Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos
Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Monday, 15 November 2010

Remembrance 2010

In the 21st chapter of St Luke’s gospel, amongst his warnings to his followers, Jesus spoke of signs from heaven, of wars, of nation rising against nation. For anyone who sees Jesus as some sort of otherworldly idealist, this comes as necessary correction. Jesus was a realist, he lived in the same world in which we do, he knew the human condition. He speaks of wars in the same breath as earthquakes, famines and pestilence. They are part of the lot of mankind. Yet, I wonder. There is a vital sense in which wars are radically different: the other fearful events may be termed natural disasters, wars are made by men. The most uncomfortable realisation is that in war people like me do unspeakable things to people like you. . It is what makes them so frightening, it is people like you and I who go to war. It is human, but as human beings we have choice, and that above all is why it is so important to remember.
In my earlier bog, I offered some suggestions on why we should remember. The Second World War was unprecedented. It was a clash of cultures on a monumental scale. If the First World War, with its carnage of young servicemen, had been the war to end all wars and failed, the Second World War was the war to set the pattern for wars to come and in that succeeded most horribly. It was time when the grossly unacceptable was somehow accepted: callous and cruel violence to ordinary people, the attempted elimination of an entire race, the complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. It was theft of the precious gift of life on a massive scale
My problem is how to remember. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t even alive. My experience comes from living in an army family; it is probably true to say that my parent’s lives were defined by the war. My memory of Remembrance is of cold parade grounds. When I went to school I found that I was unusual; if that was then, how much more so now. The link is getting weaker. There will be those here who do remember. I know my Mum always remembered her childhood sweetheart who died in a Japanese camp. I know from her that my Dad had nightmares of the Somme until the day he died. You will have your memories and they are both precious and painful. But, in the context of the nation, yours is an ever diminishing minority.
So do we move on? We could. Our lives and those of our children will be punctuated by the sight of young men who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan; in time those young men will become middle aged and then old. How much better than having lives cut short; but still how awful a sacrifice. To remember them and to give thanks for what they did is perhaps enough. And we do honour these who gave their lives and sacrificed so much in these more recent conflicts. But, if that is all we do, we risk forgetting an event so unprecedented as to become almost unbelievable.
But how? We can think of the numbers involved. But they are so many millions as to numb our senses. To try to do so has sinister effect. I read of the D Day landings and watch the films. I then read that 10,000 men lost their lives. I read that it was many fewer that might have been expected and I find myself lured into saying good. Good that 10,000 lives were lost? It is the unacceptable being accepted. Of the millions there are countless lives where there is no one who can remember, whole families, whole villages erased. I can try to think of the two year old who never even reached childhood, let alone teenage or adulthood. I don’t know that child’s name but she lived in Coventry, in the East end of London, in Plymouth, in Dresden, in Warsaw, in Hiroshima, in Baghdad. We can gain a more human dimension when we think of individuals, human beings who had mums and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. For some this will come in photographs in family albums, in ribbons of medals, in a fireman’s helmet and axe, but not for everyone.
We and every community in this land have a means by which to remember; we have the names etched on our war memorials. There will be those here for whom those names conjure images, perhaps now faded by the mists of time, but images of people known and loved. For that is at the heart of war, soldiers, sailors and airmen giving so much for those they loved. We give thanks and honour them. But could I ask something of those who knew them. Please tell their stories, so that subsequent generations can see not names that mean nothing, but names of people whom they can honour. I hope that the school might be able to help in putting together a book of remembrance that can speak clearly for many years to come.
Yet to honour only servicemen and women can lure us into forgetting what is the other legacy of WWII: the loss of innocent lives on an unthinkable scale. These were not people who gave their lives; they had their lives cruelly ripped from them. This year we remember the formation of the Home Guard. These too were ordinary people, perhaps a little older some of them. They volunteered in numbers that overwhelmed the War Office. They seem to represent just how deeply the war cut into the lives of the nation. We remember them, but also land girls and nurses, and those working in factories and mines. Let us remember them all with gratitude but let us honour them by doing everything in our power to prevent such a horror happening again. This is no easy task, it isn’t pacifist, it won’t always be possible. It is about addressing the cause of a potential conflict before we reach the final solution of throwing away human lives.
Jesus may have been a realist but so much more so he taught the ways of God, that it is the peace makers who are blessed, that it is our enemy whom we must love, and, especially on this Remembrance Sunday, that greater love has no one that he who lays down his life for his friends.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Treating the Second World War like any other?

A leading article in The Guardian asked the question whether in Britain it is time to stop making an industry out of living in the past, and honour the sacrifices made in that war as we would any other.

Of course it isn’t ‘either, or’ and the making an industry out of the past is not the same as remembrance. But the heart of the question isn’t that; it is whether those events which took place seventy years ago are such that we can today still learn something from them that is unique.

My answer to that is unquestionably, yes. During those six years of war events occurred on a scale and to a degree that contained for the world a shock akin to a child’s first experience of a bursting balloon but immeasurably more sinister. This country came within a cat’s whisker of losing its freedom. Thousands of innocent men, women and children died awful deaths inside their own homes. Soldiers lost lives in numbers beyond our imagining. The leadership of a civilised nation took it upon itself to exterminate a race of people simply because of their membership of that race.

These are events from which we must learn. The leading article perhaps had a point if we consider the singular failure on the part of world leaders to do that learning. Until such lessons are learnt, I, for one, pray that we will continue to remember this most dreadful event.

There is though a lighter side and one from which we can perhaps also learn. Many of the people I know who participated in the war remember it as the time of their life: the female spitfire pilot who so regretted returning to ‘women’s work’, the many who found friendship and love amid the horror.

This is a chapter in our history so rich in its texture and content that to forget it would be to impoverish ourselves and betray the sacrifice of so many.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Charles Kingsley - the importance of having a go

Charles Darwin and Charles Kingsley: two men who, seeing a stone, could do none other than pick it up to examine it, but, more importantly, to see what lay beneath. It is the forgotten art of the open eye and open mind.
Charles Darwin looked at creation, and, by looking, picked out a pattern of life evolving as each new problem was encountered and a solution found. It was not a perfect process; trial and error, by definition, never is. Yet, it seems increasingly likely that it was in this way that the world came to be how it is.
Charles Kinsley looked at Charles Darwin, but also his Bible and the world around him. He saw that in an astonishing way all three connected. The Water Babies is perhaps his 'go' at articulating that connection. The reader of the 21st century might read the Water Babies and shudder at some of it. They might look at Charles Kingsley and shudder at his support for slavery. But this is what being fully human is about; it is being brave enough to dig and comment even though some of it might turn out wrong. Kinglsey's support for Darwin is a reminder to Christians, for Kingsley was an Anglican clergyman, that each generation needs the same courage to engage with all the world has to offer.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Logos, mythos or what?

Karen Armstrong's strong defence of myth in her Short History of Myth takes some reading. This is not because it isn't well written, it is as indeed you would expect of such a well acclaimed author. The reason is that she is putting her finger very close to the heart of the matter for Christian believers. She rightly points out that the inheritance of Greek philosophy has been damaging to western Christian thought, whereas the eastern church has benefited from its warmer embrace of the power of myth. At the very heart of her argument she suggests that St Paul created a myth out of the life of Jesus. This is seen in a very positive way in the Eucharist which both recalls what Jesus did and re-enacts it for present day believers. It does what myth should do. But I set this alongside Philip Pullman's wonderful book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and I find myself impoverished both by Armstrong's myth and the Greek demand for logical proof. Here is a reality, a man who lived and who reflected as well as any human being ever could the mystery that is God.

The nature of myth

‘I was reading a fascinating book on how the Bible may be read as Myth.’

‘Ha! I always told you it wasn’t true!’

The first speaker was me and the response was from one of my oldest friends. We were watching cricket, although that isn’t relevant. My question is whether his response necessarily follows on from my comment.

If something is myth, does that mean it isn’t true? Before you say, of course, the book I was reading could well provide something of an answer. It is called A Short History of Myth and is by Karen Armstrong, who, for thirty years, has been writing some very readable books on all kinds of religious subjects. The book, which was published in 2005, takes the reader through man’s relationship with myth from Palaeolithic times onward and how the telling of myth helped to make sense of what seemed a strange and often inhospitable world. She makes a great deal of the distinction between logical thought, largely the gift of Ancient Greece, and myth which is a product of the imagination, that part of the mind of which we are not conscious. She suggest that a myth is a story that surrounds an historical event in such a way that event the can come fresh with meaning to later generations. Some of her examples rest quite gently, whilst others shock. She speaks of the myth of the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, and how it is retold year after year and how God’s saving hand thus becomes a reality to Jews. She uses similar language to talk of the Eucharist. Initially this jars, since she suggests that St Paul ‘transformed Jesus into a timeless, mythical hero who dies and is raised to new life.’ There is no sense in which she doubts the historical Jesus, she simply points to the stories and the actions that make Him a reality for us today. We know that the myth is true because we experience it.

I reach up as a massive six is hit into the crowd.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Quit being a Christian?

Alison Flood's article in Saturday's Guardian told of Anne Rice's Facebook message announcing her decision to quit being a Christian because she refuses to 'be anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science and anti-life.
I also so refuse as do many of us who seek to follow Christ and so are called Christians. Christians are the richer if they have among their number thinking but intuitive people like Anne Rice. It is desperately sad that the lable Christian is open to any group really whatever they claim to believe.
We have a choice perhaps between a Church which is very prescriptive about what we may or may not believe, or the freedom we enjoy which gives us the space all people need to look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, allow Him into our lives and give Him space to allow us to find for ourselves what His life meant.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A moment of clarity

Just sometimes all the wrestling with seemingly competing ideas pays off and there is an epiphany.
Alister McGrath's Heresy takes the reader through the process of heresy, the way in which orthodoxy becomes just that. It is a mixed and sometimes murky journey, but McGrath is clear that we should dismiss the post modernist notion that the heresies must have been good and orthodoxy only won out because of the balance of power.
I have now placed alongside McGrath's Heresy, Karen Armstrong's Mohammad. Thus far, and it is early days, she has made the point, as does McGrath in his chapter on Islam, that so much of the antagonism between the faiths over the centuries has its roots in, well, heresy. Islamic thinkers raged against misunderstood Christianity; Christians attacked constructed images of Islam. Armstrong has many times made the point that mutual understanding is the way to peaceful coexistence.
There is a single sentence in Armstrong's book, though, that seems to say alot about faith and heresy: 'Neither Judaism or Islam share the Christian conception of heresy, which raises human ideas about the divine to an unacceptably high level and almost makes them a form of idolatry.'(Armstrong, 1991:27).
The epiphany moment is really this, that the whole construct of faith is man made, it had to be, the revelation was the incarnation, God in man, and it was then for men to make of it what they could. The evangelists and St Paul had the first and crucial attempt, but then over the early centuries more thinking often drawing on the Greek as well as Jewish world added more gloss to the pith.
It is a journey of discovery that is endlessly exciting and fulfilling.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


Pullman's shadowy stranger who is often at Christ's side guiding him, having at heart the interests of the church to be, begs from the reader some big questions. Taking, for example, Alister McGrath's masterly book, Heresy, we can see the process by which, in the days of the early Church, doctrine was formulated and negotiated. It was a matter of preserving the unity and strength of the community. Ideas coming from within the community, which might weaken it, were singled out as heretical. It was perhaps not so much a striving for truth as something more pragmatic.

Monday, 31 May 2010

An alternative Christ

Philip Pullman takes a conspiracy theory line when adding to his story of Jesus a theological overlay. This is helpful since, as so obviously wrong, it does point to what might have happened.
We have to imagine having been witnesses to the events of Jesus' ministry. Just think how radical it was; enough in itself to start a huge welling up of hope from those previously excluded from society. I suggest, though, that something else surrounded his death. We read of it as the resurrection; quite what it was we have no real way of knowing.
What then happened was men and women trying to make sense of it all. Inevitably they took the framework already avaialable fom Judaism and the Hellenic world. Yet I do not see this as conspiracy, merely an honest attempt to understand something truly extraordinary.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The two natures

Diarmaid McCulloch's BBC history of Chistianity offered a wonderfully simple metaphor for the enigma that Jesus is considered both human and divine. He took three glasses at his restaurant table: one of water, one of wine and one of olive oil. He poured the water into the wine and they mixed; the oil, though, floated on the water with a definite seperation. An early argument was whether the two natures were mixed or seperate. Reading the gospels, they seem very much mixed.
I wonder whether Philip Pullman has managed to seperate out from this mixture a sense of what the man Jesus might have been like? For Christians this is hugely important. It is after all the man whom we follow, his teaching which nourishes us and whose command we joyfully obey when we meet for bread and wine.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The benefit of actually reading!

So much for my March entry based on an extract, I have now read the book The Good Man Jesus and the Soundrel Christ twice.

The experience of reading Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is disturbing but hugely worthwhile. Whilst Pullman emphasises that It is a Story, it does follow, in a great many respects, the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels. There is a huge jarring early on as the Annunciation is replaced by a rather equivocal scene with an angel in the guise of a young man. The result is twins and this provides the machinery of the plot.

Jesus is a good man who does not claim to be God. This successfully circumvents the conventional argument Christians put forward to those who say that the historical Jesus was a good man but not God; how can he be good and make the claims he does? Well in this story he doesn’t, but his younger and weaker twin brother, named Christ, has no such scruples. Jesus is passionate about calling all to repentance for the Kingdom of God is very close at hand. Scholars argue that the historic Jesus held a very similar view. Christ is altogether more circumspect.

The enduring impression is of Jesus and his honesty and goodness.

Second Thoughts about Pullman

I really enjoy Pullman’s writing; I loved His Dark Materials. I know he knocks the established church, but he also seems so perceptive and above all imaginative: a great storyteller. So, in the light of this, I was shocked even by the title of his latest book, this time for adults. It is a story, not some new theory. It re-tells the story we love so much. I recoiled, how dare he!

I then read reviews by no lesser persons than Rowan Williams and Richard Holloway , former Bishop of Edinburgh. They found within the story elements of the perception and imagination I had previously found in Pullman, but also some scenes that jarred and fell wide of the mark. I had decided not to read it, and probably to put my copy of His Dark Materials on the fire; now I’m not so sure. Perhaps there is something to be gained by reading what is an atheist taking another swipe at the established church.

There is one observation to come from the more general idea of attempting to re-tell the story. We have little hard history of Jesus the man, but we can gain a strong sense of who he is by reading the Gospels. If this can be communicated by the means of new stories, then, why not. What matters is that people, who don’t know him, get to know him.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Dear Philip Pullman,

You are such a good writer and I respect your Book of Common Prayer atheism, but you really have got it wrong with your latest offering. I comment on the basis of the extract in The Guardian 27 March 2010.

It really isn't a patch on Northern Lights; there is no pace or drama. The argument you put forward is one all Christians must consider, not the rather weak idea of twins, but the mystery of Jesus being both man and divine. The argument was fought over in the early church and hardly surprisingly a number of possible answers emerged.

I am thus massively grateful to Rowan Williams for bringing his wisdom to bear in the review, again in the Guardian, on 3 April.

I wrote my BA Dissertation on Children’s literature as Christian discourses: to what extent and in what ways may Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and the ‘Harry Potter’ novels of JK Rowling be read as Christian discourses? I found in His Dark Materials, as does Williams in The Good Man Jesus, a great deal of serious theological reflection.

It is good and right for non believers to challenge beliefs as indeed it is the other way round. There is a very strong argument that Jesus came to save us from religion and much of what has happened in the institutional church since then is not Christlike. For me the challenge is to identify and proclaim that which is Christlike since it does have the power massively to enrich human life.

It is a tragedy to throw out Jesus with the religious bathwater, but a mistake too not to be open to the divine significance of this man. Like Williams I shuddered at the crude 're-writing' of the angel's visit to Mary. This event, for which there is no historical evidence, has inspired some of the very greatest art. Artists offer such different interpretations. This is man trying to come to terms with the point at which God meets man; it is a mystery, but one to be explored rather that treated shabbily.