Friday, 21 August 2015

Rumours of Glory

If you read this blog from time to time you'll know that I'm a big fan of Bruce Cockburn.  So you won't be surprised to hear that I was very excited about the publication of his memoir, Rumours of Glory,  which hit the shelves in late 2014.

I first heard Cockburn in the early 1980s and his music was a revelation to me.  He was the first singer I heard (and still one of a select few) who combined an overt Christian faith with a deep commitment to justice and an immersion in political and social issues.  He is a big name in his native Canada - winner of multiple Juno awards (the equivalent to our ARIAs) and inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.  Elsewhere he has a fairly low profile and a small but devoted following - especially from people like me.

I read Rumours of Glory over the Easter holiday as we travelled around western Victoria and New South Wales.  Among other things, it inspired me to fill some gaps in my collection of Cockburn CDS and I bought myself three - High Winds, White Sky,  In the Falling Dark and Nothing But a Burning Light.  I'll let them help me tell the story.

Bruce Cockburn was born in Ottowa in May 1945, while his father was on military duty in Germany.  His childhood was spent in Ottowa, a standard middle-class suburban family life with his father supporting the family with his job as a radiologist while his mum stayed at home and looked after the kids.  He was a quiet and artsy teenager with a healthy disrespect for the strictures of school curriculum which meant he failed subjects in which he was disinterested.  By the time he finished school he was already an accomplished musician and budding composer but his refusal to take maths seriously disqualified him from most universities.

Wanting to please his parents and at least attempt a university education and he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA to study jazz composition.  He lasted 18 months before realising that actually he wanted to play music, not study it.  He is self-effacing about what he got out of the experience, claiming that he struggled with the discipline of the repetitive practice of jazz scales and the intricacies of the music.  However, the evidence of even his first recorded music suggests that the discipline, even if only partly absorbed, placed him far ahead of most of his contemporaries in musical skill and sophistication.

Be that as it may, he returned to Ottowa at the end of 1965 and began playing and singing in rock bands, firstly in Ottowa and later in Toronto.  None of them became famous although one of them did get to open a show for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Cockburn played guitar, sang and wrote songs.  As time passed he realised that the songs of his he liked best sounded better when he played and sang them on his own and so in 1969 he gave up on the bands and launched a solo career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

High Winds, White Sky is the second album of Cockburn's solo career, released in 1971.  In many ways it's not a bad album.  The songs are engaging, his guitar playing is already a cut above his folkie contemporaries, he sings well, he seems to have mastered a number of styles.  However, while all the bits are in place the package doesn't quite hang together.  He has not yet found his voice, in a number of different ways.

For starters his voice is literally different to what it was to become.  He has a natural baritone but in 1971 he was still yielding to fashion and singing in a higher register like everyone else.  As well as this, he has drawn on a number of musical genres - the renaissance-tinged folk music of the likes of Pentangle, the jazz of his Berklee days, the finger-style blues of players like Mississippi John Hurt.  These genres jostle for space, sitting side by side but not really communicating.  He seems unsure of himself and this leads him to do some odd things, like playing "mouth trumpet" on 'Happy Good Morning Blues'.  The bonus tracks even include an attempt at a comic song, 'Elephant Blues', recorded live in 1970.

Cockburn was also yet to find his voice spiritually.  Certainly he was already carving his own path.  His songs are steeped in the mystery and beauty of nature and the brevity of life.  He refused, or perhaps just failed, to play the commercial music game, like by disappearing for long wilderness holidays after an album release instead of touring relentlessly to promote it.  This gave him a kind of cachet as Canadian music's resident mystic.  He was also already married to Kitty and their wedding at St George's Anglican Church in Ottowa was a deeply spiritual experience.

At that moment, when I held Kitty's hand to place her ring, I became aware of a presence standing there with us - invisible to the eye but as solid and obvious as any of the people in the room.  I felt bathed in the figure's energy.  I shivered and said to myself, "Well, I don't know who or what this is, but we're in a Christian church, so it's got to be Jesus".

While Christianity was part of the mix and Cockburn was starting to appreciate a side of the faith he had not experienced in his family's 1950s duty visits to church, he was still uncommitted, still exploring different spiritual pathways.  The album is clearly spiritual but it's unfocused, if anything a kind of nature mysticism best heard on 'Let Us Go Laughing'.

My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away
One by one antique stars
Herald the arrival of
Their pale protectress moon

Ragged branches vibrate
Strummed by winds from o'er the hill
Singing tales of ancient days
Far and silent lightning
Stirs the cauldron of the sky
I turn my bow towards the shore

As we grow out of stones
On and on and on
So we'll all go to bones
On and on for many a year

But let us go laughing
Let us go
On and on and on
On and on for many a year

A lot happened between 1971 and 1976, when Cockburn released In the Falling Dark. For a start, he increasingly allowed himself to sing in his natural voice, a warm baritone with a definite Canadian inflection.  This means that all his albums from the mid-1970s onwards are recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth.

The same goes for his music.  It moved from being a slightly awkward pastiche of styles to his own fusion of them, a jazz-influenced version of folk rock with complex finger-style guitar parts.

Spiritually, he also progressed from sampling a smorgasbord of spiritual ideas to a more definite identification as a Christian.  His conversion was born out of personal pain as tensions in his and Kitty's marriage mounted.

I wanted a healthy relationship with Kitty.  It wasn't long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person he wanted me to be.  I prayed like a child, without reserve.  Suddenly it was there, the same presence I had felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air.  I felt my heart forced open.  He was there!  And it was definitely he.  A male entity, more fraternal than paternal, radiant with calm power, a saviour showing up to save me because I'd asked.  I made a commitment to Jesus.  From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.

It is important not to misunderstand this conversion.  Cockburn was never an Evangelical.  He never saw Christianity as the only truth, never set out to covert other people to it.  St George's, where he and Kitty were married and continued to attend through the 1970s, was a progressive Anglican church and he learned a form of faith that was humble and open to other traditions.  His view of such things is beautifully illustrated by his tale of a visit to Nepal in the late 1980s.  Prayer flags on every house, little shrines dotted all over the place, one of the most religious countries on earth.  There he chanced to meet an elderly Christian missionary.

The old man told me he had left his teaching job in the Midwest to come to Nepal twenty-five years earlier and bring the gospel to its people....  He proudly told me that he had taught Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, but he was bitter and seemed diminished.  In twenty-five years, he said, he had not made a single convert.  His words were "These people don't want to know God".  

I felt sad for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spirituality built into the surroundings.  He had spent a quarter of a century wearing cultural blinkers, not seeing, not learning what he might have about the Divine.  If it's true that the attribute of God that is supposed to have the greatest effect on us is love, how can it flower in a soil of censure, tribalism, false pride...fear of the other?  But for Big Circumstance, that could have been me.

This means he did not abandon the lessons he had already learned prior to his commitment.  He continued to see God in nature, to appreciate various traditions, to see himself as a seeker rather than someone who had arrived.  He was quite open to the notion that the Divine who appeared to him as Jesus could appear to others in a different form.

Nonetheless, the songs on In the Falling Dark are clearly Christian.  The title track concludes, "Don't you know that from the first to the last we're all one in the gift of grace?".  In place of generic nature mysticism we have 'Lord of the Starfields', a hymn of praise to the Creator.

Oh Love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Perhaps clearest of all is one of the album outtakes, 'Dweller by a Dark Stream', written and recorded at the time but not released until much later.  Set to a simple country-style tune it sets out the idea of salvation in terms any evangelical would be happy with.  Nonetheless, if you listen closely you will see that even here there is a more progressive take on the story, like when he says Jesus "wanted us like you, as choosers not clones", and when, walking through the world, he longs for "a glimpse of your new life unfurled" like a shiny winged insect breaking out of its chrysalis.

It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down?
Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love

I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you've done
Jesus, thank-you joyous Son

You entered a life like ours to give us back our own
You wanted us like you, as choosers not clones
You offered up your flesh and death was overthrown
Now salvation is ours,
Salvation is ours

So when I'm walking this prison camp world
I long for a glimpse of the new life unfurled
The chrysalis cracking and moistened wings uncurl
Like in the vision John saw
The vision John saw

Another thing that is starting to happen on In the Falling Dark, although only in embryonic form, is the growth of Cockburn's social consciousness.  Even as his faith became more focused, he began to see more clearly the things in this world that seemed to pull against this "glimpse of the new life unfurled".  You see it most clearly on 'Gavin's Woodpile',  A series of meditations drawn from his time chopping wood for his brother's fire include, among pieces of nature mysticism from an earlier time, two very concrete images - one of a prisoner doing time, and the other of the catastrophic pollution of the English River in northern Ontario where contamination from a local paper mill poisoned the fish and the local indigenous people who ate them.

...Like the coloured slicks on the English River
Death in the marrow and death in the liver
And some government gambler with his mouth full of steak
Saying, "If you can't eat the fish, fish in some other lake.
To watch a people die - it is no new thing."

And the stack of wood grows higher and higher
And a helpless rage seems to set my brain on fire.

Cockburn didn't attend church regularly after the late 1970s.  He gives a few reasons.  One is that he moved from Ottowa to Toronto and never managed to find a church where he felt at home as he had at St George's.  It's not easy for someone who is both an introvert and a celebrity to just walk into a church, and it's hard for a musician who spends half his life on the road to become part of any stationary community.

However, I suspect that more telling is the fact that he moved to Toronto on his own.  His marriage to Kitty, troubled from the beginning, had ended.  He blames no-one for this but himself, acknowledging that he finds intimacy difficult.  This problem recurred throughout his life and he has had a number of relationships since which have gone the same way despite his best intentions.

He struggled to accept the idea that the vows he and Kitty had made in what he had experienced as the real, tangible presence of Christ could be annulled. His agony is written all over Humans, the album of songs he wrote during this time.  He was dealing, as we all have to eventually, with the problem of suffering.

Then there is the problem that from then on his love life didn't follow conventional Christian lines.  He recounts four other committed relationships as well as one steamy extra-marital affair.  This made for an uneasy relationship with the church.

In the early 1980s he got involved with a group called Jesus People USA, a hip and "alternative" but theologically conservative group based in Chicago.  He visited their church and got to know some of them, and their members attended his concerts and bought his albums.  However, when they eventually twigged that he was not only divorced but "living in sin" they dropped him like a hot potato, stopping their attendance at his concerts and advising members to get rid of his albums as if his marital status changed everything.  Naturally he was not keen to repeat the experience, and his knowledge that some of the people who follow the God of Love can be very unloving pushed him further in the direction of a tolerant, open spirituality.

Other things changed, too.  For one, he became more politically and socially active.  From the early 1980s onwards he started doing documentary projects and awareness raising for organisations like Oxfam.  This included visiting a number of global trouble-spots and observing first hand the plight of refugees, ethnic minorities and other victims of persecution.  He's been doing it ever since, starting with Guatemala in the early 80s and including  Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iraq among other places, as well as ongoing support for the aspirations of Canada's first peoples.  All these experiences found their way into his songs by means of what he calls "reportage" - lyrics built from real, concrete scenes, events and images.  The book includes a number of diary extracts which later appear almost word for word as songs.  His songwriting began to take on a new life and vividness as he moved beyond nature mysticism to address suffering, resilience and hope not as theoretical constructs but as things affecting real people in real places.

Musically all this resulted in his moving away from acoustic music in the 1980s towards a more band-oriented electric sound.  He had never really been a folk musician but now not even the marketing department could call him one.  He picked up his electric guitar for the first time in a decade and his songs became louder, more jagged, more challenging.

You can hear some of this on Nothing But a Burning Light,  released in 1991.  In some ways the sound here is a little different from the albums before and after, courtesy of his brief working relationship with producer T-Bone Burnett.  It is more mellow, there is a rich warm keyboard sound prominent in the mix and a group of players a little more soulful than Cockburn's more usual collaborators.  Still it includes the elements - his distinctive vocals, the tight driving rhythm, the intricate and occasionally flashy guitar parts, the space for his collaborators to do their thing.

There is still Christianity here.  'Cry of a Tiny Babe' is a retelling of the Christmas story with a lovely chorus.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Other songs reflect this faith and hope, like the opening number, 'A Dream Like Mine'.

Today I dream of how it used to be
Things were different before
The picture shifts to how it's going to be
Balance restored
When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations

The album also includes a rare cover, Blind Willie Johnson's 'Soul of Man', which also supplies the album's title in answer to the question "what is the soul of a man?".

Alongside this is a mix of more earthy stuff.  Tender love songs like 'One of the Best Ones' sit beside two acerbic songs about the uncomfortable history of the treatment of North America's first peoples.  'Kit Carson' deconstructs the legacy of this supposed hero of the Wild West, while 'Indian Wars' highlights how the war Carson fought is still going on today.

It's not breech-loading rifles and wholesale slaughter
It's kickbacks and thugs and diverted water
Treaties get signed and the papers change hands
But they might as well draft these agreements in sand.

You thought it was over but it's just like before.
Will there never be an end to the Indian War?

My favourite, though, is 'Mighty Trucks of Midnight'.

Used to have a town but the factory moved away
Down to Mexico where they work for hardly any pay
Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

Wave a flag, wave the bible, wave your sex or your business degree
Whatever you want - but don't wave that thing at me
The tide of love can leave your prizes scattered
But when you get to the bottom it's the only thing that matters

I believe it's a sin to try and make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

It starts out a bit like a Bruce Springsteen song about America's post-industrial landscape as all the jobs are shifted south across the border, symbolised by the trucks rolling through the night importing cheap manufactures.  However, Cockburn's spirituality allows him to see further and deeper, to question the motives and to point the question back at the protagonists.

Religion, as he suggests, can be one one of many things used to oppress and rob, just as much as nationalism, sex or education.  However, those who are at the top of the heap can find their prizes scattered just as much as those at the bottom.  By the end of the song, the trucks have become a metaphor for a completely different kind of movement, an understanding of the brevity of life which makes our striving for wealth and our fetishisation of the economy seem not just criminal and exploitative but absurd and pointless.  In the end, love is what counts - not the soppy romantic love of the Beatles or their ilk but a costly love that has to be earned and learned.  You have to give up other things to have it.  You have to love actual people, not rob them.

The story continues. Cockburn takes it up to about 2008, but he is still alive and continues to make music.  If you want to know more read the book.  You could even do Bruce a favour and buy it.  Meanwhile, in the spirit of reflecting on a life well lived let me leave you with what is possibly my favourite Cockburn song, 'Strange Waters', from 1996's The Charity of Night.

I've seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity

I've stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I've seen my heart explode

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Farewell Michael Clarke

So, Michael Clarke has announced his retirement from international cricket, to take place at the end of the Ashes series.

It's kind of surprising and not surprising.  Surprising because he's only 34, still young for a cricketer, and because he had been so adamant that he was not retiring.  Not surprising, because his degenerative back condition always meant he would retire younger than most, and because over the past few months he has looked like his heart's not in it.

No-one in elite sport is universally loved even among among their team-mates, especially not while they're playing.  Elite sportspeople are driven and competitive and this often makes them abrasive and inconsiderate.  Still, Clarke seems to have copped more criticism than most considering his achievements.  So, in the interests of fairness, here's six things to remember him by.

1. 2012
In the 2012 calendar year, the year after he took over as captain, he scored 2,400 test runs including three double centuries and a triple.  He was like the energiser bunny, super fit, with supreme concentration, unthreatened by pace or spin, able to run up the steps to the dressing room after two days at the crease.  He was Bradman reincarnated.  Ricky Ponting experienced a late career renaissance just by following in his wake.  The deeds of the greats of the past - Chappell, Border, Waugh - all paled beside him.

Before and after he was not quite so great.  With one test to go in his career he has a touch over 8,000 runs at an average of just under 50, which is good but not as good as many other present-day masters.  But it's none too shabby either and he can retire feeling pretty pleased with himself.

2. The Golden Generation
Clarke started his career as the youngest member of a great team.  His team-mates in the early years included Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath.  They swept all before them.

This generation of players was so dominant that the Australian selectors have been reluctant to let them go, even though in the last few years all that has been left are the understudies.  Ever since Adam Gilchrist retired they have been loyal to Brad Haddin, notwithstanding a short preference for Matthew Wade and despite Haddin's up-and-down form with both bat and gloves.  They have shown even less explicable loyalty to Shane Watson, the promising allrounder who is still promising at 34 without ever having quite delivered.  They built their bowling attack around two veterans, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris.

When they were worried about the batting for the 2013 Ashes tour they called in long-time opening batting bridesmaid Chris Rogers.  The gamble was so successful they rolled the dice again in 2015 with Adam Voges, proving that if you have a big win at gambling the law of averages indicates you should go home right away.

Clarke, the only one of this number who was not an understudy, was the only realistic choice to lead them.  It's not surprising that even his own superlative batting and tactical nous were not enough for this ageing B Team to match the feats of their predecessors.  Still, Clarke can be glad he was not Brian Lara, the last scion of the West Indies great generation forced to play alongside bumbling mediocrities as West Indian Cricket crumbled.  Clarke got to lead a decent team and they got some decent results.  Steven Smith will have a much sterner challenge, with all but Johnson set to exit stage left after this series as rebuilding gets serious.

3. Tactics
One of the reasons Clarke had reasonable success with a relatively modest team is that he is an astute tactician.  Under his predecessor Ricky Ponting, fans and critics got used to scratching their heads as he made odd, paradoxical and sometimes downright stupid tactical decisions.  His teams mostly won despite that because the players were so good.

With Clarke there were no tactical brain snaps.  He set clever, well thought out fields, he made canny bowling changes, he declared at the right time, his choices at the toss were carefully considered.  If his team lost, it was because the players failed to perform, not because the captain was a dill.

4. Lara and Kyly
Clarke was much maligned for his relationship with Lara Bingle, yet it is hard to see what he did wrong.  He fell in love with a beautiful and vivacious woman.  He missed cricket to support her when her father died, as any man should.  When it became clear the relationship couldn't last he ended it privately, face to face, missing more cricket to do so.  If she is a flighty drama queen that is hardly his fault.

You might have thought that his marriage to former schoolmate Kyly Boldy would settle all that down, but she is hardly less glamorous than Lara, although apparently much more grounded.  The marriage has served to cement Clarke's reputation as a playboy with an eye for beautiful girls.  Personally I think his detractors are just jealous that in his lifetime he could win the love of two such gorgeous women.

Still we all age.  Clarke has shown he has a strong sense of family and of personal responsibility.   I would be willing to bet that he will still be treating his wife with respect and dignity long after the bloom of their youth has faded.  I don't reckon it's an accident that his retirement coincides with the impending birth of their first child.  Who would want to travel the world hitting a leather and cork sphere with a lump of wood when the light of your life is growing up at home and you're missing all the best moments?

5. Team-mates
The one criticism of Clarke that does seem fair is that he has a very prickly relationship with his team-mates.  This problem first hit the headlines when he had a fistfight with Simon Katich in the dressing room. I'm firmly with Clarke on this one.  Katich was the designated singer of the team song, to be sung after each Test victory.  No-one could leave the dressing room until it was sung, and it could not be sung until the designated leader said it was time.  Apart from being a pretty dumb custom (and a stupid song to boot) in Katich's hands the dressing room celebrations got longer and longer.  Clarke wanted to go home.  Mentioning it politely didn't work.  He got cross.  Katich grabbed him by the throat.  Clarke just wanted to have a life.  Simon Katich needed to learn about work/life balance.

On the other hand, some of his conflicts show a level of inflexibility and even harshness which seems out of place in a leader.  He was the main instigator of the final banning of Andrew Symonds, effectively ending his career.  Certainly Symonds had disciplinary form but the final cause was his missing a team meeting during a rather pointless Top End series against a mediocre opponent.  Not only that, but Symonds had a good explanation - he didn't know the meeting was on.  It was supposed to be a free morning, so he got up early to catch the tide and was out on the water with his fishing rod when the meeting was called at short notice.  He got disciplined for wanting to have a life.  What's good for the goose...

Team meetings were once again at the root of the Homeworkgate saga in which Clarke also played a central role.  Team members were supposed to submit some written tasks prior to a team meeting during an Indian tour.  Some of them didn't, including then vice-captain Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson, and all were suspended.  It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry.  That's not the way to build team spirit and get everyone working together.

6. Phillip Hughes
If we can be critical of some of Clarke's relations with team-mates, it's impossible to be critical of his response to Phillip Hughes' death.  He was clearly shattered.  He rushed to be at Hughes' bedside as he lay dying, visited his family at home and gave a moving, tearful eulogy at the funeral.  As with the passing of Lara Bingle's father, he showed that he is a man his friends can rely on in a crisis.  He may get the little things wrong, but when something big comes along he knows what to do.

For most of us, Hughes' death is in the past.  It was sad but after all he was just someone we watched on TV.  Not so for Clarke, who played with him at State and National level.  Imagine that a long-standing workmate is killed in a workplace accident.  From then on, every time you go to work you think of him.  Every time you do the task which resulted in his death your hands shake.  This is precisely what Hughes' death is for Clarke.

Initially, he was determined to soldier on.  Despite his own back troubles he turned out against India the following week and scrapped his way to a century before snapping his hamstring.  The determination kept him going through a difficult rehab and into the victorious World Cup campaign.

There is only so long you can grit your teeth and fight on.  Eventually the sadness will gain the upper hand and the tears will flow.  You come to understand that death is irreversible and that you can no longer see things the same way.  Clarke still wears his black armband.  I would be willing to bet that this grief is a much bigger factor in his recent poor form, and in his retirement, than he will ever admit.

I know cricket is not that important.  People are starving , millions are threatened by war, we are stuffing up the planet.  What is a bunch of men hitting a ball beside all that?  Yet what is life without art?  What is it without play, without fun, without learning a skill for the pure enjoyment of the challenge?  Michael Clarke has taken us out of ourselves as he performed his art on the world stage for more than a decade.  He has given us a chance to admire his dancing feet, his deft timing, his sheer concentration and determination.  He has made the near-impossible look easy.

Now it's time for him to move onto other things.  May he go well.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Redemption Songs/Songs of Freedom

Over the last couple of years I've been listening attentively to all sorts of religious music in the process of rethinking my own practice.  There's been nothing systematic about it.  Often what I've been listening to is music I've known for a long time, but because I'm more focused on the question I'm listening with different ears.

How can we get past heavily theological, formulaic music and find something that creates a genuine emotional connection?  How can we get out of the atonement bubble and sing about everything that matters in our lives?  Are we prepared to weep and get angry as well as celebrate and praise?

I've expressed my frustration at the music currently promoted in my church and others like it.  I've contrasted this with the ancient Israelite practice shown in the Book of Psalms, and with some other Christian practices that are often unfairly derided.  But I've also found a lot of what I'm looking for in songwriters from other traditions, including Richard Thompson's Sufi songs and George Harrison's Hindu spiritual awakening.

Last Sunday I found myself playing music for evening church with the theme of redemption and a set of bleeding Jesus songs.  I even swallowed my pride and played 'The Mystery of the Cross', but only because I wasn't consulted before the songs were chosen!  Yet as I drove home I found myself singing this little gem from Bob Marley instead.

Old pirates, yes, they rob I, 
Sold I to the merchant ships, 
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my head was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, 
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy, 
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets, 
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it's just a part of it, 
We've got to fulfill the book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

I'm sure most of my readers will know that Marley was a Rastafarian, a deeply spiritual man like Thompson or Harrison as well as an iconic musician and songwriter.  But how much do you know about the Rastafari?

The Rastafarian faith was born in Jamaica in the 1930s.  It takes its name from the Emperor Haile Selassie 1 of Ethiopia (who reigned from 1930 to 1974), who before his coronation went by the name Ras Tafari.  Ras is a title, roughly equivalent to "Duke", and Tafari was his given name, meaning "one who is respected or feared".  His dynasty traced its ancestry to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and saw themselves as the direct heirs to Solomon's throne.  The Rastafarians hold that the Emperor is the Messiah and Son of God, the second advent of Jesus.

This means the language and stories of the Bible are re-purposed as a tale and promise of liberation for exiled Africans everywhere.  The coming of the Emperor/Messiah is a sign to strive for freedom and work towards their return to "Zion" (understood as Ethiopia or more broadly as Africa) from their captivity in "Babylon" which is interpreted as the corrupt and oppressive regimes of Europe and America.  This journey can be understood literally as a physical return home, or spiritually as a personal and social transformation wherever they are.

The faith is highly eclectic, drawing on Christianity and on writers of African consciousness such as Marcus Garvey and the "Holy Piby", an alternative Bible written by Robert Athyl Roberts in the 1920s as the basis for an Afro-centric religion.  It started to take its current form with Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, when a number of Jamaican preachers started teaching that he was the returned Messiah.

Haile Selassie himself was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and made no claims to divinity.  On the other hand he didn't go to any great lengths to discourage the movement which revered him.  When he visited Jamaica in 1966 he was greeted by over 100,000 devoted followers.  He granted audience to their leaders, to whom he gave gold medals, and ensured that senior Rastafari were part of any official party that greeted him as he toured the country.  A master of diplomacy, he didn't outright refuse to entertain their mass emigration to Ethiopia, but gently suggested that they should first devote themselves to the task of liberating Jamaica.

His death in 1975 following his deposition in a military coup did present a serious problem to the Rastafari.  Some still maintain that he didn't die, and that he is in hiding in a monastery from where he will return to reclaim his throne.  Others suggest that there is a further advent still to come.

Described in this way it sounds odd to Westerners like myself, but I suspect that this is because we are not descendants of African slaves. Rasta provides a spiritual basis for a form of African consciousness, a source of pride in their culture and identity, a framework within which to understand their current poverty and oppression, and a hope and goal for liberation and equality.  Its power is shown in the fact that it has as many as a million followers worldwide, not as a result of highly organised and well funded proselytisation but through grass-roots activism via a highly non-hierarchical and unstructured "church".

Rita Marley was among the 100,000 who greeted the Emperor in 1966 and her faith was confirmed by seeing stigmata on his hands.  She introduced her musician husband Bob to the faith and he became one of its most prominent activists and spokespeople. spreading the word through his infectious and joyful music and his social and political activism.

'Redemption Song' was written sometime in 1979 and recorded on Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1980 album Uprising.  It has become a much-covered standard for musicians of African descent and it provides an eloquent testimony to the power of Rasta and the poverty of the Christianity experienced by Marley and his contemporaries.

Rastafari are in the habit of saying "I and I" in place of "you and I", emphasising the unity of all people and the idea that if you suffer, I suffer, if you rejoice I rejoice with you.  Hence, at the beginning of the first verse he is identifying himself with his ancestors who were stolen from their homelands, sold to slave traders and brought to Jamaica to work the plantations of wealthy Europeans.  Despite this, God is still with him/them, making them strong and enabling them to survive.

The beginning of the second verse is drawn from a speech by Marcus Garvey.  Its import is that while their bodies had been freed from slavery, Jamaicans still needed to free their minds from the ways of thinking inculcated by their masters.  Only then would they be truly free to chart their own course.  Marley clearly believes that the time for this liberation has come and nothing can stop it, not even nuclear warfare or the slaughter of prophets.  The entire body of Marley's work is a joyous testament to this liberation and this hope.

The sting for practitioners of Christian music, and for Christians generally, is in the chorus.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs.

Because when "I" was being enslaved and oppressed, where were the Christians?  They were not singing songs of freedom, they were singing redemption songs, encouraging the oppressed to accept their oppression now and hope for freedom in the next life.  In the process they were providing comfort to the oppressors of Babylon, either actively supporting them or looking away while they abused "I".

No wonder they had to re-purpose and re-create the faith to find what they needed.  None but ourselves can free our minds, and Christianity was keeping "us" in chains.  It's sad because I'm convinced Jesus did not mean it to be that way.  This is what he did in his first public sermon in his home town of Nazareth.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Will we dare to sing this?  It is much safer to stay in our atonement bubble, where no-one's cage will be rattled and we can dream of a happy afterlife without having to care about those who suffer here and now, or challenge their oppressors.  But if we fail them, those who suffer will just have to look elsewhere, to our eternal shame.  "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".

Or as Bob put it so much more simply, "Set the captives free!".

Friday, 31 July 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I'm late to the party as usual but I've just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, originally published in 2005, thanks to a tip-off from my clever niece Alisha.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre is becoming old news, but its effects are still with us and even more so still with our Islamic communities.  Last night I went to the launch of my friend Dave Andrews' book The Jihad of Jesus which deals with dialogue and common ground between Christianity and Islam.  That's a whole other subject, but  Dave's friend and local Islamic community leader Nora Amath shared her own story of how, in the wake of that event, she and her friends and family in Australia experienced increasing suspicion and aggression as they went about their daily lives.  They had nothing to do with it and were as horrified as everyone else, but were still blamed and vilified - and continue to be to this day.

How can we see this event in perspective?  Foer's lovely book gives us some important clues.  It is set in 2003, two years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, and narrated mostly by 9-year-old Oskar Schell whose father was killed in the attack, with occasional interpositions by his grandmother and grandfather.

I think it must be incredibly hard to write an adult book from a child's point of view but some great novels have resulted - To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The trick is that the child must only know and understand what a child of that age could, while revealing enough for the adult readers to understand what the narrator himself does not.

Since this is a mystery of sorts I won't tell you too much.  Suffice to say that Oskar is not dealing well with his grief, and his mother, grandmother and counsellor are worried about him.  His bafflement seems to be made worse by some odd traits which suggest he may be a little further than most along the ASD spectrum, although this is not explicitly mentioned.

Going through his father's cupboard one day, he finds a vase on the top shelf.  He accidentally breaks it and inside he finds a key in an envelope with the word "Black" written on the front.  The key doesn't open anything in his apartment, so he sets out on a secret quest to find out what is is for, and what this might reveal about his father.  To do this he resolves to visit everyone in New York with the surname "Black", going through the phonebook systematically from A to Z.

What's important to me here is what this quest, and some of the other events that surround it and in which it is embedded, suggest to us about how we might respond to the World Trade Centre bombing.

The first important point is that the story never mentions Islam.  Not once.  It does not discuss politics, international relations, the motives for the attack or the wars that resulted from it.  This is not because Oskar is incapable of understanding these - Oskar is an extremely intelligent child - but because he is completely absorbed in his own grief and pain.  His loss blots out everything else.

The second point is that this is not the only atrocity in world history.  Two others appear in the story.  The firebombing of Dresden in  February 1945, in which British and American bombers dropped thousands of incendiary devices and killed over 20,000 German civilians, plays a pivotal role in the story.  Once again there is no political commentary - the story is just there, part of Oskar's family history and indeed its present although he doesn't know it.  In a brief cameo we also hear of an even bigger atrocity, the bombing of Hiroshima, told once again through a shocking personal story of grief which Oskar plays to his classmates.   He expands on the story by describing how nearest to the explosion people were completely destroyed but their shadows remained.  There is also the merest hint, no more, of the Holocaust.

The third point is that alongside these stories of mass grief are set the ordinary griefs of life.  Many of the people Oskar visits - a random cross-section of the New York population who share nothing but a surname - are dealing with their own grief - the loss of a partner, a divorce or separation, the loss of a dream.  None of these griefs are connected to the World Trade Centre.  They happen to us all.  Grief, Foer shows us, is one of the human constants.

So how do we deal with grief?  If the question is "how do we solve grief", the answer is clearly that we can't.  Grief doesn't go away.  Instead we find ways to cope with it, to make it part of our lives without destroying ourselves.  For some this is impossible - like for Oskar's grandfather.  There is a real possibility that grief can damage us beyond repair along with those we love.  Oskar experiences this possibility himself as he says hurtful things to his mother, and as he tells lie after lie to protect the secrets associated with his own grief.

Yet their are other options.  Some people build shrines to those they have lost, like the young woman who has done picture after picture of the same man.  Others create illusions to allow themselves to pretend that perhaps the person they lost is still alive, like the woman who spends her life at the top of the Empire State Building from where she can imagine her husband still signalling from below.  We can use our grief as a spur to do things we always meant to do, like the man who spends the time between his terminal diagnosis and his death writing letters to every person he has ever known.

Then there is diversion, Oskar's own strategy.  Oskar is a walking, talking bundle of diversions.  He is constantly "inventing": coming up with weird and wonderful technological ideas, like the birdseed coat which would allow its wearer to jump from a burning building and be carried away by birds, or the system of pipes which would collect the tears of the people who cried themselves to sleep into a giant reservoir.  He writes a steady stream of letters to famous people offering to become their assistant or pupil.  He writes to a famous naturalist researching elephants' memory asking if he can become her assistant.  He sends Ringo Starr a set of bomb-proof drumsticks and asks for drumming lessons.  But more than anyone he sends letter after letter to Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, receiving each time a form reply assuring him that Hawking reads all the letters he receives and keeps them in the hope that one day he will be able to reply personally.  Will it ever happen?

Of course the quest for the lock which fits the key is itself a huge diversion, one of which he is possibly not aware himself but which is obvious to the adult reader.  Of all the possible ways he could go about his quest, he chooses the one calculated to take the longest and produce the most uncertain results.  Yet for all its seeming aimlessness it also serves as a survival strategy, giving him a sense of purpose and engaging him in the lives of others.

Or there is the one we use so often, and are still using, but which never seems to occur to Oskar or to Foer.  We can convert our grief to anger, and since we have no access to the actual perpetrators we can take it out on people who share a similar religion, or wear the same kind of clothes.  It doesn't help, it doesn't make us feel any better.  We just keep getting angrier and angrier.

As Foer shows us (oh, so gently!), Dresden, Hiroshima and the Holocaust show that Islam and New York have no monopoly on atrocities.  Each is  collection of thousands of personal griefs, adding their tally to the reservoir of tears.  We all need to learn how to live with this grief without multiplying it endlessly.  Everything else is just diversion.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Resurrection 2: Meaning

The important thing about Jesus' miracles is not their factuality but their meaning.  Jesus' miracles illustrate and reinforce his teaching about the Kingdom of God.  The same goes for the resurrection.  Having summarised what I think the resurrection stories are describing, I'd like to talk a little about how the apostles used the story and what they made of it.

Whole books have been written about this.  I'm just going to give you the highlights under three headings - vindication of Jesus' life and message, a new life for his followers here and now, and a future hope.

In Acts 2, Luke reports a sermon by Peter which centres on the following words.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power."

Peter goes on to relate this to Psalm 16, attributed to David, in which the psalmist says

You do not give me up to Sheol (the grave)
Or let your faithful one see the pit.

Reading this psalm without Peter's interpretation you would simply understand it as a prayer for protection, but Peter uses the established Jewish principles of interpretation to uncover its "hidden" meaning as a prophecy of the Messiah's resurrection.

A number of the sermons reported in Acts follow this pattern.  In Acts 3 Peter tells a crowd, "you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead".  In Acts 5 he says, "The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."  That pattern is later repeated in both Peter's and Paul's messages to a variety of audiences.

The point here is that the resurrection is God's verdict on the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and by extension the Roman Empire.  This conflict is shown in the gospels in Jesus' various arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, culminating in Jesus' cleansing of the temple and finally in his arrest and crucifixion.  While his death appeared to end the question in the expected way, with the powerful triumphing once again, the resurrection provides a surprise ending, a plot twist in which the underdog wins out after all.

The practical implication of this for the disciples, and for those who come after them, is that they should keep going.  This is the chief message that Jesus gives them in the various gospel accounts of his post-resurrection appearances.  In Matthew 28 he says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."  In John 20 he gives a more comprehensive commission: "As the father has sent me, so I send you".  This is also the main burden of the dialogue with Peter in John 21.  In a scene many commentators link with Peter's threefold denial on the night of Jesus' arrest, he asks Peter three times, "do you love me", Peter affirms that he does, and Jesus tells him, "feed my sheep".  The last time, he also predicts Peter's own execution.

The resurrection, whatever the apostles meant by it, reinforced Jesus' message of the Kingdom and the things he had taught them during his time with them.  It gave them the strength to continue in the face of opposition, indeed in the face of a real threat of execution by a ruthless and corrupt government, to proclaim the Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and to continue the work he had begun.

New Life Right Now
The second practical application of the idea of the resurrection, which we have through Paul's teaching in particular, is much more symbolic and metaphorical.  The resurrection should inspire us to become new people.  Paul puts this most clearly in Romans 6.  Baptism, he says, is a symbolic identification with Jesus' death and resurrection.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved by sin....  So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

A little later, in chapter 7, he extends the analogy to a discussion about the law, which he sees as the means of revealing and heightening our sin without having the power to overcome it.

In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.  While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.  But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

He puts it more poetically in Ephesians 2.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

The resurrection offers us a new hope and a new beginning.  We do not need to go on being trapped in our old patterns of behaviour, our old failures, our old legalisms, our fruitless attempts at mending our lives.  He offers us the chance to put our old selves to death and begin again, to die only to live again.  This new life is freedom from the dead hand of law, freedom from our destructive ways, and freedom instead to be like Christ, in fact to become him or to become part of him in our new lives.

Future Hope
The final point is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 15, which I alluded to in the previous post.  The resurrection gives us hope for a future which will be better than the present, for a final escape from death and suffering.  After presenting the apostolic tradition about the resurrection he gets to the point.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

And later he goes on.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

We all have to face our own death, and the deaths of those close to us, We face the ending of things we hoped would go on forever.  We face the ending of our culture, the realisation that we won't achieve all our dreams, and the pain of a thousand griefs leading up to our final end.

The resurrection represents a promise to us that this is not all there is, that God holds out new life to us.  It reminds us not to eternalise things that are temporary, to put them into perspective.

Scientifically, this doesn't make sense, and we find it hard to really believe it.  We can't see how it will happen.  Paul struggles with this himself, groping for words and images which will get across what he means.  The relationship of a seed to the final plant.  The difference between us and the sun, moon and stars.  Earthly dust and the stuff of heaven.  He can't describe it adequately, but he has seen Jesus, and this gives him assurance that it is true.

Often as Christians we are very caught up in what divides us.  Is the resurrection a physical event, a series of visions or a later legend?  Is there a place called heaven, and what is it like?  These are all, in a sense, questions about what is "out there".  They are diversions which keep what is important to us at a distance, and relieve us of the need to talk about our doubts and fears, about what is "in here".

Yet these more personal and collective meanings are something on which we are much closer to agreement.  We all need the courage to keep going, to keep proclaiming justice and mercy when it seems hard, fruitless or even dangerous, just as Jesus' disciples did after their Master was executed.  We all need to begin anew, to be able to put our failures and weaknesses behind us and take hold of a new and better life.  We all need hope to save us from the despair which Paul puts his finger on: "let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die".

If our fears, failings and mortality is all there is, we may as well give up.  Jesus's resurrection gives us hope for more, and so we can keep going.

Resurrection 1: Evidence

A while ago I wrote a series of posts about Jesus' miracles.  Without wanting to go over old ground, the general drift was that the miracles are teaching incidents.  They are not intended as displays of divine power, but as illustrations of the nature of the Kingdom of God coming among us.  Did they happen?  Not sure, I don't dismiss them but I hold their factuality relatively lightly.

Anyway, I kind of hinted then that I would do a separate post on the Resurrection, but it's taken me a while to get around to it.  It's a difficult subject and not one to be taken on lightly.  However some of my recent reading, including William Lane Craig, Paul Barnett and Geza Vermes, has helped to crystallise my thinking about the question in a way I think is worth telling you about.  I'll do it in two parts, otherwise it would be too long - this one looks at the evidence for the resurrection as an historical phenomenon, the next will look at what it meant for the early Christians.

The Resurrection of Jesus is a central event in the Christian faith.  In my youth, encouraged by some of my early teachers, I often attempted to use the "proofs" of the resurrection as an evangelistic strategy - after all, if Jesus could be shown to have risen from the dead then he must be the Son of God and everyone should then believe.  I was kind of baffled when people remained clearly unconvinced by the arguments.  It all seemed so convincing to me when Lewis said it, or when Frank Morrison or Josh McDowell laid out the proofs one by one.

Conservative Christians are still at it, as I found reading Craig, but I no longer find it convincing, at least not in that way.  I have often said that the main point of apologetics is to keep believers in the faith, not to convert skeptics.  Yet when the arguments fell apart for me my faith did not.  It just became less literal.  It became more faith, less pseudo-history.

What are we to do then, with the arguments about the resurrection?  The traditional view of this event is that it is a literal, bodily resurrection.  Is belief in such an event sustainable?  If not, should we therefore abandon Christianity?  Or are there other ways to look at this event?

I want to approach this issue in three ways.  First, I want to look at the "strong" arguments for the resurrection as an historical event.  Second, I want to look at the main problems or confusing aspects of this story.  The finally, in the next post, I want to make some brief tentative comments about where this might leave us.

Strong Arguments
One of the things that's surprised me is the wide currency of the argument from transformation.  This is the line of reasoning that says that something transformed the Apostles from a group of frightened fugitives to bold preachers who were prepared to die for their message.  According to the Gospels, when Jesus was arrested all his disciples fled except Peter, and he denied knowing Jesus.  Later they hid in the upper room of the house where they were staying with their doors locked.  Yet if the Book of Acts is at all accurate, within a couple of months they were proclaiming Jesus as Christ on the streets of Jerusalem and refusing to back down in the face of threats from the Jerusalem authorities who had Jesus killed.  What explains this transformation?

This argument is used by conservatives like Lewis, Craig and McDowell, but is also accepted by writers of a much more skeptical bent, including John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan and Geza Vermes.  What makes this a strong argument for there being an actual event behind the resurrection stories is that it's not something you would make up.  A story concocted at a later date to justify people's actions would not show the movement's leaders in such a bad light.  It would not show Jesus appearing to the women of the group while the men stayed away, and then the men refusing to believe the story until they were convinced with their own eyes.  If you were making this stuff up, you would show yourself, or your leaders, in a much more favourable light.

The other thing which is often seen as being in favour of this being an historical event is that it is unprecedented in Jewish thought.  Some of my early teachers liked to suggest that the resurrection was somehow proof of Jesus' messianic status, but first century Jews had no such notion.  For them the resurrection was an end time event at which all the dead would be raised to life and judged, with those found righteous admitted to paradise.  If you wanted to prove you were the Messiah, rising from the dead wouldn't help.  Getting rid of the Romans would.  The idea of the resurrection vindicating Jesus' messianic claims originates in Christianity.

One explanation that is sometimes put forward is that this is a borrowing from pagan mythology.  The Greek god Osiris, for instance, died and then rose again.  The fertility goddess Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld (the place of the dead) in winter and returned in spring.  Sir James Frazer's classic The Golden Bough popularised the notion that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is another outgrowth of this widespread fertility myth, and Paul even uses the illustration of a seed when talking about the subject.

The problem with this option, and the reason you mostly find it in pseudo-histories rather than works of serious scholarship, is that there is no evidence the apostles were influenced by these myths.  First century Christianity was very much a Jewish religion, spreading from believing Jews to Gentile God-fearers and working out from there.  The faith of the New Testament is expressed in wholly Jewish terms, and compromise with pagan religion is strongly forbidden.

Something transformed the Apostles and gave them the courage to fearlessly proclaim the crucified Jesus as a risen Messiah.  But what happened, and how are we to understand it?

Puzzling Questions
When we move from this general, circumstantial evidence to the specific resurrection stories, we move into much murkier territory.

It is clear that belief in Jesus' resurrection arose quite early in the life of the church.  In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul begins his discussion of the resurrection like this:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 
that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 
and that he appeared to Cephas, 
and then to the Twelve. 
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, 
most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 
Then he appeared to James, 
then to all the apostles, 
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Paul Barnett, among other scholars, suggests that this recital is part of a creed or liturgical formulation which Paul may have been taught on his induction into the faith or sometime shortly after.  Even if he learned it later it clearly pre-dates the letter in which it appears since Paul is restating what he has already taught them.  1 Corinthians is fairly reliably dated to around 55 CE.  This provides a kind of way marker in our knowledge of early Christianity.  By this date at the very latest, Christians were firm in their belief in the resurrection.

This is not the same, however, as saying that we have eyewitness accounts.  Aside from Paul's final line (to which I shall return) all of these events are reported at a distance.  This is the same for the gospel accounts.  Mark records no appearances.  Luke never had any personal contact with Jesus and relied on later research and tradition.  Matthew, if the traditional authorship is correct, was one of Jesus' disciples but his account is not a personal one - it is a recording of oral traditions, many of which he shares word for word with Mark and Luke.  Only John presents us with an account which may possibly be personal, although John's gospel appears to have been filtered through a number of editors before it reached the form we have.

There are also discrepancies in the accounts.  Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem or return to Galilee? To how many women did Jesus appear in the garden? How long did he stay around for after the resurrection?  These discrepancies lend a baffling air to the story.  However, they are not the most pressing issue.

I believe the resurrection stories present us with three key questions about the resurrection: what sort of appearances are being described? where was Jesus after the resurrection? and where is he now?

The traditional Christian view is that Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection - that his dead flesh
returned to life.  Some of the stories seem to support this.  For instance, in John 21 seven of the disciples are out fishing and they see Jesus on the shore - they return to shore and sit with him, eating some fish and discussing various things.  It seems highly natural, just like any unexpected meeting with a friend.  Yet even here the story is presented in a highly stylised way which suggests more than just a simple memoir.  There are seven disciples (John's favourite symbolic number), the author records the precise number of fish they caught (153 - I'm not sure what that means) and Jesus asks Peter the same question three times.

Other stories in John are even less natural.  When Mary meets Jesus in the garden she doesn't recognise him until he makes himself known - then he tells her not to touch him "because I have not yet ascended to the Father".  Later, he twice enters the disciples' meeting room through locked doors.

Perhaps there's just some ambiguity in John's account, but Luke's is even stranger.  Two disciples are on a journey when Jesus appears to them.  He walks with them for some distance, discussing the relationship between Jesus' life and ancient prophecy, and joins them at the wayside inn for a meal, all without them recognising him.  Then before they eat he blesses the food and "their eyes are opened", at which point Jesus promptly disappears. The end of the story is quite curious, as on their return to Jerusalem the pair tell the other disciples what they have seen, "and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread".

Paul's list of appearances only deepens the mystery.  He doesn't describe any of these appearances, merely lists them, but at the end he adds an appearance to himself.  He provides no more detail of his own experience than of anyone else's but Luke, his later travelling companion and apologist, narrates the event in Acts 9.

...suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  He asked, "Who are you, Lord?"  The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."...The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no-one.

Paul/Saul is struck blind by this vision and does not recover his sight for three days.

This description is repeated, with minor variations, three more times in the book of Acts, in speeches attributed to Paul.  In one his companions see the light but do not hear the voice.  Another contains an expanded account of what Jesus said to Paul.

What is being described each time is not a meeting with a human being returned to life, it is a full-on mystical experience, an encounter with a divine messenger.  Flashing lights, a disembodied voice and a seminal. life changing message.  Paul places this experience alongside the others on his list as if they are all the same sort of thing.

He reinforces this point further on in the discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. ...

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 

Paul sees a resurrected person as qualitatively different to the person before they die, and as far superior, just as Acts shows him encountering a powerful being.

So what is the resurrection?  Is it the man Jesus returning to bodily life and walking among his disciples again?  Or is it a series of striking mystical experiences which profoundly change the lives of those who experience them?

The second question, which tends to reinforce this point, is this: where was Jesus during the resurrection accounts?  It is clear that prior to his execution he lived with the disciples - they shared accommodation, they ate together, they travelled together.  Yet his post-resurrection appearances are just that - he comes and goes mysteriously, and in between they are on their own, puzzling among themselves about what all this means.  Where is Jesus in between these appearances, and what is he doing?

Leaving aside the wild and woolly speculations of the pseudo-historians, there are not many clues to this in the gospels themselves.  John possibly hints that he is coming and going from heaven, the abode of God - when he meets Mary in the garden he tells her not to touch him because he has "not yet ascended to (his) Father", but later he invites Thomas to touch his scars.  Does John intend us to understand that in between these two appearances he has, in fact, ascended and then returned?

Which brings us to the third question: where is Jesus now? Or to put it another way, where did he go after his final appearance?  Matthew, Mark and John are silent on this question.  Luke, however, does attempt an explanation.  In Luke 24:51 he tells us "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven".  He repeats the story at the beginning of Acts with a more graphic description: "as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight".  This idea of ascension is reinforced in the next chapter in Peter's Pentecost sermon, where he describes Jesus as "exalted at the right hand of God".

I have dealt with this description previously in my second post on Jesus' miracles, but it is worth repeating.  The primary view of the universe in the first century, and up to the time of Copernicus and Galileo in the Renaissance, was the Ptolemaic view.  According to Ptolemy the universe was a series of spheres, with the earth at the centre and various layers above containing the sun, moon, stars and so on.  The final, outermost sphere was the abode of God.  Hence if Jesus returned to be with God after his resurrection, he must have travelled upwards through the various levels, from which he would one day return.

This is a perfectly rational description on the basis of first century science, but our current knowledge of the universe renders it nonsense.  If Jesus travelled up into the sky he either suffocated or, assuming his heavenly body was capable of surviving in outer space, he is still going, travelling among the stars and doing who knows what?

The only way to make any sense of this story is to understand that it is symbolic.  It is not a literal, factual account of what happened but a way of illustrating Jesus' exalted status and his new relationship with his followers.  He is no longer with them in person, but his message is vindicated and he remains with them "in spirit".

The apostles genuinely believed that after Jesus was crucified he was raised from the dead, and that he appeared to them.  However, their descriptions of these appearances are enigmatic and brief, and suggest that this was not a simple return to life but a return to a qualitatively different type of existence - a "heavenly body", a figure who came and went mysteriously before finally disappearing from the scene in order to return to heaven to be with his Father.  He is still overseeing them, guiding them through his Spirit and waiting the time of his final descent.

What use did they make of this story?  How did it influence how they acted, and what they taught their followers?  This is the subject of my next post.

Friday, 17 July 2015

More Lives of Jesus 10: Paul Barnett

There is a stunning amount of scholarship and pseudo-scholarship about Jesus in circulation, and the flow doesn't show any sign of letting up.  I guess with 2.4 billion people around the world identifying as Christian in some way, there's no shortage of interest in the subject.

Unlike the spate of recent writings on the subject, the sources of evidence are strictly finite.  There are documents - the writings of Jesus' first followers, plus scattered (generally brief) references in non-Christian contemporaries like Tacitus, Josephus or Celsus.  There is a wide range of contextual information from historians and archaeologists which can throw light on the meaning of these documents and against which they can be checked.

Yet out of this evidence, or out of the silences between the evidence, authors have produced a huge variety of pictures of Jesus - divine being, freedom fighter, charismatic prophet, cynic philosopher, even (as we shall see) a wholly imaginary person.  You can't help but think that these differences arise much more from what people bring to the evidence than from what they take from it.  As Albert Schweitzer wrote, "there is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus".

So, Paul Barnett.  Barnett is a prominent Australian New Testament historian.  He has both served as Anglican Bishop of North Sydney and taught a More College, the Sydney Anglican seminary.  Sydney is renowned worldwide as a bastion of evangelical Anglicanism, and Barnett is one of its senior leaders and teachers.  Of the writers I have reviewed so far he most resembles John Dickson, another Sydney Anglican.  However while Dickson writes simply for a wide audience Barnett is more scholarly and "difficult" - at least sometimes.

He has written a number of historical books about Jesus and first century Christianity, and I've just read two of them.  The first is called Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, published in 1999.

Barnett's aim is to summarise and interpret the evidence he finds in the various early sources, with the New Testament as the primary source and other sources referred to to amplify, illuminate or complement this message.  Unlike more skeptical scholars, Barnett has a very 'high' view of the reliability of the New Testament books as historical documents.  He accepts the traditional authorship of the books, even those such as the pastoral epistles which most scholars at least regard as doubtful, and when there is debate about the date of composition he invariably opts for the earliest date.

He also has a good deal of faith in the factual accuracy of the authors and in particular the gospels.  His view is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are examples of the Greek/Roman genre of biography.  This is not the same as modern biography, but is intended to provide a portrait of a prominent person, drawing on incidents from their life to illustrate their achievements and their character.  It would have been nice to know more about this but he doesn't expand on the basic point.  What kind of factual accuracy was expected of Roman biographers?  I'm no expert, but having read Plutarch my sense is that the stories about a person need not be strictly factual, provided they illustrate the character the biographer seeks to portray.  This is not history in the modern sense, but it is expected to provide a reasonably faithful (if often stylised) portrait of an historical person.

Barnett's method, and his view of the accuracy of his documents, leads him pretty naturally to a traditional view of Jesus and of the church.  He sees Jesus' miracles as factual events, his claim to be the Son of God as intended literally, his resurrection as an actual bodily return to life recorded by eyewitnesses, his ascension as something genuinely witnessed by the apostles.  There is no distinction here between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith - the documents of faith are also documents of history and traditional Christian belief, for Barnett, is the most natural and logical interpretation of the historical data.

However, Barnett is not quite an inerrantist.  For instance, at one point he discusses Luke's description of Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem to take part in the census of Quirinius.  The problem is that this census took place in the year 12 CE, when Jesus would have already been at least 16 years old.  He does try out an explanation based on a convoluted reading of the original Greek and the idea of a series of censuses, but in the end he seems relaxed about the idea that Luke (or his source) may simply have made a mistake.

What's much more interesting is the way he takes the story on past Jesus' ascension to the birth and expansion of the early church.  There is a period of between 15 and 20 years between the incidents of Jesus' life and the writing of the earliest New Testament documents.  Barnett identifies the earliest of these as Paul's letter to the Galatians, written somewhere around 49 CE.  What was happening in these years?

Barnett ingeniously traces a sequence of events by bringing together Luke's account in the book of Acts and references in the various writings of Paul, Peter, James and John.  This allows him to do two things.

The first is to trace the development of early oral traditions about Jesus and the Christian faith.  Where the gospels bring together oral traditions relating to Jesus' life and teachings, Paul's writings incorporate a number of early statements of belief which Barnett suggests he learned from his first teachers and memorised in the manner of Jewish rabbinical instruction.  For instance, he interprets Paul's recital of the witnesses to the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as an early statement of belief, perhaps learned from Paul's first Christian teachers in Damascus.  This allows Barnett to trace belief in the Resurrection and in other doctrines like Jesus' divinity (expressed in the piece of oral teaching recorded in Philippians 2) to very early in the history of the church.

The second is to reconstruct the history of the first Christians.  He suggests that from their origin as a united group in Jerusalem the church developed a number of different subgroups.  Within the first couple of years there were already distinctions in the Jerusalem church between Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking Jewish Christians.  By the time the books of the New Testament were being written there were at least four distinct blocs within the church.

A more traditionally Jewish bloc focused around the Jerusalem church under the leadership of James, and was responsible for both James' epistle and the gospel of Matthew.  A group based in the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora in Palestine and further afield, looking to Peter is its main leader, was responsible for Mark's gospel and the epistles of Peter.  A third group looked to the leadership of John, who originally worked in partnership with Peter but later separated geographically and developed the distinctive theology of the Johannine writings - the gospel and epistles of John and the Book of Revelation.  Finally, a predominantly Gentile bloc was based in the churches founded by Paul and his assistants, and responsible for Paul's epistles as well as the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

In Barnett's view these groups were not necessarily at war and there were not firm barriers between them.  For instance, Peter speaks approvingly of Paul, while both Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark.  Still, there were serious tensions between them.  This is shown clearly in Paul's critique of both James and Peter in Galatians, and less clearly in facts like Paul's decision not to visit Rome once he realised that Peter had beaten him to it, and the unexplained supplanting of Peter by James as leader of the Jerusalem church.  The result for Barnett is a core of agreement, expressed in the creedal statements, alongside significant differences in emphasis and different ways of expressing their faith.  From it's earliest days, Christianity has incorporated debate and difference.  Why should it be different now?

It's a shame that Barnett didn't live out this spirit of diversity by engaging with the scholars who interpret the same data differently.  Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity barely mentions this scholarship - where it does it is in quick asides and variant views are briefly entertained and quickly dismissed.

However my second sample of his writings is, in a sense, more forthcoming.  It's a short book, written for a popular audience, called Gospel Truth: Answering the New Atheist attacks on the Gospels, published in 2012.  The title is self-explanatory - this is a work of apologetics aimed a refuting various claims made by atheist writers by deploying the scholarship displayed in his earlier work.

In Barnett's sights are the most prominent atheist boosters of the 21st century - Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.  One of the tactics all of these writers employ is the idea that modern bible scholarship has "shown" or "proved" that the claims of traditional Christianity are unfounded.  Typical is his quote from Hitchens' God is Not Great saying that there is "no firm evidence whatsoever that Jesus was a 'character in history'" and that there is "little or no evidence for the life of Jesus".

I can understand Barnett's concern as a pastor and retired bishop to refute high profile attacks on his faith.  However, for a scholar like Barnett it is like shooting fish in a barrel.  If this Gang of Four share one thing other than their strident atheism it is the depth of their ignorance of the religions they critique.  Instead of making a serious study of the subject, they tend to leap on a half-understood fact or argument and work it for all it is worth.  Hence, Hitchens has read a book (The Jesus Myth by GA Wells, apparently) that suggests that Jesus is entirely mythical and since this suits his purposes he quotes it as fact.

Barnett duly runs rings around his putative (and absent) opponents, showing that there is indeed strong evidence for not only Jesus' existence but for many of the facts of his life as recorded in the gospels, reiterating his high view of their accuracy as works of history.  He uses this knowledge, and this confidence, as a stepping off point to do a little evangelism of his own.

Barnett's scholarship is certainly impressive, his grasp of detail is forensic.  Nonetheless, you can say the same of Geza Vermes or John Dominic Crossan, not to mention Albert Schweitzer, and each of them reach very different conclusions from their examination of much the same evidence.  Are these differences resolvable, or are they just part of the wonderful diversity of ways of seeing which has been with the church from its very beginning?