Abominable Christian Education

Until today I had never heard of Accelerated Christian Education. Now I have and I feel diminished by the experience.

The source was this article on the BBC, about a system of schooling that must surely qualify for the Millstone Around the Neck and Drowned in the Depth of the Sea Award. Please, please, please, please, please will Christians get over the them-or-us mentality that allows them to accept uncritically (or grudgingly defend, or even just tolerate because, well, you know, bits of it are okay) anything that has the word “Christian” in it. It isn’t: by which I mean, the Christ after whom it is named would be rubbing his eyes and gaping with disbelief that anyone can not only be teaching this rubbish but doing so in his name. That’s when the eyes weren’t flooded with tears, because he made everything so simple and some idiots following him had to go and make it so complicated.

So let me just dash off a few of the things I regard as quite fundamental in my view of Christianity, inspired by the article and by browsing the Leaving Fundamentalism blog that is cited [warning: the guy’s story is heartbreaking; you can only cheer that he made it out sane]. Each of these is the product of many years’ thought and, might I add, scriptural study, by a man* who believes without reservation that Jesus Christ is the virgin-born physically resurrected Son of God who died for our sins. I will not only be glad to debate about these by personal correspondence but will support with scripture. Had I time then I would write a book, but this is my lunch hour. So:

  • Believing in evolution and an Earth that is billions of years old enhances God’s glory, not diminishes. Creationism is not only an insult to human intelligence but it does God down. The God – the Jesus – I believe in is so much bigger and better.
  • There may be a Hell, and the people who go there may well have rejected Jesus, but that is a statement of values, not magic. To say “I accept or reject Jesus” means to accept or reject the values and the outlook and the worldview of Jesus, whether or not you believe in (or have even heard of) the Messiah / Jewish prophet / beardy weirdy of that name who lived a long time ago. Meanwhile, no one gets into Heaven because they said the magic words or “did good” – it is entirely down to God’s grace (though I grant there may be an overlap in the two sets that could lead to a false impression of causality). And as only God can know the state of someone’s heart, no one – no one – gets to pronounce who is going / has gone to Hell based on outward appearance or statements of belief.
  • Same sex marriage? Knock yourself out.
  • Masturbation? Well, God gave you hands ….
  • Smoking? Alcohol? The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.

Rant over. For now …

* i.e. me, in case there’s still any confusion.


Two tombs, five pools, one river and a manger

And after lunch on the day of the walk, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre …

Here is the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a nutshell. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, decided she would find the location of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, so descended on Jerusalem with all the will and force that an Emperor’s mother can command. When she demanded of the locals, “Where was Our Lord crucified?” she got blank looks in return, so starting locking people up until someone miraculously remembered.

Chronologically, of course, this is the equivalent of asking a casual passer-by in 2014 the close details of something they’ve never heard of that happened in the 1750s.

To be fair, I’m prepared to believe she found an execution site that was outside the old city walls of Jerusalem – so who knows, it could be Golgotha. Whether it was the execution site is another matter. Buried in the detritus she sound what seemed to be the remains of some crosses – including one with nail holes. The Bible says that Christ was nailed up. Ordinary perps were only strung up. Therefore this was the One True Cross, QED.

But I’m sorry to say Helena’s analytical detachment, such as it was, deserted her completely when it came to the tomb. I don’t know how many contenders there were for the site, but she found one matching the Biblical description – hewn from solid rock, only one previous owner, empty – quite literally a stone’s throw away from the crucifixion site. Christ’s tomb, QED.

That’s the bit that I really just don’t buy. Christ was buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man who had had it excavated for his own eventual use. Would this powerful, respectable citizen, a member of the Sanhedrin no less, have bought his exclusive tomb plot a bare 50m from a place where lowlives were strung up to die in slow agony? Think of the people he would be seen dead with!

I think not.

But Helena did.

The rocky hill was excavated all around it so that now the tomb in its rocky shell stands on a level surface, and a succession of churches were perpetrated over both sites. The tomb is now lined with marble, hung with lamps and censers, and marvelled at by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year who will queue for hours for the privilege. Three or four people can shuffle in for a 30 second gawp before an impatient knock by the Orthodox priest stationed outside makes you shuffle out again for the next group, while your tour guide has a blazing argument with Russian tourists trying to jump the queue and threatens to call the police. Maybe that last bit doesn’t happen to everyone, just us.

The original “hill”, such it was, of Golgotha was left untouched. The Crusaders built a stone platform so that you can now ascend in comfort to the very top, crouch down beneath an altar erected over it and touch the very site where the cross went.

I didn’t. I honestly don’t know what happened to me in that place, but it was like a kind of spiritual anaphylaxis. I rarely feel claustrophobic but I think I did that day. Whatever the case, I found the church ugly and oppressive and as spiritual as a lump of the dead rock it is built of, with my only options to burst into tears or turn atheist. I felt the words ‘He is not here’ take on a whole new significance.

And that is why, as a symbolic equivalent of shaking the dust from my feet, I don’t intend to post any pictures of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The sponsored walk takes a break on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, really. It's a handy shortcut and surprisingly easy to do.

The sponsored walk takes a break on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, really. It’s a handy shortcut and surprisingly easy to do.

Well, okay, maybe just one.

So, what else did we do?

Well, Bethlehem, obviously. For some reason the Church of the Nativity didn’t upset me quite as much as its cousin over in Jerusalem. It helped that it was relatively empty, though at the right time of year I can imagine it heaving and a lot less pleasant. Also, the main body of the church is a tastefully austere Roman basilica, with what are apparently some quite gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, being restored while we were there so sadly hidden behind scaffolding.

The original Christmas decorations.

The original Christmas decorations.

It’s only the altar end that is blingtastic, on a scale that would make Gerald Ratner re-evaluate his life. You queue up on the right hand side, then descend a few steps into the nativity grotto: site of Jesus’s birth on your right, site of the manger on the left (he wasn’t born in it, remember, just laid there). The grotto is just part of a whole network of underground caves and passages that link up with next door’s Chapel of St Jerome, though now walled off so you can’t any more get from one to the other – but come on – underground caves and grottoes FTW!

Manger, site of

Manger, site of

Bethlehem is also worth a visit just to get it into your head how tiny and small a place it was back then; the Son of God really was slumming it by choosing it as Ground Zero for his incarnation, which is kind of the point. And once again, the geography is amazing. The original village was perched on top of a very steep hilltop. The whole area is sharp ups and downs. I always imagined “shepherds on a hillside” being far away; indeed, far too many Christmas cards show them – or someone – looking down on the town from a distance. In fact I can well imagine the hillside was right next door, because everywhere is a hillside.

Manger Square, with my back to Church of Nativity. NT era Bethlehem fitted between the two tall towers in the distance.

Manger Square, with my back to Church of Nativity. NT era Bethlehem fitted between the two tall towers (minaret and church spire) in the distance.

Cf. David Roberts’ mid-nineteenth century painting of Bethlehem to see what I mean. All those slopes are built up now, of course.

There is of course an official Shepherds Fields site, with church and ruined monastery and … okay, we had a brief service there but I felt no sense of significance to it. Not even a holy relic sheep poo from the lamb presented to Baby Jesus, and when I think of the religious tat that was on offer, I’m astonished no one has thought of that one before.

The last full day was our Desert Experience day, attained by driving there in a comfortable air conditioned coach. Hey, we’re pilgrims, not martyrs. We stopped off in the Judean wilderness – sun baked rolling hills and plunging chasms, sheer geology in front of your very eyes. And then down to Dead Sea level (didn’t get as far as the Sea but saw it in the distance) and the plains of Jericho. The plains are essentially a rift valley between Judea and the hills of Moab t’other side of the Jordan, and the Judean hills are merely mildly warm by comparison. It helps that we were >400m below sea level, whereas when we started our sponsored walk the day before shivering in a biting wind at Jerusalem’s elevation of +700m.

The Land of Milk & Honey

The Land of Milk & Honey

When Abraham and Lot decided to go their separate ways in Genesis (like Peter Gabriel many years later), and Abraham gave Lot the choice, Lot looked upon the plains and saw that they were fertile and well watered, so chose to stay there. He must have seen them on a good day. The impression I got was more “flat and arid”, not really somewhere to manage large herds of sheep. And that would have been the first sight to greet the eyes of the Israelites when they crossed the Jordan into the Land of Milk and Honey. Gee, thanks, I bet they thought. At least in those days they would not have had to pick their way through the minefields set out to discourage incursing Jordanians.

One more river, and that's the river of Jordan

One more river, and that’s the river of Jordan

We trod the verge of Jordan, already firmly on Canaan’s side and not an anxious fear in sight, and beheld with our own eyes the blessed site where Rupert Murdoch’s baby was baptised, 2000 years after some other guy set the trend. I dipped my hands in the Jordan to say I had and there was a chance to renew our baptismal vows. I’m not sure mine can be renewed as I never actually made any, apart from the occasional “gah” or “oo” which frankly could have meant anything. It was done on my behalf by godparents. But anyway, it was nice to be able to confirm my agreement (which I suppose I already did at my Confirmation … meh). We did not sing “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer”, though I felt we should have.

Then it was lunch in Jericho, sadly not pausing to look at the ruined town of that name. Modern day Jericho is built next to it – probably wisely, as I believe there’s a Biblical curse on anyone who rebuilds it.

Then back to Jerusalem, and with that, the pilgrimage was officially over. Done. Pilgrimated. But there was time for extracurricular activity and so we managed a visit to the Garden Tomb – and very glad I am too.

Garden Tomb, sans stone

Garden Tomb, sans stone

This is General Gordon’s alternative tomb to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, following his fortuitous discovery of the Real Golgotha: a tomb matching all the Biblical descriptors including rollaway stone. No stone now because it, well, rolled away, but the trough before the door where it would have stood is clearly evident.

Well, maybe. Sadly I find Gordon’s logic as flawed as Helena’s, in that it’s but a stone’s throw from the alleged site. But as it’s some distance away from Helena’s Golgotha, who knows, it could be. There again there are or were doubtless hundred of rock-cut tombs.

The Garden

The Garden

But, frankly, it’s not important. What is important is that the tomb is kept in a small garden, well maintained by an English charity, tranquil and relaxing, with all the noise and clamour of Jerusalem kept out by natural or manmade walls. It is an oasis of peace and calm, restoring something that I lost at the other place the day before without even realising it.

On the doorway to the Tomb: possibly not original.

On the doorway to the Tomb: possibly not original.

And the key thing is that the tomb is empty. Even if it’s not The Tomb, it’s a visual reminder of what is important about Easter. As, I have to grant, is the one inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’ve been rude about that place but I can’t deny them this. Its empty tomb has helped keep the flag flying for centuries. As a clergyman on our group commented: “Just thank God that the church is full and the tomb is empty.”

Bethesda's pools. Trust me.

Bethesda’s pools. Trust me.

On our last morning, before departing for the airport, we visited Bethesda, scene of one of Jesus’s healings and another Jerusalem site that I particularly wanted to see. The Bible gives a clear description of this place: five pools and running water. And so it was with great excitement that French archaeologists in the nineteenth century uncovered the remains of five pools in a bath complex that had (once had) running water. The five pools themselves were buried beneath a much grander bath complex put up by the Romans in honour of Aesculapius, god of healing – which to me is another good reason to believe this is the site.

The pools are next to St Anne’s church, which suggests the Crusaders who built it were astonishing acoustical engineers. It’s famous for its echoes. A soloist in an American group sang “Blessed assurance”, line by line, leaving a pause after each one, and after each one the sound persisted in the stonework for two or three seconds. Then “Amazing grace”, then “O Lord my God”. Beautiful music, but it must be a real pain for whoever reads the lesson.

Jerusalem from on high

Jerusalem from on high

After which, coffee and some excellent strudel at the Austrian hospice, whose roof affords a fine view over the old city, and home.

And so it was that we were able to do good to others and get a little restoration for our own souls. One week makes no one an expert, but we both feel we understand Palestine and Israel, both ancient and modern, a little bit better.

Two closing thoughts. One from our local Christian guide: “When Joshua stepped into the Jordan, the waters parted, exposing the dry land and showing the way into the Promised Land meant for the Israelites. When Christ stepped into the Jordan, the heavens parted, showing the way into the final Promised Land that is meant for all of us.”

The other from a street vendor we passed on our way back from Bethesda, offering us t-shirts, religious tat, the usual, and getting the usual polite brush off.

“No, thanks,” said we pilgrims, the memories of visiting a place where Christ transformed a man’s life still fresh in our minds and our ears still ringing with beautiful music.

“F**king tourists”, he muttered.

… Gainst all disaster …

As well as being all holy’n’that, there was a deeper purpose to being in Israel.

McCabe, via the McCabe Educational Trust, supports a number of charities around the world. Three are in (or should that be on?) the West Bank, so we took time to visit each one in turn to see where the money goes. All three are open to members of all communities without bias. (Which in practice of course means that most of the kids are Muslim.)

The playground: sponsorship money in action

The playground: sponsorship money in action

So. Jeel al Amal is a home and school for orphan and homeless boys. Now, it’s possible that if I could only understand Arabic then I would have realised the place is a Dickensian horror house of Gradgrindian awfulness, but as I could only note body language and the sounds that reached my ears then I have to assume that it really is a place of hope and substitute family for all the kids. A year ago the playground was a mass of rubble and a leaky sewer: McCabe paid for surfacing, clean-up and rerouting of the pipes. There is something about a playground full of kids running around that just sounds happy.

Mustafa: Palestine's Rick Wakeman

Mustafa: Palestine’s Rick Wakeman

The boys get a chance they never would have otherwise, and seem to put their break to good use. One kid was recently accepted to study medicine at Bucharest University. Their IT guru (they also have a fully modern computer suite) is a student at Lancaster. The Chief of Police of Jericho is a Jeel boy – which proved very handy when one day a car with Jericho plates drove off with a football belonging to the school. And so on.

IMAG1010The Al-Shurooq school for blind children takes in children from the age of 3 and teaches them the basic life skills they won’t get at home – how to dress, wash, cook – as well as teaching Braille and integrating them into local schools with the support that both pupils and schools need. They too have an IT suite, with speech synthesis software, and apparently a lot of the kids are on Facebook.

Half the time Al-Shurooq has to rely on local gossip and hearsay to learn of a blind child’s existence – the kids are kept hidden for the shame of it all. That’s if they’re not just rejected outright. We met a little boy who had had just that happen to him. His condition is genetic – his parents are cousins, and probably theirs were too, and theirs … Didn’t stop his father throwing him out.

The Al-Shurooq Braille library, printed on the premises

The Al-Shurooq Braille library, printed on the premises

Tragically, at the other end of the scale are the parents who can’t do enough for their little darlings. One mother routinely takes her kid out of school for unnecessary and painful eye surgery in Jordan, promising him he’s going to get better. He isn’t.

Either way the parents mostly don’t have a clue what to do: one little boy brought in aged 6 had only ever eaten processed baby food to minimise the mess. So, the school is also raising funds for a summer camp for parents, to teach them the realities of having a blind child.

Services offered by BARS: from my placemat at lunch, hence fork and edge of my pitta break.

Services offered by BARS: from my placemat at lunch, hence fork and edge of my pitta bread.

Finally, the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Society provides a range of surgical, orthotic and prosthetic services to all ages. This is by far the biggest operation, with a budget in the tens of millions. It is also a tall building, which means that from the roof you can get excellent views, not least of which is THAT WALL, that horrible concrete excrescence creeping across the landscape, inexorably slicing the communities apart the same way that it slices through their liberties.


The wall, from the roof of BARS.

I was never less than embarrassed going through a checkpoint into the West Bank, knowing that I was privileged to be able to enter and leave pretty well as I pleased, but going through a checkpoint in the wall beat it all. Being on a tour bus there was never a problem: once a soldier came on board, but he immediately recognised our driver as the man who used to run him to school, so they had a laugh and a chat and we were waved through. But some of our party had used public transport to get through on previous visits and had seen Palestinians have their permits torn up in front of their eyes for dissing a guard. Babies have been born in checkpoint queues because mothers couldn’t get to hospitals fast enough. It is vile and inhuman, and yes I’ve seen Yad Vashem and I DON’T CARE because that has nothing to do with this and it shouldn’t happen.

Turn around 180 degrees from the last picture - and oh look, it's the wall again. Another couple of months and they will be encircled, and there's not a blessed thing they can do about it.

Turn around 180 degrees from the last picture – and oh look, it’s the wall again. Another couple of months and they will be encircled, and there’s not a blessed thing they can do about it.

But, having seen Yad Vashem, I have an inkling of why the Israelis will never budge.

Anyway. The charities. The centrepiece of our whole week in Israel was therefore a sponsored walk around Jerusalem. Everyone signing up was asked to commit to at least £300 of sponsorship; thanks in no small part to the generosity of our friends and congregation, we were able to raise close on £1000 between us, and the walk overall raised £40,000.

Proof we were there.

Proof we were there.

We began at Bethphage, where Jesus acquired his donkey, then over the Mount of Olives (now Oliveless, due to the Ottomans cutting them all down for their steam trains in WW1), down past Gethsemane, along the Kidron Valley and up to the south wall of the old city.

Jesus's prison cell? Quite possibly.

Jesus’s prison cell? Quite possibly.

We took a coffee and toilet break at the church of St Peter in Gallicantu (roughly, “Peter at cockcrow”: the site of Jesus’s imprisonment and hence Peter’s denial. This very probably is the site, because it is close to the location of the High Priest’s house and there are prison cells carved into the bedrock below it).

When Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, all this was built up ... Sometimes you meet an Israeli who will admit it.

When Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, all this was built up … Sometimes you meet an Israeli who will admit it.

Then it was up through the Zion Gate and into the old city, through winding streets and passageways, through the Western Wall plaza, wiggle approximately along the Via Dolorosa, up over the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (seeing it at its best) and finally a slap-up lunch in the Armenian Quarter. Distance travelled as the crow flies, about a mile; distance pounded by weary feet on cobbled stones, 7 or 8 miles up and down slopes. Jerusalem is built on hills and valleys and almost nothing is level; when the Bible says “he went up” or “he went down”, he very probably did.

Being slow on the uptake, we had several times passed one of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa before it struck me that, bloody hell, this is the original Station. Well, almost, 30 feet above it but hey.

Another long post so this is where I lay down my pen. Coming soon: the rest of the pilgrimage, including frank opinions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.