Monday, 23 December 2013

And on Earth, peace...

In Luke's version of the Christmas story an angel announces Jesus' birth to a group of shepherds.  This is how we always heard the story in my youth, taken from the King James Bible.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

In about 1980 I was a young Beach Mission leader and spent part of my Christmas holidays running evangelistic kids' activities at a big caravan park on the Gold Coast.  In the bus on the way to somewhere one of my fellow leaders, an earnest young Calvinist a couple of years older than me, was pontificating about the results of his research into this passage.

He had a problem, it seems, with the inclusivity of the passage as it appears in the King James version.  Did Jesus' coming really mean great joy to all people?  Would there really be general peace, and goodwill towards everyone? 

According to him, apparently not.  The best scholarship seemed to favour a less inclusive interpretation.  Most modern translations, including the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), present a more qualified blessing.  The NRSV, for example, says I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, and the choir of angels sings:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favours!


My friend seemed very relieved at this discovery.  It allowed him to maintain his Calvinist position undisturbed.  God's peace did not come to everyone, only to those whom God favours.  Which of course was us Christians, and not those unbelievers who were futilely celebrating Christmas without believing the Gospel and who we were intent on converting.

It's hard now to remember clearly what happened that long ago and perhaps I'm confabulating, but I seem to remember I was quite disturbed not just by his conclusion, but by the obvious enjoyment he got from it.  I lacked the knowledge to dispute his conclusions, but there seemed something profoundly unmerciful, unloving, in the glee with which he pronounced doom on a large proportion of humanity.

Back then I didn't have the knowledge to argue back, but 30 years on I think I can make a better fist of matters.

It turns out that his textual point was, on the whole, quite correct.  As Bart Ehrman points out, there is a great deal of variation between the large number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament still in existence.  The King James translators primarily used Erasmus' Greek New Testament as the basis for their translation.  Erasmus had access to a very small sample of Greek manuscripts of very late date.  His edition, and the King James translation, preserves the more universal, inclusive reading, pronouncing joy to 'all people' and 'peace on earth, goodwill towards men' without qualification. However, earlier Greek manuscripts contain the more qualified version featured in the NRSV and pretty much every more recent translation.

We all read the Bible (or any other text) through the lens of our presuppositions.  We can't help it, it's the way our brains work.  Hence my friend read the more up-to-date version of this passage and saw Calvin's elect, those predestined to be saved from the foundation of the world.  The limited wording clearly indicated that some were not to be favoured or to experience peace.

If you don't buy this presupposition (as I don't) then you have to ask - who are "the people", and who are "those whom he favours" to whom peace is promised? 

The first clue comes from the fact that the announcement is made to a group of shepherds - poor rural labourers, left out in the fields at night to do the dangerous and dirty work of ensuring that their masters' flocks are not stolen or eaten by predators.  It's not announced in the Jerusalem Temple, or in Herod's palace.

The second is the use of the term 'the people'.  Most scholars agree that this probably refers to the people of Israel.  In the gospels, however, this term is far from synonymous with the official Jewish hierarchy, which is seen more as an opponent to God's message than as an ally.  So for a start, "those he favours" seem to be Israel's outcasts and poor people.

But where does that leave us, the Gentile interlopers of later Christian faith?  Well, a number of stories in Luke, as well as the other gospels, make it clear that his message is much wider than a message to Israel.  Indeed, the first public address recorded in Luke, his message in the Nazareth synagogue, almost leads to his death as he punctures his audience's sense of Jewish entitlement by reminding them of Elijah's sojourn with the widow in Sidon and Elisha's healing of the Syrian general Naaman.  This message should be a warning to all of us when we too smugly assume we are the elect of God.  God is capable of surprising us in ways we might find unpalatable, including favouring those we see as enemies of the faith.

This same type of reversal is seen in Luke's trenchant, political version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26).  The poor, the hungry, the weeping, those who are hated and reviled should leap for joy.  Meanwhile, those who are rich, have full bellies, are full of joy and are much admired will mourn and weep.  The world will be turned on its head.

You might be moved at this point to examine yourself and try to figure out whether you are in the first camp or the second.  For most of my readers the result will be sobering.  We are almost all rich in world terms, we will spend Christmas eating and drinking more than we should and enjoying the company of our friends and families.  Need I say more?

Well, yes, because a little later on in Luke 6 Jesus talks about something closely related.

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit;  for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

There's no need to spend time agonising, asking ourselves whether or not we're in the elect and hence covered by the blessing or if we're eternally damned.  These things are not fixed, they are in our hands.  Jesus preaches a message of repentance - "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"  Do you want the promised peace and goodwill?  Then bear good fruit, and leave the rest to God.

Have a great Christmas everyone, and may we all experience peace and goodwill in 2014!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

William Butler Yeats Day

Today is William Butler Yeats Day.  Not everywhere.  Just on this blog.

I blame The Waterboys, but more of that later.  First to WB himself.  He was an Irishman, born in 1865 and living until 1939.  He is, perhaps, the greatest literary figure in Ireland's history, leading (after a fashion) a revival in Irish culture which went along with the revival of Irish nationalism and the independence which he lived to see.  He even served as a senator in the first independent Irish parliament.

When I was a young man dabbling in literary studies we were taught that there were two pillars of twentieth century English poetry, Yeats and TS Eliot.  I have to confess that at the time I preferred the austere Eliot.  I loved to immerse myself in the beautiful cadence of his verse.

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Even when I had no idea what he was talking about - and that was often - I still loved the sounds and the pictures he created.  Yeats, by contrast, seemed soppy, full of odd ideas and cheap romantic tricks, a throwback to the likes of William Wordsworth who I also found a little nauseating.

What I didn't understand at the time, but have learned amply since, is just how broad was Yeats' appeal.  Not only was he a pillar of highbrow literature, a Nobel laureate and required reading for students across the English-speaking world.  His songs are sung in pubs and folk clubs across Ireland and around the world, rendered in various versions with different tunes by some of the giants of folk music.

The most famous and most widely covered is his love song, Down by the Salley Gardens.  Appropriately, this poem was based on a folk song he heard in his childhood.  He turned his fragmentary memory into a simple and profound piece of verse expressing the sorrow of life.

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.   

So many famous people have covered this song that I just have to give you a less famous one, sung by Maura O'Connell with harmonies from Karen Matheson.



This sorrow flowed through all of Yeats' poetry and indeed through the whole literature of the 20th century.  Two world wars will do that to you.  It wasn't just the people who died, but the overturning of everything we held to be certain.  Yeats' true love, Maude Gonne, turned him down repeatedly before marrying another man.  His broken heart never quite healed.  But behind this very personal pain is the sorrow of a culture losing its spiritual compass and its faith in the certainties that once governed it, trying to find its way in a world turned on its head. No wonder Yeats dreamt of escape.

While in his political life he dreamt of an independent Ireland, in his verse he dreamt of a shadow realm, the realm of faeries where the sorrows of this world would just be a dim echo.  Told like that it sounds silly, but told by Yeats it is yearning and beautiful, a still twilight or pre-dawn when no-one is awake and silent feet slip through the house beckoning the waking child.

Where dips the rocky highland 
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, 
There lies a leafy island 
Where flapping herons wake 
The drowsy water rats; 
There we've hid our faery vats, 
Full of berrys 
And of reddest stolen cherries. 
Come away, O human child! 
To the waters and the wild 
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping 
than you can understand.

 You can, if you like, be spared this weeping by going with the faeries, but it comes at a cost.

He'll hear no more the lowing 
Of the calves on the warm hillside 
Or the kettle on the hob 
Sing peace into his breast, 
Or see the brown mice bob 
Round and round the oatmeal chest. 
For he comes, the human child, 
To the waters and the wild 
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping 
than he can understand.

The Waterboys recorded a version of this song which reminded me once again of Yeats, and which encapsulates everything that is brilliant and frustrating about their mid-80s flirtation with Irish music.  Tired of rock'n'roll they shifted to Ireland and immersed themselves in its folk music, swapping their drums and jangly keyboards for fiddles, mandolins and whistles.  Over two years they recorded literally hundreds of songs.  Some are brilliant, some are downright annoying.  Their version of The Stolen Child is both.  A lovely melody on the refrain is accompanied by soulful tin whistles.  It's so beautiful I almost shared it with you, but they kill it by getting someone to read the verses in the most annoyingly cheesy Irish accent.  So instead I'll share a version by Loreena McKennitt, someone who really understands Irish music.


The dream of escape really is an illusion, but Yeats' faeries give us another option.  They open up a world that allows us to dream of something beyond ourselves, to keep on searching even when the search seems foolish and hopeless.  In The Song of Wandering Aengus he offers us just such a glimpse. a fleeting moment of possibility which drives him on.

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
 
I don't love the tune that is often attached to this song, recorded by Donovan among others, so despite only being able to find a version with annoying time-lapse images I'm going to share the tune that grabbed me from the moment I heard it, by American songstress Jolie Holland. Dream on!
 







 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Farewell Nelson Mandela

Of all the farewell messages written on this blog, this one is probably the saddest.

Not that it was a shock or even a surprise.  Nelson Mandela's death has probably been the most anticipated of the year.  He was 95, his health has been declining for some time.  His regular visits to hospital have been headline news all year.  His time had come.  May he rest in peace.

You can read and hear endless words about Mandela and I can't really say anything that others won't say better and with more knowledge. 

As President of the African National Congress (ANC) he was South Africa's most prominent post-war anti-apartheid activist.  Then in 1962 he was imprisoned by the Nationalist regime and spent the next 27 years in isolation, out of sight but never out of mind.  In 1990 he was finally released as South Africa belatedly began the transition to multi-racial democracy, and served as his country's first ethnically African President from 1994 to 1999.

To my mind, the best way to summarise Mandela as a man and a politician is to compare him with his counterpart in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.  Mugabe is six years younger than Mandela and was the most prominent leader of the anti-apartheid movement in his country.  He was also imprisoned, between 1964 and 1974.  He also became his country's first African leader, as Prime Minister from 1980 and then as President from 1987. 

He is still there at age 89, clinging to power like a succubus draining the life out of his country.  After an optimistic beginning he gradually cemented his hold on power by eliminating his rivals.  In the name of the survival of his regime he has used every trick of his former European masters and then some, imprisoning people on trumped up charges, having them beaten up by thugs, confiscating farms from white farmers and giving them to "war veterans" to shore up his own support base.  In service of his own power a once vibrant economy has been turned into a basket case, the most fertile country in Africa has been subjected to regular famine and refugees have swarmed across its borders.

When Mandela became South African President in 1994 he was so revered he could have done pretty much whatever he wanted.  He could easily have become another Mugabe.  He had every reason to be bitter, to pursue harsh justice against those who imprisoned him through the best years of his life and who oppressed and robbed his people.  He could have been President for as long as he wanted, adding a year of power for every one of imprisonment, making his enemies suffer as he did.

Yet he rose above all that.  He invited his opponents, both black and white, into a government of national unity which survives to this day.  He articulated a vision for a "Rainbow Nation" which would have a place for people of all races and creeds.  He urged this rainbow people to put the past behind them and work together to build this new nation. 

Instead of taking corrupt and oppressive police and officials through the courts he formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  In exchange for honesty, political criminals were granted absolution and reintegration into the community.  He embraced white-dominated sports like rugby and cricket on the basis that they would welcome people of all races and become symbols of the "New South Africa".  Then after his single term as President he stood down in 1999, handing control to younger leaders and staying visible as a revered elder statesman.

South Africa has not become Utopia as a result.  Poverty and unemployment are rife.  Problems like AIDS and a high crime rate are endemic and entrenched.  Mandela's successors are lesser people, more venal and more prone to corruption and skulduggery.  The future of the nation hangs in the balance.

Yet even in death Mandela has given his successors something to aspire to, a standard against which they will be judged.  In the decades to come both the leaders of South Africa and the ordinary people will find themselves asking, in times of crisis, "what would Madiba do?".  May his shadow grow taller than his soul.

And of course, you can't have a major South African event without a great song.  So here you go....


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Misquoting Jesus

Bart Ehrman is that most valuable type of person, a serious scholar who loves to explain his complex field in plain English for non-specialists.  He has an extremely fancy academic title - the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.  He is an expert on early Christian texts, including the New Testament and various other early writings that were not included in the canon of scripture.

His spiritual journey is like that of so many sceptical Biblical scholars and writers.  He started on the path of Christian fundamentalism, heading off to Moody Bible Institute straight from high school to study scripture, then wending his way through the slightly less conservative Wheaton College before finally heading for the quite sceptical faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary.  Along the way he became adept at Greek and Hebrew and developed a passion for analysing original texts of ancient documents.

I've been reading his 2005 book on that very subject, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  Potential readers shouldn't be put off by the sensational title.  The actual content is much more modest and sober than the title suggests.  If the facts he points out are unpleasant to face, they are nonetheless factual.

He starts the book with the tale of his own journey into biblical criticism, and in particular his assignment on the text of Mark 2, where Jesus is quoted as referring to David taking show-bread from the temple during the high priesthood of Abiathar.  The problem for this passage, at least for a Moody-trained inerrantist like the young Ehrman, is that the original of this story in 1 Samuel 21 takes place when Ahimelech is high priest.  Ehrman accordingly developed a complex and convoluted argument intended to demonstrate that Mark didn't mean quite what he said, only for his teacher to comment, "Maybe Mark just made a mistake".

This may seem a trivial problem (in fact, it is a trivial problem) but as I have pointed out previously, the notion of inerrancy sets the bar incredibly high.  A single error, however trivial, can bring the entire house of cards tumbling down because an inerrant Bible must be completely so. 

The problem is not simply that the New Testament sometimes misquotes the Old, or that there are discrepancies between different New Testament accounts of the same event.  The more fundamental problem, and the subject of this book, is that it is not clear exactly what the words of the New Testament are.  The various New Testament books were originally written by hand, on parchment or papyrus, by their original authors or their authors' secretaries in the first century CE.  None of the original manuscripts survive, but the books were copied and re-copied down the years as they circulated more and more widely.  We now have thousands of manuscripts (hand-written copies) of these books, but our earliest copies are from centuries after their original composition.

The problem is, not all these manuscripts are identical.  It is easy to understand why - they were copied by many different hands.   The earliest copyists would not have been professional scribes, just ordinary literate church members.  Copying a manuscript by hand is a difficult, time-consuming job and the copyists made mistakes.  Later copyists copied these mistakes, but also made further mistakes of their own.  The result is that the thousands of surviving manuscripts contain over a hundred thousand discrepancies.

The vast majority of these are trivial - missing words or lines, spelling errors, jumbled sentences, substitution of synonymous words.  We are all familiar with these types of mistakes - it is rare to find a book that does not contain a few - but before the invention of the printing press such errors were much more common because manuscripts must be produced by hand, one at a time, so each one will contain its own unique set of mistakes.

More significant is the fact that some of the differences between manuscripts seem deliberate and purposeful.  These are not simple mistakes, but subtle alterations which bolster a particular theological point which was in dispute at the time the copy was made.  Ehrman cites a number of passages to show what he means. 

For example, there was a strong minority view in the second and third century that Jesus was "adopted" as God's son, probably at the time of his baptism by John, rather than the "eternal Son of God" of orthodox theology.  To make the orthodox view clearer, copyists made changes to certain passages which could have been to support adoptionism. 

Some of these are very simple and would almost slip under the radar.  For instance in Luke 2, after Simeon has blessed the infant Jesus, early manuscripts say "his father and mother were marvelling at what was said to him".  The notion that Jesus had a human father could easily be used as an argument in favour of adoptionism, so a large number of manuscripts instead read "Joseph and his mother...". 

Other differences are more blatant.  For instance, in the story of Jesus' baptism in Luke 3 a voice from heaven makes a declaration about Jesus.  In most manuscripts the wording of this declaration is the same as in the counterpart story in Mark - "You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased".  However, some early manuscripts say "You are my son, today I have begotten you" - a statement which appears to support an adoptionistic view.

Ehrman argues, based on what he and other scholars regard as strong textual grounds, that the potentially adoptionistic readings are in fact the older ones, and that they were edited during the controversy to make them more orthodox.  It is of course possible to argue the reverse - that the orthodox readings are the originals.  This, however, doesn't change the core point - that the text is not immutable, that there are a number of different versions and not all the differences are inconsequential.

How much does this matter?  Well of course, if you are a fundamentalist it matters a lot, because you will have a lot invested in the precise words of scripture.  How does this work, if we are not sure what these words are?  However, this is not exclusively a fundamentalist problem and historically in the church there have been two main responses to it.

The Catholic response, also held in a slightly different form by the Eastern Orthodox church, is that the use and interpretation of scripture is determined by the church through its official doctrinal statements.  Hence, in a sense, scripture is only part of the story and goes hand in hand with church tradition and the authority of the church hierarchy.  Indeed, the canon of scripture is itself a product of this tradition.

This solution, however, is problematic for us Protestants because we have rejected this authority and, along with it, many elements of historical Catholic teaching.  Implicit in the doctrine and ecclesiology of the various Protestant churches, and explicit in their history, is the notion that the Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel of Christ and therefore can't be trusted to have interpreted scripture correctly.

Hence the preferred Protestant solution to this problem is to attempt to work out, through detailed textual and historical analysis, the "correct" text of the original New Testament.  This project is, as you might say, "ongoing".  It involves decisions and judgements based on technical grounds that very few scholars, never mind working pastors or lay church members, really fully understand.  It seems to me that the chances of a final solution are relatively slim.  What are the chances of modern scholars being inerrant?

How much this bothers you will depend on how much you have invested in the question.  For me, it just seems part of the marvellous and fascinating variety of human belief.  Perhaps we will find out the final solution in heaven.  Perhaps not.  In the meantime, our uncertainty should at least keep us humble and open to learning.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Stress Related Illness"

I really enjoyed the recently completed Brisbane Ashes Test, especially since Australia won so convincingly after such a long drought.  I certainly enjoyed seeing the Australians dominate Jonathan Trott, a player who has scored plenty of runs against them in previous series.

However, I'm not enjoying the aftermath, with Trott returning home with a "stress-related illness".  Naturally I feel sad that Trott is unwell, and hope his recovery is swift and complete.  I also feel disturbed by the euphemistic description of his illness and the hush-hush way in which everyone seems to talk about it.


Cricketers, like other elite sportspeople, are prone to frequent physical injuries.  It's the nature of elite sport, where people push themselves to the limit of their physical capabilities.  We hear about these injuries in forensic detail.  Everyone who cares about cricket knows all about Michael Clarke's degenerative disc, Kevin Pietersen's chronic knee problem, Shane Watson's dodgy calves and hamstrings and the struggles of teams the world over to manage fast bowlers' risk of back injury.  We know when the injuries happen, the dates and times of their scans, the grading of the tear or sprain, the treatment process and the expected recovery time.  It's all out there in the public realm.

Of course opponents are not slow to try and exploit any weakness.  England bowlers know that Clarke's back can make playing the short ball more difficult and so he was peppered with bouncers in both innings.  It was spectacularly successful in the first innings, a failure in the second.

The same seems to apply to mental health problems.  Players certainly seem aware when their opponents are struggling psychologically and don't hesitate to exploit it.  Hence before, during and after the Brisbane Test Trott was sledged mercilessly on and off the field.  It worked.  He was out cheaply in both innings and now he's gone home. 

That's the ruthlessness of sport, win at all costs and all that.  It's ugly, but it's the same for everyone.  What I find more problematic is that elite sporting organisations seem to be so far behind the rest of society in the way they deal with mental illness.  Now that Trott has gone home, the English hierarchy reveals that he has been "struggling with a stress-related condition for some time".  In other words, he probably brought it to Australia with him, and was possibly also suffering from it in the mid-year series in England when his performances were definitely below par. 

Yet unlike Clarke's back, Peterson's knee or Watson's hamstring, it was never mentioned.  Even now we don't know for sure what the illness is.  Journalists writing about the event have referred back to similar events involving England players Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy, both of whom suffer from depression, so that's where I'd be putting my money. 

In a perceptive article written for Cricinfo in 2011, Australian batsman and occasional author Ed Cowan shone the spotlight on the issue.  Estimates vary, but perhaps 5-10% of the population at any time is suffering from depression or anxiety, and up to 20% will at some point in their lives.  Cowan suggests that this figure is far higher for elite sportsmen, including cricketers - perhaps twice as high.  If this is true, it is almost certain that other members of both teams are currently struggling with similar conditions. 

There are various reasons why sports people are more prone to mental illness than other people.  Elite sports tend to attract people who are driven and obsessive, and OCD is strongly linked to depression.  Elite sportsmen and women operate in high pressure environments where their performance can be judged vary harshly and opponents exploit any weakness.  International cricketers travel constantly and hence are separated from their families for long periods.  Professional sport can be an emotional roller-coaster ride and the emptiness that comes after success can tip people over the edge just as much as the self-doubt brought on by failure.

However, Cowan laments the lack of openness about these issues.

Sadly, despite growing awareness about mental health issues outside of the change room, it is still something of a taboo topic within. While cricketers know there is a fantastic support network available through the players' associations, these issues are rarely, in my experience, openly discussed among the players themselves.

The consequence of such secrecy is also clear - players often don't seek treatment, and attempt to self-diagnose and self-medicate.  I don't know about cricketers, but former rugby league star Andrew Johns and former AFL star Ben Cousins have both attributed their cocaine addictions to misguided attempts to self-medicate for chronic anxiety. 

It is telling that Cowan himself only names two cricketers who suffer from depression - former West Australian wicketkeeper Ryan Campbell, and former New Zealand fast bowler Ian O'Brien.  Neither are team-mates of Cowan, and both have spoken publicly about their depression.  Cowan must know many more - otherwise why write the article? - but he is obviously not free to name them.  Maybe naming would be seen as equivalent to shaming.

I long for the day when cricket captains and coaches will feel comfortable saying, "He's suffering from depression.  He was first diagnosed about two months ago and has been taking antidepressants and having weekly counselling sessions.  We're confident the problem is being well managed and he's not in doubt for the game".  Or whatever.  It's not shameful, and it need not be a secret, any more than it's shameful to strain your hamstring.  It just happens, it's the way humans are made. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Blackmore's Night

It's been a little while since I posted anything, what with being busy and all.  By way of apology here's something very pleasant.  At least I think so.


It's become fashionable in recent years for big-time stadium rock stars to venture out into more mellow acoustic territory.  Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin fame, has teamed up with Alison Krauss to play bluegrass music.  Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder has recorded an album of songs with voice and ukulele.  Sting, already converted into a smooth jazz-fusion singer, has made an album of renaissance music with lute player Edin Karamazov.

It shouldn't surprise us.  These guys are rich enough to do what they like.  Playing the same riffs over and over again and screaming at the top of their lungs can get boring.  They love the experience of playing for small audiences and being able to hear themselves and their band-mates.  They also tend to be accomplished musicians and they like to show people that they are not just one-trick ponies.

Among all these big names, former Deep Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore is the one who has pursued his alternative bent most diligently and consistently.  Blackmore's Night has recorded roughly an album a year since 1997 plus various compilations and live DVDs.


Blackmore is famous for two things.  The first is the creation of the most recognisable riff in heavy rock music, which forms the core of Deep Purple's song 'Smoke on the Water'. The other is for being one of the more difficult people on the planet to get on with.  Some of his former Deep Purple bandmates make no secret of how much they hate him.  One of the former members of his other heavy metal band, Blackmore's Rainbow, joked that it had so many ex-members they were thinking of opening their own retirement home. 

Still, you don't get to have an enduring musical career without serious ability and Blackmore's talent and versatility are imperfectly concealed in the straight-ahead rock music for which he is famous.  He enjoys explaining to journalists that the Smoke on the Water riff is an inverted variation on the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony.  He also plays it with a surprisingly light touch, plucked with two fingers on the second and fourth strings.  Not that you'd notice with the amps turned up to 11 and the bass, drums and keyboard thumping along in unison.

Hence Blackmore's Night, in which he gets to play laid-back, acoustic, medieval and renaissance-influenced music with life partner Candice Night.  Blackmore's Night also has a long list of former members or, as their Wikipedia article puts it, former "additional personnel".  However, it seems less serious and fraught than other Blackmore bands.  The members have jokey heritage stage names, they dress in Renaissance costumes, they laugh and joke on stage - even Blackmore condescends to dress up. 

I suspect the light touch is down to Night.  Blackmore's collaborations with singers have been the most important and most difficult of his career.  Singers are expected to provide their own words as well as live up to Blackmore's exacting performance standards.  Few have lasted long, most have come out bruised from the experience.

Night, however, seems to have his measure.  In between flirting with the audience in their live performances she teases and cajoles him, complains to the audience about his "moody and difficult" personality, and commands him to the microphone when he mutters from his brooding posse at the back of stage left, the posse he has occupied in every band he has ever been part of.  But she's more than just a show pony.  She sings beautifully, plays an assortment of renaissance wind instruments, and brings to the band her own brand of slightly dippy new age fairy-loving oddness. 

Then, or course. there is nothing to say heavy metal is incompatible with light-hearted folk.  Sometimes it's little more than a question of volume.  In evidence I cite the Deep Purple classic 'Child in Time', which first appeared in 1970's Deep Purple in Rock.  This song is almost the definition of art rock, a simple two-minute song extended past nine minutes by guitar and keyboard solos and Ian Gillan's histrionic vocal improvisations.  Sure it's pretentious, but what's wrong with that?



Blackmore's Night are not afraid to exploit his back catalogue and many Deep Purple songs sound brilliantly different in this context.  Child in Time is one of them, combined here with an incongruously upbeat Renaissance tune before the pace slows to the sombre theatre of the original.  Make sure you stick with it until the backing singers take over.  Gives me goose-bumps every time.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Travelin' Soldier

Speaking of annoying songs, here's one that's really annoying.






Two days past eighteen
He was waiting for the bus in his army greens
Sat down in a booth in a cafe there
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair
He's a little shy so she gives him a smile
And he said would you mind sittin' down for a while
And talking to me? I'm feeling a little low
She said I'm off in an hour and I know where we can go


So they went down and they sat on the pier
He said I bet you got a boyfriend but I don't care
I got no one to send a letter to
Would you mind if I sent one back here to you?


I cried, never gonna hold the hand of another guy
Too young for him they told her
Waitin' for the love of a travelin' soldier
Our love will never end
Waitin' for the soldier to come back again
Never more to be alone when the letter said
A soldier's coming home

So the letters came from an army camp
In California then Vietnam
And he told her of his heart
It might be love and all of the things he was so scared of
He said when it's getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sittin' down at the pier
And I close my eyes and see your pretty smile
Don't worry but I won't be able to write for awhile


One Friday night at a football game
The Lord's Prayer said and the Anthem sang
A man said folks would you bow your heads
For a list of local Vietnam dead
Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read but nobody really cared
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair


This isn't really my usual stuff, but then I often listen to stuff that's not my usual.  I don't mind a bit of country if it's done well, as this one is.

That's not what's annoying.

I also have a bit of time for the Dixie Chicks.  I like that they play their own instruments instead of their management hiring blokes to do it for them while they look pretty out front.  And I like that when they were promoting this song in 2003 they mentioned that they were ashamed George W Bush came from Texas - and stuck to their guns even as they were being banned from the playlists of half the country music stations in the USA. 

That's not why this song's annoying either.

The song was originally written in 1996 by US country singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of Dixie Chick Emily Robison, seen here stage right playing the dobro.  He was inspired by someone he knew being called up to serve in Iraq.  The Dixie Chicks polished it up for commercial airplay and released it as a single in 2003 as the US (with Australia in tow) was going to war in Afghanistan.  It shot to Number 1 in the US country charts before it was scuppered by the controversy. 

Part of what makes this song so annoying is that its tear-jerking tricks are on full display.  There's nothing subtle here, it's all right out in the open.  Country music is made for tear-jerking, with the mournful sound of the dobro and fiddle, the sugary harmonies and simple, accessible chord patterns. 

The lyric is pure fiction, its little details designed to relentlessly tug at the heartstrings.  The innocent young couple drawn together by chance, the bow in the hair, the rendezvous at the pier.  The young man who apparently has no family or friends, the young woman who may or may not have a boyfriend (the chorus is partly in her voice so I guess that's a "no").  The comforting letters and images, the wise elders trying to spare her the inevitable heartache, the lonely girl in the band uniform crying beneath the grandstand while everyone else gets on with the game as if nothing happened.  It's like Robison had a list of all the things that would make his listeners cry and checked them off one by one as he wrote the song.

But even that is not the most annoying thing about this song. 

What's most annoying is that it works.  Every time I hear it I feel like crying.  Even as I hear the tricks unfolding, bright and brazen in their jangling obviousness, the tears spring to my eyes.  These techniques did not become tricks of the songwriters' trade for no reason.  People write sad country songs because they work.  Clever comedians can send up the genre all they like, a good sad country song is a powerful cathartic experience.  Every now and then we all need one.

There's no time we need them more than a time of war.  Because if you strip out the fantasy elements Travelin' Soldier is telling you about things that really happen.  Young men really do get sent off to war.  Young women who love them really do have to stay home, fearful about what will happen.  Often these young men get killed and the young women are left weeping, whether under a grandstand or at home in bed.  Often these young women have had time to marry the young men, and they have children who grow up never knowing their fathers.  It's desperately sad and when we have finished weeping we should be angry, angry enough to join the Dixie Chicks in disowning the people who make it happen when it could just as easily have been avoided. 

The last Australian soldiers are coming home from Afghanistan this week, after ten years of largely fruitless struggle.  Forty of them have been sent home in coffins over the course of the war.  Countless people of all nationalities have died, none in greater numbers than Afghanis themselves.  Ten years on, the country is no safer than when the Americans and their allies (including us) first launched the invasion.  If I was a Texan I would disown Bush as well.  Instead I have to content myself with disowning John Howard.

Still, if I were asked to nominate a song to be played as they head for home I wouldn't pick Travelin' Soldier, much as I admire and hate it.  Instead I would pick this beautiful song by Jason Isbell, titled Dress Blues.  Not only is it a sad country song about a dead soldier (with that extra tincture of anger that Robison and the Dixie Chicks keep under wraps) it's actually a true story about his schoolmate Matthew Conley (pictured above).  His wife and the daughter he never met are still alive and as well as could be expected in Alabama.  You can read about it here

Enjoy.  Weep.  Be angry.


Friday, 1 November 2013

Misdirection

Misdirection is a technique used by people such as stage magicians and pickpockets to distract their audience, or their victim, from what they are actually doing.  They might make a loud noise, wave their hands or their wand flamboyantly, talk fast, have an accomplice distract you, while they perform their trick.  If they are a magician you will be amazed.  If they are a pickpocket you won't notice a thing until sometime later when you discover you are unable to pay for the coffee you have just drunk.

Apropos of which...

On the 15 October this year the Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie introduced three acts into the Queensland Legislative Assembly, and they were passed the same day. 

The Criminal Law (Criminal Organisations Disruption) Amendment Bill 2013 gives the Minister power to declare an organisation a criminal organisation through the Criminal Code (Criminal Organisations) Regulation 2013. This regulation, which was declared as soon as the law was passed, contains the list of supposedly illegal bikie clubs and a list of places they are said to frequent. More can be added and existing ones can be removed.  The bill also changes various other laws relating to such organisations. 

The Tattoo Parlours Bill 2013 makes it illegal for bikies to own tattoo parlours or wear their club colours in pubs. 

The Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill 2013 creates a number of new classes of crime related to members of criminal organisations, the basic effect of which is to make it illegal to take part in any kind of activity related to an outlaw motorcycle club and ensure that members of these clubs are punished more harshly for various crimes than other offenders. 

This story has dominated our various news media for the past month, since a huge brawl involving members of two bikie gangs erupted outside a Gold Coast restaurant on September 27.  Each day there is a new incident, new footage of tattooed blokes on Harleys, police in bulletproof vests, grim-faced politicians, outraged judges.  The debate around these bills, if you could call it that, has lurched from hysterical to absurd.  Bikies, it seems, are the major threat to law and order in the state of Queensland, threatening the safety of every man woman and child.

 Police have been sent to raid various bikie clubhouses.  The government has promised to turn Woodford Prison into a separate bikie prison in which inmates are forced to wear pink.  The Premier has attempted to bully judges into refusing bail to suspected bikies.  The judiciary has hit back by claiming the government is interfering with the operation of justice.  The Premier claims these laws are comparable to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and its aftermath 25 years ago.  Tony Fitzgerald responds that the laws are outrageous.

Premier Campbell Newman has claimed he is just doing what the people of Queensland demand.  He is, or course, telepathic.  I don't recall anyone ever asking.  Who exactly is demanding this and why?  How is that bikie gangs, which have been operating in basically the same way for the past 50 years, are suddenly an urgent problem which requires the government to override courts and parliament and introduce draconian new laws in an all-night sitting?  What is it that makes crimes committed by blokes with tattoos, Harleys and colourful leather jackets more serious than those committed by blokes in jeans and t-shirts, or suits and ties?

The answer is of course, that no-one is demanding these laws, this is not an urgent problem and if you are beaten up it hurts just as much whether the people who did it are bikies or not.  We are watching a piece of misdirection.  While we, and half the state's journalists, are enthralled with each episode of the bikie drama, we are failing to notice other things.

Here are a few other pieces of legislation that have landed in the Queensland Parliament in the past few weeks and been buried in the landslide of bikie stories.

The Criminal Law Amendment (Public Interest Declarations) Amendment Bill 2013, introduced into Parliament on 17 October and passed the same day, allows the Governor in Council (that is to say, Cabinet) to detain someone indefinitely if they deem this to be "in the public interest".  This law was prompted by the Supreme Court's decision to release serial violent offender Robert Fardon on parole, and the failure of the Attorney-General's appeal to change this decision.  The government now no longer needs to worry about pesky judges because it can make the decision itself.  Evidence, natural justice and impartiality be damned.

The Industrial Relations (Fair Work Act Harmonisation No. 2) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 was also introduced on October 17 and referred to committee.  It includes a number of changes which restrict what can be covered in industrial awards and enterprise agreements, allow employers to refuse to deduct union fees from workers' pay, and change the way the industrial tribunal will work.  In other words, it will now be easier for employers, especially the government, to screw their workers.

The Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, introduced on 15 October and passed on the 17th, makes major changes to entitlements for workers' compensation including creating a threshold level of disability before compensation can be claimed, shifting the basis of compensation from "work-related impairment" to "permanent impairment", increasing the burden of proof for psychological illness or disability, and allowing prospective employers access to previous compensation records.  For comment, see previous paragraph.

The North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Another Act Amendment Bill 2013, introduced on that same busy day and sent to committee, reverses the previous government's decision to phase out sand mining on North Stradbroke Island, extending leases on the two main mines to 2035 and 2040.  The Quandamooka people (traditional owners of the island) and environmentalists are outraged but what does that matter when the mining company spent $90,000 in early 2012 sending out letters urging people to vote for Campbell Newman?

Some of these things have been reported in the news media, some have not.  All of them have far-reaching effects on large numbers of Queenslanders.  All of them except the first provide significant benefits for rich people and significant restrictions or reduced benefits for poor people.  All have slipped through the current parliament, with its huge LNP majority, quickly and with minimal debate.  None have been subject to intense media scrutiny or public outcry.  All the media scrutiny, and all the outcry, has been redirected to the bikie sideshow. 

It is likely that the bikie laws will eventually be ruled unconstitutional by the High Court.  I certainly hope so.  They are blatantly discriminatory and fly in the face of the basic principles of the Australian justice system.  They are so badly drafted and poorly researched that many of their clauses are nonsensical, they outlaw organisations that don't exist and proscribe places where bikies have not hung out for years.  The government will end up looking a bit silly, which is only fair.

In the meantime these other laws will be here to stay, robbing the poor to pay the rich for years to come.  We may possibly come to view Jarrod Bleijie and Campbell Newman as the political equivalent of Penn and Teller, but I think it is much more likely we will think of them as the Artful Dodger and Fagin. 

Apropos of which...

 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Barbie Girl

My grown-up daughter accidentally left a flash drive on my desk with lots of backed-up music files.  Since I'm a musical bowerbird I've been listening my way through it, picking up on all sorts of stuff I haven't heard before or haven't really listened to.

One of the real gems is this little song, released in 1997 by the Danish-Norwegian bubble gum pop group Aqua.




Of course I've heard this song before.  How could I not have?  My first memory of it is around 1999 when we visited the UK and our pre-adolescent nieces were listening to it.  I wonder what they make of it now?  The song is a regular feature on lists of "Most Annoying Songs of All Time".  I doubt the group members care, given it means they never have to worry about how they will pay the rent.

However, listening to it properly and hearing the words, as opposed to being annoyed by it, is quite a revelation because it really is a very clever song.

I'm a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world
Life in plastic, it's fantastic!
You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation

I'm a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I'm your dolly
You're my doll, rock'n'roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky...
You can touch, you can play, if you say: "I'm always yours"


Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please
I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees
Come jump in, bimbo friend, let us do it again,
Hit the town, fool around, let's go party
You can touch, you can play, if you say: "I'm always yours"


Mattel, makers of Barbie and Ken, were less than impressed and attempted to sue Aqua for breach of copyright.  They lost, the judge saying that parody is perfectly legal. 

It's possible the irony of the song was lost on many of the band's pre-teen fans but it obviously wasn't lost on Mattel's management.  Barbie, the seemingly innocent children's plaything, is exposed as the lurid sex-symbol and impossibly unattainable ideal she is.  Its cutting edge is aided by the plastic nature of the music itself and the relentlessly silly, up tempo beat.  This song is annoying because it's meant to be.   

Yet the song is taking aim at more than just a children's toy.  It's aiming at the passive sexualised images of womanhood we see everywhere - on catwalks, in fashion magazines, in pop music, in the cinema.  I could earnestly whack you in the face about all that, but they don't, they hide it deliciously in bold-coloured wrapping paper, weave it into a tune so infectious that no matter how hard you try you just can't stop humming it.

In fact it's just like Barbie herself, that insidious idea of womanhood that just will not get out of our heads.  It sounds like joyous fun, but its not.  It's deadly earnest and it can wreck lives.  Just ask Britney Spears.  Ask Miley Cyrus in a few years' time.

Apropos of which, you really know your song is a pop culture icon when it is made over into a spooky electronic dirge by an avant garde indy act like, say, The Flaming Lips or Camper Van Beethoven or, in this case, Electric Chairs.


Monday, 21 October 2013

The Beatitudes as Wisdom

After looking at the Wisdom writings in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, it happens that at church we've started a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount.  Last Sunday was the Beatitudes.  For once I'm not going to have a whinge, because it tied in very nicely with what I'd been thinking about the Wisdom books.

As I mentioned, the Wisdom writers faced a problem.  Why do those who do wrong seem to prosper while those who do right suffer?  They had two answers.  The writer of Ecclesiastes advocated humble submission - we don't know what God is doing or thinking, all we can do is carry out the tasks he has given us and enjoy our life as we can.  The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon was more confident - the righteous may appear to die unrewarded, but God will reward them in the life to come.

Jesus develops this theme further in the poem that begins the Sermon on the Mount, the eight lines we call the Beatitudes from the Latin term which means "blessed", "happy" or "fortunate", the word that begins each line.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
     for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
     for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Here we see an eloquent restatement of the kind of reversal of fortune we find in the Wisdom of Solomon - the righteous may be suffering now, but they will not suffer for ever.  This reversal is amplified in Jesus' many teachings on the Kingdom of God, in which social outcasts are gathered into the Kingdom while the rich and powerful are locked out. 

Jesus, and those who follow him, face the same problem as the Wisdom writers.  In our experience here in this world, these statements are more often untrue than true.  Those who mourn do so without hope.  The meek are trodden into the ground.  The merciful are taken for a ride.  The peacemakers are arrested and tried for sedition.  Is Jesus wrong?  Is it best to give up the whole thing as a bad joke and fight by the rules of the rich and powerful?

One option is to follow pseudo-Solomon and see the promised rewards as coming in the next life.  This certainly provides comfort for those who mourn.  Jesus leaves this option open.  He is not specific about the time. However, he takes our thoughts in a completely different direction.  We are not simply called to wait patiently for this reversal, we are called to begin living it here and now.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Why does the world not operate by God's rules?  This is the wrong question.  Are we, God's people, the citizens of his Kingdom, living this way?  If so, we become the salt which preserves the meat, the light which guides the way at night, the beacon on the hill for which weary travellers aim. 

If we live this way, there is hope, we can begin the task of making his kingdom real.  Those who long for mercy, who seek comfort, who long for peace, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, will receive the strength to keep going.  The Kingdom will grow here among us, like the yeast making the bread rise, like the mustard plants self-seeding on every available patch of dirt.  If we don't start, no-one else will.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Wisdom

Right then, back to something more esoteric after all this grumpy politics.  It's been a while since I wrote anything on the Apocrypha, so time I stopped procrastinating and wrote about the Wisdom books.

I find Wisdom literature hard for a number of reasons.  The collections of sayings can be a bit mind-numbing, and often the content is repetitive.  Much of it also seems self-evident - why bang on about what is so obvious?  How to write about literature that doesn't hold my interest very well?  Yet here it is, in the Jewish sacred writings as well as in the writings of other traditions, so perhaps I've been missing something.

Then it occurred to me that a good way of thinking about the Wisdom tradition is to see it in the context of the Law.  The five books of Moses are, in a sense, the primary source documents for Jewish faith.  They provide a set of laws by which the nation of Israel was supposed to be governed as the people of God.  They cover the whole range - the procedures and rituals for temple worship, rules about ritual purity, and more mundane matters like sexual morality, marriage laws, criminal proceedings, rules about boundaries, welfare and debt laws, regulation of slavery and so forth.  They also contain some things that are simply baffling.  What's wrong with eating shellfish, cutting the corners of your hair or using composite fabrics?

It's unlikely that these laws were ever implemented in their entirety.  They represent an aspiration, an ideal for the nation, rather than its reality at any point in its history.  However their implementation, even in an imperfect form, clearly required the existence of a Jewish nation.  Of course some things could be maintained in exile - like food laws, dress codes and so on - but Israelis in exile had to live under the laws of the nation in which they found themselves.  How were they to conduct themselves in these circumstances?  This is where the books of Wisdom come in. 

Just as Moses is the foundational figure of the Law, Solomon is the presiding genius of Wisdom.  1 Kings 3 tells the tale of Solomon asking the Lord for wisdom, in what is itself a kind of wisdom story.

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’  And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.  And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.  And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.  God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,  I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.  I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you.  If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’

Solomon could have asked for anything, but instead of asking for riches, power or long life he asks for wisdom to rule well.  As a result, God gives him wisdom and promises him the things he has not asked for as well - because of course these come with the application of wisdom.

The two Old Testament books of Wisdom - Proverbs and Ecclesiastes - are traditionally attributed to Solomon (at least, most of Proverbs is) and there is also an Apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon.  It is unlikely that any of these works were actually written by King Solomon himself - their literary form and language suggest that all are written in the post-exilic period - but they bear his name as a way of marking his status as the founder of wisdom thinking.  The Apocrypha also includes a long collection of wisdom sayings entitled Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, generally known by its abbreviated name, 'Sirach'.  Other Apocryphal books contain wisdom writing.  Tobit includes lengthy passages of wisdom material placed in the mouth of Tobit as advice to his son Tobias and the prophetic book of Baruch includes a song in praise of wisdom.

In contrast to the Law, Wisdom is universal and portable.  Indeed, much of the material contained in the Wisdom writings is cross-cultural, found in different forms in the writings of other ancient Middle Eastern societies.  It presumes the Law as a basis but instead of reiterating it, it focuses on universal ideals of conduct that are applicable in any situation.  Honour your parents and elders, work hard, be honest and chaste, be generous to the poor, stay away from evildoers, don't gossip, stay sober, respect the king, if you are a king rule fairly, value friendship and doing right over riches and worldly success, marry well and so forth. 

All of this seems fair enough, but why should you do it?  When you live in the midst of the Gentiles, or indeed the apostates of your own people, and you see them living ungodly lives, lying and cheating their way to success, why should you not follow suit?  The Law envisages a set of objective punishments for wrongdoing enforced by the rulers of God's holy nation.  If these rulers fail to uphold the Law, God will himself intervene to punish them.  On the other hand, if they follow the law faithfully, God will bless their nation and make it prosperous.  Now that they are in exile, living among a people who don't know God, what motivation do they have to continue?  The set of motivations encoded in the Law no longer apply.  What is to take their place?

The Wisdom literature has two answers to this question.  The first comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it has mystified preachers and interpreters for centuries.  Ecclesiastes is a meditation on the brevity of life and the futility of so much of our human striving.  This brevity and futility makes the author despair.

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done.  Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
    The wise have eyes in their head,
    but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?' And I said to myself that this also is vanity.

What is the point of continuing?  What is the point of anything?  Here is his answer.

What gain have the workers from their toil?  I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.  He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;  moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.  That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

It may seem that everything is stupid and pointless, but God has put everything in its place.  We should get on with our lives and enjoy ourselves, accepting our limitations and doing the things that are there for us to do.

The Wisdom of Solomon develops this idea further.  It starts out with a kind of parody of the reasoning of Ecclesiastes, placed into the mouth of the wicked.

'Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts...

‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,

and let no flower of spring pass us by....
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow

or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions...

This is not what Ecclesiastes is saying, but it's often interpreted this way.   If there's no point, why not just do what we want?  Here is how the author answers.
 
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.
 
Goodness, in other words, is in tune with the way God has made the universe.  In the short-term it may seem that the wicked prosper, but in the long-term God will vindicate the righteous.  In support of this idea, the author makes use of an idea which, as I have pointed out previously, makes its first appearance in the Apocryphal books.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.

This idea that death is not the end, that the righteous will receive their reward in the next life when God returns to vindicate his people, seems commonplace to us.  However, it was virtually unknown to the Old Testament writers.  For them, vindication was in this life, through God restoring his people to their inheritance.  For the writers of the post-exilic period, living in Persia or Egypt or as a minority in their own country, this vindication seemed a long way off.  They had watched many die without seeing it. 
 
Yet they didn't give up hope.  They continued to trust that God would vindicate them, that the universe was a place which rewarded virtue and punished vice, even if most of the time that looked untrue.  The faithful among them kept their virtue even at great cost to themselves, they kept on working and toiling to make God's promise a reality.  Can we say the same of ourselves?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Paradox of Power

As usual I'm late catching up with my periodicals and so I've just read the Spring 2013 edition of Zadok Perspectives, an edition focused on the election we just had.  Too late to help me make up my mind about the election, but it did help focus my mind on something I've been thinking about since the election, which I call (perhaps not originally) The Paradox of Power.  Two articles helped focus my thoughts - Gordon Preece's editorial on Kevin Rudd's Christian socialism, and Bruce Wearne's extensive review of Lindsay Tanner's book Politics with Purpose.

The Paradox of Power is especially strong in democracies although it also affects people in other political systems, and can be expressed in a few different ways.  The more political power you have, the less able you are to use it.  The higher you climb the tree the less freedom you have to act on your convictions.  A visionary in opposition becomes a cautious conservative in office.


No-one illustrates this problem better than Kevin Rudd.  When he was first elected Labor Party leader in 2006, Rudd nailed his colours to the mast in an article in The Monthly in which he expressed his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ideal of Christians fully engaged in the political process and redoing politics "from below", allied with the reforming zeal of the European Christian Socialists.  The result was an idealistic reform program which included strong action on climate change, a more engaged and enlightened approach to internationalism, humane treatment of asylum seekers, an apology and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a solution to homelessness, a comprehensive taxation review and so forth. 

His vision and passion struck a chord with the electorate, and his government was elected with a substantial majority.  Even in 2013, after a three year campaign of vilification by his Labor enemies, he was still the most popular political leader in Australia.  However, by 2010 his reform program was a mess.  His asylum seeker policy was as inhumane as Howard's, his apology had not been followed up by meaningful reform on Aboriginal issues, his climate change strategy was blocked by the Senate and then abandoned, his taxation review had morphed into a single abortive tax on big mining companies, and he only had a few baubles to show for three years of government.  It became a favourite sport of journalists and Christian commentators to ask what Bonhoeffer would say about Rudd's various actions, and the answer was usually not very complimentary.

Lindsay Tanner presents a more in-depth and nuanced, and perhaps in some ways more traditional, version of the same thing.  Tanner sees the Labor Party as part of a global social democratic movement, with a long term commitment to social justice both locally and globally.  He laments that during his time in politics the party seems to have lost this sense of purpose, that nothing else matters but winning elections, the party has been swamped by careerism.  "We are slowly transforming," he says, "from a party of political initiative to a default party, which seeks power on the basis of managerial competence...."

Here we see the Paradox on full display.  While Tanner never had Rudd's profile, he was one of the most influential people in the government, serving as Finance Minister and a member of Rudd's "kitchen cabinet" along with deputy Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swann.  Why, with such committed reformists at the helm, was the Labor Government able to achieve so few of the ideals it treasured?  Why was Rudd hounded from office while Tanner resigned in disillusion?

My sense is that the problem is not one of ideals, it is one of method.  The Labor Party wants to achieve change from the top.  It wants to get hold of the keys to the Lodge and use them to further its program.  However, there are strong vested interests which resist the kind of program they want to introduce and these interests have control of many of our key institutions - our mass media, our financial and business hubs, our banks, even our large public corporations.  Labor's reformist program, even in its most conservative form, is contrary to these interests, and so will meet resistance.  Look at what happened to the mining tax!

The Labor Party's response to this seems reasonable - they moderate their goals, take on board much the agenda of these powerful interests, in order to neutralise their opposition and win the election.  "After all", they say, "you can't implement your program from opposition."  What Rudd and Tanner show, however, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to implement it from government.  By the time they got there, much of the program had already been jettisoned, and most of the rest of it went by the wayside in those first three years.  Gillard succeeded in clawing some of it back with the help of the Greens, but she and her colleagues were extraordinarily ungrateful for this help.  Over the six years of their government their various compromises succeeded in alienating much of the reformist base which should have provided the impetus for the changes they professed to support.

Perhaps the best way to start to see through this issue is to join the chorus of those applying Rudd's words on Bonhoeffer to his own and the Labor Party's, practice.  In his Monthly article of 2006, Rudd says this about Christian engagement with the state.

I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.

This implies a conscious and costly choice.  It is hard to take the side of the marginalised and oppressed and at the same time seek the favour of their oppressors.  This is even more so if you spend time with the oppressors and keep the oppressed at a distance.  If Gina Reinhardt has open access to the Prime Minister while the door is barred to homeless people and refugees, how is it possible to take the side of the latter?  If you can only achieve power by appeasing the oppressors, this power is an illusion and best abandoned.