Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Our old friends the Vicar of Putney and his boss the Archbishop of Canterbury both contributed essays to the Guardian over Easter. Or rather, they both contributed the same essay. It seems that, over the Easter Vacation, they have been studying the works of a French lepracologist named Girard. Girard believes that societies have a tendency to invent enemies, particularly at times of crisis, in order to create a sense of unity. This can be very uncomfortable if you are one of those who gets labeled as an 'enemy'.
Well, golly-gosh. I'm astonished no-one has spotted that before. Giles Fraser gets very excited about this new insight:
At times of tension or division, there is nothing quite as uniting as the 'discovery' of someone to blame - often someone perfectly innocent. For generations of Europeans, the Jews were cast in the role; in the same way women have been accused of being witches, homosexuals derided as unnatural, and Muslims dismissed as terrorists.
Rowan Williams puts it like this:
In recent years a number of Christian writers – inspired by the French critic and philosopher, Rene Girard - have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.
Williams and Fraser take it for granted that this 'scapegoating' is a Very Bad Thing. They think that the Easter story offers some kind of solution.
Well. That certainly sounds religious. 'God-identifies-with-the-outcasts' is definitely the kind of thing we'd expect a Vicar to say. And the 'despised and rejected' bit – that comes out of Handel's Messiah, doesn't it? So if we aren't careful, we won't spot that Fraser isn't actually talking about religion at all. For him, Easter isn't about God or Heaven or Jesus risen from the dead or anything like that. Oh dear me no. Jesus died in order to make the point that selecting social or racial enemies is a really, really bad idea and that it would be much better if we didn't.
Clergy are always drawing social messages out of religious stories. There is nothing wrong with saying 'Jesus was an innocent person executed by the state – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if our state stopped executing innocent people?' or 'Babyjesus ran away to a foreign country because Herod wanted to kill him – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if we welcomed foreign people who came to our country instead of, say deporting them to places where they'll probably be hung'. But Fraser appears to be saying that this is the whole point of Easter, not a secondary message that you might want to draw out of it. Why did God 'take the place of the despised and rejected? In order to expose the moral degeneracy of society. The Crucifixion illustrates the point that picking on the fat kid in the playground is a bad idea. The Kingdom of God means 'the kind of playground where the fat kid doesn't get picked on.' For this I got out of bed on Sunday morning?
The Archdruid is marginally more coherent. He's been watching the BBC film version of the Passion and thought it was quite good. He says that, at the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans both hated and feared each other. That hatred and fear had become part of their group-identity. Their leaders tacitly kept it going. But:
Jesus offered a perfect excuse for them to join in a liberating act of bloodletting which eliminated a single common enemy. The spiral of fear was halted briefly.
The Jews and the Romans both thought that beating up someone would make them feel good for a bit and picked on Jesus as a likely candidate. For a short while, killing Jesus did indeed make them feel good (Pilate and Herod became friends, didn't they?) But this sort of thing doesn't work for very long.
It's a dubious reading of the Bible (and, indeed, of the BBC film). Far from thinking that a bit of blood-letting would be therapeutic, Pilate bends over backwards to get Jesus off the hook. Far from hating Jesus, Caiphas is a cold-blooded machiavell. He can only maintain his religious authority by appearing to accept the Empire's secular authority. If there is a big religious revival under Jesus, the Romans might see it as a threat and close down the Temple. By presenting Jesus to Pilate as a secular rebel (which he knows to be false) Caiphas can end Jesus' ministry and deprive the Romans of a possible pretext for a crackdown. True, he says that it's sometimes necessary for one man to die for the people; but so far as he knows, he's only talking about political expediency. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
But let's grant the Archdruid's fanciful idea that the Jews and the Romans decided to work out their frustration on Jesus as a kind of primal scream therapy. What follows from this? Williams' explanation lapses into that particular dialect of gobbledegook only spoken by clergymen:
Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself. But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror....Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem. And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.
Following C.S Lewis's advise, I propose translating this into English.
Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself.
'When we are very scared of another group of people, we sometimes feel like hurting someone. Sometimes, this seems to help. But a lot of the time, the person we pick to beat up isn't even one of the people who we were originally scared of.'
But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror.
'As a matter of fact, Jesus didn't do any of the things he was punished for. God gives us good things regardless of whether we deserve them or not (= 'grace' ) ; and he doesn't do bad things to us even when we do deserve them. (= 'mercy'). Jesus was the best possible example of a person who gave good things to people who don't deserve them, and didn't do bad things to people who did. If we were all like this, then we wouldn't ever be scared of other people or hate them. So we'd never want to hurt or kill them. This would be a good thing.'
Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem.
'Picking on innocent people and hurting them doesn't really help, although it may seem to for a while. That's because the real problem is that we hate people and are scared of them in the first place. Picking on an innocent person doesn't change this.'
And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.
'If you want change the fact that there are people who we hate and are scared of, then you should pay attention to what Jesus said -- that we should give nice things even to people who don't deserve to have nice things, and not do nasty things even to people who deserve to have nasty things done to them.'
He goes on:
The claim of Christianity....
Not 'a claim': the claim.
.... is both that this mechanism is universal, ingrained in how we learn to behave as human beings, and that it is capable of changing. It changes when we recognise our complicity and when we listen to what the unique divine scapegoat says: that you do not have to see the rival as a threat to everything, that it is possible to believe that certain values will survive whatever happens in this earth's history because they reflect the reality of an eternal God; that letting go of the obsessions of memory and resentment is release, not betrayal.
Which is to say, being interpreted:
'We all have people who we fear and hate; we all think that beating up an innocent person will make us feel better. But we can stop feeling that way if we want to. First, we have to admit that we ourselves have bad feelings. Jesus says: 'It would be a good thing if we admitted that we have no good reason to hate our enemies. Even if lots of bad things happen in the world, it's okay to carry on believing that good things are good and bad things are bad. If we stop hating our enemies, we will feel much happier.' We should pay attention to this because Jesus was a good man who was killed for things he didn't do.'
Or, more simply: 'the solution to hatred is to stop hating people'.
Verily, verily I say unto thee: duh!
There is nothing wrong with the occasional moral platitude. We all need to be reminded of the bleedin' obvious from time to time. But why does the Archbdruid think that bringing Jesus into it helps? How is his argument – essentially 'Hate is bad and love is better' -- made clearer by adding 'Because a good person who was killed by bad people said so'?
Again, in the original gobbledegook:
People may or may not grasp what is meant by the resolution that the Christian message offers. But at least it is possible that they will see the entire scheme as a structure within which they – we - can understand some of what most lethally imprisons us in our relationships, individual and collective. We may acquire a crucial tool for exposing the evasions on which our lives and our political systems are so often built.
By 'the scheme' he means: 'A long time ago, two sides in a conflict both picked a third person, who had no part in the conflict itself, said he was their enemy, and killed him in a horrible way. They thought this would bring their two tribes together. But it didn't do any good.' How is this supposed to help us understand 'what most lethally imprisons us' (presumably 'the need to pick common enemies'?) In what sense is this a 'tool' ?
The point of the Church's presence in our culture....
Not 'one of the points': the point:
Is not to be a decorative annex to the heritage industry, but to help us see certain things we'd rather not about common responsibility - and the costly way to a common hope.
Does he really believe this? Does he really think that the reason we have cathedrals, confirmation classes, creeds, jumble sales, synods, the monarchy, sacraments, archbishops, coffee mornings, Sunday schools, the Old Testament, hymns, Easter eggs, septuagesima and nativity plays is in order to remind everyone that 'Picking on people doesn't really do any good; much better to kiss and make up?'
According to the book of Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, the following ceremony is to be performed:
But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness...Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and and all their transgressions and all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness
Now: Aaron didn't hoodwink the Israelites into thinking that it was really the goat who'd been responsible for the recent outbreak of ox-coveting. And I imagine that relatively few of the BBC staff thought that their sins had been supernaturally transferred onto Greg Dyke. The Biblical 'scapegoat' is a component in a magic spell which is believed to actually make a difference. By performing the ceremony, the consequences of all the bad things which the Israelites had done in the previous year were taken away. This was important to them, because they thought that only pure people were allowed to talk to God. Doing bad things – and also touching yucky things – made you impure. Everybody sometimes does bad things; so without this special ritual, no-one could ever talk to God.
Some of my more astute readers may possibly be able to spot where I am going with this.
The prophecy of Isaiah talks about a human being who takes on the role of scapegoat -- not in the modern sense of 'dude who gets blamed unfairly' (although he's that as well) but in the original sense of 'supernatural cleaner-upper.'
He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief....He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of all.
Christians have always said that Isaiah's human scapegoat is Jesus. (The point is made explicitly several times in the New Testament.) The Vicar of Putney, by quoting the 'despised and rejected' bit, indicates that he agrees with them. But he is only interested in Jesus as 'the person who unfairly got the blame', and not at all in the idea of a 'supernatural cleaner-upper.' Quoth Giles Fraser:
Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God. The crucifixion reveals human death-dealing at its worst. In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating.
Christians have always taught that Jesus is like the Old Testament scapegoat -- and also the sacrificial lamb, especially the one killed at Passover. There's really no getting away from this. John introduces him as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' and the Bible ends with the whole universe worshipping him under the title of 'the Lamb that was slain'. The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews (or, if Richard Dawkins is still reading this 'St. Paul') goes so far as to say that all the scapegoats and sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament were shadows or reflections: the Crucifixion is the Real Thing, the Original.
Granted, there have been lots of theories about how and why this works: some of them quite outlandish. Few modern Christians would find the idea that the incarnation was a clever ruse to fool Satan into exceeding his authority very helpful. I happen to agree with Fraser that evangelicals should be careful of using language which seems to present Jesus as a cosmic Tom Sawyer, volunteering for a beating in order to save Becky Thatcher from getting one. Push that too far, and God becomes a nasty old school teacher who isn't particularly interested in distinguishing the innocent from the guilty provided someone cops it. But all the theories agreed that the point of Easter was that it re-connected human beings with God. Even the weird fringes of Christianity which thought God was evil, Satan was the creator and Jesus was a hologram believed that. It's only this new Anglican version that has discovered that Christianity was never really interested in putting human beings in touch with God. It was only ever about demonstrating some principles about how human beings should interact with other human beings.
Of course, I agree with those principles. I agree that it is silly to pick groups of people as your enemies. I agree that cathartic blood-letting, even if you happen to have arrested the right man, never helps. I agree that it is shameful that some of our allies continue to practice torture and that our own leaders condone this. I think that love is better than hate. I am against wickedness and in favour of happiness. I just don't understand why it helps to use obscure theological language to state and restate the terribly, terribly obvious.
It must be hard to find yourself in charge of a religion that you never actually believed in. It must be horrible to get ordained because you sincerely want to spread the message that love is better than hatred and discover that you've actually committed yourself to a cult about apple-stealing and blood-drinking and persons with two essences but only one substance, or possibly vice versa. It must be awful to have to twist your very clever head so that 'Hallejulah, Christ our Passover is Sacrificed For Us!' really means 'Why can't people just be nice?' I can see how this might drive you to speak gobbledegook. I can see how, in the end, it might actually drive you insane.
But it's no excuse. I try to picture the Giles Frasers and Rowan Williams of this world running their little parishes. I try to imagine a church full of people with black ties and the remains of, say, a ten-year old kid in a box at the front. I try to imagine them getting to the bit where they have to say 'I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord'. What do they do? Cross their fingers behind their backs and say, 'Well, of course, 'resurrection' is gobbledegook for 'the foundation of a different kind of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating'. But next Easter, I shall change my mind and say that's it's gobbledegook for something else entirely.'
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Full memory flood back, and Sam cried aloud: "It wasn't a dream! Then where are we?"
And a voice spoke softly behind him. "In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you." With that, Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. "Well, master Samwise, how do you feel?" he said.
But Sam laid back; and stared with open mouth, and for a moment between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?"
Friday, March 21, 2008
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Miss Scarlet is an unmarried cyclist. Every Sunday, she attends Holy Communion at the Parish Church of St Hilda of Walsingham.
Mrs. White lives next door to her. One morning, she remarks “How can you possibly eat a bowl of Kellogs Crunchy Nut Cornflakes on Sunday mornings? I know that they are widely regarded as being very, very tasty, but surely everyone knows that the first food you eat on the Sabbath should be the Blessed Sacrament.”
“That sounds like a lot of High, Popish codswallop and fiddle-faddle” explains Miss Scarlet.
“I shall tell you what we should do,” ripostes Mrs White. “We should go to Rev. Green who has the holy anointing of a Priest, and, what is more, an M.A in Religious Studies from the Open University, and ask him what he thinks.”
Rev. Green thinks very carefully, and says that Mrs. White is quite right. Miss Scarlet says that since he is the Vicar, he probably knows best about religious things. From that day on, she always skips breakfast on Sunday mornings.
A few weeks later, Col. Mustard visits Miss Scarlet, and asks her to marry him! She is delighted, and asks Rev. Green to conduct the wedding.
But all is not well! Col. Mustard has been married before, and his first wife (Mrs. Col. Mustard, presumably) is still alive. Rev. Green says that he cannot possibly marry a divorced person in church, and Miss Scarlet will have to hold the ceremony in the private function suite of the Fish and Ferret (licensed for the solemnization of marriages.) Miss Scarlet says that since he is the Vicar, he probably knows best about religious things, but that if she can't be married before God, she doesn't want to be married at all.
Col Mustard is so heartbroken that he kills himself, in the billiard room, with the lead piping, which causes a certain amount of confusion further down the line.
One day, it so happens that Mrs. White's young son, Lilly, crawls through a hole in Miss Scarlet's fence in order to retrieve his football, which he has inadvertently kicked into her garden. During this expedition, he treads on one of Miss. Scarlet's begonias, which she had been intending to enter in the annual village flower show.
When Miss Scarlet hears of this, she waxeth exceeding wrath, and goeth round to Mrs. White's house demanding financial compensation to make up for not winning the flower show, which was, she says, a dead cert.
“Don't be silly,” says Mrs White “This isn't criminal damage, just a case of ordinary child-ish hi-jinks.”
“I shall tell you what we shall do,” says Miss Scarlet. “Although this is not strictly a religious thing, Rev. Green is a sensible fellow. He is disinterested in this case, and we both respect him. Let's ask him what he thinks.”
Rev. Green listens very carefully and says that it is in a very real sense a pity about the begonia, but that he feels that in a very real sense in this case a simple apology should be quite adequate. Miss Scarlet reluctantly agrees to this, since it was her idea to go to Rev. Green in the first place. “A bet's a bet.” she exclaims.
“That went rather well,” thinks Rev. Green. The next Sunday, he preaches a very witty sermon, though he says so himself, in which he suggests that when any of the villagers have a quarrel with their neighbours, they should let him sort it out, in accordance with the sixth chapter of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.
So, when Mrs. White's son kicks his football right through Mis Scarlet's window, scattering glass in her aspidistra and knocking one of her china poodles off the mantelpiece, she doesn't even knock her neighbour's front door. She walks straight round to the Vicarage, and, after queuing for several hours, tells Rev. Green exactly what has happened. After giving the matter several minutes of considerable thought, Rev. Green phones Mrs. White and tells her that this time she should give her son a clip-round-the-ear.
But just at the precise moment, the Village Bobby arrives, and explains that we don't do that kind of thing any more, on account of the European Convention on Human Rights and political correctness having gone mad.
The Rev. Green says that it is his unshakable moral conviction that whoever spareth the rod hates his, or in this case her, son, and that since we hall have freedom of conscience, Mrs. White should damn well chasteneth him betimes.
The Village Bobby says that he daresay that's as maybe, Sir, but the law's the law.
The Rev. Green says that he doesn't see why some ridiculous law made by Frenchmen, homosexuals and Scottish people can possibly over-ride the book of Proverbs, the thirteenth chapter, commencing to read at verse twenty four.
Feeling that they've reached a bit of an impasse, they decide to to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury what he thinks. After several seconds of careful thought, it is decided that Rev. Green has a perfect right to run the village in accordance with Christian principles if that's what the villagers want, and that if they don't like it they can jolly well move to the I.T College down the road where fatwahs are being issued according to the terms of reference on of the constitution of the United Federation of Planets (done at the planet Babel, Star Date 0965.)
So everyone had a transformative accommodation and lived happily ever after.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
there was an Observer colour supplement with a children's section with earnest debates about banning school uniform and old Flash Gordon strips; and there was two column inches about a game where you searched for treasure and a picture of a painted playing piece in the shape of a wizard
there was a pretentious black and white Hulk comic with a small-ads section and the stamped addressed envelope came back with a catalogue and photocopied reviews of games about aliens and red moons and dragons
there was a shop which sold joss-sticks and wooden toys for art-teachers' children and crystal coloured paperweights and unofficial Star Wars toys called force blades which had just stopped being new and a shrink wrapped box with a rule book, a set of dice and the first adventure; and even now the word polyhedral makes the room smell of Micronauts and Elfquest and The Eternals; and even if I had been able to afford it it wouldn't have been a good buy
I never did play Keep on the Boarderlands and never really wanted to
there was a shop in Finchley which sold toy trains and aeroplanes for grown ups and there was just one shelf which had maybe 20 metal models; a knight, a skeleton, a spider, some wizards, they came in small plastic bags with cardboard labels and handwritten descriptions; and next door there was a very small shop that only two or three people could fit in at a time that sold military wargames with hex boards for grown ups and I bought a red twenty sided dice with the numbers 0-9 on it twice and had to paint half the numbers with a dab of silver paint to make it serviceable for rolling 1 - 20
there was the blue book with the dragon on the front
there was me and Shaun and Jeffrey and Roger and Martin and green graph paper from the back of a maths books and a knight and a wizard and some skeletons and a spider and on the lowest level there was a small black dragon and when it finally died they all cheered and I was the referee
there was the temple of Tegas-fer-Rogan which was so epic that it needed three exercise books and ran for an entire weekend
there was Mormegil the Black who had tatoos on his face because of Acroyear in Micronanuts and for many years the only use for the Silmarillion was to pull out names at random for my characters; I read Lord of the Rings over and over but Shaun and Jeffery preferred Conan; I found Conan dull especially when he replaced The Avengers in their own comic but not as dull as Master of Kung Fu
there was Scorpion and the guild of assassins and Mormegil standing on his comrade's coffin fighting off the ninja so he could take it to town and buy a resurrection spell
there was Ken Livingstone and the idea that you should be able to afford to travel by tube which made Mrs Thatcher so angry but for 6 months I traveled from Cockfosters to Hammersmith for 50p every single Saturday and walked down the alley with a fence on either side and walked past the rows and rows of xeroxed pamphlets and said "Is the Dungeonmasters Guide out yet?" and it wasn't
there was a magazine with a yellow cover and line drawings of dwarfs and an article about Diplomacy and pictures of monsters and it was talking about rulebooks I had never heard of, Eldritch Wizards and Blackmoor and Ardiun Grimoire as if I they had been playing them forever and I have never felt so much like an outsider and never wanted more badly to be an insider and I never, ever was
there is a dining room table, and cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, and at lunch time there are tins of Co-Op vegetable soup and fresh rolls from the baker and exercise books and character sheets pulled sparingly off an official pad and coloured cardboard floor plans representing rooms and corridors and miniatures which were never quite painted and never quite matched the adventure and pencils and biros and rubbers and dice which had had all the good numbers rolled out of them and shouting and talking in funny voices
there is the part which says that this world of the lizard men who live in tunnels under the city and orcs who live in the caves and my sword with runes on it is like the trailer for the cartoon said a world more real than any other; and there is the part which says that it is all just dice and all just numbers; and I have read in The Beholder that there are betters ways with stories and cities and characters who make sense
one day, there will be college and Martin and Pod and Varos and Asmee and the special game that went on for years and years and after that there will be Star Wars and Pendragon and Southern Provinces and LARPs and freeforms
today, there 40 kobolds, AC 7 , hit on 11+ on the red dice with silver paint and against them stand Mormegil the fighter and Scorpion the assassin and Medalf the wizard and also an Elf.
"this must be the entrance to the dungeon: we will find what we're looking for here”
so let it be with Ceasar