Do you know Jesus?

On the 176 bus the other day, I was distracted by an insistent, persistent question coming through the phone of a woman sat across the aisle:

Do you know Jesus?

It was annoying for all the usual reasons, plus some more to do with the way charlatans find religion an accommodating cover for their schemes. The simply answer to the question is:

No, and neither do you.

But of course we do feel we “know” people we’ve never met or who may not even exist, such is the power of our imaginations to engage with agency of all kinds. As Wayne Proudfoot writes in Religious Experience (1985:33):

Intentional objects need not exist. I might be afraid of a ghost or bear that is only a figment of my imagination, or of a plane crash that I worry about… If Jones is afraid of what he takes to be a bear but which I know to be a clump of bushes moving slowly in the wind, then the object of his fear is the bear and not the bushes. There is no bear, but his thought of the bear must be cited in order to describe his fear.

In this Mid-life ex-wife column, Stella Grey describes what it’s like to fall for someone she  hasn’t met or even spoken to, and what happened when she finally did go on a date:

In the days before meeting, we ratcheted up the communications to an unprecedented, addictive level. I’d get a text saying “I’ve been thinking about you all day” and could reply that I’d been the same, because it was true: thinking, and composing emails and questions, and answers to questions. We were spending every evening talking on screen. But we still hadn’t spoken.

In two short weeks, her “whole life had become Peter-oriented”:

It couldn’t be real, this attachment, he said, but it felt real, and this was all new territory and he didn’t quite know how to navigate it. I confessed that I felt just the same.

Whatever the nature of the relationship, the feelings of both parties are real enough, and, unlike Jesus, Peter is a living, breathing human being somewhere not too far away:

A period of romantic mania had taken hold of me. I was actually in an altered state. It was all-consuming. I was constantly, tiresomely upbeat and full of energy. This is it, I thought, this is all it takes to be happy: a constant flow of love and attention, given and received. I told myself it didn’t have to come to an end, this flow. I found myself wondering if we’d always text each other these little endearments, even when we lived together. But this was somebody I hadn’t even met yet.

This is not dissimilar to the rapturous ecstasy of a Christian who is imagining their relationship with Jesus, with the important difference that, unlike Jesus, Peter could be contacted in a relatively straightforward way, and two days before the date Grey speaks to him on the phone.

That conversation goes well, but unfortunately the blossoming romance does not survive their meeting in the flesh:

…his face registered disappointment that he struggled to hide.

At least she only has to spend nine hours with Peter. Imagine having to spend an eternity with Jesus.

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The absence of alternatives

If the end isn’t actually the end (see There an end?), just how is God going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Anyone perplexed by the mechanics of reincarnation perhaps ought to consult that classic of 1717, A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England, in which the reader is asked:

…what should hinder an Omnipotent Power from raising the Body a Cannibal hath devoured, out of the ninety-nine Parts which return into the common Mass of Matter?

(quoted in Waugh 2002:226). What indeed! But if God can resurrect a body devoured by cannibals, why cannot faith healers — who claim to channel God’s healing powers — grow back a limb? Or cure Ebola?

Such fantasies of supreme and benevolent power lure the unwary or those who simply have no alternative into false hope. For example, earlier this year, as the Ebola epidemic tightened its grip, west Africa turned to religion for succour. In the absence of a cure, seeking comfort in this way might be thought harmless, but in fact it may have put thousands of people at unnecessary risk (see this report). Evangelical churches that hold services promising “healing” could ignite new chains of transmission:

Every Sunday since she can remember, Annette Sanoh has attended church in Susan’s Bay, a slum of crowded tin-roofed homes in Freetown. Now as the Ebola epidemic mushrooms in the capital of Sierra Leone, Sanoh has started going to church services almost every night.

“I believe we are all in God’s hands now. Business is bad because of this Ebola problem, so rather than sit at home, I prefer to go to church and pray because I don’t know what else we can do,” said Sanoh, a market trader. At the church she attends, a small building jammed between a hairdresser’s and two homes, she first washes her hands in a bucket of chlorinated water before joining hands with fellow church members as they pray together.

“We pray Ebola will not be our portion and we pray for hope,” said Sanoh, as the disease this week reached the last remaining district that hadn’t yet recorded a case.

By any measure, West Africa is deeply religious and the region is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing Muslim and Christian populations. Posters and banners strewn across the city are constant reminders of the hope many find in spirituality amid a fearful and increasingly desperate situation. In one supermarket, a notice asking customers to pray for Ebola to end was taped on to a fridge full of butter. It urged Muslims to recite the alfathia; Christians, Our Father; and Hindus Namaste. “For non-believers, please believe in God. Amen, Amina,” it finished.

Within a century of the Church of England’s Companion, Denis Diderot was distinctly unimpressed by the miracle workers of various religions (189):

Why plague me with miracles when you only need a syllogism to convince me? Do you find it easier to make a cripple stand upright than to enlighten me?

Miracles were used for centuries to prove a point, to prove one religion was true and all the rest false. Ever since the scientific method came along, however, the religious have been rather shy of this “an ancient religious manoeuvre” (in Waugh’s words). They use miracles as a reward for brand loyalty, not to persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe. Funny that.

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There an end?

Not every religion subscribes to the notion of life after death, and you don’t need to be religious to believe in the possibility of reincarnation. In Britain, which once was a predominantly Christian country, the idea of at least one man’s resurrection is a part of the culture, and Christians believe they too will be resurrected. That said, it’s still strange to hear a Christian say they’re sure to meet their loved ones in the afterlife (there’s less talk of the danger of meeting those who were less well loved — presumably they’ll be conveniently stowed in the other place).

It’s hard to be sure how many Christians today really believe in life after death, but we can be sure that such beliefs were more likely to be taken literally in the past. It was therefore something of a surprise the other night to hear Macbeth declare (3.4.89–91):

The time has been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end…

He’s being hassled by the ghost of Banquo, and beginning to lose the plot, but, even so, as a Christian he ought to realize that death is not the end?

Bag-ReincarnationFrom the sublime to the ridiculous, and a plastic bag that boasts a more confident belief in reincarnation than most people would avow. Indeed, it mimics the opening of the Nicene Creed:

WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

This prompted the following comment from jinglbellsfrocks:

They are now bearing the logo “I believe in reincarnation”! Can’t decide if that is slightly blasphemous to any religion or not! It does look quite biblical with its shining rays!

Christianity has a claim to be offended, as its Creed concludes:

We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross (supposedly) so that plastic bags could be recycled.

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A problem with the packaging

Stella Grey wonders why older men are looking at women half their age. All the women she knows “are tolerant of middle age showing itself in a chap” but the men she meets online don’t seem to grant her the same courtesy. They’re “highly focused on the packaging.”

She’s been thinking a lot about this:

No man I know has ever been told that his powers, his allure, his charm have faded, and that he has to face up to that redundancy. Many women I know in their 50s talk about their invisibility in public places.

A woman in her 20s has a very different experience:

It’s sobering to walk down the street observing how the 50-year-old men behave, paying attention to what they’re looking at as they stroll along. They are not looking in shop windows. They are not looking at me. They are looking at women half their age.

Grey’s male friend explains that men are “extremely visual creatures” but of course this is not an explanation, merely a rephrasing of the question:

Why do men look at women half their age?
Because men like looking at women half their age.

The real explanation lies in an evolutionary understanding of youth and beauty as cues of fertility, and the fact that while a woman of 50 is unlikely to be able to reproduce a man of 50 is far from reproductively redundant. The column ends:

The question is, should I be prepared to change?

No, unless she has a time machine that can turn her clock (and no one else’s) back 25 years. What she needs to remember — and what she needs to remind these online men — is that although a 50-year-old man might prefer to date a 25-year-old supermodel, that preference is unlikely to be satisfied, unless he’s extremely high status himself. And since he’s looking for love online, that possibility is highly unlikely (I doubt George Clooney spent many evenings alone trawling the internet for company).

Any man who responds positively to such an invitation to “get real” is probably someone worth having lunch with, the kind of man who might agree with Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness! that there’s beauty in the autumn of life.

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Ah, Wilderness!

By Eugene O’Neill Directed by Natalie Abrahami at the Young Vic on 20 May 2015

Eugene O’Neill’s warmest, most delightful play is an authentic portrait of a Connecticut childhood — complete with moonlit beaches, firecrackers, booze and a powerfully dark undertow.

Over Independence Day weekend, teenager Richard Miller navigates young love in his idyllic home town. A staple in the US but rarely seen in the UK, O’Neill’s prelude to A Long Day’s Journey into Night is an essential part of the life’s work of this great American playwright.

Ah_WildernessThe main stage of the Young Vic is transformed into a giant sandpit to create O’Neill’s “warm portrait of a Connecticut childhood.” There is a darker story of a life destroyed by a puritanical rather than prudent restraint, but the tone of this play is comic, even absurd in places. Little Tommy Miller (wonderfully played in this performance by Rory Stroud) is letting off firecrackers and generally scampering around, all innocent mischief. His adolescent brother, Richard (George Mackay), is the stroppy teenager who flounces in and out of the several exits at every opportunity, who does his damnedest to hold a sophisticated pose but is actually terrified of kissing a girl. Their older brother, Arthur, is the worldly one who will lead Dick astray.

Dick Miller bounds in, dressed in black, fresh from a bout of reading poetry, to declare to all and sundry that the 4th July is a “stupid farce” and those capitalists who truly rule the world are lying about liberty. It’s a bit of a dampener, although he’s so enthusiastic that his puppy-dog rebellion injects some energy into the opening scene. His father, Nat, and his uncle Sid advise him not to bellyache such views abroad too loudly, else he find himself with a punch in the face. His mother is more concerned over her son’s choice of reading matter, which includes that “awful Oscar Wilde” and Swinburne, a theme picked up by Muriel’s father, who declares that his daughter’s in danger of being corrupted by a youth who reads such muck.

One of Dick’s inspirations is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (which is one of the aspects of the play, the other being the moonlit beach, which makes the presence of so much sand apt), to which he blithely assumes he has sole access, and so he’s somewhat surprised when his father commends the verse, and defends it against Essie’s charge of blasphemy. Khayyam is talking about Allah, not their God, so that’s all right.

Booze is the other big theme, and there’s plenty of drinking during this holiday. Essie thinks her sister, Lily, should marry Sid, the family drunk, and “reform him” but no nice girl wants to marry a stupid drunk. Dick does not take after his uncle, finding it hard to even finish his beer, something Nat understands:

Despite all his bold talk out of books, he’s innocent inside.

Dick is happier talking about “curing the soul through the senses” than trying anything on with a girl. Muriel, it turns out, is not as lacking in love and daring as he imagined, after being duped — and dumped — by the letter from her (but written by her father) breaking it off. She arranges a meeting on the beach, for which scene water flows on to the set to form a pool. He’s still pretentious (“I got to thinking about life”) and given to melodramatic declarations:

I wish I were dead!

He throws himself headlong into the pool with a big splash, which catches some of those in the front row.

One comment points up the evolutionary purpose of prettiness (mate attraction):

Alice Briggs was the prettiest girl before she got married.

Modern feminists recoil from the linkage between looks and the male gaze, some (e.g. Polly Vernon) even asserting that looking “hot” has nothing to do with attracting men.

At the end of the play, Richard gives his mother a hug, and then his father, an unexpected TJ moment as Nat is surprised, and moved:

That’s the first time he’s done that in…

He tails off, his voice cracking, in danger of becoming emotional. Martin Marquez brings a wonderfully rich timbre and powerful voice to the character of Nat, and so this momentary breaking up is all the more affecting. He admires the spring time of life as he watches his son growing up, and then turns to Essie:

Autumn’s got beauty too.

He kisses his wife. What better way to counter the male preference for youth than to sing the praises of the older woman?

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By William Shakespeare Directed by Benjamin Blyth Presented by Malachite Theatre at the Rose Playhouse on 19 May 2015

In 1590 the future King of England, James VI of Scotland, sailed to Copenhagen to marry the Danish Princess Anne. Their return was blighted by such terrible storms the royal couple were almost shipwrecked. Under torture, Agnes Sampson of North Berwick confessed to welcoming the Devil on Auld Kirk Green with the express purpose of killing the King.

In 1606 the atmosphere across London was tense. The aloof James I was newly planted on his English throne, and his frequent treatises on the powers of witchcraft caused concern among the learned classes. It was in this world of suspicion and fear that William Shakespeare and the newly patronised King’s Men performed a new play examining the nature of kingship, power, mortality and the supernatural: Macbeth.

Newly arranged for the remains of the Rose Playhouse, join Shoreditch’s resident 5-star Shakespeare Company Malachite Theatre as we follow Shakespeare and his first Macbeth, Richard Burbage, south of the river from Shoreditch to Southwark, with this stunning new site-specific production.

Macbeth-Rose-Cast-LROne of the best Macbeths we’ve seen, combining a sustained supernatural presence with a psychological realism and realized with a great cast in a magical venue. The simple expedient of having the three witches almost permanently on stage, gathered in the far corner of the archeological site, forever busy around their bucket, dissipated the pantomime quality that often besets productions of this play. These are not walk-on witches, turning up to deliver a disconnected prophecy and then disappearing — they’re beavering away in the background Macbeth-Rose-Witches-02-LRall the time, a brooding presence threatening to burst through into our world with every stir of the pot. The second, simple innovation is to have Lady Macbeth alone on stage, reading the letter by candle light, as her husband and Banquo encounter the weird women on the heath. Orla Jackson is outstanding, creating an intimate domestic scene right in front of us while far behind her, on the far shore of the archeological pool, there is talk of war and battle and victory and then of greatness to come.

The first words spoken, as a bell tolls, are by Lady Macbeth, but they are not her words (1.5.1):

“They met me in the day of success…”


Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth

She is reading her husband’s letter, inhabited for a moment by the thoughts of another, not unlike the supernatural phenomenon of possession, in which control is ceded to an “external” agent. While possession is fiction, fiction itself is very real: we are creatures constantly imagining the world as other than it is, and looking for ways to shape the world to the way we want it to be. What is represented in this play is that process in action — the process of turning thought into action, turning a dream into reality (a reality that turns out to be a nightmare), ambition into a crown. The insight of this production is to have Lady Macbeth front and centre from the start, the real agent propelling Macbeth forward, the witches something of a sideshow, perhaps symbols of the cognition of which we are dimly aware.

At the end of his “shoal of time” soliloquy, Macbeth declares (1.7.25–27):

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition…
Enter Lady Macbeth

For the first time, after seeing countless productions, I witnessed the truth of these lines enacted: Lady Macbeth is his spur, the embodiment of ambition. This can be worked out through literary reflection upon reading the text — after all, Duncan himself has just given us a clue when he refers to her as Macbeth’s “great love, sharp as his spur” (1.6.27) — but such desk-bound realizations pale next to enlightenment achieved in the semi-darkness of a cavernous space.

What helps this along is the rowdy offstage “wine and wassail”: most leading actors no doubt relish these great speeches and the opportunity to deliver them without distraction. Here, the reality of castle life in the aftermath of a military victory intrudes, and Benjamin Blyth (a tremendous Macbeth) is not only struggling against his own murderous thoughts but he’s had to extract himself from the noisy party to try and resolve his turbulent mind. And then in comes his wife, to bring an icy clarity.

Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth

Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth makes her first appearance in 1.5, but we’ve already seen her reflecting on the contents of the letter two scenes earlier. One of witches even alludes to her experience as a nobleman’s wife, left at home while he goes off to war (1.3.8):

“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone…”

The candle she holds uplights her face, and the witches too are uplit, casting shadows of their spell-weaving limbs on the rear wall, dark shapes moving and flickering like the black vapours rising from their cauldron. GBs as she finishes the letter, and speaks her own idea of the present merging into the future (1.5.10–13):

Glamis thou art, and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature:
It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way…

She blows out the candle, as she means to extinguish this kindness, and strengthen his resolve. In 1.7, she quickly proves herself an effective spur and with the phrase “live a coward” (45) seems to push him over the edge. He runs at her and grabs her by the throat (48–49):

Prithee, peace.
I dare do all that may become a man…

Benjamin Blyth Macbeth and Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth

Benjamin Blyth Macbeth and Orla Jackson as Lady Macbeth

Spousal violence does not “become a man” today (it was condoned in Shakespeare’s day, although even Petruchio, in the supposedly problematic Shrew, never strikes Kate), and we find such aggression intolerable. Lady Macbeth knows that her flinty purpose has sparked his dull stone into action, and she smiles. By the end of the scene he’s reassuring her (88):

I am settled…

Of course, he’s anything but “settled” in the sense of having an untroubled mind, and in the next scene he is pacing what could be the battlements of his castle (actually, the rear wall of the Rose) towards the witches, one of whom holds up a dagger (2.1.40–41):

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?

Macbeth-Rose-Dagger(In fact, the dagger is held with the blade towards his hand, so that he approaches it point first.) This speech is heralded by a single ting of a triangle, a subtle grace note reminding us that the great consequences that will flow from his actions originate in something as ephemeral and evanescent as a thought.

Robert Madely doubles as Banquo and a brilliantly leery, leching Porter, inviting us to answer his “Knock, knock” with “Who’s there?” (we cottoned on, eventually), and bulking his few lines into a music hall act. As well as plenty of lascivious actions to illustrate his chat, he switches from low to falsetto as he contrasts “persuades” with “disheartens” (2.3.24). There’s also a big contrast between the first booming “Anon” and the second, more laid back, “anon” (15).

Although Macbeth’s the one who’s been dashing around vanquishing traitors, consulting with witches, murdering kings, he’s been overshadowed so far by his wife — one of the remarkable achievements of this production. As he grows in stature and status, as he becomes king, he also begins to fray at the edges and we see him seeing himself as far from secure (3.1.51):

To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
Our fears in Banquo stick deep…

This soliloquy builds to a crescendo as he realizes that all his ambition will result in raising another lineage to the throne (68–73):

For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind:
For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered:
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man
To make them kings: the seed of Banquo kings.

We have here, writ large, Othello’s rage when he suspects Desdemona’s infidelity: for a man to labour only to have his male parental investment squandered on another man’s child is, for his genes, a total disaster. Macbeth’s adaptive emotions of jealousy and anger are fragments of a mental landscape that is already cracking up. He’s tipped over the edge during the banquet scene (3.4), when Banquo first appears on the rear wall, at some distance physically but already too close for Macbeth’s comfort. Lady Macbeth is holding it together as best she can, the hostess at a dinner party that’s rapidly turning into a scene from a horror movie. Through gritted teeth and with clenched fist she appeals to her husband (96–97):

My worthy lord,
Your noble friends do lack you.

Her brave face is faltering under the pressure. This is not what she had bargained for. GBs. The lords chip in (107):

Our duties and the pledge.

Macbeth, collapsing into a chair, spews blood into a white bowl and over the table. By “rugged Russian bear” (116) the ghost of Banquo has translated itself right there, in front of Macbeth, allowing him no escape, no respite. The lords disappear, and the king is reduced to a babbling, pitiful wreck (157–59):

I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

He’s whimpering like a baby, and Lady Macbeth mothers him, rubbing his head and back and showing an obscene tenderness. (This interpretation is supported by the final phrase: they are “young in deed.”)

The witches are joined by apparitions, one of whom warns him to beware Macduff (4.1.77). The red strip lights come on, wiring the whole space with their hellish glow. Macbeth wants to know one thing (108–11):

Yet my heart
Throbs to know one thing: tell me, if your art
Can tell so much, shall Banquo’s issue ever
Reign in this kingdom?

Macbeth-Rose-Witches-01The witches mime the killing of the Macduff women and children, the uplighting exaggerating their gestures by projecting long shadows on to the wall. Poor Macduff staggers under the weight of this news, and insists he must “feel it as a man” (4.3.255) before he takes action. David Knight as the stricken father and husband speaks softly, and is shaking with grief. He also asks, almost as a passing thought, (257–58):

Did heaven look on
And would not take their part?

It’s an awkward question for anyone who believes in a god who is all good, all knowing and all powerful (the problem of suffering).

There is a fine piece of rational thinking when the doctor, faced with Lady Macbeth’s unravelling, declares (5.1.24–25):

Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.

Contrast this with the fact that, as far as we know, not one of the witnesses of the many deeds and sayings of Jesus thought to do the same, so leaving Christianity to be founded on hearsay upon hearsay rather than any more credible sources.

This final scene for Lady Macbeth is superbly handled by Orla Jackson, whose cry on reaching the phrase “little hand” (38) turns into a silent scream. After the desperate actions, the frantic and yet oblivious glances about her, she resolves to go to bed and repeats the phrase (50):

To bed, to bed, to bed.

GBs. She is whispering by now, but the low volume signs off a compelling performance (although not for one guy in the front row, who was yawning and checking his watch at this point).

Macbeth hears the news of his wife’s death and reflects on fragility of life (5.5.24):

Life’s but a walking shadow…

The three witches are walking along below the rear wall, casting their own shadows, both literally and figuratively.

Macduff vanquishes Macbeth, and cries out from the far corner (5.7.98):

Hail, king…

Malcolm is on stage to receive the news of victory, creating a sense of the space of the battlefield that is not usually possible in most theatres.

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Fewer than six men

One of men looking for love in the online dating world lays down his criteria:

“I’m looking for someone who has slept with fewer than six men. Apologies if this seems harsh, but I need someone I can feel morally confident about.”

Stella Grey’s Mid-life ex-wife column has a positive title — “I’ve joined a new dating website – and things are looking up” — but in response to this particular individual she is ruthless:

Sometimes it’s OK to ignore people.

Most of us have come a long way from a world in which we looked to the Bible for moral guidance on how to conduct our sex lives, and even Christians no longer insist on biblical punishments for marriage violations (Deuteronomy 22:20–21). When was the last time a damsel was brought to the door of her father’s house and stoned to death with stones by the men of her city?

This bloke may not be insisting on “tokens of virginity” for his online damsel, but his demands do smack of a bygone era before feminism levelled the bed sheets for men and women.

However, there is another, evolutionary story here, and while Stella Grey is probably well-advised to ignore certain (most?) online men, she might benefit from understanding a little more about why men value chastity. The fewer sexual partners a woman has had (ideally, none), the more sure is the man of his paternity of her children.

Modern contraceptives make it easier for us to eliminate pregnancy from a sexual relationship, but such technology does little to eliminate the psychological mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years to cope with the consequences of pregnancy.

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Not about atheism

A third atheist blogger has been killed in Bangladesh after a knife attack, according to this report. Police say Ananta Bijoy Das was attacked in Sylhet city, months after fellow bloggers Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were murdered. Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death near his Dhaka home by knife-wielding attackers who believed he had defamed Islam through his writings on social media (see this report).

There is no doubt that an atheist, simply by being an atheist, defames Islam, since atheism holds that Islamic beliefs are false. Atheists, however, are not alone — they are joined by, for example, Christians and Jews, who also believe Islam to be false. The difference is, of course, the atheist has no god for anyone else to offend, and so is unlikely to take up a machete to impress her point of view on those who do not share her position.

Christianity contains much that is offensive to Jews and Muslims (Waugh 2002:191):

In the Christian religion there is only one god who has only one son — namely Jesus Christ — but this notion is blasphemy to the Jews and Muslims who accuse the Christians of worshipping more than one god, counting the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost… as three. … Islam is equally opposed to the Christian blasphemy: ‘It is not meet for God that he should have any son: God forbid!’

Waugh later comments (202):

To Jews and Muslims, however, the Trinity is not monotheistic, it reveals nothing about the true nature of God and is profoundly blasphemous.

If only religion would disappear, then all blasphemy and offence linked to belief in the gods would also be eliminated, and many fewer people would be hacked to death with machetes or beheaded (see ).

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The ones they caught were beheaded

In this edition of the Sunday programme (10.05.15), Dorian Jones reports from a refugee camp holding thousands of Yazidis who have fled Iraq and the Islamic State (which recently massacred 300 of them) to neighbouring Turkey. One of the refugees describes what happened:

Early in the evening we were celebrating a religious festival. Then people said there were cars surrounding a nearby village. We knew they were [Islamic State fighters] and they would be coming for us next. So many people died fighting them, they show no mercy because they see us as heretics. We had to flee. The ones they caught were beheaded — men, women, children.

We now consider the beheading of men, women and children to be especially brutal, but there was a time when we in Christendom would have been cheering on our own crusading knights (see the enthusiastic account of Comte Raymond d’Aguilers in A peculiar way of dealing with things).

The director of the camp acknowledges that the 4,000 Yazidis currently living there have a problem trusting Muslims:

Yazidis have been massacred over the centuries 74 times. Because of this, they don’t trust anyone, especially Muslims.

(See also 72 previous massacres — perhaps there’s been a couple more massacres since last year? In any case, whatever the precise number, we can be sure that not once have the Yazidis been massacred by secular humanists, and that most of the killing has been religiously inspired.)

It is this kind of story, where a religious community has been persecuted over and over again, by another religious community, which Christians in this country would do well to remember, especially if they feel inclined to complain about the supposed threat to the religious liberty of Christians in the West. This editorial makes it clear that such “claims of persecution are not just groundless but morally distasteful.” Compared to the monstrous persecution suffered by Christians or Yazidis or indeed atheists in Muslim countries like Iraq or secular countries like Bangladesh, “being asked to ice a cake for a gay wedding is hardly martyrdom.”

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A peculiar way of dealing with things

In this edition of the Sunday programme, ahead of the National Service of Thanksgiving to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day, Trevor Barnes hears from two veterans of Bomber Command — pilot George Dunn and bomb despatcher John Bell, both 92 — about their memories of the day. In the early part of the interview, Trevor Barnes avoids the phrase “Thank God” when referring to the war slowing down and the moment VE Day finally arrived:

Thank goodness that fighting and that danger were over…

George Dunn describes how he got used to comrades not coming back to the Nissan huts, after being shot down. Most were killed, and those who survived would likely be injured or end up as prisoners of war. John Bell expresses an understandable fatalism:

I’ve always thought that for each of us it’s written in the stars, somewhere, that that’s what our life will be, and whatever dangers we put ourselves in we either go through or we don’t. There’s nothing you can do to dictate otherwise. And so you have to have a faith in your own belief that you will survive and there is a strong force, which we call God or whatever, that I believe influences our lives.

George Dunn illustrates the problem of suffering:

If there is a God, up there, he’s got a peculiar way of dealing with some things. For example, my Canadian rear gunner, six weeks after we finished our tour, he died of diphtheria. How tragic is that? He goes through 30 operations, sitting in the rear turret… after all that, he’s dead within six weeks. Is there a God up there? Why, you might ask, did that man die?

Barnes asks:

Has that sort of experience dented your faith? Has it made you question what you believe?

Dunn replies:

No, it hasn’t dented my belief, because these things are written in the sky. If it’s your time, then that’s it, there’s nothing you can do about it… No, no, it hasn’t affected my beliefs at all.

Barnes asks Bell about his job despatching bombs:

JB. It did look like hell on the ground.

TB. Was there ever any conflict between the job you had to do… and the Christian faith that you had?

JB. There was never any conflict in my mind, no. If any war was a just war and totally necessary from a British point of view, this was a just war.

Many of us will agree that this was a war worth fighting, but will wonder what Jesus would do in such a situation? Would Jesus sit in that turret, pressing the bomb-release button and watching as men, women, children and animals were killed below?

It might seem unlikely, given the meek and mild image many Christians have painted of Jesus, but Alexander Waugh (2002:117) reminds us of the loophole in his interpretation of the sixth Commandment (Mat. 10:34):

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword…

This buccaneering spirit of Jesus has led to many of history’s religious blood baths, like the “justified” slaughter of 40,000 Muslims and Jews at Jerusalem in 1097. Waugh cites the example of “the bold Christian knight, Comte Raymond d’Aguilers”:

“We saw wonderful things. Some of our men cut off the heads of our enemies, others shot them with arrows so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. What more shall I tell? Not one of them was allowed to live. We did not spare the women or children. Our horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God.”

Perhaps Jesus would indeed be in that turret, blasting the enemy.

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