Thursday, August 31, 2006

And the Word Became Ink

Lou's comments on thinking about type-faces and God resonates with some work I'm currently doing on English translations of the Bible. As an aside I've been noting how different type-faces are employed to help communicate different things about faith, and how they implicitly say certain things about the theology of scripture.

Tyndale's 1536 New Testament (the first English Protestant New Testament) was radical in its down to earth translation ("Tush, ye shall not die!" says the Serpent to Eve) and for the first time introduced paragraphs for ease of reading. But it lacked chapter and verse numbers and was set in blackletter type face which still made it more difficult to read, somewhat undermining Tyndale's hopes of making the Bible accessible to plough-men.

By 1560 the Protestant Geneva Bible had added chapters and verses for the first time, and it reset the text in a Times font which made it much easier to read. They also added marginal notes. The Geneva Bible was a very accessible Bible study tool and during the English Civil war it was issued in a pocket book form and became known as the 'Soldier's Bible'.

ultimately its type face, its translation, and its notes proved too radical and so the 1611 King James Bible conservatively returned to blackletter types, cut out the notes, and toned down the translation. Here once again was a view of scripture as venerable religious object.

The use of different type faces to help nuance the meaning of the Bible is by no means a Reformation concept. Anglo-Saxon monks at Jarrow deliberately used newer Carolingian miniscule type faces to communicate something about their connection with the latest religious learning on the continent, in contrast to other Biblical texts in Anglo-Saxon England and in Ireland which were dependent on older Celtic script forms.

One could continue the comparisons in modern translations...

For the nerdy there's a great site here with lots of facsimiles for comparison.

And on the earlier use of type faces by the Anglo-Saxons there are some useful pointers on the Carolingian Miniscule Wikipedia entry.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Greenbelt Gems

Just back from Greenbelt and here are a couple of small gems I have come away with.

From Timothy Radcliffe's talk and book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?:

'A Christian sexual ethic must start from the last supper: "This is my Body given for you"' When we start with this, Christian sexual ethics is governed not by rules, but by issues of grace, reciprocal self-giving, vulnerability and covenant.

And a great quote from Seamus Heaney on joy:

We are made to share in God's happiness, which is not the same as 'the fixed smile of a pre-booked flight to paradise'.

And on morality: draw a small box, imagine in it are all the moral rules. Now draw beside it a much bigger box. The bigger box is freedom. God isn't really interested in the small box but in what they might enable us to create in the much larger box: 'For freedom Christ has set us free' (Galatians 5:1).

Desert Wisdom VI

While yet a child, Abba Ephrem had a dream and then a vision. A branch of vine came out of his tongue, grew bigger and filled everything under heaven. It was laden with beautiful fruit. All the birds of heaven came to eat of the fruit of the vine, and the more they ate, the more the fruit increased.
I don't know what Ephrem made of his dream. Later on he became a famous hymn-writer, so perhaps that is how he interpreted it: that from his lips would come forth choice hymns of praise...

When I read about the dream, I tend to think of much simpler things: about how the words we speak have an effect upon those who hear them.

Let me explain. I have a friend with a rare gift: she knows how to say 'thank you' when someone pays her a compliment. Usually I (perhaps you, too) tend to 'cut down' the 'tree' of praise from another's lips:

'That was really well done', says A.
'No, it's nothing really', replies B.

Not only has B lost the chance of receiving a (probably much needed) compliment, A has also been put down in the process. Perhaps A will go away and pay fewer compliments in the future...

If we are able to speak good things to others (and to keep on speaking them, even when they are chopped down as saplings), I am convinced that good nourishing fruit comes of it.

I know how much I have been fed by the good, generous, patient words of others; and I know too how I have been crushed by harsh, critical remarks.

One of the things 'salvation' means is that the seed of God's life takes root in a person and sprouts forth in goodness and life for others, in words (and actions) and not just in beliefs.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Desert Wisdom V

Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, 'Bring me some.' He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.
The desert fathers and mothers were often notoriously austere with their food. The unfortunately named 'Abba Arsenius' (accent on the -sen-!) was said to be able to survive on only a basket of bread a year.

Some have wondered whether such behaviour represented a form of anorexia caused by extreme hatred of the body. Indeed, many of the sayings of the desert hermits might lead us to think this.

And yet, as Christianity rightly understood celebrates bodily existence (after all Christians believe God chose to 'take on' a bodily existence as Jesus) such a treatment of the body could only be considered mistaken.

But could there be a more positive understanding of fasting in general? What value is there in the story Arsenius tasting a little bit of some of the ripe fruits and giving God thanks?

My own (small) experience of dietary austerity and, most useful of all, some time spent talking with a modern hermit, has lead me to wonder whether there might be a more positive way of seeing the fasting traditions.

To go without something, by choice and for a brief time, can be the avenue by which something taken for granted can become valued again. It is after all a truism that 'familiarity breeds contempt'.

Is that perhaps what Arsenius's little story tells us? While others might have taken for granted the plentiful harvest, did this desert-bound old man each year find the goodness of God in a few pieces of fruit?

As the global population for the first time now contains more obese persons than undernourished ones, I find myself wondering whether the human race now values the things that sustain it more - or less?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Desert Wisdom IV

Abba Anthony also said, 'Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will loose our interior watchfulness'.

Though none of us are solitary hermits (for which some of us may well thank God!), is there still anything we can learn from Anthony's strong warning against monks loitering outside their cells?!


I recall a time some years back when prayer and worship had become particularly arid. I had lost the 'intensity of inner peace' that Anthony talks about. And that was due, largely, to my rushing around.

I went to a spiritual director and told him about this, and he asked me a surprising question: 'What have you *really* enjoyed doing in the past couple of weeks?'

Rather guiltily, I responded that the most enjoyable thing I could remember doing was going to an Italian restaurant on my own, having a pizza and a large glass of white wine, and slowly eating it, whilst I watched the river pass by and the sun glint off it.

Just in the process of describing it again to my director brought back the intensity of the moment - its rejuvenating calm.

The spiritual director clapped his hands together with the glee of a doctor who has diagnosed his patient. 'Right,' he said. 'That's what you're to do once a week. Find something you really enjoy and treat yourself'.

I doubt any onlooker - or even Abba Anthony! - would consider my solitary lunches to be moments of prayer. But they became key moments when I slowed down, and reentered God's presence.

In a sense, those weekly meals became the 'cell' into which I retreated and where my 'intensity of inner peace' was restored.

It is a salutary lesson: rushing around in the busy world does gradually take its toll. We all need a 'cell' - a safe, quiet place to be with God. For each of us this will be a different place. Without time in God's presence we become like fish out of water.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Madonna's Blasphemy?

Last Sunday I was asked by Radio Berkshire to comment on Madonna's latest antics - appearing on stage hanging on a mirror-ball cross whilst wearing a crown of thorns. Apparently there was 'unanimous condemnation' by Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups.

I replied, much to the interviewer's surprise, that I wasn't particularly offended and that it was probably just another silly publicity stunt (which has succeeded again). But I did say that I would be rather curious to know what song it was that she sang whilst imitating Christ, as I wondered whether it would turn out to be something religious.

I learnt the details this morning that the song was her 80s track Live to Tell (lyrics here).

According to one report: "With silver cuffs holding her arms in place, Madonna sang while images of third-world poverty and numbers representing the 12 million children orphaned by AIDS in Africa ticked by on a screen."

I've always rather liked the track (ok it is a bit sentimental): its mysterious 'secret' which the singer hopes to communicate having had a prior 'fall', and which now 'burn[s] inside of me'.

'I know where beauty lives
I've seen it once, I know the warmth she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can't take that from me'.

I've no idea what Madonna originally intended but in true reader-response form, I'm quite happy to see this as an allusion to the work of the Spirit.

I've implicitly felt the song fits rather well with the idea of hanging on to the subversive message of Christianity, and coupled with the images she had projected whilst she sang it, I wonder if Madonna wasn't trying to say something similar...

Just to be a bit theological about it, the issue causing offence is apparently Madonna's blasphemy in abusing a divine image.

My response would be: shouldn't we be as (or, even, more) offended by the abuse of humankind, God's image-bearing creatures (Genesis 1:26)?

The news of an interfaith condemnation of Madonna's blasphemy might make some feel pleased, but I'm more concerned about faiths turning in on themselves thinking their purpose is to protect themselves from criticism.

I'd have thought that for Christians, God's 'Incarnation step' was a free giving of God's self into the world's hands, voluntarily risking abuse (even the ultimate blasphemy of the crucifixion), in order to achieve the renewal of the Earth. I wonder whether God really needs us to protect God? If Madonna's peculiar reimaging of Christ turns her fans into people who are affronted by poverty and AIDS, isn't that congruent with the work of the Spirit in the bringing about of the Kingdom of God?

If Christians really want to question Madonna's actions, perhaps they should openly ask what percentage of her record sales profits go to charity, or whether Madonna's stage-show depictions of poverty and AIDS are just compassion-chic window-dressing.

It's not the only religious element in her Confessions tour. For more details about Muslim and Jewish symbolism see here

Tour website here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Desert Wisdom III

Abba Anthony said, "Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother or sister, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother or sister, we have sinned again Christ."

I've just come back from the wonderful treat of four days on retreat. Anyone though who thinks that a retreat is about simply putting your feet up has got the wrong end of the stick!

When you find yourself stripped away of the distractions of work, family, friends and entertainment, the effect can be to make yourself pretty vulnerable.

After the fun of the new experience wore off I was left simply with myself, and I began to notice the sorts of thoughts and emotions that naturally arise.

I have to say it was quite shocking! Memories of past hurts and slights surfaced, old unfinished arguments reemerged. I even found myself rehearsing future conversations - what would be a knock-down comment? how can I win in that encounter?

Am I this kind of person? Yes, sadly I am. And it seemed that most of it stemmed from insecurity. It was a salutary experience.

On returning I resolved to keep a journal where I can try to honestly reflect at the end of each day what sorts of emotions and thoughts I have been carrying around, and then to offer them to God.

Abba Anthony here reminds me that I cannot 'ascend' to God without my neighbour. If I am often in the position of being in anxious rivalry with my neighbour (my fellow Christian, my family member, my colleague) then I have missed the point of the life of faith.

Quite simply I am called to ask God to help me to find healing in myself
and my relationships.

(PS the image on the book cover is of a 1992 sculpture called I It Am by Olivia Sanders. It perfectly images my experience of prayer - I'd love to see a full picture, or the real thing - has anyone ever seem it?)

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