Thursday, April 02, 2015

How To Make The Bible Mean Whatever You Want It To Mean (2)

I promise this will be my last post about Giles Fraser. He writes substantially the same column every week, so I could continue writing substantially the same rebuttal indefinitely. And writing about this kind of thing forces me to adopt an attitude of piety which must be hysterically funny to anyone who knows me personally. I sure you would all rather be ignoring another Star Wars piece. 

But I did think his last one was a good example of the total intellectual bankruptcy of the liberal position, so I am going to have one last go at showing what my problem is with the guy.

There are a number of different ways of reading the New Testament. But I think it would be quite a good idea for anyone setting themselves up as an Expositor to pick one, say what it is, and more or less stick to it. At one time, I attended a Charismatic "house" church. They had a pretty clear approach. The Gospels, they believed, were accurate written accounts of stuff that really happened. They were also the inspired and infallible word of God, but what God had mainly inspired the writers to do infallibly was to accurately record what had really happened. Any honest writer would have written much the same. Thus: “Many learned people have used human wisdom to invent some reason why St John tells us that the miraculous drought consisted of 153 fishes. But in fact, God’s word tells us this because it is the number they actually caught.”

At almost the other extreme, I expect that by now we have all read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. He thinks that the Gospels are stories — stories which Christians have instead of answers to hard questions about God and suffering. He says that he thinks that the story is true; but doesn't think that's really the point.

And obviously, people in olden times thought it was all allegorical. Five levels of allegory, only one of which was suitable for the Common People. And scholars have applied various criteria to try to construct (they admit that it's a construct) a figure called "the Historical Jesus". 

So: what is Giles Fraser's approach?

His latest piece is about Easter and Passover and Holy Communion. He thinks it is nice that Jews can be flexible about how they celebrate Passover, and that it's a shame that Christians are bound by strict liturgical rules when they celebrate the Eucharist. I get that. But when he starts talking about God and Jesus and the Bible and stuff, my head starts to spin, slightly. 

This year, in an unusual quirk of the calendar, Passover and Easter overlap, with the Jewish celebrations beginning on the day Christians call Good Friday. Though this is rare, it is unsurprising....

This is an odd way of putting it. For centuries Christians celebrated Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover, which ever day of the week it fell on. The decision that Easter Sunday should always fall on a Sunday, and that Good Friday should always fall on a Friday was made at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Fraser believes that for the last sixteen hundred and ninety years, the thing calling itself "the church" has not being following Jesus but a "death cult" largely invented by Constantine and promulgated at Nicea. So it's mighty interesting that he is so keen on Easter being at Passover and a bit suspicious of the Nicean “first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox” formula. 

– not least because the last supper that Jesus ate with his friends the night before he died was a Passover seder. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he told them.

Allow me to improve the above: 

"...not least because three of the Gospels say that the Last Supper was a Passover seder. The other one very definitely says that it wasn't.  'Do this in remembrance of me' he told them, according to one of the four."

It's not Giles' fault that the four evangelists don't agree. Most academics and many clergy would counsel against harmonization. But if you are going to merge four different stories into one composite version, sheer honesty requires that you signal to your audience that this is what you are doing. "We have four stories about the Last Supper. They don't agree on every point. But what seems to have happened is something like this..."

“Remember: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. But for the Christians that followed, he was re-described as the lamb sacrificed at Passover. “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us,” says St Paul, taking his own Jewish theology of temple sacrifice and boldly, even offensively, applying it to a man who was strung up by the Romans as an enemy of the state."

This says a bundle. 

If Fraser is right here, John the Baptist never said "Behold the lamb of God..."; Jesus never said "the Son of man came to lay down his life as a ransom for many". If Fraser is right Jesus saw no connection between his own death and the Passover sacrifice. That was a wholly original idea, thought up by Paul. If Fraser is right, all the bits of the Gospels that talk about the Priests conspiring with Pilate to have Jesus killed — Judas and the arrest in the garden and the trial, pretty much our whole Easter narrative is fiction. This is not a matter of interpretation: Fraser is rejecting the story in the Gospels and offering us an alternative one. 

What does it mean to say that Jesus death was "re-imagined" as a sacrifice? If it means "Christians realized that the true, objective significance of Jesus' death could best be understood in terms of Jewish temple sacrifice (even though Jesus may never had said so in quite those words)" then Fraser and us Evil Constantianian Death Worshipers are pretty much in agreement. But if he means "Christians thought up the idea out of their heads, and its a pretty idea, even though obviously it isn't true, whatever 'true' means" then I think Fraser is... Well.... Not Christian. Something else. A heretic, and quite a boring one at that. Unless I am and he isn't. Or we both are. 

But let's not worry about orthodoxy. The point is that Fraser's arguments do not work on their own terms. The liberal case never does. 

Pay attention, please. This next bit is quite boring. 

There are four Gospels. One of them doesn't really have a "last supper" and if it does, it definitely isn't a Passover. So we can put that one on one side. Let's compare the three which are left. The bits which envisage Jesus death as a sacrifice and were therefore made up by St Paul I have deleted: 

Mathew: And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and break it, and gave it to the disciples, and said Take, eat, this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remissions of sins."

Mark: And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them saying: eat, this is my body. And he took the cup and when he had given thank he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them: This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.

Luke: And he took bread, and gave thank and brake it, and gave unto them saying this my body which is give for you, this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup, after supper, saying "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."

The highlighted section "this do in remembrance of me", which Fraser thinks is the real deal, only appears in one version of the story: Luke's Gospel. If Fraser is correct that this is the important bit, then Matthew and Mark totally missed the point of what was going on. And, in fairness, Luke says, more or less in so many words, that he doesn't like the other Gospels and is offering his as an improvement on them. 

So: stripped of the Pauline additions you are left with something like: 

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them saying: This do in remembrance of me. And he took the cup and when he had given thanks he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 

That's what "really happened".


The oldest account of the Last Supper doesn't come from the Gospels. It comes from Paul. (Luke was a mate of Paul's — at any rate he wants us to think he was.) And what does Paul say that Jesus said?  

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread: And when he had given thanks he break it, and said, Take: eat, this is my body, which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when had supped, saying This cup is the new testament in my blood, this do ye, as oft as ye drink it in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye do shew the Lords death til he comes

How does Paul know about the Last Supper? He wasn't there. He did meet some of the disciples who were there, but he doesn't say that they mentioned it. He says he knows about the Supper because God told him. It's very hard for us to get our heads round the fact that for Paul the fact that he didn't hear about Jesus from eye-witnesses but from the resurrected Jesus makes things more reliable, not less. But he does. God told Paul that Jesus said that his death was a sacrifice and the wine and bread were in some way his blood and body. And God also told Paul that Jesus said "do this in remembrance of me". Presumably, Paul told his mate Luke and Luke put it in his Gospel. Very possibly the other writers knew Paul's version of the story as well. On what basis should we treat one part of Paul's version as simply what happened; and another part as something which Paul made up?

Fraser talks as if you can strip away layers of Christian theology about Mass and Sacrifice and symbolically eating Jesus’ body; and get to the Original Last Supper, which was just Jesus sharing Passover with his friends. But you can’t. If you scratch the surface of Matthew, Mark and Luke what you get to is Paul. If Paul was wrong about Jesus being the Saviour then everyone is wrong about everything and always has been. 

And then, further down, Fraser lays the cards which he has been palming very firmly on the table: 

For it remains the central task of the church to channel a story of massive emotional power, a story in which the freedom meal of Passover inspires an extraordinary act of non-violent resistance against the brutality of Roman occupation.

I think that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke place the Last Supper specifically at Passover is to underline the theological point that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Fraser thinks that it was historically factually a Passover meal. It may have been that as well. I'm more inclined to think that John is the one who sticks to the original historical sequence of events. He, Fraser, then invents off the top of his head something which isn't remotely hinted at in the Gospels or Paul or any Christian source: the idea that this meal “inspired an act of resistance against the Roman empire”? 

What happens in the story is that Jesus is arrested; tried for blasphemy by the religious authorities; and his death warrant is reluctantly rubber stamped by the secular governor. Yes, the story says that the religious authorities say “oh, didn’t we mention, he’s calling himself a King, sounds pretty anti-Roman to me” and that Pilate snarlingly hangs a sign saying “Jewish King” on the gallows, but the story says that Pilate didn’t know who Jesus was, didn’t think that he’d done anything wrong and wanted to let him off.

In what way can Jesus be said to have engaged in "non-violent resistance"? What revolution is the Last Supper meant to have inspired? How did it mitigate Roman brutality? Please don't tell me that Fraser believes in that old conspiracy theory about Jesus arranging his own crucifixion with the idea that the sight of a crucified messiah would cause all the Jews to rise up in rebellion against the Romans, but that the whole thing backfired horribly and the survivors had to come up with a story to make a macabre cock-up look like a great victory. Bigger men than him have made asses of themselves over that one.

Into this story is folded a dramatic re-imagining of God not as some alien force hovering above us, but as a human being fully alive, yet prepared to give of his life in the battle against inhumanity and darkness.

The Creed says For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. I agree we could lose the “men” part; and apparently biologists still get confused by the “down” part; but I think most of us understand what this is saying whether we believe it or not. Is "God is re-imagined as a human being" a Guardian-friendly way of saying the same thing, or does it mean something different? 

Fraser’s words could be understood to mean that he does not believe in the incarnation as a thing which happened (God became a man) but thinks of it in terms of a change in the way people decided to think about God. But if what happened was that humans said “Let’s stop using the word God to refer to the unseen force that made the universe and use it instead to refer to exceptionally good human beings, such as, you know, that chap who tried to start a revolution and got crucified, what was his name?” then I struggle to see why we are even bothering to talk about Jesus. 

Again. It is possible that "prepared to give his life in the battle against inhumanity and darkness" is just a less vivid and less dramatic way of saying that there was none other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. But I very much fear that the "inhumanity and darkness" that Jesus gave his life for are merely the “inhumanity and darkness” of the nasty Roman empire — and by extension, whatever nasty political entity Fraser is worried about this week --  the City of London, fracking, the Internet etc etc etc. 

That would be my guess. I would guess that he believes that Jesus was a radical political thinker; that the Last Supper was in some sense a revolutionary call to arms; that the Crucifixion was in some obscure way an act of defiance against the political evil of the Roman empire; and that when Christians call Jesus "God" they are not saying that he is "God" — that would be ridiculous. They are merely saying something like "a radical lefty being tortured by a fascist state is in some sense the most admirable and praise-worthy thing it is possible to imagine."

Many years ago I attended a lecture by Don Cupitt at the University of York. Cupitt said nothing very interesting. When he had finished saying it, a friend of mine named Matt, who would have been leader of the Student Anarchist Society if the Student Anarchist Society believed in having leaders, raised his hand and said the following words. 

"I agree with nearly everything you have said this evening, but I do not understand why you put in terms of all this reactionary Christian bullshit."

I agree that you should respect and revere prisoners of conscience and people being killed for their beliefs. Many people think that in Mandela or MLK we find the best of the human race. Looking back at a story about how your community escaped from tyrants in the past is a very good way of inspiring them to escape from tyrants in the future. And I suppose it is just possible that letting a tyrant kill you in the most horrible way possible is a powerful way of winning the moral argument. (Me, I'm with Salman Rushdie on this one. I don't think letting the authorities torture you is the best form of revolution. I do think that that may be just what the authorities would like revolutionaries to believe.)

But all of that could be said in plain English. In a very real sense, what  do people like Fraser think is gained by putting it in terms of all that reactionary Christian bullshit?

A prolegomena to all future essays

when you write articles and journalism rather than scholarly papers sometimes you resort to short lively phrases to indicate the types of things you have in mind which in a more formal piece of writing might need qualifications for example if i wrote the man on the clapham omnibus i think you would know what i meant and wouldn't need to say ah but what about the woman and and hasn't the clapham omnibus been replaced by a tram and anyway who the hell calls them omnibusses any more

omnibum? omnipodes?


when I say church of england i probably mean mainstream unthreatening religious belief even though i know there are some nasty extreme wings of the church of england as well.

when I say radio 4 listener i prolly mean a sort of comfortable well educated middle class liberal english person EVEN THOUGH i know that some of the late night talk shows are quite racy and i once knew a poor person who liked nicholas parsons (there was a lady who liked nicholas parsons and also a parson who liked nicholas ladies)

when I say sun reader i mean a certain sort of tory voting working class ... oh god you know what i mean by sun reader

when I say mail reader i mean a racist

when I say guardian reader i mean a certain kind of academic theoretical left winger who worries a bit about ideological purity, say, checking up on whether his fruit comes from a country which traders with israel even though they print a variety of different opinions

by guardian writer i mean a person who writes in the guardian

similarly for middle class public schoolboy oxbridge type sussex university graduate hipster folkie comprehensive schoolboy tory lib dem hipie

i hop that i have not offended any one in any of those groups three of which i am included in myself

Monday, March 30, 2015


Star Wars #2 #3
Darth Vader #1 #2
Princes Leia #1 #2 #3

These comics represent the first phase of a Derridean deconstruction of the Star Wars saga. They also have a lot of very cool fight scenes.

  • Han Solo tries to stomp Darth Vader with a Walker.
  • Darth Vader encounters Jabba the Hutt.
  • Artoo and some Jawas try to fix the Millennium Falcon.
  • Luke Skywalker intercepts Princess Leia's shuttle in an X-Wing.
  • Leia is inexplicably moved by a painting of Amidala on Naboo.
  • Luke confronts Vader with his lightsaber (and gets creamed).
So, yeah: all the kinds of things that a Star Wars fan would want to happen in a Star Wars comic keep on happening. Everything rattles along at a space operatic pace. The art in "Star Wars" and "Darth Vader" looks beautifully like stills from movies that never were.

The movies were always convincing us that there was stuff going on, just outside the frame, that we couldn't quite see. These comics almost — almost — convince us that that is the stuff we are seeing. Princess Leia, moments after she hung the medals round Han and Luke's necks. Darth Vader, seconds after apparently killing Ben Kenobi on the Death Star.

But on a bigger scale, the comics have to convince us that we are seeing the stuff that happened, not merely out of shot, but in the three year silence between A New Hope (as I suppose we have to call it) and The Empire Strikes Back. And that is quite a — courageous — thing to attempt. Listening to Leia's speech at the Triumph of the Will medal ceremony doesn't in itself change our perception of what happened. But as more and more stories are piled into the blank spaces they are inevitably going to construct a up a structure...say something about Episode IV and subtly change the meaning of Episode V.

So far, they are weaving interesting structures around each other and inside that space. In "Star Wars" # 2, Darth Vader looks at Luke's lightsaber and says "This lightsaber belonged to..." — just as Han's AT-AT crashes through the ceiling. So, for the time being, Luke can happily carry on thinking that Vader was going to say "...Obi-Wan's friend, who I killed all those years ago" even though we know he was going to say "me". (That's dramatic irony, that is.) In "Darth Vader" #1 the Dark Lord has a jolly good flashback — to the Death Star Trench, to the duel with Ben — before having an Epiphany that the boy he had the fight with in the other comic and the Force-is-strong-in-this-one X-Wing pilot are the same fella.

Which doesn't change anything. Not really. No yet. We have already been told that Darth Vader spent the years between Yavin and Hoth "obsessed with finding young Skywalker". We are just being shown how it happens. Aren't all writers told to show not tell?  

There is always a danger that this kind of spinoffery will feel as if the Luke Skywalker Action Figure is being placed alongside the Darth Vader Action Figure, just because it's a cool thing to do. (And it is cool. Star Wars: Rebels pleased me precisely because it was basically Ezra and his big bucket o' stormtrooper action figures.) These comics are making a serious attempt to treat the Luke and Vader as characters and spin a story around them, while allowing them to retain some of the aura that made us love the our action figures in the first place. We've already seen Darth Vader with an AT-AT, Darth Vader with Jabba the Hutt, Darth Vader with Bobba Fett and Darth Vader knocking over loads and loads and loads of Sandpeople action figures, and we've barely started yet.

But the more we read, the more Movie Luke will turn into Comic Book Luke, and the more we will be left with something like the Star Wars Extended Universe or Ultimate Spider-Man: quite good in places, but far, far removed from the beloved franchise it was meant to be breathing new life into. 

What would you expect from a Han Solo comic book? (There isn't a Han Solo comic book so far, but I assume there is going to be?) This is quite an easy question. We know who Han Solo is and what Han Solo does. Han Solo is a pirate with an alien berserker companion. He has gunfights in saloons and dogfights in space and makes sarcastic remarks while trying to conceal his heart of gold. "Pirate with a heart of gold" (and an alien berserker companion) would be a perfectly good brief for a comic book even if no such movie as Star Wars had ever been filmed.

And for that reason, it would hardly be worth doing: Han Solo is amazingly cool in Star Wars because he arguably wandered in from the wrong story. Showing us the story he wandered in from is a lot less cool.

So, then: what would you expect from a Darth Vader comic book? This is a much harder question. Vader's a villain: a lot of the time her's a pantomime, comic-opera villain who the audience want to boo and hiss. Stories about villains aren't impossible, but they are hard to pull off. The Joker had his own comic, but it didn't last very long. The prevailing morality said he had to go back to jail at the end of every episode. There was a very good Dalek comic strip, but that was presented as "the history of an alien race called the Daleks", not "a story where the psychotic alien fascists are the good guys." There is interwebs fan fiction about Moriarty and Draco Malfoy and Guy of Gisbon,, but the idea is generally that they turn out to be much nicer guys once you've looked at things from their point of view. Not evil, just misunderstood. And, obviously, sexy. 2000AD would sometimes show villains like Torquemada humorously out of context -- on their days off. But Darth Vader misunderstood isn't Darth Vader. Darth Vader turning out to be quite a nice guy once you get to know him isn't Darth Vader. Darth Vader at home, kicking off his shoes and feeding the cat isn't Darth Vader. Darth Vader has to be evil personified all the bloody time.

Darth Vader is evil and we boo him; but Darth Vader is also amazingly cool. So what we need from a Darth Vader comic is Darth Vader being DARTH VADER. Sweeping down corridors; throttling enemies; delivering cold merciless one liners. Putting off the day when he takes his mask off and goes back to being a rather pathetic Anakin Skywalker.

And the comic delivers on this pretty well.

The pictures do a first class job of looking like Movie-Darth (the cover of issue 2 is particularly fine) and the speech bubbles do as good a job as possible of sounding like him. He faces down Jabba the Hutt with no difficulty. He is smart enough to avoid stepping on the trap door in front of the throne, fun though it would have been to see the Darth Vader action figure having a fight with the Rancor action figure. But even showing Vader and Jabba in one scene together seems problematic, a clash of register. It makes Darth Vader seem smaller.

"I do not haggle" says Vader. "Perhaps you should learn" says the Emperor.

And there's a story. The Empire is in a bad way, having just lost its Ultimate Weapon. The Emperor is very cross with Darth: he is, after all, the one who deliberately let the rebels escape with the Death Star Plans and therefore is arguably responsible for breaking the Emperor's new toy on the morning it was finished. And some people are openly wondering if the Death Star wasn't a pretty silly idea to begin with. ("I look at the state of the empire and wonder how many super Star Destroyers we could have made with the resources we threw into Tarkin's folly" asks Tagge.) So Vader is going to have to spend at least the next few issues wheedling his way back into the Emperor's good books while secretly trying to track down mysterious-rebel-pilot-with-lighsaber.

At one level, this feels right: if we are going to have a comic which takes us into the Villains camp, well, villains are supposed to quarrel and dislike each other and back stab. At another level...well it risks reducing Vader to an idiot. A comic henchmen, even. Do we need to see the Freudian Dark Father getting chewed out by his boss? Tolkien never let us see Morgoth giving Sauron a formal written warning.

And what would we expect from a Princess Leia comic? This is the hardest question of all to answer. In one sense, the Princess Leia of A New Hope is hardly a character at all. In another sense, she is the best thing in the movie. If the point of Han Solo is that he's in the wrong story; the point of Princess Leia is that she's in the right story but totally refuses to the play the right role in it.

Leia's job is to be the damsel in distress: the maiden imprisoned in the castle so the hero can rescue her. I tend to the opinion that there is nothing wrong with heroes rescuing maidens from castles. The whole reason that Luke has to rescue a princess and not, for example, some old guy named Starkiller is precisely to signal to us that we're in the kind of story where princesses get imprisoned in castles and heroes rescue them. Let's call them "fairy tales" for the sake of argument. Saying that it is okay to sometimes tell fairy tales is not the same as saying that you should never tell anything else. Girls can be things apart from princesses, and princesses can do things other than get captured. But not, perhaps, in a tale of this kind. There is a certain kind of right-on picture-book for the children of Guardian-reading parents in which a PRINCE is imprisoned in a castle and a HEROINE rescues him. That's very dull and subverts a tradition before the kids have the chance to properly encounter it.

Lucas gave us a much more interesting piece of role-reversal. He let's Luke take on the classic rescuer-hero role and Leia take the classic princess-victim role. He allows his fairy tale to be a fairy tale. But then he swaps the personalities. The Hero is weak and inexperienced and makes the audience shout "oh, shut up you wet blanket" on more than one occasion. The Princess is clever and funny and brave and has a far better idea of what she is doing than either the Hero or the Hero's Helper. Almost the most enjoyable thing about the middle third of Star Wars is the watching Han and Leia entirely failing to get on.

Han's "do you think a princess and a guy like me...?" is a bit of a cop out. Empire Strikes Back turns them into a much less interesting odd-couple romance.

In short: what we want from a Princess Leia comic is Carrie Fisher, specifically, a nineteen year old Carrie Fisher. But she is sadly unavailable.

So Mark Waid in this comic does something actually in my opinion genuinely interesting. He does not attempt to channel Princess Leia of Episode IV. He doesn't do anything at all interesting with the Princess Leia action figure. He pretends that Princess Leia is a real person, and asks what is interesting or unusual about that person. And back comes the answer: Princess Leia is a person who has had her planet blown up. Furthermore, she is a person who has had her planet blown up and doesn't seem overly bothered by it. 


It is after the medal ceremony. People are using words like "ice princess" to describe Leia and asking "what sort of ammonia runs through that woman's veins?" Darth Vader only blew up your planet this morning; why aren't you traumatized, or at least blubbing a bit? She has a big scene with a made up pilot in an orange jump suit who originally came from Alderaan. Mr Waid reasons, sensibly enough, that in a universe where travel between stars is as normal as hopping on a bus, there must be quite a lot of people from Alderaan scattered around the universe. So Leia and the made-up pilot take a space ship and go and look for them. The Rebels don't approve and Luke tries to stop her, but she gets away.

This is all very well and good and fairly interesting, but by the time Leia is involved in an intrigue on the planet Naboo, any connection with any character in any movie you might have seen is getting pretty stretched. Anyone expecting the Princess Leia action figure to be put alongside the Jar-Jar Binks action figure will be sorely relieved.

If you take the destruction of Alderaan remotely seriously, Leia ought to be a psychological wreck: she's been through something ten times worse than any holocaust survivor. The idea that you could say "we have no time for our sorrows" when everyone you have ever known has just been wiped out is obviously ridiculous.

Which is presumably why George Lucas chose not to take the destruction of Alderaan seriously. When Tarkin says that he's going to blow up Alderaan just to show he can Leia almost stifles a laugh.  Luke is much more noticeably upset by the death of his uncle and aunt, though he gets over it in the next scene. The whole point of space opera is that you turn the volume all the way up to 11. This isn't a story about a country or a continent, but about "a boy, a girl and a galaxy". The galaxy has a president and a senate to which all the planets in the galaxy send representatives. So maybe having your planet blown up is more like hearing that your village has been burned down by the Nazis -- while you are fighting thousands of miles away on the Western Front. A definite bummer, of course, but you maintain a stiff upper lip and carry on. It's the sort of shit which happens in war. But even that is taking it much too seriously. Star Wars is about actual war, it's about playing at war. As Alec Guinness said all those years ago: there is no violence in Star Wars. People say "bang" and other people fall over.

There are Guardian-readers who think that you should only be allowed to play with toy soldiers if you also play with toy widows and toy orphans and have toy funerals and toy PTSD survivors meetings. They are probably not Star Wars fans. 

Luke Skywalker has just been in a battle in which nine out of twelve members of his squadron got blown up. How can he possibly be laughing with Han and worrying about his robot when his bestest friend has just bought the big one? (Biggs may have been cut out of the movie, but since the Special Edition, he's definitely Canon.) Come to that, it's only a matter of hours since Luke's beloved mentor, was cut down; and at most only a few days since the only parents he ever knew were killed. Why is no-one calling him an unfeeling monster?

Please tell me the answer isn't "because he's a boy". 

Of course Leia doesn't react to the destruction of Alderaan as real person would to a real planet: it's not that kind of story.

Of course someone as clever as Darth Vader wouldn't have done anything so stupid as to deliberately let the rebels escape. It's a silly bit of plot cement to get us from the Death Star escape to the Attack on Yavin with the least possible waffle. (Is it even possible to watch Luke and Leia swinging across the chasm or Han Solo shouting "we're not out of this yet" if you honestly believe that the Empire is not trying?)

Of course the Death Star is a silly idea if you are thinking actual tactics. It's a plot device Lucas dreamed up to enable Luke Skywalker to save the universe single handedly.

And the only possible answer to the question "Why doesn't Vader know that Luke is his son?" is "Because at that point neither did George Lucas."

We are staring at gaps which George Lucas deliberately left in the Star Wars saga for dramatic effect and filling them in. And in order to fill in those gaps, we are zeroing in on precisely those parts of the saga which don't make sense, and pretending that they are what the story is all about.

And so begins a process which will leave us with a Darth Vader and a Luke Skywalker who are no longer recognizable as the action figures we were hoping to play with. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I sometimes wonder if cultural historians have paid enough attention to breakfast cereal. [1]

We have already talked about Kellogs Pep which sponsored the Superman Radio Show about 30 years before I was born. There was nothing especially super about them: so far as I can tell, they were just fortified bran flakes. And that's why they needed a strange visitor from the planet Krypton and a wrist-mounted sun-dial to make them seem exciting. All breakfast cereal is exactly the same so it's a blank slate on which advertising men can inscribe anything they feel like inscribing. This box of toasted rice will make ladies thin, but that identical box of toasted rice will make young men leap over fences. And because it’s all the same, Mum (it is, after all, she who buys the groceries) can afford to delegate the decision about whether to have toasted rice or frosted toasted rice or chocolate frosted toasted rice to her offspring. So the advertising people shamelessly direct their patter at children, or rather KIDS. We were all brought up to believe that HEY KIDS rice and corn going soggy in milk is FUN and GOOD FOR YOU and also the HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR DAY. And being a WEETABIX PERSON as opposed to a FROSTIES PERSON defined you tribally. Possibly. 

It also comes in big flat boxes. There is a space to draw a Tiger or three little Elves on a packet of cornflakes. There really isn't on a tube of toothpaste. 

There were Magic Roundabout figurines in Ricicles (which were, it will be remembered, twicicles as nicicles). I remember getting a box with NO GIFT IN IT and writing to Kellogs and receiving a letter of apology and THREE figures to make it up to me. But not the Dougal figure I needed to finish the set. I was three years old. It taught me an important lesson about life.

There were cut out "code wheels" and badges on the backs of Shreddies packets that initiated you as a member of a Tom and Jerry fan club. Do they still make Shreddies? It is the only one I would want to eat. Mini ("spoon sized") Shredded Wheat came in the same livery, and they were disgusting. 

There were indescribable little plastic animals with scissor action middles called "Stretch O Pets" in Rice Krispies, which were the same as Ricicles only without the sugar or the elves. 

Wetabix did picture cards. Everyone remembers the two sets of Doctor Who cards, but there were also Robin Hood cards and Superman cards and Star Trek cards. 

And the Honey Monster, obviously. 

Grandad must had more conservative tastes in breakfast than us; because he sometimes collected the gifts that came in plain old common or garden Kellogs Cornflakes and presented them to me. There was a set of circus animals and a set of self assembly fair ground rides that never worked and I assume a set of vintage cars. There was always a set of vintage cars. 

One Saturday afternoon he presented me with two cardboard masks, cut from the back of the  box itself. One represented An Android. (Androids look like bald Boris Karloffs, apparently.) The other represented a comically sinister figure with huge ears. His name was Mr Spock From Star Trek. I would have been six.

There was a moment in my life when I first discovered who Spider-Man was. (Feb 1973: "The Menace of Mysterio.") There was a moment when I first heard the name "Luke Skywalker". (On page 3 or 4 of the Marvel Comics Treasury Edition.) We can divide the pre-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew from the post-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew with a fair degree of historical confidence. But there never was a point in my life when I didn’t know who Mr Spock was. I can hazard a guess as to when I first watched Star Trek: the BBC showed a series of daily repeats over the Christmas holidays in 1974; which was also the year the decanonized cartoon series occurred. But I also had one of those Viewmaster stereoscopic slide viewers (which I thought was the most fantastic toy ever – a rare example of a 3D effect that actually works) and that came with a Star Trek disc: "The Omega Glory" retold in 21 frames. I remember them going over to the other ship and finding the crew reduced to dust in their uniforms. It frightened me and unnerved me in a way that Doctor Who monsters didn't. And I remember sitting on the coach to school camp reading one of the James Blish adaptations. And when I was very small indeed I had a set of light blue PJs with a design featuring pictures of the Enterprise. I think that was also ordered off the back of a Cornflakes packet. You could also order a torch in the shape of a phaser but I never had one of those because guns are not toys.   

When did you first know about Mr Spock? You might as well ask "When did you first know about Father Christmas?" or "When did you first know about Jesus."

If you never watched Star Trek, then Spock represent the idea of aliens—the thing you fall back on if you want to show that sci-fi is silly but don't want to use little green men with antennae sticking out of their heads. When people wanted to take the piss out of ludicrous Tory wannabe John Redwood, they called him Spock. (His campaign manager said that he understood that Dr Spock said "Live a long time and be prosperous" which was a pretty could summation of Conservative Party values, but he couldn't do the salute.) Rowan Atkinson's alien is not sending up Spock but he is, I think, riffing on an idea of aliens that wouldn't have existed without him. So, obviously, was Mork From Ork. The BBC made a big deal out of Trek, putting it in prime time shot right after the Moon landings, but everyone else clearly thought that space men with funny ears were the kind of things that belonged on the backs of cereal packets. Grown ups don't wear Star Trek masks on. (At least, I assume they don't. Maybe it was different in the 70s. The Beatles had just broken up and the Internet hadn’t been invented.) 

Notice how big and exaggerated Spock’s ears are in the drawing. They were never like that on TV. Nimoy always claimed that Special Effects wanted them to be huge and exaggerated and reptilian and the unobtrusive prosthetic ones were a last minute alternative cooked up between him and Make Up. There was an advertisement which imagined the ears drooping, in order to demonstrate that a particular brand of lager refreshed the parts that other brands of lager failed to refresh. They didn’t get Nimoy’s permission; he was reportedly not amused when he came to England claiming that he was Not Spock and discovering that his face was plastered on every billboard in the country. I think the advertising standards people stomped on the adverts in the end; forced them to become cleverer and sillier but to remove any suggestion that consuming alcohol could make floppy parts of your body stand up straight. 

I once said that there are Star Trek people and there are Doctor Who people, in the way that there are cat people and dog people. It has since been pointed out to me that by no means all dog owners spend their time luring cats into cages and turning them into fur coats and sausages; and that Aunty Jemima doted equally on her poodle and her Siamese. I think that my view still sounds: Doctor Who is silly and Star Trek is sensible; Star Trek is slick (for it’s time) and Doctor Who is, er, charmingly amateurish (ever for it’s time). Star Trek is American and Doctor Who is British. (One of the characteristic things about being British is not going on and on about it, of course. You couldn’t imagine Doctor Who waxing lyrical about Magna Carter in the way that Kirk does about the Constitution.) Star Trek episodes are called How Sharper Than A Serpents Tooth and For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky; Doctor Who episodes are called Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

I am a Doctor Who person, not a Star Trek person. But I watched Star Trek. Everyone watched Star Trek. My Mum watched Star Trek. (She correctly spotted that it was basically just a cowboy story. "Trek" is a vary cowboys and Indians kind of word. As everyone knows, it was going to be called Wagon Train To The Stars.)

There has always been Star Trek. This is why the abomination offended us so much. Abrams stole Star Trek from us and pasted on a thing which had nothing to do with Star Trek, and this means that for ten years at least, there won't be Star Trek any more. (But he is totally going to get Star Wars right, okay?) People become vehement about this stuff, as they do about all religions, but it seems to me that while more than one point of view might exist about whether or not Voyager and Enterprise were good Star Trek or bad Star Trek, they were unquestionably Star Trek.

Proper serious science fiction fans don't quite approve of Star Trek. One reason is that it was (like most cowboy stories) almost always a morality play and the solution to the moral dilemma almost always involved paying attention to both Dr McCoy and Mr Spock -- finding some kind of balance between Heart and Head. If it were proper science fiction then Spock (representing brains and intellect and science and, well, logic) would always be right and McCoy (representing emotion and feeling and intuition) would be chucked out of the nearest airlock. I'm not even sure that proper serious SF ought to admit the idea of morality in the first place. If you can't solve the problem with logic and express the answer to three significant figures then it was a silly question.

On the other hand, Asimov rather approved of it.

The main reason serious science fiction fans didn't like Star Trek was that Star Trek came to be what people who weren't really science fiction fans thought science fiction was like. It was never true that Space: 1999 and Blakes 7 were copying Trek or trying to do Trek all over again: it's just that they were "science fiction" and that’s what science fiction had become. On TV, at any rate. Three or four characters on a "bridge", with a big TV screen, travelling to a new planet each week and trying to figure out what's going on down there. And to be honest, and once all the sectarian strife calms down, that’s closer to science fiction than your Flash Gordons and your Buck Rogerses and even your Doctor Whos. It was at least to some extent most of the time quite often about ideas.

And it did have a scientist in it. 

If Star Trek was science fiction, Spock was science. Spock was logic. Spock was intelligence. Spock was sometimes incredibly irritating, but Spock was smart and superior and confident very much in the way a clever person ought to be. Particularly when surrounded by people far below our own intellectual level, as most of us feel we are. I wasn't the only kid to drive his parents crazy by using big words where a small one would have done perfectly well and trying to be all calm and condescending and being told that, no, as a matter of fact, having tea half an hour early tonight couldn’t be described as "illogical".

Spock the supporting character; Spock the science officer; Spock with his eye in a microscope: he was more fun than Spock the Alien, Spock the Mystic, Spock the Agonized Sex Symbol, Spock Messiah, of all the souls I have met in my travels his was the most (sob) human. 

If you took Hardy out of Laurel and Hardy you wouldn’t even have Laurel any more. Shatner and Nimoy were a double act. Nimoy is in the pilot episode / flashback where Shatner is still being played by an unrecognisable bit-part actor called Pike, but he’s not Spock, only Nimoy in a jumper. It was only when you put the two of them together, Shatner over acting, Nimoy rather under-doing it, that the sparks started to fly.

-- It has to do with...biology.

-- Biology as in reproduction? Dammit, Spock, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to the birds and the bees...

-- The birds and the bees, Captain, are not Vulcans. If any creature were as proudly logical as us and then had their logic ripped from them....

Spock has always been there, is what I’m trying to say. And now he isn’t any more. 

(1) Yes, they have.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Star Wars: Rebels 
Spark of Rebellion

Clone Wars always felt like an apology for the Prequels. It's a cartoon, but it's a cartoon in a cinematic style. Jedi swing their lightsabers against a background of galactic diplomancy and politics. Everyone knows what is going to happen to Anakin in the next movie; and everyone knows that it can't happen until then; so we mercifully don't have to worry about story arcs. We can just have adventures. The worst episodes feel like RPG cut scenes or episodes of Thundercats. But the best ones make me exclaim "Now, that's how the prequels should have been done."

There were one or two episodes of the Star Trek animated series that made me say "I wish that had been a real episode, done with actors and special effects." Which is a different way of saying that it was a failure as a cartoon.

Now, Star Wars: Rebels. Star Wars: Rebels is a cartoon that knows it's a cartoon. 

About 20 minutes into the pilot, Ezra the street-smart artful-dodger uses his lock picking powers to get into the Kanan's cabin. Kanan is the leader of the group of rebels who Ezra has temporarily fallen in with. We're in the sort of world where stealing stuff — stealing stuff from friends — shows that you have an endearing disregard for authority, not that you are an ungrateful little toad. He finds a secret compartment under the bed, and takes out what appears to be a silver puzzle box. The audience is meant to know that it is a Holocron — a rare Jedi artifact. It is an interesting fact about the transition of Star Wars from movie to mythos to franchise that something which was only referenced in computer games and derivative novels can still be regarded as something which "everybody" knows about. But it's definitely something Really Important because the Binary Sunset leitmotif is playing in the background. The episode has been playing — not very subtly — with the fact that Ezra presents as a cool street-rat but is actually just an innocent kid. His eyes spend a lot of time literally widening; his jaw spends a lot of time literally dropping. He says "wow!" and "cool!" a lot, which is a marked improvement over "yippee". So while he is still trying to be cynical and worldly about the holocron ("it might be worth something") he discovers that Kanan also has a LIGHTSABER and all pretense drops. "Wow, cool!" 

If lightsabers were real weapons and Ezra was a real boy, then finding one in his host's bedroom would either be like finding a loaded kalashnikov, or else like finding a bona fide holy relic, the Grail or a fragment of the True Cross. But they aren't and he isn't. He reacts to the lightsaber, not as person of a particular age in a particular possible world, but as a Star Wars fan. I said last time that when Obi-Wan hands Luke the lightsaber, we all want to reach out and grab it — not only the lightsaber, but that moment. And that's what Ezra is quite clearly doing: not handling a weapon or an artefact, but playing with the best toy in the universe. Wow. Cool. (Yippee.) But just as he takes up a proper Jedi pose, "reality" intervenes. The R2 Unit has snitched on him. But Kanan is not some Wise Old Man archetype, vaguely representing The Name of the Father in Campbellian terms. He's more like your actual Dad. "Careful, you'll have your arm off.". Kanan doesn't put the lightsaber back in the box, but hangs it on his belt. This is the first time that we know that Kanan is a Jedi Knight. (Not that it's a huge surprise or anything.) Ezra reverts to his "streetwise" persono, jiggling the holocron in his hand as if to say "fooled you!". But Kanan murmurs "Now we will see..." under his breath. Aha. It's a test. 

This kind of thing either appeals to you or it doesn't. There are fans who are biting their hands in disgust: they have taken our sacred trilogy and turned it into a something for kids. It's the most blatant kind of fan-boy wish-fulfillment. By the end of the first episode, Ezra has used his latent force powers to open the Holcron, listen to secret message from Ewan McGreggor, and sign on has Kanan's padawan. Dad says you only get to play with a lightsaber if you take it seriously. But you do get to play with it.

The Phantom Menace had Anakin: but even if you could swallow the premise of a nine year old racing driver and fighter pilot who says "yippee" a lot, you still spend most of the film saying "No way does that little munchkin grow up to be Darth Vader". The Clone Wars had Ahsoka ("Snips"). But she's already a Jedi, and even though she starts out being even more reckless and irresponsible than Anakin, Clone Wars takes itself Seriously. Before long she is a sensible member of the team, teaching homesteaders to fight bandits on a weekly basis. And before any of that, there was the stroppy, sulky, farm kid. ("It's just not fair!") Even without the Toshi station sequence (chopped out of Star Wars at the very, very last moment) it's clear that Luke's job was to be a teenaged rebel who eventually acquires a cause. Which is why Star Wars succeeds and the other movies, to a greater or lessor extent, fail. They don't have an Everyman figure who is looking out at the sunset on our behalf, wishing he could get off this rock. That is why the Binary Sun theme is sometimes referred to as the Romantic Longing theme, at any rate by me..

Anakin was three years too young. Star Wars: Rebels has the sense to make it's viewpoint character a couple of years older than the target audience -- an inappropriate kid with a lightsaber, no parents, and a vein full of midichlorians. The rest of the cast are just about as generic as they could be — the sort of people you'd expect to meet in any Star Wars RPG or computer game. The strong, cynical one. The spunky, agile one. The sensible one. The Jedi one. (They are twists on Star Wars archetypes, but only in the most trivial way. Zeb is basically Han and Chewie rolled into one. Kanan is actually described by the writers as a Cowboy Jedi. Sabine is a girl who wearing Boba Fett bounty hunter armour, only she's painted flowers on it.) But this works in it's favour. If we're seeing the Star Wars universe from Ezra's point of view (wide eyes, jaw drop, wow!) we don't want any complicated dark twists. We want it to look like we expect the Star Wars universe to look. 

Which it does. I am sure the Clone Wars artists worked real hard to give Clone Wars the look and feel of the prequels. But no-one is ever going to look at an episode of Clone Wars and say "Oh wow (wide eyes, jaw drops) that spaceship which appeared for a few seconds half way through Attack of the Clones." No-one has ever loved the prequels like some of us love A New Hope. (No-one has ever loved anything like some of us love A New Hope.) The first thing we see in Rebels is a Star Destroyer. The second thing we see is a group of TIE Fighters whooshing through the sky — the first TIE Fighters we've seen in 30 years, unless you count computer games. And then we pan down into a street, that isn't Mos Eisley, but very well could be, with a Greedo-alien and one of the little dwarf people from Cloud City (okay, if you insist, a Rodian and an Ugnaught) going about their business. And within five minutes stormtroopers on speeder bikes are chasing rebels round an alien market. 

"But Andrew: a quite good kids cartoon doesn't become a major work of art just because it has stormtroopers in it."

No. No; it doesn't. And the actual story is a bit of fluff about rescuing wookie slaves; and wookie fur really doesn't work in this kind of texture based animation; and the spice mines of Kessel, which we've been building up to for forty years turns out to be a bit nothing. But, I mean: stormtroopers. Not characters which cleverly allude to stormtroopers, or new improved stormtroopers, but actual stormtroopers, with no sense of commentary, re-invention or ironical detatchment, chasing good guys down corridors which look suspiciously like the corridors of the Death Star because that's what stormtroopers do.

At a story-internal level, characters like Anakin and Ezra don't work. Ezra has been cast in the wrong movie. It is hard to imagine him in Clone Wars. Anakin would punch him. He gets away with things that no-one inexperienced street thief should be able to get away with, even in a fairy tale universe. His hair isn't Star Wars hair; it's manga hair. He's not a kid. He's specifically a cartoon kid. And he knows it. "I'm in SPACE!!!....and I'm gonna die." Yippee. 

Star Wars began, as everyone knows, with a twelve second tracking shot of a huge spaceship — what we would now call a Star Destroyer — passing over the audience's heads. Star Wars: Rebels begins with a close up reaction shot as a Star Destroyer passes over Ezra's head. Which is to say: Star Wars begins with us looking up at a Star Destroyer and collectively saying "wow!". Star Wars: Rebels begins with us looking at a cartoon kid looking up at a Star Destroyer and saying "wow!" 

And I am quite sure that the writers and artists knew exactly what they were doing. The cartoon kid is Everyfan. He's done what we wished we could do. He really is "on the inside". He really does get to play with all the cool toys. But he knows it's a movie. He's only playing. It's fun. 

That's a really cool present for all of us incredibly serious old fans. Whether it will mean anything to the actual kids remains to be seen. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Diabolical Liberty

"The fact that devils are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to a picture of something in red tights and and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old text book method of confusing them) he cannot believe in you." 
The Screwtape Letters

The Church of England has removed Satan from the Prayer Book. They've finally given up on the dark medieval version of Christianity, in which people are all totally depraved and need to repent and replaced it with a shiny upbeat New Age version in which everyone is basically good.

This was exclusively reported in all British newspapers last week it is. It almost entirely untrue.

A lot of people apparently believe that the prayer book today is exactly the same as it was when they last attended church, in 1950, and that childhood prayer book was exactly the same as the one which Henry VIII invented in 1556. (They also believe that Radio 4 is exactly the same as the old Home Service, and run a news item about how D.C Thompson is going to introduce a new, politically correct version of Dennis the Menace every 5 years, without fail.) The Daily Mail charmingly suggested that the rite of Baptism hadn't changed in 400 years: the Church of England kindly pointed out that it had been revised 3 times in the last 40 years alone.

When new things come in, it by no means follows that old things have been ditched, scrapped, abolished or banned. Clergy persons who wish to continue to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are still perfectly entitled to do so. Most churches now use a book called Common Worship which replaced The Alternative Service Book in 2000. What has happened this week is not the burning of the Book of Common Prayer or the casting out of Satan from Common Worship. It's the publication of a simplified version of the Christening service which some clergy might want to use on some occasions.

It is perfectly true that this alternative alternative version of the Christening service does not mention Satan or the Devil by name. But Gilesfraseriswrong (all one word) to say that this is because the church is no longer worried about evil. Itsmorecomplicatedthanthat. 

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) asked people being baptised to renounce the Big Three - the World, the Flesh and the Devil. It added a few choice words about each of them. 

I demand therefore, dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

The older I get the more I feel that if you are going to have a liturgy, this is what it needs to sound like: ceremonial, dramatic, one twist of the dial away from spoken English. I understand that some people are freaked out by "thou" forms, in the same way that some people switch off if a film is in black and white or has subtitles, but you could keep a lot of the sonorousness while fixing the archaic grammar. "I ask you therefore, do you, in the name of this child...." In Olde English "you" stands in for vous and "thou" stands for tu. "Thou art my friend. You are my king." Someone decided, for good and adequate theological reasons, that we ought to be on familiar terms with God, and everyone ever since has been hopelessly confused.

It was actually the 1980 Alternative Service Book that took Satan out of the Christening service. 

Therefore I ask these questions: 
Do you turn to Christ? 
Do you repent of your sins? 
Do you renounce evil?

I think I understand why "the world", "the flesh" and "the devil" are three different things that you need to disown: I am not fully sure that I understand the difference between "sins" and "evil" (or, indeed, if repenting and renouncing are different or the same) and I do wonder if the ASB means by "sins" the same thing the Christian Union meant by "sin". But still, this can hardly be said to be a watered down, hippy version of Christianity.

Twenty years later, Common Worship reinstated the Devil:

Therefore I ask: 
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? 
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? 
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour? 
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour. 
Do you submit to Christ as Lord? 
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

This seems a lot to ask of a baby. He has to reject and/or renounce the Devil and Evil and he doesn't merely have to "turn to" Christ, but also "submit to him" and "come to him". Again, I don't really understand what the religious reason is for making "rebellion against God" and "evil" two different things, and quite what the difference is between turning, submitting and coming. The over all effect is to make the whole thing seem so amazingly difficult and pious that casual church-users who just want the spog Christened as a matter of good form will run a mile. Which I suspect is the point.

And that's the big question, isn't it? People who hardly ever come to church and aren't quite sure what "carnal desire" means may still think "Christenings" are important. At worst, it's a good excuse for some pretty photos and a party; at best, it's a way of marking the arrival of a baby and showing that you are taking family life seriously. What's the Vicar to do? Does he say "I don't care if you don't believe in anything; I'm just delighted that you want to not believe in it in my Church?" That's rather cheapening one of the Sacraments. Or does he say "This is a holy rite: I would no more allow a non-believer to become a Godfather than I would allow a communist to run the Conservative Women's sewing circle." That's not exactly presenting his church as a welcoming kind of place, and may not even be legal. Or does he take some middle position -- letting anyone who wants to come to the Christening service, and then haranging them with a fire and brimstone sermon and shaming them into coming to the Alpha Course? The religious wing of the Church of England have even suggested having a separate "thanking God for the birth of a new baby" service and reserving the sacrament of baptism for people who take it properly seriously.

This new "experimental" version in "accessible language" seems to be going for a perfectly sensible compromise. No making windows into men's souls; anyone who wants a baptismal service can have one; but present the service in very clear language, with as little theological jargon as possible, so everyone is quite clear that what they are taking part in is a religious ceremony. It includes a few words the Vicar might like to say at the end of the service, the point of which it would be very hard to miss: "Bringing up a child as a Christian has its challenges. They will need to learn the story of Christ‟s birth, death and resurrection, the pattern of his loving life, and the teaching that he gave....Being a Christian involves going to church, and more..."

I wonder if that's really why the Common Sense Brigade gets upset about prayer book revision? As long as the liturgy is in archaic, elevated language, it is fairly easy to treat it as a magic: a form of words which the Priest is reciting, which he believes in and which may therefore give you or your baby good ju-ju. This is particularly good if you see religion as an adopted ethnicity -- a spiritual vaccination to ensure that you stay properly English and don't catch Foreign off the Islams. Comprehensible, modern words quite literally break the spell. Someone who believes that Christianity Makes You English might well prickle at a service which says that Christians ought to go to church and Godparents ought to tell children the stories of Jesus. What the hell right does some vicar have to tell me to believe in all that mumbo jumbo? I'll believe in whatever mumbo jumbo I want, thank you very much.

If that's your approach, preferring "evil" to "devil" seems like a good idea. You are not, pace Fraser, removing the Dark Side from Christianity. But you are avoiding an unnecessary difficulty. I can imagine a perfectly sincere Godfather seeing the words "devil" in the service and saying "Hang on, does the church still believe in Satan? With horns and a tale? Like in the Dennis Wheatley? Can you really repel him with garlic?..."

Do you reject evil?
And all its many forms?
And all its empty promises?

avoids those kinds of problems. And seems pretty uncontroversial to me.

I do still have two general questions.

Why are angels so much less controversial than devils? So far as I know, all the prayer books retain the bit in Holy Communion which goes something like "Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we proclaim your great and glorious name..." No-one is telling us to remove Gabriel from the Nativity play.

I can see why a deist or someone might object equally to angels and devils: they are multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily; it's hard enough work persuading people to believe on one big God without confusing the picture with loads and loads of little "gods"; Christians have historically wasted far too much time wondering about what language the angels speak and how many of them can dance on the head of a pin;  the modern craze for testimonies about dying children encountering angels before car accidents is rather disreputable... But how did we arrive at the consensus that angels are okay but the devil is definitely not okay? Apparently, the Church has been right to say that there are rational supernatural beings other than humans who serve God, but wrong to say that some of those beings have turned to the Dark Side. Dante and Milton were mistaken to use the idea of bad angels in their religious fictions; St John was mistaken to picture a war between Good and Bad Angels at the end of time and your man Jesus was totally wrong to spend so much of his time as an exorcist because there ain't no devils for him to exorcise.

If I was going to engage in liturgical nit-picking; I would say that there is a problem in using "evil" as a synonym for "Satan". "Evil" is really a tabloid term -- a description of things we really really disapprove of, serial killers, child molesters and war criminals. "Evil" people, people who do those terrible things, are different from us -- alien. In that sense, I don't think Christians really believe in "evil". At any rate, telling a sincere person who hasn't been instructed in the finer points of turning and submitting  to "renounce evil" is potentially as misleading as telling him to renounce "Satan". He might well take it to mean "I'm quite definitely not to going to murder any small children or engage in any genocide."

Christians see everybody as being in the same boat, all equally likely to slip up, all equally in need of God or Jesus or someone to help them out. So the problem with the new book is not that it leaves out "Satan"; but that it has very little to say about "sin". Granted "sin" is a technical term; and granted your non-church-going family may not know what it means -- but leaving it out arguably leaves out the point of the service, and arguably the point of the church. Perhaps a future prayer book could adopts Francis Spufford's brilliant translation "UHPTFTU": "the universal human propensity to fuck things up". Even the Daily Telegraph could hardly object to that.

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Monday, February 23, 2015


To put it simply: I liked Michelangelo because the obsession and extreme torsion of his figures was so obviously derived from that of Jack Kirby.
        Geoff Dyer "Comics in a Man's Life"

The Venus books were the best: honestly life-changing. Who could resist a book called Pirates of Venus? Corum is better than Elric or Hawkmoon. Venus came before Corum, but was Mars before or after Tatooine? And where did the Shire fit in? Wagner stole the idea of the broken sword from Tolkien, certainly, but did Narsil and Sting come before or after lightsabers?

Before there was Star Wars, there was Planet of the Apes. Before there was Planet of the Apes there was very probably something else. It might, god forgive us, have been the Wombles. (The Wombles were big. Really big. The Wombles were bigger than Harry Potter.)

There was a competition in the Daily Mirror to win a real Planet of the Apes mask, not available in the shops. I desperately wanted to win it. I don't know why I want to be an ape so badly. Possibly I just liked Roddy McDowell's persona? He appears as a villain in one of the Adam West Batmans. "Galen without his makeup" evoked the kind of confused awe normally reserved for Barbary Coast and T.J Hooker.

But mostly Planet of the Apes was a spectacle. Apes riding horses, leather tunics, and lots of cowboys and Indians action. It was a Western, but a Western where you were on the side of the poor humans, confined to their reservations by the oppressive colonial monkeys.

There was a comic. It was a very accurate adaptation of the movie, only they weren't allowed to use Charlton Heston's face. One of the characters said "bloody" and someone takes their clothes off and you see their bum. It was the most grown up thing I had ever read.

I went back and watched the movie again recently but they'd changed everything: added lots of stuff about Darwin and the Scopes monkey trial and a running misanthropic sub-text about anything being better than the human race. That never used to be there. It was all just monkeys with rifles.

Why did the world go Womble-mad? Someone had done something very clever with the design, of course. (Ivor Wood, his name was, who isn't nearly as famous as Oliver Postgate but was probably more popular with actual children.) Rat faces with furry manes. And the idea that that they lived in a real place but were very timid but if you were lucky you might possible spot one is very appealing at a particular age.

There was no preachy subtext. They weren't "recycling". (This was before The Environment.) They were just cuddly scavengers. You never see them but they grab things that you leave behind and make good use of them. Big furry tooth fairies.

There were Womble toys but I didn't want to have a Womble. I don't think I even wanted to be a Womble. I suppose possibly I would like to have met a Womble, or glimpsed one from a distance on Wimbledon Common. But basically, I was just excited by Wombledom. The burrow made of papier mache, the stylized "W", Bernard Cribbens' wonderful voice, the friendly folk rock theme song with the whimsical intro.

Wombles, nineteen seventy three. Planet of the Apes, nineteen seventy four. Star Wars, nineteen seventy eight.

Facts are troublesome. My friend Flash has a vivid memory of seeing the first run of Star Wars, at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road wondering how it could be "Episode IV" and if he had missed something. He knows this to be chronologically impossible: but this doesn't make the memory any less vivid. The BBC showed the whole of Flash Gordon in December 1976 (over the Christmas holiday); followed by Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars in June and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe the following Christmas. Star Wars was released in the USA in May '77, but no-one in the UK saw it until 1978.

It premiered at Christmas, and there was still a concept of "first run" cinemas where a film ran in one prestige location in London for some weeks, and was only subsequently released to local cinemas. All through 1978, you emerged from Tottenham Court Road tube station to see a huge 3D rendition of the poster above the Dominion cinema. Ben Elton's We Will Rock You has been showing there for the past 12 years. I still walk past it and think of it as The Star Wars Cinema. I didn't see Star Wars there, but my friend Shaun has a grown up cousin who took us to see Battlestar Galactica.

So, thanks to the BBC, every little English boy who saw Star Wars in the spring of 1978, was as familiar with the thirty eight year old movie serial that Lucas was doing a homage to as their father's were. More so. Daddy pointed out it would have been a very lucky boy in 1936 who managed to go to the same cinema 15 weeks in a row.

I saw Star Wars a dozen times in the summer of 1978, and more times than I can count since — 30 or 40 more viewings, I suppose, at least one a year. There are people who don't understand why anyone would watch any film more than once. You already know how it is going to end. Most people who actually like movies think that this attitude has got it backwards. You only enjoy a film on the second viewing; you have to know "how it's going to end" before you can watch it properly. You can't pay attention to the symbolism while you are on the edge of your seat to find out who Rosebud is.

Jonathan says that the hype around big movies nowadays is so vast that he can only really watch them the second time round: the first time, you are so caught up in The Event, desperate to know which rumours were true and which rumours were not true and whether or not there's a post-cred to actually have a good time.

I hope he is wrong. If he is not wrong, then I would need to go and see Desolation of Smaug again, and I am not sure I could survive that.

But to see the same film a dozen time in one summer holiday. That takes a special kind of Crazy.

I once remarked to the editor of Sci-Fi Now that the point of Star Wars is that so much is implied and so little is said so that you seem to be seeing this vast universe out of the corner of your eye. He is kind enough to have implied that this is one of the wisest remarks ever made: at any rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars, or at rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars by me. But I do think this goes a long way to explain why we watched it so many times. To see the aliens in the Cantina again; to get a proper look at the lightsaber; to memorize the controls on an X-Wing. Watching it over and over to see all the stuff that wasn't actually there.

Everything else followed from that: Star Wars blueprints; attempts to construct life-sized X-Wings out of carboard boxes and lightsabers out of tomato canes. Because when Luke handles the-lightsaber-that-was-his-fathers for the first time, we wanted to reach out, through the screen, and grab it, and keep it forever. Not the lightsaber itself. That moment.

It's a feeling I've never had for anything else. I didn't want to be a Jedi Knight, necessarily; or an X-Wing pilot; or even to be friends with Luke and Han. I just wanted to be there. On the other side of the screen. Inside.

Which is why everything since 1977 has been such a let-down. Walkers and Snowspeeders and Jedi Fighters are all very well, but I want squads of X-Wings and a single blue lightsaber. We've been back to Tatooine, but it's not the Tatooine of our childhood. 

Planet of the Apes had sequels. We can chant their names: Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle. But it is fairly obvious that no-one actually wanted to make them. The second film was a 70s Logan's Run dystopia; they added a few grudging apes and then killed Charltan Heston and blew everything up. B movies, C movies, Z movies. The TV series I quite liked was the very last echo of something which had once been quite a good idea. That was how it worked in those days: you expected the sequel to be cheaper and less spectacular than the original. Each Star Wars movie was newer and bigger and louder and more serious than the one before, and in the end they drowned out Star Wars altogether.

Here is a scene from one of the sequels to Star Wars:

"Everything okay back there, Artoo" he called into his pickup. A cheerful beep from the stubby droid locked in position behind the cockpit assured Luke that it was. The destination was the fourth planet out from this star...."

This is from Splinter of the Minds Eye, published only a couple of months after Star Wars hit the UK, and a full two years before Empire Strikes Back. It sends shivers down my spine in a way that Empire Strikes Back never did. I like Emprie Strike Back very much. But this isn't Luke riding a snowbird in Friggia, years after the movie we loved. This is like picking up the thread, seconds or minutes after we dropped it. Luke and Artoo, where they ought to be, in an X-Wing.

So, that's my theory.

We don't want to go back to 1978 and see Star Wars again for the first time. We don't want to experience the sense of wonder we felt when the first Star Destroyer flew over our heads. We want to go back to the moment just after Star Wars finished: when the main march has played and the names of the technical crew are scolling and Grandad is making for the Gents.

A time when Luke and Leia were living in a tree house on the 4th Moon of Yavin and Han and Chewie paid them visits in the Millennium Falcon and there were many, many battles with the Empire still to come. A long time ago. A time that never was. A time we sometimes think we can see out of the corner of our eye.