Friday, December 07, 2012

Being a Blessing

I'm currently reading 'The Story we Find Ourselves in' by the somewhat controversial Brian McLaren. It's written in a style that the author calls 'creative non-fiction', but I prefer to think of it as 'intelligent fiction with a message.' I'm only a third of the way through, very much enjoying the dialogue between the Jamaican radical Christian known as Neo, the ex-charismatic agnostic Kelly, and the cheerful atheist Glenn. What all three have in common is that they have PhDs in sciences.

The style of dialogue in the book is discussion, questioning, and the gradual unfolding of the overall 'story' of Scripture, which is how Neo claims that it would originally have been understood by the story-telling Jewish culture in which it was written. It's all thought-provoking, and the fictional style makes it entirely possible to agree strongly with some points that are made, while being unsure about - or even disagreeing with - others.

Today I was struck powerfully by some comments about Genesis 12:2-3. God chose Abraham, who is in a sense the patriarch of all the three main monotheistic religions of today.  He chose him not because there was anything special about Abraham, and not for the sake of granting him 'eternal life' - something which would not really have been an issue in the culture of the day.  He chose Abraham 'to be a blessing'. In some translations it's even more direct - God tells Abraham that he must be a blessing. The command is not just to bless his own family, but so that 'all the families on earth' would be blessed.  Another word for 'families' is 'nations' - the two modern English words were covered by the same concept at the time.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and Jesus said something similar, when asked by his disciples what the greatest commandment was, in Matthew 22:34-40. Love God, and love our neighbours, Jesus said. Every other command, rule or requirement is subsidiary to those two principles. I wrote at length about what is meant by love in another post, but a further thought emerges: we are in a relationship with Jesus  primarily in order that we can show God's love to other people. Not his anger, or his judgement, but his love.

Something else Jesus said, in John 15:16-17 also makes a lot more sense in this context. Some Christians understand the words 'You did not choose me, but I chose you...' to imply that we have no choice in our salvation; that some people are 'chosen', and some are not. But that's not what Jesus says. The rest of that short passage tells his listeners - and by implication all his followers through the ages - why they were chosen: 'to bear fruit' and 'to love one another'.

God is our Creator. He made the world and the first people so that they could continue the creative pattern he programmed into them.  Apple trees bear apples, cats bear kittens, humans bear babies. And when we are chosen and thus given 'blessings' by God, we are to bless other people, introducing them to God's love, bringing them also into his kingdom.

What does 'blessing' mean? 

Blessing is rather an old-fashioned word, one which sounds vaguely to me like a benevolent old man laying his hand on his grandchildren's heads, as a gesture of good will and approval. It's also used as a Christian jargon word to mean gifts from God - maybe a cheque in the post, a promotion at work, an unexpected meeting with a friend. We might use it in more general terms too, to refer to good health, warm homes, happy families. Unfortunately, as with so much modern Christian jargon, the original meaning can get lost in our 21st century western context.

In Brian McLaren's book referred to above, there's some discussion about what 'being a blessing'  meant in the phrase given Abraham. Eventually the participants agree that it means 'to try to help, to bring resources, to encourage, to believe in, to support, to affirm, to have a high opinion of.' In summary, Neo suggests, it means 'to express love and support'. He points out that despite it being an age of kingdoms and battles, God does NOT tell Abraham to go out and conquer all the surrounding regions, nor does he tell him to force people to follow his commandments.

There was a comment after my post about love, mentioning a quotation attributed to Billy Graham: 'It's God's job to judge, the Holy Spirit's job to convict and our job to love'. I would suggest that God's 'job' primarily is to love too; it saddens me deeply when some people seem to see God as someone rubbing his hands, hoping to condemn sinners to eternal torment. However, the point of that quotation is that ONLY God is able to judge other people. So, it seems to me that our role is primarily to reflect his love outwardly, and 'bless' all those with whom we come into contact.

How we actually do that in practice will depend on our personalities, our circumstances and our abilities.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Problems of being a Bookworm...

It all started when someone posted an image on Facebook, which said: "Bookworm Problem no. 37: Pronouncing a word incorrectly because you've read it hundreds of times but never heard it said aloud." There was much discussion about words which I and some of my friends did indeed misprounounce for years: allies, meringue, superfluous, hyperbole, indict, epitome, vaseline... and many more.

Another important question then arose: If that is problem number 37... what are the other 36?

So, in an idle moment, and with help from a friend to bring the total to 40, I compiled this list. Much (though by no means all) of which is based on personal experience.

Beginning in the elementary/primary school years...

1. You believe that ‘reading aloud’ in the early years is a slow, sounding-out process that has no relation to real reading

2. You regularly lose the ‘correct’ place when doing group reading at school, because you are reading so far ahead on your own

3. You take more notice of what fictional parents say than your own

4. You regularly bump into lamp posts or trees because you were reading while walking

5. Your family hunt all over for you, and you don’t hear them calling because you’re up a tree, deep in a book

It gets worse during the secondary/high school years...

6. You believe completely in Middle Earth and Hogwarts, but sometimes wonder if China really exists

7. Your family panics when you vanish from sight for hours in a large and rambling second-hand bookshop

8. When you are assigned a classic for English homework, you're disappointed to find that you have already read it, probably more than once

9. You break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend because she/he isn’t interested in your favourite authors

10. You have to catalogue your books carefully or you forget which ones you already have

11. You have no idea what to give someone for their birthday when they don’t want any more books

12. You can’t actually figure out what is meant by ‘not wanting any more books

13. You teach your young siblings the alphabet: A for Austen, B for Brontë, C for Coleridge, D for Dickens...

14. When you play Scattergories, you can find about twenty authors for any letter, but struggle with many of the other options

15. You can find all the bookshops in any town, but have no idea where restaurants are

16. Your friends call you geeky because you know so much

17. You’re puzzled when acquaintances don’t get the literary references you use automatically

18. You emerge, starry-eyed, from the end of a wonderful book only to discover that it’s morning, and you never went to bed

19. You are mystified when someone asks what you collect. Books, of course.. what else is there to collect?

20. You get depressed when you learn that around 200,000 new books are published every year in the UK alone, and you realise that you can never catch up

Adult life begins, but the problems of being a bookworm only multiply... 

21. You get into your first ever fight with your parents when you’re leaving home, and can’t agree which are ‘your’ books

22. You need new clothes, but books are a much higher priority

23. You forget to reply to your emails because you're too busy reading

24. You buy a Kindle so as to save space, and now you have a large collection there, but you still keep acquiring real books too

25. When you completely run out of shelf space, you don’t think of getting rid of anything - you have to buy a new bookcase

26. You become disillusioned, because nobody in real life lives up to your favourite fictional heroes/heroines

27. The only websites you ever visit are Amazon, Abe, Waterstones, Play and The Book Depository 

28. You frequently miss a bus stop or train station because you’re so engrossed in a book

29. You become frantic when the final book in a series is out of print and you can’t find it anywhere second-hand

30. You feel sad but remote from real life disasters, yet cry your eyes out after reading about Beth March/Walter Blythe/Dobby

Even when you have settled down with a job, house, and/or family, the problems continue... 

31. When you run out of room for bookcases the only option is to move to a bigger house

32. You take a job abroad for a few years, and fill all your boxes with essential books... then realise you have to take some clothes too

33. You can find obscure reference books in a few seconds, but have no idea where you keep the basil and thyme

34. You spend hours online when you should be doing something else, trying to find a copy of an obscure book you vaguely recall from your childhood

35. An old schoolfriend reminds you about a teacher, and you don’t remember if it was a real one or someone from a school story

36. You forget an important meeting with your boss because you’re so absorbed in a book

37. You pronounce a word incorrectly because you’ve read it hundreds of times but never heard it said aloud

38. You can't imagine getting rid of your 30-volume 1980s encyclopedia to save space, even though you know it’s out of date, and quicker to find things out online

39. Visitors worry that your marriage is in difficulties because you have 27 books about marriage on your shelves

40. You never get round to actually doing anything other than reading, because for any new interest or hobby you first have to acquire and absorb several books on the topic

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Love is....

I grew up Anglican. Every week, we heard or recited something along the lines of:
'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like, namely this: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.'  
Perhaps there were a few more thees and loveths (this was prior to the modernisation of the liturgy) but that's the gist of it. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I realised that these weren't just Anglican principles, but words spoken by Jesus. In the various Bible studies I attended, at school or elsewhere, we spent a lot of time trying to discuss what exactly was meant by loving God. It's something that, as far as I can tell many years later, takes a lifetime and more to learn. We get it wrong all the time, but since God loves us perfectly, He keeps on forgiving.

But then there's that second commandment, too. We are called to love other people. All people. Not just our friends, not just our fellow believers, not just those who think like we do or behave in ways that seem appropriate to us - but everyone. I know it, of course. I've always known it. I don't think I'm prejudiced or biased; I'm happy to have grown up in a fairly multi-cultural community and mixed with quite a variety of people. I believe that every person has equal value before God, no matter what their race, income, abilities or behaviour. I really do.

However, we can't be emotionally involved with every person we meet, let alone those we will never meet. Nor can we even feel warmly towards everybody all the time. But love is defined in many ways in the Bible: the well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13 gives some ideals. Love is patient and kind. Love does not bear grudges, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. And so on. Naturally we don't  reach these ideals, but if we're going to show love then this passage is a good starting point.

I've been coming across blog posts and news articles about people in the US and elsewhere who seem (from my perspective) not to have grasped these concepts. Protesting abortion clinics, shouting down gay pride marches, trying to campaign against health care for everyone. There was an article going around Facebook recently, about some Christians in Chicago at a gay pride march. They apologised publicly for the hatred and bigotry that stems from some right-wing American church groups, and hugged some of the marchers. Apparently this happened a couple of years ago - it's been reported in several places, and has attracted widespread commenting, both positive and negative.

I hope that, had I been in Chicago at the time, I would have stood with those who were offering compassion in this way. Thankfully I have not personally come across outright hatred and bigotry of the sort that I sometimes read about. Perhaps it's one advantage of being British, seeing almost everything in shades of grey, rather than extremes. A bit like the infamous British weather.

But my gut feeling is that Jesus, were he still a man on earth, would similarly have reached out in love to those whom society (or parts of the church, at any rate) condemns. In 1st century Galilee, he was criticised for mixing with tax collectors and sinners. Of eating and drinking with the despised in society.  Jesus reserved his anger and judgement not for those who sinned (that would be all of us...) but for the religious leaders who invented rules and regulations that quite missed the point of loving God.

I wonder how the parable of the sheep and the goats would sound in the 21st century. I started re-writing it with modern situations, and then realised that I would be showing my own personal biases - for we all have them, one way or another - and that I was making negative judgements which were no better (indeed, perhaps worse) than those who come across as bigoted or angry in high-profile situations.

I guess I'm not a fast learner. It's only now that I'm beginning to grasp hold fully of the idea that my responsibility is to love God, and love other people. And that, basically, is it. I show love for God - insofar as I can - by doing what he asks of me. By being honest, and courteous; by generosity, or kindness, or fairness. God has told us plenty of things in the Bible, and I  believe He also guides us in daily life, if we listen. We fail all the time, but He holds out His hand, and picks us up, and we move forward.

But my responsibility in these matters is for me.  Not for anybody else. That's not being individualistic, I hope. I recognise my part as a tiny little piece of the widespread Body of Christ, of course. But I can only be effective if I do what God wants me to do - whether in general or specific terms. It's no good wanting someone else's role - nor hoping that others will take on mine. God is the Master Designer, and it's only by each of us focussing on Him that the Body of Christ can truly function as it should.

However... it is NOT my responsibility to take care of anyone else's behaviour.

Disclaimer: when we have children in our care, it's fine to offer them some guidance, and right to help them understand the principles of following Jesus. But eventually they must make their own decisions, and be responsible for their own behaviour. It's hard to let go fully when they grow up, and of course we should be willing to advise or brainstorm with our adult children - or indeed with anyone else who asks us to. 


I am not responsible for anyone else's actions, nor do I have any right to judge them. God is the only judge, and He leads each person individually. He knows us all intimately. He knows which parts of my behaviour or inclinations I need to deal with first. And He knows the same about all His other beloved children too. It's remarkably easy to become complacent about sins - or mistakes - which we are not tempted to commit ourselves, and to judge them harshly in others. It's also, ironically, very easy to feel critical about behaviour in others that mirrors what we do ourselves.

And when I've admitted and worked through these tendencies, and feel that I'm beginning to move forward... that's when I realise that I still want to judge those who are judgemental. To fail to tolerate the intolerant. To criticise the critical.

That takes me right back to the beginning.
God wants me to love other people. Including those who do not, from my perspective, do a very good job of loving. 
This post has been several weeks in the making, as I tried to work out what to say, and whether the content was so obvious that it didn't need to be said. It might still have hung around my unpublished collection had it not been for reading, yesterday, this excellent post entitled 'How to love people you disagree with' on a blog I have recently started following. It said much of what I had been thinking recently, a great deal more succinctly.

So I cut this down (yes, it was even longer...) and tweaked a little, and decided it might be worth posting after all.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Church and Temperament

What is it that makes someone choose to belong to a certain church or congregation?

In part, it seems to relate to our upbringing and culture. If we're brought up in a Christian home, we get used to the kind of church service that our parents introduced us to. We might adopt it as our own, or we might reject it as 'boring' or 'old-fashioned' or 'too touchy-feely' - again, at least partly depending on our temperament. Equally, someone might reject their parents' denomination simply because they are rejecting the whole package of their childhood and upbringing.

But recent discussions about the church in general, both locally in 'real life' and around the blogging and social networking world in general, have begun to make me realise that perhaps David Keirsey was right when he talked about the four temperaments leading to the primary motivations in people's lives. He labelled the temperaments as Artisan, Guardian, Idealist and Rational; in Myers-Briggs terms, those refer to the groupings who include the letters SP, SJ, NF and NT respectively.

Much has been written about how the different denominations and styles of Christian worship appeal to people of different temperaments. Some of it makes sense: Guardians, who particularly value tradition, belonging and loyalty, may well choose to attend structured churches where long-standing traditions are upheld, where they know from week to week roughly what to expect. Artisans, by contrast, who tend to be relaxed and spontaneous are likely to enjoy church services that encourage those traits - stereotypically, the more charismatic ones.

Within any local congregation, there are likely to be people of all four temperaments. Artisans and/or Guardians will almost certainly be in the majority, just because there are more of them in the world in general. But there will probably be people of other temperaments there too; indeed, there probably should be, since a living, growing body comprises many different parts.

What I have realised is that people's needs within the Church congregation (of whatever style) are in line with their temperament needs. Worryingly, we all tend to assume that our own personal needs are the most important - or, at least, that they are true for everyone else. It's not surprising. I sometimes find it very difficult, even after years of studying and discussing these theories, to believe, truly, that all four sets of values and needs really are equivalent.

Most of the leaders of any congregation are likely to be Guardians. They are the ones who most like structure, after all. They are good at creating guidelines and rules, and ensuring they are kept. That doesn't mean they are rigid or controlling (although they may be) - just that they are likely to be skilled in administration, and logistics in general. They will care about church policy, and legal issues, and hierarchies within church groups. They may take care of the fabric of the church, too. Guardians are usually reliable, responsible people who can solve problems and take care of what needs to be done.

The problem arises because, to a Guardian, it's very important to belong to a group; a local church congregation is just such a group, so a Guardian leader, and the many Guardian members of his church will be naturally be loyal to it. This may sometimes be at the expense of other churches nearby; however they may well attempt church unity, and joint social events, so as to be part of a wider group. Co-operation is important to Guardians, so they will encourage others to take part in as many activities as possible.

But, most of all, Guardians will tend to see the Sunday services as the lynch-pin of the Christian life. That's where people get together to worship, to hear the Word of God, to pray, and to socialise over coffee. That - according to many Guardians I know - is where the Body of Christ stands firm, and where we can all show our loyalty to each other and to God. Moreover, Guardians tend to like to keep the status quo. They will often be suspicious of too much change, although they may approve small changes which they see as positive.

What of Artisans? They are perhaps less likely to belong to very structured churches, since their primary needs are for freedom to act, and to follow their impulses. Artisans live very much in the moment; they like to hear God speaking, to meet needs as they occur, and are often extremely generous. Charismatic churches leaders might well be Artisans, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, able to express their worship in movement, or art, as well as song. Some of the 'emerging' churches may also have a significant number of Artisans, who want to explore use of the senses, and different tools and art forms in the context of Christian worship.

Can Artisans and Guardians co-exist? Certainly. If they don't, then a congregation becomes unbalanced. The Artisans can push the Guardians a little way out of their comfort zones, questioning unhelpful traditions, showing what God is actually doing now, as well as discussing what He did thousands of years ago. Then the Guardians can help the Artisans live in the real world, investing wisely, taking care of their buildings, and ensuring their missionaries are supported. A Guardian-only church could be rather dry; an Artisan-only church could seem decidedly flaky.

But what of those minority temperaments, the Rationals and the Idealists?

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of people around the world who call themselves believers, who love Jesus, but who find church services - and church attendance in general - to be alien, uncomfortable, pointless. Amongst our close friends there are at least half a dozen people, in addition to ourselves, who feel (or have felt) this way.

It was something of an 'aha' moment when I realised that almost all of us in this group are either Idealists or Rationals. In any random group, we would expect to find around 12% of each.  Perhaps like-minded people tend to be drawn to each other; yet when I look at our Christmas card list, or consider all the people I  count as friends around the world, there are people of all four temperaments. We have a lot of Guardian friends; those of them who are Christians are almost all committed, one way or another, to their local church congregations.

I suppose about a quarter of our Christian friends are likely to be Idealists or Rationals. That fits, roughly, with what one would expect.  A few of them are also a comfortable part of a local congregation. But not all of them. And here's the lightbulb moment - the majority of our NT/NF Christian friends are not currently part of an organised church.

When I look at the books written on the topic of  'not attending church' - and there are quite a few - the feel of them all is somewhat abstract, sometimes academic, and very much concerned with people. Primarily, it would appear, Idealists. Yes, we who long for harmony, integrity and relationships are the ones who seem to find it most difficult to belong to a structured church.  The Rationals who are in a similar position are often those who feel that they want to learn more - that most sermons say nothing, most songs simply repeat what they know already.

Interactive Bible study can be a good way of learning for people of these types, as can reading books, taking part in online discussions, or even reading and writing blog posts (which inevitably involves some research). But not, it would seem for many, most organised church services.

I don't know where this leaves us. I find it sad that there is no local congregation where I can fully be myself, where I can relate with integrity to others, and see the building up of harmonious relationships. Sermons I have heard in the past ten or fifteen years mostly seem to repeat 'basics' which I have heard countless times before. Worse, for me as an Idealist, too many church groups seem full of strife rather than supportive. When someone is in need - perhaps a serious illness, or bereavement - church leaders and counsellors may be of great help; but in the day-to-day concerns of an ordinary life, they seem barely to be interested.

And yet when we meet with other believers in small gatherings to eat, or play games, or chat, we can (and do) build each other up, and meet each other's needs. Discussions arise naturally, we refer to the Bible and other reference books when necessary. My need for harmonious relationships can be met again and again in small gatherings; those who want to learn can ask questions or introduce discussions topics. We're not very good at structure, and our groups don't look anything like 'church' to those who are committed to a regular Sunday service, and a particular style of worship.  But Jesus said that when even two or three people gather in His name, He is there too.  When we do something for the least of His people, we do it for Him.

Far too often Paul's injunction that we should not stop meeting with other believers is taken to refer to Sunday morning services - but those did not happen in Paul's day. Believers met frequently for meals, and socialising, and learning about Jesus, and discussing doctrine. All of which we do, and enjoy very much. I do also attend some church services from time to time, but it's quite freeing not to belong to only one congregation. The Body of Christ in our town consists of all believers - all who follow Jesus as Messiah - and I can't find any Biblical or other reason to 'join' any one of them and (by implication) reject the others. I prefer to be in fellowship with all parts of the Body if I possibly can. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

On Intuition, Narnia, and a little mediaeval astrology...

I don't recall how old I was when I first read the Narnia septet by CS Lewis. I know that I was captivated by the series at a young age, and read them regularly.

I do, however, remember a thrilling moment when I was perhaps ten or eleven. I was re-reading the books, and had reached the end of 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'. Aslan the Lion appears as a lamb, and invites the children to a breakfast of roast fish. Then he tells them that he is in their world too, by another name.

It seems odd in retrospect - the Christian imagery in the books is so well-known, and so obvious to me now - but until that point I had not made the connection. I had grown out of hoping that I might find Narnia myself in the back of an old wardrobe; I no longer believed in fauns and talking mice. But I did wish, with an intense longing, that Aslan could indeed be found in our world. I suppose it was a classic moment of Introverted Intuition, when it all suddenly made sense. Aslan was Jesus. I went from a deep wish to a deep insight within a few seconds, and was then able to see the allegorical nature of the books - or, at least, the metaphors which were well-known to me at that age such as Creation in 'The Magician's Nephew'; Good Friday and Easter in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'.

It was a great moment, and I'm glad that nobody made the mistake of explaining it to me before I was ready to find it for myself.

Over the forty-odd years since then, I've picked up and read the books again and again. It has occasionally occurred to me to wonder why they seem such a disparate set of books: 'The Lion...' is almost a classic fairytale story of good conquering evil with the Redemption story at the heart of it. It's uplifting, cheerful, and probably still my favourite of the books. It's also the best-known. I never particularly liked its sequel 'Prince Caspian', which is filled with battles and conversation in the forest. It brings the children back to Narnia, but in a disappointing kind of story, even though it ends well enough.

On the other hand, I very much liked 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', in which Caspian is a little older and on a quest over the sea. It has a lighter feel to it, several instances of people overcoming different temptations, and the beautiful ending which first gave me the insight into the Christian nature of the series. The only chapter I didn't like at all was the one called 'Two Narrow Escapes', where the company visited an island with a dangerous pool.. when reading the book, I used to skip that chapter. On the other hand, the amusing chapter about the Dufflepuds is one of my favourites in the whole series.

'The Silver Chair' has a different feel to it again - of swamps and gloom, of another kind of quest, this time to rescue a missing prince. I loved Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, but found the story increasingly tense even on the tenth or fifteenth time of reading.

I would usually read those four books in order, then 'The Magician's Nephew', even though that is chronologically the first, dealing, as it does, with the creation of Narnia. It always felt to me like an add-on, a book to explain how the other books came about, with a lot more set in the real Earth than in any of the others. Then there's 'The Horse and His Boy', a book which never felt to me as if it fit with the others at all. It's the story of a boy taking an important message, learning about Narnia, realising his courage, and discovering some surprising roots. I like it - but it seemed very much like a misfit, with no forays at all into our world.

Then there's 'The Last Battle', a final book if ever there was one, with graphic pictures of 'end times', taking us to the very end of Narnia and the hope of Heaven. I don't much like that one, either, but would always read it as the last in the series.

A year or so ago, Amazon recommended that I read 'Planet Narnia', in which Michael Ward, a learned scholar, had apparently found a new 'key' to what he calls the Narniad. Something to do with mediaeval astrology. I read reviews, which were mixed, and might have thought no more; but then a friend read it, and felt that it was worth reading. Then I saw it referred to elsewhere, and became increasingly curious.

I've finally finished reading it.

The author makes an excellent case for an underlying theme which Lewis did not spell out to anyone. He quotes extensively from his works, and from his early study of mediaeval planetary images. He also goes deeply into the explicit use of planets-as-archetypes which Lewis employed in his science fiction trilogy. He makes his case well, and it felt like another piece of the jigsaw, or perhaps a sight of the picture on the box of a puzzle, helping the whole to slot into place.

The theory, in a nutshell, is that each of the seven mediaeval planetary archetypes influences the writing of one of the Narnia books. Sounds unreal? Yes, it did to me at first. Michael Ward sums up his theories on the FAQ page of the Planet Narnia site - and they are quite appealing.

In five of the seven suggestions he advances for a planetary theme for each of the Narnia series, I agree entirely.

The planets are not the ones we know today; indeed, two of them (Sol and Luna) are the bodies which we know as the Sun and the Moon. Uranus had not yet been discovered in the mediaeval times from which Lewis takes his imagery, nor is Earth included. She seven 'planets' are: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sol and Luna.

While I have some knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman myths, I was impressed at the thoroughness with which Michael Ward went into detail about each planet. Detail is really not my thing, but I did very much like a term he coins early in the book: 'donegality'. This is taken as the essence or theme of something, the underlying tone of a book, the 'big picture' one retains when the particulars have vanished from memory. For each of the books Ward gives us his understanding of its 'donegality', linking it with one of the mediaeval planetary deities, and then picking out a lot of fine detail to reinforce his point.

I could see instantly that according to this theory, 'Prince Caspian' is connected to Mars, the Roman god of war. Woods and battles are the donegality of the book as far as I'm concerned; Mars, apparently, was also supposed to have an affinity with trees and vegetation. There are themes in the book of chivalry, knightliness and 'necessary' wars to overcome evil, and I found myself actually liking it more in the context of the planet Mars.

Perhaps the next most obvious one is 'The Silver Chair', which is connected with Luna, the moon. Her colour is silver, her light reflected. Much of the story takes place underground, or in the marshes, giving a feeling of half-light. There is discussion of 'lunacy', too, and much more. Then 'The Last Battle' is evidently about the passing of time and its ravages, fitting in well with Ward's theory that this final book in the series was written with Saturn in mind, known in some circles as 'Father Time'.

There are long chapters dedicated to each of these, of course; I'm only touching on what I perceive as the 'donegality' in this post.

Ward also contends that 'The Lion..' was written with the influence of Jupiter in mind, and that 'The Horse and His Boy' relates to Mercury. These are not quite so obvious at first glance, but as I read the relevant chapters, I could see that they make sense. Jupiter - also known as Jove - features jollity, feasting and kingliness, as well as winter becoming spring. Father Christmas, who always seemed like a bit of an oddity in the first book, suddenly fits in rather well with the image of a genial giver. Mercury, by contrast, is known as the message-giver, and master of language and liguistics. Of all the books, 'The Horse and His Boy' is most concerned with language - with Bree the talking horse, and Calormen poetry, and the importance of getting words correct. Mercury is also related to twins, something else that leaps out of the book.

This brings me to the remaining two books, and here is where I find myself in disagreement with Michael Ward. He matches Venus with 'The Magician's Nephew', citing the great fertility of the newly-formed Narnia, and the apple which Digory plants. And he matches Sol, the sun, with 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'. There's a sense of light, and mention of gold in the book which seem to back this up.

But although I was prepared to accept Michael Ward's explanations, I didn't find either of those two chapters convincing. And while I hesitate to disagree with such extensive research, I would personally put them the other way around.

Ward claims that the name 'Dawn Treader' suggests the sun. To me, it suggest Venus, the 'Morning Star'. Moreover, the word 'Voyage' is one used in the alternate title for 'Perelandra', the second of the science fiction trilogy ('Voyage to Venus'). In 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', most of the action - like that in 'Perelandra' - takes place in a watery world peppered with islands. Venus is the island goddess, her home planet supposedly one covered with water.

There are temptations galore in 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', including Lucy's temptation to make herself more beautiful - similar, again, to one in 'Perelandra', and surely related to Venus, once more, rather than Sol. Moreover, it seems that the simple (and very low-key) romance Caspian finds at the end of the book is much more appropriate, in a children's book, than Ward's mention of carnality at the creation of Narnia, notwithstanding Frank and Helen's future children and grandchildren.

What of 'The Magician's Nephew'? As I said above, I don't have much of a 'feel' for the book as a whole, but if I must have a nutshell image, it is of suns.. the dying sun in Charn, the daylight in the 'real' world, and the newly formed sun of Narnia. The scenes at the end involving the apple tree and Digory's mother are used by Ward to add to the Venus image, but it seems to me rather more appropriate to Sol; besides that, the idea of a Tree of Life is surely an overt reference to the temptation of Eve in the book of Genesis. According to the Planet Narnia post about Sol, his influence makes people wise and liberal: this is what Aslan asks of Frank and Helen when he crowns them as the first King and Queen. And I'm quite sure Lewis's choice of name for the first Queen is not an accident: 'Helen' is derived from the Greek word for sun.

Finally, Ward makes much of Sol's metal being gold, and points out various references to gold in 'Dawn Treader'. Undoubtedly they are there, but in re-reading 'The Magician's Nephew', I found just as many. Significantly, most of them were referring to Aslan himself, whereas in 'Dawn Treader' they are more related to the temptations of wealth (such as the dragon's lair, and the 'Deathwater' island). Venus the goddess is associated with sweetness, warmth and laughter. The ship's company in 'Dawn Treader' find warmth and sweet water at the end of their journey; and while there is certainly some laughter in the creation of Narnia, it's not nearly as amusing as the 'Dawn Treader' chapter featuring the Dufflepuds.

So, while I cannot begin to emulate any of Michael Ward's scholarship, and am well aware that I may be totally wrong... my feeling and intuition tell me that 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is more connected with imagery of Venus, and 'The Magician's Nephew' with Sol.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Christians, alcohol and drunkenness

A few days ago, I read a brief commentary on Genesis 9:18-29 This is the passage where Noah plants and harvest a vineyard, invents some kind of wine, drinks it, and then falls asleep in the nude. One of his sons sees him; the others reverse into the tent and cover him up. Reading the passage I noticed that while Noah is upset with the son who was disrespectful (did he, perhaps, laugh at his dad's nakedness? Make some lewd comment? Try to persuade his siblings to take a peek?) the passage does not in any way pass judgement on Noah himself.

So I was rather surprised that the commentary focused only briefly on the different behaviours of Noah's sons, and then made quite a big deal about what it called the 'sin' of Noah's drunkenness. It was making the point that even people as righteous as Noah can fall into temptation, and that it's easy for all of us to trip up over relatively small issues. Undoubtedly true... but I didn't feel that it was actually relevant in this case.

Disclaimer: I am not, in any way, a champion of alcohol. I don't personally drink it at all, as I don't like it. I very much dislike the behaviour of people who have had too much to drink, even when they're just at the slightly silly stage, and I am well aware that drinking makes drivers dangerous and causes some people to turn violent. It's expensive, it's addictive, and although a glass or two of wine may be beneficial to our health, it certainly isn't good in excess.

However, just because something is harmful in excess, and under certain situations does not make it automatically sinful. I know that there are some Christians who believe that all the references to wine in the New Testament actually refer to unfermented grape juice. This suggests that they have not looked at the passages in any detail, and also that they have no idea about the times of grape harvests in the Middle East. Without the benefits of freezers or tetrapak processing, unfermented grape juice would only have been available between about August and October in Palestine, where Jesus lived as a man. By Passover (March, usually) the only possible way to drink the 'fruit of the vine' was in its fermented state.

In addition, I can't avoid thinking about Jesus' first miracle, where he launched his public ministry. It's described in John's Gospel, chapter 2. Jesus was at a wedding with his friends, when the wine ran out. Did he give an impromptu sermon about the evils of alcohol? Did he tell a parable about the need to be prepared, the kind that featured later on in his teaching career?


He used his power as the Son of God to save the public humiliation of the bride's father, by transforming ordinary water into wine.

And yes, it would have been regular fermented wine. Good quality wine, too. The wedding host makes a comment about how impressive it is to bring out top wine at this stage in the party. Most people, he says, serve the best wine first and then produce cheaper wine when the guests have drunk so much that they can't really tell the difference. So Jesus is actually producing high-class wine, even though the guests have reached this stage where their discernment is impaired.

Quite startling, really, even if - like me - you've grown up in a culture where Christians are happy to drink alcohol. Jesus is apparently condoning not just a glass or two, but continued drinking at a lively party.

I started this post by thinking about Noah, who lived several thousand years before the famous wedding in Cana. Possibly he made the first wine that was ever grown. Prior to the flood, people were corrupt and violent, but there is no mention of their being drunk. So it's quite possible that Noah had no idea what he was producing when he made some wine. Maybe it was a happy accident - he wondered how bad some old grape juice was, and found that it was surprisingly good. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing - the passage doesn't say.

Either way, Noah drank a lot of wine. And then he fell asleep. He didn't hit his sons or beat his wife, he didn't tear the tent down, or smash crockery. He didn't take his donkey out. He didn't even fall down comatose outside his tent. He went in, and took off his robe, and then fell asleep - apparently - before he had time to cover himself up.

Is that sin? I don't see it. Perhaps he had a headache when he woke up - the natural consequence of over-indulging. Undoubtedly his actions were the catalyst for his son's bad behaviour that upset Noah so much when he learned about it (but then, who would have told him? His other, holier-than-thou sons tattling...?). So it was certainly a pity that this happened. I hope Noah learned his lesson, and was more careful in future.

But sin?

When the law had not been given, and when wine was apparently God-given - and, later, sanctioned by Jesus?

Somehow, I don't think so. It seems to me that, instead, Noah's rather dramatic condemnation of his son's actions (driven, quite possibly, by embarrassment as much as anything) was his sin in this story.

I would be interested to know how others see it.