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....