Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers

Detail from G. F. Watts, ‘Mammon’ (1885), Tate Britain.

Some people have been asking me about the picture in my last post. It is worth a closer look. Its message is, sadly, timeless, but particularly relevant to our troubled age. In the 1880s, the artist, G. F. Watts (1817–1904), was a senior figure in the London art world and known as ‘England’s Michelangelo’. He was an intellectual whose work pioneered symbolism; a deep thinker who painted ideas. Oscar Wilde called him ‘a great originative and imaginative genius’.1 Barak Obama was particularly drawn to Watt’s Hope which, I read somewhere, hung in the White House, and Watts was an inspiration to Martin Luther King. (This Guardian article is a good introduction to Watts.)

The full title of this work is Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers and the heavy, gilded, obscene demonic deity dominating this image is ‘massive’, that is, weighed down by gold whose gravitational pull binds him to the earth. His gouty leg (more visible in the artist’s line drawing of the subject) and unfeeling, swollen arm bear down on lifeless figures—fragile humanity, the imago Dei crushed by the weight of unfeeling avarice. Continue reading “Mammon—dedicated to his worshippers”

Faith in the White House

G. F. Watts, ‘Mammon’
(1885), Tate Britain.

Many years ago (I think it was 1983) I was invited to attend a conference in Blackpool, U.K. featuring as its guest speakers two Kenneths—Hagin and Copeland. I was young and naive and had no idea who these people were. I soon discovered. It hit me when I was driving home from the event in my beaten up old car (purchased for £120) when Mr Copeland barrelled past me in a fast-driven Rolls-Royce. 

Fast forward to 2018, and I discover that Kenneth Copeland is one of those praying for, and supporting, a certain President. Should we be surprised? Continue reading “Faith in the White House”

Draining the swamp of American Evangelicalism

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been troubled of late. It’s all down to the storm on the western horizon and what seems (from this distance) to be an alliance between Christians and radical evil. Someone sent me a link to a video showing a posse of what were described as ‘Evangelical faith leaders’ praying for a certain President in the White House and, to be honest, I found it profoundly disturbing. I wondered (not without a pang of guilt) how many times one could sell one’s soul to the devil before it became the latter’s property. Continue reading “Draining the swamp of American Evangelicalism”

Killing Christianity in the name of Christ

[Klikněte zde pro českou verzi/click here for Czech version]

On Saturday I was almost in tears as Miloš Zeman was re-elected the Czech president—and not tears of joy. I was surprised how much it affected me. Cold despair hit me. Politics is not an all-consuming passion of mine; kings and leaders come and go, and often, for the sake of sanity, it is better to think on better things closer to the ground—closer to the world in which we ordinary mortals live and move—than on the ‘strutting and fretting’ of those such as Zeman which, as Shakespeare sagely observed, is, ultimately, a ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Continue reading “Killing Christianity in the name of Christ”

The ethics of cartography

OK, a slightly pretentious title, but all will become clear…

In 1945, in the aftermath of the second world war, the victorious allies represented by the likes of Harry S. Truman, Clement Attlee, and Joseph Stalin sat round a table and decided the future of Europe. Various lines were drawn on maps, and the land I now call home found itself behind what became known as the Iron Curtain. Prior to this — perhaps for many centuries — the Czech lands of Moravia and Bohemia were peopled by a mixed population speaking both Czech and German. There was rich intercultural cross-fertilisation and diversity.

But, as always happens when lines are drawn on maps by those who claim power, some people found themselves in the ‘wrong’ place at the wrong time. In Czech Silesia, for example, to the north of Moravia, many German-speakers — despite their families having centuries-old roots in the communities in which they lived — found themselves demonised and deported, often sent ‘back’ to Germany, a land unknown to many. And most troubling of all, Czechoslovakia, despite having fought bravely with Western allies, was betrayed and found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

When lines are drawn on maps by the powerful, a kind of osmosis occurs. In places where different ethnic and cultural groups had happily cohabited previously, there now emerges a them-and-us attitude. If one side of the line, for example, is ‘German’ and the other side ‘Czech’, a migration occurs. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the line feel the need (or are made to feel the need) that it’s time to move to the other side: the line become a ‘membrane’ and the cultures on either side of it become increasingly separate and distinct. Where perhaps in the old days a language would slowly transition from one dialect to another during a day’s journey, now border posts and fences appear, and a few paces brings a world of cultural and linguistic difference.

Often (perhaps always when power is involved) lines drawn on maps are artificial. The straight lines drawn on the continent of Africa by colonial powers is testament to how little language or topography played a role. And those in power seldom ask the opinion of those on the ground; for the former, the lust to rule is the driver — the acquisition of assets and resources which will bring further riches… and the lust for even more power. Such is the nature of imperialism.

But what about religious imperialism?

I am troubled at the moment by an emerging narrative in the States, for example, by those who might be described as ‘alt-right Christians’. They see their ownership of certain Christian ‘lands’ — and by this I mean certain putatively incontrovertible truths — as theirs by right; that is, that their understanding of what truths make up the Christian faith is the only ‘true truth’. Such people (as, it has to be said, we all do) draw ethical lines on a kind of religious map according to what they (we) hold to be incontestable. This is the essence of fundamentalism: that ‘we’ know what is true and ‘you’ are wrong.

In New Testament times, for example, religious purity in Judaism was seen as paramount. To be labelled ‘unclean’ was to find oneself on the wrong side of a line and – potentially – alienated from God. This could be temporary and perhaps bearable (if, say, you were having your period), or it might have resulted in permanent exclusion (if you were a leper, for example). An elaborate religious scheme developed which was absolutely sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Read in this light, the ministry of Jesus is seen to be radically subversive. For example, in a world where childminders (because they dealt with the messy business of interacting with children) were considered unclean, as were shepherds (ditto re sheep), and where women could not be witnesses in a court of law (one Pharisaic prayer was: ‘I thank you God I was not born a dog or a woman’), Jesus comes along and calls himself ‘the good shepherd’. Not only that, the angels announcing the Messiah’s birth appear first to shepherds, and the first witness to the resurrection of that Messiah was a woman. Furthermore, Jesus had many female disciples. Martha’s indignation at her sister Mary’s preference for ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus’ [Luke 10:38–42] concerns not Mary’s lack of service, but has more to do with the fact that Mary has pretensions to be a rabbi’s disciple — a theologian — in the same way, for example, that the Apostle Paul ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’ [Acts 22:3]. In other words, Mary is refusing social stereotyping, and it is this that upsets Martha — but not Jesus. Jesus’ ministry is characterised by the erasure of social boundaries (he eats, for example, with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ — the former political opportunists, the latter often associated with suspect sexual behaviour). He erases the lines artificially drawn on the religiously-motivated social ‘map’.

Today, a friend of mine is going to speak at a Christian LGBT community meeting here in Prague. A community that, it could be argued, exists primarily because ‘mainstream’ Christians have drawn lines on a modern religious ‘map’ based on the perception that the LGBT community are on the wrong side of acceptable Christian behaviour. Let’s explore this for a moment. Communities only exist because those in them have a sense of unique identity. This can come about in two ways: either through self-identification or imposition. In the former case, those with certain predilections, interests, or characteristics draw together in the interests of mutuality. They are not necessarily against ‘normal’ society, but have a unique identity within it. (Train-spotters come to mind, but I guess some would argue that they are not normal!) On the other hand, some (such as lepers in the ancient world) had their identity imposed on them by society, an identity forged by society’s sense of unacceptability, and that those so classified must be — for example, for health reasons, or from the felt need to maintain religious purity — excluded. Far right political movements have always tended towards the latter — that ‘they’ do not belong in ‘our’ world.

So I have a question. What if we as Christians stopped drawing so many lines on the religious map? If, for example, LGBT people were accepted instead of stigmatised, would there even be an ‘LGBT Christian community’ here in Prague? And if there were, surely it would be a much more positive community for it would be based primarily on mutuality rather than exclusion?

I suppose the issue is that deep down I am troubled by those who seem so certain about the mysteries of God, and that when it comes to moral judgements, they are ‘right’. Of course, a brief discussion such as this can only begin to unearth the complex issues to do with the acceptable limits of moral behaviour, but it seems to me — to put it crudely — that the more lines we draw on the ‘map’, the more people will be forced to migrate away from one side to find refuge in the other, and before long, fences and border posts will be put up in order to prevent the ‘lepers’ from infecting ‘us’. Perhaps we should follow more closely the example of our Saviour who socialised regularly with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and gave himself for them. As the Pope recently remarked, true Christians build bridges, not walls.

The journey continues…

The lack of blogging this year is not due to a lack of thought – perhaps too much! My personal Bildungsroman (autobiographical journey) has included leaving England to live in Prague – mirroring, perhaps, changing spiritual and intellectual perspectives too. (I hope so – only dead things never change.) I’ve also felt that this blog was a bit weighed down by some over-weighty discussion and I couldn’t work up the energy to re-start. But here we go.

Over the last few months I’ve been researching Romantic and Victorian attitudes to childhood, particularly as George MacDonald (the focus of my research) said that God was essentially childlike. Most useful has been Sally Shuttleworth’s book The Mind of the Child but I’ve also been reading Judith Plotz, Ann Weirda Rowland, and others, and trawling through Victorian texts. A picture of nineteenth century England emerges where the figure of the child is central to many social and religious narratives: most so in discussions about human nature, for the child is the adult in the making, carrying the potential (or the curse) of the race. Here I just want to focus on one issue – blind spots.

As the nineteenth century progressed, and particularly post Darwin’s publication of Origin, extraordinary claims were made by both religious people and the growing evolutionist/secularist camp. What is striking (with the benefit of hindsight) is the ludicrousness of the claims on both sides, with (apparently) little thought as to the context or the wider implications of what was being said. One thinks, for example, of Adolf Kussmaul’s unlikely declaration that infants are born deaf, or Dr. Louis Robinson’s experiments which consisted of suspending newborns from branches as evidence of simian ancestry (one three-week-old managing to hang on for 2 minutes and 35 seconds), or of George John Romanes’s claim that seven-week-old infants have the intelligence of a mollusc. It was even suggested that ‘rock a bye baby in the treetops’ offered evidence of our ‘arboreal ancestry’. On the Christian side, one wonders at the naivety (with, as I said, the luxury of hindsight) which led to Philip Gosse’s declaration that fossil evidence was placed in creation by God to give the appearance of age without, it appears, being at all troubled (as was Kingsley) by the questionable morality of such an act, but furthermore – as a consequence of his beliefs – keeping the young Edmund sequestered, forbidding any contact with other children for fear of contamination. There was, it appears, a stronger belief, among Evangelicals at least, in the devil’s power to corrupt than in God’s power to redeem.

It was quite hard to find a moderate voice in this very polarised and acrimonious debate. One of those, however, was physician Charles West, founder of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. He recounts having to attend the deathbed of numerous children who had been over-evangelised or over-catachised by well-meaning parents and friends and, as a result, were convinced they were going to hell. These, he writes, were ‘some of the most painful death-beds which I have ever witnessed’: ‘the dark grave is realised, or, at least, imagined more vividly than its conqueror; and the little child, driven to look within for the evil which it does not know, and cannot find, but vaguely dreads, and would be sorry for if it knew it…’ West, who late in life became a devout Catholic, campaigned for more compassionate and effective treatment for children, and – in his 1871 lecture to the Royal College of Physicians – dismissed such Evangelical zeal as entirely misguided, also criticising evolutionists for their equally misguided evangelism.

This simply made me wonder what blind spots we have in this twenty-first century? I’d be interested in your comments.

Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: OUP, Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011.

West, Charles. On Some of the Disorders of the Nervous System in Childhood Being the Lumleian Lectures Delivered at the Royal College of Physicians of London in March 1871. London: Longman, Green and Co,, 1871.

Art for art’s sake

I remember as a fifteen year old, on a trip to relatives in Holland, coming across the music of Tom Paxton. I felt like I had stumbled into heaven. Soon the likes of Tom’s successors – Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Paul Simon and James Taylor – were giving me guitar lessons. Not that they knew it, of course: I simply played their LP’s on my merciless record player until they were irretrievably scratchy – but at least I could play some of the most difficult passages. My education was supplemented by weekly trips to the White Horse in Reading where I joined bearded guitar-wielding hippies and other fresh-faced lads like myself nursing under-age pints (which we made last the whole evening) as we worshipped the guitar. I could soon finger-pick with the best of them and blew all my savings on a wonderful instrument which cost me seven pounds and bore the label ‘Hi Spot, Foreign’. This was, of course, a marked contrast to Sundays where hymns and dreadful ‘choruses’ made me cringe with embarrassment. (Whoever penned the immortal lines ‘We’re in the great race to put rockets in space, but the needs of our souls we’re refusing to face’ should, in my humble opinion, be made to eat their own toenails. Some of the ‘choruses’ I’ve heard recently are little better.) There was no way I could take my White Horse friends to church. And so my life developed in two parallel universes whose paths never intersected.

Continue reading “Art for art’s sake”

God’s truth police – a consequence of fundamentalism

Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has provoked a predictable (and somewhat tiresome) debate among Christians, with accusations of universalism, heresy, and the erosion of truth taking centre stage. (The idea that God might be nice seems to be a shock for many.) As I read the vitriolic comments it appears to me that a central issue remains unaddressed, and it concerns the heart of Christianity — truth. Continue reading “God’s truth police – a consequence of fundamentalism”

Magic mushrooms – a culinary brush with death

Yelly (my Dutch wife) has just completed a two-day mushroom-hunting and identification course as a result of which I found myself (with some hesitation) eating various dubious-looking funghi. ‘It’s quite OK,’ she told me, with what sounded like confidence (after all, she had done a two-day course). ‘Only about twelve species of English mushrooms can kill you.’  One of these, apparently, you can munch on quite happily saying things like: ‘Mmmm — what a lovely delicate flavour!’ and such, and then two days later you die abruptly of kidney failure. Continue reading “Magic mushrooms – a culinary brush with death”

Green Bell—a lesson from a Cumbrian walk

Green Bell, Ravenstonedale, Cumbria

I grew up in the south of England and went to my parents’ Baptist Church. I grew up, therefore, thinking that I was a miserable sinner destined for hell; that God was pretty angry with me, but thankfully Jesus had stepped in between me and God to sort things out. Don’t get me wrong here: the church was full of wonderful people who knew deep down that God was love, and I have a deep respect for my old friends and for the heritage from those years. I suppose the problem for me was that what I saw in the love and dedication of my early friends didn’t seem to correspond with the theology that was being preached.
Continue reading “Green Bell—a lesson from a Cumbrian walk”