Friday, 13 March 2009

Some news about the Riprap Poetry Collective

One of the bands I play in is called Riprap and we have an interesting gig coming up on Saturday June 27th with the poet Ruth Padel. It is at the Fourth Annual T S ELIOT FESTIVAL at Little Gidding.

We've also got some new live MP3 tracks up HERE including a couple with the poet Grevel Lindop.

Just in case anyone out there is vaguely interested. It's probably a lot more interesting than most of the usual content of this blog . . .

Hang loose out there.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Nature's gifts are simple . . . the simple pleasures of friends stretched out on a grassy knoll (De Rerum Natura, Bk. 2)

This week I want to begin with two observations. The first is the round of continuing bad news on the financial front. I mention it because I don't think any of us can get away from it. Not to speak of it would be, not so much like avoiding the elephant in the room, but the herd of elephants trashing the room. I know it is preying on the minds of many of us and getting a lot of us down and this means, I think, that how we might respond to it continues to be worth addressing in this religious context.

Which point brings me to my second observation, namely the coming of Spring. The flowers and blossom are coming out and are a wonderful boost to morale and our general sense of well-being. Today I'm going to suggest that a certain kind of practical meditation on Nature is going to be hugely helpful to us.

But, especially in liberal religious circles, there is a very danger in pointing to Spring and the natural world for 'help' and inspiration because, even when it sounds lovely and appealing, it can easily turn out to be no more than a mere whistling in the wind. Many liberal sermons on Nature are no more than a turning aside from the major and problematic issues of the day to a purely romantic ideal. Religion becomes merely hedonistic flower-sniffing and far from a coherent, practical philosophy. I think I have told you the story of a profoundly frustrating meeting I had to attend at which was being discussed a new collection of prayers and meditations which contained a lot (and I mean a lot) of nature poetry and natural imagery. The convenor - an insightful and gentle man by the name of Dr Beverly Littlepage - finally lost his patience in this sea of flowers and assorted greenery and uttered out loud, "Look, we've counted all the daffodils now, so can we do something more useful instead."

So yes, let us by all means look at the natural world (something Jesus constantly encouraged us to do even though his conclusions about what this showed were, in significant respects, almost certainly radically different from those I think it shows) but this looking must go on to say something or better still, show something, substantive that is more than merely a temporary calming response to our troubles. Epicurus sets us off in the right direction in one of his preserved sayings, no.12:

It is impossible for someone ignorant about the nature of the universe but still suspicious about the subjects of the myths to dissolve his feelings of fear about the most important matters. So it is impossible to receive unmixed pleasures without knowing natural science.

This is not to say anything hopelessly hubristic but, as I noted a few weeks ago it is, in the modern context (i.e. not Epicurus' Greece), to say that although our study of nature does not tell us precisely what she is, when pressed tenaciously enough, she does sometimes tell us clearly what she is not. What she has told us she is not allows us to suggest that Epicurus' practical four-part cure remains a good practical model we can still follow, namely, that studying Nature we can see that we neither need to fear God/the gods nor death; that the necessary goods of life are easy to obtain; and that the evils of life are easy to endure. These four things being played out, of course, against the background of his three goods which are to do this in the company of friends, whilst developing a certain kind of self-sufficiency and to live an analysed life.

It is against this backdrop that I now offer you, as an antidote to the gloom and doom of the times, a lovely and practical thing you can do. It is taken from Lucretius' glorious poem De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) which is a poetical exposition of Epicurus' philosophy:

We all know that the body's needs are modest and few: it wants not to suffer pain and it likes things that feel good. Nature's gifts are simple. She does not care for fancy decorations, gilded torcheres in the shape of human arms that light long corridors that lead to grand salons where nightly revels take place. She does not delight in elaborate gewgaws, garnitures of silver and gold, or panelled crossbeams overhead that resound from the plucked strings of the lyre. She has no need to improve on the simple pleasures of friends stretched out on a grassy knoll beneath the arching branches of living trees near water purling in some brook. What riches can equal that? Let it be spring when the weather is perfect and flowers bloom, punctuating the meadow with various colours. The body's aches and fevers flee no quicker on purple couches in tapestried chambers than under a poor man's ragged blanket.
Bk II line, 220ff - trans. David R. Slavitt

Epicurus and Lucretius are suggesting (and I agree with them) that the plain truth of the matter is that all the deepest and most real pleasures and delights we can have as human beings are available to us only when we consciously gather amongst friends who, after a long reflection on the workings of natural world, become ever more happy and secure in their sense of absolute belonging to the natural world and who begin to delight in all its workings - come rain or shine. It should be clear that is as true in times of economic growth (even when it was as distorted as were the last twenty years) as it is in times of very serious contraction. The cure is always available in the world, through the world.

But one of the traditional responses religion makes in troubled times is to point to a supposed world beyond the natural and physical - to that which is meta-natural, i.e. meta-physical. I may once have been able (or thought I was able) to do something along these lines but, after long reflection I realise I cannot any longer so I will leave such speculations to you as individuals. But what I can do is call us back into this life - whatever its difficulties - and to say clearly that we must work our hardest at making it as good as it can be. This isn't to say that there is only a miserable grinding away to be had but rather it is to say that we must learn to enjoy again properly to enjoy the transient pleasures of life as they present themselves and to enjoy them with care, attention, gentleness and respect for other's enjoyment and the long-term health of our planet.

It is a call to come back to the earth and this means going out into Nature and, in a disciplined way becoming ever more deeply mindful of it as it presents itself to us and then to take time to interpret our place within it. Today I'm suggesting that, over the next few weeks, you take time to lie down on a grassy knoll somewhere with a friend (whether husband or wife, lover or purely platonic friend), say by the river at Grantchester, and to converse with each other about the truth that there is nothing better or more pleasurable in the world than this.

But remember this is not an merely an asinine suggestion just to go out into Nature and have a nice day. I'm saying that when you do it with the right attitude the answer to the problem of life is to be found in this contemplation and one's fear of myths (whether of religion or a certain kind of economics) disappears and the possibility of true pleasure returns.

Friday, 6 March 2009

. . . action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.

Back in the late 1980s and early 90s I was teaching music at Hollesley Bay Young Offenders Institution (a youth prison on the East coast) and I had a couple of students who were inside for credit card fraud. They had nicked a few post bags, trawled through them to find cards in the post, and then they used them on a few transactions. Wrong, yes; illegal, yes; worthy of a prison sentence, probably yes. In cash terms the sum total of their criminal activity was, perhaps, a few thousand pounds.

During that time the Guinness share trading fraud case had taken place and was, off and on until 1991, headline news. For those of you who cannot remember the case it was a major attempt to manipulate the stock-market in order to inflate the price of Guinness shares which the defendants, Ernest Saunders, Sir Jack Lyons, Anthony Parnes and Gerald Ronson, hoped would help them succeed in a £2.7 billion take-over bid for the Scottish drinks company Distillers. Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness CEO, had just received a prison sentence of 5 years which, on appeal, had been halved. The two young lads I was teaching got the same sentence which, on appeal was not halved. Not surprisingly they felt that justice was not being done and they were angry.

I particularly remember this moment because this was the first time I had been in the direct angry presence of something that looked and felt like an injustice. It made me very uncomfortable because I lived a comfortable existence in which such things didn't happen – or I believed they didn't happen. Or rather, if they did occur (God-forbid), I thought they would be dealt with by good and just people using the good and just laws that I had been taught underpinned my world. Though I was disturbed by my encounter I eventually let my discomfort dissipate because I trusted that somehow 'things would come out right in the end.' I just got on teaching my lads how to play Eric Clapton songs (a fave of the day) and to write love songs to their girlfriends (socially still one of my most useful endeavours).

I hadn't thought about this incident for years but this week it came back to the forefront of my thinking because the discomfort I felt then I'm beginning to feel again and for similar reasons – Sir Fred Goodwin . . . However, this time there is a singular difference because I'm not experiencing the angry presence of an injustice in the closed minority context of a prison amongst people who are clearly criminal (clearly to a certain way of thinking that is) but amongst everyday folk in the everyday world, people on the street, in restaurants, in jazz clubs and in bands (just last night in fact) and, of course, in this congregation. In me! Another singular difference is that the context in which I am encountering this feeling is largely middle-class and well-educated; in other words I'm feeling it amongst people who do not normally get so riled and angry; we don't because we have grown up in a context where we assume that such injustices will be dealt with by those we elect or by those whom we have supposed are responsible leaders in their fields of endeavour – bankers for example. We assume that the laws of the land and the inherent honesty of people in authority will be used to help us address our problems – an attitude which believes that, somehow in the great British scheme of things, everything is, or can be dealt with, by the present structures and people in authority. But these same structures and people are appearing increasingly powerless to see that justice is done.

Ongoing events seem to be suggesting to me that perhaps I shouldn't be so sure about the ability of our present structures and people to deal with matters without my, our, more direct sustained personal intervention.

For the truth is that, today, we are all facing a revelation that in our ordered society there have been committed some very serious injustices and, though we would love to believe it will all be sorted out by unnamed third parties and extant external laws that don't require us to give our own blood, sweat and tears, we need to realise that this has never been the case even at the times we thought it was the case. A functioning, just society capable of tackling its own problems, let alone those of the wider world, requires us as individuals to engage with it fully. Clever talk and analysis (my speciality) is not enough and it is no longer setting my heart and mind at rest. I am powerfully minded of the words of one of my heroes, Gerrard Winstanley, in his 1649 Watch-Word to the City of London and the Armie – that his mind was not at rest "because nothing was acted, and thoughts ran into me, that words and writings were nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing." Which point brings this address its practical conclusion.

For all its diversity of belief about the nature of God/Divine and the nature of the world, for all its openness to philosophies other than the straightforwardly Christian, we are a church that bases its way of being in the world upon the life and example of the man Jesus. Institutional Christianity's big mistake – in nearly all its forms including our own – was to concentrate too much upon metaphysical theories and, as the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan has noted it has produced innumerable theological “Christs” that “mute, mitigate, or manage” the in-the-dust-and-dirt-and-blood program of the historical man Jesus who saw the dreadful injustices of his own age and realised that “words and writings were nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing."

After all his painstaking historical work to try to reveal what he thought was the best possible picture of the historical Jesus, Crossan came to believe that Jesus never wanted a person's admiration, or even agreement; instead he wanted their obedience to his vision of a just world, an ideal that he summed up in the phrase 'the kingdom of Heaven'. In the light of this realisation Crossan imagined a conversation between himself and Jesus. It runs as follows:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic,” Jesus begins, “and it’s quite good. So you’re now ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?” “I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?” “Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suite your own incapacity. That at least is something.” “Is it enough, Jesus?” “No, Dominic, it is not.”

The times were are living in are a sharp reminder to us that it has never has been enough simply to analyse the issues of our day and to let the extant laws of our land bumble on without our active engagement leaving all things to those whose self-interest trumps all other cards.
Here is an example of some relevant practical advice as to what we should be doing today that begins to be revealed when you pull Jesus' teaching out of the Christian theological sphere and into the practical and historical.

In Luke (18:2-8) we read:

[Jesus] said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'"

But Luke doesn't want to leave it there and he goes on to make an unprovable and, to my mind unhelpful, theological point. As Crossan notes Luke wants to advocate to us unremitting prayer to God in such situations but this is to pull the story out of the real world with injustices that need to be faced down and to retreat into an ideal world. Here is how the story goes on:

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

But Jesus' story comes to witty and practical life when you let it stand alone. Here is Crossan's rendition (Saying 92):

A widow with no shame confronted a judge with no conscience. Time and again she pleaded vindication before him. He finally gave in because, even if ethics did not bother him, she did.

Times are displaying that we have people in powerful positions with no conscience who, for what ever reasons, do not grasp or have not been taught about ethics. Like the widow we should begin to bother our leaders endlessly and shamelessly. If we don't, who will? As Winstanley said: "Action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing."