Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Ghost of Syd Barrett

So, to continue my Pink Floyd odyssey. One of the most intriguing things about Pink Floyd is the fact that although Syd Barrett was only part of the band for such a short time his influence and, in a sense, his presence lingered long after he left.

In the early years after his departure it's not necessarily so obvious.  Their songs didn't openly reference him and they seemed to be carrying on smoothly with David Gilmour in his place.  However, although their music gradually became more structured and sophisticated, it still had Syd's fingerprints on it.  For instance, even though Syd was the only member whose use of hallucinogenics went beyond the odd experiment, they continued to write "psychedelic" songs after his departure.  You would swear Roger Waters' 'Cirrus Minor' and 'Julia Dream' or Rick Wright's 'Remember a Day' and 'Paintbox' were inspired by LSD, but neither Waters nor Wright used the stuff.  They were copying Syd.

Of course in these early years Syd was around a lot more.  Gilmour, Wright and Waters all worked with him on his solo albums.  He still lived in share houses in London and they must have bumped into each other socially from time to time.  Their relationship was changed but not yet severed.

However, as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s Syd became increasingly reclusive.  Although he was still in London his friends rarely saw him.  If they did, chances were he would give them a blank stare.  To all intents and purposes he disappeared from their lives and indeed from the world.  Their grief, or at least Roger Waters', is plain in the way he starts popping up in their lyrics.

The first, rather vague, reference is on the twin closing tracks on Dark Side of the Moon, 'Brain Damage/Eclipse'.  It's fairly generic - the madness that appears in the daily news segues into the specific madness of a person facing radical brain surgery before the moon (universal symbol of insanity) blocks out everything else.  It could be about anybody.

The success of Dark Side of the Moon scared the pants off the quartet.  Suddenly they were no longer a quirky underground band with a cult following, they were millionaire rock stars with profiles and expectations to match.  What do you do to follow up something like that?

Their initial idea was an album called Kitchen Sounds recorded entirely on kitchen implements.  The idea sounds absurd - actually, it is absurd - but not without precedent.  Atom Heart Mother, released in 1970, included a track called 'Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast', which consisted of a recording of the band's roadie Alan Styles making and eating his breakfast interwoven with meandering musical segments.  The result is curious rather than compelling.  It was also a peculiarly left-field, Syd kind of thing to do.

Of course Kitchen Sounds was also a very elaborate piece of procrastination.  After a few months of mucking about for no tangible result save a segment recorded on tuned wine glasses which can be heard faintly in the background of 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond', they decided to settle down and write some proper music.  It shouldn't surprise that after such a Syd-esque musical detour the result was Wish You Were Here, a full-scale tribute to Syd.  Wish You Were Here consists of four songs.  Two of them, 'Welcome to the Machine' and 'Have a Cigar', are angry, jagged pieces about the harshness and cynicism of the music industry and what it does to sensitive souls.  As the executive says in 'Have a Cigar', "we're so happy we can hardly count".

There was a strong feeling among his contemporaries that the commercial expectations of his managers and record company were a huge contributor to Syd's decline, and some of his moments of greatest public distress occurred when he was required (at least once physically forced) to mime 'See Emily Play' on Top of the Pops.  So as well as biting the hand that fed them, the remaining band members were hitting back on behalf of their fallen friend and, perhaps, deflecting their own guilt.

It's the other two songs, though, which define the album and which continue to be played to this day.  They are laments for Syd and expressions of regret at his decline.  'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' is a sprawling, multi-part instrumental punctured by three sung verses with lyrics written by Roger Waters.  Here's a shortened version.

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond 
Now there's a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky 
Shine on you crazy diamond
You were caught on the cross fire of childhood and stardom, 
Blown on the steel breeze
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond
Threatened by shadows at night and exposed in the light
Shine on you crazy diamond
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision,
Rode on the steel breeze
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far
Shine on you crazy diamond
Pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there
Shine on you crazy diamond
And we'll bask in the shadow of yesterday's triumph
Sail on the steel breeze
Come on you boy child, you winner and loser
Come on you miner for truth and delusion and shine!

Although the lyric is clumsy and ponderous - so different from Syd's own playful, anarchic songwriting  - this is a very emotionally complex song.  It combines grief and horror (the look in his eyes, the faraway laughter), a certain suppressed anger ("you wore out your welcome with random precision") and a deep longing and nostalgia for the days when he and Syd were like brothers.  Perhaps it was only like that in Waters' memory, or his imagination, but this sense of longing, grief and regret tinges not only the sung section but the entire piece.

There is a famous story which recounts how Syd turned up at the Abbey Road studio during the final mixing of 'Shine On'.  So in a sense he was there, but of course this was a different person to the one they had known.  It apparently took a while for the band members to recognise him, because in the time since they had seen him last he had gained a huge amount of weight and shaved off his hair and eyebrows.  He conversed with them in a scattered sort of way, even professing himself ready to add a guitar part, had tea with them in the canteen and eventually left without saying goodbye.

Much mystery and a certain sense of psychic mumbo jumbo surrounds his arrival out of the blue just as they were finishing a song about him, but I suspect the true story is that someone invited him.  Even in the 1970s random strangers couldn't just stroll into a mega rock band's recording session unannounced.

 'Wish You Were Here' charts a very similar emotional landscape, but in contrast to the elaborate symphony of 'Shine On' this is a simple acoustic ballad with a guitar part every beginner guitarist used to try and learn. Its lyric is even more cryptic.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change? And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, 
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground. 
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

What's interesting about both these songs is that Waters doesn't simply mourn Syd's loss, he also identifies with him.  Sometimes he seems to envy him, wishing that he could have escaped as Syd did instead of soldiering on in this harsh world.  At other times he seems to see Syd's madness in himself, or to fear that Syd's fate could easily be his own.  "Pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there."

This identification goes a lot further in The Wall, the album in which Waters exposes his own mental health issues for the world to see.  The childhood scenes in The Wall are almost exclusively based on Waters' own life, but as the story moves in to adulthood and 'Pink' becomes a rock star Waters' persona becomes mixed with Syd's.  'Nobody Home' is the closest example, heard here in the version that appeared on the film.

I've got a little black book with my poems in 
Got a bag with a toothbrush and a comb in 
When I'm a good dog they sometimes throw me the bone in 
I got elastic bands keepin' my shoes on 
Got those swollen hand blues 
I got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from 
I've got electric light and I've got second sight 
I got amazing powers of observation 
And that is how I know, when I try to get through 
On the telephone to you, there'll be nobody home 

 I've got the obligatory Hendrix perm and the inevitable pinhole burns 
Now all down the front of my favorite satin shirt 
I've got nicotine stains on my fingers, I've got a silver spoon on a chain 
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains 
I've got wild staring eyes and I've got a strong urge to fly, 
But I got nowhere to fly to 
Ooh, babe when I pick up the phone there is still nobody home 

 I've got a pair of Gohill boots and I got fading roots 

Some of this could be any member of Pink Floyd.  They all wore satin shirts and Gohill boots, and they all smoked, but there are plenty of telltale signs that this is Syd - the Hendrix perm, the black book of poems, the bag with toothbrush and comb he brought to the Wish You Were Here recording session, the wild staring eyes and the thirteen channels of shit on the TV create a picture of Syd stretching from his artistic youth to his eventual collapse.  It's so much better, and so much sadder, than the songs on Wish You Were Here because the laboured attempts at poetic imagery are replaced by a simple, powerful portrait built out of concrete images of a man in trouble.

If this were not enough, a little earlier in the album there is the chilling 'One of My Turns', which starts out as a rather pathetic song of dying love before suddenly exploding into manic rage accompanied by the sound of smashing glass.  Of course the whole album is driven by Waters' suppressed anger, but unpredictable violent rages were a feature of Syd's illness and a number of girlfriends were subjected to violence.

I suspect this, as much as anything, is why Waters was haunted by Syd's image for so long.  Of course he missed his friend and mourned his disappearance and replacement by someone who looked the same but wasn't.  Yet more than that he feared that Syd's fate could so easily be his own.  He felt himself teetering on the edge of that same madness, struggling to restrain the same rage, fighting the urge to withdraw into the same blank, featureless mental refuge.

The Wall seems to have exorcised the ghost.  Syd's image faded from Waters' music after that, replaced by more earthy, present day concerns.  But from then on the music was never quite as good.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Tolstoy's Faith

At the end of the 1870s Count Leo Tolstoy seemed to have everything.  He was in the prime of his life and in excellent health.  He was the owner of a hereditary title and a large, profitable estate. He was happily married with a growing brood of children.  War and Peace and Anna Karenina had made him one of the most celebrated novelists in Europe.

Yet he was profoundly unhappy.  He detested his great novels almost as soon as he had finished them.  He felt uneasy about his title and his wealth.  He felt that his life had no value and no meaning and if this was the case, what was the point of bringing children into the world?

The result of all this dissatisfaction was three years of intense, harrowing soul-searching which he describes in A Confession.  He scoured the works of contemporary philosophers, scientists and religious thinkers trying to understand the meaning and purpose of life.  Nothing helped him.  The only conclusion he could reach was that life was pointless and absurd, and the only rational course was to kill himself.

Two things saved him.  One was simply that he lacked the courage to carry out his decision.  The other was that he observed that the poor peasants on his estate experienced far more hardship and suffering than he did, yet never doubted the value of their lives.  The reason, he came to understand, was that unlike himself and the intellectuals of his social circle they had not abandoned their faith.  This led him along the path of religious exploration and to a profound and sincere conversion which radically reshaped his life.

Tolstoy's conversion was to Christianity, but not to the conventional form of Christianity preached by the Church, whether it be the Russian Orthodox church of his time or the Catholic and Protestant churches that you could find even in Russia if you looked hard enough.  He remained an uncompromising critic of the church and of the Christian creeds, seeing them as perversions of the true faith of Jesus Christ.  He regarded the idea of miracles as absurd and most of the supernatural stories of the Bible as fictions.  The doctrines of the Church - the formulation of the Trinity, the virgin birth, redemption from sin, the sacraments, the reverence for icons and relics, the adoration of saints - all seemed so much mumbo jumbo.  Worse still, by aligning itself with the ruling classes the church had fatally compromised its mission.

So to what was he converted?  In What is religion, and of what does its essence consist? he describes his faith like this:

The principles are very simple, comprehensible and uncomplicated.  They are as follows: that there is a God who is the origin of everything; that there is an element of this divine origin in every person, which he can diminish or increase through his way of living; that in order for someone to increase this source he must suppress his passions and increase the love within himself; that the practical means of achieving this consist in doing to others as you would wish them to do to you.

He did not regard this understanding as exclusive to Christianity - he saw it as the true kernel of all religion - but he viewed Jesus as its highest representative.  Consequently, Jesus' teachings provided the supreme guide to living the religious life.  Because he had little time for Paul or the other apostles, or for the miracles or supernatural stories in the Gospels, he came to focus exclusively on Jesus' moral teachings, in particular the teaching about doing to others as we want them to do to us, not resisting evil by force, loving your enemies and so forth.

He explained this view further by talking about three stages of human religious development.  These appear repeatedly and at great length in his religious writings and although they have little to recommend them as a theory of history they provide a simple, powerful tool for the moral polemic at the heart of his life and message.

In our primitive state, he says, human society and religion was focused on individual survival - every person for himself.  Hence primitive religion was about protection from powerful forces and aid in the business of survival.

The second stage was the development of social consciousness.  Humans began to identify not as individuals but as members of a group, and what became important was group survival.  In its most primitive form this group was simply the family, but later the same principle was extended to the clan, tribe and eventually the nation-state.  Religion in this condition served two purposes - building group cohesion and identity, and seeking help against outside threats and particularly enemies.  This phase spawned national gods and gods of war, patron deities like the Greek Zeus or the Hebrew Yahweh who went to war on behalf of their chosen people.

The third phase, which he believed was dawning in his day and of which he believed Jesus was the origin and forerunner, is a phase in which the believer lives a life permeated by the knowledge of the presence of God in the world and within him or her self.  This allegiance to God overwhelms all other allegiances - allegiance to family, to nation, to class, to any government - as the only thing of value to such a person is obedience to this God.  The challenge of his day (and I'm sure he would say ours too) is to make the transition from the social to the divine conception of life.

Jesus, he said, taught this message and you can clearly see it in his moral teachings - love one another as I have loved you, do to others as you want them to do to you, whatever you do the least of these my children you do to me.  Yet the first apostles, and the subsequent church leaders, failed to fully comprehend this message.  Hence they tried to incorporate the Christian faith into the social conception of life.  They allowed themselves to be co-opted by the rulers of their day - by Constantine and all his successors down to the present day.

In service of the social conception of life and the power of the State, the love, peace, equality and unity which Jesus intended to operate in the here and now were postponed to the next life.  In this life our duty was to bear our sufferings bravely and obey our earthly rulers.  The true teaching of Christ, that we should treat all humans as our brothers and sisters and equal to us, was replaced by church sanction of war overseas and persecution and imprisonment of dissenters at home.  The idea that all material goods should be shared equally with our brothers and sisters was replaced by the sanctity of property which justified huge social inequalities.

Yet for Tolstoy the germ of true Christianity could not be eliminated, because it was present in the very scriptures the Church endorsed and regarded as sacred.  Hence they were there ready for anyone who wanted to discover them.

The result was that Tolstoy's Christian faith was theologically very simple, completely grounded in the present and deeply radical.  His two particular concerns, as a Russian at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, were with poverty and war.  In The Kingdom of God is Within You he launches a passionate critique of the nation states of Europe.  The nations were militarising at a rapid rate with conscription almost universal, and wars becoming more frequent.  It was obvious to Tolstoy that war was inevitable.  The level of inequality was also rising and revolutionary movements were brewing.

Tolstoy had little sympathy with the Communists who were working their way towards revolution, because he thought the problem was much more profound.  Revolutionaries wanted to change the State by taking it over.  For Tolstoy this was an impossibility.

Any revolutionary who seized power would inevitably be even worse than those they replaced, and would proceed to do the same things as their predecessors under a different name.  I doubt it would have been any comfort to him that the Bolsheviks so comprehensively proved him right.

For Tolstoy, all government was equally illegitimate.  No true Christian could support or participate in acts of violence against other humans, either those of other nations dubbed enemies, or those of their own nation dubbed criminals.  Yet this violence, or the threat thereof, is the ultimate basis for all government.  All the true Christian can do is refuse to cooperate.  He or she can refuse to accept conscription, and will do so even on pain of severe punishment, because it is unthinkable to shoot fellow human beings.  He or she will refuse to call out the law, because it is unthinkable to collaborate in the jailing or hanging of another human, even if that human has harmed or wronged them. The true Christian will refuse to pay taxes, knowing that these are used to fund war and repression. "Love your enemies," says Jesus, "and pray for those who persecute you."

Tolstoy was not a mere dilettante, preaching a radical gospel from the safe comfort of his wealth and privilege.  He tried hard to practice what he preached, although his life circumstances placed some limits on him.  He was past the age of conscription, and his wife and children did not agree with his views.  Hence while he renounced his wealth and property he did so by making it over to his wife.  His writings he declared public property, refusing any further royalties.  He devoted the latter years of his life to writing copious religious tracts and doing acts of charity, establishing and teaching in peasant schools, supporting economic development initiatives among the peasants on his estate, and preaching pacifism and disarmament to a wide audience.

His religious writings are far less read now than his great novels, although many of them are still in print.  Yet in his day they were hugely influential and widely read.  Even though most of his later writings were barred from publication in Russia they circulated widely, either via editions imported from overseas (either in Russian or in translation) or manuscript copies circulated surreptitiously.  Absurdly, tracts and articles were published refuting his views, even though they were not supposed to be available to refutation.  He had a devoted following across Europe, with groups of people in Russia and elsewhere founding religious communities based on the principles he advocated.  Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both admirers.

What are we to make of Tolstoy?  His anthropological theories are laughable, his theology heretical, his social theory idealistic and profoundly impractical.  Yet for all that, he's right.  We, the church, in the name of our theology, have profoundly compromised the plain and simple moral teachings of Jesus.  We have acted as if they don't apply to us, as if they are an impossible ideal.  Yet Jesus didn't act like that.  He was prepared to die rather than betray his own mission.  He asks us to take up our cross and follow him, but we refuse because we are afraid.

I think the best way to understand Tolstoy is through the lens of what Merold Westphal calls the Ethic of Suspicion.  In discussing Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, Westphal urges Christians to forebear from arguing with them and instead to listen carefully to their critique, because much of it turns out to be true.  These atheists can lead us to repentance and to rediscovering our true calling.  Tolstoy is the same.  His calling out of the corruption of the church is just as true in our day as in his.  His call to profound non-violence and to regard all humans equally as our brothers and sisters is as true, and as urgent, now as it was then.  His call to live a life wholly guided by our awareness of the presence of God in our world, and in us, is as relevant today as it ever was.  Beside this, his heresies and intellectual mistakes are mere details.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Jewish but not Pharisaical

This evening I get to preach on what for me is one of the most intriguing passages in the Bible, the first two chapters of Paul's letter to the Galatians.  Here's roughly what I'm going to say.

Galatians is a passionate letter written by Paul to a group of churches in Galatia, shown on the map.  It's not entirely clear who he's writing to but the explanation that makes the most sense to me is that the recipients were the churches in the south of the province - at Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Pisidian Antioch - which he and Barnabas founded on the first journey they took after being commissioned by the church in Syrian Antioch.  He certainly seems to have known his correspondents personally and talks to them as a spiritual father.  These cities were multicultural communities, Greek colonies in a region inhabited by Celts, ruled by Roman overlords, and the churches there would almost certainly have been multiracial.

The letter addresses one of the most crucial issues for the first century church - what was its relationship to Judaism?  The first Christians and the beginnings of the church were undoubtedly Jewish.  Jesus himself was a Jew, and he and his followers saw his mission in terms of fulfilling the Hebrew scriptures.  The apostles, including Paul, were all Jewish and all or most of the first converts were as well.  In the early days they didn't separate themselves off from other Jews - the members of the Jerusalem church continued to visit the temple, and when Paul began to preach the gospel through the Greek-speaking world he began at the synagogue in every town he visited.  

On the other hand, Jesus and the early Christians were highly critical of many aspects of the Judaism of their day.  The Jewish faith of their time was dominated by the group known as the Pharisees, a name drawn from the Aramaic word perysh, meaning separate or different.  The Pharisees preached a form of religious observance which focused on obedience to the letter of the Law, and particularly on external matters of appearance and ritual cleanliness.  They kept themselves firmly separate from both Gentiles and non-practicing Jews, they paid a lot of attention to dressing in the right way, walking and talking in the right way, washing their hands, eating kosher food, keeping the Sabbath and so on.

If you've read the gospels you can't help but know that Jesus was fiercely critical of the Pharisees.  Matthew 23 records a very pointed diatribe against them.  Here's a few samples.

2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others;...

13‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves....

25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean....

Notice that Jesus does not criticise the Law and does not encourage his followers to break it. What he criticises is the Pharisees' practice. Jesus' problem with them is that they are hypocrites - they are focused on looking holy not on being holy. They evangelise - because Judaism at this time, especially outside Judea, was very much a proselytising faith - but they turn their converts into little versions of the themselves.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus proposes a radically different understanding of the Law. In the introductory part of the sermon he says this:

19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is a very challenging statement because the Pharisees prided themselves on their scrupulous attention to righteousness. Once again, Jesus' problem is not with the Law itself, which he affirms as good. It is with the way it is practiced. Jesus shows what he means by a number of examples. It's not enough to refrain from adultery, you need to deal with your lust. It's not enough to refrain from murder, you need to eradicate anger. It's not enough to be hospitable to your friends, you need to be hospitable to the outcast and the poor.

In other words, it's not enough to clean the outside of the cup, you need to clean the inside too. You need to transform yourself. How can we do this, and what does it mean for the way we live as Christians? This is the problem Paul addresses in his letter to the Galatians. In order to get at the answer to this question, Paul takes his readers back to some recent events in Syrian Antioch.

As I have said, the first Christians were all Jewish converts. When the Jerusalem church was persecuted many of its members fled the city, and some of them ended up moving north into Syria and settling in the city of Antioch. You can read what happened in Acts 11 and 15. Antioch appears to have been the first genuine multicultural church, the first place where substantial numbers of Gentiles were converted to Christianity. Luke tells us it was the first place that the term "Christian" was used, suggesting that the followers of Jesus had begun to carve out an identity for themselves apart from the synagogue and the Jewish community.

It was also a very powerful church, blessed with teachers and prophets, and commissioned Paul, Barnabas and others to spread the Gospel further into the Greek-speaking world to both Jews and Gentiles. As a result, churches on the same pattern were planted across the Roman world, including those in Galatia to whom Paul is now writing.

One of the key problems for these new churches was this: given their mixed origins, what was their relationship to the Jewish Law? This issue didn't come up with such urgency in the purely Jewish church because the law was embedded in people's way of life. All the boys were circumcised at birth, they washed before meals, ate kosher food, kept the Sabbath. This was their culture and it came naturally to them. However, once large numbers of non-Jews became Christians, in communities where Judaism was a small minority, the question had to be faced - what needs to be done to incorporate these Gentiles? There were three possible answers.

The first was the answer already applied by Jewish evangelists - Gentile converts should become Jews. The men should be circumcised, and they should obey the whole Law as interpreted by the Pharisees.

The second possibility was that there could be two ways of following Jesus. The Jewish Christians should continue to live as Jews obeying the Law, but the Gentiles need not, they could follow Jesus in their own Gentile way. This would inevitably lead to two churches, because following the Law strictly meant not sharing meals or mixing too closely with "unclean" Gentiles.

Both of these paths are firmly rejected by Paul and he advocates, passionately and forcefully, a church in which there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, where all are equally part of one body living by faith in Christ. This is clearly the approach Paul taught the Galatians when he first preached the Gospel to them a few years earlier, but since then other teachers have visited them and taught them differently. Hence Paul's letter.

Why does Paul advocate this position so passionately? It seems to me that there are two reasons.

The first is, that striving to obey the Law won't make you righteous. Paul sees any teaching based on obedience to the law as a betrayal of the Gospel. This is how he puts it in Chapter 1.

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

The term "gospel" means "good news" and for Paul, obedience to the Law is not good news. Why not?

16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

The point is not that the Law itself is bad. The point is that we are powerless to obey the Law. The more we try to do so, the more we fail and the more we become aware of our sinfulness. Those who strive hardest to obey the law end up becoming the greatest hypocrites. We can only make ourselves appear righteous through our own obedience by deceiving ourselves and others. As John says:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The answer to sin is not obedience, it is repentance and faith. We can only deal with our sin by seeking forgiveness and relying on God's grace. Paul's great fear is that those in the Church who teach obedience to the Law are leading Christians away from this and back to the Pharisaic view, the view that if you strive hard and obey the whole Torah then you are being faithful to God. Paul sees clearly that there is no hope that way. There is no other gospel.

This is Paul's major, overriding concern, but he also has another. He illustrates this with his story about Cephas (i.e. Peter) in Chapter 2.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

What's happening here? First, the church is being divided down the middle, Gentiles on one side, Jews on the other. Although Paul doesn't say as much, there is a clear implication of superiority - the Jews will not eat with the Gentiles because they are unclean. Hence the church begins to define two classes of Christians, an inner circle and an outer circle. You can only enter the inner circle by going through the formal rites of Judaism, including circumcision. This is contrary to the Gospel. If we are all saved by grace, through our faith in Christ, there can be no question of some of us being superior to others. Jesus is the only one who can be considered superior. It pushes us back to the focus on externals which Jesus taught his followers to rise above.

Along with this comes the charge of hypocrisy, which Paul levels at Peter in just the same way that Jesus levels it at the Pharisees. Peter stops associating with Gentiles not because he believes he should but because he is afraid of what other powerful people (especially James) will think of him. He begins to conceal his true thoughts and motives behind a facade of obedience. He becomes a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is the opposite of faith, because if we keep front and centre the fact that we are saved by faith we will be able to admit our own weaknesses and failings, and we will be able to accept those of others knowing we are liable to the same.

This might seem like a dry academic subject. Here in Australia the church does not really face the pressing problem of Jewish Christians trying to make us all obey the Torah. Yet moving beyond the accident of history, the central problems faced by the Galatians are faced by Christians in every age.

First of all, we are continually confronted by the temptation to focus on externals and make them the definition of our faith. The 21st century church is full of such controversies. Should women speak in church or be silent? Should communion be served in little individual cups, or in a single cup passed hand to hand? Should all Christians speak in tongues, or is speaking in tongues evil? Should we baptise babies, or only those who are old enough to make their own profession of faith? Which wording of the Nicene Creed is correct? Will the millennium come before Jesus' return, or after?

Each of these issues, and many others besides, have led to Christians separating themselves off from one another, hurling abuse at each other across sectarian lines. Some of them have even been a contributing factor in people going to war, or in acts of political repression involving the imprisonment and execution of heretics by other professing Christians. 

Where these divisions are so fierce, hypocrisy cannot be far behind. If we fear disapproval, excommunication, punishment in one form or another, we have a strong incentive to conceal what we really believe, to do what we do behind closed doors to avoid prying eyes. Who can say they haven't done this? I know I have.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are saved by grace, and that these questions and practices are peripheral to our faith. Not that any of them are wrong in themselves, but that they only have any meaning in the context of our faith in Christ. The life of faith is the life of learning and relearning humility and resisting hypocrisy, of unmasking and standing up to our inner Pharisee. We could obey every external practice of the Anglican church (or whatever other denomination we find ourselves in) and still not be righteous. We only become righteous through faith in Christ, through repenting and seeking forgiveness. Everything else in our life of faith comes from this, and leads back to this. The moment we forget it we are preaching another gospel, and that is not good news.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Military Madness

I'm in the middle of reading some of the religious works Leo Tolstoy wrote at the end of his life.  I'll tell you all about it some other time.  In the meantime, here's something he says in The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894.

The basis of authority is bodily violence.  The possibility of applying bodily violence to people is provided above all by by an organisation of armed men, trained to act in unison in submission to one will.  These bands of armed men, submissive to a single will, are what constitute the army.  The army has always been and still is the basis of power.  Power is always in the hands of those who control the army, and all men in power - from the Roman Caesars to the Russian and German Emperors - take more interest in their army than in anything, and court popularity in the army, knowing that if that is on their side their power is secure.

In Australia over the century or so since federation we have been extremely fortunate that our army has had a very low profile in public life.  Aside from the two World Wars, where we had large numbers of soldiers actively engaged in warfare, our military has generally steered clear of public life, playing a very narrow role in defence and military cooperation with allies.

You don't have to watch many news bulletins, even here in insular Australia, to see how unusual this is in global terms.  In our own region a number of countries, including Fiji and Burma/Myanmar, are openly ruled by their armies.  In Indonesia, our closest neighbour, it's only in the last 15 years that the role of the military has been downgraded in political life, and even then the outgoing president is a former general.  In Cambodia Hun Sen became president despite Prince Norodom Ranariddh gaining the majority vote, by the simple expedient of calling out the army and forcing his rival into a power-sharing arrangement.

Once you look further afield, the power of the military is even more obvious.  In Egypt, the military has intervened twice, once to get rid of Hosni Mubarak and again to depose his elected successor Mohammed Morsi.  Whoever ends up president will only retain power by courting the generals and bowing to their will.  In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has retained power for over 30 years by granting special favours to the military and police and then letting them loose to intimidate voters during elections.  In Russia Vladimir Putin has subverted the early promise of democracy in the post-Soviet state by using the military and police apparatus to shut down dissent.  Even in the USA, which likes to see itself as the bastion of liberal democracy, the military has a powerful background role in politics underlined by the frequency with which the President is referred to as the "Commander-in-Chief".

So perhaps you will be able to understand why, having read Tolstoy and reflected on the global situation, I have this little niggling worry about Australia.  I don't think we are about to become a military dictatorship - not in the near future, anyway - but I have noticed over the past 10 or 15 years that the military is gradually extending its fingers into areas of public life it never touched before.

Some of these areas are quite benign and even helpful.  Military personnel were very visible in the flood cleanups around Queensland over the past few years and communities were delighted to have them involved.  They have also played ceremonial roles in various key sports events recently which seems unnecessary but not especially harmful.

On the other hand, I'm perplexed by the recent trend of appointing high-ranking officers as State Governors and Commonwealth Governors-General.  Of course these positions are largely ceremonial and have little real power, but they are officially the highest office of state, and in times of constitutional crisis (hung parliaments and so forth) they play a key role in brokering governance arrangements.  Over the history of Australia since feneration these roles have been almost exclusively reserved for senior judges or lawyers and retired politicians - in other words, people with a intimate understanding of the workings of our constitution.  Yet in recent years both Queensland and the Commonwealth have appointed high ranking military officers to these posts.  General Peter Cosgrove, probably Australia's most recognisable military figure, is about to take up a five year term as Governor-General.

Of course it will come as no surprise to you that I am even more concerned at the way our current government has turned the implementation of asylum seeker policy over to the military.  This is not just because they are doing such a terrible job (or perhaps implementing a terrible policy very well) but because we have basically taken an area of civil responsibility - a key aspect of immigration law - and handed it over to the military.  This is equivalent to declaring war on asylum seekers and subjecting them to a military operation, where what is required is an administrative and legal process.

All this worries me for two reasons.  One is that I don't like the idea of our military becoming prominent in civil affairs, given the record of military organisations around the world.  You never see a military intervention in civilian affairs that results in greater freedom and democracy, but you see plenty that result in the installation of repressive authoritarian regimes.  This is how the military works - the people at the top give the orders, the rest carry them out.  Good for waging war, disastrous for anything else.

My second worry is that the military are simply not trained for these civilian roles, and tend not to do them very well.  We saw this in East Timor, the engagement which did more to rehabilitate the public image of the Australian military than any other.  As the Indonesian military withdrew from East Timor, the Australian SAS came in and secured the country against the rag-tag militia the Indonesians had left behind to make trouble.  However, once this had been achieved they found their role increasingly became about law and order as violence and crime spiralled in the vacuum left by the departing Indonesians.  They were out of their depth.  They knew nothing about investigating and responding to crime.  The Australian Government seconded a number of police officers to the operation, since this is what police do well, and the response immediately improved.

If you bring the military into anything, they will act as a military.  They will operate in any situation as if it were a war.  When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.  If we don't want more and more things in our society to become war-like, then we need to keep the military out of them.

So despite my recent harsh words about Graham Nash, here's a little song to reinforce the point.

Saturday, 1 March 2014


Speaking of Syd Barrett, as I was, here's what I think is probably Syd's cleverest and most revealing song, and certainly one of his most popular - Bike.  It's the last song on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and it appears on virtually every Pink Floyd compilation you could lay your hands on.  Written at the latest in early 1967, it also sheds some very disturbing light on Barrett's state of mind well before any obvious symptoms of mental illness started to appear.

Perhaps the closest comparison to this song among Pink Floyd's contemporaries is The Beatles' Can't Buy Me Love, written mostly by Paul McCartney and recorded in 1964.

Pink Floyd and The Beatles weren't exactly friends but there was a lot more contact between them than you might imagine.  Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney attended early Floyd performances.  Yoko Ono was a regular at the UFO Club where Floyd cut their teeth, staging semi-improvised pieces of performance art in between musical sets.  Norman Smith, who produced The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was a protege of Beatles' producer George Martin and worked as an engineer on early Beatles albums.  While Pink Floyd were working in Abbey Road's Studio 3 making Piper, The Beatles were next door in the more palatial Studio 2 recording Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  While Smith was firmly pushing Pink Floyd away from psychedelia towards a more commercial sound, his mentor was assisting The Beatles to become more psychedelic.

Bike and Can't Buy Me Love share a similar theme, a disdain for worldly wealth and a willingness to give it away.  McCartney expresses this in highly conventional terms.  He can only think of one gift to offer and it is that most stereotypical of love tokens, a diamond ring.  He is also prepared to offer other gifts, but these are left unspecified.  The ring is a very external object, something you would go to a jeweller's and buy specifically for your love, the gift of a wealthy man which, by 1964, McCartney well and truly was.

McCartney's reason for scorning wealth is also highly conventional.  Money can't buy him love.  It may buy him favour and he is prepared to purchase this, but he is aware of higher values.  There is of course a further subtext because the diamond ring implies an offer of marriage.  It seems that McCartney is prepared to take this step, but he understands as a man besieged by gold diggers that it must be based on something more than the love of his riches.  In the end McCartney leaves me unconvinced.  His scorn for wealth, in the context of this object that means nothing to him and his conventional love-life, seems like a mere pose.

Can't Buy Me Love really doesn't bear much further analysis.  Its lyric is superficial, words to hang on the catchy tune that accompanies it.  Bike, on the other hand, is a remarkable piece of songwriting and Exhibit A in the explanation for why Barrett has been so idolised despite his career being over almost before it had begun.

For a start, this song is completely driven by its lyric.  McCartney, like most songwriters, shaped his words to fit into a strict, predetermined song structure.  Each verse has the same number of lines, of the same length, with rhyming words at the end.  Barrett cheerfully throws all this out of the window.  His lines and verses vary in length.  Rhymes, half-rhymes and alliterations appear in odd places. The words run and tumble over each other like a slightly manic conversation.  This means that musically each verse has to be slightly different and it gives the song an improvisational quality that even John Lennon's most scatological songs never attained.  Rather than use the music to mask this unevenness, he further emphasises it with abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics.

Secondly, Syd's scorn for possessions is entirely convincing.  It is plain that he has made no effort to acquire objects of value.  Only two of the things on offer even belong to him (the bike is borrowed, the mouse appears to belong to himself, even the gingerbread men are of uncertain ownership), and everything on offer is meagre and shabby.  Yet his generosity is so much greater than McCartney's, just as the poor widow who gave two pennies gave a greater gift than the rich man who gave a large sum.  The disdain with which he offers them is even more convincing.  "I'll give you anything, everything if you want things" implies that wanting things seems odd to him.

This is a lyric that invites you to dig deeper.  Each of the objects on offer tells you something about the singer.  The bike, as well as being borrowed, places him as a child or at least as child-like.  He has not yet graduated to owning a car, let alone a rock star limousine.  He has not yet travelled far from home, and this song is not so far from the nursery rhymes which inspire much of Syd's songwriting.  Syd did eventually own cars, but he continued to ride a bike until the end of his life.

A cloak is a symbol of nobility and status but in keeping with the child-like scene this one appears to be a dress-up.  It also seems to be a little tattered, although the fact that the tear is up the front may be a joke at the listeners' expense given that a cloak does not have a front.  In any case, Syd does not claim any special status for himself.  As his fame grew he became less and less comfortable with it.  He was quite happy to give it away.

The mouse in this tale is almost a person rather than a thing.  Certainly he has a name, Gerald, and the singer knows him rather than owning him.  Yet he is a sad specimen.  He is ageing (we know mice don't live long) and he is homeless, almost unheard of for a mouse which can nest wherever he can find space. Gerald is like Syd, renting rooms in a series of chaotic share houses and spending half his life on the road staying in cheap hotels.

The gingerbread men, of course, remind us of the popular children's tale in which the gingerbread man leaps off the plate and leads his pursuers a merry chase across the countryside, taunting them as he goes - "run, run as fast as you can, you can't catch me I'm the gingerbread man".  Syd has not one, but a whole clan of them and it is not clear where they are.  Are they on the dish, or are they all around the room?  Like Gerald, they have a life of their own.  Unlike Gerald, who seems harmless and a little forlorn, these guys could get up to some serious mischief.

Finally, we have the "room of musical tunes".  This verse is, on one level, the musician's equivalent of asking the young woman upstairs to see his etchings.  Yet I also suspect that the "room" is his head, in which the tunes reside.  They are musical only in the broadest sense of the term, as he tells us - "some chime, some ching, most of them are clockwork".  Indeed!  As the couple walk down the hall and open the door you hear not a tune, or even a set of tunes, but a cacophony of apparently random sounds.  This is the chaotic noise which inhabits Syd's head and which his friend or lover is being asked to share.

Paul McCartney didn't care much for money because he valued love more.  On the other hand, it's not clear why Syd doesn't care for possessions.  He just doesn't.  Although Bike could be heard as a love song, love is not actually mentioned.  Instead there is a kind of narcissism.  "You're the kind of girl who fits in with my world".  Given the world Syd describes in the verses this is not much of a compliment.  It is almost a brush-off.  This is a meagre, shabby, disjointed world, narcissistic in a charming, child-like way.  If you have come to this, perhaps you had better take a close look at your life.

Only a few of Syd's songs rise to this height.  I wish there had been more.