Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Bible for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 25, 2019

Chapter 1 vv10-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why a dove?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew's version begins: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMING SOON: The Exorcist! Married Popes! Geography!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The experiment is worth trying. 

Pull the Old Book down from the shelf. 

Falling apart copy belonging to my grandfather. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Chapter 1 vv 1-9

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

Pretend you have never heard this story before.

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

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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

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

"What is gospel?"

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

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

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

"Shh. It's starting."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 18, 2019

Andrew's Folk Pile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Frequently AskedQuestions

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

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

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

How much does it cost to back you on Patreon?

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

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

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

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

Are you going to write any more about Doctor Who?

I have added some more tiers to my Patreon

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you going to next?

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

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Andrew's Folk Pile

The Devil's Doorbells
Pushing It (EP)

"Oh is it happening?" says a voice, just before a hootenanny version of Doc Watson's "Roll In” gets underway. It builds up a head head of steam. The singer sings "rollin' in my sweet babies arms" and the group call "sweet babies arms!" back at him. I swear someone shouts out "yee haw!" at one point. You can practically smell the campfire.

There's a lot of folk music in Sidmouth in August. You can't walk along the esplanade without a man with a guitar singing Streets of London at you. A busking outfit has to be a bit special to grab your attention as you rush between gigs. The Devils Doorbell had bagged the prestigious spot outside the public toilets and they had that quality which always stops me dead in my tracks. Authenticity. Reader, I bought the album.

Half the disc is made up of the folkiest of folkie crowd pleasers, possibly constructed to appeal to my personal comfort zone. The venerable Bella Ciao starts out with a breathy vocal lilt but rapidly turns into a singalong with a fiddle interlude that oozes pure Italiana. (Firepit Collective make this song a shouty student political rallying cry but here it's a wipe-a-tear-away lament.)

St Francis of Assisi replaces Franklin Roosevelt in a version of Only Passin' Thru which is definitely more Peter Seeger than Leonard Cohen. ("These birds fill the air with song/ they're not here for very long"). By comparison, Byker Hill is restrained, not to say lugubrious and a suitably mournful St James Infirmary is largely allowed to speak for itself.

So far so folky. I imagine this is the sort of thing which attracts many pennies into a guitar case. But the other half of the album is given over to what I take to be self-written songs. And while the sawing blue grass fiddle and old time choruses are still very much in evidence there's an uncompromising punk sensibility to the lyrics.

Track 2 Pisshead Bill has foot-tappin' melody which I can't get out of my head; paired with a set of lyrics which drip with nihilsm. ("Your fear of losing everything has lost you everything now everything you ever loved is gone"). The narrative could be compared, not unfavorably, with some of Chris Wood's recent-ish work -- a stream of observation about hard-luck cases and ordinary people

his father only pugilizes
ones of diminutive sizes
violence is the best disguise
to hide from the fear you lock inside

Glass Houses is a curious celebration of never doing the washing up ("I'm a dog that roles in its own it's shit, and I reckon I'm the happier for it"). Petri Dish flirts with cynicism but allows itself a brief flash of hope at the end; all set to a whimsical tune which made me think of Robin Williamson's funny little hedgehog.

Wouldn't it be nice to finally realize
that this life is best led taking risks
because no matter what we do
our significance is equal to
an amoeba in a petri dish

"I need to do that one again" says the voice at the end of Roll In. "It went a bit wrong". Well, maybe it did. But that's all part of the fun on this kind of album. “Recorded in fields, car parks and around campfires" says the back of the CD and I believe it. Folk music may sometimes get more polished than this but it rarely gets more real.

Andrew's Folk Pile

Hello. I am Andrew Rilstone. You may remember me from the Folkbuddies podcast, or from that time someone made me the “official blogger" of a festival without telling me or the festival. You may even have met me at a gig. I'm the very tall one standing in front of you with a hat, very probably clapping to a different beat from everybody else.

Folk music isn't necessarily the thing I love most in the world: but it is the thing I love most uncomplicatedly. Comic books carry baggage; movies carry baggage; and oh god does opera carry baggage, particularly if the only opera you ever really cared about was full of Teutonic maidens and Germanic warriors. Talking about movies or books or comics involves taking sides in a quarrel about who invented what and where and when and if they deserve a credit and where it fits into the canon and and if it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Folk music I listen to. It makes me happy.

It doesn’t all make me happy. I have a general idea that a jig goes goes one-two-three-four-five-six/one-two-three-four and "key" is something I sing out of, but my heart sinks when the performer mentions the Playford manuscript or starts talking about Turlough O'Carolan. Every festival has at least one band which plays Scottish folk tunes very quickly with an electric guitar and drum kit as well as a set of bagpipes. It can all be very loud and very exciting and the crowd go nuts for it but I can't really tell them apart.

Too many notes Mr Mozart. Too many notes.

My ideal evening consists of a man (or a lady, but it does more often tend to be a man) with a guitar (or a fiddle, but usually a guitar) and a long introduction about how this is Child Ballad Number 76; or how it was originally collected by Cecil Sharp or (best of all) how they personally learned it just last week from an old traveler lady parked on the M5 underpass. Songs with stories; or stories with tunes. A good ballad bypasses my brain altogether and just hits me in the gut.

I was going to say the heart, but I really do mean the gut. That's what music's for, isn't it?

Maybe the best concert I went to in 2018 was Jim Moray at the little Chapel Arts Center in Bath, giving a first airing to some of the songs which are going to be on his next album. Jim Moray has the reputation for adding lots of clever jiggery pokery to folk sings, but this was just him and his guitar, doing When This Old Hat Was New and Napoleon at St Helena. (Listen to Another Man's Wedding and tell me it isn't the most powerful piece of musical story-telling you've ever heard?) He wound the show up with a version of The Leaving of Liverpool; and then encored with Alfred Lord Tennyson's Crossing the Bar -- the folkie setting, by Ramo Arbo, not the old churchy one by Parry. He does the song with his very loud folk rock outfit False Lights, but that night it was just a voice and some strings.

From out the bourne of time and place
the flood may bear me far
I hope to see my pilot face to face
when I have crossed the bar. 

You often get to talk to the Act after a show -- folk music happens in small venues and everyone is very friendly -- and I always aspire to say something intelligent to my musical heroes, showing some critical appreciation of what I have just been listening to. On that occasion, I just about managed "You've made me cry." And it was true.

Which is I guess the difficulty I have writing about music. It's a very subjective thing, for me, hard to put into words or be critical about. And I am apt to embarrass everyone by going all soppy.

I am considering taking an adult ballet class and embarking of a study of old buildings.

I may be paranoid; but I sometimes have a sense that some people around here are a bit cross with me for becoming infatuated with this kind of music. If you haven't been bitten by the bug, one song about a lady in a tower sewing a silken seam is very much like another, and my willingness to take late night buses home from pubs and church halls out of pure fear I might miss an interesting new take on The Bonnie Ship The Diamond probably comes across ever so slightly completely mad. It isn't only your most militantly atheist friend who gets all fidgety when you suddenly start attending Holy Communion. But probably it's mostly to do with the way I keep going on and on about it.

So; anyway. This is me going on and on about it.

I go to a lot of gigs. A crazy, stupid number of gigs. And truthfully this is where I think the music lives. I like the dramaturgy of a live performance, whether it's a Chris Wood surveying a packed house and saying "I don't know why you are all here" or Grace Petrie getting all sweary and political about Jeremy Corbyn. 

A few people used to read my gig reviews. A few of the actual bands used to read my gig reviews. I think I was even quoted on a poster. The first time the mighty Blackbeard's Tea Party came to the Croft they greeted a "very special fan named Andrew…” from the stage. Which made me insufferable for over a fortnight. But several of my actual readers said they didn't really want to read about gigs they hadn't been at. (Some of them were less polite.)

As a result of going to a lot of gigs and festivals I have acquired a very big pile of CDs. Most of which I haven't listened to. Or at any rate, haven't listened to properly.

So. Every week or so I am going to pull a CD or two off the pile and tell you whether or not it sparks joy.

If anyone wants to send me any CDs I promise to put them near the top of the pile.

Monday, February 11, 2019

God Woke!

The bastard. He doesn't exist.
Samuel Beckett

In 1937, a student at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx was helping to edit the school newspaper. One lunchtime he found that someone had left a ladder in the tower which served as the paper’s offices so he climbed to the top and wrote a graffito on the ceiling. 


It was the first time he had ever used that pen-name.


After creating The Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, Stan Lee believed he had exhausted the possibilities of narrative fiction. “What was there left to invent?” Creativity is a matter of hyperbole: each character has to be bigger and better than the one before. But “Who could be stronger than the Hulk? Who could be brainier than Mr Fantastic?” If he was really going to out-super his existing superheroes, Stan Lee's next comic would have to feature God. And he didn’t think the Comics Code would let him get away with that. But then he had one of those epiphanies that used to occur regularly between 1961 and 1972. He certainly couldn’t do a comic about God. But he certainly could do a comic about a god.

And that is the true story of how Stan Lee created Thor, off the top of his head, without any input from anyone else.

But Stan never quite gave up on the idea of The Amazing Super-God. 

“You know, I’ve spent all my life writing about superheroes” he recalled in 2000 “And one day, about thirty years ago, I decided to write about the greatest hero of all.” 

“I have written about so many superheroes” he explained in 2016 “and each one gets stronger and more powerful. We ended up with Galactus and people like that and I said who can I get which will top all of them? Well who’s left? God! So I’m gonna make a hero out of God! And I hope he’s grateful!” 

He wasn't joking. In 2016, Lee's performance poem God Woke! was published in comic-book format, with Kirby-a-like illustrations by Fabian Nicieza. It is as close to a Marvel Comic starring Super-God as we are ever likely to get. 

On any view, God Woke is a pretty feeble piece of work. It is an extended piece of free-verse about the Deity constructed around a sequence of two word statements in which God does something ironically anthropomorphic: God woke; God laughed; God frowned; God sighed; God pondered; God cried. A lot of the meter is lifted from the Raven, a poem which Lee reportedly adored: 

While He pondered, watched and waited
Endlessly they supplicated…. 

The endless internal rhymes seem to have come directly from Poe’s The Bells 

Chanting, ranting, moaning, groaning, 
Sighing, crying, cheating, lying…. 

As poetry, it rarely reaches the level of Dr Seuss. But if it is truly Stan Lee's most personal work, it is worth a look. How did the creator of Marvel Comics imagine the creator of the Universe? 

It seems that the more powerful a character is, the less personality he has. Galactus, the closest thing the Marvel Universe has to a deity, speaks entirely in declarative sentences about how powerful he is. (Eternity rarely gets beyond "I am Eternity" and Kirby's Celestials don't communicate at all.)  Since God is ultimately powerful, Lee imagines him as being almost entirely personality-free. Nicieza draws him as a giant, featureless male figure with stars and planets drawn over his body. Lee writes him as an innocent moron, like the Hulk or Frankenstein, stumbling around the universe failing to understand the strange humans who populate it. Since humans spend most of their lives being baffled by God, the idea that God is baffled by man is a fair-to-middling literary conceit.

God, it seems, created the Earth and the human race as components of an unexplored "master plan" and then dropped off to sleep and forgot all about it. After he wakes up, the Deity checks in on the planet to see how it is doing. He is not particularly impressed.

God’s complaints — and let’s face it, we are all a bit cranky first thing in the morning — take up the rest of the poem. God complains that the human race are making too much noise; and in particular, he is irked by the sounds of their prayers. He has three main objections to humans praying. Stop me if you’ve heard them before. 

First, he complains that humans pray to God as an alternative to doing something about their situation. He seems to see prayer as an aid to procrastination: 

man the enigma, bewailing his fate, 
but plagued by inaction til ever too late 

Second, he complains that prayer is generally insincere 

mouthing his rote 
just from his throat 
words without feeling 
sound without meaning. 

And finally, he finds the whole idea of prayers personally insulting. There is a Groucho Marx logic to this: God despises prayers because they come from the kind of beings who think that he is the kind of being who would listen to prayers. He doesn't listen to prayers because they come from the kind of creature who is foolish enough to pray. I don't care to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.

And anyway, why would God limit his attention to humans when there is so much other cool stuff in the universe? This idea makes any Marvel Comics reader think of the Silver Surfer, doomed to spend eternity on this paltry planet (oh woe is me)!  It is expressed in what may be the worst line in the poem, and therefore in the history of American literature: 

who but a fool 
with a cosmos to stray in
would conceive himself an ant-hill 
and like a prisoner, stay in? 

The Silver Surfer's boss Galactus also regarded the human race as ants and earth as an ant-hill. It’s a very telling metaphor. God is greater than humans in the way that a human is greater than an ant: by virtue of being very much larger. Lee’s God, like Richard Dawkins’ God, is nothing more than a super-sized chap.

The idea that prayer harms God is not uninteresting. (Wasn’t wish-granting physically painful to the Psammead?) You could imagine it framed in Christian terms, with each prayer adding to Jesus’ suffering. I’d have been inclined to treat it comically, with God wading through prayers as a human wades through emails. "I’ll get around to blessing Tiddles the cat right after I’ve given Mrs Jones her double six at Las Vegas." But it comes out here as an anti-religious screed. I don’t think that the illustrations do the text many favours. The prayers which are so annoying to God are represented by a montage of pious people at holy sites — the Kaaba, the Wailing Wall, Stonehenge. Humans are not seeking contact with a higher power or trying to become their best selves; even the most committed pilgrims are essentially selfish. 

God then goes off an a new track. Humans have no right to ask him anything at all: his duty was fully discharged by bringing them to life in the first place. Creation had nothing to do with a divine master-plan after all: humans were only ever God’s plaything. 

at first I found the plan was sound 
and somewhat entertaining 
but once begun, 
the deed now done, 
my interest started waning. 

This is quite shocking; but Stan Lee doesn’t seem particularly shocked by it. The creator of the universe is an abusive or neglectful parent, and there is no cosmic Child Support Agency to force him to face up to his responsibilities. 

Having complained that the Earth is full of noisy creatures who want to talk to him, God withdraws into space for a few pages, and immediately starts complaining that he is all alone in the universe. The Silver Surfer and Spider-Man spent most of their time moaning about how badly the universe was treating them and how it wasn’t their fault. Superheroes with super-problems, as the fellow said. Having been told that God is the greatest hero of all, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that he is the biggest whiner in the universe. I suppose “circular incoherence” is Lee’s best stab at “divine ineffability” but this mortal found it very difficult to work out what point the Lord was trying to make here. 

like unto children, lost in the night 
they created a God to guide them. 
like unto children huddled in fright 
they must have their god beside them 
yet what sort of children from cradle to grave 
would grant him obeisance yet make him their slave 
they have conjured a heaven and there he must stay 
ever responsive be it night be it day 
he must love and forgive them and comply when they pray 
ever attentive never to stray 
and like unto children in their childish zeal 
they worship their dream and think fantasy real 

There is something to be said for the idea that humans cling to gods like children clings to a teddy bear — particularly if human beings are only God's toys. Lee seems to be saying that Allah and Jesus and Buddha are no more than stuffed animals designed to get human beings through the night, but the big blue glowy chap is the real McCoy. Humans claim to worship these made up gods, but they are only interested in what they can get in return. Big glowy Stan Lee God is every bit as jealous as Yahweh; fictional gods make him very angry indeed. 

The“they have conjured a heaven and there must he stay” part is particularly perplexing. Is the complaint that people think that God is confined to the spiritual realm and not relevant to day to day life? (The illustration shows people leaving Sunday Morning service and returning to their cars.) But wait a minute — weren't we just told that God found "spiritual" prayers every bit as annoying and noisy as materialistic ones? Is there some Gaiman-esque idea that the Demiurge is literally being transformed into a wish-granting machine because that’s all humans believe him to be? Or are prayers somehow physically trapping God in heaven in the way that the barrier of Galactus trapped the Silver Surfer? 

At any rate, God comes back to earth. He has a jolly good look round the place and starts bewailing Man’s Inhumanity To Man. 

how to make them understand? 
how to make them see? 
how to make them recognize? 
their own insanity 
tiddly tiddly, 
tiddly tiddly, 
tum tum tiddly tee 

It is a little unfair of God to complain about the whole idea of religion on one page and to wonder about how to share his divine wisdom with mankind on the next. 

He has a number of highly original divine insights. It seems that people want to be rich and famous even though wealth and fame don't make you live any longer. Politicians and generals start wars, but it’s the young who die in them. Wars are only ever about meaningless things like flags and skin colour and never about defeating Hitler. Both sides think that God is on their side and both armies pray to God for victory. God comes across here as a Sixth Form Atheist, claiming sagely that all wars are caused by religion and if we didn’t have any religions there wouldn’t be any wars. (Woah woah, woah woah, you may say I’m a dreamer...) But "justice", it seems, is also a false value which humans use as a pretext for conflict: 

only man 
earnestly praying 
to god as he's slaying 
and piously saying 
as the corpses increase 
he does what he must 
for his motives are just 
the mayhem, the carnage 
the slaughter won't cease 
God's in his corner 
killing for peace 

I quite like the increase/cease/peace rhyme, incidentally. Lee was a big fan of Broadway musicals and this could have fitted nicely into a song. 

It’s the “war” thing, not the “prayer” thing which pushes God over the edge. If humans persist in having fights about made up stuff like religion and justice, he's definitely finished with them, and off he goes, this time for good. 

The final stanzas are vintage Stan Lee bullshit and I mean that in a deeply affectionate way: 

he looked his last at man so small 
so lately risen, so soon to fall 
he looked his last and had to know 
whose fault this anguish, this mortal woe. 
had man failed make or maker man 
who was the planner and whose the plan? 
he looked his last, then turned aside 
he had found the answer 
that's why God cried 


When the philosopher says “God is dead” he doesn't really mean that someone or something called God has really died. He means “People used to believe in God, but they don’t any longer.” When a scientist says “God does not play at dice” he doesn't mean that there is a an actual being called God who prefers games of skill: he means “I don’t think that at the most fundamental level the universe is random.” When a pundit says “Where was God on September the 11th?” he doesn't mean that there is an actual Deity who is capable of being in one place but not another. He probably means “When everything is going fine, it is possible to believe that the universe is benevolent; but events like this force us to think that it is indifferent or hostile.” And it seems that if a Bishop says “God died for the human race” he really means “Self-sacrifice is the most fundamental value I can conceive of: it is in a very real sense the ground of my being.”

All of these usages can be defended: but it is terribly easy to fall into nonsense without intending to. Someone says "Where was God during the last high school massacre?" and you reply "Don't you remember? You threw God out of school". The word "God" is being used to mean "religion" or "state religion": "we threw God out of school" means "religious studies ceased to be mandatory." But the same word is also being used to mean "the idea that the universe is just and arbitrary suffering doesn't occur." "If the universe is just, why do the innocent suffer?" is a good question. "The innocent suffer because there is no longer a daily religious assembly in this district" is a terrible answer.

I don’t think that Stan Lee ever seriously supposed he could turn the God of religion into a superhero character. A comic book about "the god of the Marvel Universe" — the most powerful cosmic entity in that entity filled cosmos — is perfectly imaginable. It may even be that that is how God Woke was originally conceived: a Silver Surfer story from the point of view of Galactus. But once Stan has named his protagonist “God”, he can hardly avoid talking about religion — or philosophy, or reality at the most fundamental level, or the ground of our, in a very real sense, being. He presumably doesn't believe that the actual Deity, if he exists, is actually capable of crying, or sleeping, or forgetting. “Galactus turned aside” or “Odin wept” are descriptions of things which happen to characters on the inside of a story. But "God cried" is a theological statement. We are entitled to ask "What do you mean by that?"


Lee presents the story as God complaining about mankind; but it is really a man, Stan Lee, complaining about God. The God of God Woke is not the greatest hero of them all. He is a bad God, a failed God. Instead of sticking around to nurture the human race he got bored and left them on their own. Result: wars, false religions and wasted prayer. God recognizes that this is all his fault. God weeps because he is finally aware that in this universe with ultimate power must also come ultimate responsibility.

Only atheists ever talk about a malevolent Deity. No-one who seriously believes in a God believes in a bad one. Indeed "Bad-God" may be a contradiction in terms, like "square circle". The ultimate Thing is the ultimate Good Thing almost by definition.

When someone says "God is bad" or "God has failed" they generally mean "the idea of God has failed" or "God is bad idea." When Stan Lee tells us that God created the world and went to sleep, he must mean "When we look at history, we cannot reasonably suppose that there is a God who is actively in charge of it", or more simply "History shows that God does not exist." When Stan Lee shows humans calling to God and God saying “Stop being so noisy” he is saying "No-one listens to or answers human prayers" or more simply “Religion is a pointless waste of time because God doesn’t exist.” 

Atheism could be a positive or liberating belief: but Lee's parable about a God who is useless, or asleep, or neglectful, or malevolent points to an atheism of the most pessimistic kind. The message on Stan Lee's bus is not "God is asleep! Stop worrying and enjoy your life!" It is more like "Only a God can save us; but unfortunately, God is asleep. We are therefore, fucked." 

But perhaps the poem is more hopeful than that. After all, God recognizes his shortcomings on the final page. Again, is is impossible to literally suppose that God is capable of recognizing his own faults and getting better at Godding. "God admits his flaws" can only mean "Human beings should recognize the flaws inherent in their own idea of God. So the message could be: "The Gods of religion cannot save us; but the alternative is not atheism, but a better idea of God. If we would shut up for a minute and listen to the real God, over and above our religious ideas about him, all manner of things may still be well."


If you are a gardener, you probably imagine God planting seeds and pulling up weeds and watering the universe. If you are a writer, you probably think that the universe is a great book which God is writing. Bob Monkhouse thought that God was a comedian and the Universe was a funnier joke than he could ever write. Freemasons call him the Great Architect of the Universe. It would not surprise me if sports fans think of the Deity as the referee in a very long and very beautiful game. 

God Woke was first presented as a performance piece, recited by Stan Lee’s wife and daughter, at the infamous Stan Lee at Carnegie Hall event in January 1972. It went down poorly. According to some accounts, the audience were throwing things at the stage before the evening was over. 

It follows that while God Woke was written a decade after the creation of Thor, Lee’s account of the creation of Thor was written a year or so after God Woke. The idea of God was obviously something Stan Lee was thinking about a good deal in the early 1970s.  Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) opens with a tasteless pastiche of the book of Genesis. 

“And the spirit of Marvel said ‘Let there be the Fantastic Four’. And there was the Fantastic Four. And Marvel saw the Fantastic Four. And it was good.” 

It is not surprising that Lee is attracted to a Deistic idea of God. The Demiurge isn’t personally responsible for each little flower that opens and each little bird that sings, in the same way that a comic book writer doesn't personally work out the storyline for the comics he works on. Once he has done the difficult bit of saying “Let there be the Fantastic Four!” he can leave the mechanism to run under its own steam. But that means that your creations won't always go in the way you intended them to. You might check in after a long nap and find that someone has killed off Gwen Stacey! And just because God set the whole thing in motion that doesn’t mean he has read every damn line of every damn fan letter and listen to every damn cry of every damn fan at every damn convention. The "Stan the Man" to whom the faithful send letters is partly a fictional figure anyway: he can't possibly be the real Stanley Martin Leiber.


he looked his last
he turned aside

That first performance of God Woke! took place in January 1972. The following August, he relinquished control of the Amazing Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. He would be admired and revered — worshiped, even — as Creator of the Marvel Universe right up until his death in 2018. But he would never be a comic book writer again.


“I thought up the Fantastic Four, which did well” Stan Lee told Jonathan Ross in 2007. “So we did another book, called the Hulk, and then we did Spider-Man and the X-Men and on and on and on. And then, of course, on the seventh day, I rested.“

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