Thursday, June 27, 2019

Christ, You Know It Ain't Easy...

You know how it is. You've been putting off some unpleasant task for years and years. One morning you think "Is there any reason today shouldn't be the day that I do it?" And you finally get around to it. And of course, it's never as bad as you thought it was going to be. You wonder why you didn't get it out of the way years ago. 

You know the kind of things. Fixing the boiler. Getting your teeth checked out. Watching Monty Python's Life of Brian. 

I was slightly too young to go and see Life of Brian when it first came out, two years after Star Wars, although lots of people in my class seemed to have managed. They also managed to get in to see Alien in the same year. Alien was an "X": it would now be called an "18", but "X-Rated" sounds much sexier. The first X-Rated film I ever saw was The Fog. I was only 17 and it was not very frightening. Monty Python's Life of Brian was a Double A, I suppose mainly because of Graham Chapman's penis. 

At University I started to move in evangelical circles, and "I have never seen Monty Python's Life of Brian" became a bit of a shibboleth. Oh, we said, we aren't like Johnny Muslim, we don't think the film should be banned and we certainly don't want to chop anyone's head off, we merely choose not to go and see it. All things are permissible but not everything is beneficial one Corinthians six twelve. You wouldn't expect me to go and see a film making fun of the death of my Grandfather, would you? Oh but Andrew the film isn't making fun of the death of Jesus. If anything it is making fun of the death of Kirk Douglas. Have it your own way. Perhaps I just don't think crucifixion is a very funny subject. 

So I rather got stuck with this as a point of honour. I had Never Done Drugs and I had Never Seen Life of Brian. I persisted in my obstinacy even after it was pointed out to me exactly what had been in those chocolate brownies I used to like so much. Time passed and it became one of those films I just never got around to watching. 

Last night I was editing the latest installment of my commentary on St Mark and felt the need to say a few words about the Messianic Secret. It is a curious fact that in Mark's Gospel Jesus doesn't want anyone to know who he really is. Demon-possessed people keep screaming "you are the Son of God!" at him and he keeps straightly charging them to hold their peace. 

"You might almost think" I found myself typing "That only the true Messiah denies his divinity." 

Oh come on, I thought, this is silly, and went to the back room and switched on Netflicks. 

It would make an excellent punch line if I could now say: "And do you know what? It really is the funniest film ever made. I can't believe I've been avoiding it for so long." It would be almost equally good to be able to say "All my worst fears were realized. It really is a desperately squalid and offensive movie." 

Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly shocked or offended, and I very much doubt that I ever would have been. But I am equally sorry to report that I didn't actually think it was all that funny. 

The film feels like a collision between two slightly different ideas. Someone clearly thinks they are making a comedy adventure, somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Inspector Cluesoe. A young man, Brian Cohen, joins a revolutionary sect because he hates the Romans. ("A lot.") He becomes involved in an inept plot to kidnap the governor's wife, spends a lot of the movie being chased by Roman guards, and is eventually captured and crucified. Some of the characters have Biblical names and the nominal setting is Jerusalem; but this material has only the vaguest connection to the New Testament. The central gag about revolutionaries who spend more time arguing among themselves than they do fighting their oppressors could have been set in any milieu. 

The humor is much broader and more mainstream than I remember Monty Python's Flying Circus being, depending as much on old fashioned slapstick as on surrealism. The idea that two different groups of rebels infiltrate the palace at the same time, and fight each other rather than joining forces is a little bit funny, but the actual fight seemed interminable. I kept wanting to shout out "Get on with it!" like Captain Blackadder at the music hall. In the years between Flying Circus and Life of Brian John Cleese had made two seasons of Fawlty Towers which is shaped like a sit-com but is actually a sustained piece of vaudeville knockabout, so maybe that the place Cleese wanted to be. But it is a little disappointing that a comedy troupe which made its name with jokes about Proust and Descartes is now basing entire routines around a character called Biggus Dickus. Pilate can't say his Rs and Biggus Dickus can't say his Ss and all the other characters find this incredibly funny. Perhaps "He wanks as highly as any in Wome" seemed cleverer at the time than it does in wetwospect. These were the days when you could hardly say "bloody" on the BBC. But I kept thinking of Eric Morcambe's advice to Andre Previn "We mustn't know it's funny. If we find it funny then the audience won't." 

This part of the film takes as a starting point that left-wing political organisations are intrinsically funny. The jokes have not worn very well: it is taken for granted that we will all find it comically absurd that Eric Idle's character thinks they should say "men and women" rather than "men" and issue press statements about the rights of "men and women and hermaphrodites". It's political correctness gone mad. "Stan" wants to stand up for the rights of women because he wants to be one, and the other lefties say that they are going to fight for his right to have babies even though it is biologically impossible for him to do so. You can be kicked off Twitter for saying that kind of thing. (Also: women with false beards.)

Credit where credit is due: I laughed out loud at one  gag. While they are arguing about the difference between "the Judean People's Front" and the "People's Front of Judea" someone says "What ever happened to the Judean Popular Front" and someone else says "He's over there." But even this seems to assume that chaps like us all agree that political disagreements are really only ever arcane disputes of nomenclature.  

This is most obviously problematic in the famous "what have the Romans ever done for us..." sequence. This is basically the same gag as "no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition..." and is probably the best sketch in the movie: "Reg" (John Cleese) won't relinquish his basic proposition no matter how many exceptions are made. Maybe we are supposed to infer that religion and politics are equally matters of faith and you can never convert a true believer with counter-arguments. Maybe the point of the running Judean Popular Front / Popular Front of Judea gag is that religion and politics are both equally prone to sectarianism and schisms. But what most people are going to see on the surface is that the whole idea of revolution is ludicrous and that these silly olden days people with funny hats and big noses can't see that they are much better off under the Roman Empire than they would have been without it. For all their irreverence, the Pythons have imbibed the 1950s English public school Kool-Aid. The Roman Empire, like its successor the British Empire, was ultimately a Good Thing. Take up the white man's burden. It was alright for the Roman's to conquer Britain because at that time the British were still natives. 

The spirit of the English public school hovers over the whole thing. (Some of the school sketches from Meaning of Life were originally going to be in Life of Brian, presumably as some kind of framing sequence.) Another pretty funny sketch involves Brian writing anti-Roman graffiti in Latin and being chastised by a Roman soldier because he has conjugated it wrongly. I suspect the joke itself would now get lost in translation: no-one automatically associates Latin with their schooldays, and a teacher who twisted a boy's ear in that way would get locked up. Or is the idea of a police officer correcting a vandal's grammar funny even if you don't know what public school Latin masters used to be like? In his infamous BBC 2 debate with the Bishop of Southwark, John Cleese was still fuming about a bad sermon he had heard at his Prep School, some thirty years previously. 

So far, so not quite as funny as Carry on Cleo. Kenneth Williams would have done a better job with "Welease Woderwick" and, come to that, Michael Palin would have had a good time with "Infamy! Infamy!" But the film's reputation depends on what is strictly a digression: while running away from Pilate's guards, Brian quotes some passages which he once overhead Jesus preaching and is pursued by a mob who think he is the actual Messiah. 

If the Bishop of Southwark honestly thought that Brian represented Jesus, or that the movie was contending that Jesus was like Brian then he hadn't been paying attention. (There is a persistent oral tradition that he had in fact missed the first fifteen minutes of the screening.) The exact point of the movie is that Brian is as unlike Jesus as anyone could possibly be: he is a rather ordinary man who has, absurdly and ridiculously, been mistaken for Jesus. That is what comedy professionals call "a good joke". But Life of Brian cannot get away from its origins in sketch comedy: the whole "Brian mistaken for Jesus" conceit is exhausted in two set pieces. There's a rather wearisome sequence in which Brian tries to hide out in a hermit's cave while his followers say things like "How should we fuck off, oh Lord?" and everyone says "juniper berries" a lot. And then there is a very much cleverer sequence in which a huge crowd gathers outside Brian's window. The idea that Brian has to debate with a huge mob of "followers" who all chant back at him in perfect unison is clever, silly and original, and it builds up to the famous moment where the crowd mindlessly chant "we are all different!" while one dissenter says "I'm not!" The Messianic leader whose only message is "don't follow leaders"; the followers who says that they'll only believe he's the Messiah if he says that he isn't; the man in the crowd who asserts his individuality by claiming to be the same as everyone else. Joseph Heller wrote an entire book based on these kinds of paradoxes. I forget the title.

Michael Palin said that if the film had a point, it was Brian's speech about not doing what other people told you, thinking for yourself, not following leaders and watching the parking meters. I think that the message most audiences would take away would actually be "religious people and (left wing people) are crazy" or "funny olden days Jews would say that anyone was the Messiah." Tim Rice had made that joke rather better eight years earlier. 

Chekov said that if you do something slowly, it's tragedy, but if you do the same thing quickly, it's farce. So perhaps the point of the angry mob is that the kinds of doctrinal arguments which take centuries to develop in real life are here shown breaking out in seconds. Or perhaps it is just quite funny for hundreds of Jewish people to stand outside a naked man's window and wave their shoes at him.

There are really only two or three scenes that could be said to directly mock or lampoon Christian iconography. In the first sketch, Three Wise men are shown worshiping a new baby. The character who appears to be the Virgin Mary turns out to  be Terry Jones doing his standard cockney housewife voice ("oh dear, Mrs Niggerbaiter's exploded"). She doesn't know what Myrrh is and neither do the Wise Men, who have to rush back in and reclaim their gifts when they realize they've come to the wrong stable. One could imagine this having been a stand alone Flying Circus sketch; with standard issue BBC costume and a painted backdrop: in which case it would have provoked a couple of stiff letters to the Radio Times but very little else. The trouble is that Life of Brian has, or at any rate is able to fake, Hollywood level production values. The opening shots (which quite specifically allude to Ben Hur) would not have disgraced a serious Biblical epic: desert, stars, Bethlehem street scene, lush pre-Raphelite stable, heavenly choirs singing something which is not quite Adeste Fidelis... The music and the cinematography say "This is something profound and awe inspiring" and then we transition to Terry Jones in drag. The presentation still has the capacity to shock: the actual material is essentially harmless. 

In the second sketch, Jesus -- played entirely straight and working from the New English Bible -- is shown reciting the beatitudes to some entirely sane followers. We pan back to the grown-up Brian and his mother who are at the back of the crowd and can't hear what's being said. The scene presupposes, contra Muggeridge an English school level familiarity with the material. If you don't know the text, then "blessed is the Greek" and "blessed are the cheese makers" aren't funny. But the sketch rapidly stops being about people mishearing the Sermon on the Mount and becomes about who has the biggest nose. Perhaps the sketch is saying "Isn't it sad that even when the greatest sermon of all time is being preached, some people will not pay attention and fight about trivia instead?" But I think it is probably mostly saying "Isn't it funny that Jews have big noses?" 

I don't, incidentally, think that the film contains what are now known as Tropes. It doesn't say that Jewish people are rich or mean or that they secretly control the media. But there are a lot of nose jokes. 

There is a set up, later in the movie, about Brian's father not being Jewish but Roman, but this doesn't particularly pay off either as a joke or a plot point. Terry Jones is a clever man -- he followed up Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a serious scholarly book about Chaucer -- so it is possible he has in mind the old libel that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. If you happen to be aware of the Panteras theory you might possibly stroke your beard and say "aha, we see what you did there". But it doesn't make a great deal of sense in the actual movie. 

The Sermon on the Mount sequence could also be imagined as a one-off sketch in a BBC studio. Imagine:  no actor playing Jesus, no crowd, just four Pythons in robes and sandals saying "Speak up!" as the viewer gradually spots which famous meeting they are ignoring. 

Two hundred years ago, if you had tried to imagine a scene from the Bible, you would have found that your mental stock of imagery came from stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations. Maybe water colour pictures in your children's Bible. Now, most of think in terms of Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told. (Life of Brian was largely filmed on sets which Zefferilli had left behind.) So unconsciously, we feel that we are looking at the actual nativity or the actual Sermon on the Mount. The idea is smuggled in that these people are talking over and mishearing Jesus's actual preaching. The fact that Jesus himself is portrayed respectfully accentuates, rather than mitigates, my sense of discomfort. 

And of course, that is the exact point. Nothing is sacred. No-one should ever take anything seriously; or at any rate everyone should sometimes take some things frivolously. Of course you would fly out to Tunisia, go to some trouble of enacting the Sermon on the Mount so it looked like an oil painting come to life, and then use it as background for nose jokes. If you could get Karl Marx and Che Guevara into a BBC studio, then of course you would ask them trivia questions about football.

The part of the film which made me most uncomfortable was the crucifixion sketch. Brian's crucifixion is not Christ's crucifixion: it is portrayed as a mass execution for insurrection and strongly recalls the ending of Spartacus. ("I'm Brian!") But that's a two edged argument: Kubrick's Spartacus becomes Christlike precisely because he is crucified. So, as a matter of fact, does Conan the Barbarian. Tens of thousands of people were crucified by the Romans, but two thousand years of Christian art means that any image of a body on a cross automatically makes us think of Jesus. (In Christian art, the two thieves are generally shown being bound to T-shaped scaffolds, specifically to avoid the sense of there being three sacred crucifixes, side by side.)  It takes some seconds for Brian to be attached to a cross. There are no jokes; it is simply part of the narrative. The imagery deliberately recalls that of Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps there is only one way to represent a crucifixion cinematically. But it still felt to me as if something holy and (depending on your point of view) horrible at popped up in the middle of a Carry On film. And maybe that's in itself a joke.

There is a whole genre of newspaper cartoons in which a man tied to a medieval torture wrack says something ironically chirpy. There used to be an advert in which a French aristocrat cheers himself up after having had his head chopped off by smoking a Hamlet cigar. Jokes of this kind specifically exclude any horror or empathy: we can't tell a joke about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman up before a firing squad if we are thinking about the horror of a military execution at the same time. We can't both laugh at a cartoon of a man on a desert island and imagine what it would be like to die of dehydration. A one-frame cartoon of a group of people being crucified while singing "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" could have been funny on precisely this level. It's not a joke about crucifixion or death or torture: it's a joke about the false optimism of chirpy musicals in which whistling a merry tune and thinking about your favourite things is the solution to all life's problems. 

But he have been asked to treat Life of Brian as a story, albeit a very silly one, and to think of Brian as a person. Graham Chapman plays him straight, and a lot of the jokes rely on us empathizing with him to some extent. (We have to share his embarrassment when he inadvertently appears nude in front of a huge crowd of people; we share his irritation at being chased by a crowd; we even think he is talking quite good sense during the "you are all different" sequence.) So are we supposed, at some level, to look at this scene as if a character we quite like is being hurt and killed? A whole sequence of people come to see Brian on the cross, momentarily raising his hopes and then dashing them. (Is it just me or was this riffing on the old English folk-song about the prickle-aye bush? (*)) Are we supposed to be hoping that Brian will get off? Or is Brian at this point merely a line drawing or a cartoon who we are not supposed to engage with? Or is the clash of registers the whole point -- that in this corner we have a moderately serious Hollywood depiction of the death of Jesus/Spartacus and in that corner we have some comedy Jews singing "for he's a jolly good fellow"? 

A very long time ago I saw a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in which, utterly bizarrely, the beheadings alluded to in the script are depicted on stage as Texas-style lethal injections. I didn't find it funny; it made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. I found the ending of Life of Brian unsettling in the same way. Maybe I was meant to.

Python always depended on surprise: the idea that there is a Ministry of Silly Walks or that a man named Ptang Ptang Olay Biscuit Barrel is running for election is funny exactly once. The endless repeats, revivals, and people who won't stop quoting it at you have infallibly destroyed the joke. I went into Life of Brian knowing the general concept, even if I didn't know all the punch-lines. Perhaps if it was still 1979 the general sense of shock and incongruity would have carried the day. "Oh. My. God. They look like Bible characters but they are making cock jokes." (Viz started in the same year Life of Brian came out: there, the joke was "Oh. My. God. They look like characters from the Beano but they are making cock jokes.")  

So anyway. I've seen it now. Wasn't particularly offended. Didn't think it was very funny. Can't get over the Bishop of Southwark's accent. I have never seen Bambi or Gone With The Wind either. The Last Temptation of Christ is rather good.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

What I Did On My Weekend Off

On my weekend off I went to Liverpool to have a look at the John Lennon exhibition at the city museum. I went on the train. It would have been cheaper to go on an aeroplane and change at Dublin, but it would have taken longer and been less good for the environment. I had intended to see the exhibition last Autumn, but my leg exploded and I went to see Southmead General Hospital instead. I decided that if I was going anyway, I had better stay a couple of nights and see some of the other Beatles related sites as well. I used to be rather nervous about hotels: I thought that they were enormous posh buildings with snooty staff who called you sir and expected a tip or else scary seaside bed and breakfasts where you have to make conversation with the landlady over breakfast. I have recently discovered that for fifty quid Travelodge will give you a bed for the night, complete anonymity and as much breakfast as you want.

The exhibition, entitled Double Fantasy, is very well done. There is lots of video footage; lots of photos; some music; some very informative text; and a fair smattering of holy relics: the green card; the New York tee shirt; the white suit; the bedspread.

Everything which can be white is white. The first thing you hear is the opening chords of Imagine. The last thing you see is a recreation of the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park. The beardy peace guru may have had some kind of musical career before he hooked up with the strange Japanese art woman, but this exhibition doesn’t cover it.

Yoko believed that audiences and artists should collaborate in the creation of works of art. We see the installation which first cut through John's cynicism about the avant-garde. Everyone knows the story. There is a ladder in a white room (everything is white) and a magnifying glass on a string. You have to climb the ladder and use the glass to look at the ceiling. What you see on the ceiling is the word "yes" in tiny letters. We have to take this on trust; the ladder is behind a barrier. We do each get a little white badge with "you are here" written on it to take him. I do not know if this is the actual ladder and the actual magnifying glass and I do not know if it would make any difference if it wasn't.

There is some footage of John and Yoko on the David Frost programme, early in their relationship. She is showing a white canvass (everything is white) into which members of the audience are invited to hammer nails. The canvass and the nails make the artwork. “How did that feel?” John asks Frost. "I am probably very shallow" Frost replies "But I feel like a man who has just hammered a nail into a canvass."

For this exhibition Yoko has created a large white wall and supplied a large quantity of white post-it notes, on which we are asked to write a thought about Love. I think we were intended to write about how much we love John Lennon, but most people have decided to write about a friend or family member. I think Yoko would still approve.

Someone has written "Jodie Whittaker is crap" on one of the post it notes. I take the liberty of removing it. Removing nails is part of the creative process too.

I heard Yoko Ono sing at Glastonbury. She is undeniably charismatic and for the duration of the show I believed everything she said. Some of the screaming was pretty moving. I still have one of the white pencils she was handing out to the crowd.

You can't really blame a dadaist for being ridiculous. I find some of her conceptual stuff quite funny and even moving. Typed instructions for creating un-creatable works of art are on display

Tunafish Sandwich Piece 

Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. 
Let them shine for one hour. 
Then let them gradually melt into the sky. 
Make one tunafish sandwich and eat it.

This eventually became the book Grapefruit and caused John Lennon's most famous song.

One whole wall is given over to an enormous enlargement of the back cover of the Two Virgins album. The album itself rests in a glass case, modestly wrapped in brown paper. "An image of them facing the camera was used on the front cover" explains a caption, tactfully. We are warned that Liverpool Museum does not endorse the lyrics of Woman is the N-word of the World.

There is a mini-cinema where you can watch hours and hours of John and Yoko's home movies. Self-Portrait, the 45 minute study of John's willy is mercifully absent; but I watch the beginning of Smile. It involves John Lennon looking directly into a camera and smiling. ("Imagine a painting which smiles once in a billion years".) It seems to be filmed in real time, but John doesn't appear to blink. He looks happy. I found it quite compelling in a funny way.  After ten minutes I went downstairs for a cup of tea. John was still smiling when I got back.

There seems to have been a moment when the sixties were turning into the seventies when everyone moved slowly and aimlessly and seemed detached from their surroundings. Beat in the way the beat poets were beat; exhausted, defeated, but somehow serene and beautiful. You can see it in Magical Mystery Tour; you can see it in Monty Python; you can see it in Jonathan Miller's riff on Alice in Wonderland. It is definitely there in Imagine, the TV movie which John and Yoko made to go with the album of the same name. The couple drive through their estate in a black car; they row across their private lake to a private house on their private island and play a game of chess; with white pieces on a white board. While John's vicious attack on Paul McCartney plays on the sound track ("the only thing you done was yesterday") the two peace gurus purposefully play snooker in blindfolds. It's much more watchable than Magical Mystery Tour although the tunes aren't so good.

Some wiseacre always says "Oh, that'll be the drugs" at this point. I Am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever are not the product of LSD. They are the product of something rarer and more subversive called "imagination". ("Imagine the moon was a grapefruit.") But there is no doubt that John and Yoko did abuse substances (including, as Yoko put it, "the big one") and perhaps these films do show what the world looks like after you've done that. Everything used to be monochrome; then it turned pastel shaded and psychedelic; but now everything is white and we are all at peace.

Was it just a dream? You may say I'm a dreamer. The dream is over. It is not dreaming.

The Beatle-themed site-seeing tour is called, inevitably, the Magical Mystery Tour and costs £20. It whisks you round Liverpool for just long enough to have your photo taken by various famous road-signs.

I suppose I expected Penny Lane to be in central Liverpool, perhaps a trendy street with cinemas and a night club. But the point of the song is that it is a nowhere street; no different from thousands of roads where thousands of Mums did their shopping. It is still possible to have your hair cut there and there is certainly a bus-shelter on a traffic roundabout. The fire station recently closed.

Some kids are about to start playing football on a school playing field. (It is one of eight schools which Brian Epstein was expelled from.) They look at us through the bars with what I hope is bemusement but is probably contempt. How many coachloads of old people stop outside their school to photograph that street sign every single day? It is not the original sign: that has been nicked hundreds of times.

Everyone assumes it is Penny Lane because everything there was so cheap; but in fact it is named after one George Penny. He was, almost inevitably, a slave trader.

Strawberry Fields is actually Strawberry Field, at one time a home for orphan girls and unmarried mothers. The Salvation Army still own it: they are planning to reopen it as a center to help unemployed youngsters get back on their feet. There is nothing to see but the gate. We look at the gate and take photos to prove that we have looked at the gate.

The bus parks at the bottom of the hill, on Menlove Avenue, the street where John Lennon grew up. That's the most valuable thing, to me, about this kind of trip. It allows me to visualize places which I have read about and see where they are in relation to each other. The point of Strawberry Fields is that John Lennon could jump over his garden fence, run across a neighbor's garden, jump over another fence, climb a tree...and spend a happy hour looking at the girls from the orphanage. He went to a boy's school. There's a lot of repression in his songs, and a corresponding amount of misogyny: all about guys wanting to "win" and "have" women and make them "mine" and tell the world in general and rival stags in particular that a particular "little girl" is their personal property. The harmonies are wonderful.

No: that isn't the point of Strawberry Fields at all. Strawberry Fields is a generalized dreamlike impression of childhood. Looking at the gate doesn't bring it any closer.

Other bus tours are available. The man providing the Magical Mystery commentary mentions that it is possible to see the inside of John Lennon's house. "But none of the original furniture is there. It's just a recreation." Considering that the tour is run by (and includes a free ticket to) the Cavern Club, this is a trifle unsportsmanlike. It is still possible to climb down four or five flights of stairs into the arched cellar with bare brickwork and a tiny little stage where a jobbing singer plays Beatles covers sixteen hours a day. (And other things. If you haven't heard Elvis's American Trilogy sung with a Scouse accent, you haven't heard anything at all.) He did a very good job of encouraging us all to go na-na-na na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey Jude, and added the line "never buy the Sun" into Here Comes the Sun. Pleasingly, everyone cheered. I assume that "everyone" is a tourist like me. I suppose a real Liverpudlian would no more go to the Cavern than a Dubliner would go to Paddy O'Grady's Irish Theme Pub. But it's another item ticked off the list: went to Liverpool; sang Hey Jude in the cavern club, booed Rupert Murdoch. Except....The original Cavern Club was demolished in 1973: this is very much only a recreation. One cellar is probably quite a lot like another, and the fake-Cavern gives a fairly good impression of what the original Cavern must have been like. And if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. From now on whenever I read something about the very early days of the Beatles this is the image I will have in my head.

On the waterfront is something called The Beatles Story, which also costs £20. It reminded me of one of those grottos that Santa Claus used to live in on the top floor of Selfridges. You are guided through a series of tableaux representing different stages of the Fab Four's career. This is a recreation of what the Mersey Beat offices probably looked like; this is a recreation of Brian Epstein's record shop; and this is a life-sized recreation of the Yellow Submarine. You even get to sit in a row of airline type seats to recreate the Beatles Conquering America. John Lennon's sister Julia provides a recorded commentary which is rather sweet.

John Lennon's original white piano is on display in a recreation of the white room where he filmed the Imagine video. While the Salvation Army were doing building works, the actual red gates of Strawberry Field were incorporated into a Strawberry Fields diorama.

In 2001 Yoko Ono bought the property where John Lennon had grown up and donated it to National Trust (along, conceivably, with a soap impression of his wife). The National Trust, which is more used to curating the stately homes of England already owned Paul McCartney's house, and wasn't quite sure at first if it wanted to collect the set. Menlove Ave is a real street of real houses with real people living in them; so you have to buy a ticket in advance (price £20) and get ferried to the site in an Official Minibus. Only those who arrive on the Official Minibus are allowed to set foot in the shrine; you have to physically hand your cameras over on arrival.

In the cold light of day, there isn't that much to see: a back kitchen; a hall; the morning room, the dining room, the lounge, and a bathroom "retaining some of the original fittings". The guide, who grew up in the area himself, paints a vivid picture of what life in the house ("an almost posh house on an almost posh street") was like. John's Aunt Mimi made everyone come in through the back door so they wouldn't get mud on the carpet. She approved of Paul ("your little friend") but thought George was a scruff. She didn't like John's habit of affecting a scouse accent because she thought she had brought him up to talk properly.

Then you go upstairs and you see John Lennon's childhood bedroom. And if you have studied all the biographies and seen Nowhere Boy and read Spaniard in the Works any kind of skepticism melts away, as I imagine it does in the Church of the Nativity. Or, come to that, Santa's grotto. 

This. Is. The. Room. Where. J*o*h*n L*e*n*n*o*n. Used. To. Sleep. John Lennon the little English schoolboy who wanted to be Just William. John Lennon who listened to the Goon Show and endlessly reread Lewis Carol. (His copy of Alice in Wonderland is placed neatly on a table by the bed. Goo-goo-g'joob.) There are a few pin-ups from contemporary magazines on the walls. The poster of Brigit Bardot which the boy John stuck to the ceiling above his bed for an obvious purpose has not been reinstated.

This isn't, in fact, how John left his room: it's how Yoko has asked for it to be laid out. "Everything that happened afterwards germinated from John's dreaming in his little bedroom at Mendips" she writes  "which was a very special place for him. An incredible dreamer, John made all those dreams come true - for himself and for the world...I hope you'll make your dreams come true too."

In the front room there is a big ticking clock inscribed with the name of John Lennon's grandfather. When John moved to the Dakota building in New York, he asked for the clock to be sent there, because the ticking reminded him of home. Understandably, Yoko cannot bare to part with it so she has had an exact replica made, at vast expense.

The replica has replaced the real thing. A better piece of conceptual art than all the ladders and willies and tuna sandwiches in the world.

Let me take you down 'cos I'm going to Strawberry Fields.

Nothing is real.

There is a statue of the Beatles on the docks. It looks as if they have stepped out of A Hard Days Night. The caption tells us that the Beatles are synonymous with the city and that they never really left.

But they really, really did.

I look at the school photos in Aunt Mimi's hall, and I look at the film of the beardy guy in the white suit.  It's like there are two entirely different John's.

When a young Canadian boy with a tape recorder interviewed John during the Montreal bed-in, John tells him to grow his hair for peace, take his clothes off for peace, piss for peace. It isn't always clear what he means. How is unorthodox coiffure or fouling the street going to cause the nations of the world to disarm? 

The reason he believes in peace, he says, in another piece of footage, is that he is actually a very violent person. On one occasion he nearly killed a man. Right at the beginning of his career, Beatle-John went on holiday to Barcelona with his manager. As you do. A Liverpool DJ drew the same conclusion that everyone else has always drawn, and John punched him.

So when John and Yoko are gallivanting around the world, talking about peace "as if they had personally invented it" they are really talking about inner peace; spiritual peace; personal peace. If I, John Lennon, who beat a man up for calling me queer, can renounce my violent side, then so can you. And if everyone embraced their inner Maharishi then armed clashes between incompatible political systems would come to an end. War is over if you want it.

John Lennon's message of peace is a decade long repudiation of the man he used to be. The John who sang about giving peace a chance in posh hotel rooms was actively repudiating the violent teddy boys who used to listen to rock and roll records and read dirty magazines in that little box room. The bus tours and the statues and the fake Cavern are trying to claim Liverpool-John back from Greenwich-Village-John. But it can't be done. As soon as he had some money he left that terraced house and bought a mansion. From swinging London, Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane seemed appareled in celestial light; but he never came back. I don't think Liverpool can ever quite forgive him. 

So, anyway, that's what I did on my weekend off.

Friday, June 07, 2019

locked myself away for the weekend. not talking to any humans, even the nice ones. some chance i will have something written my monday lunchtime

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

sorry for prolonged silence. might manage to write something over the weekend, who knows. 

assume this is 500 biting words on trump/farage/johnson

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (3)

At least four Jesuses stand between us and the text of Mark's Gospel. 

There is Sunday School Jesus the luminous man who lives in the sky and is a friend to little children. 

There is Composite Jesus, stitched together out of the four contradictory Gospels. 

There is Folklore Jesus, who was born in a stable, liked cherries and hurt his little hand while his step-dad was teaching him woodwork. 

And there is Theological Jesus, of one being with the father, begotten not created, with two natures in hypostatic union. 

These Jesuses are not necessarily wrong or bad. But we know them so well that we see them before, or instead of, the Jesus that Mark writes about. We read a passage in which Jesus is firey or even bad-tempered; and we see a gentle Jesus of pure compassion. We read a story whose whole structure depends on a single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and say "They really went back and forwards between Judea and Jerusalem three times". We read a clear story in which God's spirit comes down on the man Jesus, and immediately start talking about Trinitarian formulas which weren't going to be codified for another three hundred years.

Here is a commentary I found online, talking about the Baptism of Jesus:

The earliest heretics took advantage of this statement to represent this event as the descent of the eternal Christ upon the man Jesus for personal indwelling. Later critics have adopted this view. But it need hardly be said here that such an opinion is altogether inconsistent with all that we read elsewhere of the circumstances of the Incarnation, and of the intimate and indissoluble union of the Divine and human natures in the person of the one Christ, from the time of the "overshadowing of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Highest." 

The first thing to know about the baptism story is how it can be forced to fit in with orthodox theological idea, and how people who assume that it says what it means are heretics. The second thing to know is how it can be harmonized with the other Gospels. The idea that we might read the story as a story hardly even occurs to us. 

By all means let's talk about the Jesus of the hymns and the legends; let's listen to the theologians explaining the hard bits in technical language; by all means let's think up some continuity hacks so that all the Gospels tell exactly the same story. We've been at it for seventeen hundred years; we are hardly likely to stop now.

But Mark's Gospel exists. And it is very old: older than any of the hymns or the creeds. Someone chose to write these exact words in this exact order, as opposed to some different words in a different order. Someone thought that these stories about Jesus, told in these forms, were the ones people needed to hear. And the Very Ancient Christians chose to preserve his text, and the Slightly Less Ancient Christians put them into the Bible, and the Early Modern Christians translated it into English and the Wycliffe Bible Translators are still working very hard to translate it into Ngbugu. 

So shouldn't we be at least a bit interested in what actually Mark said? 

Folk Lore Jesus, Synthetic Jesus and Theological Jesus are all defensible; even necessary. But there are also Indefensible Jesuses; Jesuses who don't so much overshadow the text as replace it. 

There is Political Jesus, the one who preached a very definite programme and who calls on us to bring about a thing called The Kingdom in our own age. The Political Jesus who agrees with my politics—the one for whom the Kingdom primarily meant the post 1945 socialist welfare state—is a lot more dangerous than the Political Jesus who preached Victorian Values and the Political Jesus who preached American exceptionalism. 

Very nearly as bad is Moral Jesus, Jesus the Good Example. If you are ever faced with a dilemma—if it ever becomes hard to see what is right and what is wrong—then whistle a merry tune, ask "What Would Jesus Do?" and everything will be okay. 

And of course, the History departments still produce Historical Jesuses by the sackful. Mark got Jesus wrong; the church fathers got Mark wrong; the modern church got the fathers wrong, but don't worry an academic in an American university can infallibly takes us back to what the True and Original Jesus really said.

Enoch Powell was quite right. (*) You can't possibly go from "Jesus supernaturally created food for 5,000 of his followers" to "Jesus would have supported my food bank policy but opposed your universal income idea." You can't get from "Jesus supernaturally healed sick people" to "Jesus would have supported the National Health Service but opposed mandatory private insurance schemes". And when faced with a hard choice—"Should I tell the truth, which will hurt a number of people unnecessarily; or tell a lie, which will trap me a series of deceptions for years to come?—then "Jesus was compassionate" is no help at all. Followers of Moral and Political Jesus general have the same morals and political beliefs as everyone else of their age and class. They are just a bit more insufferable about them.

Historical Jesus is more of a problem. I have heard too many Christians saying "Oh, you historians! You just make up whatever version of Jesus you like! The Historical Jesus industry is just a matter of looking into a mirror!" This is unfair and anti-intellectual. Your actual historian isn't in the business of making stuff up. She has a very large amount of actual historical data at her fingertips. She can't tell us if Jesus was the Messiah of Judaism. That isn't an historical question. But she can tell us a very great deal about what Jews at the time of Jesus understood the word "Messiah" to mean. (SPOILER: Lots of different things.) 

The Historians Jesus, so long as we are talking about actual Historians, I have no problem with. The bigger menace is the Historical Novelist's Jesus. 

I am not thinking mainly of Dan Brown. Dan Brown made up a lot of silly tosh in order to spin a good yarn. Spinning a good yarn is his job. I am not even thinking of things like The Last Temptation of Christ, Stand Up For Judas, or Jesus Christ Superstar all of which made selective use of the Gospel stories to create deliberately provocative works of art. Heck, I even defended Jerry Springer the Opera, up to a point. 

I am thinking much more of people like the Rev. Giles Fraser, who tells us that the Last Supper was "really" a provocative act of resistance against the Roman Empire. People like Simcha Jacobovici who asserts that the Gospels plainly state that Jesus was married to someone he calls "Mary of Magdela." The legions of well-meaning 1960s clergymen who said that Resurrection meant nothing more than "the disciples carried on trying to follow Jesus' teaching after he had died." I am thinking of Miss Govey who, who wouldn't have known what the words "radical" and "modernist" meant, but who quire happily told her class of ten-year-olds that everyone was so moved when that little boy shared his packed lunch to Jesus that all five thousand of them shared their packed lunches as well, so everybody got some. So we should share our packed lunches as well: that is the point of the story. People, in short, who have replaced the stories in the Gospels with different stories of their own. 

Maybe Jesus was a revolutionary. He might have been. Maybe the great Signs were just conjuring tricks with moral messages behind them. They could have been. Maybe the whole thing about Jesus having supernatural powers was a terrible misunderstanding and he was really just a goody-goody who wanted everyone to share their stuff. Maybe so. But that is not what Mark believed. Or, at any rate, that is not what Mark put in his Gospel. The Historical Novelist's Jesus produces a weird kind of cognitive dissonance. Intelligent people read about exorcisms and resurrections and the sky splitting open and then they say "Jesus lived such an exemplary life that after he died his followers started to use words like 'son of god' to describe him." It's a bit like watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and coming away convinced that you've seen a fairly accurate recreation of the life of a sixth century Romano-British war-band. 


My mother loved to tell a story about a Labour Party meeting in the 1980s. It was the time when a far-left cadre, led by an activist named John Lansman, was trying to take over party machinery, much to the dismay of the moderate old guard, who regarded them as Trotskyites. (It could never happen today.) 

On one occasion, after a particularly acrimonious session, an elderly invited speaker stood up to recount some of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. 

"We have heard much tonight about what Trotsky said" he began. "I will now tell you what Trotsky said to me." 

That's what we would love to have: not what Jesus said, but what Jesus said to me.

Some time in the middle of the second century, a Christian named Papias wrote that he didn't hold with this new-fangled idea of writing the story of Jesus down. In his day, you would find some very old person who remembered someone who remembered what one of the original disciples had told them about Jesus and get them to repeat the story. "The living and abiding voice" he called it. We'd call it oral tradition.  

Eusebius (the fourth century historian) says that Papias said that some of those very old people said that Peter had told Mark what he remembered of Jesus, and that Mark had written it down. (I make that five links in the chain: from Peter to Mark to the very old people to Papias to Eusebius.) Some people have seized on this idea and said that Mark's Gospel is the memoirs of Peter, pure and simple, an old fisherman spewing out fifty-year-old memories, as close to the Original Jesus as it is possible to get. "Mark" is merely an amanuensis, scribbling down the Elder's memories with a quill and a parchment. But I find it hard to imagine that a first-person eye-witness account could ever have been presented in such a simple, colourless form. It doesn't read like a memoir; it doesn't read like a folk tale. It reads more like a liturgy or a creedal statement. A recitation. 

I have an idea.

Almost certainly it is a silly idea. Very likely someone who has done a thesis on Aramaic story telling is laughing at me right now. But it describes something of how reading the New Testament feels. To me: 

Here is my idea.

Mark is a crib sheet. 

Mark is summary of the basic stories which a story teller needs in his repertoire. 

Mark is a skeleton which subsequent evangelists are intended to flesh out. 

Mark is a structure for future reciters of the story to follow. 

When Mark, toga and sandals and all, performed his gospel to an eager audience of Christian children, sometime in the eighth decade of the first millennium, he didn't speak the exact words of "Mark's Gospel". He tried to paint a picture. He tried to make it vivid in the audience's mind. And he tried to explain what some of the harder passages meant. How did the Adversary tempt Jesus? How did Jesus respond? What was the doctrine which so amazed the people of Capernaum? How could John possibly have been so presumptuous as to try and wash away the sins of the actual Son of God? Some of the elaboration would have come from a store of folk memories and oral traditions. Some of them he would have made up on the spot. That's how story telling works.

And the compilers of the Bible knew this. And they wanted us to know it as well. So they provided us with the text of Mark—his notes, his outline. But they also provided us with a transcript of two performances based on Mark's outline.

The first performance weaves pages and pages of the most beautiful preaching into Mark's story. Everyone on earth knows about the lilies of the field and turning the other cheek. The other gives us a glimpse of Jesus' childhood, and works in the most amazing parable-stories. Everyone on earth knows the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. 

Could it be any clearer? "Here is Matthew's recitation. Read that first. Now, here is the script he was working from. Read that next. Now see what Luke did with the same material. And if you want to see just how way-out some performances can be, get a load of what John did to it. Now take it and run with and tell it your own way. That's what it's for. A living story, not a dead text." 

That's my idea. Ridiculous. 

My starting point for this essay was "What would happen if I pretended to read Mark's Gospel for the first time?" 

I assumed that I would say "Some of the stories are not as we remember them; in some cases Jesus does things which are not the kinds of things which we imagine Jesus doing. And there are some more obscure tales that we have forgotten altogether." 

Before I got to the end of the first page, I realized that my conclusion would have to be "It is not possible to read Mark's Gospel for the first time. My religious and theological and cultural assumptions about Jesus have crowded Mark's character out of the text." 

But it was always a silly question. We say that we "read" Mark; and we also say that we "read" Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Eliot and A.A Milne. But we are not really talking about the same process. Middlemarch and Jungle Tales of Tarzan are both books. A good book and a bad book perhaps, but the same kind of thing. The long novel has depth and complexity and seriousness and importance, while the short adventure story is a short adventure story. But I read Tarzan to find out what happens next; to get to know the characters; to be excited, surprised, amused and moved; to feel happy and sad; to pretend that some made up people are real people. And I read Middlemarch for pretty much the same reasons.

But the idea of "reading" Mark in the same way that I "read" Tarzan is absurd, as absurd as the man who tried to use his guitar in unarmed combat. You might have an opinion about whether disco dancing is better than ballet; but "Which is better, ballet, marmite, or nuclear physics?" doesn't even qualify as a question.

I called this introductory essay "The Book That Refused To Be Written" as a nod to Frank Morrison. I should have called it "The Book That Refused To Be Read". 

And yet, Mark exists. It is a text, made of language. I have it in front of me. I can read it. 

15,000 words. Twenty pages. 

Chapter 1, verse 1, page 963. 

"This is the Good News about Jesus Christ the Son of God..."

(*) Kindly do not take this out of context.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mark 1: 29-45

and forthwith, 
when they were come out of the synagogue
they entered into the house of Simon and Andrew
with James and John.
but Simon's wife's mother lay sick of a fever,
and anon they tell him of her
and he came and took her by the hand
and lifted her up
and immediately the fever left her,
and she ministered unto them.

This incident is so brief it barely counts as a story. Simon's mother-in-law is poorly; Jesus arrives; holds her hand; she gets up and makes lunch. He doesn't preach a message or draw any conclusion: it isn't his doctrine which heals her. If anything Jesus makes her better just by being there. 

The slightly awkward word "ministered" reflects a word-play in the original: diakonos, a waiter, is the same word as diakonos, a deacon. 

In a few pages Simon will be given the sobriquet Peter. In a few decades, the Roman Catholic church will claim Peter as their first Pope. And the only way I know of acquiring a mother-in-law is by having a wife. The first Pope was a married man.

I suppose that extended family units consisting of a married couple, one or more of their parents, and any kids were fairly common in Capernaum. But I do wonder why Granny, rather than Mrs Peter cooked lunch for the important visitors. 

The obvious answer being: Peter was a widower.

and at even 
when the sun did set 
they brought unto him all that were diseased 
and them that were possessed with devils
and all the city was gathered together at the door
and he healed many that were sick of divers diseases 
and cast out many devils
and suffered not the devils to speak
because they knew him

Mark's Gospel unfolds at breakneck speed. Immediately after the exorcism, Jesus becomes famous; immediately after leaving the synagogue, they go to stay with Simon; immediately they arrive, they hear that his mother-in-law is sick; immediately Jesus holds her hand, she gets better. Our English translators use different words: straightway, forthwith, anon, immediately, at once. But that disguises the rhythm and the repetition of the original, where the same word is repeated endlessly. Euthys... euthys... euthys..... 

They should probably have picked "straightway" and stuck with it. This is, after all, a story which started with an admonition to built a straight way for the King. 

The fishermen wouldn't have been working on the Sabbath, so the first visit to the Synagogue must have been at least a day or two after the calling of the Four. Even if we take "the region round about Galilee" to mean "the villages near the lake" and not "the whole province" the news about Jesus would have taken days or weeks to get out there. So "immediately the news spread" and "immediately they went to Simon's house" are in two different time frames. 

There is no point in trying to create a chronology out of Mark's breathless narrative. This isn't "a probable outline of Jesus' career", telling you what he did and where he did it and in what order. It's a lot of short Jesus-stories strung together by an editor. The scholars are doubtless correct when they tell us that "As soon as they left the synagogue, they went to the home of Simon and Andrew" is an editorial link, and that in its original form the story started "So, Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever". 

But the construction is not arbitrary. There is a story arc. This second half of the first chapter is clearly presenting us with "Jesus's first day": how he went from obscurity to fame. 

He arrives in town; maybe on Friday, and selects the first four people he sees to be his followers. On Saturday morning he preaches in the synagogue and performs an exorcism. On Saturday lunchtime, he visits Simon's house and heals Simon's mother in law. By Saturday evening, everyone in town is outside his front door. Mark underlines the time of day: "that evening, after sunset". Jesus waits until shabbat is over before starting the mass exorcism. He isn't going to challenge the lawyers on this point. Not just yet. The next morning he absents himself.

And then the narrative does something so strange I am almost embarrassed to draw attention to it. 

and in the morning, 
rising up a great while before day
he went out
and departed into a solitary place
and there prayed 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. So far so un-surprising. The Greek doesn't actually say "morning": it says something untranslatable like "very early in the night still much" but everyone agrees that that's an idiom for "before the sun had come up". 

So: Jesus gets up before sunrise. Before sunrise on the morning after the Sabbath. Before sunrise on Sunday morning. 

"Got up" is a perfectly reasonable translation: my understanding is that the Greek is actually closer to "he stood up". But "he stood up" -- anastas -- is elsewhere translated as "he rose" or "he arose". 


Very early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus arose. 

He was Simon's guest. Simon must literally have gone to his bedroom and found that he was not there. Because he had risen. (Did he fold up his bedclothes neatly before he went?) And so, after the sun had come up, Simon went looking for him... 

I do not know what is going on. I do not know if Mark worked a credal statement into a passage which is really just giving out a fairly banal piece of information -- Jesus used to get up early to say his prayers. Or, more shockingly, if events we perceive as holy and mysterious were originally talked about in concrete, day-to-day language. 

"Very early on Easter Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up..." 

and Simon
and they that were with him followed after him
and when they had found him 
they said unto him, 
"All men seek for thee"
and he said unto them, 
"Let us go into the next towns, 
that I may preach there also: 
for therefore came I forth." 
and he preached in their synagogues 
throughout all Galilee 
and cast out devils

When the story started, some 50 verses ago, John the Baptist was in the wilderness, and everyone in Judea was coming to him. As the first section of the story draws to a close, Jesus is in the wilderness, and everyone in Galilee is looking for him. We know John as the precursor to Jesus; but if we were reading this story for the first time it would seem that Jesus was being presented as the second John. 

Jesus decides not to return to Capernaum, but to go instead to the nearby towns. I don't think that he is saying "I came to preach in the surrounding towns, not just in Capernaum"; I think that he is saying "Let's go to the towns which haven't heard about the exorcism yet; so that I can announce my good tidings. I came to do that, not to perform miracles." 

and there came a leper to him 
beseeching him
and kneeling down to him
and saying unto him
"If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean"
and Jesus
moved with compassion
put forth his hand
and touched him
and saith unto him
"I will
be thou clean."
and as soon as he had spoken 
immediately the leprosy departed from him
and he was cleansed
and he straitly charged him
and forthwith sent him away
and saith unto him
"See thou say nothing to any man 
but go thy way 
shew thyself to the priest 
and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded 
for a testimony unto them"
But he went out, 
and began to publish it much
and to blaze abroad the matter 
insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city
but was without in desert places
and they came to him from every quarter 

If you had asked me to guess, I would have assumed that the Bible was divided into chapters and verses in the fourth century, when the text was being translated into Latin. But in fact, the chapter divisions only go back to the thirteenth century. Still, the editors knew what they were doing, and Mark chapter 1 works pretty well as a standalone narrative. Here endeth the first chapter; tune in next week for the further adventures of Jesus and his band. 

This first installment ends with Jesus leaving Capernaum to preach in the other towns; episode two will begin with him returning to base. But in between comes this story. And I think Mark put it here for a reason. Thematically, it represents the climax of this first cycle of stories; and psychologically, it represents a turning point in Jesus' career. 

We've seen Jesus heal a sick lady and expel a dirty ghost; and we're told that hundreds of people came to Simon's house for healing and deliverance. But this is the first time Jesus has healed a leper, and it is obviously of special significance. 

John washed people in the river: the point of washing is to get clean; literally, metaphorically, spiritually. Lepers are dirty. Some translations primly insist on "ceremonially unclean" and "ritually defiled". It is certainly true that the Jewish religion involved a lot of spiritual and ceremonial cleaning up, but it is also true that skin diseases and excrement and blood and mildew and pigs are yucky and icky and repulsive. Things which are physically repulsive and things which are spiritually repulsive are talked about in the same way. 

Lepers are dirty. If you touch a leper, you become dirty. The leper wants to be clean. Jesus can touch dirty things without getting dirty himself. When he touches something dirty, the dirty thing gets cleaned up. John's baptism -- his washing -- didn't actually clean anyone up. Jesus has cleaned up the leper just by being near him. He isn't disgusting any more.

Jesus left Capernaum because he wanted to announce his good message, not get trapped in a house healing sick people. So the leper's question could almost be seen as an accusation. 

"You could clean me up if you wanted to." 

"Oh, I want to...." 

Are we allowed to read psychological conflict into the life of Jesus? Or could we even (shades of Martin Scorcese) see the leper as tempting Jesus; using his human compassion to divert him from his divine mission? Jesus wants to proclaim the good-message. He has run away from Capernaum because the people there are demanding exorcisms and healings. But when confronted with a person who desperately needs cleansing, his compassion kicks in. He can't only be God's herald. He has to be a healer as well. 

And so the first chapter ends. Perhaps with a long, aerial shot of Jesus in the desolation (like John) and crowds of people coming out of the towns and the villages and converging on him. 

The sky has opened up; and this fellow from the North is walking around with a part of God inside him. Some law of spiritual attraction has kicked in. Fishermen leave their nets and fall in step behind him. Sick people get better just because he's there. Dirty ghosts run away. Physically disgusting people become clean. Congregations are panic-stricken by his words. Everyone is looking for him, all the time. But he hides from them. He keeps his identity a secret. He doesn't want to be found. He wants only to proclaim and teach. "That is why I have come forth." 

But what is this proclamation? What is this doctrine which boggles congregations?As the curtain comes down, this is still very mysterious indeed.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Well, I'm intrigued. Are you in intrigued?

I tried the stunt with the TIE Fighter once myself. Used all my Force Points for the session, I did. Otherwise, strictly speaking, doesn't say much: another desert planet, could be Tatooine, could be Jaku; we already knew Lando was coming back.

Interesting that they are definitely hyping it as the end of the saga, though: that's giving them a pretty high bar to reach, and also tying their hands if they change their mind. (How many Last Books Of Earthsea are there?) I grew up with the idea that Star Wars was always going to be a Trilogy of Trilogies, so I am happy about this.

The wrecked Death Star is interesting. It seems to be that has to be either Yavin or Endor. Both forest moons, incidentally. Although there was no suggestion in IV or VI that the native population was showered with wreckage. (Maybe it crashed into Yavin and/or Endor, rather than the moon's thereof.) But let's not over interpret, because it might just be a bit of scenery for the trailer. The big crashed Star Destroyer in Force Awakens wasn't specially important to the metaplot.

Not sure about "rise" in the title. There was a point where every third movie was called the "rise" of something or other. And trailers always say "A hero will rise", "A warrior will rise" "A dancing instructor will rise." But "rise of Skywalker" is very interesting indeed. Luke comes back from the dead? Rey is a member of the Skywalker clan after all?

It could mean "Darth Vader gets resuscitated" which would be a very odd thing to do in the final movie – but isn't Hayden Christensen rumoured to be involved?

So, anyway, I'm intrigued. Are you intrigued?

Friday, April 05, 2019

Mark 1 14-28

Now after that John was put in prison

Jesus came into Galilee....

My heart sinks when anyone starts to talk about Biblical Geography, particularly if it involves Miss Beale's black and white slides of her trip to the Holy Land in the 1950s.

But I have managed to bang the following basic facts into my head.

  1. Israel is the whole land claimed by the descendants of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament.
  2. When the land became a monarchy, Israel referred to the Northern Kingdom as opposed to the Southern Kingdom which was known as Judah. (Judah was the nice brother who didn't want to sell Joseph to the Ishmalites. A hairy crew. The kingdom of Judah was populated by his descendants. The descendants of the other ten brothers lived in Israel. Making twelve altogether. It's complicated.)
  3. By the time of Mark's Gospel, the land of Israel is split in three. Galilee, at the top of the map; Judea, at the bottom, and Samaria in the middle. (Yes, I too always imagined Samaria as being a far-away land; but a straight path from Nazareth to Jerusalem would take you through it. I also thought of Galilee as a sleepy little sea-side town, but it is in fact the name of the whole province.) 
  4. The Galileans, the Samaritans and the Judeans all claim descent from Jacob and all claim to follow the teachings of Moses; but they understand those laws differently: very differently indeed in the case of the Samaritans. Which is why the Galileans don't like them very much and the Judeans don't like them at all.
  5. People who live in Judea are Judeans (Ioudaios); their religion became known as Judaism. Jesus was in a modern sense Jewish but he wasn't a Judean. This will lead to heaps of confusion later on.
  6. Down in the South is the salty Dead Sea; up in the North is the freshwater Sea of Galilee. They are connected by the River Jordan.
  7. Nazareth is a long day's stroll away from the sea of Galilee; but it would take a week's hike to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

Will that do?

....preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 
and saying,
"The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God is at hand:
repent ye,
and believe the gospel."

We have been told that this book is the "gospel of Jesus". Now Jesus finally speaks: he announces something called "the gospel of God" and calls on people to "believe the gospel."

"Gospel" is another dusty church word. At best it means the second reading on Sunday morning; at worst, a form of religiously inspired pop music. The first four books of the New Testament are the "gospels"; any scrap of parchment with Jesus' name in it is immediately heralded as "the fifth gospel".

The English Bible translators couldn't find a straightforward English equivalent of Mark's word euangelion, although once or twice they render it as "glad tidings." Literally it means "good message"; but they made up their own word: godspell. Which, as everyone knows, means Good News although it could be understood as God's News. But Good News is not much of an improvement over Gospel, from our point of view. It is redolent of over-earnest street preachers ("have you heard the good news about Jesus?") and the dreadful Good News Bible.

The meanings of words expand and contract with the centuries. C.S Lewis talks about "the dangerous sense": where the modern meaning of a word is almost, but not exactly, the same as its archaic meaning, so students are in danger of misreading it. The word good once primarily meant "holy and pious" but now it primarily means "excellent". So the godspell may actually be the Holy News. Spell originally meant something like "narrative" or "recitation": we still talk about advertising spiel or political spiel. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how recitation could come to mean "tidings", "message" or "news". Neither does it take too much imagination to see how the same word could evolve along a quite different pathway, so that in modern English spell primarily means "a poem recited by a witch". 

This book, the Glad Tidings According to Mark, contains the glad tidings about Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the glad tidings about God. And what were those glad tidings? Like John, Jesus says that something important is about to happen but hasn't happened yet. Like John, Jesus says that people need to change their minds and get ready for this thing which is about to happen. But unlike John, Jesus says that as well as repenting, you have to believe. Believe what? The glad tidings themselves.

But what, exactly, are these glad tidings? What is the content of God's message? We aren't told. It almost seems that Jesus is announcing the Gospel, but at the same time, keeping it secret. 

Perhaps the good spiel really is God's advertising pitch. Pitches often work like this. You offer a teaser as bait, and then, once people are interested, you reel them in....

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and Andrew his brother
casting a net into the sea:
for they were fishers.
and Jesus said unto them,
"Come ye after me
and I will make you to become fishers of men."

and straightway they forsook their nets,
and followed him
and when he had gone a little farther thence,
he saw James the son of Zebedee
and John his brother,
who also were in the ship mending their nets.
And straightway he called them:
and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants
and went after him.

Mark's gospel sometimes comes across as a sequence of tiny little folk-memories; a collection of stanzas or proverbs. Most scholars think that the individual narrative units are older than the text; that the book we call Mark is the result of someone taking these fragments and stitching them together.

That is how these lines sound to me. As if someone is repeating an oft-told tale about a thing which a disciple of a disciple remembered happening. There doesn't seem to be any mystery or secret meaning hiding beneath the surface. It feels like we are slipping back a thousand years and seeing events unfold. 

A man walks by the sea; he sees two men. He beckons, says a few words we don't quite catch; and they go with him. He walks along a bit further and sees two more men; they join the group. Where there was one there are now five. 

I suppose they are all leaving footprints in the sand.

The first words we hear Jesus speak are almost a joke.  Not "Come and help me redeem Israel." Not "Come and join in what's going to become literally the biggest story in history." But "I see you haven't caught any fish. Want to have a go at catching people instead?"

Simon and Andrew and James and John do not seem, particularly, to be responding to a message. They don't say "This Good News stuff sounds brilliant, we want to hear more" or "Yeah. we've been hoping for something like this Kingdom thing. Mind if we come along?" They follow Jesus because Jesus tells them to follow him. If you think that Jesus was a social reformer, a revolutionary, a pacifist, or a mystic these passages will not be much help to you. The big deal about Jesus is that he is Jesus.

NOTE: It is generally agreed that Andrew was the best disciple. 

And they went into Capernaum
and straightway on the sabbath day
he entered into the synagogue
and taught
and they were astonished at his doctrine:
for he taught them as one that had authority
and not as the scribes.

When I was a kid we went to Butlins a few times. They still had old-fashioned sea-side variety shows, with conjurers and impressionists and comedians. I remember one comedian more or less dying on the stage, eliciting no more than a polite chuckle from the audience. The following night a different comedian had the same audience almost literally rolling in the aisles with hysterical laughter. Despite the fact that he was telling exactly the same jokes.

One of the oldest surviving Christian texts—some people think it is even older than the New Testament—is known as the didache: The Teaching. or The Doctrine. In the previous passage, Jesus was preaching his glad tidings—announcing or proclaiming them. Here, he is teaching: dispensing didache. .  

Mark says that people were astonished by this Doctrine. But, maddeningly, he doesn't tell us what Jesus actually said. Either he didn't know, or he knew and didn't think it was important. What he wants us to know is that the congregation recognized a quality called Authority behind the words; and that this left them dumbfounded; stunned; boggled.

And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit
And he cried out, saying,
"Let us alone;
What have we to do with thee
thou Jesus of Nazareth?
art thou come to destroy us?
I know thee who thou art
the Holy One of God."
And Jesus rebuked him, saying,
"Hold thy peace
and come out of him."

and when the unclean spirit had torn him,
and cried with a loud voice,
he came out of him.
and they were all amazed,
insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying,
"What thing is this?
What new doctrine is this?
For with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits,
and they do obey him."
and immediately his fame spread abroad
throughout all the region round about Galilee.

A few lines ago, John the Baptist was saying that his successor would baptize people in the holy ghost; and we were watching the holy ghost flutter down from heaven and land on Jesus. But now Jesus confronts a man who is inhabited by an unclean spirit. A dirty ghost.

Jesus tells the dirty ghost to go away, and away it goes.

Jesus' audience are stunned because he preaches to them with authority; and they are equally stunned because he uses his authority to give orders to the dirty ghost. The two events are somehow the same. The people don't think that Jesus is a preacher and also an exorcist. Somehow, they think that it is his doctrine that has made the dirty ghost go away. Or that the casting out of the ghost sums is part and parcel of the doctrine. 

What they take away from both the sermon and the miracle is that Jesus has exousian, authority.

Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, was told to prophecy—preach—to the dry bones. No-one ever told us what he said: it was the very act of prophesying which brought the bones back to life. (The ankle bone connected to the shin bone; the shin bone connected to the thigh bone...) I think something similar is happening here. It is something in the words, a supernatural quality, which leaves the congregation stunned and the actual forces of evil running away. The words themselves don't matter; they have power because Jesus is speaking them. 

It's not the jokes; it's the way you tell them.

It's not what he preaches; it's the way that he preaches it.

It's a recitation. An incantation.

God's Spell.

Coming soon: Lepers! Married Popes! Cripples!