Requiem for Jennifer

I didn’t know Jennifer Swift that well but I knew her well enough to be sad to hear she had died. I must have first met her at a convention but I already knew the name from her stories in Interzone. She was Christian, she lived in Oxford, she wrote sf and she liked C.S. Lewis – obviously we were going to get on. Thanks to her I even got to give a talk at the C.S. Lewis society: Lewis was quite strongly opposed to space exploration, but I humbly proposed a few takes on the topic through the lens of science fiction that he might have approved of.

We developed an annual tradition in which she and her husband Tim would explore yet another picturesque cycling route around Oxfordshire on their tandem, and the route would intersect with a pub where I could join them for lunch and she could pick my brains about agents, writing novels and other related affairs. When Jennifer had identified you as a source of information you got a distinct feeling of being locked on to. She was born to be a journalist. The parallel world where her novel did finally get published is a richer place than this one. My input would have accounted for a fraction of the whole which would have been drawn from the many, many streams and strands of thought that so fascinated her.

Latterly, of course, it was we rather than I who joined them for lunch. No lunch this year, though. Didn’t think anything of it and it was probably unrelated to her illness, which was only diagnosed mid-July. Then on 30 September Tim emailed all her friends to say she had died: stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in the liver and possibly the spinal column. Requiem mass sung this morning in the chapel at Magdalen.

Good grief, if I was doing a reading at my wife’s memorial service I couldn’t possibly be as dignified and calm as Tim was, reading a passage from Julian of Norwich in which she saw God hosting a banquet for all the honoured souls in his house – i.e. all of them – and taking a lower seat himself, refusing to hold an exalted position in his own home.

After a couple of shaky starts – the lad must be just on the verge of his voice breaking – a child sang a solo from Perelandra: the Opera, music by Donald Swann (who Tim has always strongly resembled in my eyes):

No man may shorten the way.
Each must carry his cross
On the long road to Calvary,
Follow where other feet have trodden.
Though the burden seems too great
For bleeding shoulders to uphold,
Too dark the path
For failing eyes to see,
Yet the lonely hill must still be climbed,
The desolation still be borne.
No man may shorten the way.

And what a difference it makes at a funeral where the minister delivering the sermon actually knew the deceased.

Once in a while it’s good to splurge out on some really high church. Incense, Latin, the lot. (Though if I had one teeny, tiny criticism, it would be that the incense was kept in a separate room the other side of a closed door, and the server in charge of smells would duck in and out from time to time to get it. The first time he left I honestly thought he might have badly needed a pee and questioned why he had to go in the middle of Tim’s reading. Okay, this was probably for a good reason: I expect the incense was kept in a liturgically sanctioned fume cupboard without which it would have reduced visibility in the chapel to five feet – but even so, it was distracting.)

I thought of the contrast with my usual church and remembered an analogy by C.S. Lewis, which therefore Jennifer would approve of. In fact I know that even Philip Pullman approves of this one because he’s who I heard it from. Roughly it goes: when I was a child, I liked lemonade but I didn’t like wine. Now I’m an adult I still like lemonade but I also like wine. I now enjoy two experiences where I used to enjoy only one: my maturity has enriched me.

Those churches that resolutely use only forms of worship devised this century are confining themselves to lemonade only – and the more determinedly modern they are (“this unsingable piece of whimsy was a hit at New Wine so we must sing it every week until either one day someone learns the tune or we bring back a new hit from New Wine next year – whichever is sooner”) the flatter the lemonade is. Everyone needs a good vintage draught from time to time.

Back to Jennifer, her Church Times obituary is a lovely read and I’ll finish as the service did. Jennifer:

In Paradisum deducant te angeli, in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead thee to Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once a beggar, may thou have eternal rest.

Alpha beater

Just watched Channel 4’s Revelations: How to Find God, which this week was a documentary about the Alpha course as run by St Aldates. Interestingly it highlighted several of the reasons why I am no great fan of the course … and threw up some problems that I hope are unique to St Aldates.

I myself have Done Alpha. I held out for a long time but eventually I cracked, and I enjoyed it. I had no great revelations myself but then I was already about as committed a Christian as I will ever be. I met some nice people. My group leader was one of the saintliest, wisest, most head-screwed-on people I know. My problems?

Well, even Richard Dawkins couldn’t argue with the idea of Alpha. A simple, straightforward presentation of Christian belief, in a friendly, non-threatening setting. Something to counter all the misconceptions the average bod is likely to pick up through a lifetime of half-heard truths and strawman targets and the Vicar of Dibley. What could go wrong? Show them the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

I don’t know if this is how all churches do it, or just us – but the first thing our meetings kick off with is a couple of choruses. Now, to the people running the thing this may be as natural as breathing and it wouldn’t occur to them to do otherwise, any more than they would set off in a car without putting on their seatbelt. However, my most positive feeling towards those songs is grudging tolerance, and that’s when I’m in a good mood. I go to my church for the fellowship and the friends that I love. I don’t go for the singing. And so I honestly couldn’t invite someone to Alpha with a straight face, telling them it’s all a simple, straightforward presentation etc. but knowing they’d be singing “Hungry I come to you” before anything else.

Second is the content itself. It’ll be no surprise to anyone that I fully agree with all the main conclusions of the arguments … just not always the route taken to get there.

Example: in the session on Sin, the official Alpha coursebook contains a handy little story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending telegrams to a certain number of friends saying “flee, all is discovered”, whereupon most or all of them cleared straight out of town. The point is meant to be that we all have a guilty conscience, or something. But the number of friends varies from telling to telling, I’m sure I’ve heard exactly the same story told about Mark Twain (in whose case it sounds much more likely), and this very day I came across this handy little thread that seems to conclude the tale is apocryphal.

Again, to some people it’s completely natural to trot out a half-understood urban legend in the genuine and sincere belief that it’s just as good as hard, solid fact. There is no intention to deceive. But it isn’t as good as hard solid fact and that’s all there is to it. Give me citations, or leave it out. I have ranted about this before. If a speaker demonstrates that he’s a very nice bloke but will uncritically receive any pile of tosh that comes to him from another Christian, why should anyone believe what he has to say on … I dunno … Jesus?

(I’ve also read the Christianity Explored coursebook, which is for people who find Alpha too liberal and non-commital (a bit like actuaries being people who find accountancy too exciting). But whatever your views on it, the content is based squarely on direct anecdotes from the author’s life, or illustrations drawn from movies that everyone will have seen. In that respect, Christianity Explored is streets ahead.)

And then there’s the old CS Lewis chestnut about Jesus being “just a good teacher”. No one, he said, could make the claims he did and just be a good teacher. He was God, or he was a deluded lunatic, with no middle ground. Well, this is one of the few times I have to say that old CS was talking cobblers. Mother Teresa is a perfect example of the contradiction CS Lewis says is impossible. The love and devotion she showed the poor of Calcutta was exemplary. Her teachings on contraception verged on criminal irresponsibility. Of course you can have both those extremes in one human being. We are complex people.

Again, no surprise to regular readers to know that along with Lewis I also believe Jesus was God. But I don’t believe it for that argument, not least because that argument doesn’t work. It is illogical. It should not be used.

It is used.

The content that works best in Alpha is never intended to be a show-stopping argument, but still it tends to get used as such. There is an answer to every objection I have ever heard raised, both at my own sessions and on the TV show, but these are not absolute arguments designed to sweep away all doubt. They are simply counter-arguments that take the game back to 15-all. There is no other way to do it. Yet, they are used as absolute arguments, and the Alpha leaders seem strangely confused and upset when doubts remain in the mind of the questioner.

To the TV programme, and the specific St Aldates thing I really disliked was the matter of Tongues. It may just the editing, but it looked horribly like speaking in Tongues at St Aldates is the indicator of success for the Alpha weekend away. And again I say unto you: cobblers.

Two of the participants walked out during the Holy Spirit session on their weekend away, and my heart went with them. One of them said straight out that if he had known, if he had realised it would be like this …

Meanwhile the Reverend quotes the first half of 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul states: “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues …” But you can’t have the first half of that verse without the second: “… but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.”

Not every Christian speaks in Tongues. Not every one has to. A Christian message that says otherwise is just Wrong.

Overall, Alpha – at least, as practiced as Christ Church in Abingdon and apparently at St Aldates – starts off as the presentation thing, but it tries just a little too hard to make you click into one particular slot and it doesn’t make it clear that there are many, many, many slots available. And if you don’t make that slot, yet you conclude on the evidence presented that this is all that’s available … well, then, obviously you decide you’re not going to be a Christian and according to official Alpha doctrine you’re destined for Hell.

Fortunately I don’t believe that either.

Let’s not diss it. The Spirit works wherever he is given the opportunity and that includes Alpha, including the Wrong bits. I can say this because he works in all of us, including the Wrong bits, because he has to: down here on Earth there are no bits that are wholly Right. Alpha does great things. I will gladly help set up and deliver puddings for the meals. I even have that sticker in the back of my car of Bear Grylls on top of a mountain with his arms held out. I do all this because I want Alpha to succeed, which means giving the Spirit a chance to act and overcome the foibles of his human servants.

But I’m not of the Alpha slot.

Rites and wrongs

I came across this link on Liz Williams’s Diary of a Witchcraft Shop in Avalon (i.e. Glastonbury): “Dysfunctional Behaviour and the Pagan Scene”. I’d like to be able to quote from it here, in a number of places, but the owner specifically asks that people ask permission before quoting and hasn’t replied to my request. So I’ll just have to recommend you look at it, and make the following points. The author says (my interpretation):

  1. People too often join a pagan circle hoping to find it full of superior types rather than normal, doing-their-best types just like them. Depending on the level of dysfunctionality of the circle and/or the newcomers, at best this can lead to disillusion, at worst to active abuse.
  2. By a strange paradox, dysfunctional groups don’t have to try as hard as functional ones to succeed and therefore last longer. By being permanently in crisis and not having to work hard to ride out storms, deal with conflict etc. they survive where much better groups fail.
  3. Newcomers are drawn in by a misunderstanding of what is on offer. They want a love spell but don’t want to be more loveable. They want a spell to make them rich without having to work harder or be better at their work.
  4. The right (or rather, wrong) mentality can quite easily take a good, healthy proposition like “Love your neighbour” and corrupt it – vide the Inquisition. Thus even the positive, life affirming ideals of a good pagan circle can be twisted to justify obnoxious, anti-social behaviour.

… and it strikes me that all of these can apply just as much to churches. Just do a find-and-replace on the terminology and it matches. In fact it quite possibly fits even more belief systems than just our two but these are the two I’ll concentrate on at the moment. Unrealistic expectations on both sides, unwillingness to take the rough with the smooth …

Let’s just say they’re problems to look out for.

One area where we see completely eye to eye is the notion that to do it properly it must have meaning. It must be relevant to your life. That also means you must be free to ask questions and you must accept that just because person X does thing Y in way Z, that doesn’t mean everyone does, or should. You can be trapped in the form and the ritual.

There are several testimonies on this site from young pagans who were raised as Christians, or at least contemplated it, but found what they were getting in church couldn’t hold a candle to what they got from a simple walk in the woods. In many cases that could be because the church was in fact doing it properly, and good for it: they wanted power and all the church could offer was humility, so they went somewhere with comforting rituals that at least give the impression of being in charge. See point 3 above. But I’ve also been in some churches which have as much to offer the modern world as King Herod had to offer the youth ministry, when they should be able to offer so much more. Could it be, I dare ask myself, that they’re trapped in their own rituals and therefore don’t have anything to offer a genuine seeker? It’s not just the pagans who have rituals, y’know. A ritual may be jumping naked backwards over a bonfire while the moon shines above the Eye Stone or it may be singing a chorus in a key that makes dogs in nearby villages bark, and then shifts after the bridge to a key that actively knocks bats out of the sky, and that’s before you even reach the fifth repetition.

Nor does it help if the automatic response of the church in question is to threaten such notions with eternal punishment in Hell …

Just saying.