Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A serious treatise on the English mythological interactive folk drama tradition

Oh no it isn't.



If Colin Baker is singing “Let's Do The Time Warp Again” (*), in green make-up, accompanied by a large amount of white smoke, a dozen pre-teen dancing girls (dressed as devils) and two adult ballet dancers, then it follows that either

a: You are reading a more than usually dubious piece of slash fiction or

b: You are attending Bath Theater Royal's annual production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”


Poor Colin. We're half way through the second act before there's any hint that he might have once appeared in a TV show which the kids would have heard of. Eventually, when he needs to bash down the door to the giant's castle, he whips out his sonic screwdriver. When that doesn't work, he hands someone his sonic mallet. (“When I nod my head, you hit it.”) Time was he wouldn't have been allowed on the stage until someone had gone through the “Knock knock?” “Who''s there?” “Doctor...” routine.


He is playing the giant's evil henchdemon, and therefore has to exchange rhyming couplets with the good fairy. His performance is every bit as subtle and nuanced as the the one gave in "Doctor Who" i.e not. But he relishes every corny line. “Did you find the gypsies' camp?” “No: as a matter of fact I found them rather butch.” Before the inevitable, luvvie-ish appeal on behalf of the Variety Club of Great Britain, he assures us that we've been “the best Saturday night audience we've had all week!”


How to describe a pantomime to a person who has never seen one? You know the sophisticated Italian commedia d'ell arte, where skilled mimes wittily improvise stock characters in traditional situations? We'll, it's nothing like that. A Christmas entertainment for children “of all ages” they must, at some time in pre-history, have been lavish dramatizations of fairy tales. But a Dawkinsian process of copying and re-copying means that you can no longer quite see the shape of the original story. Does the fairy tale lack a stock character? Then one can be invented: Jack the giant killer has acquired an idiot brother called Simple Simon, and is followed up the beanstalk by a pompous king who has fallen in love with his mother, Dame Trott. (Chris Harris has been playing dames in Bristol and Bath pantos for as long as anyone can remember. It's him, not the minor show business personalities, who's the evening's main draw.) The Dame is so poor that she must sell the cow. Cue a slapstick routine in which the cow refuses to be milked, tries to sit on the milking stool, apparently makes rude smells and finally provides a litre of semi-skimmed in a plastic carton. (“Why are you waving that milk in front of your face?” “It's past your eyes milk.”) Jack takes the cow to market; no-one will buy it. Cue several credit crunch jokes. The cow is too dirty to sell. Cue a song and dance cow-washing routine.


Lewis Bradley – Jack – came third on a reality / talent show called “Any Dream Will Do”: I suppose this makes him minor royalty. He's actually rather good. But it's a safe bet that when he was ritually intoning “I want this...I want this so badly” to Andrew Lloyd Weber, singing “I am a moo-cow cleaner” to the tune of “I Yam A Zider Drinker” wasn't precisely what had in mind.

But still, the general structure of the tale can't be deviated from. A peddler must swap Daisy for some magic beans. (The peddler is Colin, which would make no sense in terms of the story if anyone were actually following it.) As surely as night follows day, Jack's mum must throw the beans in the garden, and Jack must climb the beanstalk.
The castle at the top of the stalk turns out to be inhabited, not only by a giant but also by various ghosties and ghoulies. Jack doesn't want to be caught by the ghosties. His brother doesn't want to be caught by the....“We try that joke every single year” says the Dame.

I don't think pantos were quite so scatological when I was small. ("There's a stool coming" says Simon, before fetching something to sit on while milking the cow.) I don't think that a Dame, while dressed as a Viking (you had to be there) would have done quite such filthy things with her horn.
But the topical references are perennial. In the end, the giant falls from the beanstalk and is killed, and everyone celebrates. “And even better news – he's fallen on Trowbridge!”

I am not saying I would like to go every night. As a matter of fact, I am not saying that I would like to go every year. But there is something unquestionably joyful about watching adults behaving like silly kids for two hours. (Also watching the actual kids: the little ones who think that yelling “behind you!” at the ghosties is actually going to make some kind of difference; the slightly bigger ones who are too cool for this kind of thing but still laugh at the poo jokes.) I'd forgotten how genuinely funny a perfectly timed pie-in-the-face routine can be.


(*)It's the hippy shake that really drives you insane. Apparently.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In the grand canyon at sundown...



So, is it strictly necessary for me to emigrate before I can apply to become an American?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New edition of Church of England communion rite to read: "Christ has probably died! Christ is probably risen! Christ will probably come again!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Now relax and enjoy your life.

Unless what you enjoy is fairy tales, Harry Potter, or the X-Files, which may make your head explode or lead to dancing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The argument about god goes round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The argument about god goes round and round
All
Day
Long

The bishop on the bus goes waffle, waffle, waffle
Waffle, waffle, waffle
Waffle, waffle, waffle
The bishop on the bus goes waffle, waffle, waffle
All
Day
Long

The biologist on the bus goes rant, rant, rant
Rant, rant, rant
Rant, rant, rant
The biologist on the bus goes rant, rant, rant
All
Day
Long

The argument about god goes round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The argument about god goes round and round
All
Day
Long

Monday, January 12, 2009

Labeling buses as "atheist" is even worse than bus-abuse.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The idea of a triple decker bus needs to be demytholgized.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Typical, you wait ages for a deity and then three-in-one come at once.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

One In a Taxi, One in a Car

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.






Last year, the War on Christmas took a very sinister turn.


Not content with re-branding the festivities as "Winterval", banning fairy lights and insisting that all mince pies be kosher, the Political Correctness Brigade abolished the Nativity Story itself.


According to the Times our old friend Rowan Williams had declared that the birth of Jesus was:


ALL A CHRISTMAS TALL STORY


When the Daily Telegraph reported the story, it made use of quotation marks, a device that papers use to alert readers to the fact that they are being lied to:


ARCHBISHIP SAYS NATIVITY "A LEGEND"


The Daily Mail had no such scruples:


THREE WISE MEN ARE JUST A LEGEND, SAYS ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY


According to The Times:


"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but 'legend'...."


According to the Telegraph:


"The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a 'legend'....The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable."


And according to the Daily Mail:


"Jesus was born in December, in a snow-covered stable, where he was visited by three wise men bearing gifts, and was wrapped in swaddling clothes by his mother. Or rather he wasn't - according to the leader of the Church of England. Dr Rowan Williams yesterday debunked a large part of the Christmas story as a myth..."


Columnists and pundits rose to the theme. The Archdruid had denounced the whole Christmas narrative. Here is Gerard Baker in The Times:


"The retreat continues, despite the best efforts of the Anglicans to keep making concessions to disbelieving modernity, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did again this week with his observation that we were obliged to treat the Christmas Story really as just a legend. Like Alfred and the burnt cakes, I suppose."


And Simon Heffer in the Telegraph:



"But when the country's most senior prelate tells me that aspects of Christianity are simply 'legend', I wonder what that faith - and, of course, Christmas itself - must be about. After all, if the Christmas story is legend, then what is to be said about the rest of Christ's life? Are the miracles legend, too? I am no theologian, but it would seem to me that, if they are, then one of the main bases of Christian faith sustains something of a blow."


And someone called Rush Limbaugh, in Cloud Cuckoo Land:


"By the way, the Archbishop of Canterbury also said the nativity scene is a 'legend.' Not real, just a legend. So for those of you out there who feel compelled to take some of your Christian beliefs, discard the miracles, and replace them with modern science and thereby invent a new religion, go right ahead - and if this is what Dr. Rowan Williams wants to do, if he wants to throw out the things in Christianity that he just can't explain in his 'superior mind,' go ahead, Dr. Williams. But just don't call it Christianity... "



I am sorry to have to debunk such a much-loved fable, but this old traditional story of the Bishop who thinks the nativity story is only a legend is, itself, a legend....a myth....a conflation.... a work of pious fiction... a lie.


If we go back to the original text, we will discover that the story goes more like this:


On Dec 19 2007 well known theologian Simon Mayo conducted an interview with the Archdruid on Radio 5. He asked him what I take to have been honest questions about which parts of the Christmas story are "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" and which parts aren't. He made a list of items such as "the stable and the manger" and asked the Druid if they were "historically and factually true".


Quite uncharacteristically, the Druid gave straight answers to these straight questions. No, the Bible doesn't actually use the word "stable" but it does very strongly imply that Jesus was born in an outbuilding of some kind. It certainly says that he was laid in a manger. It doesn't specifically mention an ox, an ass, or any other kind of animal, although there might very well have been livestock in an outbuilding that contained a feeding trough. It doesn't snow in the Middle East, as any fule kno.


Interestingly enough, someone had fed Mayo the old lie about the story of the virgin birth being based on a mistranslation, but the Druid set him straight. Matthew and Luke definitely say that Jesus had no human father, but Matthew may have wrongly understood a passage in the Old Testament as foretelling that this is how the Messiah would be born. When asked whether the story of the Virgin Birth was essential or inessential, the Archdruid waffled a bit :


"....I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up; but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it - now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes..."

But, translated from the gobbledegook, it's clear enough what he was saying: "Yes, this is what Christians believe; and yes, this is what I personally believe, but no, if you are seriously looking into the claims of Jesus Christ for the first time, that's not the best place to start."

But what everyone focussed on is the bit about the Three Kings. Mayo asked if they were historically real, and if so, why one of them is usually depicted as a black man. The Archdruid told him what anyone in possession of a Bible could have found out in 30 seconds flat:

"Well Mathew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend."


And there you have it. From "The Bible says that there were wise men from the East, but not necessarily three of them, and certainly not kings" to "Three wise men a legend" and thence to "Nativity story a legend" in one easy step.


See also under "lipstick, nylons and invitations."



As everyone knows, the New Testament contains two different and incompatible stories of the birth of Jesus. In Luke's Gospel, his birth takes place in secret: only Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, some shepherds, and two holy people in the Temple realise what has happened. Matthew, on the other hand, presents it as a big, spectacular, cosmic event. (He always does: even hard-core fundamentalist have problems with his suggestion that the death of Jesus was marked, not only by a thunderstorm, an earthquake and an eclipse, but also by an invasion of zombies.) Jesus is born, like King David, in Bethlehem and there is a divine firework display, just as you'd expect when a new King is born. But the villain of the piece, Bad King Herod, the Royal Quizzling who sold out the Chosen People to the invading pagans, doesn't notice the light-show. A deputation of foreign wizards have to come and point it out to him. His own Rabbis – his own wise men, if you will – find that their Scriptures agree with the wizards' astrology: if a King is what you are after, Bethlehem's the place to look. Bad King Herod sees this new King is a potential usurper, so while the Pagan holy men are taking fantastically precious gifts to the prince, the Jewish King is arranging to have him murdered.


The visit of the indeterminate number of wise men is commemorated in churches on January 6th, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. There's no reason to suppose that the magi really did turn up in Bethlehem on 6/01/0002. The star is said to have appeared when Jesus was born, and it must have taken the Wise Men at least several weeks to get from The East to Herod: and more time for them to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Christmas cards always show the Magi finding Mary and Joseph in the Stable, with baby-Jesus still in the Manger; but presumably after twelve days, the crowds would have thinned out and they could have got a room inside the Inn. Miss Muir explained that it was OK for our class nativity play to have both shepherds and wise-men in it, because the shepherds would naturally have come back every few days to see how mother and child were getting on. But Matthew says that the Wise Men came to a house and found a child there: not a newborn in a stable. Herod orders the cull of ever child under two, which gives some idea of the time frame.


What has actually happened is that churches have decided that the story of the wise men is a good example of God being interested in the whole world, and therefore an appropriate passage to read out at "epiphany". The story of the wedding at Cana (arguably the first event in Jesus public ministry) was also occasionally used: no-one ever suggested that that happened on Twelfth Night. Another good January 6th passage is Psalm 72, attributed to King Solomon. The poem imagines a future time when Israel is Top Nation and people from all over the world will pay homage to one of Solomon's illustrious descendants:


The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents

The kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts

Yea, all kings shall bow down to him

and all nations shall serve him


So: is what the Archdruid calls a legend actually a misunderstanding? Simple folks heard the two passages being read out on Twelfth Night, and assumed that Matthew's magi and Solomon's kings were one and the same?


Solomon seems to be hoping for we-four-kings, unless Tarshish-and-the-Isles share a monarchy, like Great-Britain-and-Northern-Island. "Tarshish" seems to be used in the Old Testament to represent anywhere that's an awfully long way away. When Jonah wants to get as far from God as possible, its Tarshish he heads for. Father Mapple in Moby Dick says that learned men have discovered that it's in Spain; a quick trawl of the interweb reveals that many loopy fundamentalists are taught that it's in Britain. Seba may be somewhere in Arabia. Sheba (as in "the arrival of the Queen of") is usually identified with Ethiopia. So that gives us three kings: an Arab, an African and a European. Medieval geography tended to regard the world as being divided into three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. So, very possibly, the Magi mutated into the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba and then into three symbolic monarchs: one European, one Asian and one African. The symbolism is clear enough: the whole world recognises that Jesus is King - only the King of the of the Jews can't.


Matthew's original version of the story draws a contrast between the Jewish wise men, hunched over their dusty scrolls but failing to notice the great big shiny thing in the sky; and the pagan wise men who've followed it for thousands of miles. In the traditional version the contrast is between the false King of the Jews who wants to kill the prince, and the pagan Kings who want to worship him. There is a certain comedy to the Biblical version; but if you are painting a Christmas card or producing a nativity play, the King-centered version has a pleasing thematic unity; and the contrast between the poor king in the stable and the rich kings who visit him is irresistible. This is presumably what the archbishop meant when he said that the story of the Kings "worked as a legend".



In 1930, people on T.S Eliot's Christmas card list received the text of a new Christmas poem, which was carefully not called The Journey of the Kings. It has since acquired an almost canonical status: a Carol Service that didn't include "A cold coming we had of it..." would be as unthinkable as one which omitted "The bells of waiting advent ring...". (Last year's Carols from Kings College also included a poem by Alan Titchmarsh, but I'm guessing they won't make that mistake again. Ever.)


Mr. Eliot set his imagination to work on Matthew's story of the Magi:


A cold coming we had of it

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow...


Camels? Well, there are plenty of camels in the Bible: they spend their time going through eyes of needles, being accidentally swallowed by Pharisees, and embarrassingly herded by Abraham several centuries before they'd actually been introduced into the middle-east. So Eliot and the Christmas card artists are simply making an informed deduction: if you were coming all the way from the Orient, let alone from Tarshish and the Isles, camels are the kind of vehicle you might be using.


Or not. Another good Epiphany reading is Isaiah 60 which specifically deals with the Jewish God revealing himself to the gentiles.


Arise, shine, for thy light has come
And the glory of the lord is risen upon thee
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and see:
all they gather themselves together, they come to thee:
thy sons shall come from far,
and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. ...
The multitude of
camels shall cover thee,
the
dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
all they from Sheba shall come:
they shall bring gold and incense;
and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.

So again: someone has put an Old Testament passage in which gentile kings bring Gold and Incense to God's Top King alongside a New Testament story in which Magi bring gold, incense and myrrh to Jesus. The camels have leapt from one text to the other.



The staff of Starbucks think that it is very important that, during December, I should listen to loud, poppy versions of Christmas songs with my coffee. (Has anyone in the world ever felt their life enhanced by hearing "Frosty the Snowman"?) As I write, a ludicrous, rappy version of the "Carol of the Drum" is blaring through the loudspeaker at me. The final stanza runs:


Mary nodded...

The Ox and Lamb kept time...

I played my drum for him...

I played my best for him...

Then he smiled at me...me and my drum.


This is of, course, a piece of 20th century fiction in which Matthew's Magi are accompanied to Luke's stable by a purely apocryphal little drummer-boy. (Did he bring eleven mates along, seeings as how it was the twelfth day of Christmas?) There's no particular reason why he wouldn't have found a lamb there. If we follow Miss Muir's reconstruction, the Magi arrived a few days after the Shepherds, and if we agree with Christina Rossetti, one of the shepherds may well have left a lamb as a present. (In the Mystery Plays, the shepherds are much less generous: they bring things like a bob of cherries, a caged bird, and a tennis ball.) But the version of the song I grew up with said "the ox and ass kept time". The lyrics have presumably been changed to stop the Bart Simpsons of this world giggling.


Christmas Carols are positively heaving with this kind of livestock: "why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?"; "ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now";"saint and angel, ox and ass, kept a watch together". The Archdruid, curiously, said that he could live without the ox and the ass because "they don't figure very strongly in the gospels". So far as I can see, they don't figure in them at all: but they do figure in Isaiah's prophecy - on the very first page of it, in fact:


"Hear, oh heaven

and give ear, oh earth:

For the Lord hath spoken

I have nourished and brought up children

And they have rebelled against me

The Ox knoweth his owner,

and the Ass his master's crib

but Israel doth not know,

my people doth not consider."


The New International version goes so far as translate "crib" as "manger", just in case we missed the point.


So: the Ox and the, er, Donkey, turn out to be an iconographic representation of the same theological point which the stories of the Wise Men and the Kings are making: when God comes to earth, pagans and foreigners and even farm animals recognise him - only the Chosen People can't. Which is, of course, exactly the point which John makes in the poem which opens his Gospel: "he came unto his own, and his own received him not."



The question about which parts of the nativity story are "historically and factually true" turns out not to be a particularly helpful one. The Camel isn't there to inform us of the historical facts about the Wise Men's mode of transportation: it's a sort of sacred hyperlink which says "When you read about Jesus, I want you to keep Isaiah's vision in mind: that the gentiles would one day acknowledge the lordship of YHWH." The artists and poets who turned the Magi into Monarchs weren't revealing a previously neglected bit of history: they were saying "When you hear the story of the gentiles spotting Jesus and the Jews missing him, remember the poem about how kings from all over the world came to worship the Messiah." The Ox and the Ass are there, not because we care particularly what kind of a barn the inn-keeper put Mary and Joseph up in, but to refer us to the Old Testament passage which says "God's chosen people have totally lost track of what God is like."


And yes: one might very well wish to go a lot further. Perhaps Matthew only put the gold and the incense into the story because he was familiar with the Old Testament passage about people on camels bringing gifts to the Messiah; perhaps he made the Magi tell Herod that they had observed the rising of the new King's star because he wanted a concrete illustration of the idea that Jesus was the "light" that Isaiah was writing about; perhaps Luke added a manger because he wanted to invoke the poem about farm animals being better at spotting God than holy people are.



This year, the big Christmas Is Cancelled story was about a survey commissioned by a trendy evangelical church in London: it transpired that 70% of the Great British Public did not "believe" in the traditional nativity story.


Well, a great deal depends on what you mean by "believe" and "nativity story". If by "nativity story" you mean the one that the Daily Mail is waxing nostaligic over -- the one in which Jesus was born in a snow covered stable, between an ox and an ass, surrounded by camel and lambs - and if by "believe" you mean "think that it is historically and factually true"; then the really surprising thing about be is 70% of people did believe in it. If you mean "believe in the message that the traditional iconography is putting across - that God came in secret and wasn't spotted by any of the professional God-spotters - then it's a lot stickier. St Helen's Church seemed to think that the doubting majority regarded the story is simply mythical, a fairy tale set in some never-never land, and have put out a little a video pointing out that Augustus, Quirinius and Herod are verifiable historical characters and that at least some classicists find the story of the census not implausible.


But the more interesting thing in the survey is that 22% of church-goers, and 28% of the general population don't believe that Jesus is both human and divine. The first figure isn't terribly surprising: any church must have a certain number of doubters, enquirers and hangers-on - they aren't meant to be members-only holy clubs, after all. But the second one - that nearly 7 out of 10 people believe in the central supernatural claim of Christianity, is astonishing.


At any rate "Is Jesus both God and Man" has much more to do with what's "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" than what kind of camel the wise men were riding on or how much snow there was on the stable. The Torygraph reported with glee that, in the last twelve months, the Archdruid has changed his mind on the Wise Men: he now thinks that the story is basically true, because there might well have been Jewish astrologers just outside the Roman Empire getting involved in the politics of Herod's last days in Jerusalem. Now, for all I know, he may be right: just as, for all I know, the annual article by an astronomer pointing out that a conjunction, a solar flare, or a comet might provide a rational basis for the Star of Bethlehem may be on to something. But I am actually much more scandalized by the Archdruid's attempt to rationalize the story as history than I was by his suggestion that it's a legend. Because political astrologers and stellar conjunctions tell us precisely nothing about what Matthew and Luke were trying to say.


If I submitted a film script about 21st century America in which a young George W Bush is chastised by his father for chopping down a cherry tree on the White House lawn, would anyone think to ask if that was historically and factually true? Wouldn't they all spot that I was saying, pictorially: "Dubya was as famous for his mendacity as George Washington was for his honesty?" If they started to write learned essays about whether cherries grow in Washington and whether the security men would have let him get his hands on a hatchet, wouldn't we think that they had just possibly missed the point?

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And when they bore me overmuch, I will not shake mine ears,
Recalling many thousand such whom I have bored to tears.
And when they labour to impress, I will not doubt nor scoff;
Since I myself have done no less and sometimes pulled it off.

Kipling

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

...and when Bagpuss goes to sleep...


RIP Oliver Postgate

Monday, December 01, 2008

Important, but brief, note, regarding Barack Obama, Paterson Joseph, and Benjamin Zephaniah

Typical. You wait 450 years for a black man to be appointed to an important position, and then three come along all at once.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Important Note For Everyone

I was walking home the other day, and a total stranger came up to me and asked if I ever had a the kind of day which just makes me what to go up to someone and hug them. I hadn't, but she had, and so she did.

I then went into a corner shop to purchase a loaf of bread and some semi-skimmed milk, and the man behind the counter, who I had precisely once before, greeted me like a long-lost friend, asked if I had had a nice day at work, and turning to the elderly gentleman who was counting out some loose change rather slowly, added "You take your time, Pops."


I am as pleased as anyone that George W Bush is going to stop being President of Americaland, but the sooner everyone gets back to being miserable and cynical, the better I shall like it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Important Note About Busses

I've been in London. The Tube is festooned with ten foot high photographs of 200 year old stuffed mocking birds, with some reasonably closely worded text pointing out that their tail feathers are slightly different, and that this is what set Mr. Darwin thinking about the idea of Natural Selection. Kings College London had a display of famous alumni outside their premises. Charles Lyell's claim to fame is, apparently, that he proved conclusively that the world is millions of years old.

I don't think that the Evil Christian Hegemony can have been trying very hard this week.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Important Note For Popes

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.


John Lennon did not say "We are bigger than Jesus." What he said was: "We are bigger than Jesus."

He saw dwindling congregations, clergy who spoke gobbledegook or who openly admitted that they didn't believe in God, and made the not very controversial suggestion that religion was declining. He cited the fact that a mere pop group had more influence on youngsters than Jesus did as evidence of this. It wasn't a boast, youthful or otherwise: it was an honest observation. He didn't rate the Beatles that highly. Just a band that made it very, very big.

I think that Paul McCartney went too far in saying that John was cajoling the church, saying "get out there, spread the Good News". True, some sources say that Lennon was converted to evangelical Christianity during the summer of 1977, but he'd given it up by Christmas. A few months later he tried Islam for a day or two.

He wasn't consistently anti-Christian - he made use of Gospel Choirs on some of his records - but he was surely too hostile to structures and organizations of any kind to ever really want the Church to do anything at all.


His remarks about the thick disciples ruining Christianity are, of course, naive: he seems to have been the kind of clever but uneducated person who uncritically accepted the contents of the last book he read.
("It's not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time" as the offending article had it.) Cleverer people than him have been convinced by The Passover Plot; much cleverer people than him have created a figure called "Jesus" in their own image and convinced themselves that it's what lies behind the New Testament. Or else, just used "Jesus" as a place-holder for human goodness.

We are all Jesus. And we are all Hitler. Lennon wasn't the first person to use the world "Jesus" in that way, and he certainly wasn't the last.

He wasn't a Christian, but he was an honest seeker and it's a shame that the-Beatles-are-more-popular-than-Jesus is the only bit anyone remembers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Important Note For the BBC

A policy of appeasement towards the Daily Mail will not work. The Daily Mail is not objecting to one particularly ill-judged radio broadcast: they will use anything as a pretext to attack what they still think of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company. The colour of a newsreaders' tie; an insufficiently groveling news item about the royal family; soap opera story lines which are too depressing; every occurrence of the word "fuck", in any context - nothing is too trivial to be used as ammunition in their war against public service broadcasting.

Why, incidentally, does the
Today programme continue to say things like "he used the F-word"? Whose sensibilities are they trying to protect? Those of the kind of Daily Mail reader who would be traumatized by seeing the word "masturbation" in plain print? When Today ran an item about how some black people have reclaimed the N-word, they were quite happy to actually pronounce it.

The
Daily Mail thinks that in attacking the BBC, it is striking a blow against the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite. I have no stomach for a class-war: but if it comes to a fight between the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite and the reactionary, ignorant, provincial riff-raff then I know which side I intend to fight on.

I have very little interest in the role-call of minor pop singers and spoiled Hollywood
luvvettes who parade across Jonathan Ross's chat show: but surely any fool can see that he is a consummate master of the medium of live television? He seems to have the capacity to, on the one hand, totally forget, and to make his victims forget, that they are in front of a camera; while at the same time using the camera as a licence to say the kinds of things that you simply wouldn't say in real life. In an era when TV is bigger than Jesus, the man who can do that will naturally command an astronomical salary. I am not especially entertained by a grown man saying "Bum" to an actress that I have never heard of: but I think that "In Search of Steve Ditko" was the single best documentary about comic-books ever made. Ross is the only person who has ever successfully challenged Stan Lee's version of events; only someone with his outrageous interviewing style could have done so. Obviously, someone who is paid for having this persona is going to overstep the mark from time to time.

When the
Daily Mail is looking for an excuse to hang you, it is most unwise to give them any rope. But the idea that sacking a couple of "shock jocks" will silence the Hooray For the Blackshirts brigade is naive in the extreme. Nothing short of the abolition of the licence fee, which they regard as a thievery on a level with droit du seigneur will satisfy them. Do you really think that allowing them to scent blood is going to calm them down? Surely it is a matter of basic human decency to stick up for your naughty kids in public, even if you give them a clip round the ear when you get them home?

Or am I just too inclined to assume that anyone who named one of their children "Kirby" can't be all-bad?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Important Note For Politicians and Leader Writers

Bad Things happen. Bad Things have always happened. Very probably, Bad Things are going to carry on happening.

Bad Things are not the result of some local and contemporary state of affairs which could, in principle, be changed.

Bad Things would have happened even if the previous administration had not made any errors of judgment; and Bad Things will carry on happening even if you form the next administration. Bad Things are
not the ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name. Bad Things are not proof that we live in a broken society. There were Bad Things before the Second World War; and Bad Things before the nineteen sixties. There were Bad Things before women started to go out to work. Even when we lived in nuclear families and communities and exerted social pressure through each others net curtains, there were still Bad Things.

When a Bad Thing happens, it is
not a pretext for you to say that everything you have been saying about everything for the last few years has been right; and everything the other side has been saying about everything for the last few years has been wrong. It is most unlikely that any particular Bad Thing has been caused by liberals, civil partnerships, easy divorce, rude disc-jockeys, or the paying of income support to disabled people.

When a Bad Thing happens, please resist the temptation to say "We must make sure that such a Bad Thing never happens again." Because it will. Almost certainly, it already has.

Oh: and there is no such
thing as a "pauper's funeral". Even John Doe gets a hearse, a clergyman, and a marked grave.
The Boston Tea Party has a very small supply of that special coffee that's harvested from cat-poo; its suppliers sold it to them at cost price and they are passing it on to their customers, so while it would normally cost a hundred million billion pounds a cup, they have made it available for £2.

It tastes, as the great Dave Sim once remarked, very much like a cup of coffee.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

45 Years Later

"It is emphasized that the "ship" may transport the four characters backwards or forwards, sideways into lesser or greater dimensions or into non-gravitational existence or invisibility etc, but once arrived into the different place and time the four characters have only their intelligence and ingenuity upon which to rely. They cannot produce a "ray gun" to reduce a horde of Picts and Scots, nor can they rely upon specialized drugs to cure a Greek philosopher.

'It is also emphasised that the four characters cannot make history. Advise must not be proffered to Nelson on his battle tactics while approaching the Nile, nor must bon mots be put into the mouth of Oscar Wilde. They are four people plunged into alien surroundings, armed with only their courage and cleverness. "

David Whitaker's guildelines for Doctor Who writers - 16 May 1963

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It would also be interesting to teach more than one theory of creation. The dominant one in this culture happens to be the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian creation myth. There are, of course, lots and lots of others, and perhaps they should all be given equal time (except that wouldn't leave much time for studying anything else). I understand that there are Hindus who believe that the world was created in a cosmic butter churn and Nigerian peoples who believe that the world was created by God from the excrement of ants. Surely these stories have as much right to equal time as the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve.

Richard Dawkins "Is Science a Religion", 1997

I replied that, horribly as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing up the child Catholic in the first place.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 317

It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell. It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse.

Richard Dawkins, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Oct 23rd.

Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards". "I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know," he told More4 News. "I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."

Ibid.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Answer

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.


Everyone agrees that, sooner or later, preferably much later, children should be told about the facts of life. Nearly everyone agrees that school teachers should be the ones who tell them. It's too embarrassing for children to hear their own parents talking about the birds and the bees.

The job of telling children where babies come from tends to fall on biology teachers in particular. And as long as they are just explaining the mechanics, they are probably very well suited to the job. I have to admit that I couldn't give a remotely coherent account of what happens inside the mummy after she and the daddy have cuddled each other in a very special way. But even if I did have a clear and distinct idea of what a chromosome is and how spermatozoa is spelled, and even if I did have the knack of explaining it to kids without making them giggle, that wouldn't automatically make me the best person to advise them about how to obtain condoms or what steps to take if they think that they might be in certain condition. Neither would it necessarily privilege my opinion about whether the act of congress should happen only in the context of a committed and loving relationship or whether it is such a natural and beautiful thing that free love should be the order of the day. Or about whether homosexuality is a terrible perversion, a slightly tragic quirk, or rather an improvement.

These aren't scientific questions: you can't find the answer by dissecting a frog; drawing a family tree of dominant and recessive genes in pea-plants; or colouring in a diagram of the human eye-ball, useful social accomplishments though these are undoubtedly are. Sexual intercourse isn't only about reproduction. It isn't even, unless you happen to be an Elf or a Roman Catholic, mostly about reproduction. It raises social, pastoral, spiritual and ethical questions. But if you treat sex as a sub-category of science, it's the biology teacher who is going to have to answer them.


I think that this was Mr. Muir's problem. I think that he thought that the theory of evolution raised social, spiritual, pastoral and ethical questions. I think that he thought that as a science teacher he had no special authority to answer those questions. He therefore passed them over to a religious studies teacher who did claim such authority. (That's the charitable explanation. The uncharitable one was that if he had admitted that he thought the whole "God" thing was a load of rubbish, he would have looked an even bigger fool and hypocrite the next morning when - in obedience to laws laid down by the secular state that paid his wages - he led the school in prayers.)


I nevertheless think that his answer was a cop-out. I think that, as a science teacher, he did have the right, and possibly the duty, to say "Well, if Darwin's theory is right – and all the cleverest and wisest people think that it is – then it certainly looks as if the story of creation in the Bible can't be the literal truth. Some wise people have found that this means that they can't believe in any God at all; other equally wise people have found that they can believe in Darwin and also in God."

But what if some over-enthusiastic eight year old had persisted. But Sir, who is right? If you are right about Darwin, does that mean that I should stop going to Sunday School? If I want to carry on going to Sunday School, does that mean that I have to convince myself that you are wrong about Darwin?

Various answers have been proposed.

"I'm sorry. I am not permitted to talk about that. If I do, I shall be exiled to Siberia."

This is called "secularism".

It is much advocated by silly people. It is more or less the situation which prevails in the United States, except the part about Siberia: we can't talk about religion and we can't even talk about the fact that we can't talk about it. (*) People can do whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes (**) but the public sphere must be scrupulously neutral on all question of faith and faithlessness. It's an approach which makes the teaching of history particularly rewarding. Henry VIII had a disagreement with a person in Italy who I'm not allowed to talk about about a thing which I'm not allowed to talk about. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men sort of somehow came into being equal, and were endowed by, well at any rate, they sort of somehow acquired, certain inalienable rights.


"Yes; the theory of evolution absolutely proves that God did not create the world; and since he did not create the world, he does not exist, since creating the world is all that he's there for. So he's a sort of myth invented by wicked people to make you behave yourself, like Father Christmas and Harry Potter, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a kind of child molester, just like the gym teacher."

This called "secularism".

It is sometimes advocated by other silly people. It isn't satisfied with a complete absence of religion: it wants institutions like schools and busses to be actively opposed to religion. Private individuals will, for the time being at any rate, still be permitted to tell their own children about God but it's the job of The State to inform them that they are wrong. This version of secularism also holds that The State has the power to ban certain kinds of hats, certain kinds of jewelery or certain kinds of diets if it suspects that people are eating or wearing them for religious reasons. (***)

"Well, some people think so. Others, not so much. You'll have to decide for yourself. I may or may not have my own opinions about God, but they aren't more likely to be right than anyone else's. In your R.E lesson, you'll be starting to talk about what different clever people down the ages have thought about the subject."

This is called "secularism".

It is often advocated by sensible people. It's the belief that State Institutions like schools should, as far as possible, adopt a pluralist stance towards religion and towards the absence of religion. It isn't for the State to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Nor should the State pretend that the quarrel isn't happening. Rather, it should show children the argument, and allow them to make up their own minds.

Even as we speak, someone is typing a note pointing out to me that since it is physically impossible to put a stair lift into Big Ben, the whole idea of having disabled access to public buildings is absurd; and since a girls school might reasonably not want a male teacher to supervise the girls in the changing rooms, the whole idea of gender equality in employment is obviously crazy. Clearly, if you aren't going to give the creation myths of the Malaysian Frog Worshiping Community parity with Darwin, it's absurd even to admit the existence of the book of Genesis.

But that isn't what the argument is about. The question is not whether literary and mythological accounts of creation should be taught instead of scientific ones in science lessons. The question is about what moral, ethical, spiritual, philosophical and theological questions ought to be asked about that scientific account and whether science teachers should necessarily be the ones to answer them. When Mr. Muir said "All the evidence points to human beings having evolved through a process of natural selection", he was speaking as an expert. Had he added "...and it follows that the whole idea of religious is silly" then he would have been speaking as ill-informed amateur.


It has recently been discovered that as well as sex, evolution, football and the holocaust, all schoolchildren have got to "do" slavery.

A social and cultural history of "slavery" from Ancient Rome to Primark would be an interesting and valid field of study. So, indeed, would the history of washing-up or the history of trades unions or the history toilets: everything on earth is interesting. And those of us who are old fashioned enough to think that some kind of narrative history of the British Isles from, say, King Arthur to, say, Queen Victoria should probably form part of any coherent scheme of British education also agree that the question of slavery, and how it probably wasn't a terribly good thing, ought not be be excluded from any discussion of the age of Empire. But I rather fear that when we talk about compulsory Slavery Studies, we are not talking about an interesting and important branch of history, but some platitudes about how beastly we white people were to you black people in the olden days and how you ought to feel victimized and we ought to feel guilty. I am not quite sure how this helps.

I assume that, when they Do slavery children will be taught that William Wilberforce was an heroic English reformer and all round Good Thing. I wonder how they will deal with the fact that he was also a Creationist?


(*) Source: that movie about the mad kid and the rabbit.

(**) Apart from smoking, smacking, reading poetry about terrorism, letting your children taste your wine, playing kinky games if one of your ancestors was involved in right-wing politics, putting organic waste in wheelie bins, hunting foxes and having the wrong kind of light-bulb. Obviously.

(***) Silly people pretend that they can't see the difference between saying "We have specially invented a rule to prevent you wearing a particular, inoffensive kind of hat because we suspect that it might be religious hat" and "We refuse to waive the already existing anti-hat rule for the benefit of people whose hats are religious". Since everyone else can, it's not a point that we need waste any further time on.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Question

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.



Most of what follows is true.


In 1973 we had a Science Lesson.


It was taught by Mr. Muir with the help of a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. Tape-recorders generally meant that the lesson was going to be interesting, but you needn't pay much attention to it - Science or Music or Drama. On Fridays there was a tape-recorded religious service with a special hymn book and Johnny Morris doing funny voices.


Mr. Muir was headmaster. I think he often chose to teach the interesting lessons like Science and Painting and Football and left ordinary teachers like Miss Walker to teach the dull ones like Sums and Verbs and Needlework. But I wonder if he had to teach this particular science lesson because Miss Walker had refused point-blank to do so?

We never had a single word of sex education: not even the baby animals coming out of mummy animals' tummies kind. Once, when we were doing a Project which involved picking stories out of last week's newspapers and talking about them, Spencer had asked Miss Walker to define the word "streaker". She said that it was "a man who did what you mustn't."


This particular tape involved a long, exciting, dramatized account of a man with a beard who had gone on a long voyage on a ship to an island and discovered some tortoises. I don't believe the E-word was mentioned.


In Masterplan Q, Doctor Who visited a planet that was in a very primitive state and therefore of great interest to evolutionists like himself. This was on the back of a Nestles Chocolate wrapper, and therefore possibly not cannon. As well as listening to programmes taped off what Miss Walker called the wireless, we sometimes traipsed out into the corridor and watched a Schools Programme live on TV. The idea of taping TV programmes hadn't been invented. Quite a lot of these programmes seemed to be about Fossils. I don't know how many times and in how many different ways it was explained that dead animals could sometimes leave their shapes in rocks. In principle, one could do the same thing with blotting paper.
The TV was opposite Mr. Muir's office, so sometimes while you were watching the TV programme about fossils and (and sometimes coral) someone else would be waiting outside Mr Muir's office to be smacked, which could be a distraction. I wonder if we were supposed to have moved on to Fossils of monkeys and thus to the big E? But so far as I remember, we never got beyond starfish. I had (speaking of monkeys) a full set of PG Tips Tea cards, so I must have always known about dinosaurs, but I am not quite sure where I thought they fitted in to anything.

I got the point that the man with the beard had found skeletons of monkeys on the tortoise-island and realised that these monkeys must be the same monkeys that human beans were descended from. At the end of the radio programme, I raised my hand, possibly waved it around somewhat, and spoke words to the effect: "Please, Sir: Does this mean that God didn't make the world after all?"


Mr. Muir's reply was oracular, if not actually prophetic.


"I don't know," he said "Ask Miss Walker."


I am ashamed to say that I went against the spirit of his instructions and actually did ask Miss Walker.


"Please Miss," I said, "We've been doing the Voyage of the Beagle with Mr Muir, and he said to ask you whether God made the world."


"Ah," said Miss Walker in an off-hand kind of way, "All that means is that men have found old bones of animals which they think look a bit like people's bones. I shouldn't worry about it if I were you."


So I didn't.


At secondary school, we got 35 minutes of R.E taught by biology teachers, geography teachers and P.E teachers. One teacher talked about Rudyard Kipling and Inuit creation stories. A different one pointed out that the book of Genesis had got the order in which things were created exactly right, even if the time frame was out by a factor of a few hundred billion, so that proved it. A girl with plaits called Sonja pointed out that if people had evolved from monkeys there wouldn't be any monkeys, so that proved it. The geography teacher explained that all the wars in history had been caused by God, but she had a hearing-aid so no-one paid any attention to her. Girls got a film of how a baby is made, and boys got a chat about how playing with yourself is perfectly normal and you should avoid homosexuals even though it isn't really their fault. Everything I know about evolution I learned from David Attenborough, although to be honest I was more interested in the BBC Television Shakespeare. After I left school, Mrs. Thatcher invented the National Curriculum and abolished homosexuals, smacking and the GLC, so it's all probably very different nowadays.


But the question "Does the Voyage of the Beagle mean that God didn't create the world after all?" is still a controversial one. If you get the answer wrong, you won't necessarily be sent to stand outside Mr. Muir's door, but you may be kicked out of the Royal Society.

It's obvious when you put it like that...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

BRISTOL CELEBRATES FALL OF CAPITALISM BY OPENING HUGE NEW SHOPPING MALL


"It's exactly the same as every other shopping mall on earth!" exclaim punters.


"Buy stuff! Buy stuff! We get to buy stuff!"



Making eight in all.



Solving the obesity crisis one cake at a time



I don't think all my ties cost £65



Exciting new House of Fraser department store



Exciting empty building where House of Fraser department store used to be

All her merchants stand with wonder,
What is this that comes to pass:
Murm'ring like the distant thunder,
Crying, "Oh alas, alas."
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles,
Priest and people, rich and poor;
Babylon is fallen
is fallen
is fallen
Babylon is fallen
to rise no more.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This really isn't complicated.

Spider-Man is a hero who fights baddies. He can carry on having adventures as long as the writers can think up baddies for him to fight. You might think that no-one ever wrote and drew Spider-Man as well as Ditko and Lee did (and frankly, if you don't think that, then I don't want to be your friend any more) but the idea of "Spider-Man stories by people other than Ditko and Lee" isn't intrinsically silly.


Similarly, once one person has had the idea of a sophisticated English assassin who hates Russians and likes martinis, it isn't intrinsically silly for a second person to invent new adventures for him.
It may be intrinsically stupid to suppose that he can continue to exist into the 21st century without getting any older, or suddenly turn into a black man, but that's not the question I'm worrying about at the moment.

And a clever modern detective story writer might conceivably be able to think up decent new mysteries for Sherlock Holmes
to solve, although it isn't quite clear why they would want to. If you've got an idea for a mystery that's worth solving, why not let your own detective solve it?

Going back to comics, were I in a magnanimous mood, I might concede that there have been one or two
episodes of the Fantastic Four since 1970 which haven't been a complete waste of space. Before everyone jumps up and down shouting "John Byrne, John Byrne", I will note that Mr. Byrne's cleverness was in being as close to Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lee as it is physically possible to be, making his comics arguably pastiches and arguably redundant, even if they are quite enjoyable redundant pastiches. But surely it was Jack Kirby's uniquely deranged concepts, embellished by Stan lee's uniquely overdone writing, that made the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four and once you take away Mr Kirby's stories and pictures and Mr Lee's dialogue, what you are left with is four not particularly interesting adventures.

But things like The New Gods
(I'm looking at YOU Jim Starlin even though my fourteen year old self thought Warlock was profound) and The Eternals (you should be ashamed of yourself, Neil Gaiman, ashamed) derive all of their interest from being "a slice of what it feels like to be Jack Kirby in graphic form". Nothing that has been done with those characters by people other than Jack has had anything to do with the source material, and very little of it has had any merit on its own terms. (I believe that people who know about these things think that Darksied was once well-used as a villain in the Legion of Superheroes.)

But if you wanted to come up with the clearest possible example of a work of fiction whose whole interest comes from the original writer's cock-eyed way of looking at the world; whose whole interest is in being "the universe as seen through the eyes of..." then it would be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (If you wanted to come up with the second clearest possible example, it would be The Prisoner.) I am not saying that a story by A.N Other writer in which there happen to be characters called Ford, Arthur and Zaphod would be a travesty, or the equivalent of weeing on Douglas Adams grave or that they would somehow damage the original books.

The original books - and more importantly, the original 3-7 hours of radio footage - exist, and will always exist, as a snapshot of what 1970s earth looked like through the eyes of a particularly clever and silly man.

But still. A non-Adamsian sequel to Hitchhiker is a preposterously stupid idea.


Don't do it, guys. You'll regret it in the morning.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

When the pistols were ready, Blackbeard blew out the candle and crossing his hands discharged them at his company: Hands, the master, was shot through the knew and lamed for life, the other pistol did no execution. Being asked for the meaning of this, he only answered, by damning them:

"If I did not now and then kill one of you, you would forget who I was!"


Being one day at sea, and a little flushed with drink


"Come" he says "Let us make a Hell of our own and try how long we can bare it"


Accordingly he, with two or three others, went down into the hold, and closing up all the hatches, filled several pots full of brimstone, and other combustible matter, and set it on fire, and so continued till they were almost suffocated, when some of the men cried out for air, at length he opened the hatches, not a little pleased that he held out the longest.

The night before he was killed...one of Blackbeard's men asked whether his wife knew where he had buried his money. He answered:


"Nobody but myself and the devil knows where it is, and the longest liver shall take all!"




happy September 19th