Man walks into a column, no.30: Links

As my Mum might say at some point in the future: if you haven’t got anything in particular to blog about, don’t bother. And so it’s with that in mind I must admit, to my shame, that I don’t have a topic for this week’s post, and am thus forced to play my ‘joker’ and make do with a bunch of links to things I’ve been reading (or in one case watching). Which all just happen to be about God. The fact I’ve managed twenty nine weekly posts in 2011 without doing so should, I feel, be counted in my favour. Although actually this one is a day overdue; I don’t expect anyone’s noticed. Until now. Doh!

We begin with an article in the FT on Friday – the latest in the paper’s ‘British institutions’ series – about the Church of England. Matthew Engel reports that at the July meeting of the General Synod, in York, women and gays were temporarily off the agenda and the focus instead was on what to do about falling church attendance.

The problem, it turns out, is that we’re simply not as scared of Hell as we once were, or of the wrath of a vengeful God. As one lay member of the Archbishop’s Council remarks: ‘There are very few Anglicans who believe that God zaps planet Earth when there are a few too many gay orgies.’ A particular relief for the 20 or 25 per cent of the clergy who are themselves gay (that is at least if you believe the guesstimate of Stephen Bates, author of A Church At War).

On a related note, I’m still ploughing through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s marvellous but massive A History Of Christianity and offer you this nugget: there is, believe it or not, one nation state in the world with an exclusively male population. It is Mount Athos, a World Heritage Site and self-governed state in Macedonia, Greece, comprising twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries where the brothers feel so strongly that the presence of women would be a threat to their celibacy that they simply keep them out. They also still keep to the Julian calendar. Those crazy guys (gays?).

For those of you who suspect I am actually in the closet myself, and harbour (whisper it) Christian leanings, the fact that I spent Sunday afternoon at the National Theatre watching an Ibsen play about Fourth Century theology will be grist to your mill. It was Emperor and Galilean – picked almost at random from the London listings when my wife and I realised we hadn’t been to the theatre in a disgracefully lengthy period of time (as a friend remarked: ‘what, and had Blood Brothers sold out?’).

We entered the cool, dark space of the Olivier Theatre having um-ed and ah-ed about whether to waste the money already spent on tickets and give it a miss, so glorious was the weekend weather, but instead girded our loins and made the trip along a baking South Bank crammed full of sunburnt tourists and men playing Mariachi music.

The play was splendid to watch, with the theatre’s massive revolving drum alternately rotating, rising and falling to reveal dank cellars in Ephesus, poky churches in Antioch and battlefields in Persia. The focus is on a young man called Julian, nephew to the Emperor Constantius, and his burgeoning desire to throw off the restrictive shackles of Christianity in favour of ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’. When Constantius dies and Julian takes the throne, however, we see how dogmatic adherence to a singular vision of the ‘truth’ quickly leads to persecution and carnage.

The principal cast were excellent, although I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience who found it hard to listen to Ian McDiarmid as the mystical Maximus, who cajoles Julian away from Christ towards paganism, without expecting the next line to be ‘As you can see, my young apprentice, your friends have failed. Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station!’ – with a voice like that, what happens when this man asks for a pint at the bar, I wonder?

The problem, if there is one, is with the play itself, which seems rather self-contradictory. As Michael Billington writes in the Guardian: as much as Ibsen is trying to articulate the need for a new way of living, one free from the ‘doctrines of guilt and misery and denial’ (i.e. Christianity), the heroes of the piece are very clearly Julian’s close friends who, despite the newly crowned Emperor violently (in one case very violently) turning against them, maintain their goodness and their faith in Christ the Galilean. But maybe the message is simply that power corrupts: after all it’s not Julian’s rejection of Christianity that causes him to do bad things, it’s the supreme power he acquires that facilitates them.

So, that’s it blog-fans. Until next week. By which I mean probably tomorrow – I need to get back on track, after all. Do feel free to nominate a topic for me to write about.


Man walks into a column, no.21: Rapture

In celebration of our not having been scorched from this earth, I thought I’d use this week’s post to highlight that when it comes to bizarre practices carried out in the name of religion, the history books take a lot of beating. Where, I wonder, will Harold Camping’s prophecies of doom and cult of loony (and rather sad) followers rank in the all time top ten?

To set the benchmark, I give you this from the endlessly enthralling A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch (and yes, I’ve blogged about this book before. Frankly, there’s enough to keep me blogging about nothing else for months). Best let the Professor do the talking:

One of the most extraordinary practices adopted by some ascetics in Syria was to spend years on end exposed on top of a specially built stone column, living on a wicker platform which resembled the basket of a modern hot-air balloon. This form of devotion was pioneered in the early fifth century by [a man called] Simeon, therefore nicknamed the Stylite (‘pillar dweller’). Once established on his column, he reputedly never descended from it before his death.

But wait, there’s more:

Simeon’s frugal needs were met by an eager entourage of admirers who hoisted food up to him from the ground. His pillar survives in part … [t]he column has literally been eaten away by its devotees, who over centuries chipped off small portions which they then ground to powder and swallowed for healing purposes.

A precursor to homeopathy? The real punchline, though, is surely this:

Stylites often became major players in Church politics, shouting down their theological pronouncements from their little elevated balconies to the expectant crowds below, or giving personalized advice to those favoured enough to climb the ladder and join them on their platform. […] Simeon does not seem to have protested while a large expensive church (whose ruins also still survive) was being built round his pillar, thus making this ragged hermit into a bizarre living relic, sole exhibit in a Christian zoo.

Bizarre indeed. The Monty Python boys really weren’t making it up, were they? Suddenly the delusions of Mad Camping don’t seem that extreme. Other nominations for the top ten list gratefully received, either here or via @philblogs.