Monday, 31 December 2012

Christmas is over... what now for 2013?

           I read an intriguing piece in The Times this weekend by columnist Giles Coren, called ‘Peace on Earth, so long as you keep the receipt’. Its central premise is that the Christmas story as reported in the gospels misses a trick, failing to take full advantage of the one time of year when a large portion of the population is, even in its varying degrees of sozzledness, more receptive than at any other to engage with the Christian message – or at least part of it. Basically he says, the story is too short, if it’s there at all (only Matthew and Luke), it ends abruptly then cuts to Jesus age twelve, and most regrettably of all doesn’t tell us what happens on Boxing day. He then spins a witty account of what ‘might have happened’, replete with references to current affairs and culture - example: And Mary said: ‘Lo, is ratings all you people ever think about?’
A couple of lines stand out. At the beginning: ‘Christianity staggers under the weight of its myriad modernisation crises, congregations wither, faith falters and children forget how to spell “God”…’; then later ‘I am sure they (Luke and Matthew) would have written a bit more about the Nativity if they had known that after two thousand years there wouldn’t be much left of Christianity apart from Christmas and some rowing about what to do with the gays.’
A couple of things. First, it's a very western perspective; it’s well known, within the church at least, that as Christianity has dwindled in Europe, it has mushroomed in many other parts of the world. Second, while it’s true that Christmas has become the main vestige of the faith in a secular society, and its presentation in the bible is relatively brief, I’m not convinced it’s the bible’s job to spoon feed us a longer yarn about Christmas to stimulate an appetite for everything else it has to offer. The bible’s not blockbuster or tabloid entertainment (though it sure has some good bits); it purports to be a living breathing Word, that demands engagement. God has put eternity in our hearts, to quote the Old Testament mind-bender Ecclesiastes, and it’s hinted elsewhere he’s laid on some pretty impressive stuff, not least the wonders of nature, to move us to seek God. So we’ve got a part to play too – we’re meant to respond freely and willingly, not as robots or pampered kids.
Still, I don’t deny having been a bit troubled myself at times along the way by the seeming ‘irrelevance’ of some biblical material, when looked at wrong-headedly. Take the nativity scene with its familiar band of characters: we’ve tamed and confined it to the realm of the cute (school kids in tea towels), comic (Vicar of Dibley, Mrs Brown’s Boys), or sentimental. Too easy to feel it can just be packed away with the tree decs and forgotten about for another year.
            But that universal spiritual yearning, if not stifled or squandered on lesser things, beckons us on an inner voyage of discovery. And once you start ‘getting into’ faith, it's possible to develop an appetite for the breadth and depths of vision and joy it offers. It can be ultimately transformative – of one’s life, and potentially whole sphere of influence – for the whole year. Like yeast or tea, it infiltrates, percolates. It's not just for Christmas.
Having an attitude of discovery rather than dismissiveness towards a familiar simple narrative like the Christmas one, opens up its depths, richness and humanity: Herod’s power politics and cancerous jealousy, the inner and outer journeys of Mary and the magi, Joseph’s turmoil… powerful stuff; the ‘Nativity’ TV drama a couple of years ago showed it just needs a decent scripter writer to draw it out.
After reading Coren’s piece, I watched the recorded second episode of BBC spy drama Restless. You don’t have to absorb any of the world’s stories or entertainments for long to see a myriad of themes and dynamics in common with biblical and other faith writings: trust, betrayal, fear, danger, the impact of the past… you get more than a taste of those in the nativity for starters. 
Part of what the bible offers to the mix is alternative imaginings of what life can be like, when we switch our gaze from the merely temporal and tangible, to the eternal and spiritual. The centrality of characters from humble backgrounds in the nativity for instance – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds – counters our own culture’s infatuation with fame, celebrity, achievement and wealth.
             Relevance and challenge combined, if we have eyes to see.      

Friday, 28 December 2012

Soul-searching & Shrek look-a-likes: The Hobbit

As the northern sun kissed its nadir and winter’s grip reached full clench – that’s last Friday’s solstice I’m on about - a merry band of us from the HCJB Global media office, with a few family and friends, braved the McDonaldisation of the silver screen which is Cineworld, to view Peter Jackson’s latest antipodean money-spinner. We joined a motley pre-holiday afternoon crew which, while no doubt containing a few genuine Middle Earth aficianados, was probably mainly youngsters wanting to know if this flick about something called a ‘Hobbit’, with the bloke from Sherlock staring down earnestly from the side of a bus in hair extensions  – is actually any good. I hope they weren’t disappointed, although Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t playing Gandalf, so a few young ladies might have been.
            My mother asked the other day if I thought she’d enjoy it – she has a low ‘sex violence and general unsavouriness’ threshold and didn’t care much for the orcs in Lord of the Rings (which is fair enough, they’re no oil paintings, and definitely overdue a visit to the dentist). Dad though had suggested to her that The Hobbit is a ‘gentler’ book. It is – I read it as an off school, sick in bed 14-year old once, and I don’t recall it making me any more nauseous; but I had to point out that the film content stands pretty firmly in the LOTR tradition of big battles and ugly orcs (with a very big dragon thrown in). And what with the far more meagre book material being likewise expanded to a trilogy, Jackson seems to be adopting a ‘let’s go with what worked last time’ approach.
            It didn’t take long – the lengthy dwarf carousing scene in Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole to be precise, replete with solemn dwarfish sung incantations - for the suspicion to creep wraith-like upon me that in order to spin this modest tale into a trilogy of three hour films, there would have to be a serious amount of ‘milking it’. There’s a lot of stuff in the film I don’t recall from the book; but then it was a long time ago - maybe three Shrek look-a-like trolls really did try to roast Bilbo and his dwarf buddies over an open fire (if you know, please tell me.) Nevertheless, what with those savage orc-hounds, their one-armed leader (an especially mean-looking Shrek), and one very big and very fire-breathing dragon (Smaug), there was enough stimulus to keep me from lighting up my phone and updating facebook (probably a good job – a girl got frogmarched out apparently under suspicion of being a film pirate. She didn’t look very pirate-y, poor thing.)
            Before you accuse me of posing as a wannabe Danny Leigh from Film 2012 (which admittedly does have the perk of sitting next to Claudia Winkleman) let’s cut to the chase. There were two moments that made me sit up long enough to think ‘my that’s deep’ before the next bang and whoosh. First, Bilbo’s opinion about adventures as he tries to brush off Gandalf’s invitation to join him on one: ‘nasty uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner’. There you have it – eight words summarising the entire tendency of human nature towards convenience, self-protection, and ultimately an evasion of encounter with the depths and breadths of life, and dare I say it, God. ‘..Make you late for dinner’. I have the same opinion about ‘The One Show’, but that’s another story.
            Second, Bilbo’s spine-tingling encounter with Gollum, the unlikely star of the Middle Earth juggernaut - as hobbit hero Bilbo, cloaked with invisibility by the ring of power he has found and is wearing, endeavours to pass the shrivelled creature in a mountain tunnel and rejoin his companions. Bilbo raises the elfish sword he has been gifted, to strike Gollum dead. Cue eerie ‘invisibility effects’ as he ponders the latter’s bulbous-eyed, pained expression in the agony of his bewilderment and loss – and Bilbo relents. We recall Gandalf’s admonishment that courage would be most revealed, not by killing, but knowing when to refrain. More profoundly, Bilbo catches a glimpse of the ‘humanity’ hiding vulnerable behind Gollum’s ugliness, and is moved to mercy, perhaps dimly discerning his own latent tendency to fall to such depths. I’ve heard Gollum used at least once by a preacher as an illustration of humanity warped and poisoned by sin. A filmic moment to breathe fresh life into the cliché ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
            In the film’s final moment, from beneath a vast dune of gold in the dwarves’ former home, a scaly slit cracks open and Smaug’s reptilean eye stares malevolently out at us. Beckoning us, in the hands of a director with a steady eye on a franchise, to come back and see the next instalment in a year. Well ok. I’ll think about it. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Would Jesus wear a Santa hat?

Leafing through the Radio Times, there’s a cornucopia of eye-catching spreads featuring assorted celebs talking about what they want for, or think about, Christmas. They’re all donning Santa costumes of one flavour or another – that perennial neutral safe lowest common denominator crowd pleaser theme.
Bright red and white, attractive, adaptable – from staple old man with huge beard to sexy lady in skimpy costume – it’s become the defining motif, flagship image of the western British consumer Christmas. The familiar modern costume has acquired remorseless consumer pulling power; just as with the nativity, the profound resonance of an ancient story gets lost in a vortex of commercialism.
I don’t deny this stuff is fun to look at – it’s part of the modern ‘hearth’, like Downton Abbey drawing us to its cosy warmth. It’s also fleeting and superficial – the Santa imagery will soon be forgotten for another year. This is where the original Christmas narrative potentially steals a march – the message of ‘God with us’ is supposed to be NOT just for Christmas. When the sparkly flotsam of tinsel and Santa is blown away by the chill wind of January’s return to work blues and tax return deadlines, the profound possibility of an abiding Presence dwelling in and sustaining us will remain.
I've been having a look at my dad's heavy hardback tome of Bill Bryson’s illustrated ‘A short history of nearly everything’. The BBC’s ‘Wonders of the solar system’ then ‘of the universe’ a year or two back, radio 4’s ‘Infinite monkey cage’… Bryson embodies the same popular passion for the sense of voyage, adventure and general mind expansion that science offers. And of course for many science is the new religion, its experts the new priests and nature the great universal church – a primary locus of worship and wonder. It’s true, we CAN all applaud this adventure. But then when you hear the selfsame adventurers dismiss religion by contrast as mind-shrinking dogma and folklore, you realise religion has a bit of a PR battle to fight.
            Actually, we inhabit several mental and imaginative landscapes that don’t always appear easy to reconcile. There’s science & technology, and also for instance the manufactured polish of the retail world, high street glitz. And then on Christmas morning, at the local C of E, we sang ancient carols about ‘stable bare’, choirs of angels, Jesus appearing now as a baby, one day seated at the right hand of God most high… carols which still hold our affection, but whose images spring from an old and seemingly outdated vision of the world.
            How do we begin to reconcile these ‘parallel universes’?                          

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Madness & inspiration

It’s been and gone, but a few thoughts on the Jubilee concert, when the palace facade was transformed into a laser spectacular, the Mall shimmered with the flecks of a thousand lighters, and most of the line-up seemed to be called ‘Sir’.

Madness’ ‘gig of the century’ on Buck Pal roof saw the house’s imposing frontage transformed into a dazzling and witty light show - ‘good God, what are they doing to my house?’ the queen could well have wondered. A striking creative clash between the grandeur of history and contemporary pop culture.

‘Sing’ featuring musicians from the Commonwealth and military wives was the number that most broke upon the consciousness with the beauty of gift and revelation. Commencing with a solo piano riff and the lone voice of a girl from the African children’s choir, the first eruption of cheering was spine-tingling… she and her friends’ shy smiles broke out, their spirits lifted by the crowd’s approval. As representatives of a continent and world where the spirit of the vulnerable is often bruised or crushed, it was an inspiring sight.

The military wives’ support ratcheted up the emotion a further notch or three: women who endure a particular kind of hardship, bound together in this creative venture. Performed to a backdrop of vintage footage of a younger queen Elizabeth visiting different parts of the Commonwealth as an ambassador of hope. Not wishing to sentimentalise – plenty of questions swirl around the monarchy of course – but something special was going on here nonetheless.

A neighbour of mine who wasn’t into it at all, felt that all the money spent on royalty when there are starving children in the world, was ‘a bit obscene’. Opens the question, is it justified to spend so much time energy and money on other great human enterprises like space exploration and the arts when great poverty exists? From one point of view it looks like squandering on luxury in a world full of need. On the other hand, can the ‘lift to the spirit’ such celebration brings, ultimately bless others if we allow it to inspire and energise us to go away and work and give for the good of all? Discuss…

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Maus: 'a brutally moving work of art'

I’ve recently been 'bowled over' from quite an unexpected source - the graphic novel (comic strip format) collection ‘The Complete Maus’, borrowed from a teaching colleague. It’s the story of the Holocaust as told from the perspective of a Polish Jew and survivor - the author Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek. In it the Jews are depicted as human but with the heads of mice, and the Nazis likewise as cats. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so affecting.
The cover itself is a powerful piece of graphic art. A mouse couple – representing Vladek and his wife Anja – huddle together in the foreground in overcoats, his arm round her shoulder, against the sinister backdrop of a stark black swastika, with Hitler’s head in the middle depicted as a cat’s – emblazoned against a large white moon in dark sky. A bold simple image that conveys so much. The Nazi image, abstract and inhuman: the cat’s eyes are cold, black, void, its whiskers protrude like needles, and the swastika’s rigid blade-like arms convey a kind of scything machine malice.
In the foreground, the mouse couple’s shiny eyes stare out from anxious grey faces, straining to be strong, noses twitching, alert to danger. Both vulnerable and powerless in the face of such malevolence - but still he assumes the role of protector.
They didn't choose their Jewish identity, nor to be born at this time or in this place, but it has fallen on them to face this uniquely dark moment in history’s vast tide. They must struggle to be brave, hold onto life and not succumb to despair. A powerful, poignant image of frail human beings, clinging together for warmth, companionship and hope in the face of a dark and terrifying hostile force. An image with universal and contemporary resonance, not least with the current Syrian 'victim and oppressor' crisis in view. Unforgettable.
To be continued...