I have just spent a couple of days reading avidly, as I used to when much younger, devouring books like others devour chocolate. I completed three books: Havergey by John Burnside, The Schooldays of Jesus by  J.M. Coetzee and Of all that Ends, by Gunter Grass. These are all books which deal with what theologians call eschatology, teaching about The End. In the case of the Grass book which has been published after his death, the ending in question is mainly the end of his life, but there is also the end of an era in which the second world war stood as a warning even to the worst politicians. Coetzee’s novel is a sequel to “The Childhood of Jesus” and like it is situated in a time and place to which its characters have been transported from their previous lives, which however have been wiped from their memories. Burnside’s parable is set in the future after a catastrophic series of disasters have decimated human civilization.

Grass and Coetzee are two of the great masters of contemporary writing, while Burnside is a very fine Scottish poet, novelist, and teacher.

Grass faces the imminence of his own death with a characteristic mixture of gusto, wit and inventiveness. “Of All That Ends” is a collection of short meditations, poems and drawings from the perspective of one who knows he’s leaving the scene pretty soon. This gives him the opportunity for some elegiac evocations of what he has enjoyed, like sex or the writings of Rabelais, some acerbic commentary on current politics,  and some exploration of the fact of death. There is a story for example of how he and his wife order their coffins from a skilled wood worker, and enjoy trying them out for size; and how these are stolen from their house, and mysteriously returned with the addition of a pair of dead mice. There is a confession that the only phrase he can remember in one of his native tongues, Kashubian, is that of a local man asking him in his youth, “What’s new in politics today?” Even a dead language poses a question to which contemporary politics cannot provide an answer. For Grass, the end confirms the value of human life, while questioning its capacity to solve the problems it creates.

Burnside imagines a future in which nature has taken its overdue revenge on human beings in the form of devastating plagues which have depopulated most of the world. On a mysterious Scottish island there is a community of anarchist nature-lovers who explain their history and beliefs to a newcomer. Their most important conviction is that no human method can ever be superior to nature’s method. The fact that human beings with their ingenuity are part of nature seems not to have occurred to the author. Although there are a few indications of how these people have transformed their lives, the story simply assumes that this has happened. This means that within the narrative there is no test of the realism or efficacy of the community’s philosophy and lifestyle. It is described and assumed to be admirable. The agony of the ending of one era and the birth of a new is bypassed, leaving the reader with shallow aphorisms, unsubstantiated judgements, and inflated hopes. Easy targets, like Donald Trump are clumsily assailed, but survive without serious damage. The author has failed the challenge of eschatology, namely, to represent the way in which an imminent end questions every aspect of the present, and only through such an examination offers a future – if there is to be a future. (In Norse eschatology, there is no future beyond the death of the gods.) This reader at any rate wants to be supportive of the author’s vision but it remains fuzzy and a little peevish.

Coetzee tells the story of how his peculiar family -precocious child, adoptive mother and adoptive father (who are not partners to each other) – manage the education of a five year old child of great ability and arrogance. The details of family and school interactions are  vividly if soberly recounted, nearly always from the point of view of the adoptive father, although the child’s passionate engagement with the world is fully expressed.

All the people in the narrative have come from elsewhere but with their memories wiped clean. Everyone can therefore make a new start, but for their future to be good or better than the present requires knowledge of  the world and the self, which is not simply  given but is gained through learning. And the learning happens through attention to one’s own action and suffering as well as the action and suffering of others. Learning can be blocked by wilfulness on the one hand or lack of initiative on the other. The kindness or knowldge of others may confer grace, but one has to be willing to receive it. Cruelty may also be offered and one has to be willing to resist it. It is, in other words, a world where goodness can happen now, but it must be done by people who have learned how to do it. An old world has ended, but the new world has to be created.

I think that for Coetzee the name Jesus does not designate any particular character in the story, but this process of moral education. This is a very rich fiction of which I have only given a brief glimpse here.

 

 

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The other day The US Airforce dropped a huge bomb on a set of tunnels in Afghanistan inhabited by IS jihadis, 36 of whom were reportedly killed. There were no civilian deaths. Publicly no one regretted the deaths, but many voices criticised the action as trigger-happy and unwisely threatening to the USA’s other enemies. Along with the destruction of a Syrian Airbase earlier last week, the bombing been widely interpreted as a warning to North Korea, which has replied by parading its own weapons and making suitably hysterical threats.

Most British commentary has focused on the incoherence of Trump’s foreign policy while Chinese voices have warned him to be much more cautious.

IMG_0385For myself, I considered the Syrian attack proportionate and perhaps effective as a deterrent, and the big bomb in Afghanistan as no more than a strategic initiative. The aggressors of this world require restraint,  and their victims need support; the case for international police action is obvious in such situations. But that’s just the point: if actions like these are to be seen as just, that they must actually be international, that is, of the United Nations preferably, and if that is not possible, of a as large a coalition as can be obtained. The USA made only a token effort to get UN action against Assad, and none at all in the case of the Afghan attack, where they relied on a small existing coalition. In fact, in both instances, the USA seemed to pride itself on acting alone.

That cannot be right. Nobody has elected the USA as the world’s default policeman. When it acts as it has done this week it reinforces the suspicion that it believes it has the right to do as it pleases in any part of the world, by claiming that anything counter to its interest anywhere can be considered an attack on its territory, so that actions on the other side of the globe can be justified as “defensive.” None of this is new, and is certainly not an invention of President Trump. The much-admired President Obama held just as firmly to this policy of defending US borders at a distance. Indeed Mr Trump had promised a welcome departure from unilateral intervention by the USA.

Psalm 60 in the Christian bible confronts a situation in which nations surrounding Israel are crowing over a recent Israeli defeat. The psalmist imagines God rallying his people by reassuring them of his power over all nations. Of two of the nearest of these, God says, “Moab is my washpot and over Edom I have cast my shoe” using the picture of a traveller washing his feet by pouring water over them into a basin, after throwing his shoes into a corner. The nations of Moab and Edom are treated as negligible before the might of God.

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Moab bomb crater

The weapon used in Afghanistan this week was called MOAB, that is, Massive Ordnance Air Blast or more popularly, Mother Of All Bombs. It is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever used in war. Perhaps President Trump and his generals should listen to the book they frequently claim to cherish, and learn humility before the justice of God, which in secular terms means that humility is always wise, while arrogance is always stupid, sometimes terminally so. This MOAB is also God’s washpot.

 

P: ….so what do you think you know about me?

Me: Not a lot. Only what appears in the four gospels, plus one or two bits of information in the historian Josephus….oh and the legend that you were born in Scotland….

P: The legend may be more accurate than some of what you read in the gospels. Ask yourself who witnessed the various conversations I’m supposed to have had with your Jesus, not to mention the fact that the gospels each tell different stories.

Me: Different in detail, yes, but basically they agree that you didn’t want to crucify Jesus because you thought he was innocent, but gave in to agitation by a Jewish crowd, which was set up by The Jewish religious leaders.

P: Yes, yes, but you should ask yourself why they take that line…

M: What d’you mean?

P: I mean, my little Christian, that after we had destroyed the jewish Jihadis who rebelled in 70 CE, even Christians knew it might be very dangerous if they depicted their saviour as a man justly condemned by a Roman governor. Far better to throw the blame on his own people.

Me: So you thought Jesus was guilty….on the evidence of the priests and Pharisees?

P: Of course not. How could a Roman accept the evidence of manipulative barbarians? I had my own spies with the Nazarene prophet from his early days in Galilee.

Me: And what did they tell you?

P: That he was a decent man, doing tiny miracles for tiny people in a tiny corner of the land….

Me: And that made him dangerous to Rome!

P: ….listen, Christian, listen! They told me that he was popular, so popular that some people considered him a Messiah. Zeus spare me, I spent years hearing about divinely inspired Messiahs annointed by God to murder Romans and turn the world into God’s Kalifate.

Me: But Jesus wasn’t like that, he wasn’t political!

Pontius: I don’t want to be rude,  but as you’ve never been in government, especially imperial govenment, you would have difficulty in telling your political arse from your political elbow. Any man who can gather 5000 men around him in the desert, or stage a mockery of a Roman Triumph as he entered Jesusalem, is political. Any Jewish man talking about the Kalifate of God and allowing his followers to call him Messiah, is dangerously political….

Me: But he never intended…

P: How do you know what he intended? In any case,  a governor cannot waste time guessing intentions when he has facts before him. If a man acts like a jihadi, if he promotes a story about God’s Kalifate, and radicalises young men, then he must be treated as a jihadi whatever his intentions. Public order must be protected.

Me: Jesus never recommended violence against Rome or anyone!

P: Even your own gospels have to admit he staged a violent pantomime in the Temple and was personally violent to blameless small businessmen.

Me: But that was against Jewish people, not Romans, and for religious reasons not political ones.

P: Truly faith is harmful to the intelligence! The motives behind public disorder are of no importance; it simply must be stopped. As for your carelessness about harming Jews, isn’t that of a piece with the nauseating anti- Jewishness of your church down the centuries? But a Roman Governor has to protect all citizens, even barbarians. The man had to go.

Me: But even if I admit you may have had some justification for finding Jesus guilty, I can still point to the unnecessary death penalty you imposed.

P: Ah, now you are moving to another area of your expertise: criminal justice! So perhaps you think I could have put him in prison?

Me: It would have been more merciful….

P: I have to remind you that unlike your own filthy system of justice, Roman justice never used prison as a punishment, not even for slaves or barbarians. We never kept a living man in prison except when awaiting trial or execution. Restitution, fines, forfeit of property, exile, enslavement, and death were the punishments which made our justice the envy of the world.

Me: People tortured by beatings followed by a prolonged death on a stake, that’s the image of what you call justice?

P: The part of our justice reserved for rebellious slaves and jihadis. It was designed to cause fear if not respect, and I may say was quite successful in doing so. You may think I am pained when I hear your creed being repeated, ‘ suffered under Pontius Pilate, ‘ time and time again. But no, I feel a modest pride in having done my duty.

Me: And you’ve no regrets at what you did to Jesus?

P: None like the feelings ascribed to me in your gospels.  But yes, I did regret what I had to do with Jesus of Nazareth. He was a decent man, intelligent, honest and brave,  but with an unfortunate belief that he had been chosen by God to establish his rule in the world. Yes, I’m sure he thought this rule would be kindly, except maybe in respect of people like me. God would have to get rid of me.  But as you can see, He hasn’t, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this entertaining chat, my fellow Caledonian. But look, dawn is imminent and I have to get back before first light, I have to get back to…eh, I have to get back.

There are activities of Jesus which can be assigned to particular days in the last week of his earthly life, such as his entry into Jerusalem (Sunday) , clearing the Temple (Monday) the Last Supper (Thursday) and his crucifixion (Friday) but although he is said to have done other things, they cannot be attached to specific days. This opens up the possibility that he might have a day off in the middle of the week, without showing any concern at all for the poor people who would have to construct Holy Week liturgies!

The idea that he might have spent time with friends or gone shopping sheds a curious light on how we think of him. I mean, he was here to do and say significant things that his church could remember, so he’d have been dodging the column a bit if he did take some personal time out! That kind of thought should remind us that we tend to package Jesus for church consumption, and in that we are only continuing a tactic which was begun by the gospel writers and their predecessors. The gospels themselves package Jesus for church use, by assigning events to the one day, the next day, during a festival, or throughout a week. In all probability the stories about Jesus passed on by word of mouth, contained no timeline into which events could be placed, leaving the writers to construct their own. Most bible scholars think that they did so to highlight the meaning of the events rather than to reflect historical facts. John’s gospel for example places Jesus clearing of the temple at the start of his ministry rather than the end, as in the other three gospels. This is not to do with historical fact but because he wants the issue of God’s holy place to frame his entire Gospel.

If this is true of time it is also true of place. The geography of the gospels is related to the meaning of incidents. Matthew puts Jesus’ sermon on a mountain because he wants to compare Jesus with Moses; Luke puts him on a plain because he wants to emphasise the humility and earthliness of Jesus’ ministry. Most gospel stories involving voyages reflect the Hebrew notion of the great deep which only the creator can control.

We may guess that the gospels are right in placing the culminating events of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem,  but we should have some doubt as to whether they took place within one week. The gospel timescale is constructed deliberately to fit into a week, so that churches could remember them more easily and celebrate them day by day. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, but the interpretation of Jesus’ prophecy that the Son of Man would be raised on the “third day”  – which in truth just means ” the day when everything changes” – is turned by the gospels into a weekend which generations of believers have taken as historical fact. Would it dismay us to discover that the third day was in fact a year or so later as Jesus’ followers began to trust his aliveness?

I am not at all sceptical about Jesus’ resurrection, but the gospel stories of it are again told to  bring out key truths about Jesus’ aliveness, rather than to present an historical account. In most eras of its existence the Christian church saw the gospels as a set of stories with meanings rather than as factual history. Indeed the assumption that they are factual is quite modern and has only been prominent for 150 years. Doubtless there is some factual history in the gospels, but the very notion of historical accuracy would have been utterly foreign to their authors, who were in effect, preaching the good news rhrough stories.

This view  of scripture allows us to listen to what they want to tell us about Jesus rather than imposing our own demand for scientific history on them. It gives us space for interpretation of the biblical writings according to what we know of their  author’s methods without forcing them to walk in our shoes. This method in no way reduces my trust in Jesus Messiah, Son of God, my rescuer, crucified and risen. But it does lead me to hope that as he faced his almost certain death in Jerusalem he had time for a  quiet chat with his mother or for sharing a flask of wine with a friend.

 

 

The world has been delighted with the story of Ms. Rohan Beyts who this week sued the management of the Donald Trump golf course near Aberdeen for taking photographs of her URINATING in the long grass as she crossed the course towards the sea. Ceratinly she had protested publicly against building this golf-course but she stated that her action was only related to a CALL OF NATURE and was not in any way a protest by different means. Her fellow Scots believe her because they consider that the owner of the course and his management are not worth even a millelitre of Scottish URINE.

Evidence showed that at least two male security operative sprang into surveillance mode when they saw the petite figure of the dangerous agitator making for the sand dunes.

“Uh-uh, buddy, guess we got a problem here….”

“Yeah, looks like this dame’s gonna PEE-PEE…..you think we should intervene..?

“No, she’s movin’ too fast, it’s too late to stop this atrocity…..

“She’s gonna SPRINKLE HER TINKLE all over the sacred surface on which the Great Leader has trod…. we gotta…

“We gotta act with supreme courage….. and video this crime….

“Good thinking buddy, yeah, just switching on now, and wow, we get this horrendous crime by a member of ideologically- motivated elite having a JIMMY RIDDLE where honest good golfers might land a ball….”

“Sure could be sabotage as well as public insult…like uh once she’s gone, some unsuspecting golfer lands a ball where she’s been DRAINING THE RADIATOR….

“And then maybe he picks up the infected ball and you never know what disgusting disease he gets – we gotta think of attempted homicide here….”

“Just keep the camera on this dame. she’s got no respect, no rescpect at all, shamelessly TAKING A WHIZZ in front of these cameras..”

“Sure is one long TROGGLE, soon be dinner time…”

“Boss man´s not gonna like seeing this video, what with it being a dame HOSING THE LAWN, uh, like the boss knows how to deal with dames, uh, like he said…..”

” Look Buddy, she´s movin´on now she´s MADE HER BLADDER GLADDER, we gonna confront her with the evidence?”

“No way, bro’, uh-uh, boss doesn’t pay enough for us to risk our lives with a terrorist like her, like a woman who could do this to a golf-course, just think what she could do to a human being-”

“So I need to go to the cops with evidence of this jihadi “POWDERING HER NOSE” while you phone the White House to update the boss…”

(Later)

” So what’s the word from the boss, bro’?”

“Uh, well, uh, he asked if we were ……..TAKING THE PISS!”

“Strange, buddy, that’s the exact same expression the Police Sergeant used….”

Ms Beyts, now celebrated in Scots legend as THE URINATOR (to match the man who fought the Glasgow Airport terrorists, John Smeaton THE SMEATONATOR), falied to win her case but celebrated nevertheless and said ( honest!) that she was RELIEVED it was all over.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0380Every now and again, something happens to wake me out the routine of religious duty in which by choice I live, to remind me that I have another life focused on words, on their meaning and beauty in the works of great writers of many languages, especially perhaps, in poetry. This is a life which I share with my wife who has an incomparable memory for such words, and with my late best friend, Bob Cummings, whose knowledge of the history of literature was the envy of other great scholars. To some of my readers this may seem a kind of life which is a bit precious and privileged, at some distance from the “real world.” But no, for me it has always helped my engagement with mundane reality that there is another dimension where words are neither banal nor ugly but come dancing with precision, rhythm, melody and meaning. If verbal langauge is one of the defining abilities of humanity, then surely its good use is one of our defining glories. Sometimes the great words may be profound like the opening of George Herbert’s poem:

“Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back

guilty of dust and sin”

or they may look quite ordinary. When Hugh McDiarmid was asked for his favourite line of poetry, he surprised the questioner by answering:

“ye arena  Mary Morrison”

yet I agree that it memorably expresses the vexed particularity of romantic love.

Belonging to this world of words means that one’s everyday existence is accompanied and occasionally pierced through, with words from other times or places that make it harder to live superficially. I am not claiming some virtue here; I like superficiality as much as the next man or woman, but my heritage of great language is also intrusive.

These reflections are inspired by two experiences this week. One was pausing at the end of my almost daily run on the beach to look at the sea on a bright spring morning, only to have come into my head, Shakespeare’s lovely platitude,

“Like as the waves do make towards the pebbled shore

so do our minutes hasten to their end;”

Did I want reminded of that at my age? No, but the words stayed with me long enough to set me thinking about my dear dead ones, and more selfishly, about a bucket list of desired experiences before I snuff it.

The other was reading an obituary of the poet Derek Walcott, whose work I have enjoyed over many years. Shortly afterwards I came across a review of his latest published book, “Morning, Paramin” a collection of poems written to accompany an equal number of paintings by Scottish- born artist, Peter Doig, which I ordered immediately and received yesterday. It is one of the most beautfiful books I have seen, with each painting answered by a short poem on the facing page. Peter Doig is a figurative painter who focuses on people and places. These paintings are mainly inages from Trinidad where he lives. Walcott is a renowned poet, who is capable of great simplicity, wit and melody, in the same poem, as in the one about his dead wife which begins:

“To me the waking day is Margaret:”IMG_0381

It is a privilege to possess such a book and to have the meanness of my own perceptions challenged by the colourful generosity of its authors’. I guess that’s the heart of my citizenship of this other world: through good words it allows me to particpate in lives that are more vibrant than my own; to enlarge my experience by entering into the deeper experiences of others. When Virgil wrote:

“Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”

literally, There are the tears of things and mortalities touch the mind,

he was not just expressing the sorrow of existence in great words, but also reacting to the great words of his predecessors.

In fact of course this human ability to enter, through words, into the lives of others, is also central to my religious life, since it is by that same ability that I can make contact with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. For how does that passionate, wise, humorous, courageous, loving first century Jew burst into my twenty first century existence if not through his astonishing words recorded in the gospels:

IMG_0383You have heard that it was said by them of old times, ” You shall love your neigjbour and hate your enemy, but now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.”

The words are such a refusal of all normal human consciousness and conduct, such an explosion of alien intelligence into our world, that it’s no wonder my tradition tells me I cannot enter into them without the help of the alien intelligence it calls the Holy Spirit. If nevertheless, I have entered into them, they give me access to what my tradition has called the humanity of God.

“Oh the Lion of Judah shall break every chain

and give us the victory again and again”

Bass drum and kettle drum and brass cornet

backed by the Salvation Army choir, black, few and scrawny

at Chisel Street corner seventy years ago. It breaks

my heart quietly every time I hear it.

( A Lion is in the streets. Morning, Paramin, Derek Walcott and Peter Doig, Faber &Faber)

Images by Peter Doig