the Prophet's life and the teachings of his immediate successors. Some Christians believe in Scripture Alone; others call on a great body of infallible tradition. Some Star Wars fans believe only in the eleven canonical movies; others pay attention to the comic books and computer games as well. 

The more texts there are; the more commentaries on the texts; and the more opinions on those commentaries; the more possible it is for two people to sincerely disagree about what the holy book actually says. This allows for some flexibility: you can usually find a loophole or some wiggle room which allows you to apply the letter of the law to a modern situation in a pragmatic way. But there is always a danger that this approach will turn religion into a game for experts. Only people who have mastered all the books and all the commentaries can know the proper religious thing to do under a particular set of circumstances. Which gives a great deal of power to the people who have spent their lives studying the texts, and puts individual conscience on the back burner.

The Scribes and the Pharisees don't represent Jews in general or even prissy Methodist Aunties with a hang-up about card-games. What they represent is theoreticians: people who think that religion is a subject.

That is the joke which this second section of Mark's Gospel seems to turn on. A crack has opened up in the sky. God is walking around the Galilean countryside disguised as a carpenter. Devils are running away from him. Crowds are being drawn to him. Sick people are getting better just by being near him. Tax collectors are giving up collecting taxes, and, perhaps more remarkably, fishermen are giving up fishing.

So: what kind of people would be least happy to find God wandering around on earth? Who would be most cross if God turned up in church or temple or synagogue?

The answer, perfectly obviously, is "religious people".

and it came to pass, 
that he went through the corn fields on the Sabbath day;
and his disciples began as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.
and the Pharisees said unto him,
"behold, why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?"
and he said unto them,

"have ye never read what David did,
when he had need,
and was an hungered,
he, and they that were with him?
how he went into the house of God
in the days of Abiathar the high priest
and did eat the shewbread,
which is not lawful to eat but for the priests
and gave also to them which were with him?"

and he said unto them, 

"The Sabbath was made for man, 
and not man for the Sabbath: 
therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath."

I have sometimes been told by my Jewish friends that there is ludic element to following the Torah: that it is a holy game, and that getting the correct interpretation of a particular law is less important than knowing the scriptures well enough that you can argue for interpretation A over interpretation B. I don't think we are supposed to imagine that the Pharisees are shocked and horrified that Jesus's disciples have violated the holy day by nibbling bits of wheat on their way to morning service. I think we have to imagine someone plucking a bit of grass and chewing it, and one of the Pharisees saying "Aha! Gotcha! Picking grass could be seen as work, so we have caught you breaking the Sabbath on a technicality".

To which Jesus replies, "Aha, gotcha yourself! Two can play at that game..."

Jesus appeals, not to the law itself, but to a book of history (the second book of Samuel, since you ask). And he appeals to what appears to be an unrelated case. King David once allowed his men to eat consecrated bread from the temple, simply because they were hungry. (He asked permission first; and he assured the Priest that his men abstained from sexual intercourse on while they were on active service. But he did let them eat holy bread.) So it follows...

Well, what follows? Is Jesus attacking the whole idea of holiness and sanctity? "David was prepared to use sacred bread for a mundane purpose. So either David was a sinner, or it is sometimes okay to use sacred things for mundane purposes. David was not a sinner, so it follows that it must sometimes be okay to desecrate the sacred"?

Is he trying to place history above the law, individual cases above general principles. "Let's stop looking at rules and regulations, and instead look at the way admirable people actually behave and use that as our yardstick"?

Or is he somehow critiquing the validity of the Pharisee's additional teachings? "You Pharisees interpret the law in the light of your oral traditions: I say we should interpret the law in the light of the historical texts."

Or is he saying something as simple as "Pish tosh and fiddle faddle, you know jolly well that everyone fudges the law a bit when they are peckish."

I am not sure we can draw any kind of moral or religious principal out of the exchange. The question "can we nibble little bits of grass on our way to church" is not one of the pressing moral questions of our age. If we look at the story as a story, it clear enough what is being said. "The Pharisees were religious hair-splitters. But when they tried it on Jesus, he turned around and beat them at their own game."

If you want a message, perhaps that is it. Don't try to quote chapter-and-verse at God. He's better at it than you.

Just when we are resigned to Jesus and the Pharisees having a back-and-forth religious argument on a technical point, he makes a much more dramatic and sweeping claim. He again refers to himself by that strange title, Son of Man, the son of the human. And he suddenly seems to say that as the Son of the Human, he gets to decide who can do what on which day of the week.

You know who gets to decide whether or not we can work on the Sabbath? This guy. God made the Sabbath for men. So The Man is in charge of the Sabbath.

You can see why the Pharisees would be unimpressed by this. But that doesn't quite prepare us for what follows.

and he entered again into the synagogue;
and there was a man there which had a withered hand.
and they watched him,
whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day;
that they might accuse him.

and he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, 
"stand forth."

and he saith unto them, 
"is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil?
to save life, or to kill?"
but they held their peace.

and when he had looked round about on them with anger,
being grieved for the hardness of their hearts,
he saith unto the man, 
"stretch forth thine hand" 
and he stretched it out

and his hand was restored whole as the other.
and the Pharisees went forth,
and straight-way took counsel with the Herodians against him,
how they might destroy him.

Since Jesus returned to Capernaum, Mark has shown a rising conflict with the Scribes and the Pharisees. Up to now, Jesus has largely been prepared to answer them on their own terms. But today, on the specific question of the Sabbath, everything comes to a head.

There is a person who needs healing. It isn't a matter of life and death. No one is hungry. The man with the poorly hand could presumably have waited til after sun-down to get healed. The Pharisees are specifically there in the synagogue to see what Jesus is going to do. And what Jesus is going to do is heal the man's hand. No excuses. No clever arguments. It's a direct challenge to them.

Do you have the power to forgive sins?
Well, I can do miracles. Draw your own conclusions.

Why are you having dinner with sinners?
Because they are sick and I am a doctor.

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

Why are your followers breaking the Sabbath?
Because I say so.

Are you going to heal this man, on the Sabbath?
Yes: yes I am. Look at me. Look at me breaking your Sabbath.

And the Pharisees reaction is immediate and, if we didn't already know the story, it would be quite surprising.

"Let's kill him."

Well. That escalated quickly.

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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