Friday 21 July 2023

Gaps in translation: Babel, information and colonialism

Recently I've been reading the novel Babel by Rebecca Kuang, and found it both highly enjoyable and thought-provoking. Very much an academic's view of a good fantasy story: set in Oxford, heroes and villains alike are academics, the magic that the book describes only works with a thorough study of language and etymology, and the novel is full of footnotes. 

Moreover, the setting is a very interesting period of history in the 1830s, when the second British Empire was still taking shape, with its rapacious attention shifting from the Americas (fifty years after US independence and with slavery finally abolished) to South and East Asia. The backdrop of the book is the smuggling of opium by British agents linked to the East India Company into China, and the run-up to the first Opium War. At the same time, industrialisation was taking place in large-scale within the UK, with the building of railways as well as factory machinery, and the consequent struggles for jobs and for democracy. Most of the novel presents this history faithfully, but laced with some fantasy elements.

In lots of ways I'd have been quite happy with this as a historical novel - the details are fascinating. When we meet leftwing demonstrators, they talk of the Chartists, of the Luddites, Peterloo and the 1832 uprising in Paris that is the centrepiece of Les Miserables. The effects of industrialisation on people, already working rubbish jobs which they lose due to more technology. The taking-over of subject peoples around the world but the unwillingness to accept people from those places within British society. And the true wickedness of the opium trade, when a supposedly civilized people got a great nation (China) hooked on drugs to make money and to subjugate them further, and when they protested. 

Some of these details led me down fascinating rabbit-holes. At one point the characters travel to Canton to 'negotiate' on behalf of a Mr Jardin and Mr Matheson who are trying to bring opium into China. So I learnt about their story, of becoming rich through drug smuggling, taking on Lot Number 1 in Hong Kong and growing into a company that is still rich today, but wouldn't have started without the creation of drug addicts. Meanwhile at home, James Matheson became an MP, governor of the Bank of England, and bought the island of Lewis from which he cleared large numbers of people to build a castle. Oh, and both were Scottish, as sadly was too often true with the British Empire.

But really all this is background for the book, which is about translation and its issues. The blurb begins with the Italian phrase traductore, tradditore - roughly, translators are traitors, or in the more elegant version of the blurb, "an act of translation is always an act of betrayal". Because in this world, the heart of power in Oxford, fuelling the British Empire, is the Royal Institute of Translation - the eight-floor tower known inevitably as Babel. The focus of much of the book is on a group of undergraduate students entering that institute, as people as the academics who teach them and others who also work in the tower. In that tower, silver bars are endowed with a special form of magic - a word in English (typically) is written on one side, while on the other side is a version of that word in another language. 

The magic comes in the gaps in translation - in the subtleties of meaning that one language captures but another misses. Sometimes the words are similar - the difference between French triacle and English treacle is the basis for healing from cholera in the first few pages. Sometimes they're different in appearance despite the languages being similar, such as German heimlich and English clandestine (used to create secrecy in the home, given that the German shares the same root as the English home). And sometimes the languages are quite different. 

That translation never captures the full meaning, however good the translator, is well-known. How can it, when languages are different in their grammar and syntax, and the words have different histories and implications? 

Any reader of translated fiction knows this. I'm going on holiday to northern Italy next month, and a colleague recommended that I read I promisi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni, a 19th century classic of Italian fiction though not much known outside Italy, and set in the region where we're going. But at least three translations into English are widely available, all in different styles, and the reading experience varies a lot depending on which I pick. In the same way, I recently read Thomas Mann's celebrated novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), in a 1930 American translation which after reading it I learnt is regarded as somewhat censorial, toning down the homoerotic themes considerably for the American audience.

The same is true in non-fiction. I vividly remember as a PhD student reading German sociologists and philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas, in English translations full of little translators' footnotes on why they'd picked certain readings of words and their full implications in the original. Every Biblical scholar and most preachers spend much of their time explaining the difference between Greek words and their common English renditions (I have myself constructed big chunks of sermons on why 'eternal life' and zoe aionios have very different implications, and heard many on the different possible readings of logos beyond the simple 'word').

It was for this reason that the field of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation) developed initially in Christian theology, before moving to other areas. It can never be neutral - it is deeply dependent on the positionality of the interpreter, as well as their understanding of the text. As the radical Biblical scholar Ched Myers wrote:

Claims that the meaning of the text is ‘obvious’, requiring no interpretation, or that someone interprets without bias, are no longer credible. Hermeneutics takes seriously the burden and responsibility of the interpreter as ‘translator’, trying to bridge two vastly different worlds. Moreover, interpretation is a conversation between text and reader, requiring not detachment but involvement. … [I]f we are genuinely listening to the text, we will allow it to influence how we understand and what we do about our situation (it ‘interprets’ us). Until the circle from context to text and back to context is completed, we cannot be said to have truly interpreted the text.

(Binding the Strong Man, 1988, p.5)

And so to information. These gaps in translation have much to do with the nature of information. Gregory Bateson famously described information as 'the different that makes a difference', and a gap in translation that can be used for magical purposes is surely exactly a difference that makes a difference. 

Gaps in translation are also an illustration of my colleague David Chapman's claim that information is provisional - we can never be certain whether it is accurate or not at any one moment. This is because, as David and I wrote together: "it is impossible to know, with complete certainty for all time, whether something is true, and, according to Floridi’s veridicality thesis of information, information has to be true otherwise it is not information". When our information relies upon translation, it cannot be otherwise than provisional: because its fundamental meaning is always uncertain. 

One further thought on information and translation. When communication technologies are analysed, they often are shown in successive layers within the sender, converting the message into a simple form (such as 1s and 0s on a phone line) which can then be relayed to the recipient where it is built up into a different form. In the paper on information being provisional, David Chapman used this technique to analyse information. However, where translation is concerned, there is no simple form into which the words are first of all converted before being built up in the other language. The spoken or written words go as a whole unit from one individual to another. At best they are held in the same sort of neurones within the brain, but not in a way available to human consciousness. In my view (and maybe others would see this differently), translated words move as a whole from one language to another, without an intermediate form.

And so to return to Babel and betrayal. At some level it is undeniable that translation is betrayal - the meaning behind the words changes, ideas are lost or added. For the most part, this is not a deliberate betrayal. Fascinatingly, in the novel there are further layers of betrayal - because the students that the novel focuses upon have mostly come to Oxford from other countries, chosen for their fluency in other languages to make the translation magic work effectively. And because their work powers the British Empire, they are thus put in a position of choosing either to betray their country of origin, or to betray their fellow-students within Babel. 

Which option they choose would be a spoiler for the novel - but it mirrors the choices that colonised peoples, and their successors as the descendants of colonised peoples (whether or not citizens of post-imperial states such as Britain) have always faced and always continue to face. In the style of early 19th century novels, the book has several subtitles, one of which is 'the necessity of violence', and what it means to do violence in such a situation (even if that violence is to things and institutions rather than human beings). As a pacifist, I found this really troubling, but also thought-provoking in the light of debates on decolonisation but also groups such as Just Stop Oil which use forms of violence against property (though not people) as has been the case for campaigning groups such as the Suffragettes in the past. 

Because ultimately Babel is a book about power; and translation is always an issue of power. The question is who holds the power, and what use they put it to.

Thursday 5 January 2023

Christmas and the mystery of practice

Today is Twelfth Night, the 12th day on from Christmas day, and in some churches the end of the liturgical season of Christmas. Traditionally it's when decorations come down, and it has me reflecting on my experience of Christmas this year. 

I have long found the run-up to Christmas (i.e. most of December) to be exhausting, stressful and depressing. I feel considerable effort involved in buying presents, writing and sending cards, planning food. I often experience sensory overload from the bombardment of lights and sounds in shops and on streets. Society demands excess consumption. The time is suffused with memories and nostalgia, which can be pleasant but also painful. And there's a considerable degree of emotional labour - as a parent, one has to perform Christmas for the sake of children, but also to show a degree of enthusiasm (even joy) for the season to avoid spoiling it for others, whatever one's own feeling. 

I won't continue in this vein for fear of being equated to Ebeneezer Scrooge or The Grinch, but you get the idea. I do really like spending time with my family in a relaxed and celebratory way, and the repetition of happy rituals (watching The Polar Express, singing the final verse of O Come All Ye Faithful on Christmas morning and so on) can be very special. And I have a genuine fondness for mince pies, mulled wine and lebkuchen. But there really is just so much of it all.

My negativity about all this has often been tempered by religious practice - the series of special services, prayers, liturgies and songs which have been devised for the Christmas season. They do interweave with the secular Christmas events - some people would make little division between them - but they give meaning and purpose to the season. The midnight Christmas Eve service has long been a particular favourite, from attending it with my family as a child, through my father leading services in various churches, to a couple of times when I led them myself. And there are a wealth of church resources which argue for a reduced emphasis on the material Christmas in favour of a more relational one, such as Advent Conspiracy. The concept of incarnation, that God should take on human flesh and be born in poverty, is one that inspires so much of the best of Christian theology (my own graspings on the topic are best found in a sermon that I gave five years ago on a much-misused passage in the gospel of John). In a somewhat dualistic fashion, I sometimes have contrasted the religious Christmas with the secular Christmas, to the detriment of the latter. 

However, my somewhat meandering spiritual journey has led me back to Quakers, after ten years in the United Reformed Church (I've reflected on this in blog posts on 'sojourning in silence and systems' and 'on being a nomad'). Quakers are lovely people, with deep spirituality that expresses itself in often very radical action, profoundly inclusive values, and a form of silent worship that is different every time and (at its best) extremely profound. But they/we also have a 'testimony' (a collective practice) against following the traditional church practice of setting aside particular 'times and seasons' as special or different. We should be open to the religious message of Christmas every day, just as we should be open to every day being Easter or Pentecost. Janet Scott wrote thirty years ago that: 

We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.
Although Janet Scott observed in 1994 that the testimony seemed to be dying of neglect, it has changed somewhat: practically every Quaker will celebrate Christmas in its secular form, but I know few Quaker meeting houses with Christmas trees and none with special acts of worship. One might or might not hear people speaking in December in our meetings for worship about themes relating to Christmas. This year, Christmas Day was a Sunday; in my meeting, there wasn't even a normal meeting for worship held at the meeting house because not enough people were available, though a few gathered on Zoom. The huge emphasis on the religious aspects of the Christmas season is absent in most of Quaker practice.

Of course, I could go to other churches; I did so when I was previously a Quaker, and both this year and last, I was at an Anglican service on Christmas morning with family. But I wouldn't be getting the same steady experience of publicly exploring and celebrating the incarnation week by week, unless I chose to spend all of December at another kind of church. 

But religious experience is all about embodied practice - people coming together as a community to live their faith and explore it through forms of ritual behaviour. The great scholar of religion, Karen Armstrong, observes that this goes back at least as far as the 6th century BCE, and the Greek rituals known as 'mysteries'. Of these mysteries, she observes: "it was not something that you thought (or failed to think!) but something that you did" (The Case for God, 2009, p.60). Moreover, it is clear from Armstrong's work that these actions only make sense in the context of communal practice: we make sense of the world together, and express our faith together, through action. 

So one can only practice Christmas (as a religious form) in combination with others, as part of a religious community. The individual believer can surely dip in and out of Christmas rituals (many a church minister has enjoyed ironically saying "see you next year" at a Christmas service to those in their congregation they won't see until next Christmas) but their experience is very different from those who participate in many Christmas services over a period of weeks. And thus if one is part of a religious community that does not practice Christmas services in an explicit form, then one has the choice of either absenting oneself from that community, or going along with this practice. 

In the coming year, I will be writing on a new module about Systems Thinking in Practice, and specifically ways to become a better practitioner. And as someone who has spent a lot of time in faith communities, I find religious practice to be an example I keep coming back to (although perhaps not in teaching materials, for fear of putting students off). My colleague Martin Reynolds (quoted by another colleague, Ray Ison) defines practice as:
human interfaced activities – processes, including speech, conversation and knowing – that effect transformation in situations (what people, or groups, do when they do what they do – a state of “doing”).

In other words, practice - whether it is systems practice, religious practice, or another form of practice - is made up of processes that change situations. By being part of a religious practice that explicitly emphasises Christmas, or one that keeps it tacit, changes the situation in which we find ourselves - into one which treats the Christmas season very differently. 

I can't say how this will affect me in the next Christmas season. It is certainly my hope that I might find the way to express the mystery of the incarnation throughout the year. For a believer in the Christian understanding of God, this ought to affect one's own life, to change one's own practice. The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote:

What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.

So perhaps when December next arrives, I'll be better prepared to experience both the religious Christmas and the secular Christmas through an appropriate form of practice. May it be so.

Sunday 6 February 2022

Cantus Firmus, The Armed Man and the love of God

Image: CD cover of
The Armed Man
Today I've been singing The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins, as part of the Northampton Bach Choir (and alongside the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra). It's only actually the second time I've sung the whole piece, but it's one of my very favourite pieces of classical music, partly because it was the first concert my wife Becky heard me perform and we played the Benedictus as a settling-down piece at our wedding; but also because of the very fine themes of peace and war that it portrays in a really vivid and accessible way. 

Rehearsing it again over the past two months, I've learnt a lot about the piece from the choir's main conductor Lee Dunleavy and our guest conductor Adrian Partington who actually conducted the piece in concert. In particular, from Adrian I learnt about a piece of musical theory that's important to understanding one of the movements: the idea of a cantus firmus. This was described by BBC Music Magazine as "a fixed tune around which polyphonic choral music is developed" - an existing tune or phrase which is typically sung or very slowly and by low voices, underneath other parts to form a foundation. For centuries, one such tune was the medieval song L'homme armée, which is also the basis of The Armed Man. 

Image by Lee Dunleavy,
Northampton Bach Choir [via Facebook]
In the Kyrie of The Armed Man, there's a couple of minutes of unaccompanied plainsong to the words 'Christe eleison', based on a setting of Missa de l'homme arméby Palestrina, and the second tenors (of which I am proudly one!) sing a cantus firmus - a very slow and sonorous version of the main theme which sits as an underlay to the rest of the plainsong. Adrian flattered the second tenors at one of our rehearsals by saying that we had the most important part in that section of the movement, and the more I think about it, the more I can see that musically.

But I was also really interested to learn (tbh from Wikipedia in the first instance, but subsequently from other sources) that the concept of a cantus firmus has been used metaphorically by various thinkers. Perhaps most notably, it was used by the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a metaphor for the love that a believer should have for God and how it relates to our love for the world and other humans (in all the different forms of love):

God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of Cantus Firmus to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes, which keep their full independence, but are still related to the Cantus Firmus, is earthly love. ... Where the Cantus Firmus is clear and distinct, a counterpoint can develop as mightily as it wants. The two are ‘undivided and yet distinct,’ as the Definition of Chalcedon says, like the divine and human natures in Christ. Is that perhaps why we are so at home with polyphony in music, why it is important to us, because it is the musical image of the Christological fact and thus also our Christian life? [Extract from Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 393-4, available online via Cantus Firmus Ministries

This idea of the cantus firmus and our love for God was much in my mind during the Quaker meeting for worship that I attended this morning immediately before our concert-day rehearsal for The Armed Man. My experience of singing the cantus firmus in the Kyrie is that it has the following characteristics:

  1. It is massively slower than the parts in the other voices
  2. It sits below those other parts, giving them foundation and depth
  3. It can be hard to hear by itself, but if you're able to listen hard for it, it's then difficult to ignore (my ability at picking out individual lines on a recording is only average but the cantus firmus on the Armed Man recording is very clear)
  4. It is not easy to sing, and requires a lot of concentration but once you try, it can be really rewarding
  5. It is something that especially works through sharing - at one point today I was part of a group of just three second tenors and that was especially hard, but when the choir was reconfigured so that a larger group were together, the cantus firmus was much easier to pick up
I think all of these can be said of God's love for God's creation - it is more fundamental than human love, and happens at a different pace; once you know it, it's not hard to see but it requires work to do so; and that love can best be experienced along with others. In my own experience, Quaker stillness is an especially good way to experience God's love, but others have found it through many other contemplative practices within Christianity and other faiths. And the same processes can be said to be true of other response to God and our love for God - it requires effort, and to be foundational underneath other loves, and it can perhaps best be learnt and shown in a group of others.

As St Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans:
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor [rulers] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. (Romans 8:38, New Living Translation)

Saturday 10 April 2021

On hunting and being hunted: the role of narrative in The Testament of Mary

Until lions have historians (it is said), history will always be written from the perspective of the hunter. This was my overwhelming feeling on finishing reading Colm Tóibín's excellent short novel, The Testament of Mary. It's very much a book about narratives, and how alternative narratives are constructed.

The book presents Mary (the mother of Jesus) at the end of her life, reflecting both on the tumultuous events which took place around her son's death, and her own subsequent life in hiding. She's doubly hunted: by the agents of the Roman Empire, who would like to see her silenced; and by Jesus' followers, two of whom act as her protectors and who feed and house her, but in return for a constant stream of reflections and questions about her experiences of her son. The name of Jesus never occurs in the book - at one point Mary says that she can't bring herself to speak his name, so great is her grief - so it's always "my son" or "him". But he's present throughout the book, his words and his deeds. 

Tradition suggests that Mary fled to Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) where she lived out the rest of her life, and Colm Tóibín follows that tradition; thus one of her protectors may be taken to be John, the 'beloved disciple', whose oral tradition formed the basis of the Gospel of John. Given my comment above about Mary being hunted, it's striking that Ephesus was the site of the major temple to Artemis, the hunting goddess, which Mary is described in the book as visiting.

Mary's recollections of a number of the key events in Jesus' life that are central to John's gospel - the wedding at Cana, the death and rebirth of Lazarus, the crucifixion - are somewhat different both to the story as we have it in the gospels, and to the story as the disciples are gradually reconstructing it from Mary's accounts. It's very clear that they want to create a story about Jesus as someone supernatural, as the Son of God, and that they see his death as something very distinctive and important.

It's true that the process of creating any sort of biography, even by modern historical standards, is one of selection of which facts to present and how to present them; and this was even more the case in the ancient world. Nonetheless, the way in which the disciples are shown as shaping the narrative around Jesus is striking. It's doing a certain amount of damage to Mary's perception of herself and her life with her son - using both of these to create something new. 

They're doing this for enlightened reasons, to reshape the world's understanding of itself, and in the process to bring hope to the oppressed within the Roman Empire. And narratives are inexorably tied up with power - as David Chapman and I have written, "narratives of information are constructed by those in power, sometimes in ignorance of the less powerful and sometimes deliberately to exclude those with less power". Nonetheless, the book ends sadly, with Mary left alone and with her self-perception of her life considerably harmed by those who have supposedly written about her.

The novel reminded me at times of Philip Pullman's book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which also shows the developing narrative around Jesus. While Pullman is an avowed atheist, it's tempting to say that Tóibín is presenting a secularised version of Mary's story, but that would be unfair. There's a constant sense of Mary's spirituality - she regularly prays, goes to the temple (Jewish and that of Artemis), and is shown having multiple spiritual experiences. Her version of the narrative - and of course she too is constructing a narrative - is at odds with the conclusions of John's version, but it is no less religious. 

Ultimately, all experiences are shaped by narrative, and all narratives are derived from experiences. The only question is what we seek to do with those narratives, and how close we want them to be to the literal truth of our experiences.

Sunday 14 February 2021

On being a nomad: multiple experiences of spiritual community

(I think that 'words that I might have offered in ministry but didn't quite feel appropriate' must be a distinctive Quaker literary form. Here is one such.)

This morning in Meeting for Worship we were reminded of the words of Caroline Stephen, written in 1908, that "the presence of fellow-worshippers in some gently penetrating manner reveals to the spirit something of the divine presence" (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.39). So I spent much of the meeting thinking about my experience of spiritual community.

Group of linked hands from several people, forming a heart shape between them
Image: Jewish Journal

I've recently been reading a recent wonderful collection of short articles on sexuality and religion, The Book of Queer Prophets (ed. Ruth Hunt), appropriate for LGBT History Month. Among many lovely pieces is one by Padraig O'Tuama, who writes among other things about community among LGBT people and compares their (and his) experience to that of the Israelites being persecuted in Egypt, and the way that persecution shaped their community. He writes: "A people became a people because of their shared need to move out from a system that abhorred them. ... 'Let my people go', someone said to a person in power, and those under the power realised they were a people."

That experience of being persecuted for one's difference, and then that persecution leading to the formation of community, is one that many groups have found around the world. Some scholars suggest that the ancient Israelites were not a single ethnic group (notwithstanding the origin story of Jacob and Joseph in the book of Genesis), but rather were a disparate group who formed around their slavery, escape from Egypt, and journeys in the wilderness. The story of gay men finding a common identity through persecution and death in the 1980s is told beautifully in the recent TV series It's a Sin. Successive generations of African-Americans have built supportive community in the face of white supremacy and found ways to fight for justice (during slavery, the Jim Crow period in the southern states, in the Civil Rights movement, and more recently in Black Lives Matter). And Quakers too formed and were shaped through persecution, in the early decades of their movement when their theological and political radicalism was so threatening to the state that many were imprisoned and sometimes Quaker meetings were kept alive by their children.

For myself, my life experience haven't led to that sort of persecution or that sort of community. I'm white and middle-class. I've never been persecuted for my faith, whether as a Quaker or as a liberal/progressive participant in Presbyterian churches (I've occasionally been accused of not being a true Christian by evangelicals, and even left one church when it became too evangelical, but that's hardly persecution). And while I've been on the fringes of the LGBT community for many years, I've largely been sufficiently straight-acting not to attract hostility from anyone. 

And yet I found myself realising that I have a deep yearning and need for spiritual community, to join with others to explore what it means to be in relationship with God, what it means to be human, what it means to seek after truth, what it means to have love for others, what it means to live in harmony with the natural world, what it means to seek justice. 

I've found some of that sense of spiritual community through Quaker meeting, sometimes through local meetings (I've been a close part of at least eight local meetings, though none for more than a few years as life took me to different places) but just as much through national Quaker groups. I've found some of it through churches in the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland (again at least four of those, but more loosely with a number of other churches where I've preached). I've found it through the Iona Community, in Glasgow and on Iona but just as much in our local and regional groupings; and by attending the Greenbelt festival for a decade. I've found it through conversations with family and friends. And in a way I've found it through a community of ideas around progressive Christianity, in books and podcasts where I'm more of a recipient than a generator of ideas, but of which I certainly feel a part and which inform some of the other spaces.

This long and disparate list of spiritual communities shows the difficulty in some ways of my spiritual journeys - I've very much been a nomad rather than a settler, and even though many of the ideas and experiences have a lot in common, the people and the groupings are quite distinct. I've had a deep sense of connection with many people through these communities, but not always for very long. This is a very different experience both from the person who's been part of a single spiritual community (such as a church) for many years, and it's also very different from the people I discussed above who have been joined together in community through persecution. My experience is richer for perhaps being quite broad, but poorer for perhaps being more more shallow. There's a lot more 'I' in this piece than 'we'. Sometimes I feel that I would like to settle in a single spiritual community. Sometimes I've felt that I had found one, and then life changed in various ways. 

And maybe this nomad form of community is its own form of spiritual experience, as I've met and encountered others with the same pattern from time to time, who find their way through travelling rather than arriving. In a hymn by Joy Dine that has spoken to me for some years are the words: "When we set up camp and settle / to avoid love’s risk and pain / you disturb complacent comfort / pull the tent pegs up again". Perhaps there is calling in this way of peripatetic spirituality. But I do value depth in community as well as breadth. So my own search for community continues.

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Life in the midst of death

Death is so present at the moment. Covid-19 deaths in the UK (and other countries) are sky-rocketing, in quite scary ways. Within our church communities, we know a number of people who have lost loved ones recently. 

And yet there is always a tension between death and life. There is death in life, and life in death. I have no firm belief about what an afterlife might look like, but I find comfort in traditional Christian imagery around the life to come, even if it seems more like poetry than prose to me. Indeed, I think such words and images exist to comfort the grieving rather than to provide anything like a model of the nature of the universe. Certainly I learnt much more about the words of Brahms' Requiem "What then do I hope for? my hope is in thee" after I said goodbye to a colleague who shortly afterwards died; and I learnt more about the statement in Revelation 21:4 that "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more" when I read it at my father's funeral.

And these words are especially encapsulated in music for me. In John Rutter's Requiem, there is a wonderful setting of the Agnus Dei, the traditional words from the Requiem Mass in Latin, that read "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace" (Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem). Those words are given to the high voices, who sing in a hopeful, but tense and anxious way. At the same time, the low voices sing under them words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: "In the midst of life, we are in death". 

And the combination is breathtaking, and achingly hopeful and sad at once. There is death in life, and there is life in death. 

Image: American Society for Cybernetics
This combination was one of the many themes found in the writing of the anthropologist and systems thinker Mary Catherine Bateson, who died a week ago on 2nd January 2021 at the age of 81. I was very fond of her work - in my book Systems Thinkers (with Karen Shipp), we wrote of her "strong respect for the individual with an awareness of wider forces to which they relate" and described her as "an individual who has taken systems ideas so deeply into herself that they influence all of her thinking and writing, and who has written at length about that process". 

Since her death I have been reading a lovely piece she wrote in 1993 entitled 'Into the Trees' (written for an anthology which can be found online, but also republished in her excellent collection Willing to Learn). She writes at length about forests as embodiments of this tension between death and life: 
Walking through the woods, I am reminded that there is as much death here as life. It is a mistake to think the word forest refers only to the living, for equally it refers to the incessant dying. It is mistake to speak of preserving forests as preventing the death of trees. Forests live out of the deaths of toppled giants across the decades, as well as the incessant dying of microscopic being. Without death, the forest would die. Ultimately, it is only the removal of trees that can deplete the forest. ... Death is apparently not a failure of life, but a mode of functioning as intrinsic to life as reproduction. To see life without seeing death is like believing that the earth is flat and matter solid - a convenient blindness.
Mary Catherine Bateson was a committed member of the (American) Episcopal Church, so she would have known the old Book of Common Prayer, and I see in her words their insight that in the midst of life, we are in death. One of her much-loved articles discusses the death of her father, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, under the evocative title 'Six Days of Dying'. In a marvellous interview for the podcast On Being, originally recorded in 2015 but rebroadcast just days before her death, she said about her insight from writing about her father's death:
death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny, that in spite of our terrible hubris and greed and competitiveness, that we can learn to see ourselves in proportion and realize that we’re small and temporary and don’t understand as much as we need to. And we live in a time of real urgency, where we have to mine the insights of the past.

Mary Catherine Bateson wrote extensively about life - perhaps her most widely-read book (and the theme of the much of the On Being interview) was entitled Composing a Life, on how we learn to live as a form of improvisation, and progressively find meaning in our lives as we go. Eventually life ends, but that brings me to one last piece of her wisdom from her memoir of her parents, With a Daughter's Eye, p.269 (thanks to my colleague Kevin Collins for finding the reference - there's a searchable version on Amazon):

The timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it.

I appreciate that wisdom as a historian of people with ideas, whose ideas can only really be understood once we them in full after their death (and sadly I've often understood systems thinkers best through their obituary and memorial articles in journals). But I also appreciate that wisdom as a person, still coming to terms with the death of my father just over a year ago, as we all need to take time to reflect on the lives of those we have known and those we have loved. Even if their stories have ended, our reading of those stories goes on for a long time to come.

In the midst of life, we are in death. But hope can be found in life, and hope can be found after death.

Sunday 11 October 2020

All are welcome at the feast: a sermon on food and inclusion

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 11th October 2020. Texts: Isaiah 25:4-8; Luke 14:15-24.

All the passages we’ve heard today – from Psalm 23, from Isaiah, and from Luke – are to do with feasting. The word feast is perhaps a little old-fashioned now. It conjures up images of Oxford colleges or medieval banquets, it belongs to the world of Henry VIII or Hogwarts. Indeed, there are many memorable feasts in the Harry Potter books. Here’s how JK Rowling writes about the first one that Harry encounters, fresh from his unhappy cupboard under the stairs:

"Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs."

Harry’s reaction is an important one, because although he was never starved at his terrible aunt and uncle’s house, he never had quite enough and never got the nicest things. In the same way, in a poor society where people are just scraping by, feasting on special occasions, every now and then, becomes really important. It’s a time to put away your everyday poverty and go wild for a brief time. 

Image: The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Brueghel, via

Let’s talk about food poverty in the world today for a moment, to put this in context. According to the most recent estimates, more than 800 million people across the world, roughly 1 in 9 of the world’s population, are undernourished – they don’t have enough food to live a normal active everyday life. This figure had been declining as a result of many international efforts, but it’s started to rise again in the past few years. 

As you might have heard, the United Nations’ World Food Programme has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They give direct assistance to the very poorest people in the world, more than 100 million people, and their work has been all the more important during the coronavirus pandemic. Food and hunger really matter. The World Food Programme’s director, David Beazley, said the following after the announcement of the prize:

"Where there is conflict, there is hunger. And where there is hunger, there is often conflict. Today is a reminder that food security, peace and stability go together. Without peace, we cannot achieve our global goal of zero hunger; and while there is hunger, we will never have a peaceful world."

Nor is this just a problem of so-called less developed countries elsewhere in the world. In our own rich country, according to Oxfam, more than two million people are undernourished, and half a million people are reliant on food parcels. This is a national and a global scandal. Helping individuals such as happens here with the food bank is really important, but ultimately we need deep changes to the systems which allow so many people to go hungry.

Returning to the world of ancient Israel, they lived in an agricultural society where many people were only one harvest away from starvation. The wider middle eastern area from Iraq to Egypt, including Israel, was known as the Fertile Crescent for its benign climate for growing crops, compared to many other areas, but there were frequent famines and disasters. In that world,  feasting took on a deeper symbolism. It was a rare and special event. You couldn’t rely on it, and it felt like a gift from God. 

As a result, many societies have ritualised such feasts, built them into religious traditions of all sorts, and ancient Israel had plenty of those. It also had a deeper significance, in that feasting was a key image of what they looked forward to when God brought about a better world in the future, in the end times. Thus the prophets are full of accounts of the future time when God will make a great feast, a banquet of rich foods and fine wines, in the way that we saw from Isaiah. There’s no sense of this being a different place – this is a new earth rather than heaven – but it’s a world transformed, a world of justice and peace, a world where everyone is welcome and everyone is fed. 

And it’s that sort of feast that Jesus was talking about in his parable of the great banquet. It’s quite a complex story, of people being invited and refusing and then others put in their place. I have to confess that I’m not using the version of the parable that’s in the lectionary for today. We should be hearing the parable from the gospel of Matthew, which tells roughly the same story but adds layers of violence, exclusion and pretty blatant anti-semitism. Luke’s version is neater, has fewer layers, and is a lot less problematic. But there’s still a lot going on. 

Image: Jesus Mafa, via Vanderbilt University

Now it’s not obvious from the text, but invitations in the time of Jesus were quite unlike in our time. Today when you’re invited to a dinner or a celebration, you’re told the time and place. In Jesus’ time, the guests were invited well in advance, agreed to come, and only later would they be told when the celebration was actually happening. So those excuses are partly because something else had come up in the mean time, those people who’d bought land or oxen, or who’d just got married. They’re partly to do with the time that had elapsed between the initial invitation and getting the details. I’ve done that myself at work – said I was free for a meeting on a range of dates, then had some of those dates fill up. It’s not necessarily that you don’t want to make the date, but it’s certainly a matter of priorities. The people invited simply don’t find the dinner as important as the other things they’ve got on. Now this parable has often been read allegorically, with lots of different groups reckoned to be the various people who reject the invitation, but I suggest that a simpler reading is easier: some people were invited to the feast, but they couldn’t make it any more because they had more important things to do.

And understandably, this would be pretty hurtful to the person giving the feast. They’d put in lots of effort and money planning this feast, and their guests don’t want to come. That’s a pretty horrible feeling. I’ve organised various events, in churches or at work or socially, and the start time was approaching, and people weren’t turning up, and my heart began to sink. 

So I can readily imagine how the organiser of the feast might have felt by all those rejections. I think we can assume that he was a person of some high standing, so that all those rejections would have impacted on his social status as well, made him look less important. 

He begins to sound pretty angry about the whole thing. “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” and then later when that’s not enough, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled”. There’s a fair amount of grumpiness in that, but also a great deal of generosity. If we reckon that this man is rich, and was expecting lots of important guests at the feast, then it’s quite a shift to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. In a typical large social event of the time, those are the people who’d be at the far end of the table from the host, perhaps with less good food, if they got an invitation at all. But immediately before this parable, Jesus instructs those holding a feast to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame rather than relatives or rich neighbours, as those people can’t repay you through a return invitation. And the treatment of people like these who the Hebrew prophets constantly held up as the example of justice in society – doing God’s work is to care for widows, orphans, refugees and the disabled. It turns a typical middle eastern banquet for the privileged into what one commentator, Leith Fisher, called “the rugged folk’s banquet”.

Image: The Additional Needs Blogfather

So I think this parable is a call to generosity for those who have power and money and privilege, both individuals and society, to consider first those people who are disadvantaged. Stronger than that, it’s a statement that this is the way of the kingdom of God, to welcome all and to include all. The kingdom of God upends the structures of society. The rich, the leaders, the privileged in private jets and expensive houses – they come last; the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalised – they come first in God’s kingdom.  

It’s a call to the church as well, to be a place of inclusion rather than exclusion. The hymn we heard before the sermon says that ‘all are welcome in this place’. It’s so wrong, indeed it’s breaking the clear word of Jesus in this parable, when churches turn away from their doors those who are disabled, or young children, or old people, or gay people, or people with autism, or transgender people, or people who don’t live locally, or people who aren’t enough like those in the existing congregation. The last hymn we’ll hear today begins “come all you vagabonds, come all you ‘don’t belongs’” and it was written based on this parable. Because that’s what the church is, or at least that’s what the church should be – the home of those who don’t belong, the home of the marginalised and the excluded.

And to me that’s a message of great hope. Because these are really rubbish times for a lot of people, but in those times that signs of hope are needed, and where messages like the feasts shown by Isaiah and by Jesus are so important. But they say: if you’re marginalised, if you’re on the edge of society in whatever way – then YOU are welcome at the table of the Lord. YOU are the invited guest at the great banquet. And YOU are beloved by God, in this time and in the world to come. 


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