Category Archives: spirituality

Christmas isn’t about giving

From the line “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” we get two disturbing directives: that because God gave us his Son at Christmas, we must give to each other, and to charity.  And we must give generously.

Why? Because retail needs you; the majority of its annual taking is acquired around Christmas. Your city, nay country’s economy depends on your buying into the consumerism that Christmas has become an excuse, if not a byword for. It’s celebrating capitalism – both the dream of fluffy families, and of love being shown by gifts, sometimes which are unsuitable, and which creates debts and fear to fulfil. The debt industry also does well out of Christmas, using social expectation to goad us into showing affection and thus our worth by what we have purchased or provided. (I note that many old ‘debts’ are revived at Christmas – collections agencies are active at this time of year and I find that especially reprehensible). Love is shown through stuff, say these prophets of Mamon, and status is shown through stuff. As kids and teens we asked each other, “what did you get?” As older people, it may become “who are you with?” or “what will you give?” All these questions are about acquisitions.

In my family, we give the presents of our presence with one another.

As for the other giving – to charity – the logic there also mystifies me. Charity of course can include church funds as well as special appeals.

There is a practical predicament – that if we are doing 1) above, we are more limited in 2). Those of us not receiving Christmas bonuses from work, or involved in retail or entertainment, will be stretched to pay for Christmas gifts, food, travel, work outings and parties. And on top of this – winter bills. So why do charities feel that this is a time for them to benefit out of already scooped out resources?

It’s actually supply and demand, and a captive market: capitalise on the full pews at Christmas services, and that non-attenders will attend at this time of year. Give them a bit of hearty cheer, bit of entertainment, some traditional refreshments, and they’ll fill the offering bowls. As cute kids pick noses in quilted quasi middle eastern costumes, or surly shepherds bark out local lines, as we sing cultural favourites, with or without personal meaning for us, there’s a trade off: we’ve provided your traditional seasonal needs – now stuff those little envelopes.

Charity is rather a nebulous term, for it refers to a legal set up of an entity, not necessarily good work. Are all charities automatically ‘worthy causes’? Are their causes fought for in a worthy way? Many of us are concerned that what we give isn’t going to help the cause that we’re touched by, or that the charity’s means of doing so is dubious. My experience of Oxfam revealed it to be a hardheaded disorganised business with charitable status that makes its logline ‘make poverty history’ ironic in the way it remunerates its staff – or doesn’t. A popular Christmas charitable cause, the Salvation Army support and administer workfare, which is a form of modern slavery. Do other charities involve enforced medication or proselytisation or animal cruelty in the name of care?

It’s worth asking for more information than is on those begging leaflets.

I’ve also seen a church run an alternative service which was all about the assumption that none of us could relate to the themed suffering connected to the nativity story. Not that the leaders got to know us well enough to know what we were going through. But we were expected to channel our pity into one bucket, going to Christian Aid, as a sleight of hand from solidarity to financial support.

Perhaps one could argue that this drive to donate is a natural extension of pass it on, pay it forward – we’ve got a gift, so gift to someone else. Don’t only give to those you know or who will give back. Yes, there’s a Bible verse to support that.

But if we need to seek a biblical mandate for our actions and beliefs – and I don’t think we do – then be aware that this giving at Christmas, or because of Christmas, isn’t in scripture.

Checking a concordance reveals that Biblical mentions of gifts or giving are about

1 – thanks and praise to the Lord

2 – sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament

3 – spiritual gifts in the New

and the nearest we get about the gift of Jesus is of God’s grace. Even the 2 Cor 9:15 passage I started with isn’t directly about Jesus’ entry into the world.

I’ve known the offertory hymn be “Give Thanks” – for God has given Christ his Son, but the verse and idea that chorus is based on is under point 3 – gratitude; and the upshot is the poor feeling rich – not so that they do a widow at the temple and pour their meagre funds into their place of worship.

The consequence of John 3:16 – the most famous verse about God’s giving his Son – is that there’s no condemnation for believers, but instead eternal life. It’s a verse I now find less palatable, for it pairs gifts with threats. Perhaps exhortations to give also have a dark side.

And many theologians would argue that the real gift of Jesus wasn’t so much his being born – that is necessary for the rest – or even, just his ministry, although his teachings impress and inspire even nonchristians. No, Jesus’ ultimate mission was his death and resurrection. Hence the real showing of God’s grace, the ultimate gift of Jesus’ earthly life, is in the cross and tomb. Yet Easter giving is much less than at Christmas– eggs abound, but not parties, presents, donations or consumerism.

So Christmas giving is not a scriptural mandate. In John 10, Jesus gave ‘a new commandment to love one another as I have loved you. By this will all know that you are my disciples….’

Love does not have to include gift aid envelopes and big cheques, queues in department stores, debts and guilt. Jesus’ real gift dealt with guilt and shows us that God’s love subverts earthly ethos.

If you want to use Christmas as a time to give, then do, but I encourage thinking carefully about the charity you support. If you want to buy presents, I’m not exhorting you to stop. But I am exhorting: stop manipulating us, advertisers, and stop twisting Christmas into a major revenue collection time under the guise of seasonal spirit, or worse, Christian duty.

Stop using peer pressure of offering buckets and sad eyes of supposed recipients.

I like that it’s the birth, rather than the death, which we celebrate as a gift, making the whole of Jesus’ life matter, and not fixating on his cruel end. The fuss about Christmas stems from mainstream attempts to gazump the major Pagan festival of Solstice and Yuletide, although we’ve made Christmas pagan with a small p: it’s usurped by secular Western culture; actual Pagans are very spiritual people and this season is very meaningful to them and considered a High Holy Day. Here, Christians are doing as the pagans with small p do.

Christmas is not a time of giving, by any theological or scriptural or even logical discourse. Christmas is a time to celebrate a particular gift which – and not store vouchers – is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Or rather – a once for all gift that produces grace ad infinitum, all year round.

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What I think of Christians at Pride

There was quite a noisy group at my recent most local LGBT etc Pride, who now have a prominent stall. They have their own uniforms – a T-shirt with a slogan which matches their banner; and then a self styled one of rainbow dog collars… for these are Christians, and several are clergy.

On one hand, it’s to be applauded that this group is there and is trying to be visible, despite the fact that some other Christians criticise them. I also overheard a flag clad woman holding the hand of another comment: I hate it when the Church tries to join in with our day.

And I – a woman on the outer edges of both worlds – understood that.

The Christians in the parade want to say: we accept you, LGBT+ people. (Often they mean just gay… I’m not sure churches have got their heads round all the letters yet.) They acknowledge that Christianity and other faiths have hitherto persecuted their gay siblings – and some still do.

I’d like to point out that the notion that same sex love as being something to decry and exclude over has come from faith groups.

Many of those who still judge homosexuals are those with a conservative faith.

So one could say that the need for Pride came out of religious prohibition, which influenced laws and morals and medicine, so that what denounces LGBT people can be traced to faith roots.

Hence, it’s brave but ironic that there is a Christian presence at Pride.

Sadly like many, I have experienced struggle in coming to terms with not being heterosexual, especially as a woman of faith. I’ve written and published a novel about it, which is available to buy from many online sources, called Parallel Spirals. There will be a sequel.

I happen to know that many of the people on the Christian stall and march are not LGBT. They’re allies, but they have not experienced the challenges of the realisation that you are other, and that otherness may not be welcome. They have not sat in a pew (or sofa with a smoothie, if you’re that kind of church) wondering if the message of God’s love and theirs will still apply if this church really knew them and who they loved. Would they still get a hug (or even a handshake) in the peace; would they still get an invite to homegroups or youth or elder groups or those endless barbecues or garden parties if the truth about them was known? Would they still be allowed their positions of leadership if it was known what they were really like? Do these church people know what it’s like to earnestly search scripture to see if they really are condemned? NO YOU AREN’T, by the way!! Do they have to hear exhortions about the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and the inevitable family you’re supposed to have, and feel nervous and excluded? Have they had to put up with people who have – almost for granted – what you don’t, and tell you that you can’t have it – namely marriage and family?

Of course, nongay people in church have other kinds of suffering and misfitting, and it might allow them to have great empathy and solidarity with the people that Pink Pride is about. I’ve heard people speak of other kinds of otherness… it’s not only LGBT people who feel a sense of not fitting, if not exclusion, in their faith communities.

But some seem to be presumptious and patronising. Is it fair to say it’s like white people in a Black celebration saying “We weren’t slaves ourselves, but we do know how you feel”? Of course it’s their way of saying – you never should have been, and we stand with you to show we’re not part of that. We see the well-meaning as much as we might cringe at the execution.

It’s also easy for the oppressed to allow no outsiders to sympathise. Am I angry at men against  violence against women in White Ribbon? Have I not applauded those who stand with something they’re not? Would I not march in solidarity with something  I care about, and be put off if I was told that I had no right to, as I’m outside the oppressed group?

I observed this tribe within a tribe with bemusement, oblivious to how their rainbow stickers and collars seemed amongst the outre costumes, squirting their God’s love like bubbles to passers by with the proffering of a gay positive sticker and a few words…but these little interactions felt like that delicate transient rainbow film.

Or actually, was that bubble the start of a new idea, a new relationship?

So am I saying that Christians shouldn’t have a stall at Pride? Am I saying that their well intentioned solidarity is wrong? No…but am am saying: your message has to be relevant and congruent and consistent, and be aware of how it looks from the other side. Don’t pretend you easily understand when you don’t… But actually, you might. And yes, I do think my novel can help with that. Listen to LGBT people and hear their stories. It will mean really chatting – often in a way that you can’t at fast moving, raucous Prides – and really sitting with them, being prepared to follow up, and to hear how LGBT+ people feel about faith and church and what it’s done to them. And to put it right and show a better way. As I know you can.

And actually, I’m quite touched that a group gives up its day to show that solidarity for something they aren’t, risking censure from both sides, and to transform the view and relationship from judgement and exclusion into love and welcome.

 

 

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Elspeth’s Easter message

Why we should have Table Turning Tuesday

When Christians – especially of a more Catholic bent – celebrate Easter, the focus is on the cross. Yet if Holy Week is about recalling and re-enacting the run up to Easter events in real time, why do we spend nearly all the week on the being crucified part?

I’ve seen Palm Sunday processions – even with a donkey. And I’ve seen Passion plays – even in shopping centres. Yet have you ever heard of an al fresco Stone Rolling enactment? Ever seen those angels or those terrified guards? The Emmaus Road couple, or the Upper Room? We think of the Last Supper – every day, if you’re high church – but not the next gathering of the disciples with the Risen Jesus.

I also noted that the traditional events of Holy Week involve turning of temple tables, and much preaching and speaking out. Before he’s arrested, Jesus is busy in the capital.

I note some call the Weds Spy Weds, but we don’t have Table Monday or Temple Tues.

Why do we miss the parts which question structures, the bits not so passion orientated – but they are of, course. These are as much part of the message as the dying part – plenty of passion here! His ire at the temple’s abuses. Healing. He also spent his not quite last week telling parables, predicting his return, and outwitting Pharisees.

There is often much about suffering – Christ’s and our own – and the whole week can feel a dour one. Lots of prostration, kneeling – and repetition. But less about justice – and that doesn’t count your church’s lent appeal.  And less about joy.

My reason for having a faith isn’t to wallow in sorrow, pain, guilt…

Today, Easter day, is one of joy. It’s celebrating the turning point of history, the reason for being. Jesus came ‘so that we may have life to the full’. But I hear that proclaimed far too seldom.  As well as the Resurrection, I’d like to see more of a focus on Jesus’ response to the temple authorities, and for that to be appropriated to modern times.

Another year, I want to see those doves scattered…

 

 

 

 

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Greenbelt and me and that book of mine

Today is the official start of a festival known very much to a those of a certain Christian ilk. It’s been running over 40 years around various parts of England, sometimes in the grounds of stately homes, sometimes on a racecourse.

In the words of something very close to me

“Greenbelt was devoid of the very things that put me off all other forms of Christian holiday. It had a firm focus on music and the experimental, was theologically liberal to the point of sometimes being shocking, and therefore attracted interesting people.”

Born at a similar time to the festival – which also began in the same county – I went to my first Greenbelt in 1990, in Northants, just as I was becoming old enough to be autonomous. It was a rebellious thing to do for someone of my background. My Dad’s response to my wish to go was “pass the vinegar”!

I came back shocked and recall writing to the festival’s chair and receiving a generic reply, including things that I hadn’t. Clearly many others had been unhappy too.

I can’t remember much about why – just that Greenbelt didn’t match my idea of Christianity. One reason that was its focus on social justice, not gospel spreading, and its toleration of issues like homosexuality. Ironies coming up…

Curiously one thing I do recall complaining about (for his book called “Cleaning the Bog and other spiritual gifts”) was a writer I embraced later on. I was reading the late Mike Yaconelli’s book “Dangerous Wonder” just last night. His talks involved the biggest queues of the festival, yet he was moved every year, and surprised, fearing that next year, they wouldn’t come. Perhaps I find his book a little juvenile now, with its stories of waterbombing and other pranks, but I love his spirit – real, passionate living, and a God who is much more into loving us than berating us and getting it right.

It took me 6 years to try Greenbelt again – now a postgraduate, a little broader of mind and less easily shocked. This time I had a little epiphany – one I couldn’t share with my housemate and her church, who’d tutted at me for going to GB – and I made some large and sudden lifestyle decisions because of that.

As a composing musician, the music at Greenbelt was important; a highlight was seeing Iona at the only full band gig of theirs I ever attended. But the book tent, people, ideas and new ways to worship were also of interest.

I went back the next year, but felt that the mud and the lank hair and skank feeling of no proper washing outdid the things I enjoyed. I vowed I would not camp again.

Then Greenbelt moved – further from me, but into new student halls of residences for the over 25s – happily an age I’d recently passed – and onto the tarmac of Cheltenham racecourse. I enjoyed discovering Cheltenham – my first spa town – and having a town close enough to take a break from the long weekend of festivalling, which can get quite intense and insular. Spiritually, it still felt appealed.  At last, Greenbelt and I were a best fit, although it was smaller and less atmospheric than its Northants days.

Now that Safe Space for LGB Christians felt different.

In 2007, I was living close enough to attend Greenbelt for a day. I started calling my spirituality Glastonbury rather than Canterbury. I was going to an alternative branch of the latter who didn’t approve of the former. I was no longer in the Christian pop music loop and found most solace in a tent of contemplation, and a spiritual advisor. I listened to Yaconelli’s son and felt that whilst the voice was recognisable, I wasn’t finding the ghost of the father through him. Nor did Mike’s own books work so well for me now.

I now cared very about social justice and I embraced the inclusion that Greenbelt showed, but it strangely felt that it, not I, was more conservative. It had taken steps back to towards it more evangelical roots while I’d pole vaulted from mine. We had passed each other like comets, riding together for a time, and veering into disparate directions.

I wasn’t sorry to leave and to explore Cheltenham. I felt that I’d be unlikely to go again – especially as Greenbelt left that site and reverted to camping.

So why is Greenbelt something I’m writing about now, except that it’s now happening?

Because those Cheltenham visits inspired scenes in my new novel, all about that Safe Space, those seminars where evangelical and liberal meet, where social justice and faith come together. It’s the final chapter.

I think it may be for me and Greenbelt. I approached them to share the novel – naturally – as I’d not only given them a few thousand words of space in it at the most crucial point, but its being all about the kind of things its attendees care about, such as modern church life and those that are a bit different.

But I found that the social justice they preach wasn’t being practised. The book tent has a contract to exclusively sell books on the site and it wants 50% of the cover price to sell yours – though it excludes self published ones when they’ve little space. I pointed out that most books don’t have that cut to spare and this causes the author and publisher – which are both me – who’s spend perhaps years crafting the book, to make a loss. I was asked to send a free copy to the team for a possible social media mention. A 40 year old festival commanding tens od thousands of £150 tickets each year, asking a new self published author in financial struggle to send a book for them to consider a tweet?

Hence I’m not at Boughton House near Kettering this weekend and may not be again.

But I do hope some festivallers – past and present – might enjoy reliving those Cheltenham years and joining in my fictional weekend at the pivotal point of other Elspeth’s journey.

You don’t know what I mean, and you’d like to?

Then go to http://www.parallel-spirals.webs.com.

More about the fairness of publishing will be appearing on this site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hail, Caesar – he is Risen

This week I saw two new films, each featuring a Fiennes brother, about a Roman tribune (senior soldier) who encounters Jesus at the end of his life.

I bet I’m one of few to have seen both, because Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes, hardly got any theatrical release. In my city, only one cinema had it, for one week, only twice a day at awkward times, pulling it before the Easter weekend it is all about. Thus its low audience numbers were self fulfilled. And it’s gone before, like the disciples at the tomb, I could go and tell anyone else to come and see it.

I am also one of the few drawing a comparison between these films, because the subtitle of the film within film, Hail Caesar, is not mentioned in any cinema brochure I’ve read. Along with other inaccuracies, it is called “a sword and sandal” epic. But there’s no sword fights and no George Clooney is not Caesar – he encounters a more paradoxical alien leader. There’s a scene where the religious leaders whom the studio is trying to placate discuss the nature of the incarnation (interesting for Jewish film makers), a beautiful closing speech at the foot of the cross (for which scene the crucified actors received “hardship pay”) and confusingly, a section featuring Saul of Tarsus with a title card “Divine Intervention to Be Inserted”.

Risen also consulted with Christians to avoid upsets, and likewise, found them happy – though I was not at the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. This is not in the Bible and even Catholics – who pretended she was – have officially un-tarted her now. Hasn’t the writers heard of even the Di Vinci Code and who Mary is believed to be by many? She’s Jesus’ no 2, covered up by Peter ‘I want the Keys just for Me’ and friends.

Both films had powerful and profound moments, but the tones were very different. Hail Caesar was often funny, though most of my laughs were at the points described above; the studio debacles often did little for me. I am not a proponent of the multiple storyline and so I wished we spent more time with Rome and Jerusalem, and less (or none) in aquariums, deserts, drawing rooms and bars filled with sailors who sang about the lack of dames at sea, by by their antics (some dance moves were suggestive of a number just before 70) they were not sorry. Not all the characters really fitted together, and I found were by some rather conspicuous sewing.

Risen had no humour and was for the first part often brutal, opening as a high budget and adrenaline thriller, just incase you thought this was for church halls. I think it is a film for church halls, though not for families or sensitive people of any age. The usually doe eyed, gentle and sensitive Joseph Fiennes is harsh, interrogative and even murderous as Tribune Clavius. I found it hard to watch him being so unjust and bullying. He is one of a few well known actors in the film, such as Peter Firth from Spooks as Pilate, who pushes Clavius to find Jesus’ missing body because Pilate fears the next tier of the chain – his emperor.

The brutality in the Coen’s film – some of which was verbal threat – was from film studio producer Eddie Mannix, fixer of any legal and publicity embarrassments. I hated Eddie (Josh Brolin) for hitting Baird (that’s Clooney) and silencing his communist sympathies. Eddie becomes the tribune, the old kind of God – telling people what to do, what to think, and what they can know; judging by narrow standards, being non-negotiable and using perceived virtue to guide those in his care; and of course, money.

Both tribunes alter at the experience of Jesus, yet Joseph’s conversion feels more like a Christian Union mission film. I am trying to work out why. Did I feel the disciples too spacey and squeaky good? Was I angry that they never fought back? Was it the snippets of their sermons on the beach? But wouldn’t frightened, crushed followers feel exonerated and empowered and impervious to threat if they thought their leader was truly alive again?

The Coen brothers leave us, as so many Jesus films and plays, with him on the cross – yet for George’s tribune, even then, it is enough to change him. The makers of Risen (and Waterworld) let us see Jesus to the end of his earthly life (I was going to say, off the premises), but the ascension is more of a disappearance into the sunset – ET had a more memorable and convincing take off. They obviously didn’t have the budget to show us what the guards at the tomb saw either – shame as modern film is wonderful for bringing such stories to us visually.

The Coen’s Jesus is a back of a rather strawberry blond head and a pair of feet on a maximum comfort cross. Risen features Cliff Curtis – is this the first Maori Christ? – whose face has have the expected unnerving quality, but his less conventional Messiah looks and Tears For Fears hairstyle also slightly beguile and unsettle. However, he behaved like we like to think of Jesus – in the imaginary last miracle where he truly saw and loved the person he healed.

What was hardest for me was reconciling the kind of Jesus we want to believe in – like this – to the one who actually appears to be in the gospel. I’ve been at a study group where we heard that one writer thinks that Jesus snorts in fury at his healees; a Jesus whose first line in John’s gospel is a snap at would-be followers; a Jesus who is incredibly rude to that Gentile lady seeking healing for her son… Commentators let him off by saying, he must have meant…ah, but really he knew…   Is this disciples and early church fathers scribbling in, or…? I’ve written an article on this before. I nearly entitled it “Going off Jesus.” It doesn’t affect my relationship with God, but this is the central person who makes Christians distinct. So where does that take me…?

It’s a search I continue. Meanwhile, I found these films as worthwhile as any church service and yet not exclusive of those not seeking a spiritual message this Easter.

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Labyrinth – a spiritual parable

Several cinemas put on impromptu screenings of David Bowie’s films in tribute to his recent death. Having never actually seen the already cult 1980s Labyrinth, I went to a packed cinema to find out what he, those muppets and the young Jennifer Connelly got up to.

And I took along my spiritual specs. Good job, for as a tale in itself, or even entertainment, Labyrinth was not scintillatingly brilliant. But as a fairy tale, a myth with a meaning… a crazy story with some rock songs and a farting bog becomes, like most myths, something much more profound. After all, what are stories for?

Jennifer’s character Sarah can’t even see the entrance to the maze, but it is right in front her. Once inside, she can only see high neverending walls, but something lowly that she’d write off (a hospitable worm) shows her that what she perceives isn’t the only possibility: there are portals everywhere, which she much approach to see. Sarah befriends the unlikely and those who believe they cannot have friends. She learns to trust and be wary, and sometimes, to take a risk with the former. People she’d overlook (her huge but simple furry beast friend, Ludo) have powers she’d not thought of. Friendship with nature means it can be asked to work for you (those rocks becoming stepping stones out of the Bog of Eternal Stench). The worst the Goblin King can do to Sarah, he believes, is to send her back to the start, assuming she’ll give up. But Sarah learns persistence as much as courage. She is not deterred by the stone faces who give out doom warnings – they are programmed to and know they are false. The Goblin King tries to distract her, beguile her, but she smashes though his vision and returns to her quest. She bemoans that she’s made little progress and even feels as if she’s going backwards, but the not very forthcoming soothsayer with a bird on his head speaks truth when he says it only seems that way. The junk people try to fill her up with what she doesn’t need, and send her to her room at home where it’s safe. But she sees her many childish trappings for what they are and prepares to shed them and to share one she got possessive over at the start. She returns to the bleak junk yard to see that she is almost at her destination. She realises that though friends are on hand, she must fight the Goblin King alone. He scared her at the start and tries to off put her by changing perspective, but she literally takes a leap of faith to complete her mission and to make him face her. And then there are the interesting words that Goblin King Jareth speaks to her, saying he gave her what she asked. She wanted her pesky baby brother taken – he did. He did it all for her, Jareth claims. He did give Sarah gifts – for she has had an adventure as good as anything she reads in her many books. She has had the opportunity to forgive a betrayer (the gnome Hobble, who also has a learning curve) to offer and receive friendship, and for that courage and tenacity to develop. And perhaps to feel some protectiveness for the brother she resented. She finds use for the seemingly useless incantation she was learning at the start, and banishes the Goblin King by taking away his power over her. Sarah has learned compassion and become fearless. Has the King played a part to bring her out to her best?

This is not all a spirituality I believe in, but this would dovetail with the prevalent law of attraction thinking. It also involves some thoughts I’ve been having of my own.

 

 

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Seeking the Good Germans in Edith Cavell’s story

At the supermarket, I walked round dazed, feeling it sacrilege to walk aisles of tins after what I’d just been to. When asked what sort of day I’d had, I said – I’ve seen a woman tried and shot. Again.

This is part IV of Edith Cavell week.

I went to two other one woman shows, by JAC Intimate Productions and Broad Horizons, both again in Norwich’s Forum. And I’ve been to a talk and book signing “Faith Before the Firing Squad” by Catherine Butcher, as well as another exhibition at the Norfolk County archives, and words and music for Edith at St Peter Mancroft church – all still in Norwich.

I’ve seen the letter Edith’s mum got from Buckingham Palace after that firing squad. I’ve seen her copy of The Imitation of Christ with the prescient record of her own death. I heard she may’ve loved her cousin, to whom that book was inscribed.

Each thing I read or watch gives new information, some contradictory, some filling in a piece like a fat jigsaw. It’s all swirling about. But by the end of the week, much of it’s becoming familiar.

What’s missing still for me is that story; it is series of events more than a narrative.

Today I learned she was a fun loving woman. But Ediths of the stage seem as starched as those nursey sleeves of hers. She’s still not really in a relationship with anyone, although I know she picked up stray dogs and humans – I’m seeing a sort of magnetic compassion in Edith who built a family although she didn’t bear one herself. I felt myself wanting to meet the others in Edith’s story, for she interacts little – even with her own demons, as the premise of the Broad Horizon production promised.

The perspective I want to hear is that of the Germans. They are villains in this piece, but like the George Clooney and Cate Blanchett movie, I want to find Good Germans in this story.

What would have been better than doubling army subscription at home would have been for Edith’s death to change hearts of the German army and secret police. Yes I know what the Kaiser said. I know that a German rep laid a wreath at her London memorial for the first time this year. But what of a German’s change of heart?

What goes on in the heart of a Sgt Pinkoff or Lt Bergan? What kind of man was Pastor Le Seur who took her to the firing range and buried her? In Julie Ann Cooper’s play, Edith resists this German chaplain at first, and then sees it as her last life challenge. There is a good German. But he only got a part in one of the plays I’ve seen – the focus is on the Anglican chaplain he worked so hard to fetch.

I turn to the next war and to a German philosopher. Edith read several of these, as did her father at Heidelberg university. Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1960s that Nazi war criminal Eichmann was not debauched, but bland. His evil came through doing his duty without question. He never stopped to think and see people beyond what he had been told about them from his work and from the government. In Edith’s interrogator Pinkoff’s eyes, he too was following orders and doing his duty; Edith had broken the military code – even she agreed that – and this troublesome woman was rightly being stopped.

I’ve been thinking about how to stop such a machine – the duty, non thinking killing machine. What would I do if a foreign army came to occupy my country, as it has in the past, and as mine is doing now? I know that change of heart is the most powerful force for a literal revolution – turning round. I want to uncover a story of someone who was turned because of Edith and her friends. No I don’t mean they became Allied undercover agents. But that they saw a different way to live. That they couldn’t help but see her as a good human, not the enemy.

That she was a woman doesn’t make her death more shocking, because men’s lives aren’t more expendable or less valuable.

I was angered that it was alleged that as a non mother, Edith’s death was acceptable. Who we have in our lives or what biological functions we’ve exercised does not give meaning or greater importance. Edith was caring for many – two young women, two dogs, her mum, her nurses. and those many, many men – not just those who escaped, but those Germans too, whom she noted stalked into town with weary, damaged feet.

As I continue my search for Good Germans, I state again the perceptive words of a more contemporary one who suffered at a German army in her own country – and the warning exhortation to never stop thinking, never stop seeing people as human, and never to put duty before humanity.

I have decided that I do admire Edith because that’s what she did with her duty. Her soldier saving was an easy extension to her nurses’ philosophy – help and save lives.

The keeper of the Swardeston Collection (Edith’s natal village) called her a Good Samaritan in the Norwich diocese magazine. Yes, but only when she was binding German wounds.

I wasn’t comfortable with the Joan of Arc suggestion. She did not lead her country into battle – though her death was used as a call to do so, I don’t think that was what Edith was about at all. I heard evidence from Catherine Butcher that Edith was passionately patriotic, walking out of the room when the Queen was insulted, so perhaps her famous quote was actually a deathbed revelation for her. But news or no, it was a powerful realisation to share with the world. And I will be wearing a badge with it on poppy day.

There are two versions of Edith’s final speech. I prefer the less used one. Not having hatred and bitterness is a negative statement. She also says she must not have it – not that she doesn’t. It is another duty, an ideal state. The other version recorded by Rev Gahan, the chaplain who met with her on her last evening, is that “…it is not enough to loves one’s own people. One must love all men and hate none.”

Still, she did not speak actively of love and forgiveness; still it is an ideal, not something she is actually doing. But it one that those who hear her words can do.

It is here I want to leave Edith; and whatever I’ve said about allopathic medicine and propaganda, I do not think she intended to be used as a pawn and poster girl for either. She meant to do good, I think. I’d like to think that if she didn’t change any German hearts at the time, that those of that same ilk, of whatever uniform, could be changed now.

——

My vision for Edith’s old home                                                     

Edith provided a place of confidential safety when people were in need. There are already nursing homes named for her. I’d like the old vicarage or Cavell House in her natal village of Swardeston, Norfolk to be the Cavell house of Compassion and Contemplation; open to the public as a museum, to pray and meet, and also have a separate residential area with a warden – something like The Elsie Briggs House of Prayer in Westbury on Trym, Bristol, crossed with the Bronte parsonage and a safe house – for whatever the needs might be.

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Wrong Colour, wrong Shelby Spong

This is a long post, extended essay length, so be prepared to scroll!

Ten years ago, I wrote a book review for EF News called “Right Colour, Wrong Place – A Bishop rethinks sexuality.” It was my first introduction to John Shelby Spong. I felt him well meaning and an honest writer, but I queried many of his suggestions. Bravely for 1988, he was in support of gay people, but his reasoning – from dubious experiments that suggested faulty genes – was not welcomed. His science backed opinions remain pertinent to his writing and my problem with him.

I named that and this piece after a phrase from a board game, Mastermind. One person would hide a combination of beads under a hood, and the other would try to guess the colours and positions. One possible response from the player with the hood to the suggested combination was “Right colour, wrong place”.

Now I am less generous than when I wrote the article. I think both Spong’s colour and position are wrong.

Spong has only really featured for me one other time in the last decade, although I had heard others champion this American Episcopalian. The main mention of him was not by a champion, but a detractor. There are many in both camps.

A sermon of Nov 2009 against the now retired Spong elicited another article from me called Dangerous Preachers which I sent to that rural English evangelical Anglican. I described how the whole service seemed to make this vicar into the focus and position of power. He used the pulpit to proclaim his (ie the!) truth to his flock, illustrating his ire with Spong with Spong’s book that he wanted to throw away. “Now I know why I kept it – to show you and tell you not to read him”, said the vicar. He was working to ban Spong from visiting the diocese. He hadn’t read much of Spong’s book – he couldn’t bear to.

I had read a whole Spong book and reiterated his genuineness, and that for many, he has allowed them to continue in faith or come to it, when ministry such as in that rural church would have sent them away.

Now I’m in sympathy with that Suffolk parish church – not for trying to stop others from hearing or reading Spong – but in the struggle to read a whole Spong book. I have just done so, intensely so as not to spend more time on him than need be. I also wanted to throw it.

I had a spate of reading spiritual writers who I would not normally, including a former pope. I also tried a puritan and a biographer – the latter I will refer to later. He made me smile. Spong provided no such insight and amusement.

Spong had come back into my attention because I was researching Hosea, following hearing a sermon on the book. Both book and sermon made me angry.  A search for happier Hosea led me to Pastor Dawn’s blog who quoted Spong and his tome – Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. I do not share Pastor Dawn’s alacrity, nor do I feel – sadly – that I could join Spong in subtitling Hosea “The prophet who changed God’s name to Love”. Spong’s piece on Hosea was mostly his own retelling, adding details not in the text, and trying to recast the divinely mandated bullying on/off marriage as a love story. I see it as abuse of women.

The rest of Spong’s annoyingly hyphenated book has odd parallels with what he critiques.

Let me give an overview, as dense examination is not only too wordy but something I do not have the stomach for.

Immediately, I know I am showing signs of what I hated in that Suffolk parson and Spong’s other non-fan club. I am about unity and breadth, about calling many my sibling; and yet I realised I would struggle to do so of Spong.

I feel the ire of that evangelical minster who I now sympathise with to some extent. Spong is as rude about his kind as he was of Spong. Especially in the introduction.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a dissertation about the science of creationism and the theological problems of evolution. I was saddened and angered by the disparaging tone used even between evangelical Christians who disagreed with each other. I have seen such a tone used many times between differing beliefs of many persuasions. Like the Samaritans and Jews, the worst enmity is reserved for those whom you are related and who’ve compromised themselves – either by diluting purity, or by sticking too rigidly to it.

Spong often speaks against anti-Semitism, but he is inconsistent. He tells us that the Old Testament is propaganda for a pure one ruler Jewish nation, but that all the nasty misused texts of the Bible are New Testament. He forgets that there is fodder for genocide, misogyny, racism, war, brutality, animal cruelty and that the best (or worst) anti gay texts (whom he again tries to stick up for) are in the OT.

Of course, Spong doesn’t call the first part of the Bible the Old Testament – he is of the “Hebrew Bible” school. That to me undermines Christians and misses their understanding of the two covenants between God and humans. I call the OT the Hebrew Bible when amongst Jews, but I’ve had a phase of wondering if it really is the Hebrew Bible – is it of much relevance to non Jews, except as back story?

Spong is very much of the scholarship school that is about conformity and pressure to use certain words and discard certain ideas. He is a fellow of the unexplained Jesus Seminar that decided that 80% of Jesus’ sayings – including all but one line in John – are not authentic. What do they mean? How do they come up with such an idea, and how do they prove it?

For a man so steered by rationalism and evidence, there is very little of either in this book.

Throughout the book, Spong is disparaging of “uninformed” ordinary pew dwellers – and sometimes, even preachers, who have not the academic background he does.

Spong’s view would return us to pre Reformation times when only the priest could read the scripture – although he points out that the Gospel is often read only by the minister in high Anglican churches and that communion can only be presided over by one who is ordained.  Yet he would effectively do likewise – and more.

He brings in an unfamiliar, conformative language – ‘the Jesus movement’, ‘the Easter event’, ‘birth (not infancy, thankfully) narratives’; Lucan, Pauline, Johannine, Mosaic – words we might know with another meaning. To sound like a real Christian, not these embarrassing literalists, you’ve a new vocabulary to adopt. How many steps is that from the Middle Ages, of learned Latin versus the common tongue of the non priest, where the only degrees were in religion. Thus he ties academia and authorised ministry back together.

It is interesting that academia (my spell checker interestingly suggested my mistype be corrected to ‘anaemia’) has the meaning of purely theoretical, often with shades of being immaterial and impractical. I found this meaning to be true of much of biblical criticism.

Spong’s prophets are from the 19th Century onwards: Bultmann, Welhausen at el. Why did the work of two scholars make anyone who considered themselves a serious Bible reader feel that they had to adopt the theory that the Pentateuch is really 4 strands woven together? Thus the most holy part of scripture for Jews is a mishmash. Spong doesn’t discuss the possibility that there is more than one God – only the different names and agendas for him.

Spong’s quick to deride and dismiss (oft used verb) the notion of Moses’ authorship.

Similarly, in the New Testament, Spong adopts the pose that most of the names of the books aren’t the real authors. Why is this asserted of famous and revered texts, from the Brontes to Shakespeare? Often it is a belief that the supposed author is incapable of having written such a worthy work. Three women can’t have written such classic novels – it must be their brother. A non blue blooded, university educated man cannot have written the plays and sonnets we consider our language’s most celebrated. And thick (ie non liberal university schooled) fishermen from Galilee can’t write elegant and deep gospels and epistles.

He patronises the oral tradition, assuming a) it’s true, people couldn’t write and b) that they must play Chinese whispers with the spoken word. It’s a tradition we don’t really have a parallel for, except in storytelling circles, where this art shows that great stories can be delivered and recalled through oration alone, preserved for long periods.

Like that Suffolk parson, Spong doesn’t bother to explain why. This book, fat though it is, is too short to give a serious Bible overview. Commentaries are bricks, often running to multi volumes. He’s insultingly brief with most books, and he doesn’t tell us why these ‘respected’ scholars date things as they do, or have come to the conclusions they have about authorship and theme/purpose. I imagine him teaching  at a local church he wouldn’t be welcome in, with his audience at his feet, unquestioningly rapt as their guru imparts his wisdom.

There’s no debate, we are not honoured with a rationale. Are we like the fisherman followers of Jesus, too simple to know your ways?

Jesus didn’t think so. We don’t know that he was formally educated (or did he get that in heaven before he came down?). His message is open to all and the Bible works on many layers, to be probed at different depths and angles.

Spong does love the Bible, he says; he’s read it daily for over sixty years. And he did make it his day job, despite (I am sorry to hear) receiving death threats from other Christians. He’s counted them. But like Sylvia Browne, who I reviewed last, there’s a hint that he suffers with those great early church martyrs, and that he’s up there with them. There’s also a hint of flattery in the implication that he’s the antichrist.

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Spong dismisses whole books of the Bible: there’s some he hardly bothers to read, some he tells us (such as James) we only need to read once ever. Daniel’s not serious, he says. Revelation’s a bit of a daft book, but my mate (name drop) Elaine Pagels, of Gnostic gospel fame (she’s a professor you know) is going to write a book on it (advert) – maybe that’ll help my cynical senior mind make sense of the weird and useless apocalyptic book I have little to say about, save that I don’t like it.

Spong did cheer me a little on Paul – never a saint to me, and only just an apostle in Spong’s world since there are no miracles and visions round there. The usually annoying “Paul didn’t write these” line meant that the pettier letters with all the women squishing mandates are actually not of the guy with the really interesting, deep and wide insights. Spong doesn’t explain how he knows that Paul wrote his works before the gospels. Spong wasn’t the first to suggest that Paul’s Thorn in my Side (cue Annie Lennox) is possibly being gay – and I felt some sadness for Paul who may not have understood that this was no sin to struggle with, but something he could know God’s love and acceptance of. Spong implies Paul becomes mellow and loving; I might have another go at Paul’s letters.

Then Spong said that Paul doesn’t understand the ascension and resurrection in the way some (silly) Christians do – rising is about being one with God. But why can’t that be bodily as well? Spong’s reading spoils some of the best resurrection verses for many Christians.

Spong has more spoiling to come. He does gain a mark for rejecting the Q theory as an answer to the Synoptic Problem (what problem? Moving on!). Spong says that the synoptic gospels are sort of Iona community liturgy/lectionary (my analogy) for the synagogue. Interesting, but not really changing anything in my reading or belief or use. But my criticism is – why did Mark, the supposedly earliest gospel, only cover part of the year then? Doesn’t seem much of a Jewish year piece if you miss several months.

In other gospels, Spong stresses the link to the fulfilment of Jewish scriptures. Yes, we’re aware of that, even those of us without degrees in religion (which I do have, lest you wonder – though my best spiritual insights and understanding come from outside my studies). But what is Jesus fulfilling for Spong?

I hadn’t noticed, I will say, the early Jewish hero parallels with the gospels – parted waters, escapes from Egypt, similar names, babies leaping in wombs of old barren women who compose similar songs of praise (I did see the last one for myself). But does that mean (as Spong asserts) that the gospel writers made up names and scenes to make the links? This is something to expand more another time, but I think really occurring events can also have a symbolic/intertexual quality. We humans do it in writing. I believe it has happened in non scriptural history.

In studying the Tudors, I came to the idea that they had lived, as the director of Elizabeth (1998) Shekhar Kapur put it, ‘operatic, mythic’ lives as well as actual earthly ones.

Elizabeth is meant to have quoted Psalm 118 on being given the royal ring; a psalm – about the Lord’s doing and being the capstone – that Jesus also quoted. I believe Queen Bess was conscious of that lineage and use of that psalm.

So why not Bible characters too? If we can pay homage to extant works, including our own, why can’t God? Does Matthew have to invent names and nods to get his readers to make the link between Jesus’ story and the Hebrew heroes, or can he just not arrange his telling of the life of Jesus in a way that readers see what he has?

I don’t see why Jesus can’t quote things from the Old Testament, and why real events can’t parallel each other. Has no one of history acted out the history of another?

And I ask, what, for Spong, is Jesus fulfilling? Since Elijah didn’t get magically fed and zoom up into the clouds, since no seas were parted, since no-one was healed by looking at a snake statute, and David didn’t kill any giants, what is this wonderful news? What’s new that the Jews are supposed to be celebrating in their religious cycle, according to Spong?

Before I go to Easter, a word on John, a much cherished part of the Bible. Spong used to get annoyed with this gospel (clearly not written by John, maybe Lazarus; I had heard that before). Frankly, I am shocked at Spong’s own…. I want to use a non insulting word, but naiveté (as per the quotes on the cover of his book) is as polite as I can make it.

It’s about “Ye must be born again.”

Even my evangelical Sunday school knew that Jesus wasn’t asking us to pop back into the uterus. But Spong felt alienated, for he could see no more than Nicodemus.

Spong really insults that woman at the well, one of my favourite Bible stories. A lecturer (whose name I’ll omit for she was bullying and inappropriate) said that this story in John 4 is banter. The woman is witty, she’s on form, even on top. Spong has the Samaritan be as dense as possible. He skips her good lines. He also skips Mary Magdalene, and women generally, despite his trying to be an all round, PC inclusive champion.

Spong says that Peter is the centre of the resurrection (um, I’d have answered that as… Jesus). But after him, I pick Mary Magdalene. And I haven’t forgotten his Mum, or the disciple whom Jesus loved. The Gnostic book I just read The Two Marys, among others, says that Peter is pushed forward in the canonised gospels which were rewritten to show that he should be the head of the new church. Spong doesn’t mention the non canon, and though he mentions the councils that made the canon, he never critiques it. He suggests Bible books that barely made it in, in his opinion, but nothing of those left out.

Spong is looking for nations and notions to be tied up – so “Dear woman, here is your son” is about Judaism and the New faith bonding. Original maybe, but I liked the point that Jesus was caring, even in agony, and had paired up these special people.

Did anything at all really happen for Spong? Since Mathew made up the sermon on the mount, since calling Jesus’ dad Joseph was the brainchild of a writer trying to tell us that Jesus, like Moses, was going to have to be hidden from a infancidal ruler, since John the Baptist didn’t really baptise and make any of those speeches – his family parallels some OT hardly mentioned names (Spong had to work to find a Hebrew Elizabeth, the one time mentioned wife of Aaron)…. I’m thinking that as Mary Daly said of a depatriarchalised Bible, scripture is a slim, interesting pamphlet when we’ve taken out all that Spong dismisses.

And a pamphlet whose life changing, inclusive, good news is….

I really can’t tell. After a knowing, often arrogant, quite flat style, there comes at the end flashes of what inspires John Shelby to have kept with Christianity from preteens to his 80s, why he really thinks it is worth being a bishop. I feel a suspended chord rise, I feel the excitement of Spong’s insight – that Jesus is here for Jews, post Jesus people, Gentiles, and this loving, whole making (he didn’t say that, it was Ilia Delio quoting someone else)…

What? God…. is there one? One we can pray with, be protected by, who can make wonderful things happen?

In all the symbolism, is there anything concrete or ethereal Was Jesus real? In any sense?

Oh, and that Easter event, Spongified. Jesus didn’t rise again, naturellement – Spong has elsewhere attempted to “Rescue the Bible from Literalism”. This is all symbolism, created and arranged by Jesus’ followers, long after the…. well, non event as it happens.

After years of study and publishing another fat book, Spong decides that the Easter event, which did not happen over three days – more like months – was something exciting that made people want to preach, even though it could be life threatening. Preach about what, John? What made the disciples excited and full of love and hope?

Oh, you don’t know.

Why can I today feel full of love and hope and wholeness, as I sense you would sincerely wish for me, John?

Oh, I don’t really understand. I don’t see what the  message is you that you proclaim.

Over 400 large format pages, and I don’t know what your gospel, your good news is.

Just that you don’t believe pretty much any of other people’s.

The biographer I alluded to earlier is AN Wilson. I expected irritation from his book; instead, a relief and a smile. AN Wilson painted the biblical critics as people who logically, in the journey of history, had to come. I guess we could’ve expected a Nietzsche and a Dawkins too. After the Bible picking stage came the hunt for real Jesus stage – phases to come through. Spong often speaks of data – that horrid, Americanised word full of computing and reductionism to quantitative particles of supposed ‘fact’. AN Wilson is amused at this being fed into a computer to know what Jesus did and didn’t say. His book is linked to an unnamed friendship and her struggles and journey through faith. I’ve often understood biblical critics to be on the doubt/deist side. I don’t judge doubt – great things come from those questions and voids, as AN Wilson’s friend L found. Biblical criticism seems to come from an almost perverse angle, for it’s not like any literary study I know. In literature, we don’t compare words and sources, we looks at themes and characters, arcs and symbolism. Academic study can kill your favourite text but not in the way that biblical criticism flattens the book that is meant to make your life have a spark in it.

My own faith is neither that of Shelby Spong nor that puritan; my liberalism allows other thoughts beyond Christianity in, but retains the sense of wonder about a miraculous God who wants to know us personally, who is capable of an interesting life – but who can work on multiple levels, give visions, make miracles, and fill me, at least sometimes, with a sense of not only purpose (social justice and in my own life) but joy and meaning, and an openness to receive more than the rational, cynical, money and fact driven world ever can.

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The Gospel according to Sylvia Browne

A response to “The Two Marys”

Yes, the author is that Sylvia Browne, the psychic, who is also a Gnostic Christian and church founder. This leads to my first issue. The miracles in the Gospels are a bit far fetched, Sylvia says. Feeding of thousands? More like a few hundred or less. Rising from the dead? No, a faked faint with feeble as possible whippings and beatings and cleverly aimed nails so that the Lord could recover in the tomb and then sneak off to travel and minister and die happily in France with his family at the age of 84.

So – Jesus can’t rise from the dead or do miracles, but Sylvia can see the future and receive messages and pictures from her personal discarnate spirit. We’re asked to accept her beyond the rational gifts, but not those of someone somewhat more established and revered?

The tone of this piece matches the one that Sylvia often writes in. Occasionally, she’ll give interesting, more scholarly insights, such as when and how the cult of the Virgin Mary really gathered speed, with statements that sound like informed research. Then she’ll say: Jesus revealed himself to his French friends by “letting the cat out of the bag”. So much for the Messianic Secret! She makes oft use of the lazy “a lot” and calls many other psychics “nuts”. Worse still, these ‘nutters’ might become occultist, which she abhors – no reason.

Her view is that Jesus was crucified for preaching a loving, forgiving God…. interesting, but not expanded. We don’t get many quotes from the Gnostic gospels that her views depend on – least of all, discussions of their translations and authenticity.

Although badly told, she does rationalise her version of Easter. Everyone was in the trick – there’s no outcast, self murdering Judas; Joseph of Arimathea and of course his beloved Marys all knew. Even Pontius Pilate was malleable with a bribe. She explains this is why Jesus was crucified so close to the Sabbath, when no dead bodies were allowed left hanging so he could be on the cross for minimal time, not have his legs broken, and be snuck off to a powerful man’s tomb ready for revival and escape. The vinegar on a stick was opium to help him bear the pain and lose consciousness. The Noli Me Tangere moment on Easter Morn was – don’t touch, my wounds still hurt. Then Jesus shows his earthly wounds – for what spirit has them, she asks (hasn’t she heard of ghosts appearing with the last known body?). And then Jesus becomes master of disguise, does a bit of globe trotting, including America (how could he miss you out) and then retires to Languedoc as “David”.

For anyone of a non Gnostic bent, Jesus’ faked death is shocking on many levels. Traditional theology is that Jesus’ death is the telos of his mission; Christmas matters because of Easter, and those teachings are mere aperitif to the main course – his passion.

If it’s true that as Lynn Picknett gleefully states in her book on Magdalene, that there have been a spate of dying and rising gods, then Jesus needs to do something extraordinary – and that would mean a bodily resurrection after an actual, bodily death.

To me and many Christians, Jesus’ subversion of death and overcoming it on the cross is essential.

Many Christians see the unthinkable emotional as well as bodily suffering as a sign of Jesus’ love for them – that he wanted to bring us back to God so much that he would endure this for us. Julian of Norwich would not get along with Sylvia Browne!

My understanding of the Cross is different to mainstream Christianity, but this view is spreading: I believe not in penal substitution, appeasing an angry God’s thirst for blood to pay off an insurmountable debt of sin. The cross is about saying God is nothing to do with this world of violence, punishment, payback and worldly might. I love Hildegard of Bingen’s view of sin (as told by Ilia Delio) as being the exile of unrelatedness and the refusal to grow. I wonder if every personal block to God and each other, including what we would consider acts of evil, is covered by that definition. Sin is what stops us from living authentically.

But all Christians can agree that Jesus did something unique and essential for the human/God interface, and that he overcame death – our greatest fear and enemy. Sin in all its forms and definitions has been dealt with – that exile is over, that impediment is removed and light, not evil, now prevails. So a few pokes and a opium-fuelled doze with fictitious angels as alibis for the bribed tomb guards misses the whole point.

If Jesus preached a loving forgiving God, it would be more powerful to demonstrate him.

Sylvia says Jesus needed to get crucified to fulfil his Chart – but she obviously misses off most of the reading, for its not in minimal suffering and a ‘sham resurrection’ (her phrase) that his destiny is fulfilled. How could Jesus say “It is FINISHED”,  “It is accomplished”, or better still – “Consummatum”, all things brought together, if he did not complete his mission? And why would Jesus commend his Spirit to his Father and feel forsaken if he only had a half death? And dissembling is breaking one of the Decalogue.

I struggle to see why Sylvia refers to Jesus as Lord, although I am intrigued to look again at his sayings – the ones she upholds – and see if Jesus is Lord enough through just them.

There’s also something wrong with the family narrative – that of the Marys and Jesus travelling, of Jesus being a husband and dad, of his favouritism for Mary Magdalene over the disciples, and his and both Marys’ royal lineage. No overshadowing from the Most High is needed in this conception, and there’s no assumption into heaven – just retirement to the Essene community with its celestial nickname and a boringly ordinary death of old age.

The childhood friend bride feels uncomfortable from a personal relationships view: so Jesus couldn’t meet someone later in his life, and she had to come from the right sort of background to be suitable. It felt like the sort of fairy tale I’d like to see die out.

Like Shakespeare, Jesus’ appeal comes from his ordinary, non conventionally educated background. I abhor the notion that neither Will of Stratford nor Jesus of Nazareth could possibly be who we think without blue blood and academic training. That says, only the aristocracy are worthy of admiration; only official learning is true knowledge, and worst – that class and feudalism rule: just what I thought God wasn’t about.

Jesus is meant to come from King David’s line but he was born to a carpenter, to people too poor to get lodgings, but had to sleep and deliver a baby in a stable.

Why would Mary his mother sing the magnificat about the powerful and poor being switched if she was royal and rich herself?

And to cast the harlot’s mantle off Magdalene, we have to give her ermine.

Sylvia argues that Jewish men, especially those called Rabbi, were always married. It would controvert the Genesis command to multiply if a man did not have children, she says. But how easy is it to generalise about beliefs and practices? We know people who break the mould. I love that Jesus does everything topsy turvy and unexpected. We value money and property – he doesn’t appear to have any. He lives in a commune and travels – we value rootedness and stability. We don’t read of his ordination in the established religion – he simply preaches, al fresco often (it avoids room hire and permissions). His teaching and his death and resurrection are revolutionary, in the literal sense of turning over, as he does to tables of those misusing money and places of worship. He breaks the Sabbath to heal. He talks to a Samaritan woman. He puts spit in a blind man’s eyes. He assumes temple authority. Jesus’ non conforming to the ‘go forth and multiply’ custom says that humans are not defined by procreation.

Sylvia’s argument that the wedding at Cana must be Jesus’ own initially has more credence. For, she says, how else could he be expected to worry about the shortage of wine and ask servants to do things? Why would his mother bring this concern to Jesus if he weren’t the groom?

In the previous chapter of John’s gospel (the only one to tell the story), Jesus is called Rabbi, before we have heard him speak or do anything. It is the next – ‘third’ – day that Jesus is ‘invited’ to the wedding, with his mother and disciples, implying them as equal guests. When his mother draws the wine shortage to Jesus’ attention, he says, ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time is not yet come’.  Jesus sounds surprised, as if this wedding isn’t his concern. The servants obey Jesus because Mary asked them to – why is not explained. The bridegroom is mentioned, but not named, and so is the master of the banquet, to whom the transformed water is presented. I don’t think therefore that the case for this being Jesus’ wedding, with Mary M, who we’ve not met yet, is very compelling.

Many people are comforted that their Lord is single. We don’t have a physical description of him (Sylvia does, via her spirit guide, Francine!). He was Robert Powell-esque (star of the TV series Jesus of Nazareth) and Mary his mother curvy and dark (at least one of the three had the right ethnicity for a Jew). Magdalene was red haired! More Anne of Avonlea than Mary of Magdala! (Avonlea… that’s a whole other thought….) People have appropriated Jesus to their circumstances – a black Christ so African people feel closer to him, and European depictions made Jesus brown or red haired and light eyed and skinned. It’s been suggested that Jesus might be gay with the disciple whom Jesus loved (and his mates Mary, Martha and Lazarus a ‘queer’ family). But we don’t know if Jesus was married. We don’t know his sexuality, if any. We don’t know if he had children. But it means that mystique allows us to feel close to him, whatever our skin colour or family situation.

If Jesus was single and not a father, that those of us without spouse or offspring can feel that the most special earth dweller was like us; if he could be complete without parenthood and partnering, that we can too.

There’s also a massive issue with the divine and their mortal creatures having an affair – it’s one of those off bounds parings like teacher/pupil, prison officers/inmate, and counsellors/clients and adults with minors. We’re not equal, there’s a power imbalance.

Unless you believe that Jesus isn’t divine or that we are. Many think that Mary Magdalene’s surname isn’t where she’s from but her title, like Mahatma Gandhi or Lord – she’s spiritually special. So maybe not such an odd coupling?

But then there’s the favouritism issue. I heard a sermon state that Jacob’s obvious preference for his technicoloured dreaming son was bad parenting. If Jesus behaved likewise, I can sympathise with the disciples who complained of Jesus’ constant petting and partiality, and can see why arguments arose after Jesus left them.

I’d like to think that the Son of Man, let alone God, had more maturity and sensitivity, and left a better example.

*

Sylvia’s arguments do not become more bolstered by evidence or reasoning. She often refers to scholars, but gives few names – save Karen L King and Elaine Pagels. She states her view of history as fact, supported by vague research – but this is a common complaint I have with nonfiction.

A later chapter has little to do with the Marys and more about tolerant beliefs. I do support Sylvia here, for in her crude offhand way, she says – let love and acceptance be the heart of living and let us not judge, let alone persecute or silence those with other beliefs. She sees the canonising of the Bible as a deliberate attempt at political control and mind steering, leaving out the best and truest parts of the Bible and editing the four chosen gospels to focus on Peter as leader and downgrade both Marys, and the message of love.

Sylvia mentions Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and its backlash with some admiration. Unsurprisingly, she also references the Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln book, which her view agrees with to some extent. She calls the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ “somewhat weird” and offers a warning to viewers. She seems unaware that Scorsese’s film is based on Nikos Kazantzaki’s novel. And that its point is, that unlike her Jesus, coming down from the cross before living peacefully with his wife was a temptation to refuse. The film ends with Christ on the cross, choosing to continue his torment unto death to fulfil his mission. Hence this controversial story is more orthodox than Sylvia and books on the holy grail and bloodlines.

A brief word on that line: The offspring of Jesus would be at least demi gods, and that would be dangerous. And why is a bloodline so vital? Sounds like the feudal notion of purity of blood, of position by family not merit, and permanent exclusion for those not in the clan. But the whole message of Jesus is: God is widening the net (was it ever really so narrow?). Not by birth and heritage, but by belief are you included in God’s kingdom. I wonder if the Age of Aquarius is about moving beyond a particular set of beliefs to be seen as inheritor of God’s relationship – and beyond legalistic words about ownership.

It was a relief to get to the end of The Two Marys, but there’s an odd appendix – the tenets of the Novus Spiritus (why the Latin?), Sylvia’s own church. Twenty two statements in semi religious language – a few thous chucked in, not of the Buber variety; anti war, pro defence; the rejection of book of Revelation. I cannot see the appendix’s relevance to the book’s subject, unless it is another juxtaposition to suggest she too is a messenger of a new spiritual movement for this newly dawning age. Is she letting a cat out of the bag?

Sylvia seems to regularly hint of her own specialness – she compares Magdalene’s loss of her husband and mentor to the loss of her psychic grandmother. In the first chapter called Powerful Women (note Sylvia’s gender) she says, I’m not putting myself near our Lord, but I know how busy travelling and teaching can be and how it feels to be crucified by the press.

Despite the book’s title and my original intent to write this about Magdalene day, Sylvia’s focus is less on either Mary. Neither are divine for Sylvia, for whom, this is really Jesus’ story, bookended by a close maternal relationship. Mary Magdalene just propounded her husband’s ideas. This is not so empowering for women or Mary.

Sylvia’s shockingly unorthodox view of Christ isn’t compatible with her own world view. Gnostics have a more positive view of humans, yet Sylvia believes that humans are flawed and in need of enlightening. But even if we don’t need traditional salvation, death does need overcoming, I think, and Sylvia’s Jesus doesn’t do that – his exit strategy is somewhat tepid compared with the rising and ascension of the gospels. And for Jesus to half die is worse – for it doesn’t signify or accomplish anything. Sylvia doesn’t ‘bother’ with much of the Bible, especially the first part, though she does imply she understands that Jesus preached a new understanding of God, but on whose previous heritage we do not need to dwell.

Her chief source of knowledge is Francine, who isn’t introduced as her guide is familiar to her readers in previous books. Francine seems slipped in at will and at difficult parts of Sylvia’s depiction as her incontrovertible proof. Sylvia seems to just know – which as a modern Gnostic (not one of those ancient dualists with all the rules), would be entirely consistent. I too believe in inner knowing over empiricism, but I also know I need to be able to present an argument too. Intellectually, she’s not convincing, and her writing style is often flavourless and flippant and not focussed. Thus I’m not a follower.

It has given me ideas to follow: my disappointment with Jesus and the royal line of David, and to re-read the gospels to ask – how special are Jesus’ teachings and is he portrayed as God? And what of my original Mary Magdalene quest?

These are all likely to appear on my blog another time.

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Ilia Delio, your God is too small

A Review of “The Emergent Christ”

I was excited about obtaining this book, sorry to have missed her UK tour last year, but swiftly found it hard work. Not that I didn’t understand it, but its matter is as dense as the early Big Bang, and that’s not in a good way.

It could easily be a paper, not a full length book. I obtained two things from Ilia’s 150 pages of main text:

“Evolution is progress towards union in love because God is ever deepening love.” (minus the irritating and unneeded hyphen between the penultimate words)

That is sufficient synopsis of the whole book. She need not write more!

The second was her summary of Hildegard of Bingen who saw sin as the exile of unrelatedness, the refusal to grow.

My major issue with Ilia is that she is another theologian trying to fit God round contemporary science, which is entirely the wrong way round. She asserts that scientists know that evolution is true, not a theory – something that my reading and understanding has always queried, on a scientific and philosophical level. (I wrote a dissertation on this subject).

She doesn’t engage with the theological issues about evolution either – a loving powerful God who uses waste and suffering, and is so slow! She suggests God could have achieved salvation in another way because God can do anything. But He can’t manage creation in any other way than Darwin’s, even though she’s the one to remind that Darwin only used evolution in the last line of his work. Nor does she justify the Big Bang, built on extrapolation and highly interpreted observations.

Instead, she uses dense stylised language with many invented and italicised words to whizz round such questions like spiral galaxies, oscillating so quickly that you’ve barely time to notice what she’s not said. Try paraphrasing her, and I realised how little real substance there is in my view. Dense, but not weighty.

It’s assumed but not truly argued or demonstrated that for God to be love – and she does have some beautiful and original phrases about that – God must evolve, and do so in a way analogous to the universe’s journey as understood by our relatively young scientific theory.

Most of her work is about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas, and quoting many Catholics and scientists along the way, I felt there was little really coming from Ilia as original thought.

That point contains another issue I have – for despite ‘catholic’ supposedly meaning universal, this is a very Catholic book. If you weren’t reared on Bonaventure or what the popes say, you can feel alienated. Ilia often asks what it is to be Catholic, not to be Christian, and not to have faith or spirituality more generally. Given her scientific stance, her hints that Christ is the telos of enlightenment rather than just the 2nd person of the Trinity, and her writing style, this book doesn’t feel likely to have a wide audience.

Ilia wants to re-translate catholic (more italics coming up) to whole-making, which is a beautiful idea. The notion of God too growing and expanding is not new to me, and it is one I already embraced. I am glad that she accepts death and suffering as part of the process of our own parallel journeys, not something to eradicate via the science she so venerates.

But again, death as an act of creation – not a phrase she uses – is something I long knew: I found it in the film The Fountain, and watching it and thinking on its deep and similar themes was a more pleasing experience that these hours with Delio.

Heaven as a place on early was proclaimed by singer Belinda Carlisle in the 1980s, and the Kingdom being within is pretty obvious in the gospels. Is Ilia hinting she thinks that there is no next world?

I found myself instead wanting to explore Ms Bingen and even to have a go at Teilhard again, whose shockingly innovative insights were more pertinent when he wrote perhaps, but I felt this rehash has little to add to these times.

Ilia goes a step further than saying evolution and Christianity are compatible; she says – evolution is theology. Radical, intriguing, but appealing or true? I sense she’s touching on something there: that if we think of growth and deeper understanding as part of life and of God, then the way we understand the world scientifically does change and become more meaningful. But I refuse to make God fit science, saying, as we’re evolving we must know better now than all that came before. There’s both arrogance and naivety in this statement (if I’ve understood correctly). I know development to be spiral, twisting back and round and revisiting, not simply forward.

My understanding of working through Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis means attaining mastery on a personal and mass level. Ilia’s work seems stuck in the second stage, exonerating new science; but for me, obtaining wholeness and mastery (which I do not claim yet to have) is only achieved when we embrace and synthesise the wisdom of ancient beliefs and see that modern science is only a small part of actual knowing.

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