Saturday, 30 August 2014

All Things Must Pass

I'd almost forgotten George Harrison's All Things Must Pass.  Years ago I had a pirate tape of it which I listened to so much it died.  I never got around to replacing it until about a month ago when I found the album posted in its entirety on Youtube while I was looking for something else.  I surrendered to the impulse, partly out of pure nostalgia, but more so because my recently acquired love for the 'Jesus is my Boyfriend' song and my admiration for the subtle Sufi devotion of Richard and Linda Thompson's best work made me want to listen once again to Harrison's songs of spiritual awakening.

Harrison was the first of the Beatles to launch his solo career, with All Things Must Pass hitting the stores in November 1970, a mere six months after the Beatles announced their split.  He didn't do it by halves, either.  The original release was a three LP set, with two LPs' worth of original songs and a third containing a series of bluesy jams with his musical mates, including some of the luminaries of late 60's and early 70's British rock'n'roll.  This third record is an interesting historical artefact but actually a bit boring.  No artist would get away with this sort of stuff now, but it was 1970 and he was George Harrison of the Beatles.  If he had presented them with a set of dance-hall numbers sung in chipmunk voices his record label would probably have released it.  The first two records are where the action is.

One of the reasons he was able to get his work done so quickly was that it had, in a sense, been under way for the previous three years.  In 1966 the Beatles stopped touring, and the quartet found themselves with time on their hands and out of one another's company for the first time in years.  Harrison blossomed.  He was 15 when he joined the Beatles and barely 20 when Beatlemania broke out.  His transition from child to adult took place in the pressure cooker of constant touring and public scrutiny, and in the shadow of his older bandmates, particularly John Lennon and Paul McCartney whose duelling egos drove the Beatles.

At the age of 23 he finally found himself with room to breathe and be himself, and with the time and resources to do whatever he wanted.  He used the time well.  He travelled to the US and made friends with Bob Dylan and the Band.  He hung out with Eric Clapton and Cream.  In both situations he found himself treated as a musical equal for the first time in his life.  More importantly, he met Ravi Shankar and started learn the sitar, spending the last two months of 1966 with Shankar in his Himalayan retreat studying Indian music and spirituality.

It changed his life.  Over the next couple of years he gave up drugs, studied Hindu mysticism and practiced meditation and self-discipline.  With his new-found faith his songwriting blossomed and he began to develop his own distinctive musical style and vision.

Some of this found its way onto the later Beatles albums.  He penned some of their best-know songs from this era - 'Something', 'Here Comes the Sun', 'Taxman' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' are all his, the last featuring his new best mate Clapton on guitar.  His Indian instruments also found their way onto various songs, both his and Lennon and McCartney's.  Yet he found that while his other musical friends treated him as an equal, with John and Paul he was always the little brother, the young one, the sidekick to their main act.  He never managed more than two songs on any Beatles album.

The result was that by early 1970 he had a substantial stock of demos unwanted by his bandmates and ready for his solo project.  He also had a wide network of musicians itching to work with him, including Clapton and the musicians who were soon to become Clapton's band Derek and the Dominoes.

Interestingly he didn't bring his Indian instruments to the recording sessions.  Instead he brought Phil Spector and the two of them created a classic Spector 'wall of sound' recording.  Harrison's simple pop songs were given the full Spector treatment, with multiple guitars, percussion, horns, strings and backing singers in intricate interlocking parts, giving listeners an auditory feast.  In his notes on the 2000 CD release of the album Harrison professes some dissatisfaction with the production and I can see his point.  Some of the arrangements are so over the top it's like the musical equivalent of phone-box cramming.  Yet it also gives the music a vibrancy and energy which suits the excitement Harrison feels at his new-found spiritual awakening.

This album is, more than anything, a spiritual 'coming out', drenched in Hindu mysticism and devotion to Krishna.  In terms of overt theological content it sits somewhere between the 'hidden' mysticism of Richard Thompson's sufi songs and the overt evangelism of the likes of Yusuf Islam or Keith Green.  A number of songs are overtly Hindu, like the backing vocals on 'My Sweet Lord' in which the singers chant the various names of Vishnu/Krishna, making abundantly clear who the Sweet Lord is for Harrison.  The final verse of 'Art of Dying' provides a simple summary of the Hindu view of death and reincarnation.

There'll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be a perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you realise the art of dying.

Yet even these most overt songs express truths that are universal to humanity.  I have heard 'My Sweet Lord' sung in a Christian context.  It works fine if you leave the backing vocals out, or substitute your own Sweet Lord for Harrison's.  And the first two verses of 'Art of Dying' apply to us all.

There'll come a time when all of us must leave here
And nothing sister Mary can do will keep me here with you
Nothing in this life that I've been trying
Can equal or surpass the art of dying.

There'll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you learn the art of dying.

It was as if his confrontation with the fact of his own death opened his eyes and he was able, for the first time in his life, to see what was important.  He expresses it well in 'Awaiting on You All'.

You don't need no love in
You don't need no bed pan
You don't need a horoscope or a microscope
The see the mess that you're in
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We've been polluted so long
Now here's a way for you to get clean

You don't need no passport
And you don't need no visas
You don't need to designate or to emigrate
Before you can see Jesus
If you open up your heart
You'll see he's right there
Always was and will be
He'll relieve you of your cares

You don't need no church house
And you don't need no temple
You don't need no rosary beads or them books to read
To see that you have fallen
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We've been kept down so long
Someone's thinking that we're all green

By chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see

This sense that God is close to us, just waiting for us to open our eyes and notice him, pops up all through the record.  The reference to Jesus is interesting, too.  Hinduism is very much an inclusive religion, and if it is Jesus who opens your eyes then that is just fine by Harrison, as long as you wake up.

Elsewhere, though, you get less of this peaceful certainty and more of the longing of exile and separation. My personal favourite is 'Hear Me Lord', Harrison's voice soaring and pleading on a simple, heartfelt prayer which could be addressed to any god, known or unknown.

Forgive me lord
Please, those years when I ignored you
Forgive them lord
Those that feel they can't afford you

Help me lord, please
To rise above this dealing
Help me lord, please
To love you with more feeling

At both ends of the road
To the left and the right
Above and below us
Out and in, there's no place that you're not in
Oh, won't you hear me lord.

These overtly religious songs provide a framework for a number of others which, like Thompson's songs or Keith Green's 'Your Love Broke Through', could be read as songs to an earthly lover, but are also capable of a more spiritual interpretation.  For instance, Bob Dylan has two credits on the album, co-authoring the opener 'I'd Have You Any Time' and providing the sole cover, 'If Not For You'.  Dylan was many years off his own spiritual awakening, but when these two songs appear here you can sense Harrison singing 'If Not For You" to his Sweet Lord, and imagining that same lord replying in the words of 'I'd Have You Any Time'.

All I have is yours
All you see is mine
And I'm glad to hold you in my arms
I'd have you anytime.

We Christians are very insecure about our theology, especially in this age of science and skepticism.  This makes it hard for us to free ourselves to sing with this kind of simple, heartfelt longing.  We freight our songs down with theology so that they become dense intellectual exercises, pieces of religious code that only initiates can understand.  The more intellectual content we try to shove in, the more we shove out the emotional core which music is designed to express.  Christian songwriters could learn a lot from Harrison, breaking through his fear and illusion and calling on his God for peace and enlightenment.

Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001.  Wherever he is now, whatever god he met on the other side, his gift keeps on giving.  May his soul rest in peace.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

God the Artist, We His Images

So, 31 August 2014 is my next preaching gig.  As usual, someone else chose the readings but this time it was a parishioner called Audrey, who will be preaching on the same readings earlier in the day.  It will be interesting to see what she takes from them.

The first of the readings comes from Psalm 139.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

This psalm celebrates God's deep knowledge of us, and his deep care for us.  Everything we are is by his design, everything we do is done in his presence.  In the section quoted here he describes God as an artist, and us as his works of art.  He uses two types of art to illustrate his point.  The first is the art of weaving, or tapestry, textile art.  We are knit together, intricately woven.  Just as a weaver takes multiple strands of thread, of different colours, lengths and textures and weaves them together into a beautiful design, so God makes us, bringing us together out of diverse strands of DNA, woven together in unique combination so that each of us is a stand-alone work of art, one of a series that currently numbers somewhere over 100 billion and is potentially infinite.

The second image is of God as a writer, and us as his story.  Our lives, formed and lived out under his care, are like a story or a play that is slowly unfolding and changing under God's hand.  Each of us plays our part in this rich drama, each part unique, so complex we can barely understand our own role, never mind the entire story of which we are a part.

The scope and richness of this artistry is so good that it's scary.  The NRSV says "I am fearfully and wonderfully made".  Some commentators translate the Hebrew word yare as "awesome" and it is the same word used when we are encouraged to "fear God" elsewhere in the Old Testament, with connotations of awe, fear and respect.  The artistry of God in creating us demands not just our respect, but our awe and even our fear.

Now Genesis 1:26 and 27 tells us then when God made us, with this artistic virtuosity, he made us "in his own image".  This one of the most important and complex concepts in the Christian understanding of humanity, and I can't really unpack it fully here, but one aspect of what it means is that we reflect God's creativity, his artistry.  We see a great example of this in our second reading, from Exodus 35 and 36.

In this story, The Lord sets aside two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, for the work of making the Tabernacle, the place where the Israelites came to worship the Lord.  Moses says of Bezalel that God  "filled him with divine spirit,with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab....".  These two master craftsmen, inspired by God, gathered about them a team of artists and artisans to build the Tabernacle, and they were supported enthusiastically by the rest of the nation.

Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab and everyone skilful to whom the Lord  had given skill, everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work;  and they received from Moses all the freewill-offerings that the Israelites had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill-offerings every morning, so that all the artisans who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task being performed, and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.’

They had so much material to work with that they had to order the people to stop bringing more!

Now this is all ancient history, and the tabernacle is long gone as are the successive temples which took its place, but it occurs to me that the process has continued to this day.  When we come to worship at St Andrews, we are surrounded by works of art of all sorts.  The most obvious is the work of the architects and builders who have put together the building itself.

Like the building of the tabernacle, this involved a whole list of crafts - builders, carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, electricians, tilers, plumbers and so forth.  Much of this is hidden but you can see that they didn't just put up a kit home, they took care to create something unique and there are little touches of detail all over the place.

This is only the shell and over the years numerous people have filled it with all sorts of reminders of God's glory and challenges to our own understanding of God and ourselves.  Some of the most obvious and spectacular are the works of stained glass.  Over the altar is a massive and complex work depicting the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, built in the years immediately after World War 1.

This is possibly my favourite work in the whole place, a rich piece of visual story-telling in which each panel and section of window adds its own element of meaning to the story, presenting the heart of the gospel at a glance but rewarding close inspection.  I have to confess, when the sermon is a bit boring I often sit looking at this window and thinking instead about what the artist was saying to us.

Other windows are less spectacular but some also contain things you could think about, even things that might make you dubious or pose uncomfortable questions.  Like this one, installed in memory of those killed in 1939-45.

The full window, of which I have only shown a detail here, shows a soldier kneeling and presenting his sword to Jesus.  Those who paid for its installation were expressing a very real and deep grief - members of the church lost loved ones.  I imagine their were tears at its unveiling.  Yet its inscription presents us with a highly debatable question.  Was it really these soldiers who "died that we might live"?  Undoubtedly Jesus is ready to welcome those soldiers who lost their lives, but does he want their swords or does he ask them to leave them behind, or perhaps beat them into ploughshares?  We should stand here and have this debate sometime, in a way that is respectful of the grief of those who installed the window.

Other pieces of artwork are more pragmatic.  Like the pews.  There's a limit to what you can do with a wooden bench because it has to be the right size for the human bum.  Yet the furniture makers have still taken some care here, making the sides of the pews match the overall shape of the building in which they sit, including placing the emphasis on the cross which sits on top of the building, reminding us whenever we look at it of Christ's service and the lengths to which he was prepared to go for us.

Various other woodworkers have practiced their art here too.  The roof beams are carefully shaped and carved to match the shapes around them.  The pulpit, which we rarely use now, shows us the apostles, reminding us or our connections back to the beginning of the Christian story.  Even the little lectern we use now is not a mere piece of board, but has been carefully carved and fretted with tiny windows that reflect the large windows all around us, with a heraldic rose in the centre, symbol of love to remind the speaker of the spirit in which he or she should be delivering the message.

All the things I have illustrated so far are old, reminders, perhaps, of an age where people took a little more care over such things, before utilitarianism ruled.  But other items you can see here are more recent - like this one.  It's a quilt, made by a group of parishioners in 2008 to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the church.  Each panel represents something personal to the person who contributed it, their own little part on the life of the church or its part in theirs.  If we look at it we might imagine what we add to the patchwork quilt that is the life of the church.

Then of course there are some arts that can't be old, that have to be done over and over again if they are to be done at all.  Like, for instance, every week there are fresh flowers in the church.  Someone has gone to the trouble of choosing and arranging them, and then of removing them and replacing them at the end of the week so that we have a fresh set of blooms to look at and smell each time we come here.

Of course the examples of culinary art many people bring last even less time!

And then there are the items of performance art we have as part of our service each week - the music and singing, the reading aloud of passages of scripture (this week, examples of ancient poetry, story-telling and letter-writing), sometime dance or drama performances, those who practice the art of welcoming, and the art of public speaking.  This list is far from exhausting the artistic abilities of those present.

Why am I saying all this, and boring you with all these pictures?  Well, firstly because I want to say that this is what humans are.  Our likeness to God consists in our love of doing these things.  When God wove each of us out of unique strands of thread, wrote parts for us in his ever-developing story, he gave each of us these gifts, gave each of us the urge to create, to make something new out of the materials and skills around us.  As we come to know our creator we bring these things to him and offer them in his service and the service of his people.

And this is the kind of thing I think Peter is talking about in our final reading, from 1 Peter 4.

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. 

I'd just like to highlight three things from this reading which are pertinent to what I've been talking about.  The first is that all of these things we are doing need to be done in an atmosphere of love.  Whenever we serve, we do so imperfectly.  Sometimes we are just going through the motions, because someone has to do it.  Sometimes we might be a bit resentful that we have to do it.  Those of us who serve need to repent of these attitudes.  We need to present our gifts to one another as acts of love, with the same care and enthusiasm as we would put into a proposal of marriage, or the preparations for our child's wedding.

The second is that we need to be hospitable to one another. We often think this means that we should be willing to invite on another into our homes.  We do need to do that, but concept is much wider than that.  The Greek word Peter uses here is philoxena; philo meaning brotherly and sisterly love, xenos  denoting strangers or foreigners.  To be hospitable means to treat strangers and those who are different from us as our own family, literally to make them feel at home.

I once went to a workshop where someone explained the difference between "hospitality" and "entertaining".  When we entertain guests in our home, we put on a show - we dress for the occasion, cook a beautiful meal, place our guests in the seat of honour and wait on them, all the while making sparkling conversation.  We leave the dishes until they have gone.

Of course this can be fun, but hospitality is something else.  When we are hospitable, our guests will stroll in the back door, put on the kettle to make themselves a cup of coffee (and us one too if we want one) then put their muddy boots on the furniture.  Later they will share our baked beans on toast and watch the news with us.  There is no show, they are fully at home.

I think we need that in the church as well - the freedom to make your self at home, the freedom to be who you are, not to have to conform to someone else's image of who you should be.  This means that if someone is a musician, their music should have a home here, if someone is a quilter their quilting has a home here, if someone is a maker of beautiful woodwork or of lovely food, that has a home here.  And of course, if my siblings bring something to my house that actually I hate, I of all people have the license to say, "well I love you and all, but I'm not that keen on this one."  But I may be obliged to keep it in spite of that, to please a family member I love.  Over time I might even find that it grows on me.

The love that expresses itself in this hospitality is what covers a multitude of sins.  If I make a mistake while I'm playing music (and I make at least one every time I play, usually more) you still receive it with love.  If the preacher has had a difficult week and the sermon is uninspiring, or if they say something I disagree with, I still hear what they say with love and respond accordingly.  I rejoice when others contribute their own gifts, because it is a sign of their growth.  And if I fail to do any of these things (as I often do) the love of others covers it over and makes up for it.

Finally, if we do these things God will be glorified.  Jesus said "everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another".  In whatever ways we serve, whatever our art, if we do it with love, and if it is received with hospitality, God is glorified.  And the opposite is true - if we simply go through the motions, if we take one another for granted or receive the gifts of others with hostility, God is mocked.

God's work of creation is as yet incomplete.  New humans are being knit together in their mothers' wombs even as we speak.  New chapters are begin written in God's continuously unfolding story.  The art of St Andrews is also incomplete.  I spoke earlier about the stained glass, but if you look around the church many of the windows are merely place-markers, awaiting the hand of a future artist.  The two windows I highlighted were memorials to the two world wars.  What will we memorialise in our generation, and leave for those who follow on?  There are new speeches to give, new songs to write and sing, new people to welcome.  On a practical note, the furniture maker who made the pews never got around to installing padding.  That would be an act of love!

Each of us has our part to play in that.  We will only do it if we can learn the arts of love and hospitality, and lean on the strength of God to make up for our own weakness.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

More Lives of Jesus 9: Geza Vermes

It's strange to admit that I've read my way through a fairly large pile of books of Jesus scholarship and pseudo-scholarship, and yet have only just now read any works by Geza Vermes.

Vermes was born in Hungary in 1924, his parents non-practicing Jews who converted to Catholicism during Geza's childhood but were still swept up in the Holocaust.  Geza himself was ordained as a Catholic priest despite being rejected by both the Jesuits and the Dominicans because of his Jewish ancestry.  In the late 1950s, however, left the Catholic church and reasserted his Jewish identity.  Most of his later life was spent in England, where he served as Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University until his death in 2013.  His book covers quote both the Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph describing him as "the greatest Jesus scholar of his generation".

He has two main claims to fame.  One is as a translator and interpreter of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he first examined soon after their discovery in 1947 and which he translated into English and edited as The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.  The second is a long series of books on the life and times of Jesus, beginning with Jesus the Jew in 1973.  I have just finished reading the last two books in this series; The Resurrection, published in 2008, and Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, published in 2012.  The two areas of study have a wide overlap, and his most distinctive contribution to Jesus scholarship is his placing of Jesus in his first century Jewish milieu.

For such a distinguished scholar he carries his learning very lightly.  These are books which penetrate deeply, but are written in a way that any lay person can understand.  He also has a gift for concision and summary which means that instead of wading through a huge tome you get to the point quickly and painlessly.

His overall understanding of Jesus is summarised in Christian Beginnings and I believe explained at greater length in some of his earlier works.  He says there were two strands in ancient Judaism which ran side by side but which were distinct from one another and often in tension.  One is what he calls everyday or mundane Judaism.  This was the realm of the priests and Levites and involved obedience to the Torah, maintenance of ritual purity and regular temple worship and sacrifice.

The other was what he calls "charismatic Judaism" and was the realm of the Old Testament prophets (including Moses but more particularly Elijah, Elisha and the authors of the prophetic books of the Bible) and their latter day successors.  Charismatic Judaism had limited interest in the formal aspects of temple worship and purity (often characterizing them as empty and hypocritical) and emphasised direct encounter with God and personal faithfulness.  They often delivered messages direct from God, and accompanied them by signs and miracles.

As well as describing the characteristics of the Old Testament figures, he discusses examples of this religious stream closer to Jesus' time and place - Honi the Circle Drawer from the mid first century BC, his two grandsons Hilkiah and Hanan, Hanina ben Dosa and of course John the Baptist.  All shared a number of characteristics - they performed miracles including healing and rain-making, they criticised and corrected the religious leaders of their day, they delivered messages from God and they scorned and often flouted purity codes.  They were also self-effacing - rather than claiming any status or taking credit for their miracles, they would attribute them to God alone.

Jesus, he says, was very much a part of this charismatic Jewish tradition.  He shared the key characteristics of both the Old Testament prophets and his closer contemporaries.  He was impatient with purity rules, teaching his followers to focus on what comes out of them not what goes in.  He clashed with the representatives of "official" Judaism, the Pharisees and Saduccees.  He performed miracles but warned their beneficiaries not to go telling everyone.  When people asked if he was the Messiah he often answered evasively.  He called Israel to repentance, deeper holiness and obedience.

This analysis is different to that of Albert Schweitzer in many ways, but its conclusion is very similar - Jesus is a prophet in the line of the prophets of Judaism.  The question is, if Jesus is simply another in a long line of Jewish prophets and holy men, why was the final outcome of his life and ministry so different?  Why did he come to be revered as the Son of God when the others of his time ended up as footnotes in the history of Judaism?

 In these two books, Vermes examines two aspects of the question.  The first The Resurrection, deals with the fact that Jesus alone of all these figures is described as having risen from the dead.  The second, Christian Beginnings describes the process of development of the idea of Jesus' divinity from the gospels through to the Council of Nicaea.

The Resurrection begins with a summary of Jewish ideas about death and what comes after.  In the Old Testament, he says, the predominant (perhaps only) idea of death was that those who died went to Sheol, the place of the dead, where they lived a kind of half-life for ever after.  There was no distinction between what happened to the good and the evil - all ended up in the same state.  The focus of religious devotion was purely on this life, and it was in this life that any rewards and punishments would be meted out.

This view started to change in the second century BC as a result of the challenge to their faith presented by the religious persecution of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus, who placed the images of the Greek gods in the Jerusalem temple and attempted to force Jewish believers to sacrifice to them, on pain of death.  This represented a complete reversal of the conventional expectation that the faithful would be rewarded in this life, and one response to this was a growing expectation that the martyrs would be resurrected at a later time, the Day of the Lord.

By Jesus' day, the idea that there was life after death was still very much a minority view, although a growing one.  There was also no single unified view of what it meant.  Palestinian Jews were more likely to believe in a physical bodily resurrection, most often of martyrs alone or of righteous Jews in general, sometimes including a judgement of the wicked after death.  Hellenic Jews were more likely to believe in the idea of an immortal, immaterial soul imported from Platonic philosophy.  But by far the majority of Jewish religious leaders continued to believe that death was the end of meaningful existence.

Jesus' teaching in the synoptic gospels (which Vermes regards as largely based in the teaching of the historical Jesus although with some later interpolations) is likewise fairly "light-on" and not very specific.  Jesus was clearly a believer in resurrection but this was not a major theme of his teaching and was not spelt out in a great deal of detail.  It is only in John (which Vermes regards as a later production and only loosely connected to the historical Jesus) that the idea becomes front and centre.

On the other hand, all the gospels agree on the resurrection of Jesus himself.  What do they actually describe?  They don't present a consistent story - it is not clear how the tomb is opened and by whom, how long Jesus remains around after his resurrection, precisely who he appears to and where.  However, a number of things are clear.  In most cases, the people to whom Jesus appears don't recognise him, he returns significantly changed.  They are not expecting him, his appearance is a surprise, and they are slow to believe it if they haven't seen it for themselves.  He is physically present - he eats, speaks and can be touched (although in one scene he forbids Mary to do so).  Yet he does not have the same physical limitations - he walks through closed doors in John, disappears suddenly in Luke.  His appearances are small in number and private, limited to his close followers.  After a short time (between three and forty days, depending on the source) he disappears to "return to his Father".

How are we to interpret these accounts?  Vermes steers a middle course.  He does not believe they are a carefully constructed later legend because they don't show the signs of careful invention.  They are inconsistent and confusing.  Women are among the principal witnesses, despite their testimony being seen as unreliable in ancient societies.  He does nothing spectacular after his resurrection and the wisdom he imparts is left unstated.  He also accepts the point made by commentators from across the theological spectrum that something clearly happened to turn the disciples from a frightened, dispirited band to a cohesive, confident and rapidly growing religious community.

Yet he also struggles to see the resurrection as an objective historical event.  His best suggestion, although tentative, is that the key point for the original disciples was their sense that Jesus was now alive and in heaven and helping them to perform charismatic acts of their own.  This experience of continuing power then led them to search backwards for the stories of resurrection which would explain how they got from a crucified leader to a real, present power.  Personally I find this perspective intriguing but I remain to be convinced.

Even with a resurrected Christ, there is still some distance to travel before we get to the concept of the Trinity as formulated at the Council of Nicaea.  In Christian Beginnings he traces the stages of this belief.  I can hardly summarise is adequately here.  Suffice to say that he traces four stages of the development of the idea of Jesus' divinity in the New Testament - the prophet of the base synoptic material, the risen and returning prophet of the beginning of Acts, the exalted Jesus of Paul, and the Logos made flesh of John.  This development continues in the second and third centuries, with a number of interpretations of Jesus' status jostling for attention.

It was only during the Arian controversy at the beginning of the fourth century that the idea of the Trinity and the full, equal divinity of Father, Son and Spirit become the official doctrine of the church.  Even then, it seems that the majority of church leaders favoured the Arian side and many (especially from the Latin church) did not fully understand the controversy which centred around the meaning of key Greek terms.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, one option is to look at this as Leo Tolstoy did - that all the religious trappings of Christianity are a distraction or worse, and the important thing is Jesus' teachings.  However, important as I think these teachings are Tolstoy appears to jettison too much.  It is too easy to paint Paul as the villain who betrayed Jesus' message and created a new religion.  This undersells both Paul's profundity and the practical wisdom of much of his teaching.

However, the collapse of Christendom and the Reformation have opened the way to  lot more than the diminution of the authority of the Pope.  All sorts of things are open to re-examination.  In the light of modern scholarship, it is hard to continue to accept the authoritative teaching of the established church.  Instead, the diversity of the apostles and pre-Constantinian church has returned with a vengeance.  We live in an age where Christianity is no longer just one thing.  There is no going back, we can only go forward and see where it takes us.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Trouble With Normal

I've been finding myself singing this Bruce Cockburn song to myself a lot lately.

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage 
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage 
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights 
What did they think the politics of panic would invite? 
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first" 
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

 Callous men in business costume speak computerese 
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees 
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea 
And the local Third World's kept on reservations you don't see 
"It'll all go back to normal if we put our nation first" 
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

 Fashionable fascism dominates the scene 
When ends don't meet it's easier to justify the means 
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream 
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream 
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst 
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

Cockburn wrote this song in 1983.  Reagan was in the White House, Thatcher in 10 Downing Street, Andropov and Chernenko in the Kremlin.  The Cold War seemed fully entrenched, being fought out in bloody proxy wars around the globe.  Global poverty was rife, unemployment and inflation were troubling the developed nations and the rich seemed to be getting richer while the poor starved.

In the intervening years, there were times when it seemed like he might be wrong.  Not that things ever looked like becoming perfect, but there were real signs of hope.  The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and Gorbachev oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet empire.  The Cold War ended and we were promised a "peace dividend" as military spending could be redirected to more useful purposes. The right wing ideologues gave way to moderate social democrats - Clinton in the US, Blair in the UK, Hawke and Keating here in Australia.  The Oslo accords gave real hope of a solution to the long running Israel/Palestine conflict. A series of campaigns on global poverty bore real results, with the international adoption of the  Millennium Development Goals and the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiatives.  The Kyoto Protocols showed that at least there was some chance we could address global climate change before it got beyond addressing.

In the 2000's, though, it all started to fall apart.  The World Trade Centre got destroyed, and suddenly we were in the midst of a global terrorism panic that has been with us ever since.  From 2001 to this day security agencies only have to say "terrorism" and they get what they want.  This evening we heard that the Australian government is about to pass a law requiring all phone companies to keep logs of users' phone calls for two years so security agencies can access them.  A recent US review found they were not much use in preventing terrorism, but the Australian foreign minister was not interested in discussing that fact.  What was that the man said?

Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage 
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights 
What did they think the politics of panic would invite? 
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first" 
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

Because despite all our efforts at combating terrorism (if that's what they were) extreme militant groups keep growing.  Ten years after we helped the US invade Iraq on the false premise that the Baathist regime had weapons of mass destruction, an extreme Islamic militia calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken over the northern part of the country, showing little mercy to Christians, Shiites or women of any faith.  A dozen years of occupying Afghanistan on the pretext of  destroying the Taliban has left them as strong as ever, biding their time until the last US troops leave and in the meantime destabilising neighbouring Pakistan to the point where that country seems on the brink of collapse.  Almost 20 years of undermining the Oslo accords on the pretext of rooting out Hamas has left it with more influence in Palestine than ever, and the conflict more brutal and intractable than it has been for decades.  Elsewhere, repressive regimes are popping up all over the place and minorities are being targeted.

 Callous men in business costume speak computerese 
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees...

Meanwhile at home, and elsewhere in the developed world, we are finding that instead of spending the wealth of the boom years from 1990 to 2005 on better services and social infrastructure, we've spent them on tax cuts for the rich.  When the crash came in 2007 and suddenly there wasn't so much to spend, did we ask the rich to re-shoulder the burden?  No, their tax cuts are somehow sacrosanct so first our governments borrowed and then, when it became clear that the good times were not magically returning, they decided that the poor would just have to tighten their belts.  Rich people obviously can't do the same, ostensibly because they are the ones creating jobs for the poor but actually because they are simply too fat.

When ends don't meet it's easier to justify the means 
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream 
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream...

So now in Australia, and in every State here, and in so many countries around the world, we have a a "budget emergency" which is used as a justification for cutting things like pensions, health entitlements for poor people, unemployment benefits, social services, environmental protections or overseas aid (there go the Millennium Development Goals!) .  Yet it is not used as an excuse to raise taxes, or cut corporate concessions, or reduce defence spending (terrorism! they cry).

I could go on.  The collapse of global efforts on climate change despite mounting scientific evidence; the rapid downward spiral of Australia's asylum seeker policies which now make us abusers of human rights on a par with places like Sri Lanka,  Iran and Myanmar; the abandonment of any vestige of self-determination in Aboriginal communities and its replacement with management by white bureaucrats and  mainstreaming of services (because that worked so well last time we tried it!); the adoption of law and order policies that imprison more people for longer and target unpopular minorities like bikers and young people.

So it turns out that Bruce Cockburn is a prophet after all.  The trouble with normal is, it really does get worse.

I guess I'm a bit of a glass half empty kind of person in general but I've always been able to sustain some level of hope and optimism.  I've been able to look at seeds of growth around the world, or small successes in my own line of work, or little pieces of peace and justice in my own church or community, and see that it's worthwhile keeping on trying. Lately, though, I've been finding it harder than usual.  Wherever I look, things seem to be falling apart at the seams.  In my own work, things I and my friends worked for for decades are in danger of being turned into the opposite of what we intended, or of vanishing overnight at the whim of a cost-cutting government.  Globally, all the good work of aid agencies and government programs risks being swamped in a tide of war and greed and a global climate catastrophe.  How can I keep going in the face of this?

I know my pious friends and family tell me I should have faith in God and I know they're right, but while that might keep me hopeful in a general way, it doesn't really give me a reason to keep going.  If my work is a waste of time and I just need to wait for God to right it in his time, then in the meantime I may as well just eat, drink and be merry and not worry about all this activism and politics and so forth.

Fortunately, in my time of need I still have the prophet Bruce, and if he expresses my despair he also encourages me to keep hoping.

When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you're made to feel as if your love's a crime
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Keeping it Real in Israel and Palestine

My family and friends include a number of stong supporters of Israel.  A lot of conservative Christians feel this way, for reasons which include their understanding of Biblical prophecy, their immersion in the history of Israel via our shared religious heritage, and a fear of the spread of Islam.  This means at a time like now my Facebook feed is flooded with pro-Israeli propaganda.

I find it distressing.  I am not a supporter of Hamas.  As far as I can tell they're an unprincipled group of religious ideologues.  Nor do I have anything against Israelis.  However, in the context of a war in which there are currently 200 Palestinian casualties for every Israeli one I think Israel's supporters need to ask themselves some serious questions.  What could lead someone, particularly a Christian from a neutral country, to lend support to the stronger party in such an asymmetrical war?

In the interests of keeping it real, I've taken to updating the death toll each day on Facebook.  The resulting discussions have been lively.  I'm no expert on Middle Eastern history and politics but I know bullshit when I see it.  There is a lot of it in the pro-Israeli arguments that fly past me each day.  Here are three of the low-lights.

1. "There is no such thing as the Palestinian people."
The argument goes that prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 there was no Palestinian people or nation and never had been, and that it is a creation of the Arabs who want to destroy Israel.

Like a good deal of propaganda, this is a falsehood wrapped in a truth.  It's true that there was no Palestinian nation.  Prior to 1948 there had not been an independent nation of any kind in this location (or in most of the Middle East) since the first century BC, when the Roman Empire took effective control through their puppet Herod the Great.  Since then the area has been controlled by a succession of imperial powers, including the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks.  When the Turks lost their empire at the end of World War 1 the Middle East was divided between the European powers, and their respective territories became the basis of the current national boundaries.

The creation of Israel was unique in this situation.  All the other states took their citizenship from their existing residents and their rulers were taken from the local elites.  The families that provided hereditary governors under the Ottomans became kings of small nation states sponsored by the departing Europeans.  However, in the wake of the Holocaust the United Nations acceded to a long-standing British plan to create a homeland for Jews. The nation of Israel was declared in 1948 in an area which had a mixed population, including some people of Jewish descent but a substantial majority of Arabic background.

The declaration of the Israeli nation brought simmering tensions to a head - war immediately broke out, firstly between the new Jewish rulers and the local Arab communities and quickly drawing in the neighbouring Arab nations.  Israel won a decisive victory and the result was the displacement of some 700,000 people of Arab descent, about 80% of the Arab population.  The majority of these ended up just over the borders in Gaza and the West Bank, controlled respectively by Egypt and Jordan.  There they settled in what were essentially refuge camps and organised their ongoing resistance, giving birth in the process to a sense of Palestinian national identity.  These areas were annexed by Israel in the 1967 war and have been under Israeli military control ever since.

So in a sense, Palestinian national identity was born along with the creation of modern Israel.  But this does not change the fact - people were displaced from their ancestral homes and their lands were taken by immigrants from around the world.  Their descendants remain stateless and largely landless to this day.

2. "Israel is acting in self-defence".
Self defence is the oldest excuse for military aggression in the book.  Once again, fact is mixed with fiction.  The Hamas rulers of Gaza have a considerable supply of primitive rockets which they regularly fire into Israel.  This is certainly an act of aggression. It is undoubtedly harrowing for Israelis who live near the border (and this is a very small country) but the Israeli military has a sophisticated missile interception system which is a highly effective means of self-defence and Hamas rockets rarely hit their targets.  This is not a new situation.  In 2007 the ongoing tension broke out into open war and Israel invaded Gaza, with huge loss of Palestinian life.  After that invasion Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza which is still in place seven years later, sucking the life out of Gaza's economy in an effort to prevent weapons from being smuggled in.

This stalemate was broken recently by the abduction and murder of three young Israelis in the West Bank. (Unlike Gaza, the West Bank is controlled by a Fatah-led government). The murderers were connected to Hamas but it is not clear that they were acting with any official foreknowledge or approval from the Hamas leadership - Israel says they were, Hamas says they weren't.  In the subsequent Israeli response 350 Palestinians were detained including the entire Hamas West Bank leadership, five Palestinians were killed and further restrictions were placed on already highly regulated movements in and out of Palestinian communities.

Hamas accused Israel of collective punishment and the situation rapidly escalated.  Hamas started firing an increasing barrage of rockets from their bases in Gaza, and in response the Israeli military sent guided missiles at various targets in Gaza which they claimed were missile sites but which also, or instead, were ordinary family homes.  This has been followed by a ground invasion.  As a result while only three Israeli civilians have been killed since the start of this particular exchange, some 800 Palestinian civilians have died including over 200 children.

This history begs two questions.  Firstly, how do you determine who started such a conflict?  Was it started by the murders, the heavy-handed Israeli response, the Hamas rockets, the Israeli counter-rockets?  Do we locate its origin back in the 2007 conflict and the subsequent blockade?  Or do we keep going further back, all the way to 1948 and beyond, the cycle of attack and counter-attack that has been going on for almost a century?

Secondly, in the face of such an overwhelming disparity in firepower, at what point does self-defence become all-out aggression?  When Israel has the technology to prevent any damage from Hamas rockets, where is the justification for the killing of civilians and children in the quest to prevent their launch?

3."Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, making a fight to the death inevitable."
It's true that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and Israel is likewise committed to the destruction of Hamas.  It may even be true that Hamas uses civilians as human shields by placing rockets in residential areas, although there is not much else in Gaza.  The Hamas leadership has the morals of a pack of wild dogs.

However, Hamas is not the only Palestinian organisation.  The 1995 Oslo accord between the Israeli government and the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organisation involved PLO recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli legalisation of the PLO and creation of an interim system of self-government in the West Bank and Gaza.  It envisaged a five-year period of negotiation to settle outstanding issues including the status of Jerusalem, the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and ongoing Israeli military presence in the Palestinian territories.

This was a landmark agreement and a rare moment of hope in the conflict.  However the concessions were hugely unequal.  While the PLO agreed to recognise Israel, Israel did not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, merely a form of interim local autonomy.  It did not agree to withdraw its troops from Palestinian territory, to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements or to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement.

It got worse from there.  No movement was gained on the outstanding issues.  Israel became frustrated at ongoing terrorist attacks from extreme Palestinian groups and when the Palestinian Authority couldn't or didn't detain the perpetrators, the Israelis intervened directly.  Restrictions on movement were tightened, Israeli military presence intensified, more Jewish settlements were built.

As time went on, positions on both sides hardened.  Israelis elected a government in which Likud entered into a coalition with right-wing nationalists who advocated a hard line and no concessions.  Meanwhile, the combination of frustration with Israel's immovability on key issues and frustration with corruption and misgovernment by Fatah led to the rise of Hamas, first winning local government elections and finally in 2006 gaining a majority on the Palestinian Authority.  Israel refused to recognise their election or have any dealings with them, and over the next couple of years Palestinian governance descended into chaos.  Fatah seized back control in the West Bank while Hamas remains in control in Gaza meaning that there are in effect two separate Palestinian authorities.  Both are under extreme pressure from Israel, still losing land to expanding Jewish settlement, subject to progressively increasing restrictions on movement including the infamous barrier and the Gaza blockade.  Lip-service is still occasionally paid to the "roadmap to peace", mainly by the Americans, but to all intents and purposes the Oslo process is dead.

You can take whatever message you want from this history.  It seems to me that despair and hope are both possible responses.  It is possible to see this as a story of irredeemable failure.  Negotiation has been tried and failed, and now the only solution possible is a military one.  In the short term there can only be one winner of an all-out war because Israel's firepower is so overwhelmingly superior.  This is the solution advocated by many of my friends and family, and many hard-liners in Israel as well as their supporters overseas.  This is the position of Christians for Israel, a pernicious group which has previously made an appearance on this blog.

The problem with this is that it's not actually a solution.   There are currently about 4 million Palestinians packed into the West Bank and Gaza.  They are stateless so they have nowhere else to go.  Every death is another angry family looking for revenge.  Unless the Israelis resort to genocide they will have to find a way to come to terms with this Palestinian presence and find a path to reconciliation.  I'm convinced that genocide would be a bridge too far for the descendants of Holocaust survivors.  If they did go that far, the hatred of their neighbours would be pushed to unprecedented levels, even the US would no longer be able to support them and their days would be numbered.  The fates of the Israelis and the Palestinians are inextricably bound together.

This means that ultimately the problem will only be solved by negotiation, and this will require compromises from both sides.  Palestinians will have to recognise Israel and guarantee its security.  Israel will have to support and assist the creation of a Palestinian state with the land and resources to sustain its citizens.  Or perhaps the parties could pull something unexpected out of the box.  Perhaps they could agree to create a single secular state with equal citizenship for the four million Palestinians alongside the current 8 million Israeli citizens.  Perhaps the UN Security Council will solve the problem by creating a Palestinian homeland in some other country nobody understands with a name no-one can pronounce, like Kyrgyzstan.  After all, no-one lives there, do they?

In the meantime, the situation is difficult and gut-wrenchingly sad.  Children are dying.  They are Palestinians but more than anything they are humans.  The solution is not easy.  None of the parties come out of the conflict smelling of roses.  Israel certainly doesn't.  Whatever excuses you may offer, it's their rockets doing the killing.  I understand that people have different views and that they are passionate about them.  All I ask is that my friends don't expect me to swallow Israeli propaganda.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Reasonable Faith

So, my rather haphazard journey through the world of Christian apologetics has brought me to William Lane Craig.  The much-traveled Craig is perhaps the most prominent conservative evangelical apologist in the English-speaking world, holding debates with militant atheists in all sorts of places in between his day job as Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology in Southern California.  He was even part of a widely advertised debate here in Brisbane City Hall with prominent atheist scientist Lawrence Krauss.  I couldn't get to the debate but friends who did told me I didn't miss much.

Craig is a prolific author and speaker, with over 30 books in print as well as numerous articles, scholarly and popular, and DVD's of his lectures and debates.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics is his attempt to bring all this together in a package.  It started life as material for his seminary courses in apologetics and was originally written as a textbook, but it has reached a much wider audience and spun off a website of the same name and various study guides and discussion forums.

As befits a university textbook this is an introductory work, summarising the ideas and arguments of Craig's apologetics in language plain enough for an educated but non-specialist reader.  There is little here that is individualistic or idiosyncratic like, say, GK Chesterton or Francis Spufford.  Nor is it a merry, populist romp through the territory like Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity.  

In contrast to D'Souza's attempt to canvass every argument possible, Craig restricts himself to seven questions, each of which he deals with carefully and exhaustively.  For each question he opens with a historical survey of key arguments and positions on the subject.  The bulk of each chapter is spent on his own arguments, outlining and then explaining and defending a series of philosophical syllogisms, before closing each chapter with some brief advice about practical application.  He also has an overall plan: Start at the highest level of generality and work his way step by step to the specific defence of Christianity.

Craig is remarkably confident of his arguments - the book is salted with anecdotes about young students who have been converted as a result of these arguments, and with advice about their value and use in evangelism.  He clearly finds them convincing.  I am less sure.

First of all he addresses the question of epistemology.  How do we know what we know?  Is it possible to arrive at the truth through reason and investigation?  In Craig's view, the answer is "yes" - we can access the truth through reason and investigation.  In reaching this answer, Craig aligns himself firmly with the modernists against the post-modernists, regarding the latter as incoherent and dishonest.

At first I was inclined to dismiss this section as a kind of preface.  The more I think about it, the more I realise how crucial it is.  For Lane to defend the kind of conservative evangelicalism he espouses, he needs the truth to be objective and certain, to be discoverable.  It is not enough for him, like many other Christians, to accept that our knowledge is partial and hold our faith lightly.  He seeks certainty.  The alternative for him is the meaninglessness of a world without God.  In reaching this duality Craig has laid a heavy burden on himself, because modernism does not just require argument or tradition or spiritual discernment, it demands proof.  If he fails at his task, Christianity collapses.

This would daunt me but it doesn't seem to daunt Craig, who is confident that proof is at hand.  However, he seems unaware of, or at least skates across, the other limitation that modernism imposes on him.  Like the defenders of Biblical inerrancy, defenders of modernism risk being diverted from the meaning of the Christian story (which post-modernism directs us towards) to questions of its factuality, to focus on what is "out there" as opposed to what is within.  As Karen Armstrong would put it, Craig has abandoned mythos in favour of logos, at the risk of diluting and flattening our spirituality.

Anyhow, onto his evidence.  The longest section of the book, divided into two chapters, is devoted to Craig's own special subject, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God.  His favourite is what he calls the kalam cosmological argument, derived from the Arabic word for speech and originating with Islamic scholars of the 11th century CE.  This argument is very simple and is summarised in a three-step syllogism.

1. Whatever has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe must have a cause.

He then defends this syllogism with a wealth of detail and reasoning, defending the idea that everything which begins must have a cause, then surveying the astronomical evidence for the finitude of the universe.  Craig's grasp of these arguments and of the evidence behind them is impressive, and he stays firmly in the bounds of mainstream science - indeed, the most widely accepted cosmological theory, popularly known as the "Big Bang" theory, is his biggest ally here.  Equally impressive is his ability to explain these complex questions in a way even a non-scientist like me can understand.

He cheerfully bats aside the favourite Dawkins-ite follow up question, "where did God come from" as incoherent - God is not covered by the argument because he has no beginning and therefore needs no cause.  However, this does not get him completely out of the woods because in arguing that the universe has a beginning he provides a detailed explanation of the logical impossibility of a sequence of numbers going back indefinitely in time.    To avoid this argument also being applied to God he suggests that God is outside time, but at this point the argument becomes rather question-begging.  I suspect that here we are dealing with matters so complex and abstruse that humans are simply out of their depth.

This is the strongest part of the book and the most fascinating.  Yet it only gets him so far.  This First Cause could be anything - the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot or, more to the point, the Islamic Allah or the Hindu Brahma.  Indeed he ruefully comments that he has received letters from Islamic scholars thanking him for his work on this question.  To fulfil his mission as a Christian apologist he has to navigate from here to a set of arguments supporting the claim that this God has revealed himself in Jesus.

He approaches the task with typical care.  He begins by arguing, in line with his general modernism, that the facts of history are knowable in principle.  History is not simply a collection of unverifiable stories and interpretations, rewritten for each new generation.  It is a subject in which research can uncover the truth, even if our knowledge will never be complete.

Secondly, he argues that miracles are also possible in principle, although each individual miracle story requires verification.  In the process he responds to one of the favourite atheist arguments, Hume's idea that a miracle can only be accepted if the falsehood of the testimony to it would require an even greater miracle than the miracle itself.  Craig thinks this method is founded on an assumption that miracles are impossible, and believes the correct way of weighing the evidence is to consider the likelihood of the miracle having taken place against the likelihood of alternative explanations for the appearance of the tale - what he calls the "inference to the best explanation".

In his final two chapters he applies this background reasoning to the story of Jesus.  First of all, he attempts to show from both the New Testament and extra-biblical sources that Jesus claimed divinity, to be God incarnate, sent to redeem humanity.  Then he asks why we should accept this claim and his answer is because of the testimony of Jesus' miracles, and most especially the miracle of the Resurrection.  If the Resurrection took place, it vindicates Jesus' claims.  If not, there is no reason to accept them.

His final chapter, then, is a rehearsal of the evidence for the resurrection, weighed up using the framework of his "inference to the best explanation" method for evaluating miracles.  We know for a historical fact that the early church believed in Jesus' resurrection.  He thus weighs the various alternative explanations for this belief - that the apostles were deceived, that they were lying for their own gain, that the stories referred to something other than a literal physical resurrection, that they are later legends, and so forth - and finds them all wanting for various reasons.  Ergo, Jesus really did rise from the dead and the Christian God is the First Cause deduced from the cosmological arguments.

Sadly, on this subject he has little new to say.  His arguments are little different to those of the historical apologists that have come before him - Frank Morrison, say, or Josh McDowell.  He relies on the same faulty premises and hence reaches the same debatable conclusions.  It is not hard to find holes in the argument.

I have to say there is a lot to like about Craig's apologetics.  I like the depth with which he examines the questions, and the philosophical discipline he brings to the subject, particularly before he strays into history where he is less comfortable.  He is no careless amateur and this is a serious work of scholarship.

Nonetheless, I think the biggest weakness is right at the beginning, with his defence of modernism.  This commitment sets him on the course which leads to him finally attempting to "prove" that the resurrection is a historical event, because such objective proof is required in his preferred philosophical position.  What if the apostles viewed the world differently?  What if the important thing for them was the content of Jesus' message, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the miracle and resurrection stories were merely the clothing in which this message was presented?  What if the New Testament is not a modernist anthology?

In this context, I find Craig's stories of the conversion of young students particularly interesting.  In Craig's telling of the stories, they are convinced by the power of the argument.  Of course this is possible in a superficial way.  Craig is convincing, he has studied deeply, he has great personal warmth and conviction.  An impressionable young man or woman searching for truth and meaning would be easily drawn in.

However, I would suggest they were there in the room listening to him because they were looking for a reason to believe.  They were there because of the power of the Christian story and the attractiveness of Jesus himself.  Without this, all the rest would be nothing.  The apologetic framework is only a pathway leading to that story, a means of smoothing the way, of helping people to get past the barriers and roadblocks that 21st century civilisation puts in the way.

What's important is what happens next.  Once these people (young or old) reach the point of acceptance, what kind of spirituality do we build?  Do we help people to become more Christ-like, or do we turn them into arrogant bigots?  Do we teach them to build the Kingdom of God, like Tolstoy or Walsh and Keesmaat, or to become loyal soldiers in the kingdom of Caesar?  If it is the former, then it is worthwhile.  If the latter, then all Craig's careful reasoning is just so much dust.  Ultimately, the story is everything.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Rolf Harris and The Beatles

We are currently being forced to accept, reluctantly and to our collective sorrow and shame, that for a long time our society has been remarkably tolerant of the sexual abuse of children.  Our Royal Commission here in Australia has been sitting for some time now, hearing horrendous stories of abuse in institutions which are mostly connected to the churches, Catholic and Protestant.  That we are hearing these stories has little or nothing to do with the willingness of churches and institutions to admit fault and change their ways, and everything to do with the courage and persistence of abuse survivors who have fought to be heard every step of the way.

Now, as if to remind us that it's not just the church, the British legal system has finally wound its methodical way to the conclusion that Rolf Harris is guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault committed on four young girls between 1968 and 1986.  These charges seem to be the tip of the iceberg.  A makeup artist he once groped testified that he was known as "the octopus" because of his wandering hands.  Other victims have already started laying complaints.  It seems likely the 84 year old Harris will spend his few remaining years behind bars.

The most revealing thing I've seen about the whole story is the 7.30 Report's interview with Cathy Henkel, a long-time friend of Harris who testified for the prosecution.  In 1986 Henkel, a theatre and film producer, was shepherding a group of young players around the UK and Harris came to one of their performances.  Afterwards he went with them to a nearby pub and socialised with the cast and crew, giving them encouraging feedback on their performance.  However, what seemed to most participants like a happy, convivial occasion was hugely traumatic for one young girl.  Tonya Lee, who was 13 at the time, was sexually assaulted twice by Harris during the course of the evening.

You can see how sad and conflicted Henkel is in this interview.  Harris was a long-term friend and mentor and she herself has nothing but happy memories of their relationship.  Yet she was so completely convinced of the truth of Lee's story that she was prepared to give corroborating evidence about the evening despite not having witnessed the assaults herself.  She asserts, reluctantly but firmly, that the verdict is the right one and Harris deserves punishment.

What's interesting to me about this interview is how easily Sarah Ferguson lets Henkel off.  Ferguson is renowned for her confrontational interview style and willingness to ask pointed questions, but she keeps her guns in the holster this time.  I would like to know what Henkel thought she was doing.  If she knew Harris well, she would surely have known that he was "the octopus".  She would surely have heard the gossip from makeup artists, administrative assistants and junior performers.  Yet when Tonya Lee sat on his lap in the pub, no alarm bells rang.  It didn't occur to her to keep an eye on Harris in the company of her young charges and she didn't notice when he slipped out to the toilets straight after Lee.  She had it in her power to prevent the assault, but she didn't.

It seems to me that the best thing to come out of such cases is not the jailing of octogenarian offenders, justified though that is.  The best thing is the message these cases hammer home to us, again and again, that we need to watch over the children in in our care and make sure they are safe.  It is the introduction of protocols for abuse prevention - screening adults in positions of responsibility, visibility at all times, the removal of opportunities for abuse, the realisation that such things can never just be a matter of trust.  This cultural change in the way we care for children seems to be the most hopeful outcome of this seemingly endless series of revelations.  Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

However, we still have a long way to go.  One of the things that made me think this was watching the recent ABC documentary on the the Beatles' 1964 visit to Australia.  There were scenes familiar from any Beatlemania documentary - the witty interview one-liners, the screaming fans lining the street or massed below hotel windows, the concert footage of young girls hysterical with excitement as their idols played.

Yet the story also had a sinister edge, especially in light of the Royal Commission and the Harris trial.  The hysteria was highly sexually charged.  Young girls hatched schemes to sneak past hotel security and get to the Beatles' rooms.  Some booked rooms in the hotel themselves for easy access.  The Beatles were not shy about taking advantage.  Every night was a party.  The band at that time were heavy users of stimulants which made them hyped up and reckless.  After a gig they would party, and they or their minders would select young girls from the throng and invite them to join in.  Sex was definitely part of the event, lots of it and with many partners.

This practice was even officially sanctioned.  Paul McCartney turned 22 during the tour and a local newspaper ran a competition which gave 10 lucky girls the chance to attend his party.  Girls were encouraged to send a photo of themselves and write a paragraph about why they wanted to attend.  The band themselves chose the winners.  Officially they were chaperoned, but the arrangements were far from watertight.

All this is told in breathless, nostalgic tones as if it was a great adventure.  Those were our wild days, everyone seems to be saying, and weren't they great?  Even some of the young women (no longer young now of course) seem to relish their parts in the occasion.  It's as if these events happened in a different world to that of Harris' crimes, a world in which boys will be boys and girls will be girls and it's all innocent fun.

Of course there are differences.  Harris was almost 40 at the time of his first offences, his victims as young as 11.  The Beatles, by contrast, were still quite young.  Ringo Starr, the oldest, was just short of 24, George Harrison the youngest at 21.  They were sex symbols in a way that Rolf Harris never was.  Girls literally threw themselves at them in a frenzy of adolescent hormones.  It could be that the Beatles never had any occasion to commit sexual assault because they were surrounded by so many willing partners.

Yet I wonder, were these over-stimulated young men and their minders always scrupulous about the age of the girls they bedded, or about issues of consent?  Did the girls themselves really know what they were getting into?  While some smile salaciously on camera at the memories, are there others who watch their TVs with shaking hands and tears running down their cheeks?  Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps we will never know.

Cathy Henkel thought Rolf Harris was a kind, friendly man.  Tonya Lee knew differently.  It took almost 30 years for them to compare stories and piece together the truth.  Is there a similar jigsaw still to put together about the Beatles?  Or about other people we admire?  Have we really learned the lessons we need to learn, or do we still need more high profile cases do drive the message through our thick skulls?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Neil Young Wages Heavy Peace

So I've been reading Neil Young's memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream.

It's interesting how the form and language of a book tells you as much about the person as what they actually say about themselves, especially if they're not a professional writer.  Graham Nash's memoir, carefully structured around chronology, focused on his professional life, cautious in what he says about himself and those around him, shows a methodical, cautious and conservative person.  Nash remains firmly in control throughout.

David Crosby's attempt, co-authored with Carl Gottlieb and with contributions by a huge cast of friends and associates, shows a strong-willed, opinionated man but someone fundamentally democratic and collegial.  He retains ultimate control - after all, it's his story - but he gives his co-authors a long rope.  He even allows a former girlfriend to give the lie to his claims of sexual potency.

Young's book shows you someone who is very much in the moment.  He often lets you know where he is and what he's doing as he writes each chapter, and he seems to just write about whatever comes out of the junkpile in his brain.  One minute he'll be reminiscing about Buffalo Springfield.  The next he'll be writing about one of his pet projects - his high end digital sound technology, or his electric car, or perhaps his model trains.  Then perhaps he'll tell a story about one of his friends, or one of his cars, or both at once.  It's like one of his guitar solos - rambling, a bit too long with quite a few boring bits, laced with occasional flashes of brilliance.

At one point he tells the story about how he and his neighbours in Hawaii, where he stays from time to time, go on a shopping trip.  He describes wandering through the Costco supermarket, looking at flat screen TVs and buying new brushes for his electric toothbrush and you sigh and say "why is he telling me this? Can't he afford an editor to cut the crap?"  Then they get to a second hand book and record store and there, in a cardboard box on the floor of a remote aisle, is a complete collection of his CDs, all 34 of them.  He is so deflated he can't go on with the shopping trip and sits at a table outside, gathering his wits, while the others go on.  Just when you think you know what's happening, you suddenly realise he was going somewhere else entirely.

In other words, pretty much like Young's career in general.   He leaps between styles depending on how he feels and which musicians he has met up with recently.  Folk, country, garage rock, grunge, techno.  Albums that baffle everyone, followed by riveting smash hits.  He is a genius without a filter, an intuitive artist who can't be told what art to make. Not won't be told, I should emphasise, can't be.  As soon as he thinks, things go wrong.  If you want the gems, you have to accept the rocks.

In the early 1980s Young switched record companies from Reprise, which had released all his music up to that time, to David Geffen's new company Geffen Records.  He was attracted by Geffen's reputation as a music man, but things did not go well.  He presented Geffen straight up with an environmental-themed record called Island in the Sun, which has never been released.  Geffen didn't like it and asked him to do something else.  Young agreed and produced 1982's Trans, a record inspired by his son Ben's communication struggles (Ben has severe cerebral palsy and can't speak) and using heavy electronic effects and distorted vocals sung through a vocoder.

Geffen reluctantly released it, but didn't promote it and wouldn't fund video production to support it.  In frustration the president of Geffen's Board of Directors intervened and asked him to make some rock'n'roll.  Big mistake!  He was obviously thinking about Rust Never Sleeps but no-one tells someone like Neil Young what sort of music to make.  Young decided to take him literally and made Everybody's Rockin', an album of old school 50's rockabilly.  He even funded his own videos with the band dressed up in sharp suits and greased hair.  Eventually Geffen sued him for "making music unrepresentative of Neil Young", no small claim given Young's broad musical range.  He counter-sued, they eventually settled out of court and parted ways.

So was the whole experience a huge failure?  Well, it depends on what you mean.  Commercially, the 1980s were Young's lowest point.  Everybody's Rockin' was not so much an album as a way of giving Geffen Records the finger, yet it still sold 400,000 copies, no mean feat for a fit of pique.  Trans is another matter.  Electronica dates fast and personally I find the vocoder effect wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  Yet if you listen past this, it is an album packed with great songs, a lost classic of timeless music dressed up in the rags of transient technology.  If Young was misunderstood, this itself is part of the point, part of his own reflection on his son's difficulty in making himself understood without functioning vocal chords.  If you think you hated this album, I encourage you to take another listen.

Still, there's no escaping the fact that Young's fame rests on his early work, and one of his highest points both commercially and creatively was 1972's Harvest.  Let me share a lovely song I rediscovered trolling Youtube as I read the book, 'A Man Needs a Maid'.

I think I prefer this performance to the studio version with its lush orchestral arrangement.  With its stripped back piano accompaniment the vulnerability and bewilderment of the song stand out.  This is not a hugely complex song musically - Young's music never is - but it is quite intricate, with subtle dynamics, modulations and changes of tempo that reflect the moods it goes through.

My life is changin' in so many ways
I don't know who to trust anymore
There's a shadow runnin' thru my days
Like a beggar goin' from door to door

I was thinkin' that maybe I'd get a maid
Find a place nearby for her to stay
Just someone to keep my house clean
Fix my meals and go away

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid

It's hard to make that change
When life and love turns strange, and old

To live a love, you gotta give a love
To give a love, you gotta be part of

When will I see you again?

While ago somewhere I don't know when
I was watchin' a movie with a friend
I fell in love with the actress
She was playin' a part that I could understand

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid, a man needs a maid

When will I see you again?

Young was apparently given a hard time about this song by feminists because it was understood as relegating women to the role of domestic servants.  The critics obviously failed to listen to the song before they criticised.  This is not a song about gender relationships, its a song about being isolated and alone.

At the time he wrote it he was in his mid-20s.  His short-lived first marriage had ended and he was in a fraught relationship with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress of the third verse - it apparently happened much like that in real life.  Other relationships were also struggling.  His initial participation in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had foundered on his fractious relationship with Stephen Stills.  There were issues in his other band, Crazy Horse, as guitarist and singer Danny Whitten's drug addiction made him increasingly dysfunctional.  To make it all harder to bear Young was in constant pain from a spinal injury, performing in a back brace and shambling about the stage like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Young describes himself as a late developer, still emotionally immature and naive well into his 20s.  However, we all get to a point where we realise relationships are much more fraught and complex than we thought they would be.  People we trust betray us, those we thought would help us end up undermining us, friends turn into enemies.  We find things in ourselves that we don't exactly like, although we find them hard to change.  There is shadow where once there was only sunlight.  It's a hard change to get used to, everything has become strange.  How is a man like Neil Young to cope with this, shy, introverted and possibly a little further along the autism spectrum than most people?  This song represents a rather baffled work-in-progress answer.

Of course one option is to simply get a maid.  This is not to say that all a man really needs from a woman is cooking and cleaning, or that that's all she's any good for.  Rather, after you have been hurt it is tempting to put strict boundaries around relationships.  Hiring a maid is strictly a commercial arrangement.  She lives elsewhere, performs certain essential tasks, then leaves.  Both she and her employer are protected emotionally.  The same goes, perhaps, for musicians.  If you hire them you don't have to be their friend, they just have to play what you tell them to play.

The third verse presents another alternative.  You can wear a mask, you can play a role.  When you fall in love with the actress, it's not her you are attracted to but the role she is playing.  And perhaps you understand because you feel like you are playing a part yourself.  For Young in particular, he was playing the part of a rock star, a part to which he often felt unsuited.  His later reflections on his relationship with Snodgrass make depressing reading, a blank few years of unhappiness he would rather not talk about.

Young knows that ultimately neither of these will do.  There is no alternative but to be vulnerable, to take the risk.  "To live a love, you've got to give a love".  You can't cut yourself off or play a part, you have to give something of yourself, risky though it may be.  That longing will not go away.  He asks at the end, "when will I see you again?"  It might seem temporarily easier not to try, but this will not do.  We can't live without love.

Young's music has made him wealthier than most of us can ever imagine being.  This wealth cushions him from a lot of pressures.  Nonetheless his life has more than its share of hardships.  He got dealt a bad hand in the genetic lottery, suffering from both epilepsy and diabetes and passing both on to his daughter.  He also suffered polio as a child with its legacy of muscle weakness and proneness to injury.  Both his sons were born with cerebral palsy, the older only mildly so but the younger so severe as to be totally dependent on carers.  He faces it all with a kind of baffled optimism and a willingness to keep trying, to keep learning and loving despite it all, which maybe all of us could learn something from.