Saturday, 30 August 2014

All Things Must Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

God the Artist, We His Images

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

The first of the readings comes from Psalm 139.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 August 2014

More Lives of Jesus 9: Geza Vermes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Trouble With Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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