Prague and the Cross

An Advent walk through mediaeval Prague

It was a crisp, cold November evening yesterday as we walked with our Czech guide through the dark windswept streets of Prague. Most sensible people were passive-smoking in the warm, crowded bars; we headed for the Old Town, then across Charles Bridge. On the parapet of the almost deserted medieval bridge we found our first cross: bronze, and set into the stone of the parapet. ‘Place your hand on it,’ I was told, ‘any wish you make will come true.’ The location was where, in 1393, the tortured body of Jan Nepomucký (John of Nepomuk), confessor to the Queen, was thrown into the river on the orders of a suspicious Wenceslas IV for failing to divulge the confession of his wife. I placed my hand on the baroque cross with two horizontal bars: it was worn smooth by centuries of touch. I made a wish which will remain secret. Continue reading “Prague and the Cross”

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”

The art of being human

In my teaching I find myself, occasionally, reminding my students that they are human beings, not human doings, for surely one of the consequences of the information age is a relentless doing? In London there are those who bring sleeping bags to work, who eat gazing at handhelds, who travel talking into mobile phones, and who do their deals ‘after’ work over a pint. I remind my students that at times it is good to take one’s foot off the accelerator — to simply be, for are we or are we not human beings? It has to be said that Christians are, on the whole, equally manic: great at doing things, not least some pretty exhausting services on the ‘sabbath’. Perhaps this is why within popular (I would use the term ‘unthinking’) Christianity there is a lot of talk about the afterlife, conceived in terms of clouds, interminable hymn-singing, gazing on divine glory, and, generally, taking a well-earned rest. Continue reading “The art of being human”

Reading the Bible again – again!

A response to Czech theologian Dan Drapel’s article, ‘Odpověď Johnu de Jongovi‘ (reply to John de Jong)

At the beginning of this year I wrote a short article called Reading the Bible Again which looked very briefly at some of the issues surrounding truth and the Bible. Czech theologian Dan Drapel responded by posting a lengthy article on his website (in Czech) accusing me of treating the whole Bible as a mythical work. This was not my intention, nor is it my belief. I therefore took the time to respond to Dan’s article, and this is reproduced below for those who are interested in such things! (I am sorry I cannot post Dan Drapel’s article here, but you will get a feel for the issues from my response.)

First of all, I would like to thank Dan for taking the time to respond to my article ‘Reading the Bible Again’. It is very healthy to have such discussions and debates, and I am glad that Dan and I are substantially agreed. As this response from Dan has been posted on his website, I would like to take a few moments to correct some misconceptions about my position and to make a few further comments.

A few preliminary words about motivation. The article I wrote – ‘Reading the Bible Again’ – was intended to encourage people to read the Bible, and was designed to provoke those who make truth claims about its literality, inerrancy or infallibility without proper reflection. Or those who use the term ‘The Word of God’ as if the book was a deity. If such views become foundational to faith there is a danger – and this is something I observe in the Czech Republic – that Christianity becomes more about believing the ‘right’ things than following Jesus.

Continue reading “Reading the Bible again – again!”

Healing society—the ethics of desire

The recent rioting and looting on the streets of England have triggered an avalanche of comment from politicians of all persuasions, peppered with phrases such as ‘social deprivation’, ‘the breakdown of family values’, ‘no stake in society’, and so on. Deep conversations try to fathom why, within certain localities, there is an inbuilt desire for self-destruction — the social equivalent of a disturbed teenager slashing her wrists with a kitchen knife. Some have even tried to paint a Dickensian picture of social stratification, equating today’s looters with those that, until not so long ago, were hung for stealing a loaf of bread. The solution — according to this analysis — is simply to pump more money into deprived housing estates, presumably so the kids can go out and buy their own designer clothes without the trouble of stealing them. Continue reading “Healing society—the ethics of desire”

Reflections on reality and the incarnation

On re-reading this article seven years later, I find this philosophising a bit tedious, even pretentious. I’ve left it here on my blog as it represents a milestone on my Musician’s Journey. I was just trying to get my head round the nature of reality . . .

The great divorce

The effect of the Fall — however one conceives that primordial divorce of humankind from the divine — was to close us off from eternity: we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.(6) At first sight it might seem as though we were sent out into an eternal night, a limitless expanse of time and space — exiled wanderers, banished for ever from the ‘island’ Garden, now guarded by angelic sentinels. (The picture that comes to mind is that of an impoverished local populace excluded from some a lavish health resort built by a foreign investor.) This picture though, in many senses, reverses reality, for is it not the Garden that is the threshold of eternity, and the ‘exterior’ that is bounded?

The ultimate boundary, the threshold, if you like, of the carceral realm in which we live, is death. Space and time may well stretch beyond the horizons of infinity, but for fallen mortals this is of little comfort if the end of our travels, the destination of the journey, is oblivion. The irony is that the Fall was an attempt to become god-like; a sudden dash for freedom —  to flee from the ‘tyranny’ of subservience to God. Ironic because we exchanged an infinite divine horizon for a finite one, and found ourselves trapped in what philosophers optimistically call ‘totality’, an immanent sphere divorced from the transcendent. (SEE NOTE 1) Continue reading “Reflections on reality and the incarnation”

Hard times

It’s a pretty tough time in the UK at the moment. People are feeling the financial pressures, businesses are squeezed. I often feel discouraged — as I’m sure you do — when you have to watch every penny and tighten your belt. It’s at times like these that we face difficult choices: do we bow to pressure, bury our dreams for another day, and go into survival mode, or do we hold our course — pursue those things that we feel called to do? Continue reading “Hard times”

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”

Reading the Bible again

A brief exploration of truth and the Bible

Nick Clegg, according to the Daily Mail, is a devious politician who has thrown away his principles in favour of power and personal aggrandisement. Is this true? Thousands of Daily Mail readers no doubt view this as as indisputable fact, but surely there must be more to this than meets the eye? As someone who, for better or for worse, chose to take his party into a coalition with previous political enemies, there must be deeper issues here; Clegg is no doubt having to walk a very difficult tightrope, balancing principles against the fact that he is the leader of a minority within this fragile coalition. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt — that deep down he has the interests of the nation at heart.

This simple example illustrates how we are so easily swayed by words that are in print — accepting them as truth simply because someone has decided they are worth printing. Even though we know that media barons print stories simply to sell papers, and journalists are sometimes not the most truthful of people, still we are deeply affected by what we see in print. Continue reading “Reading the Bible again”