Category Archives: Religious reflections

Religious, spiritual and artistic reflections

Why is it to hard for the Christians to capitalise on Christmas?

Why should we take down our Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (January 5th)?  According to this website it’s because the wood spirits will bring us bad luck otherwise.

Christmas is the second most important festival in the Christian calendar, and it has become the biggest festival in modern Western society.  But Christianity plays a diminishing role.  In the many-layered concoction that Christmas has become, Christianity has left a number of distinctive strata.  The carol service, the children’s nativity play, concerts of sacred music and midnight mass.  These come on top of European pagan strata, and underneath more recent secular ones (Father Christmas and all that).  And as this website shows, more secular types sometimes try to escape the Christian nature of Christmas by appealing to the more ancient traditions.

By and large Christians seem to be accepting this retreat with good grace.  We did get a grump from the Pope about excessive commercialisation, but that was about the only grumbling I picked up this year.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was on the front foot and positive.  This is wise.  The trouble is that the Christian Christmas message has diminishing evangelical weight.

Christian Christmas (it’s a stark sign of the retreat that I have to call it that given that Christianity is embedded into the festival’s very name) is about the fact of Jesus’s incarnation.  It’s about who he is, rather than what he said.  And this takes us into the areas of Christian doctrine that resonate least with the modern world.  “God sent his only Son to save the world” is an expression of faith has become a meaningless string of words to people without faith but with a modern understanding of the Universe.  You are not a Christian because you believe this; you believe it because you are a Christian.

And it shows.  Those carols and nativity plays are distinctly unthreatening to the modern secular sensibility.  The words of the carols have become meaningless, if charming images.  There’s a lot about Kings and Kingdoms, reflecting political arrangements that we now consider to outmoded, and indeed illegitimate as anything more than a token figurehead.  The Virgin Birth is clear nonsense to the modern mind (What does God’s genome look like?).

There is much in the Christian message that resonates as powerfully today as it did 2,000 years ago.  But these Christmas trappings get in the way to the non believer.  To the believer it might be different – they serve as link to the ancient past.  They might help deepen faith, but they will not broaden the appeal.  So Christians at Christmas are best off preaching to the already converted, and watching the evolution of the secular festival with amusement.

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My 9/11

11th September 2001 was a wonderful, bright and sunny day here in London, just as it was in New York.  You didn’t need a jacket outdoors.  I was on duty for a presentation to a prospective client that morning, at the client’s offices.  I was done by lunch time and walked through the lobby blissfully unaware of what was happening over the Atlantic, though it must have been on television screens in the lobby by then.  As I walked through the sun from Gresham Street to our office on Moorgate I was in a world of my own, relieved that the presentation was done.

It wasn’t until I reached the office with sandwiches in hand that I found out.  “Somebody has flown a plane into he World Trade Centre,” a colleague said.  I had in mind a light aircraft, or perhaps something a bit like the plane that flew into the Empire State Building in the war.  It was only as I tapped into my computer that the scale of it started to become clear.  The internet was overloaded, so the information only came through slowly.  At first there were the burning buildings.  And then the towers collapsed.  We held an emergency management meeting, since the trading and custody activities that we administered would certainly have been affected.  But there wasn’t much we could do.

Our management team had held a global conference in New York only that April.  And we’d had dinner at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Centre tower.  We’d used those lifts.

Nobody could do much work; we gathered in small groups.  Apart from trying to understand the sheer horror, the main concern was what the Americans might do in response.  Revenge attacks would only make things worse, we all thought – but were all too likely.

I went home a bit early, I think.  A lot of City workers had been sent home in the afternoon.  I joined my wife in front of the television – she had been home that day and had been watching the TV as the second plane struck, having turned it on more or less by accident just after the first one had.

I had a meeting scheduled for that evening. The local primary school where I was a governor had an OFSTED inspection going on – and the inspectors wanted to talk to governors that evening.  Would it be cancelled?  No notice to say it was, so I went.

And the meeting did go ahead.  The head of the inspection team, a self-important little man, carried on as if nothing had happened; he didn’t even mention it.  This was his day of power, and no terrorists were going to spoil it.  I managed to sit through it, but said nothing.  Back home to watch the TV.

And that’s what I remember.  How have we been spending the 10th anniversary?  We went to see Marlow’s Dr Faustus at the Globe.  We started in a shower, but the weather was mostly nice.  An interesting and enjoyable play, well produced and played to a packed house.  Going there and back we had to go to Waterloo, since the Bank branch of the Northern line was closed.  We worked our way through the crowds attracted to the Thames Festival – and had a delicious venison sandwich for lunch from one of the stalls.  On the way back we visited the Tate Modern to have tea in the Members’ Room and to see the Miro exhibition in its last couple of hours.  Mostly his work is beyond me; but some of the paintings were breathtaking – especially the huge triptychs.  The resonances with other Spanish artists, Picasso and Dali, were interesting, as was the relationship to political background in Spain (and Catalonia); I can only imagine the man’s total despair in the early 1940s.  As we hurried for the station in the rain we passed a carnival parade gathering for its moment of glory behind the National Theatre.

The South Bank was packed with people seemingly of all nations having a nice day out.  Apart from the rain the only blot was Transport for London’s decision to keep the York Road entrance to Waterloo tube closed – in spite of the crowds.  The folly of this was illustrated when they had to close one of the down escalators because of an accident.  Such are our everyday frustrations ten years on.

And later I will be joining some of my local Lib Dem friends in the Nightingale pub for our regular monthly drinks.  Life is well within its usual frame.  But we don’t forget.

 

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Seeing with the eye of faith

A little while ago I blogged on the subject of Islam and the modern world, following the BBC series on Mohammed.  This included some rather dismissive comments about Christianity, which I contrasted with Islam in some rather unfavourable ways, at least with regard to consistency.  Unsurprisingly this annoyed a (Catholic) Christian reader, and we subsequently engaged in a prolonged Twitter conversation, mainly about the crusades.  Twitter isn’t a good medium to explain ideas, and I feel strangely compelled to explain myself properly, even though I am not going to persuade anybody to change their views.  My point is this: I hold my views on Christianity not through ignorance but through a lack of faith.  This has led me to rather a long post, taking me through my own Christian journey.

Faith is an important part of any religion – and any relationship in fact.  To be a Christian you have to subscribe to a whole series of beliefs which you take on trust.  It’s your membership subscription, or, more aptly, the club rules.  You believe these things because you are a Christian; you not a Christian because you believe in them.  Or mostly, anyway.  People will be drawn to the faith because they come to believe, through reflection or experience, in some critical parts of Christian gospel; they then take the rest on trust.  For me I was drawn to the faith in the first place because I believed in my church community and wanted to be part of it; subsequently I was overwhelmed by the truth and beauty of the message of love, forgiveness and redemption that came through in the Gospels and the early Epistles of St Paul.  I lapsed mainly because the burden of faith became too much to bear – the accumulated superstructure of doctrine.  In my heart of hearts I could not believe that God is a person who intervenes in the world beyond the workings of immutable natural laws; neither can I believe in any meaningful afterlife, certainly in the sense of heaven, hell, judgement and so forth.  But I am a secular agnostic, not an atheist.  I am sometimes moved to take Communion in a C of E church service, on the rare occasions that I attend.  It is not inconceivable that I will come back to the faith one day, provided I’m not pushed too hard on the infrastructure of beliefs.

I was brought up as a Church of England Christian.  Both my parents had a strong faith, and took a philosophical interest in it and we talked about Christianity a lot as a family.  My mother’s father was a canon and professor of divinity (at Oxford), though he died long before I came into the world.  Our house was full of religious books, and my mother, who had a degree in Philosophy, studied theology and comparative religion as a mature student.  Our church was rather High, in the jargon of the C of E, meaning that it liked a lot of traditional, catholic rituals.  The biggest controversy at the time (it was the 1970s) was whether women could be ordained to the priesthood – my parents strongly beleived they could, but some of our clergy did not.  At university (Cambridge) I fell in with a much more “Low” group in the Christian Union, associating with Methodists and Baptists.   Here the issues were mainly about how to interpret the Bible, with a strong fundamentalist faction.  I had something of an intense religious experience while meditating in a retreat, as the message of love seemed to explode out of the New Testament in a burst of light.  That experience remains with me still, but I started to lapse pretty much as soon as I began to live on my own in London.

Two experiences in particular stand out in as I passed over the invisible line between faith and agnosticism.  I attended one my local churches (St Mary’s Islington), and the preacher considered at length whether dancing was to be allowed under scriptural rules.  Although he came to the right answer so far as I was concerned (yes), I was appalled by the idea that talking about these sorts of rules was an important part of church life.  In a second instance I visited a packed evangelical service in Nottingham with a couple of university friends.  The preacher there was developing the theme that the Apocalypse was near.  One his arguments: “The price of gold has trebled in just a year [or some such statistic]: that means that the value of money has fallen by two thirds!” – to a chorus of approval.  This dates the story to about 1980, the last time the price of gold shot through the roof.  To me then, as now, this is utter drivel.  Ever since I have had a visceral hatred of the use of gold as a substitute for money.  But more the point I thought to myself: “Why do I have to put up with all this nonsense?”

And so my views of on Christianity became very detached, as I was liberated from the eye of faith.  I have come to see it as a very interesting human phenomenon, and not a process of divine intervention.  It is an outgrowth from the Jewish faith, promulgated by a few years of radical and inspring preaching by Jesus Christ.  Something strange happened on Jesus’s death; his followers became inspired to accept Jesus himself as divine, and to spread the religion further.  There were several strands to this outgrowth, but the most important to us in the west was that of St Paul, who took the message to the Gentiles.  The faith was the right idea at the right time and its popularity exploded.  It survived persecution, with its adherents apparently welcoming martyrdom.

But then it was adopted as a state religion by the Roman empire.  This was a major challenge.  Christianity was at heart a revolutionary creed, with some burning beliefs but with a certain lack of coherence.  Some of its beliefs, especially a very strong strand of pacificism, were inimical to running a state.  Gradually it had to be knocked into shape, and a series of doctrines were established to create an orthodoxy compatible with a state religion, starting with that of the Trinity.  In due course the great thinkers of St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas added to this process to create a coherent framework of doctrine.  This has subsequently been added to and taken away from both by the orthodox branches and various breakaways – the latter often trying to recapture the early Christian magic from the dead hand of the orthodox (that is Catholic and Orthodox) institutions.

These doctrinal systems may or may not be quite tidy, but they really do need the eye of faith to make them work, and the more so as time passes.  They are simply part of a process of divine revelation.  But without faith they just look awkward.  This awkwardness has two roots.  The first are the compromises required to get the cat back into the bag.  Monotheism is one of the most conspicuous casualties here.  The divinity of Christ was an early theological problem, and the Holy Spirit crept in too.  To this pantheon has been added the Blessed Virgin Mary and countless saints, to whom many Christians pray.  Of course Christian theologians offer a reconciliation of this pantheon to monotheism, but these sound very similar to any other defence of polytheism.  The contrast with Judaism and especially Islam is quite striking – though some Islamic sects (notably Shias) have blurred the difference by consecrating saints.

A further difficulty is that the doctrinal view is increasingly at odds with modern beliefs about the universe.  On my kitchen wall hangs a facsimile of the Mappa Mundi, the early medieval map in Hereford Cathedral.  The world is a flat disc, with Britain at the edge and Jerusalem at the centre.  Such a world view was quite compatible with the idea of God being a person, a bit like us, inhabiting a nearby world, and intervening in our affairs.  We can begin, perhaps, to understand the idea of Atonement, that “God so loved the World that he gave his only Son to be a living sacrifice”, which comes through from the very earliest Christian writings.  But now we understand the universe as being vast, which leaves this idea with a problem: either God is much bigger and more powerful than we thought in which case the idea of the son of god, and sacrifice, and indeed the whole concept of God as a person is impossible to get a handle on.  Or else God is much smaller than that, like The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which case it becomes impossible to offer him the respect the religion demands.

And the Crusades?  I am rather shocked that any modern Christians seek to defend them.  The intent, apparently was to protect and liberate Christians in Jerusalem (and elsewhere, for that matter).  This might be argued as an extension of self-defence.  But they have become associated with the slaughter of infidels, and many other crimes (such as the sack of perfectly Christian Constantinople).  These may or may not have been part of the intent, but it is quite futile to separate the “justifiable” bits from the crimes.  Christians do not do that sort of thing now – and Christian communities remain under attack in many parts of the world.  Violence begets violence; early Christians turned the other cheek.  It has allowed Muslims to convince themselves Christianity is something that it is not.  If you’re in a hole, stop digging.  Best to put it all down to a horrible mistake, based on values that we have long left behind.

Compared to Islam, Christianity is a chaotic muddle of a religion.  But in that muddle there remains a burning light, which the muddle, paradoxically, seems to magnify rather than diminish – that light burns more brightly for me than any equivalent understanding in the faith of Islam.

 

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Islam and the modern world

We’ve just finished watching Rageh Omaar’s Life of Muhammad, although the BBC series finished a couple of weeks ago – the joys of the PVR.  In spite of a snarky piece in Private Eye, I really enjoyed it.  I probably know more about Islam than the vast majority in Britain, but this programme revealed how little I actually know.  And while being appropriately respectful, the programme did not shrink from posing many of the challenges made by people today.

Of course, the benchmark I measure Islam against is Christianity, about which I do know something.  Islam is clearly from the same family of religions, and like it sprang from nowhere to become one of the world’s great religions.  Unfortunately, since the programme focused on the life of Mohammed himself, we did not get much insight into how it took the world by storm, merely its eventual success in Arabia.

Islam clearly has many strengths against Christianity.  Its core narrative and doctrine is much better worked out.  Christianity is an accidental religion bursting forth from the teachings of Jesus over a very short period.  So there’s a lot of muddle at the heart, the doctrine of the trinity, the incarnation, virgin birth, and the idea of the Atonement, and so on.  Compared to this Islam is a model of clarity, with the overwhelming dominance of the one God at its heart.

Still, I had not appreciated that the Koran, the revelations of God’s word that came to Mohammed, built up over a period of quite a few years as the prophet struggled from crisis to crisis before his eventual triumph.  This leaves it with a certain amount of ambiguity, which is clearly a problem today.  What makes it worse is the idea that the Koran, as the direct word of God, is sacrosanct and incapable of being wrong.  This is an even harder doctrine than than the popular Christian one of absolute faith in their Book.

Two examples were discussed at some length in the programme.  First there was women’s dress, and the popular idea that Islam means that women should be veiled in public.  Several modern scholars popped up to say that this was not what Koran teaches, with the offending verses being both vague and explainable in context.  Set this against the absolute confidence of a fully veiled woman who believed that the more modestly she dressed, the more pleasing it was to God.  No number of urbane scholars were going to convince her otherwise.

Likewise the jihad doctrine behind terrorist movements like Al-Qaeda.  An even wider range of scholars was on hand to say that this was a misinterpretation of the idea of jihad, and that the killing of innocent bystanders was absolutely forbidden.  Again this had to be set against the conviction of a pair of young men that jihad exactly meant war against the infidel, supported by a blood-curdling looking verse from the Koran itself (which the programme flashed across the screen without reading out); they also had difficulty in accepting that there was such a thing as an innocent bystander.

This kind of irresolvable dispute is all too familiar in Christianity – consider the issues of homosexuality and women priests.   No amount of scholarship will help here, since the believers on either side feel the truth deeply in their hearts.  There is enough in the writings and doctrines of Islam to give terrorists and oppressors of women’s freedoms what they need.  But at the same time these are far from necessary implications of the faith.  In fact Islam is remarkably similar to Christianity in being a basis for all manner of good works and liberal ideas.

My understanding of Christianity is that it has a stronger pacifist element than Islam, though pacifism was not absent from Mohammed’s message.  It will, of course, be very difficult to persuade Muslims of that, given the wanton violence committed in the religion’s very name in the Crusades, and by many Christians since.  Indeed, it only recent political correctness that is taking the positive connotations away from the word “crusade” in the West.

Islamic scholars and imams clearly have a job on their hands in adapting their religion to the needs of the world around them.  But this is not an impossible task, as this wonderful religion, and the life of the great man its prophet, has all the required raw material.  We westerners should respect it more; the basics of Islam should be taught in all our schools, along with those of Christianity.  It is above all the sense of threat that drives so many followers of Islam into an extremist path.  We must reduce that feeling of threat, while standing up for women’s rights and peaceful coexistence.

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The enduring legacy of paganism

Tennis stars Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray  throw their (sweat-soaked) wrist-bands into the crowd after winning a match at Wimbledon.  To me this is rather bizarre.  What on earth would I do if one of them landed in my lap?  But the Romans would have understood, and I would not be surprised if victorious gladiators did something quite similar.  The latest exhibition at the British Museum looks at another variation of this behaviour, on a massive scale, that overtook Christianity for over 1,000 years, up to the Reformation in the 1500s.  This was the collection of relics associated with saints (usually body parts) and with Jesus Christ (pieces of the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, etc.).

This is the Treasures of Heaven exhibition.  At one level it is a showcase for many wonderful artefacts of exquisite craftsmanship.  But the exhibition also explains the practices of this aspect of medieval faith, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on it.  There are three aspects in particular that are interesting.  First is the obsession with relics – seeing, possessing, touching physical objects that have been associated with somebody holy, in the belief that some of the holiness will be passed on.  Second, the importance of saints acting as intermediaries between the faithful and God after their death.  Third, the dismemberment of saints’ bodies for use as relics.

The general idea of relics does have a strong resonance in our culture, which persist still – witness the tennis stars’ wrist bands, the obsession with original artworks over copies, and so on.  The interest is in their use in this religious context, as that is much less common.  It wasn’t part of the Jewish faith from which Christianity grew.  This looks like a pagan inheritance from the Romans.  An obsession with sacred places, to which pilgrimages are made, was also an important part of medieval devotion, but this is unremarkable by comparison; pretty much all faiths have something similar.

The practice of worshipping saints looks like an inheritance from pagan polytheism.  The jump to monotheism from animism and polytheism is a huge one.  In the Jewish faith this seems to have taken quite a long period of time; in the Far East it doesn’t seem to have happened at all, with polytheism evolving directly in atheistic faiths such as Buddhism.  Worshipping saints looks like an intermediate step; a similar thing seems to be the case in Shia Islam.

The dismemberment of bodies really is strange though.  According to the British Museum, this doesn’t seem to have pagan roots.  There is a strong human instinct that bodies should be kept whole.  Perhaps it started because so often martyrs’ bodies where dismembered in early Roman persecution.

Once the cult of relics got going, it is very difficult not to be cynical.  Most of the relics were clearly forgeries.  The practice suited clerical and secular authorities and was exploited by them.  Eventually there was a backlash, started by Martin Luther and flowing on through the Reformation.  Many relics were destroyed, including virtually all those in Britain.  A number have ended up in museums, and so to this exhibition.  The Catholic church persists with the practice, but somehow I think most of the power has gone.  Saints are seen as examples, and sainthood a sort of posthumous honour – and not as active intermediaries.  Relics might be seen as objects for meditation, and not much more.

Meanwhile in popular culture, we have reverted to the idea that dead bodies should be kept whole.  A huge fuss was created when a hospital was found to have retained some children’s body parts for research.  We expend a lot of effort trying to find bodies after a catastrophe, to act as a focus for memorial and “closure”.  As people in Britain drift away from Christianity, they drift back into to a pagan, pre-Christian outlook.  Sports and entertainment stars take up the role of deities; people collect and worship their possessions and even sweat; they conduct pilgrimages to their holy sites.  But we don’t dismember their bodies after death.

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Cardinal O’Brien: is this all that’s left of Christianity?

After a wonderful day out in the sun, I return home to a Twitter feed bulging with reaction to Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon in Edinburgh.  It was near top of the BBC news this morning, but it was surprising difficult to locate their coverage on the BBC website (here) this evening.  Archbishop Rowan Williams’s sermon (something about happiness) got much more coverage.  From this coverage I find it rather unclear what Cardinal O’Brien actually said, beyond an attack on “aggressive secularism”, and calling for all Christian denominations to unite against it in defence of traditional Christian values.  This was enough to get Evan Harris wound up and twittering.

I do support state secularism, but my deeper reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s sentiments are about what it means to Christians.  There seems to be a large body of people for whom a (the?) fundamental purpose of Christianity is to defend its traditional values.  I have heard people on the radio suggesting that the Church got these values right at the start, and that to change them to suit modern fashion is a betrayal.  There is a massive reaction against accepting gays – quite disproportionate to the significance of the issue.  Likewise, many react badly to the idea of women priests and bishops, to the extent of switching from Anglican to Catholic denomination.

I find this very strange because it seems so at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, to say nothing of how the church has evolved since.  The central message to me of the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians should not be deceived by the letter of the law, but always go to the underlying purpose, and to do so with humility and love.  This is a dynamic message, allowing practices to be continuously re-interpreted.  One of the examples in the sermon was the observance of the Sabbath – where Jesus said that it was nonsense to be totally strict.  And so the church did adapt, notably by extending membership to Gentiles. And this adaptation has been dynamic.  Take its attitude to women.  It is quite clear that in the very early days, the time of Paul, women had a leadership role in the church.  But as Christianity became closer to the establishment this was less acceptable, and so doctrine changed (including some rather dubious epistles making it into the Bible, supposedly from Paul himself).  More recently, women have been returning to prominence, although the Catholic hierarchy are still determined to hold their line in the sand.

Defence of tradition actually undermines the core Christian message.  It is a doctrine to hide behind rather than face up to the challenges that real faith should lead you to.  It is a message of despair.  Is that really all that is left of this once great faith?  At least Archbishop Williams is trying to use his Easter pulpit to promote a message of hope.

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The power of Holy Week

As a churchgoer in my distant past Holy Week was the undoubted climax of the year.  Sometimes we would attend services daily the whole week, and almost always from Maundy Thursday.  The move from fast to feast was dramatic.  As with Christmas, the festival may have pagan undertones, linked to Spring and fertility, but unlike Christmas, the Christian content has been able to hold its own.  Even now as an agnostic, Holy Week retains a lot of power; power that other festivals have lost.  Why would that be?

This might be a puzzle.  My attraction to Christianity is based on Jesus’s teaching.  There’s not much of that during Holy Week.  Instead, as this Radio 4’s morning service demonstrated, we get some of the most difficult Christian doctrines to digest.  God sent his only Son to be a living sacrifice, etc.  This doctrine clearly had real power in Graeco-Roman times, and retained it in the Medieval period.  The Universe was a much simpler place then.  It was dominated by a single Earth, with its only sun, with the stars mere spots on the firmament.  It was easy to see that Man was the pinnacle of God’s creation, and that the two would have an important relationship .  God was be a kind of special superman.  Now we are lost in a near infinite Universe, this idea has gone beyond modern imagination.  If god exists, he must be similarly infinite and quite beyond us.  The whole idea of the incarnation and the idea of the sacrifice of God’s only son to save our sins has become a series of stale empty words.  Christians pronounce them as a ritual of identity; at best this formula is an icon – something to be worshipped and contemplated, perhaps, but a man-made creation of little intrinsic worth.  And I haven’t even touched the Eucharist.

So why does Holy Week retain its power?  It helps that it is linked to a clear narrative in the gospels, full of human drama and detail.  So much more gritty and real that the Christmas stories, which seem to have been worked out backwards from biblical prophesies.  But ultimately the drama of struggle, being wronged, hope destroyed and then reborn sums up so much of the Christian message.  An impossible burst of light onto a difficult world.  Most modern religions have a huge focus on the personal lives of their founder, and Christianity is no exception.  Few of these personal stories can be as unpromising as that of Jesus.  The Buddha devoted his whole life to attaining enlightenment; Mohammed attained huge temporal power in his lifetime.  It is impossible not to marvel at how the few days of the Holy week story led to such a dramatic and powerful movement.

So for me Good Friday will be a day of quiet reflection; Holy Saturday will be a normal Saturday; Easter Sunday will be a celebration.  Practising Christians do it better, but I will be shadowing them in my small way.

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Archipelago: desolation observed

Some of you will know that the photo on this blog is from the Isles of Scilly – a view of the Western Rocks from the island of St Agnes, in fact.  Since the 1980s I have had a timeshare cottage on the island of Tresco, and go there every other year.  So when we heard about this film, Archipelago set as a timeshare holiday on Tresco, in the neighbouring, though larger, property to ours, we had to see it.  It’s a beautiful but intensely uncomfortable film.

The film is directed by Joanna Hogg, and is an acute observation of a family holiday with two 20-something siblings, Edward and Cynthia, and their mother Patricia, in November, in the shooting season.  It’s the holiday from hell as Cynthia poisons it with overwhelming negativity, which is not explained.  It’s an understated sort of film.  The camera is static; there’s no music, the dialogue is awkward and feels unscripted, there are many awkward silences, the light seems to be as is.  We watch the holiday fall apart in a sort of slow motion.

The film is utterly faithful to the place.  Ms Hogg takes no liberties with the location in the way that film-makers love to.  The sounds, birds, the helicopter, tractors and even the foghorn, all evoke Tresco.  The holiday proceeds exactly as a week’s timeshare does, right up to the housekeeping team turning up on the last day.  The only jarring note is that the birdsong seems a bit vigorous for November, and we get screaming swifts at one point, long after they would have migrated (and swifts don’t come to Scilly much, anyway).

The programme notes at the BFI refer to the English upper middle class’s inability to communicate.  That’s a bit hasty; the English upper middle class is everybody’s favourite object of derision.  There isn’t much communicating going on, but we don’t know why.  Maybe everything has already been said.  We don’t know why Cynthia is so bitter and fragile, but there must be a reason.  Edward is just as isolated, as nobody will support him, especially with his imminent venture as a volunteer in Africa.  He’s nice to Cynthia’s nasty, but equally uncomprehending of others – as poor Rose the cook finds to her cost.  Patricia is the easiest of the family to like, but is unable to bring her family together, with her absent husband, who was supposed to join them, adding to her frustration.

Film makers  love to play God.  Ms Hogg’s restraint is remarkable.  A beautifully crafted film is the result.

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Walkabout: the fragility of understanding

Last night we went to a screening of this classic 1970 film at the BFI, followed by a Q&A session (which we hadn’t been expecting) with the film’s director Nicolas Roeg and two of its stars: Jenny Agutter and Lucien John, who play the innocent English girl and boy.  It’s a wonderful film about the encounter between two English (definitely not Aussie) children, she on the transition to adulthood, and an aborigine boy on walkabout.  It is a clash of cultures, but one suffused with the innocence of its characters; there was bonding, but there could be no reconciliation outside the innocence of childhood.  It is beautifully filmed in the Northern Territories (with a bit of Sydney), featuring many places that are now on the tourist trail (then undeveloped), and which we have visited.

The BFI supplied some wonderful programme notes written in 1971 by Gavin Millar.  To quote the closing words:

If the film suddenly slumps into setting social problems and answering them, then we must ask other questions too.  What innocence is lost? Is survival of the fittest an agreeable social plan?  How else to control disease, promote hygiene, comfort; the arts or culture as distinct from survival?  The questions don’t belong to the best parts of Walkabout and neither do the answers.  The savage is no noble, the sophisticate not corrupt.  Trying to prove it, one way or another, in the face of the camera’s evidence, would be a betrayal of the film’s real vision.

The magic of the film (together with its plot) evaporates if you try to think about it too hard.  Which doesn’t stop people trying; one of the questioners wanted to know the main character’s “back story”.  But the message of the film (in spite of its clumsier moments) is very simple but quite delicate.

Like so much of human experience.  In today’s Morning Service on Radio 4 (which I listen to while in the shower) the religious visions featured, in particular with the gospel story of the Transfiguration of Christ, but also the appearance of St Michael that is supposed to have dispersed an angry mob, and saved the convent where the service was held.  The power of these, too, disappears if you think about them too hard.  So much of our understanding of this mysterious world is so fragile.

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The breaking wave: why I am an agnostic

Earlier this month BBC4 ran a documentary “The Secret Life of Waves”, by documentary-maker David Malone.  Apart from explaining the usual stuff about ocean waves, he went off into to a philosophical and spiritual dimension, comparing waves to life itself.  I found this very moving.  It was also nice to see that non-religious professionals are allowed to offer profound thoughts on spiritual matters.  Normally as soon as you mention “spiritual”, assorted religious types start to gather like vultures around a carcass, all too often offering no more than empty dogma.  Radio 4’s Thought for the Day doesn’t allow non-religious speakers.

When a wave breaks it disappears, but the water that carried it remains.  The wave has a life – a beginning, a middle and an end, but no substance of itself.  It is a manifestation of “energy”, although I find that an unhelpful word.  This is all we really need to know about our own lives.  The idea of an afterlife doesn’t really survive serious reflection.  Mr Malone shows this by pointing out that our concept of heaven – an essentially static place – isn’t at all attractive.

I was brought up a Christian, but the idea of heaven and hell never convinced me.  And I have found the idea of a God that intervenes in response to prayer, or sin or anything else, impossible too.  I accept the scientific view of the universe, of its vastness and of our own origins through evolution.  No heaven and hell; no divine intervention; no personal God.  Christianity was built on these ideas.  Without them the wave starts to break, just as an ocean wave breaks as it enters shallow water.

So why am I not an atheist?  I mainly think and act like one, long since having abandoned membership of a church.

Well in the first place I associate atheism with a hard, evidence-based view of the world.  This world has no room for mystery, as my brother Richard Green points out.    It is of the nature of scientific evidence that there can only be enough to cover a small fraction of what we experience; do we simply pretend not to see the world beyond evidence?  Atheists mock God as an “imaginary friend”, and yet their world requires quantities of a sort of negative imagination.

And the religious insights that attracted me to Christianity remain a powerful influence on me today.  I still cannot think of the Sermon on the Mount without excitement – it’s a flame that still burns bright – to invoke another transitory phenomenon.  It is a crazy, defiant creed that tells you to renounce worldly wealth, turn the other cheek, accept humiliation and not be bound by the letter of the law but by its spirit.  And there is so much more – it angers me that so many Christians seem to ignore what I see as the essence of Christian teaching.

And finally there is the wave of religious experience itself.  It is quite something to stand in an ancient Church and feel continuity with it – or to read ancient scriptures after so many generations before have done so.  It gives a sense of belonging.  The wave may be breaking, but I can’t quite renounce it.

 

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