Christmas and "The Children of Men"

By , 28 December 2007 7:40 pm

Well, I hope you all had a good Christmas. Ours was pretty uneventful. For the first time for 26 years we had just the two of us for Christmas Day lunch, and I’m almost afraid to confess that we thoroughly enjoyed the break. Mind you, I made up for it on Boxing Day, where I spent literally twelve hours at church, helping manage Swansea’s Chinese Christian Fellowship in their big Christmas celebration. It was very impressive: I think in the end, they had over 200 people there. Well done guys!

What else to report? My article on Pullman on the Speculative Faith website aroused the attention of a very earnest atheist who wrote a long response. Unfortunately, this sort of site is not ideally suited for this sort of thing and actually, I don’t think most of the readership are terribly interested in apologetics. Equally, as someone pointed out to me, I believe we haven’t really worked out a proper way of doing debates on the Internet. Certainly not on blogs. Anyway, this thing got more and more sprawling as every time I answered the point he would retaliate with a response of greater length. As I have a life to lead, I curtailed it rather hoping that someone else would weigh in. It was a pity actually as he came up with the usual rather feeble comments about Jesus at the end. You know the sort of thing: if anything in the Gospels is challenging and striking it’s borrowed from Judaism or made up by the early church. The problem with this sort of thing is that it fails to explain how the church got started in the first place, least of all on that pretty improbable claim that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.

Anyway, we got the DVD of the film Children of Men and watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth borrowing, although the language is pretty strong. I suppose you could describe it as the curious offspring of the high Anglican English novelist P. D. James and the Mexican ex-catholic Alfonso Cuarón, but actually it’s more a loose meditation by Cuarón on themes from James’s novel than an adaptation. It’s an compelling dystopic tale of a near future where childlessness prevails, although a very major (and added) theme in the film is immigration. There’s a lot of catholic imagery too. Perhaps the most impressive thing is the compelling look and feel of an England that has fallen very much to nasty pieces. The urban fighting scenes seemed to me to be excellently done; there was an authentic and visceral (in every sense of the word) feel of places like Civil War Beirut. The interesting thing is although the film ends on a positive note, it is very open ended. From the relevant Wikipedia article this seems to be deliberate. In other words, it is the sort of typical post-modern offering in which it is the viewer’s task to make sense of what is happening.

I would dearly like to know what P. D. James thought of it all. I think I shall have to insert a clause in my will that I do not allow my books to be creatively reinterpreted in this fashion. I’m afraid I am old-fashioned; I feel that in writing the text the way I did, I imposed my meaning on it at birth. I feel almost inclined to say ‘dear reader, if you want another version that tells another story, then go away and write a tale of your own’. I hope that doesn’t sound grumpy!

Happy New Year to one and all. And Alfonso Cuarón, don’t call me; I’ll call you.


A Christmas story

By , 21 December 2007 6:31 pm

I thought I would tell you a true story of the most memorable Christmas I ever had. Twenty five years ago exactly, we were living in Beirut in a very fine apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on the campus of the American University. Now, by way of background, you need to know that 1982 was the year the Israelis invaded Lebanon, pounded their way up to Beirut, besieged it and drove the PLO out. I was a helpless and rather scared bystander of the first part of that episode; it was horrendous (it is now generally admitted to have resulted in 17,000 plus deaths). It was also ultimately futile; the war was planned and a success, the subsequent peace unplanned and a failure. (Sound familiar?) Towards the end of the fighting, a thousand plus Palestinian civilians were massacred at Sabra and Chatila by “Christian” militiamen: to what extent the supervising Israeli army knew – or even approved of it – is debated. The upshot was that a horrified West sent in a peacekeeping force, a large component of which were US marines. By the end of ‘82 the peace was still holding, although fighting in the mountains was beginning as various parties tried to settle old scores. But that December, a quarter of century ago, US troops were still driving around the city without body armour and weapons.

Through the Southern Baptist church that we attended, we invited three US marines for Christmas lunch. They arrived at church in their battledress, took part in the service and then walked down with us through the protected greenery of the campus to where we lived. They were polite and reserved but glad to be away from barracks; we ate good food and talked of all sorts of things. In the afternoon, we walked around the campus; it was a dry, cool day and the sun shone on the snows of the mountains above Beirut. We came back for more food and we have a photo of our eldest, John – just eight months at the time – sitting on a Marine’s lap, all smiles, his head almost buried by a forage cap. At some point, we would have made the inevitable observation that if there wasn’t a heavily defended border in the way, we could have driven down to Bethlehem in a couple of hours. As night fell I prepared to take them back to their barracks and before they left they signed our visitor’s book. I have it before me now and their names were: Walter T. Kennedy of Duxbury, Mass, William H. Bowman of Marlow Heights, Maryland and Hector Colon of Vieqeus, Puerto Rico.

I drove them the five miles or so back along unlit, ruined roads and between wrecked buildings. On the way we passed Sabra and Chatila and the mass graves: we fell silent. Evil was about us and you could believe that in the dense shadows by the roadside, ghosts lurked. At the barracks – an ugly, four-storey building on the edge of the airport – we said farewell.

Yet if there were the ghosts of the past that day, there were also ghosts of the future. Almost exactly ten months later, on 23 0ctober, 1983, just after six on a quiet Sunday morning, a driver with a truck full of explosives drove into those Marine barracks and detonated a massive amount of explosives (5,400 kg of TNT; “the largest non-nuclear blast ever detonated on the face of the earth” ). 240 Marines were killed as the building was instantly turned to rubble. The blast woke me; a second blast, minutes later, that hit the French contingent, kept me awake. Looking at the list of the killed years later on the web I found that none of our guests had been slain; presumably their tour of duty was long over and they had been rotated out.

Now this point I hear the protests. Chris, you promised us a Christmas story. This is not one. It is awkward, it is troubling and doesn’t have the happy glow, the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire factor that we like. No, it doesn’t. But let me turn this round: who said that this sort of Christmas – the one promoted by Dickens, Hollywood and a billion Christmas cards – is authentic? Haven’t we created – and connived in – (for all for the best reasons, of course) something that goes against the Christmas story? Read the biblical narrative again; isn’t it all set in dark times? Do you see much cosiness in the stable? Much seasonal joy In Herod? (He would have understood Sabra and Chatila!). Have we erased the greedy brutality of the Roman occupation? What has happened to the warning of Simeon in Luke 2: 35 “And a sword will pierce your own soul too”?

Isn’t Christmas all about God intervening in a thoroughly messed up and horrid world? Isn’t celebrating Christmas itself a declaration of faith – sometimes proclaimed in darkness – that despite the reign of evil, good wins in the end. In fact, and here’s a theologically worded thought: have we gutted Christmas by taking eschatology out of it? Doesn’t the mess that is this sad world only make sense in the light, not just of the first coming of Christ, but the Second?

Anyway, whether at peace or war, have the best of Christmases.


Philip Pullman: an odd letter

By , 14 December 2007 4:37 pm

Using similar methods to those alluded to by C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters I have recovered the following recent letter from a senior devil to his nephew.

My dear Sneerpate,

Rumour has reached me that you are delighted that your patient’s son has started to read Philip Pullman and is going to see the film the Golden Compass. I am appalled at your enthusiasm. I see this as yet another indicator of the declining standards of the Tempters College. I suppose it is inevitable that, after generations of persuading humans that idiocy is a desirable state of mind – with some startling results – junior tempters are stupid themselves.

Do you really believe that these books or this film will ensure this child stays out of the Enemy’s hands? Oh, I can hear your pathetic answer, “Please Uncle Gnawbone, in the last book God is killed off.” And so he is. But do you really think that even the most naïve human child would recognise in that feeble caricature the dreadful reality about whom we can barely think without terror?

However, that is not the real issue. That is simply this; what is the price we pay for them to be tempted by such works? Oh yes, ’god’ is cast down, but those who read these books are expected to put their faith in all manner of things that human scepticism or what is called ‘rationality’ denies: magic, daemons, witches, wizards! You see what you are encouraging? Far from leading this child into the barren deserts of atheism with its insistence that the only things that exist are those that can be seen and felt, you are running the risk that this boy will develop a hunger for fantasy. Do you really not understand the danger? He may acquire a hunger for the supernatural, a longing for that which his everyday world will never provide. Fantasie is a perilous land for us. In those realms, it is all too easy for the Enemy to appear. Weren’t you strictly instructed that the safest route to the flames of our Father’s house is that wide, well populated path that shuns any hint of magic? Indeed so perilous is fantasy even when it is marketed as ‘atheistic’ that there are those amongst us who suggest that under all his many words (how these humans talk!) this Pullman is in fact an agent of the Enemy.

No, Sneerpate, keep the child from all fantasy. Indeed, better still, from reading. The Internet, with its encouragement of disorganised and incoherent knowledge and its promise of instant gratification of every whim is far, far safer. If the child must read, then let it be magazines or catalogues. A healthy taste in materialism can’t be started too early.

Your affectionate uncle


The teddy bear affair

By , 7 December 2007 10:06 pm

I said I would comment on the case of the lady teacher in Sudan who unfortunately let her pupils call a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. Although the affair has apparently now blown over some points seem worth making. While there was a lot about it in the British press, it seemed to me that most comments missed the mark.

Anyway, as someone who has taught in this sort of culture for eight years (some time l must tell you about the unfortunate incident to do with Thomas Aquinas) let me give you my take on it. Obviously, there was a lot of politics involved, no doubt related to the appalling business of Darfur where the government of Khartoum must take the lot of the blame. But then politicking is pretty much standard in this region. I think there are three things that are worth considering.

Firstly there is the issue of shame and honour. As in almost every part of the Islamic world, life in Sudan revolves around honour. From my experience in Lebanon and elsewhere, most people spend most of their time trying to gain honour and avoid shame. Honour ranks above fortune and pleasure and to bring honour on one’s family is perhaps the greatest good that you can do. Shame must be avoided at all costs. There is a famous story from the Lebanese Civil War of a journalist interviewing a sniper who was being paid to kill people from another community on a per-body basis. The journalist asked him, ‘How does your boss know that you have really killed the number of people that you claim you have?’ The sniper turned furiously on the journalist. ‘Are you saying that I might not be an honourable man?’ Incidentally if you think this is bizarre, you need to read the gospels again. So many of the issues there revolve around matters of honour: the ‘shame of the cross’ is a real matter. Anyway, my first point is that the issue was not really that of blasphemy but bringing dishonour on the name of Mohammed.

A second issue is that animals have a much lower value in this part of the world. It is a pretty deadly thing to suggest in the Arab world that anybody is like an animal: they don’t do the cuddly creature thing. So to say that he is ‘a mule’ or she is ‘a kitten’ is asking for trouble. Here incidentally, it may be us rather than them that are odd; the British in particular, seem to rate animals above humans.

The third issue – and here I have to choose my words delicately – is that there is a real concern over the status of Mohammed. Islam prides itself on being a later – and better – revelation than Christianity. Linked with that but rarely expressed is the need that their prophet be on at least equal terms with the Christian’s Jesus. And here there is a problem. It has been pointed out by many people that if all that had to be done was to rate Mohammed against many of the Old Testament’s kings of Israel then he could indeed be accorded a place of honour. But he must be rated against the character, teaching and works of Jesus of Nazareth and compared to him, who can stand? The result is, I think, that there is almost a collective inferiority complex. And that makes matters sensitive.

So my take on the whole matter is that putting aside the evident politicking involved this was something of a perfect storm. Three things came together: the failure to recognize the high value of honour; the assumption that everybody thinks bears are cuddly; and the perpetual unease about the status of Mohammed.

Finally, there is a relevant comment to be made here about the role of fantasy. One of the key points of fantasy is that it forces us to engage with very different cultures and the values. As such it is an excellent preparation for being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes; something that didn’t happen here. Don’t believe me about fantasy? Well, if you try and explain the concept of living by honour to people of a particular age and background you all too frequently hear them say, ‘So it’s a little bit like the Klingons?’ I suppose so.

Have a good week.

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