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13 That Hideous Strength. How the West Was Lost.

Melvin Tinker, That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost. The Cancer of Cultural Marxism in the Church, the World, and the Gospel of Change, Welwyn Garden City (England), EP Books, 2018.

ISBN 978-1-78397-240-1

 

There are various books at the moment, produced by orthodox Christianity, which warn of the destruction of Western/Judeo-Christian civilisation, the marginalisation and cultural destruction of Christianity, explain where this opposition has come from, and suggest where we are going, and what we, as orthodox Christians, might do about it; some of these books are reviewed on this page (see below). Tinker’s approach is to use the valuable insights of C. S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (1945) as a source of definition of the various strands of anti-Christian/materialist thinking that have been used, in recent times, to destroy and replace true Christianity. These ideas are seen the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), which are the foundation of those fictionalised in Lewis’s work (recounted by Tinker in Ch. 1). The story, Tinker says, is truly about humans seeking to induce God to come down to the world of men (not for men to ascend to God/heaven), and thus force God to make himself available on their, human, terms; the domestication of God towards purely-human values (Ch. 2). This, Tinker is effectively saying, is what has actually been happening in the conversion of our former-civilisation from Christian to Cultural Marxist values and ideas. Ch. 3 shows what these Cultural Marxist ideas are, and where exactly they have come from. The second part of this – details of the Frankfurt School, the work of Marcuse and others, the ‘long march through the institutions’, etc. – are fairly well known and examined (that is, outside the mainstream media, of course), but it is useful to have them all set out in one concise, accessible place; later chapters come back to these things and, as we might expect, Lewis’s ideas are referenced throughout. Especially valuable, in my view, is the account of how the culture was entirely taken over by homosexualism, and in such a short time (two decades). I had long thought that changes in the culture do not happen by some accidental, inevitable process(es), but by a single-minded well-resourced campaign determined to change them, whether the majority of the people like it or not – but here (Ch. 4) Tinker usefully tells us exactly how the seemingly-unstoppable gay power movement steamrollered all before it. Ch. 5 details how the campaign has taken over the churches, that is, the mainline denominations (processes not quite complete in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, I fancy, but it would  be a foolhardy person who insisted that it will not happen – particularly under the present leadership – soon). Useful, particularly, is the analysis of this culture-compliant ‘Christianity’ as a repeat of ancient heresies – and thus the reminder that these things have plagued the Church before (pp. 78-82); earlier, we read of the application of classic neo-Stalinist techniques such as the ideological re-structuring of language and meaning (p. 48).

The list of documents used is valuable – I must look out some of these myself – but I think it would have helped if the text could have had some references to the exact pages used (say, using a type of ‘Harvard’ system), but I know, from experience, that including this makes writing and production more complicated and costly.

Other books (referred to above) include Patrick Sookhdeo’s The Death of Western Christianity (http://www.affirmingthefaith.com/book/ 10), Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (http://www.affirmingthefaith.com/book/ 9),  and Michael Nazir-Ali’s Triple Jeopardy for the West (http://www.affirmingthefaith.com/book/ 6); there is also Julian Mann’s Christians in the Community of the Dome (EP Books, 2017).

October 2018

 

 

12 Understanding the Book of Job

Tom Tomkins, Understanding the Book of Job. Separating what is True from what is Truth, Inspired Perceptions (Winlight Ministries), 2010.

I recently submitted this as a review to the Amazon site, after reading the book; corrected; August 2018.

This is very much the work of an American Evangelical preacher, and the sound of spoken words come through time and again – the usual preacher’s illustrative stories (longer than needed to make the desired point), and the author recording speech, not writing words (there is a difference) – but for all that, the book makes some very good points (even if, like with a preacher, they are repeated several times to gain hold). I fancy it is unlikely that a professional theologian would ever come across the book, let alone read it. However its basic point – that things which happen in the world do not happen because God causes, wills, or even allows them – would, if accepted, completely overturn a common approach to the Book of Job (including that of many Christians), which normally sees the events in the book as some kind of contest between God and Satan, with hapless Job as a kind of ball constantly being batted from one end of the court to the other (taking this further there is the view put in Carl Jung’s Answer to Job (first English edition: 1954), in which Jung seems to be suggesting that the story displays the ‘bad’ side of God, in some kind of dualist interpretation of divine nature, this nature being the reason – Christians must learn to accept -  why God allows, or requires, evil in the world). Tomkins’s name, and book, will never be as well-known as Jung’s, yet his loosely-argued view – that Satan, and not in any way God (who ‘takes nothing from Job’), causes the evil things that happen to Job (and, indeed, to all of us), aided (indeed, made possible) by the fact that humans allow, or have allowed, facilitated, and totally given permission, to Satan, who (as, of course, Jesus unambiguously affirms) rules the world/humanity as they (post-lapsarian) now are. God is presented (rightly, in my view – Jung would not agree) as being removed from any responsibility for events in the world/human life. Job, Tomkins insists, does not, as God affirms, deserve his fate (he was indeed sinless, and his three ‘friends’ are wrong in claiming that Job is getting his just deserts). Job is not aware of Satan’s existence, and the words (Job 1:8) usually taking the form (God-to-Satan) “Consider my servant Job” (inviting a contest) should in fact be translated (Tomkins claims): “Why have you set your heart upon my servant Job?” (p. 24-5) (answer, Satan-to-God, “Because I’m able to!”).

The Book of Job is often thought to be the earliest book of the Bible, written before the first Covenant with God (and God’s commandments), and certainly before (as Tomkins stresses) the fact of Jesus’s atoning death. I did hope however, from the sub-title, to get a detailed discussion of the meanings, and distinction between, ‘true’ and ‘the truth’, which didn’t really emerge, though the author’s point seems to be that the book should not be read superficially, but for its real meaning. However, if (following this account) we upturn the idea that “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away” (heard at any Anglican funeral) much would be changed, and would require many religious attitudes (and liturgy, as suggested) to change.

August 2018.

 

 

11 Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

Stories by M. R. James (many editions and printings, and also television versions).

 

I love a good ghost story – sitting with kindred spirits around a roaring fire, perhaps at Christmas time (or at least when it’s dark outside), a comfy chair beneath me, and a glass of port in my hand, and a nice, kind man – perhaps white around the temples, bald in places – recounting events from long ago, when, travelling far and wide among the ruins of venerable civilisations, garnering mysteries and disturbing tales, he … And then there is the moment of delicious unease that  slowly creeps upon one, spine-tingling, perhaps, unnerving, leading, finally, to a climax of … pure … terror … What, oh what, could be more satisfying!

Recently on television, we have been treated to a re-run of Mark Gatiss’s 2013 documentary about that legendary writer of ghost stories, the Cambridge academic M. R. James (1862-1936), and the repeating, also, of several James stories, including one directed by Gatiss himself (the James stories were originally told by their author, at Cambridge, in precisely the kind of setting I’ve attempted to describe). I’m sure I saw all these programmes the first time around, but was keen to see them again. I have a book of the stories somewhere, and books of other horror/creepy stories by other people, from the well-known, such as Poe, Dickens, and Henry James (The Altar of the Dead) to the less-well-known; and  Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance is about the least-pleasant story I know of (no cosy village biddy in this one, shrewd or otherwise). And, as you might expect, I often think to write a ghost story myself (I do, after all, write stories – about three a year, at the last count). Unfortunately, I always seem to be stymied, stumped, brought up – but slowly, not fast or hard – against reality, the way things really are, which is what, I consider, writers should be writing about (however pleasant a little falsehood or two would be). Spirits and demons of the literary (and, of course, filmic) variety are not quite real. People who write a story – or produce a film, play, graphic novel or even computer game – have to do just that, I realise, produce a story, they have to engage readers; but once you draw, for your subject-matter, upon evil, you need, I consider, to have an idea (exact, or at least vague) of what evil actually is.

No, I’m not going to give a preachy this-worldly remonstrance that “evil” is just bad people who do awful things, like bombing shopping centres, killing elephants, or spreading bad ideas like racism, and that all those supernatural things found in ghost stories don’t really exist; no, being an orthodox Christian I believe firmly in a spiritual realm, which exists around and within the material one we directly know. It is the habitat of a vast wealth of entities, of many different kinds (including morally), and hierarchies, and varieties of organisation and intent. Such beings (or at least, the malevolent ones) are the entities found in our ghost stories and horror films. The stories, films, plays and the rest, are, indeed, full of them – but do their originators really believe in the existence of such things? I wonder this, but I suspect not, for I consider that most people in our society today (certainly those whose work fills the media, and the places of power and influence) are thorough materialists (materialist in that they think – indeed, feel certain – that everything has come into being by chance, impersonal, undirected processes, and that this life, and the material realm, is the sum total of existence, and all that there ever will be). Such beliefs, above all, are very comforting, for they remove the dread possibility that we all may one day be subject to something above and beyond ourselves, something we cannot ourselves control, or even rationally discover; death – extinction – is far less awful than that. Of course, for some of such people, the “pull” of ghost stories may be that their subject matters may seem to offer a part-subliminal questioning of their materialist assumptions (if so, I suggest that a corrective reading of Darwinism – which claims not to be fictional – will quickly cure them).

Yes, the real spiritual realm, and the activities of its inhabitants, are rather different, in my view, from the stuff we (mostly) find in stories and films. Leaving aside the visual media, we have things made of words – we have nought else – and the words found in ghost stories would, I fancy, include such as: dreadful, fascinating, chilling, spooky, unease, curiosity, mystery – and others; “awful” and “awe-full” would, of course, figure prominently in such a list – but these are very complex words, requiring a long explication of their own (even more so “numinous” –  and also “Gothic”, which only had its modern connotations of the dark and dreadful since the 17th century).

No, the person who ignores the reality of spiritual evil may one day come to regret it considerably (or one who attempts – and this is worse, I think – to “rationalise” it, or translate things into purely-human terms). I have known Christian deliverance ministers (also known, inaccurately, as “exorcists”) who have struggled with “men” who have developed exceedingly super-human strength, and chaotic anger and violence, when the name of Jesus is mentioned; a young woman who wept as she recounted a hideous satanic ritual that was forced upon her (no, it wasn’t just about sex); a woman who for years – while having much attention, and care, from deliverance ministers – struggled with a malevolent spiritual presence within her (also known, also inaccurately, as “possession”; in reality she, despite her loathing, in a sense possessed the thing, not the other way round). The materialist assumption quickly turns these things into mental illness, hysteria, and a variety of complexes and pathologies. Of course such illnesses exist and harm people; but to see reality in terms of one kind of thing alone is to attempt foolishly to see reality through narrow, unimaginative eyes that will look at one dimension only, it is nothingbuttery and reductionism of the most feeble kind; of course there is mental illness, but there is also something else. It is common (particularly, I fancy, in religious circles) to claim that to understand evil as being somehow connected with non-human beings is an evasion, an unwillingness to see humanity as it really is. I (as is usual with me) see it the opposite way: that the evasion is theirs, since not having to commit oneself to non-material things is much more comfortable (except commitment to belief in the nice things, of course, the things one would want to have).

The reality of spiritual evil, I would suggest, is not the stuff of stories, because it is not anything to which the above words could be applied. Rather, encountering it and its agents is a rather dark, grim affair; it is not fascinating, but boring, not so much awful as deathly dull; words we might use would include: colourless, hopeless, lifeless, broken, drab, despair, regret, emptiness. Things of evil promise much (most satanists, I’ve read, worship nothing; they’re only in it to acquire power) but deliver only death, obliteration. None of which make a good story. But do ghosts? Mark Gatiss recalls the question that M. R. James, like most ghost story writers, was inevitably asked (“Do you believe in ghosts?”), but he fails, like most people concerned with these things, to ask (or say if James asked) the question that must hang in the air above us: What is a ghost? I firmly believe that the real inhabitants of the spiritual world are not, and never have been, anything to do with formerly-alive people (despite the many, many claims made to the contrary, some, by humans) or our dead forebears, dismally waiting in some dreary place until a desperate descendant calls them hither, perhaps with the aid of not-disinterested agencies of dubious intent.

I must confess that I have myself written a novel which proceeds from the Gothic (the real Gothic, though, the beguiling remnants of half-understood ancient ruins, within and among worldly, slumberous Georgian Christianity) – but ends with the reality of spiritual evil, and the (only) means of its defeat (Beyond This Wilderness, 2011), and also a modern-day story concerning such things (Billyriddle, 2009). But should I write more, suspend belief, and attempt to describe dark, silent watchers, threatening figures upon an empty shore, rampant bed-sheets, and curious dust floating in time-locked libraries … well, maybe – might go down awfully well next Christmas …

January 2018

 

 

10 The Death of Western Christianity.

Patrick Sookhdeo, The Death of Western Christianity. Drinking From the Poisoned Wells of the Cultural Revolution, McLean, Virginia, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9977033-4-4

This is indeed a disturbing book, as George Carey’s Foreword says – indeed, chilling. I had known (as who can’t – well, lots of Western Christians, apparently) that the Church in the West was in a very parlous state. Having a British, Anglican, perspective, I had known the extent to which the Episcopal Church USA had succumbed to Western materialist values (and its resultant decline), and the extent to which the Church of England was following it (p. 110, 167), but I hadn’t known the full extent of the dreadful influence, in American Evangelicalism, of such things as the me culture, the dumbing-down of the Gospel and essential Christian ideas (goodbye ‘sin’), the shapelessness of worship, the destruction of marriage and the full extent of pornography addiction (Ch. 3, etc.). Contrast all of this with his heart-rending story of ‘one-way missionaries’, who, in former times, travelled to far-flung regions accompanied by their own coffin (pp. 54-59.

Of course, many Christians deny that the State is out to get them; perhaps, reasonably, they are currently able to do so, and will – for a little while longer. Even worse than state harassment, perhaps, is the utter hatred of Christians, by such as academics (p. 99-101) – it is not enough to say that only a few people are this virulent; many more would be, will be, when the last vestiges of the old respect for people with beliefs other than your own, is stripped away (are such people never asked what they feel about the members of other religions? – no, I suspect not, for anti-Christianity is gestated within closeted minds which are never examined, questioned). And then, there is Sookhdeo’s exposure of the acid of ‘post-truthism’, as well as postmodernism and the death of reason (Ch. 5; don’t those militant atheist-scientists do any complaining about that? You would think they would – but they probably know, at some level, that such things actually further their cause).

But what do we do, now? – that is always the question. Sookhdeo suggests a vigorous tightening-up, as it were, of the Church, and Christians: we have to recover who we are, what we stand for and stand up for, the way of our living, and worshipping, and make sure – very sure – it conforms closely with what we find in the Bible, and the traditions of true Christianity,  rather than the “poisoned wells” of the culture (good phrase that; toxicity such as we have never known before); he refers to, but does not specifically comment on, the, as it were, ‘withdrawal’ approach found in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017) (see this page, below). His sections contrasting the ways of Christians and Muslims is particularly full of insight (pp. 139-141).

On the source of theistic decline in the West, and the twilight of faith, there are various theories, including: the powerful reaction to the post-Reformation Wars of Religion, the (ethical) influence of the world wars, and the conscious spreading of materialism in the form of promoted evolutionism (suggested by me in my little book Christianity and Materialism (2015)). In Sookhdeo’s book, much useful information is given about the propagation of Cultural Marxism, from the Frankfurt School to its successors in US academia and beyond (pp. 31-4). Of course, one does not expect a full Christian analysis of the rise of modern (materialist) culture in such a book; but it does give lots of information and facts – chilling facts. Time and again, in meditations and Christian writings, one is assured that God is in ultimate control of history, and all is planned to a good end; right now, it is hard to see where we are going, and where the goodness will be coming from; not, I suspect, from here – the West.

November 2017

 

9 The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, New York, Sentinel (Penguin Random House LLC), 2017. ISBN 978-0735213296

I recently submitted this as a review to the Amazon site, after reading the book; corrected; September 2017.

A very necessary and interesting book. Of course, written from a US perspective, and not being American, or the parent of young children, the middle chapters (the education system (US), etc.) were less relevant to me. The author kept referring to existing Benedict Option communities, so I was uncertain as to whether the prior-existence of these groups had inspired the book, or if the book was intended to inspire people to set up BO communities; I suppose, a bit of both. It did cause me to take another look at Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (which originally suggested that what we needed, now, was a new St. Benedict). It raises the question (as in criticisms of Dreher’s position that I have heard about), of if, in the present anti-Christian/post-civilisation world, Christians should “circle the wagons” and look to preserving the true faith for the future (the ‘Benedict Option’), as the first Benedictines had, or stay “in the world” to try to tend the victims, and spread hope, love, etc.; but the latter option – the conclusion I’ve finally come to – is that if we took that option, we would end up being so compromised with this-worldy values that we would have nothing to offer anyone, or at least, nothing authentically Christian, or anything in any real way countering the culture that rages around us. Loyalty to Christ, and to Truth has to come first … all else …

See also Quote 189

2017

 

8 Which God? (Mark Durie)

Mark Durie, Which God?Jesus, Holy Spirit, God in Christianity & Islam, Deror Books, Revised (2nd) edition, 2015.

ISBN 978-0-9874691-4-4

 “Well, we all worship the same god, don’t we?” – how many times have you heard that? And when you hear it, where, exactly, do you think it comes from? Personally, I think it comes from a deep desire for some kind of accommodation, reconciliation, one-ness, a belief that society can be made harmonious and peaceful by the acknowledgment that we are all really one. That’s the motive that many Christians, or agnostic English people generally, have; sadly, I think it’s a forlorn hope. And from the Muslim world – as William J. Murray tells us, in his Foreword to this book – there is a “heavily financed” promotion of this view, to the West. What is meant, by Muslims, is that there is one concept of god which “we” have a part of, or a distorted view of; the Christians and others, in these circumstances, however, have not really thought about it (in my view) or they have an incorrect grasp of what Christianity actually teaches – or again, they prefer the concept hich they personally hold to, rather than that of orthodox Christianity. Do we worship the same God? I always thought – before reading this book – that two minutes’ examination of the concept of god in Christianity, and in Islam (with only a dim knowledge of that of Islam), would reveal that they are rather different things; now, having read this book, I think they are very different, and I know why.

              The simplified “schoolboy” description of the relationship of Christianity and Islam is that they are mutually-blasphemous religions in that the one has as essential the idea of god becoming human, and the other sees the nature of god as utterly other than the material; for Christianity, redemption (liberation, if you will) comes by way of god’s becoming human, for the other, god could not possibly be tainted or besmirched by any contact with the flesh. As the sub-title suggests, this book examines in detail the Muslim concept of Jesus, or Isa, and that of the Holy Spirit or the Ruh al-Quds of the Quran. Essential to the Muslim understanding of Isa is that he is seen as simply a prophet, or the prophet which preceded Muhammad; in a strange way, of course this view of Jesus bears definite similarities with the “only a very good man” thinking held by some “liberal” Christians, and non-believers. The Muslim idea is that Isa will return in the Last Days to fight for the true faith (Islam), and against Christians. Isa inhabits a very different world of historicity than Jesus of Nazareth, and Quranic “history” is quite unlike that of the Bible. The author stresses that to Muslims, Islam is not simply a “newer” religion than Christianity and Judaism but “the primordial religion, the original faith from which Judaism and Christianity are subsequent developments” (p. 9); the Bible is a distortion of the “real” scriptures, and Jews and Christians only have a corrupt version of the scriptures/the truth (or have corrupted the original). An important part of the book – in the light of contemporary disputes about the source and nature of evil – is Chapter 10, where Allah is seen, from the Quran, as the author of evil; a somewhat amoral, utterly transcendent – indeed, quixotic – Allah emerges from parts of this book ( eg. pp 122-3).

              One concern of the book is to examine – and reject – the efforts of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf to argue that Allah and YHWH are in fact one (Chapter 16). Volf’s concern is a political one, Durie explains, his concern is to suggest that Christians and Muslims can live peacefully because they do worship the same god (that old wishful thinking!).

              Time and again, Christians are tempted into thinking that concession and conciliation, co-operation and interaction, will bring real fruits, that it is the mission of Christians (perhaps first and foremost) to bring peace on earth, and that someone – it may, must, be themselves, me – have to make the first move, and, eventually, good things will flow from this. But is this irenic, optimistic view borne out by real experience, facts, things which actually happen? Also, recently, I have been reading Michel Houellebecq’s (originally French) novel Submission. It is set in France in the near future – about two-decades’ time – and all-important to France, in the story, is up-coming presidential elections and a political crisis. The result is that a “moderate” Muslim party takes control, or at least gets to hold the balance of power, and as part of a compromise, education is totally in its power. The result, in schools and universities, is that all teachers have to be male and Muslim, and women are effectively banned (“submission” is the meaning of Islam, of course; see Durie p. 94). Will something like this actually come about?

 March 2016

 

 

7 The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything

James Martin SJ, The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything, New York, HarperOne (Harper Collins Publishers), 2012.

ISBN 978-0-143269-9

Ignatian spirituality, it seems to me, is booming; all kinds of Christians follow the Spiritual Exercises, and conferences and courses, aimed at many disparate groups, are everywhere encouraging the use of St. Ignatius’s “way”. This book is surely part of that movement, or rather it has drawn much of its success (which it apparently has had, in the USA) from that surge of interest.

Yes, the book is very useful and practical, and derives much from Fr. Martin’s sharing of his own personal story, how the insights of the Jesuit founder – and many other subsequent Jesuits – led him along the path to full membership of the Society of Jesus.

To me, and perhaps most “ordinary Christians”, the most useful part was that dealing with the Examen, or nightly examination of the blessings and challenges of the day, and our own shortcomings (throughout the book, but particularly pp. 95-100). I would want to find out more about this, though the idea of examination of conscience has long been part of many Christian traditions, particularly, perhaps, in its possible connection with sacramental confession; but the idea of a daily, or rather nightly, spiritual assessment has much appeal.

Something else that I warmed to (which, as readers might expect, derives from Ignatius) is the emphasis placed on desire, which can also be described as a spiritual longing (none other than C. S. Lewis, in his sermon The Weight of Glory, refers to the unfortunate weakness of our desires, longings, and hopes) (Chapter 3, ‘What Do You Want?’).

If anything slightly surprised me it was the virtual equivalence which the author seems to give to the religious experience and spiritualties of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; I fancy this seeming to put the three (or rather, the third) on an equivalent footing with Christianity will discomfort some readers. He is realistic, in my view, about the potential selfishness of much New Ageism (p. 47). I have referred elsewhere to the surprising (to me) emphasis on God loving us, seemingly as we currently are, and accepting us as we presently are. The author’s willingness to express frustration with God’s seeming inaction is shown in a lovely story about his anguished prayer “How about some @#$% help, God!” – to which his spiritual director replied, “That’s a good prayer” (p. 124).

In all, the book seems to me to be unnecessarily long, and later sections verge on the repetitious; the middle chapters would surely be very useful to anyone contemplating admission to the Jesuit order – but most of us are not. A lot of information is included on the contributions of Jesuits, long past and more recent, to history and towards the creation of the societies we live in; there is bound to be something here that will surprise most people (eg. the Jesuit contribution to the development of theatre). I know little of the Society of Jesus, and have known only one Jesuit (I have the awful feeling, however, that for some there is allegedly a darker side to the order’s history, in which ‘Jesuitry’ means deception, but let’s hope I’ve got that wrong; you don’t read of that here, of course.)

One curious, but surely chance thing, is that my copy of the book (a rather solid paperback) has a strong smell (the paper, presumably) … but what, oh what, does it remind me of, just a little … yes, I know, incense …

October 2015

 

6 Triple Jeopardy for the West

Michael Nazir-Ali, Triple Jeopardy for the West, Aggressive Secularism, Radical Islamism and Multiculturalism, London,  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012.

ISBN 978-1-4411-1347-4

 

At times, this book seems like a collection of articles (plus a book review); at times, it seems to be one of those books which have been very of-the-moment and timely when produced, but is now a little dated. It is none the worse for either of those things.

Because of the identity of its authorship, the reader knows he is in the hands of an orthodox Christian, and one who, because of his unusual origin and life-journey is in a unique position to instruct the still-predominantly white middle-class Church of England, and indeed, British Christianity as a whole.

Nazir-Ali makes a number of very valuable points, and particularly, fully accepts and acknowledges various things that the politicians, mainstream media, academia, and “liberal” Church leaders, either deny or keep quiet about:  that aggressive secularism, Islamism, and multiculturalism are much the same thing – and tend to totalitarianism (p. vii); that secularism/atheism is a world-view/belief system, and in no way neutral (pp. x, 31); that ‘Britishness’ and British ‘values’ (“’thin’ values”, pp. 3, 9, 145) are not the same as Christian or Judeo/Christian values (p. xi); that all religious traditions do not produce the same results in society (p. xiii); that the monarchy, the national anthem, prayers in Parliament, bishops in the House of Lords, etc., are not just “tourist-friendly vestigial elements left over from the Middle Ages” (p. 5); that Church leaders utterly failed to resist secularism, the decline of Christian thought and observance,  and the sexual revolution, when they arrived (p. 7); that ethics and values cannot be “freestanding”, divorced from belief in their (Judeo-Christian) source (pp. 12, 137); that the destruction of marriage, the family, childhood and fatherhood did not come about by accident, but were the result of intentional political engineering (pp. 21-2, 148); that school children are very much not taught the ‘upside’ of British history, or Britain’s contribution to the world (p. 29), or the role of Christianity in creating science, and originating the concept of individual freedom (pp. 167-8); that Christianity should not let any ‘culture set the agenda’ (pp. 40-1); the lack of impartiality on the part of the BBC regarding ‘euthanasia’/assisted dying (pp. 107, 110); that the secularisation of nursing and the health professions is maintained, if not created, by the legal system (p 136) (there are surely more).

Certainly, the unique contribution of Bishop Nazir-Ali is his knowledge and insight concerning Islam. His descriptions of the nature and development of Islamic law, the changes in Islamic thinking (particularly in our society) in the last few decades, and the nature of jihad and the Islamic sense of grievance, are probably unequalled, and probably, in parts, go over the head of some readers, because of their technicality, but are not less valuable for that (Chs. 5-7, etc.). He seems, in the end, to stop short of saying (as some do) that ‘the (true) nature of Islam is the problem’, saying that we can distinguish between Islam and “Islamist ideology” (p. 79) but elsewhere seeming to show how this ideology affects many/most Muslims in our world today. The good relationship that existed between Islam and British rule (in what is now India and Pakistan) may come as something of a surprise (pp. 72-73).

On the question of the nature and value of human life (“personhood” seems to be his preferred concept, eg. p. 115), the use of human stem cells, and the ‘end-of-life debate’, he has much of value to offer, speaking as he does, from a Christian perspective; his account of Mary Warnock and her book and ideas (Ch. 12) makes one wish that so much status and influence might not be awarded to such people, in our society. At times, he can seem rather over-optimistic and excessively hopeful: eg. how Pakistan’s Islamist ills may be removed (Ch. 8); the changes for the better which Christianity and Church schools can produce (p. 35, 37); the strengthening of ‘moderate’ Islam (p. 47); the “Cure for National Amnesia” (Ch. 13).

At times also, one has to admit, he does remind the reader of the old non-critical Christian theologian, eg. in his attitude to Darwin and evolutionism (Ch. 9), where he seems uncritically to accept the old myth about Bishop Wilberforce (p. 101). His approach to Theilhard de Chardin (Jesuit priest perhaps, but more of a New Ager than a Christian) also has a slightly old ring (pp. 27, 104-105). His reflection “It has always been a surprise to me why such high priority should be given to embryonic stem cells when, in fact, most effective treatments have been derived from adult cells …” (p. 114) perhaps shows a certain lack of insight into the motivations and values of some researchers (and the depth of human wickedness) – but, of course, he has had far more direct experience of scientists and ethical philosophers than such as I have had.

Bishop Nazir-Ali, above all, is a senior orthodox Christian who fully acknowledges the perilous situation (‘Triple Jeopardy’) that we are in – many do not – and by “we”, I mean the Christian Church, and Western society and civilisation as a whole; where others brush grim reality under the carpet, make light of things, and indulge in over-optimism, Nazir-Ali does not. If only such leadership could be found at the head of the Church of England (and others)! I suspect, actually, that he is able to do far more in his present role (Director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue) than he would if things were otherwise.

 

November 2014

 

 

5 Opera – Richard Wagner, Parsifal

Richard Wagner, Parsifal (1882)

On the 12 of March 2011, I fulfilled an ambition to see Wagner’s Parsifal; the production was that of English National Opera, at the London Coliseum. Sung in English (as is ENO’s practice), this was in a production first staged by them in 1999, and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff (this production has also been staged in various cities in Europe and the United States).

Wagner’s conception of the work seems to have originated in 1845, when he read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (medieval) poem Parzival, though his conception was much influenced by studies of Buddhism, and oriental philosophies, in the mid-1850s.  Only in 1857 did he specifically connect his understanding of the story’s themes with Good Friday, but it was 1865 before he took up the project again, completing the libretto (“poem”) in 1877. It was a further five years before the opera was produced, at the Bayreuth Festival of 1882.

 

While the work borrows various ideas from Buddhism and Eastern thought (particularly renunciation) – the spelling with an S instead of Wolfram’s Z was supposedly derived from the Arabic Fal Parsi, “holy fool” –  as it emerged, Parsifal was an essentially Christian work, or “ein Bűhnenweihfestspiel”  (“A festival play for the consecration of the stage”), and the setting within the specifically-Christian-derived grail legends (as Wolfram’s story), and the repeated references to the Lord and Good Friday, make it, in my view, a story whose Christian “centre” cannot reasonably be denied (despite our necessary acknowledgement of the non-Christian ideas that contributed to its genesis).

Lehnhoff’s production almost explicitly attempts to de-Christianise Parsifal; “This production of Parsifal does not seek to stage a sacred drama – a ‘Bűhnenweihfestspiel’” – says Wolfgang Willaschek, in his article in the ENO programme (“Endgame in the WasteLand”, p. 27). Original productions set the hall of the grail knights (in which the mass/communion-like ceremony of the grail’s uncovering is performed) beneath the cupola of a cathedral (normally identified with Siena).  The significant act of destroying evil and its forces was Parsifal making the sign of the Cross with the recovered spear of the Crucifixion. In this production, the grail and its shrine, the grail hall – and the making of the sign of the Cross – are omitted. The de-Christianisation of Christian art is something I regularly complain about (the reason for it, in most cases, is that secularists/materialists can’t produce their own art, so they have to distort religiously-inspired art to fit their agenda; besides, they can’t write as good music). The problem, with this production, is that though the old settings were radically replaced (and Wagner’s stage directions ignored totally), the director went only half-way, retaining the words (complete with references to the Lord; I quite thought not to hear those), and, of course, the music. Thus, the libretto explicitly refers to meadows and flowers, etc. (throughout the work), but here, we were stranded in a sort of builder’s junk yard, with fragments of concrete replacing the sung-about flowers; waste land indeed. If the stage directions were going to be ignored, why not doctor the words, to at least try to get the whole thing to make sense?

The community of knights, at Montsalvat castle, northern Spain, have charge of the grail or cup which collected Christ’s blood at his crucifixion. The spear (used to pierce his side) has been captured by the grail community’s “rival”, the sorcerer Klingsor, whose magic castle and garden are nearby, and whose ambition is to steal the grail also. Ancient lore predicts that evil can only be defeated, and the grail community restored from its current decline, when a “holy fool” comes along, and destroys Klingsor’s realm, and returns the spear.

Parsifal (after an unimpressive start) turns out to be the “holy fool” long waited for; but central is the curious female character Kundry. She is one of the most complex figures in literature (indeed, if we would find a character of such inner-contradictions, we might need to look to the characters of Shakespeare, rather than the world of opera). Kundry is a mixture of both the desire for redemption and the need to dominate and degrade those possessed of innocent virtue (particularly, that is, the holy fool Parsifal); she is both penitent and seductress, and as such is typical (or perhaps the prototype) of many late-nineteenth century femmes fatales. She laughed at Christ on the way to his death, and seduced various grail knights (including Amfortas, leader of the community), and she seeks, in Act 2, the redemption that she knows only Parsifal can bring her … but urges him to spend just one brief hour in her embrace – which (they both know) will destroy them both eternally (and the grail knight’s community also).

The notion that the barrier to redemption and virtue, is, supremely, sexual sin, is an idea crucial to many understandings of Christian thought, particularly, perhaps, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and maybe formative of the ancient Christian traditions of asceticism. Thus, we have the dualist understandings of the opposition of matter and spirit which – deriving, one suspects, from Neo-Platonism – fuelled the search for spiritual purity in the renunciation of sexual physical life. From this ancient stream, surely, derives the idea that sexuality and holiness might be warring incompatibles. Of course, this is a distortion, mis-conceived, and while we might not require the total rejection of celibacy, we must urgently promote the Christian valuing of physicality (whose acceptance might take centuries) when we have established a true distinction between distorted, degraded sexuality and the (perhaps hidden) virtue of its true, holy, nature. The real opposite of virtue is not sexual vice, but the rejection of the ultimate purpose of human existence (abandoning our pride before the reality, and experience, of God’s love for us), which inevitably degrades our valuing of individual people, and thus ineluctably leads us to the materialist adoption of a vicious dehumanism, which is the source of everything totalitarian and evil.

At the end of Parsifal, Wagner’s stage direction makes clear that finally, the spear and grail community restored, we see Kundry sink into lifelessness (redeemed, but dead). In the secularist understanding, of course, this is a very bad thing, since this present life is all, and there can be no kind of redemption that involves termination. In  Lehnhoff’s production, we see Kundry not expire, but rise and walk, with Parsifal, up a damaged railway track towards strong light (ie. walk off-stage). I found it rather beautiful, and, curiously, as authentically Christian as Wagner’s original idea.

2014

 

4 Ecstasy, Art, & the Body

(Sculpture / Mysticism)

 

Ecstasy, Art, & the Body. Teresa of Avila’s “Transverberation”, and its Depiction in the Sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini

See: illustrations.

It is some years, now, since I saw Bernini’s famous sculptural composition commonly known as The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1650s), in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of St. Maria della Vittoria, Rome. In this work, the central figure is a marble rendering of a woman, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, writhing in a state of religious ecstasy, which Teresa herself described in Chapter 29 of her (autobiographical) Life (1565):

Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them. … But it was our Lord’s will that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim, but they do not tell me their names. … In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged in to my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it – even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it. – I have used J. M. Cohen’s translation (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1957), p. 210.

- And when I saw the sculpture, that day in 1983, I was reminded of words of a theology lecturer of mine, heard when I had been a student (in about 1971), concerning Teresa’s experience: “But of course, she was just having an orgasm, wasn’t she?”; even at the time, though only about 20, I was aware that that judgement was surely somehow inadequate; surely, she wasn’t just having an orgasm? Of course, the idea that Teresa had experienced some form of sexual, rather than religious, ecstasy, was far from new even in the era that had claimed to have “discovered” sexual experience; such claims had been made many times, particularly with the coming of analysis based upon post-Freudian psychology, which, of course, has been applied to many things in religion, the arts, and beyond.

Inevitably, many people have poured scorn on Teresa’s interpretations of her experiences, and naturally she has provided very fertile ground for cynics, sexuality promoters, feminists, materialist philosophers/psychologists, and writers of many kinds – and also (regarding Bernini’s work) those who champion revisionist re-interpretations of Christian art; this is ground, one might say, which has been raked over many times. But those who do not have any animus against Christianity, and who seek to study Teresa’s words – and the expression of them in art – from within Christian faith, inevitably look with very different eyes. Some have surely seen Teresa’s experiences as having a purely spiritual nature; but the clue that this is not correct is found explicitly (unlike the idea of it being a purely sexual experience) in her own words. Throughout her many accounts, in the Life, of – very varied – religious experiences, Teresa creates, time and again, a hierarchy of the physical/spiritual nature of realities; this account, of her most famous experience, is no exception. She writes of the angel in bodily form, as rarely seen by her; visions of angels which she does not actually see, and, most dramatically, that she sees the angel stabbing her heart and removing her entrails with the aid of a sharp, burning object, which occurrence nonetheless did not cause her to bleed profusely and then expire. She explains: “… this is not a physical but a spiritual event …” – but then she immediately qualifies it (“ …the body has some share in it …”), and then yet again (“ – even a considerable share”).

However, when all the accounts of religious experiences in the Life are considered together, one slowly comes to doubt that Teresa actually has a very clearly-defined hierarchy, and certainly no reasoned separation between the natures of different kinds of things – but the same is true of accounts by Christian mystics from completely different times and cultures (eg. Julian of Norwich). She expends great effort in all her writings (and no doubt did throughout life), to describing and defining what we know as the stages or degrees of prayer (and in The Mansions, the whole book is devoted to presenting a framework within which spiritual experience and ascent can be carefully explicated; but even here, there is on many occasions the cautionary note that the categories are not “watertight”, nor is any one experience divorced from another, nor must a strict, ordered process be observed/experienced). But what we can be certain of is that in her view, and experience, the physical and the spiritual – the bodily and the mystical – are intimately related. Whatever her experience(s) in the “Transverberation”, it was much more than physical – but (though not physical such as to cause the afore-mentioned wounding) physical nonetheless.

Of necessity, I have a great disadvantage in discussing the fullness of Teresa’s experiences – that of never having been a woman, and thus never having had womens’ physical experiences, sexual or otherwise. Experiences confided by Teresa’s brother Lorenzo, however, are claimed to have involved some kind of sexual arousal encountered after prayer or after some kind of mystical event. This interpretation [1] is found in the account Fr. Thomas Dubay, a scholar and authority on Teresa, in his book Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel – On Prayer, Ignatius Press, 1989, pp. 232-233. (also: http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2006/08/the_assault_on_.html ). He quotes Teresa:

“Pay no attention to those evil feelings which come to you afterwards [after his deep prayer]. I have never suffered from them myself, since God, of His goodness, has always delivered me from such passions, but I think the explanation of them must be that the soul’s joy is so keen that it makes itself felt in the body. With God’s help it will calm down if you take no notice of it. Several people have discussed this with me.”

(taken from The Letters of St. Teresa of Jesus, Tran. E. Allison Peers, London, Sheed and Ward, 1951, 1980, letter 163, p. 411 [Vol. 1]).

It has been said that love cannot flower, or be indefinitely prolonged, without some physical expression (the assumption, though, that this must needs be sexual expression is surely false); and perhaps the Lord’s love of us is no exception. There is the physical element in worship, such as the physical expressiveness seen in liturgical dance, and the swaying motion, and gestures, often seen in Evangelical/Pentecostal worship, in which, hands held high and faces enraptured, a gathering is filled with the Spirit; worship, as seen here, is a bodily, sensual, experience. These, of course, are human expressions of love received – and love offered; but in the Sacrament, we specifically encounter the Lord’s love of us, communing in and through that act (though, I would argue, it surely is, on many occasions, an event devoid of any special feelings whatever, and thus perhaps hardly seems to merit, to us, the label “experience” at all). Can any authentic communion be devoid of all physical/material ingredients? And might it never be that the soul’s “keen joy” might never make itself “felt in the body”? (And how in the body? – perhaps in many different ways). And if the nature of worship, and communing, is physical, perhaps salvation and eternal destiny are in some way physical also (one is reminded, perhaps, of St Paul’s reference to an eternity, beyond the existence of this world, in which though we will have spiritual bodies (unlike now, where we have natural (“fleshly”) bodies), they will be bodies nonetheless; 1 Cor. 15, 44).

Perhaps, as authentic religious experience has to be known, in this view, by way of the physical – this being the (only) form that humans currently have – aesthetic experience (whether we acknowledge it or not) perforce has to have a spiritual effect, “spiritual” being defined as the non-purely-material part of the human whole (this, of course, assumes the view, now contested, that there is some non-material essence “within” the brain/mind); this idea, of course, raises questions as to the nature of spiritual effect (and of the difference of effect between explicitly-religious art, and non-religious art). The mono-dimensional imagination, which the materialist world-view requires, means that such people (the “orgasm only” variety) are unable to know both the partial-correctness of their approach (physical experience is indeed involved), as well as its sad inadequacy.

 

Such an artist as Bernini was from beginning to end a Christian person in a Christian culture. To refer to him as a “Christian artist” would have been a curious platitude. Such an artist would have been incapable of separating out his beliefs and culture – the whole of society’s beliefs and culture – from his art (that particular –odd, tragic – dislocation is only a product of our own fraught age, one devoid of authentic belief in anything, yet clinging to the ever-cracking façade of – wholly groundless – belief in ourselves (to want to have Christian culture without Christian faith and the Christian world-view, is somewhat like the nature lover – there are plenty of them around – who might greatly value dolphins and porpoises, beautiful star-fish and whales – but detest ocean, sea: “We certainly don’t want any of that great, nasty wet stuff!”)).

The Cornaro Chapel was constructed on the commission of Cardinal Federico Cornaro, Patriarch of Venice. A sepulchral chapel, it is a shallow space set in the left transept of St. Maria della Vittoria, a small Carmelite church [2]. Vital to understanding Bernini’s work at St. Maria is seeing the space he produced – the chapel, with its architecture and sculpture, and painted vault – as a whole. To left and right of the sanctuary (beyond which is the space occupied by the sculpture) are two balconies, set high on the lateral walls; they remind us strongly of the boxes which are found in many theatres and opera houses; the sculpture’s space, in this analogy, is the stage. Here, the well-known connection between Baroque art/architecture and theatre (the then-developing forms of oratorio and opera), is very apparent. The “boxes” are populated with sculpted images of members of the Cornaro family (which included six cardinals, and Federico’s father, the Doge Giovanni) who are meditating on the matter of the “Transverberation”, the image of which is beyond their sight [3]. Indeed, they are not actual spectators, since the image of Teresa, the rocks on which she lies, and the cherubim, are in a different space which is separated (and made inaccessible) by the architectural frame set in front of it – a veritable proscenium arch. The fact that the ‘Transverberation space’ is so completely separate dramatically illustrates an important fact: the rest of us (as shown by the members of the Cornaro family, and their positioning) can only know of Teresa’s mystical experience second-hand through reading of it, or seeing it through the visionary capacity of imagination (a quality that is very much present in Bernini’s work), but cannot actually experience it ourselves. But what of the space that the Cornaros inhabit, or rather, look down on? It is the chapel’s sanctuary; it is not the space beyond it (the ‘Transverberation space’) which holds the altar (and, presumably, tabernacle): we ourselves can receive the Lord’s gifts to us in the form he himself commanded, the consecrated host, which is actually (though, as suggested, not necessarily an experience) a more complete and total communion than Teresa’s powerful experience; and Teresa herself, in her Life, was the first to acknowledge that “visions” were a lesser thing.

References:

[1] “One of the more surprising and disturbing phenomena that may occur during communion with the Lord is sexual disturbance or arousal. It is “surprising and disturbing” not because the phenomenon is in itself a cause for concern but because most people would never expect that in so holy an occupation there could be sexual repercussions. While they seem not to be common, they do occur. Lorenzo, the saint’s married brother who had chosen his sister as spiritual director, had experienced these disturbances, and he asked her for guidance.”, Dubay, loc. cit.

[2] Howard Hibbard, Bernini, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965; 1978 ed., pp. 128-141.

[3] Hibbard, op.cit., p. 130.

 

John Thomas studied theology in the University of Wales, history of art in the University of London, and the theory and practice of Christian worship and religious architecture in the Universities of Birmingham and Sheffield.

Summer 2011.