I'm in Ireland at the moment, finishing a novel, staying with a great friend who lives on the north coast. Yesterday evening we went surfing - one of those things I enjoy but do not well - and when I got back I'd had another email from a regal friend containing an article from Anne Lamott. She's a great writer, and in a piece about Easter had written "Life happens, death happens, and then new life happens"; a beautiful summary of Christianity.
But it was this poem by RS Thomas that really moved me. I've been playing with a poem about the ocean since a few lines came to me while out in the surf in Polzeath, Cornwall, over the summer. And, as I think I've written here before, there's a section in the book I'm writing where the protagonist looks out at the sea and muses that humanity is really no more than an irritant on the surface of the earth, and that, having climbed out of the oceans millennia ago, the oceans are simply going to rise and take us back.
But Thomas puts things so much better:
I have this that I must do
one day; overdraw on my balance
of air, and breaking the surface
of water go down into the green
darkness to search for the door
to myself in dumbness and blindness
and uproar of scared blood
at the eardrums. There are no signposts
there but bones of the dead
conger, no light but the pale
phosphorus, where the slow corpses
swag. I must go down with poor
purse of my body and buy courage,
paying for it with the coins of my breath.
The graduate with a Mathematics degree asks, "Why does it work?"
The graduate with a Science degree asks, "How does it work?"
The graduate with an Engineering degree asks, "How does one build it?"
The graduate with an Accounting degree asks, "How much will it cost?"
The graduate with an Arts degree asks, "Do you want fries with that?"
In a great piece of polemic, Julian Gough has written in Prospect this month about the tendency for Western literature to express itself in the tragic, rather than the comic:
"Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods' view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.
"But, since the middle ages, western culture has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. This is why fiction today is so full of anxiety and suffering. It's time writers got back to the serious business of making us laugh."
The article is flawed. For one thing it itself contains no jokes; it also fails to mention Shakespeare, whose comedies did light up the Middle Ages. More importantly, Gough's thesis appears to be that the reason we have so little comedy is that 'God has died':
To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing. The western comic novel has often had a harsh, judgemental edge. Swift has a hint of Yahweh about him. But the recent death of God has freed a lot of space for the comic novel.
Actually, I think the whole thesis could be framed in reverse: the reason we have so little comedy now is precisely because so few of the world's 'literati' that Gough delightfully mocks have any notion of the divine at all.
Either way, comedy is something we never did well in Vaux. And, having read Gough, I rather regret that. The Emerging Church at worship can take itself far too seriously. There is a rich comic vein in all dirt work, and especially in our often ridiculous practice ;-)
"For most of us it’s a question of what authority we are prepared to recognise, and I think authority often comes from something endured, either by ourselves or someone else. Think of Nelson Mandela. Think also of Gee Walker, the mother of the murdered Liverpool teenager Anthony, who forgave her son’s killers. Suffering confers a certain authority. We learn from it. Dostoevsky is often accused of masochism. But he’s not saying suffering is good for you. He’s saying suffering is how you are likely to learn. Don’t be frightened when it happens to you."
A few of us have been reading Marilynne Robinson's wonderful novel Gilead recently. I can't recommend it highly enough.
One episode jumped out at me last night. The trickster, the Prodigal perhaps, of the novel is debating faith with the protagonist, an old preacher, when he asks:
'Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'
The preacher replies:
'Not really' I replied, which surprised me, since I have wondered that very thing any number of times.
They are referring, in part, to Barth's thinking, and the novel is set in the 50's. And I wondered if people thought there was any truth in that, or if still the case, or if things had changed? Is Pentecostalism America's unique gift to the church?
I've always gawped in wonder at the bit in Acts 8 where "the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus".
The only teleportation reference in the Bible?
Anyway, seems like they've finally worked out how to do it. A brilliant paper by a top US defense scientist on practical teleportation can be found here
Best quote from it:
A traveler stepping through the throat will simply be teleported into the other remote spacetime region or another universe (note: the Einstein equation does not fix the spacetime topology, so it is possible that wormholes are inter-universe as well as intra-universe tunnels)
In other words, we can teleport you. But we've no idea where you'll end up. Could be somewhere in this universe, could be somewhere in a parallel one.
Volunteers? If Apple release iTeleporter, who'll use it in a service first, Grace or Moot? My money would be on iKon turning up at Greenbelt and causing havoc with it ;-)
"Paul was wrong. Our faith is not foolish if Jesus is not literally and physically risen from the dead. We know our faith is true, because we know that death has not defeated him. As a humanist, I do not discard the rich legacy and richness of the Christian tradition, rather I claim to be the true heir to the Christian patrimony. Christians embrace a shallower version of Jesus. I know this because I continue to be transformed by Jesus's love and he continues to inspire my humanist faith"
"I hope that the movement or conversation in its present form will increasingly divide between those who deeply and intelligently desire to be faithful to Scripture while learning to communicate the gospel to a younger generation, and those who, whether mischievously or ignorantly, happily domesticate and distort the Scripture because of their analysis of contemporary culture."
Thanks Don Carson, always nice to know you actually want more division.