Lewis, the Magic Flute and being logical

By , 26 April 2008 8:33 am

I have a really bright student of strongly mathematical bent and enquiring mind who is currently reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Yesterday he protested with some force that he found Lewis illogical in places. It was not the time or place for a defence so I let it pass but I found it an interesting comment. Personally though I have always found Lewis to be highly logical, but I am neither a good mathematician nor a logician. We had one other brief comment on the matter but I will save that till later.

Now the reason I didn’t post last night was that we went to the opera. It was Mozart’s The Magic Flute done by the Welsh National Opera from whom I have borrowed the image. Now if you know anything about the Magic Flute you know it’s got some strong points: some great tunes, some awesome soprano bits and it all ends happily. It is also something of a problem opera. The plot revolves around the Masons of Mozart’s day and their rituals, and we have such mysterious elements as dragons, bird catchers, three boys, a Queen of the Night and an order of priests. It’s all very Masonic, full of ritual and symbolic elements and it swings between rustic comedy and high drama. The performance by WNO seemed to catch the bizarre atmosphere well with sets that made a blatant nod to the surrealist art of René Magritte. There is also a lot of talking but thankfully in this performance it was in English. I’m still not at all sure what was going on (and I gather no one really knows anyway) but it was great art and made you feel good about life.

Now the interesting thing is that of course it fails at every level the tests of logic and rationality. Any supercomputer would be driven mad trying to analyse what was going on. Why were the priests of the Order dressed in orange? (Was it merely a bad pun ‘the Orange Order’?) Who are the three boys? And what about the lobster? Yet it was not meaningless or pointless. Indeed you could say of the ending of the opera that it achieved what art is supposed to do but rarely does: it was moving.

My student made a second comment later in a gap in the teaching. I forget the exact words but it was a question as to whether I considered logic to be the ultimate test of truth. My fumbled answer was that to try to do that involved a circular fallacy: you could never logically prove that logic was the ultimate criterion because to do it you would have to use logic. I quoted Pascal at him (actually I misquoted but he got the sense). ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’ I think The Magic Flute – and a million other things – demonstrates that.

Designed to inspire. Or not?

By , 18 April 2008 6:46 pm

OK guys here’s a puzzle for you. I have taken this from the advertising blurb of an organisation which I am here dignifying with three letters: XXX. What’s it about?

“The XXX vision will be achieved through XXX’s Mission statement:

  • To provide a spirited visitor experience through a range of high quality facilities and activities in beautiful surroundings.
  • To deliver this experience through exceptional service provided by a highly motivated and welcoming team.
  • To exceed our guests [sic] expectations, provide them with inspired memories and to ensure that they leave us having refreshed their inner selves.”

To put you out of your misery it is not a church but a countryside residential complex in the countryside about an hour’s drive from here. The fourth mission statement objective does talk about enjoying the local environment. Here’s an image….

I have three observations to make. The first is that linguistically it is all pretty desperate; what on earth is a ‘spirited visitor experience’? What are ‘inspired memories’? What are ‘our inner selves?’ An entire herd of clichés seem to be running free and wild here. The impression you get is that the words are just piled up one upon another; their meaning is actually irrelevant. All they wanted was some phrases that sound good. I feel that something awesomely vital has been lost here: and that is the concept of words as sense. What we have here is nothing more than a mantra to be repeated until something – numbness? Enlightenment? Who knows what? dawns on us. The curse of Babel was that men lost their unity of language; is the curse now renewed so that language itself is lost? Maybe Armageddon is closer than I thought.

Secondly, it is fascinating to see how spiritual the language is. This is a countryside experience not a worship conference or religious retreat. There are several ways of looking at this but perhaps the most profitable is to say that religious experiences are now fair hunting ground for advertising men and women. In the theological void of contemporary British life, the language of the sacred is hijacked to try to make the mundane sacred. God is dead, but let’s try and make Nature/experience/the project divine.

The third point is how close the XXX mission statement is to what some churches say of themselves. We have come perilously close to aping the world here. I am preaching on Sunday morning on the third of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation that to Pergamon. The issue there was that there were a group of Christians who were going along to idol feasts and either literally (or metaphorically) engaging in adultery. Now when I do a sermon I tend to do a bit of a web trawl for other sermons on the same passage to see if I have missed anything. What is interesting here is that most preachers seem to major on the heady combination of illicit food and sex. Yet that does not seem to be the most pressing issue today; I am not aware that many western towns have a Balaam’s Bordello (with special discount rates for church members). I think we have missed the point: behind the sneaking away to idol feasts and worse, was the sorry but understandable desire to be just like everybody else. We need to resist this temptation in whatever form it comes to us: the church needs to be the Church. In terms of language, we need to set out what we are clearly and plainly and avoid this sort of touchy-feely inspirational verbiage. It is the height of irony that when the world starts adopting ‘spiritual’ language it is probably time for us to stop using it.

Have blessed, inspired and spirited week and may your inner selves be renewed. Err, whatever.

Symbolism, nature and conservation

By , 11 April 2008 7:02 pm

I barely remember my grandfather on my mother’s side; he must have died 50 years ago. He had fought in the First World War, been gassed and did not enjoy good health: he succumbed to a heart attack in his 60s. But he was a keen gardener and his extensive garden, increasingly less well-tended by my grandmother, long outlasted him. What I do remember is a cheap stone plaque in the garden, the words of which are still clear in my mind although I cannot have seen it for 30 years: ‘The kiss of sun for pardon, The song of birds for mirth, One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’

‘One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’ The line came to mind as I looked over Boaz’ comment of last week. It’s an interesting question: to what extent does the natural (or in this case the cultivated) world display or reveal God? I know enough theology to know that it is a vexed and complex issue to do with what is called natural theology. The key text is Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18-20. Let me remind you of it “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

As a good Baptist and a child of the Reformation I am wary of the symbolic. We are told plainly that God speaks in a saving manner only through his word and I would not want to dissent from that. The downside of this rule, if applied strictly, is that neither nature nor aesthetics has any real value. In Welsh nonconformity the practical working out of this can be seen in the chapels. For the most part these are functional buildings with very little to commend them in architectural terms. If you are lucky you may get a blue painted ceiling or some slight ornamentation on the pillars of the interior but otherwise they are self-consciously spartan affairs. All too often one’s first view of them is of some hard monolith looming up desolate against a grey moist sky. Anglicans, and others, at least have the benediction of stained glass in their churches.

Although I could quite easily trample theologically over my grandfather’s mantra about God being in nature, I will not do so. I think there is a faint but important vestige of truth in it: there is something about the natural world that speaks of God. I think the reason is this: all things, statues, music, books and yes, worlds, reveal something of their creator. The natural world does in some (undoubtedly limited) measure speak of the one who made it. After all what is the alternative? The city? That most certainly speaks of its maker: mankind. Skyscraper after skyscraper, mall after mall proclaims the boastful status of the human race: ‘behold what I have made’. Nature is a healthy counterbalance to the blasphemous man-centred atheism of the urban world.

As wiser people have said, the natural world acts as something of a mirror of God. If we stare at it and ponder it we see something of the one who made it. Oh we need a lot more – an awful lot more – to save us but it’s a first step. This, of course, is a reason why the natural world should be preserved. We may not, as some do, worship nature as God but in seeing it as an image of God we find it no less valuable.

Rock and Revelation

By , 4 April 2008 7:10 pm

I seem to have been involved quite a lot with images this week. My new Dell came with Photoshop Elements on it and I have been playing with that, and briefly we had a glimpse of summer yesterday, which always makes me think of taking photographs. The temperature rose 10º to a magnificent 17º yesterday before plummeting back down to 8º today. Groan!

I have also been busy finishing the last of my PowerPoint sets with accompanying handouts for my courses. So I spent many hours browsing the web for suitable images and importing them, or in some cases, making my own. I have a section on volcanic and earthquake hazards to cover with my geography students and there’s some really good imagery of squashed buildings and buried towns for them to gawp at. A key case study is Montserrat in the Caribbean where the southern half of the island has been an exclusion zone for 10 years due to the risk of pyroclastic flows. For the uninitiated: they are high-temperature aerosols of molten rock droplets travelling at up to 100 miles an hour that kill you with external and (shudder) internal burns. Anyway I couldn’t resist a little bit of Photoshop-ing to brighten things up and keep the children awake.

I am also down to preach this Sunday morning on Revelation chapter 2; the letter to the church in Ephesus. And anyone preaching on Revelation has to come to terms with the imagery. The odd thing about this: it is imagery that you really shouldn’t try and imagine. To paraphrase a wise commentator, it is symbolic rather than descriptive. The illustration they used, which I thought was very helpful, is the symbol of the skull and cross bones, which (unless we are sailing the Caribbean) is normally seen on bottles of weedkiller and disinfectant. It does not signify that there is a skeleton inside and to have a stubborn realism that thought there was one would be utterly silly. Instead, it refers to something more abstract, and in fact, impossible to visualise: the danger of death. The point is that the imagery in Revelation is of a similar sort. The last thing that you ought to try and do is actually think of what is mentioned in pictorial terms; instead you need always to ask ‘what does this signify?’ I suspect this is linked with that specific mention that Revelation is a book to be read aloud and heard: there are blessings promised for the hearers.

But this raises a question. We seem to be shifting from a verbal/oral culture to a one in which the visual seems to reign supreme. Will one result of this be a greater difficulty with the symbolic language? Oddly enough, what reassures me is the genre of rock videos, about which I know almost nothing. The glimpses I have seen though suggest that here, at least, the symbolic is alive and well. Revelation as rock video? Hmm, there’s a thought.

Have a good week.

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