Wednesday 29 July 2015

Ten glimpses of Alexandria

“To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen” (Plotinus, Enneads, 1.6.9).

Once again I dreamed of Alexandria. I woke as if from fever with memories of crooked streets, an empty Mediterranean sky, a woman with black eyes, pitiless and beautiful. Although it is a place I have never visited, although the true Alexandria no longer exists, I remembered the city and winced from the memory as though from fire. Alexandria, the cradle of Egyptian and Hellenistic civilisation. Alexandria, the city created ex nihilo by a Mesopotamian boy who wanted to be Greek, who saw in Greece a universal spirit that could unite the far-flung peoples of a conquered empire. He never saw the city built. Having mastered the world, Alexander gave up his spirit and was laid to rest in glass at the crossroads of the city that bears his name, a city he had never seen except in dreams.

Alexandria, city of Cleopatra, in whom nature’s infinite variety became wildly, ravishingly articulate. Even her dying was a triumph, not so much a death as a work of art. Cleopatra has immortal longings in her: she sheds her life as easily as a garment: by an act of will and passion she turns herself freely into fire and air (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, act 5). She was “the last of a secluded and subtle race, a flower that Alexandria had taken three hundred years to produce and that eternity cannot wither” (E. M. Forster, Alexandria, 31).

Alexandria, where many worlds converged. Egypt and Greece, philosophy and Christianity, the library and the mystery cults, magic and exegesis. You can keep the pompous pretensions of Rome; you can have the sun-scorched fanaticisms of Jerusalem – only give me Alexandria with its milder climate, its unassuming airs, its “smooth and waveless harbours” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.21).

At the University of Western Sydney the old convict buildings rest sedately on the banks of the Parramatta River. I take coffee in the courtyard and remember Alexandria. The student clubs are peddling their varied ideologies under a rainbow of pop-up marquees. A DJ is pumping music into the drowsy heavens. I am adrift on a sea of students. European faces, Aboriginal faces, faces from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands. The Lebanese girls go by with their phones held high, proud and beautiful with their shimmering scarves and big designer handbags. There goes the chaplain, a cassocked Irish Catholic priest, head bent in conversation with a Latin American boy who looks very lost in the way that only the very devout can ever be. A girl in blue jeans meets my eye. Do I know her? Have I seen her before? No, it is only that she has Balkan eyes, like mine. I remember her without ever having known her, as I remember Alexandria.

In the university courtyard I drink my coffee, sitting still while the whole world moves around me. There is a magic here: it is another Alexandria. Just now it would not surprise me to see Plotinus and Origen go by, locked in conversation about the soul with their teacher Ammonius. It would not surprise me to see Philo coming out of the library with Greek scrolls tucked under his arm, or Hypatia sitting at the cafe eating olives and discussing mathematics and astronomy with a huddle of her star-struck pupils.

Today, I am told, there is little reason to visit Alexandria, there is nothing there to see. It is a big industrial city, homogeneously commercial, modern, monotheistic. Its cosmopolitan history is erased. Once a place of many languages, now the signs are all in Arabic. The Jewish population, once 50,000 strong, is said to be less than 50 now. In 2002 the Egyptian government opened a huge new library, big enough to hold 8 million books. They did not blush to dub this monument the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, though the acquisitions funding was paltry compared to the spectacular building costs. The novelist Lawrence Durrell lived in the city in the 1940s and wrote his Alexandrian Quartet about the people there. When he visited again decades later he called the experience “depressing beyond endurance.” Of the old Alexandria nothing was left except the rubble of minor antiquities propped up in museums.

“Only the climate, only the north wind and the sea remain as pure as when Menelaus, the first visitor, landed upon Ras-el-Tin three thousand years ago” (E. M. Forster, Alexandria, 120).

But a city is more than buildings. A city is a spiritual thing. When Rome was sacked, Augustine consoled his bewildered compatriots: “Perhaps Rome isn’t destroyed. What is Rome, after all, but Romans?” (Augustine, Sermon 81.9). Though Alexandria is gone, though I will never see the streets that I have wandered in my dreams, the true city is not lost. Sometimes I have glimpsed it. Today I saw it, if only for a moment, in a courtyard in western Sydney on the bank of the Parramatta River. The girl with Balkan eyes had a silver anklet. It jingled on her sandalled foot as she went by.

From the great Alexandrian poet, C. P. Cavafy:
“As you set out for Ithaka,
hope the voyage is a long one. […]
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
—C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaka”

Monday 20 July 2015

Downright doodlings

By all means remove Confederate flags from government buildings to send a message about racism. It’s a start. Next, send a message about the fusion of faith and nationalism by removing American flags from churches.

Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they’re doing.” And the Father replied, “Screw that, Son. I’m thinking eternal damnation. And fire. Lots of fire.”
(Luke 23:34f., Original Autograph)

Do I believe in hell? Only the devil in me.

Who said, “A butter knife in marmalade is a hanging offence”? Was it (a) TV chef Nigella Lawson, or (b) Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.

The line “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter” refers (a) to gunsel Wilmer Cook, object of Sam Spade’s derision in The Maltese Falcon, or (b) to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?

Jesus said, “You will see ‘The Awful Horror’ standing in a place where he should not be.” (Note to the reader: be sure to understand what this means: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy!) Then those who live in Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama must run away to the hills…. For the trouble of those days will be far worse than any the world has ever known from the very beginning when God created the world to the present time. Nor will there ever be anything like it again.”
(Mark 13:14ff., Original Autograph)

The “Benedict Option”? Rather, for post-Obergefell v. Hodges religious conservatives, surveying the liberal lowlands from the moral high ground, driven by ressentiment and superciliousness, insinuating a scenario of “The Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness” – well, more like the “Qumran Option”. First Things has become Last Things.

Did you hear about the biblical literalist who, on the 78th occasion that a fellow-Christian said, “I’m sorry about that, please forgive me,” thought “WWJD?” – and then replied, “Go fuck yourself!”?

According to the BBC, doctors are now warning that skinny jeans can seriously damage muscles and nerves. A survey of hipster pastors would suggest that the damage may extend to the cerebrum.

Then the Devil came to him and said, “If you are God’s Son, order these stones to turn into bread.” But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Man cannot live on bread alone.’ “True,” the Devil replied, “I forgot the circuses.” “And Twitter,” Jesus added.
(The first temptation of Jesus according to Matthew 4:3ff., Original Autograph)

The church has often been seriously hostile to the theatre, both actors and audiences, and with good biblical support. As Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Broadway leads to destruction.”
(Matthew 7:13, Original Autograph)

The strategic thinking behind the war on terrorism can be summarised in 4 words: “Fight fire with gasoline.”

Luther was wrong about the Letter of James: it is certainly not an “epistle of straw”. That, with its strategic accommodation to empire, would be I Timothy.

I’ve just managed to finish reading, before the eschaton, Joseph Frank’s monumental biography Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (a 932 page abridgement of a 5 volume work). Not for the first time, a writer whose work has deeply informed my literary and religious imagination – in particular, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov – turns out to have been a maniac as well as a genius: a xenophobic nationalist, militarist, and imperialist, and an odious anti-Semite who blamed the “Yids”, with an animus otherwise reserved for the “Westernizers”, for all the ills of Russia. How ironic: no other novelist has ever characterised the inner battle between the sublime and the malignant with such psychological insight and spiritual depth.

Which leads me to suggest that Americans, of all people, should understand what makes the Russians tick. After all, with respect to a pathological belief in a nation’s moral superiority as well as in its messianic destiny, there is no exceptionalism like American exceptionalism except Russian exceptionalism.

Why do Christians lose their faith in the face of horrendous personal suffering? Because they don’t look at the world Ivan-eyed before they come to faith and/or Zosima-eyed after.

It is, to be sure, frustrating that the world does not make sense; on the other hand, it would be hopelessly intolerable if it did.

The 2nd and 6th beatitudes are related as cause to effect: nothing clears the heart of crap and clutter like inconsolable grief.

Parents who say that they want to let their children make up their own minds about whether or not to believe in God have already made up their minds for them. (Cf. Wittgenstein: “If someone does not believe in fairies, he does not have to teach his children ‘There are no fairies’; he can omit to teach them the word ‘fairy’.”)

Spot the typo: “To conclude that the austere sexology of St. Augustine can be dismissed due to its origins in obsessive guilt about his long-term relationship with, not to mention dumping of, his mistress, or to the pathology of paracusia – the tolle lege episode in his garden in Milan – would be to commit the genital fallacy.”

The main problems with the Westminster Confession might have been fixed if only the drafters had gone out together and got pissed before producing the authorised version. Alternatively, but less fun, they might have had a laxative punch.

Famously, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The word “enjoy” is, of course, a typo: that should be “annoy”.

The Green Report (C of E) suggests a new version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Chief Executive, Chairman of Heaven Plc,
hallowed be thy exalted office;
thy cosmic corporation come,
thy organisational decisions be done
in church as it is in Wal-Mart (and its franchises).
Give us today our 24/7 targets,
and forgive us our failures to manage and motivate,
as we forgive those who fail to execute and achieve;
and (heaven forbid!) lead us not into theology and prayer,
but deliver us from inefficiency and zero-growth;
for thine is the performance, the productivity, and the profit –
at least until the next ecclesial panic and marketing panacea come along.
What do I do when I find it hard to pray? Turn to the spiritual classics for direction. For example, to the ecumenical and devotional jazz of John Coltrane. St. John died in July 1967, at the time I was first transfixed by A Love Supreme, in (I later learned) Huntington Hospital, Long Island, just a couple of miles from my home. Uncanny.

You know the good cop/bad cop? That’s me.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

A tale of two daughters

A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (text: Mark 5:21-43)

Mark has just given us a master class in storytelling – and in the radically subversive message of Jesus. It’s the story of two healings, and of the shocking irrelevance of conventional notions of greatness and goodness in the kingdom of God. Let’s follow the narrative – closely.

It begins with Jesus and his disciples back on the other side of Lake Galilee, on Jewish soil, after their brief excursion into the Gentile territory of Gerasa, where Jesus cured a pig-herder possessed by a “legion” of demons – a man, that is (if you follow the code – a “legion” is a Roman military division) – a man suffering from severe trauma due to the daily humiliations of imperial occupation. (Witness the deterioration of the mental health of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.) So we are back beside the seaside, and by the seaside Jesus does some of his best work.

He is approached by a man named Jairus, a member of the Jewish ruling class, a leader in the local synagogue. Jairus kneels, respectfully, and, man to man, begs a favour: “I have heard that you are a healer; my daughter is very sick; come, please, make her well.” And off they go, accompanied by a huge crowd, which, for Mark, is a term suggesting the social location of the poor. The word “crowd” appears five times within just ten verses. Remember, the gospel is, above all, good news to the poor, the lost and the losers, people who are always being told – by the wealthy and the winners – “We’re all in this together.” (Yeah, right.)

On the way to Jairus’ house, however, there is a delay. From under the cover of the crowd a woman sneaks up on Jesus. Who is this woman? We are not told. Unlike the bigwig Jairus, she is unnamed, she is anonymous. She is, after all, a woman in a man’s world. Worse still, she is a sick woman – she suffers from chronic menstrual haemorrhaging. And this illness is not only physical, it is social – her bleeding makes her outcast. She is an “untouchable”. According to the purity code in the book of Leviticus, she is unholy, and if she touches anyone, or anyone touches her, they become unholy too. She will be living in extreme isolation; she will be very, very lonely. And she is penniless, having spent what little she has on quack remedies (snake oil salesmen, like loan sharks, are ever around to exploit the poor). That her condition demands rigorous segregation, but that she has joined the crowd – this is an extremely dangerous situation for her, and shows just how desperate she is.

And now how terrified: she touches Jesus – a woman a man, a “contaminated” woman a “clean” man. Oh no! Jesus realises that she has touched him: her cover blown, she can expect the worst. Like Jairus, she kneels at Jesus’ feet, but not so much to show respect as to beg for mercy. And Jesus? He calls her “daughter”. Daughter! But haven’t we just heard that word? Yes, Jairus’ daughter. But this woman – she is a nobody, and not young and pure but old and defiled. And Jesus calls her daughter! And more, in the presence of the disciples whom he is constantly calling faithless, he says, “Your faith has made you well.” This is scandalous behaviour in a holy man.

Touch – the word occurs four times in five verses. Contact with the unholy is supposed to make you unholy too. But Jesus – Jesus both violates and subverts the culturally accepted understanding of contagion: purity, he demonstrates, he teaches – purity, not impurity, is catching. In moral terms, goodness, not badness, is contagious, and acceptance trumps rejection.

Is this primitive anthropology? Don’t kid yourself! What sociologists call “social disgust” continues to inform the contemporary: think of racism, nationalism, and gender-biased attitudes. And sociologists further observe how social disgust takes on a moral dimension. Think of the odious social and moral “zoology” (if you like) ever exploited by those pursuing agenda of fear and hatred, deploying for their propaganda animals, animals that make our stomachs turn, our flesh crawl. For the Nazis, the Jews were rats, flea-ridden, disease-bearing; for bigots from Northern Europe and America, people from Italy, Spain, Latin America are slimy creatures, greaseballs, low-life. And, most recently, for the media personality Katie Hopkins, migrants and asylum seekers are “cockroaches”, filthy, scuttling insects. Rats, snakes, cockroaches – vermin, not people, with a corresponding zero moral status that allows us, even obliges us, to detest them, and, to isolate and marginalise them: they are dangerous and therefore dispensable.

And observe that we’re talking feelings here, hot, visceral, more powerful than cool intellect. Speaking of the white jury that unjustly condemned to death the black Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his 12-year-old son Jem that “you saw something come between them and reason … something in our world that makes men lose their heads.” Which is why reason alone, though reason we must, will never turn people from their racism, xenophobia, homophobia. It takes experience – knowing, befriending, eating and drinking, laughing and crying with black people, foreign people, gay and lesbian people. It takes contact – touch – the touch of Jesus. It takes love, a love which is the “suspension of disgust” (Richard Beck).

But the story as Mark tells it is not over. Imagine how Jairus must be feeling, this VIP suddenly backgrounded by a menstrual nobody – and while his child is gravely ill, with not a moment to lose. Hurry, Jesus! Alas, too late. Word comes that the child has died. But Jesus is undeterred. Like that desperate daughter of Israel, “You gotta believe!” He strides to Jairus’ home, taking Peter, James, and John, the Big Three, with him. (Hint: something momentous is going to happen.) They arrive to the tumult of weeping and wailing of family and neighbours. Jesus insists that the child is not dead, merely sleeping; the mourners respond with derisive laughter. Jesus, of course, knows the child is dead (“sleeping” then, as now, a euphemism). Nevertheless, impatient with the mourning party, Jesus clears the house, and with his disciples and her parents watching, he – what? – he touches this daughter of Israel too; and because she is physically dead, she, like the haemorrhaging woman, who was socially dead, is also – even more so – unclean, unholy. But again, oblivious to religious convention, he takes her hand and lifts her up. Not one but two resurrections: not bad for a day’s work! Give the girl some chicken soup!

End of story? Almost. But observe one final detail. Both the older woman and the little girl have been called “daughters”. They also have a number in common. (Numbers are very significant in the Bible.) Mark has told us that the woman had been ill for twelve years; now he tells us that the girl is twelve years-old. Twelve – ring a bell? Twelve as in the twelve tribes of Israel? The twelve disciples, symbolically representing Israel, are male. Here the representatives are female, and particularly insignificant females at that, a sick outlier and a mere child. In both stories in our master class of a narrative, Mark is pointing to the new social order and, indeed the new kind of human being that Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the “kingdom of God”: an egalitarian community in which insider and outsider sit at table side-by-side, the one relieved of pride, the other of despair, each discovering their own good in the common good, each encountering Christ in the other. For now, it remains a work in progress, the work of church, what Rowan Williams calls the “pilot project for the human race”.

It’s a project that – back in To Kill a Mockingbird – that same night, shortly after his conversation with Atticus, Jem tries to puzzle out with his sister Scout. Jem himself is pessimistic, not only about what we would call racism and classism but about human hierarchies as such. He says he’s “got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods [second class people], the kind like the Ewells down at the dump [“white trash”], and [at the bottom of the heap] the Negroes ”. Upstairs and downstairs, insiders and outsiders – and the hardly human – there is, Jem thinks, a pecking order among folks, built into the nature of things. But Scout disagrees. “Naw, Jem,” she says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Scout is 9-years-old. Who was it that said something about having to look at the world like a child, about being “young at heart”, before you can see the kingdom of God? Yep, there’s just folks.


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