Friday, August 30, 2013

Untroubled by violence

The major anniversary of this week has been Martin Luther King's remarkable, impromptu speech, 'I have a dream...' that cannot but bring tears to the eyes of all of right heart. Rightly much of the commentary has focused on whether, and by what degree, that dream has been accomplished. To which the answer must be - a work in progress. But less attention has been paid to the underlying, underpinning way that dream ought to be achieved - by the disciplined, sober path of the practice of non-violence of which King, following Gandhi, was to follow even unto death.

This lack of attention chimes in melancholy tone with the major news event of the week namely the use of poison gas in Syria, the ongoing civil war and the threat of armed intervention to 'punish' the regime that almost certainly will go ahead (even if without British participation after yesterday's parliamentary vote). Virtually none of the mainstream commentary (nor the arguments about intervention) have dwelt on or been troubled by violence. That appears always to be a given and what we are discussing is the navigation or management of violence which if 'successfully' completed will bring the conflict to the 'right conclusion'!

Alternative paths are there none - neither now when we are in the midst of conflict (which is more understandable) but also 'then' before armed conflict erupted (which is not). One of the tragedies of the 'Arab Spring' is its apparent spontaneity. There appears to have been no long running preparation for achieving change, no training for it, no ideology of transition (with the possible exception of Islamist movements and there the preparation has revolved more around seizing control rather than liberation). The point about non-violence is that it requires greater discipline (and courage) than the path of violence and, thus, careful preparation within civil society as was born out in India, in America, in the Philippines and in Eastern Europe (where the societies that successfully made the transition to democracy were those with disciplined civil spaces of resistance and change).

If only a fraction of our time, effort and funding were to be channelled into exploring these paths would we be where we are now? I do not know but it might be worth our while to find out. To be troubled by violence and imagine from that troubling alternative routes to change. The history of the twentieth century shows that non-violence can work, not without its own costs, if the foundations are laid well, thoroughly and over time. We might want to pick up our dreams again and get to work.

P.S. I can, of course, hear the objection that peaceful protest in Syria was met by force so how should you respond but with 'defensive' violence? But all the careful study of non-violent change in the twentieth century revolves around three key points - how skilful, directed, organised is the peaceful protest, is it in it for the long haul and what does it do when it encounters its first violent reaction (and if the answer to that is violence then the campaign is lost before it has even begun)? Non-violence is a strategy ever bit as complex, disciplined and reflective as that of war.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Red line

You can 'dodge' bullets and bombs, take shelter, in a way that you cannot elude gas. Bullets and bombs offer a 'sporting chance', they are 'noble', however gas is underhand, cowardly and indiscriminate in its very nature. Somehow I can imagine myself 'under fire' (indeed have narrowly escaped a bomb) but shudder at the thought of being gassed.

However, be this as it may and try as I might, I cannot see the startling moral difference between indiscriminately shelling a civilian population and gassing it that creates this 'red line', the crossing of which has animated such stark rhetoric from the US administration (and others) about Assad's regime: the still only purported author of this ghastly attack. I mean being dead is remarkably, and sadly, an indiscriminate phenomena.

The attack itself is a miserable low point, in a relentlessly depressing civil war.

Now if it were suggested that the United Nations was to take action to impose peace on the warring factions, all of which by their actions have long surrendered to my mind any notion of holding on to a 'noble struggle' against tyranny, reluctantly I might be persuaded that military action was necessary. However, it would have to be even handed, overwhelming and internationalised and accompanied by undoubtedly a very long and expensive process of peace building that might include I suspect the prospect of a partitioning of Syria (which, after all, is a wholly artificial colonial construct). Given our extraordinary inability to live intelligently and tolerantly with one another, creating more homogeneous smaller countries might be a 'kind of answer' (at least they can do less damage to one another when they do fall out)!

However, this is not on offer. Instead we have the posturing of 'we must do something' which falls back on the tried, tested and failed formula of bombing something surgically (if a real doctor was to be this 'surgical' they would be seen as a butcher and struck off the medical register forthwith). This is dressed up in the language of 'punishment' and 'deterrence' (and there is is little or no evidence of either of these having a material effect on the challenge at hand, indeed often they contrive to make matters worse).

Meanwhile, the stench of hypocrisy rises across the whole debate - gassing is only ever a red line if we do not like the one allegedly doing the gassing. Saddam Hussein could do it with impunity, until we stopped liking him!

At a recent management meeting, in the cracks between business, I suggested that we launch a global campaign entitled, "Why do n't we all just love each other?" At the time, it was a humorous aside that resulted in the Head of Campaigns and I hunting for a possible theme song. Watch this space!

However, as you ponder it, it does become a deep and wounding question: why not? I remain constantly amazed within my own soul at the energy it spends hiding from love and fortifying its defences against vulnerability. It is, when I catch myself at it, exhausting. Why do we do it? This is a real question.

To which part of the answer is, I think, in our failure to find a positive identity in being me, physically, wholly present, now, vulnerable to what is,  on which are pinned diverse identities that matter and delight, are important but not that important and how we find ourselves left trying to cover over a deep sense of insecurity with a negative definition of identity of what I am not. I remember vividly a Macedonian taxi driver telling me he had a mini icon on his dashboard because he was not an Albanian (a Muslim) not because he seriously played at being a Christian as an expression of his deepest humanity.

There is every difference between being vulnerably rooted in the world and insecurely placed in it. Love flows from the former, fear stalks the latter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A sacred moment

It is twenty one years since Ann Wetherall died - friend, mentor and colleague - in helping her found the Prison Phoenix Trust that is twenty five this year.

On the anniversary of her death, a small group of trustees and staff go to her grave in the beautiful Cotswold village of Bibury for a time of quiet meditation, followed by each person bringing a reading to share, followed by breakfast hosted by Anne's older sister, Tigger, who is herself a trustee, hale of mind and body at ninety two. It is always a poised and beautiful moment, even when it has been raining (as it has in the past). The churchyard all stillness in its pristine maintenance. May Ann travel onwards within the mystery of consciousness that was her exploring home in life.

My contributed reading was Mary Oliver's poem, 'The Swan'

Across the wide waters
     something comes
          floating—a slim
             and delicate

ship, filled
     with white flowers—
          and it moves
             on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn't exist,
     as though bringing such gifts
          to the dry shore
             was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
     And now it turns its dark eyes,
          it rearranges
             the clouds of its wings,

it trails
     an elaborate webbed foot,
          the color of charcoal.
             Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
     when that poppy-colored beak
          rests in my hand?
             Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband's company—
     he is so often
          in paradise.
             Of course! the path to heaven

doesn't lie down in flat miles.
     It's in the imagination
          with which you perceive
             this world,

and the gestures
     with which you honor it.
          Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
             white wings
           touch the shore?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Pilgrim's Way

A weekend in Kent with friends and I was locked in by rain except for a late afternoon break in the deluge when I could venture out for walk that partly embraced the Pilgrims' Way from London to Canterbury. There is nothing that is spectacle in the Kent countryside but it contrives nonetheless to be beautiful. The curvature of hills and ridges are irregular breaking from the valleys in different ways such that all becomes surprise.

The Pilgrims Way is now mostly a meandering path of bridleway and quiet side road but once it trafficked souls to England's most popular site of pilgrimage, St Thomas a Beckett's tomb at its pre-eminent cathedral in Canterbury: the courtier turned archbishop turned martyr. Curious, in a way, that the popularity of a pilgrimage site bore no relation to the hierarchy of the relic. After all a mere saint (and a recent one at that) trumped, say, a phial of Christ's blood kept at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire that was reanimated at Easter, flowing in its test tube, to the awe of witnesses (and to which Chaucer's Pardonner makes reference as he journeys to Canterbury). Perhaps medieval man had a realistic sense of his or her own 'littleness' and expected more from a saint (or relic) that sailed closer to the contours of his or her own life? This Thomas a Beckett certainly did.

As I walked, with the clouds racing across the sky and the wind shaking drops from the overshadowing trees, I was once again reminded of the fickleness of memory. At school for three, if not four, consecutive years, in the summer, we ran a production of T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' in our own fourteenth century school chapel. I must have watched this play (as one of the stage crew) in innumerable rehearsals and, at least, twelve (if not sixteen) performances and apart from remembering that Beckett gives a Christmas sermon midway through, I can recall nothing of the play! Even as I remember that (for a school production) it was consistently lauded, nothing of Eliot's vision or poetry lingers with me.

I do not think I have a 'theatre gene' because, ironically, at the same time, I first read Eliot's 'Four Quartets' and I can vividly remember time, place and how the words first entered me, taking root into the love I bear for them now. Perhaps theatre is an 'extroverted art' and so gleans no purchase on this introverted soul but the Quartets became the theatre of an inner pilgramage.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Pallas & the Centaur

Last night I travelled up to Glasgow on the sleeper which was an enjoyable first. I could not help comparing it with many similar journeys on overnight trains in Russia. Tea in a paper cup did not compare well with the Russian equivalent contained in a glass with an ornate metal holder! Nor did the starched sheets and blankets of Russian railways find an equivalent in the limp duvet of Caledonian Rail. However, on the plus side, once checked in to your own compartment (no sharing with assorted others, an introvert plus), there was no more waiting upon ticket punching and there was no piped music to both see you off or greet your arrival. The greatest advantage was temperature control as I have been on Russian trains where in the intense heat, you found yourself wondering where your next breath was coming from. Also, you had your own basin so you could clean your teeth in luxurious privacy!

On the way back this afternoon, I was whisked by a Virgin train to Euston, and was reading a book on impact investing and slowly loosing the will to live.  The theme is very important and close to my heart but the book was written in a style that I have come to dread (it curses many books on business and organisational design) - excruciating similes and metaphors extending till they snap, repetition, and chunky boxes of case studies too general and ephemeral to tell you very much! And most of all delivered in a technocratic style without passion. Speed reading is a handy skill.

Enabling me to pass over quickly to Linda Proud's 'Pallas and the Centaur', the second volume of her Botticelli trilogy, a historical novel that treats of Florence's uneven war with Rome and how Lorenzo de Medici grasped diplomatic victory from the jaws of military defeat (though impairing his own house's fortunes in the process). The story is told in dual voices, male and female, and from the point of view of observers rather than actors.

The central thesis is of the duality of man - a centaur - a man, Lorenzo, as a combination of reasoned action and appetite - but woven within a compelling whole of character, incident and history. You taste the Renaissance in her work - high aspiration and hope meeting the gruelling realities of place and history. The former never being devalued by the latter. It is always, in her novels, better to have woven the beauty and symbol of hope than not to have done by falling prey to realpolitik, accommodation and cynicism. It is the tantalising ideal that keeps history alive, full of possibility.

She is one of those living writers whose work you hope will keep ahead of your consumption though alas you know that this cannot be!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Monk by the Sea

Casper David Friedrich's  'Monk by the Sea' in its still, melancholy greatness is a favourite painting. No reproduction can capture its sense of space, subtlety of colour and movement and that sense, as Kleist noted, of stepping within it, of being rendered boundless.

It offers a particular view of 'contemplation' as being held over and against a tremendous mystery that makes one's own self transient and that the response to this is a sense of quiet sadness. It is both Romantic and Protestant to the last intimate stroke. It was criticised for offering no sense of consolation.

However, I wonder.

Undoubtedly the consolation that it offers is neither easy nor cheaply obtained. For Friedrich I sense it only comes out of a realistic and humble sense of oneself as held in being wholly as gift. Nothing that one is belongs to one's self except the stubborn and misplaced believing that you are important, a centre at the heart of things, surrender that and consolation is possible and even in this, possible his starkest painting, the clouds have a behind and a beyond that hint at lightening, a sky that is translucent to the light of the sun that draws the monk to the shore.

I expect I love it so both because it carries a heightened melancholy and because my abiding image of the repeating nature of attention in prayer, the repeated 'mantra' of prayer is a wave breaking on the shore - powerful yet usually oddly gentle (as I have either the Baltic or the Mediterranean and their low tidal ranges in mind). The water can do nothing but lay itself down, the prayer can do nothing but be gently repeated and in both there is a dynamic stillness at their heart which waits to be revealed through all the clouding distraction of one's mind and ego.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Under the bodhi tree with Jesus and Malcolm X

This week I had an, as always, fascinating conversation with a friend whose life has been dedicated to helping people think through what kind of organisation would best express their values and objectives and which would enable people to make their best contribution.

Part of the conversation revolved around how challenging it is for us, as people, to recognise our assumptions, the way in which we frame our understanding of the world. We touched on this first in relation to the on-going financial crisis, how often it is we encounter people whose 'modelling' of the economy has come unstuck but it is not the model that is dysfunctional but the application of it and if they (always it is them) had simply played by the rules, all would be well. If questioned about their assumptions, they either deny they have assumptions: no, this is how the world really is or defend their assumptions as the only possible rational ones: so there.

We all do it to a greater or lesser degree. We have covert world views and the costliness of changing them is such that most of us, most of the time, do not even try.

Such failure is, sadly, everywhere it was in the running comment after the recent report of the rat experiment that showed a surge of electrical activity at (or beyond) the rats death and most of the commentary I saw spared not a thought for the poor rats demise in 'proving' that death is a process not an event and 'explaining' the reported phenomena of 'near death experience'. Virtually every comment I read started from a particular implicit (and unacknowledged) framing that determined how one read the evidence without pausing to consider the nature of the framing we were bringing to it.

Much more tragically, and with bitter circumstance to be reaped for many years to come, I fear, it was painfully present in the conflicting realities of Egypt, made doubly so, by not only a blinkered appreciation of one's own framing but a confident assertion (projection) of the framing of the 'other'. It becomes then a fighting over the 'one reality' (which is to enforce mine over yours) rather than a recognition that our reality is, in fact, always and everywhere a construct out of Reality, a Reality that always transcends it. There is all the difference in the world if you imagine that you are on a journey and must make do and mend with your disparate companions than if you think you (and you only) are the owners of the destination.

This is especially tragic in the case of 'religion' - each and every religious tradition has within itself resources to remind its adherents that 'Reality' is always and everywhere greater than their consciousness of it and so tread lightly. This is encountered more often in the breach than the observance, sadly; and, indeed the notion of a religion, as implied in the words roots as 'that which binds' is the absolute antithesis of the 'end point' of any sacred journey as that which frees!

The first sacred text that I read (of my own volition) was the Buddha's remarkable first sermon in the garden, under the bodhi tree of his enlightenment, and from which I gained two insights that, fitfully, have stayed with me. The first was that 'the solution' was not primarily in the 'content' of what you held in your mind but the 'context', how a truth is held is as important as 'what is the truth'. More important is the compassion that you bring to your wisdom than the wisdom itself indeed wisdom dissolves if compassion is absent. The second was to admire (and hopefully emulate) those capable of shedding their assumptions, even when they found themselves in the spotlight of leadership.

This is why both Jesus, who you plainly see growing in his understanding of his ministry and its universal nature through the Gospels, for example, in responding to the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7 25-30) and Malcolm X who grows out of his 'Nation of Islam' framing of Islam into a more whole, generous and inclusive understanding of the Prophet's message even to the point of triggering his assassination join the Buddha under this sheltering tree of admiration!

With Jesus this is especially true for being God, it is especially important that we are reminded that a core theme in the Hebrew Bible is humanity's ability to challenge God's framing of the revelation or as Martin Buber put it: Know to your marrow that you need God but know too that God needs you! (And indeed Buber always happily reminded people that there was no word in Hebrew for 'religion') Or in the Church Fathers, most notably in St Gregory of Nyssa, that any knowledge of 'Reality' is always radically incomplete and the fulfilment of the human person in relation to that Reality is the joy of being lured endlessly into renewed discovery.

Reality is a co-created endeavour - a loving journey perhaps more than A destination.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wild Child

This trailer for Francois Truffaut's 'The Wild Child' probably says more about the publicity team at MGM's view of childhood than Truffaut's - the juxtaposition between 'innocence' and 'animal' as if the human is the former and the latter is freighted with the unkempt, the unruly and the dangerous. If only humans were as innocent as animals, the earth could breathe more freely!

I saw this beautiful film many years ago and reading about it in Jay Griffiths' 'Kith' reanimated a desire to see it again. It tracks the historic story of a child found in eighteenth century France who, to all appearance, had grown up in the woods and the efforts undertaken to allow him to re-enter and learn human society (mostly forlorn). Such cases, few and far between, have fed long running debates on what it means to be human, most especially what is the role of language in the act of making human.

Similar territory is traversed by David Malouf in his wonderfully imagined novel of Ovid in exile interacting with a child who has been nurtured by wolves: 'An Imaginary Life'. Malouf decidedly comes down on the side of believing that empathy and communication lie on the other side of language. Its emergence makes more complex the possibilities of expression, it does not prescribe its possibility. The natural solution of a Romantic.

Truffaut's film arrived in the daily of dose of purchases - I do have to learn to stop (or, at least, slow down, lest the prophecy of my mother's birthday card is realised: an elderly man submerged to his shoulders in books)!

Amongst the incoming was Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'The Secret Garden' another meditation on the nature of childhood, courtesy of reading Griffith's beautiful evocation of this much loved 'children's book'.

'The Forbidden Book' by Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro which is an 'occult' novel written by actual esotericists, scholars of the subject, one of whom, Godwin, many years ago I enjoyed getting to know at Temenos' conferences and who gifted us, as a conference, a beautiful way of collective singing, using only the vowel sounds, chosen by each participant of their own volition, yet collaboratively evoking the most magical and beautiful wordless song.

And finally a book I did not have to buy, 'Leading from the Emerging Future' by Otto Scharner and Katrin Kaufer as one of its author's, Otto, kindly sent it to me as we explore how better we might collaborate with the Presencing Institute he founded at MIT.

When any of them will get to be read is anyone's guess!!!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Balkan Spirit

The fabulous Hesperion XXI offer Balkan Spirit.

Every year the village of Galicnik in Western Macedonia enables one of its children to celebrate a fully traditional wedding ceremony, stretching over three days, accompanied by the engaged eyes of many visitors, including one year myself.

I most remember the music that accompanied each step of the wedding. It was often mesmerising with tunes unfolding in repeated cycles that spun you out of thought, teasing you out of time. There is a quality about traditional music that suggests an intimate relationship not only with people but with place. Its rhythms are that of culture and nature.

I recall stepping out of the village, taking myself out of the throng, walking up one of the hills followed by the strains of receding music yet with it entering the landscape as if the music opened a door to it, the seeing of it, singing you into a place. I do not think I ever been more 'there' present enwrapped in a landscaping.

It was hauntingly strange until many years later, I was listening to the composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, on Desert Island Discs describe going for a walk in the Peak District as an adolescent on a mist swirled day and hearing all the music he was subsequently going to compose as if it were waiting for him both enfolded within and yet beyond 'the world'!

His great gift was to translate it, give it a forming (and famously he moved to the Orkney Islands to find a traditional landscape of silence in which better to hear that music). Mine felt like traveling in the opposite direction, led momentarily into its sourcing, to stand in the body of the world of which music is an integral part always waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kith - the importance of children going wild

When I was five, I used to walk to school and to my best friend's house alone. The first journey took about eight minutes, the second about twelve. Both required you to cross roads but none of them especially busy, and this was the primary safety consideration.

Jay Griffiths reports in her fascinating book, 'Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape' that one set of parents (in the UK) were reported to social services for allowing their children (eight and five) to take a similar journey unaccompanied (except by one another).

In the ensuing forty years, arguably the traffic has become marginally denser, though cars are better designed with regard to the potential to cause injury, and you are no more likely to be abducted now as you were then, the chance is very small (though utterly tragic when it does occur). What has changed is the fear that it might happen, magnified by its voyeuristic reporting, such that a child's felt sense of autonomy and resilience is undermined and parents wrap them about, enclosing them in an apparent arc of safety (except as Griffiths points out, sadly, 90% of abuse is inflicted by those we know)!

It is one vignette, amongst many in the book, that describes the enclosure of childhood. The analogy implicit in the word is carefully chosen as Griffiths wants to show us the linkage between a childhood that is allowed to follow the contours of nature and revel in all its diverse aspects and human and natural flourishing and its opposite the enclosure of nature and childhood within the bounds of parental authority, school discipline and the utilitarian that leads to depressed, curtailed human beings who knowing nothing of their carrying world dismantle and damage it accordingly.

The evidence that demonstrates that children who are allowed to go 'wild', have self directed adventures within nature, even within the local city park or backlot re-imagined, are more resilient, happy, self- confident and curious is now overwhelming as it is intuitively fitting.

Griffiths is an unabashed Romantic both about the world and childhood but it is a romanticism brandishing facts as well as intuitions and her book is a sophisticated, dexterous defence of and essay after freeing children to find their way nurtured by communities of humans, other animals and the widening world.

In her sallying forth, she tells stories including the testimony of many particular children, calls forth the witness of poets, educators and different cultures (in time and place), deploys research neurophysiological, anthropological and social and weaves it all together with a fine poetic eloquence.

All kinds of things stick in the mind but the overriding one is the sheer ambiguity of our attitude to children - that we care about them (rather abstractly) is certain but equally certain is we are deeply confused about how to practically embody that caring in such a way that maximises the potential of their flourishing.

This ambiguity is everywhere, but just two examples, first children tell us that they like circular or irregularly shaped classrooms that maximise both the opportunities for collaboration and spaces for exercising the hidden, the separate and the autonomous but do we ever design a classroom with this in mind? The nearest is possibly the Forest Schools in Denmark. Second, we want our children to grow up as self-reliant, autonomous people and yet today I noticed a father could not leave his son (nine or ten) outside the Gents while he went for a pee in that well known site of imminent threat - the National Gallery!

Kith both exposes these ambiguities and invites us to think more carefully as to what childhood might look like if it was genuinely child centred and humane. It is a brave, bold and imaginative book.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Another gold star for Phaidon's 'Art & Ideas' series, in this case, Laurinda Dixon on Bosch for a lucid, engaging account about this artist about which we know so little apart from his works (the canon of which scientific investigation is slowly establishing).

What is so successful about this series is how it places the artist in their time in such a way that in learning how they are answering their contemporary demands and issues, they are enabled to breakthrough to 'timelessness'. Unlike much art history, focused on analysing stylistic development and influence which is of interest mostly to the specialist, this focuses on what the art might mean both to its original audience and to ourselves.

The fault line of interpretation in Bosch is how conventionally Catholic is he: orthodox or heretic? Dixon lands firmly, but cleverly, in the orthodox camp. Cleverly because, as she notes, what it meant to be orthodox in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century has radically shifted in part. What has been retained is a clear moral vision around temptation and its overcoming through a focus on the exemplary life of Christ and of his saints and His grace, what is different is living in a very different cosmological landscape where the conventions (and complexities) of alchemy (most notably) apparently no longer apply.

It is in her discussion of alchemy that Dixon is most illuminating. Many contemporary notions of alchemists as 'a hidden tradition' of esoteric specialists dodging persecution by the Church are simply wrong. Alchemy was a tradition that permeated not only high but popular culture, was patronised by royalty and church and over-flowed into what we would now imagine as 'science', most especially medicine. In Bosch its signature is everywhere and it being so does not signify that Bosch was a 'heretic'.

Her reading of Bosch's masterpiece, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' is particularly illuminating mapping its four stages - triptych and cover painting - against a traditional fourfold alchemic pattern of mimicking the creation of the world, playing within that creation, enabling new combinations to form, dissolving them and recovering them in a renewed and purged creation: a new earth. She shows how many of the motifs that appear to us obscure begin to clarify when you read them against the processes, patterns, symbols and tools of the alchemic life.

In passing, she also happily reminds us that Renaissance attitudes to the body were a lot freer than they are in our post-Victorian world. You needed not be a heretic of the free spirit to paint nudity, sexual congress and 'vulgarity' as it was within mainstream culture a great deal more acceptable than it is today. Her illustrations of this are wonderful (and a touch bizarre) including a tin badge (of which hundreds have been found) of a winged and crowned flying phallus that was distributed to pilgrims during religious festivals!

Likewise you get a vivid sense of the inevitability of Luther's breakthrough - Bosch's world is both orthodox yet highly critical of the failures of the institutional church but more than this it is permeated with a deep sense of the world's spiralling moral failure. Human beings are trapped, hedged in on all sides by the consequence of their sin, and though Bosch offers images of salvation by exemplary work, you sense that he knows (the culture knows) that this simply is not enough, something must break in from outside, namely God's grace. It is time for a necessary rebalancing, away from 'indulgences' (in both the religious and secular sense) and for grace to reach in and transform, symbolised (and hoped for) in Bosch's repeated appeal to the 'Apocalypse' and the 'End Time'.

However, interpretation aside, Bosch remains enigmatic in a way that few artists can compete with, even when we may have decided that he was painting within the 'orthodox' world of his time as solid burgher running a successful artistic workshop (and other enterprises) and being a leading light in the local religious fraternity, it does not capture the sheer fertility, seriousness (including the pointed humour) of his imagination, that makes it so arresting, whether one enjoys it or no. For that we have only the wonder that we bring to contemplating the works themselves - one human meeting another.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The quest for the ahistorical Jesus

Reza Aslan having been subjected to a most shambolic and partisan interview on Fox New about his new book - 'Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth' - has benefitted enormously.

The interview went viral, his book sales are up and Fox News has egg on its face (from a liberal perspective). If you are going to be so partisan (aggressively questioning why a Muslim can write a non-partisan book on Jesus), you should at least do it well (and possibly read the book first)!

The answer, of course, is that nobody can write a non-partisan book about Jesus (or indeed about my Aunty Flo). All interpretation, as the great Hans Georg Gadamer would say, is prejudicial but prejudice not in the modern 'negative' sense but as 'prejudgement': the questioning frame you bring to any enquiry that shapes (but does not determine) the answers you receive.

What I found most interesting about the interview was Aslan's implicit assumption that he was adopting the 'privileged' position of scholarship (backed by a string of virtuous qualifications) that, as it were, immunised him from 'prejudice', in Gadamer's terms, which I found, from a sociologist of religion, a mite naive! It runs through the blurb (to the book) imagining that there are 'historical sources' and then there are 'the Gospels' but, of course, the principal historical sources are the (prejudiced) Gospels (and the New Testament as a whole)!

I have always found that the most interesting books on Jesus are those, whilst informed by diligent study, want to claim him for a deep seated (and transforming) faith commitment because in so doing they seek to answer who Jesus is, as well as who Jesus was. The 'historical' Jesus is an inaccessible chimera, the Jesus in history is altogether a more lively and compelling character.

I have read such books by both Jews and Christians. I would love to read a book that brings Jesus alive as a prophet in Islam, not because I would necessarily find him ultimately compelling, but because it would undoubtedly draw out aspects of his potential that I had not noticed before in a way that an 'historical' account of the 'real' Jesus frankly will not. And the writing in such a book will give additional testimony to how what is important, as well as the scholarship you bring, is the quality of the consciousness being applied, who you are is as important as what you are in enabling a genuine revelation of the truth of things.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...