Friday, June 27, 2008

Even in Pagan Temples...

A little while ago I met a dear friend of mine in London where she had a few hours between flights. As well as discovering the impracticalities of an historical city for pram access, we also discovered St Paul’s Cathedral.

St Paul’s is truly remarkable. Stepping out of a grey London day and into this cavern of gentle, golden light is startling. It is clearly built to be magnificent. The ceiling should loom, but instead it sets the mind free to imagine the ceiling is in fact the sky, filled with sunshine and delight, in contrast with the gloom outside. One begins to feel that in here is real life, and outside, as Plato would say, is the cave.

It’s an extraordinary work of architecture, which deserves admiration.

The statues are similarly admirable. In books they are always small, and that has been my experience of them on the whole: as small, two-dimensional objects. In reality they are enormous: one looks up at them. They are bigger than people and set on pedestals, so that for the first time I can see (vividly) where the saying comes from: “to put someone on a pedestal” – they are bigger than you, you are smaller than they. And these statues, accompanied as they are by various characters from Greek and Roman mythology are magnificent: people, men mostly, long and muscular of limb, strong foreheads suggesting courage and steely resolve, their achievements carved into their pedestals. Here are the heroes… of war, mostly.

What on earth do they have to do with Christianity?

What, for that matter, does this brilliant architecture have to do with Christianity?

Redecorate in places, so that the rather Zeus-like representation of Christ is replaced by, say, Zeus, and rename the saints as characters from mythology and there you have it: a Greek or Roman temple in the heart of London. Easy. You could probably do overnight if you had enough people and enough paint.

I am not certain that is possible to design a church or building so that it is undeniably Christian. I suspect the cross-shape of an ordinary cathedral and some churches is probably the closest we can achieve, if it was felt that we really needed to do so.
I am not particularly offended that St Paul’s is so… pagan. I don’t know that it was much of a surprise. And I am all for the English (and any other nationality) having what amounts to a place where they can celebrate their war-heroes. Being a soldier is not my idea of fun, and I think it is a good idea to honour people who protect their country.

But war heroes have little to do with Christianity when all is said and done.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Evensong. Evensong is based on the 1662 Prayer Book, designed mostly by Cranmer to declare God’s Word as clearly and frequently as possible.
At 5pm, as we were still there, we took a very, very well behaved four month old baby (who only made a noise at the end during the hymn when he was sucking his socks), and sat in the bishops’ seats to celebrate evensong. Scripture after Scripture was read aloud or sung by an extraordinary choir; we said the Apostle’s Creed, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The only additions were the prayers and the final hymn, and the introduction that got side-tracked with some information about the Saint of the day (which is not in the prayer book).
So, we meditated on God’s salvation, God’s judgment, the kindness of God to humanity in sending his Son to die for our sins, and our need for God’s grace.

Here in a pagan temple, with idols, freemason symbolism, statues commemorating wars and war heroes and even people wandering about who would deny the truth of Jesus’ message and his resurrection – here – God’s truth was spoken, loudly and clearly.

It’s not just a tradition. This is God’s Word. It doesn’t return to him void. It is never wasted.

So, here in the heart of a pagan temple, God is working to his own purpose every day at 5pm.

I will give You thanks with all my heart; I will sing praises to you before the gods. I will bow down towards our holy temple and give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth; For You have magnified Your word according to all Your name. (Psalm 138:1-3 NASB)

I need to add that I know that St Paul's is technically in the shape of a cross; but such was Wren's cleverness that he managed to focus the attention of the building onto the dome which dominates the building. As I said, very very clever architecture. One can't help but admire it; he makes the building feel a different shape to what it actually is.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Slain: One Jabberwock

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

And then came the Jabberwock. One large angry exam, based on 75 pages of classical Greek and the entirety of Anthanasius' thought and context. Spewing fire and smelling foul, it launched itself at this young man.

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought

Dressed charmingly in sub fusc and ready for the monster, he sat poised in the examination room, full of lurking proctors and perspiring students.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

So, they said in serious tones: You may turn the paper over.

And there it was in all its fearsome foulness: the exam.

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Pen scratching paper, scrawling for three hours. So few hours into which long days of learning are condensed. Making sentences make sense and all awhile against a ticking clock.

"And has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

The exam is done.



Its vileness disposed of.

Of course, there is a number that needs to be attained as the result of this exam. We don't find out till October whether this hoop has been succesfully passed through, but the important thing about this exam is that it is over.

One dead jabberwock. Well done that man!

Callay! Callay! Indeed. JMB

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Jennie and I are in the process of watching the second season of Lewis on DVD. They arrived in the mail the other day and we are slowly watching them - slowly because we want to savour and enjoy them. And there are only four episodes.

I must say that Lewis was a pleasant surprise for us. We are great fans of the Morse series, and used the movie-long episodes intensely in 2006, during some very difficult patches, to switch off. Morse is the antithesis of American-style crime drama with their gritty hyper-realism, interest in the mechanics of detective work, and bold colour schemes. And about the only title in that style that we enjoy at all is the show House (and that’s because he’s really a medical version of Sherlock Holmes), Bones, and as a guilty pleasure, NCIS (the latter two primarily for the interactions between the characters rather than anything to do with what the plot is about).

Morse is really about life, not detective work. It’s main character, Inspector Endeavour Morse (and you only get that first name once in the entire series), is an ‘Oxford man’, who, it is suggested, never graduated in the course he read for, and brings his literary and aesthetic values to his policework. He is a bachelor, who regularly finds a relational connection to the female characters (often romantic) caught up in the murder he’s investigating. (In fact, in the first couple of seasons you can fairly reliably be sure that the murderer or accomplice will be whichever woman he falls for. A dynamic that they cleverly twist in the pilot episode of Lewis.)

The murders are solved, in that the Byzantine causes that led to the terrible deed are finally unravelled and exposed. But it rarely does much good. The murderer often dies instead of being caught, and often not before they finished killing off all or most of the people caught up in the state of affairs. Morse rarely does much, in terms of what American style shows look for—justice is rarely served on the murderer, and the heroes don’t save anyone. There’s no great Law and Order style speech where the bad guy is sermonised by the hero and has to sit there and wear it.

And the pace of the movies reflect this. They are slow, s-l-o-w, very slow. A sloth moves faster while carrying several tortoises. There are long periods with no dialogue and no action, where we just watch the characters move from point A to B. Scenes where the plot doesn’t move forward at all—Morse just sits in a pub with Lewis and talks. There’s long sweeping shots of the glorious Oxford countryside and magnificent Oxford mediaeval architecture, and generally put to some powerful piece of classical music. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me that they love the show, but admit that they’ve never seen one to the end, because they fell asleep part way through. There’s no plot driving the movie on. It’s the kind of viewing experience where you stop for a while and watch life unfold around you.

And this is because these movies are really about the nature of life, and the kind of strange and potentially disastrous turns it can take. The murder/s are almost incidental, except inasmuch as the blackness of murder highlights the importance of the things that Morse is discovering about how humans tick, and how relationships can lead to very wrong courses of actions. They make Morse’s discoveries significant in the way that only a lamented death can.

That's what makes this show stand out. It uses the context of murder to create a seriousness about reflections on human beings and life. The murder is more than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The solving of a crime is not about meeting the post 9/11 need for authority figures to be utterly reliable and omniscient. Morse is a statment about human life; its highs and its lows. We were always impressed that they managed to do it with Morse, and are a bit startled that they have continued it with Lewis. But it is their success in accomplishing this that makes the combination of Morse and Lewis something extraordinary. Morse dies at the end of the series, soon after Sergeant Lewis receives his promotion to Inspector. The death of one main character and his sidekick becoming the main character for a new series says something eloquent all on its own about how life is to be lived and taken for what it is in the face of death. MDB