Category Archives: Religion

December 21 2012: It’s not the End of the World (2)

Part 2 of my previous repost:

So, anyway…

Did you know that one of Christopher Columbus’s motivations behind his expeditions was a desire to help fulfill conditions so that the Second Coming could take place? Me either. This tied into the millennial twitchiness that surrounded the approach of the year 7000 (7000 Anno Mundi that is; this calendar counted years from the Creation of the world), twitchiness that influenced a bunch of mystical works throughout Europe, which in turn influenced Christopher Columbus. The unnerving thing about this is that 7000 AM is the equivalant of 1492 AD, which is when Columbus discovered America. He saw the discovery of the New World as being a culmination of God’s plan, and although it didn’t lead to the end of the world, I guess 1492 could be seen as apocalyptic for the Native Americans, the Aztecs, and everyone else who got trampled in the rush to create a new world in the New World.

Of course, Europe had just experienced the development of the printing press, and was about to embark on the Reformation, which meant the ability to interpret the Bible was suddenly available to the masses. You can see this in England in the mid-1600’s; the Civil War shook the foundation of society, and maybe it’s no coincidence that the execution of Charles I in 1649 coincided with the development of a bunch of millennial and apocalyptic groups – the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Quakers, the Muggletonians, the Fifth Monarchy Men. And because of the whole ‘666’ thing, 1666 was expected to see the End of the World. I guess if you were in the middle of the Great Plague and then the Great Fire of London, it might have seemed like it was.

This all burnt itself out – after all, how many times can the world not end and a complete overhaul of society fail to come about? The apocalyptic vibe jumped across the Atlantic and really kicked off in the mid-19th Centrury. The main example of this is the story of the Millerites. William Miller figured that the Second Coming was due to happen on October 22 1844. An estimated 100,000 people eagerly awaited the moment when Jesus came back to Earth. It didn’t happen.

This become known as the Great Disappointment which, frankly, is the greatest example of under-statement in history.

Twitchiness wasn’t just seen in the big religious movements. I guess the end of A world, the mutation of a society, the moment at which things stop being how they used to be can be seen behind some of the moral panics that keep cropping up every so often. Hidden enemies threatening to undo civilisation are seen behind every shadow. Witches stalked the fields of Europe, and of New England, and some figured they had to be stopped. It’d be nice to write that off as something that only happened in history, but look at fifties America – the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts kicked off in 1950, ruined the lives of a lot of people, then faltered in 1954. This just happened to be the year in which Dr. Frederic Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, a tirade against comic books that saw homosexual propaganda in the relationship between Batman and Robin, and corrupting, hidden images hidden within the art. The brief flap surrounding this lead into the age of Rock and Roll, when the bottom half of Elvis was banned from TV.

So what’s the point of thinking about all this, about flicking through a bunch of books and reading a whole lot more Wikipedia entries? Well, maybe the idea of the END is hardwired into us, just like we seem to be pre-programmed to tell certain kinds of stories. This theory is a double-edged sword; on the one hand it can get out of hand, exploding into fanaticism and bloodshed and people achieving infamy over a pile of corpses. Today it threatens to explode into a modern crusade, fought with nukes and satellites, passenger planes and dirty bombs. Be honest, seeing those planes fly into the WTC…There was something apocalyptic about that.

On the other hand, the idea of the End – if not of the world, then of the live upon it, if not of that then of our way of life – forces us to confront some home truths; truths about the way we treat our environment and the effect we have on the species that surround us, truths about the way we treat our neighbours and the ‘other’, truths about the way we abuse our beliefs to justify the darker angels of human nature.

So if the End is due to come from environmental collapse, maybe we should look at the way in which we contribute to pollution or climate change. If the End is going to be the result of a clash of ideologies, maybe we should be more interested in building bridges than stockpiling canned goods. And if the End is going to come from the hand of God, then maybe we should consider the spiritual side of our nature, and in all things be as prepared as we can be when the End finally comes.

But for now, the End hasn’t come. So turn round, hug your loved ones and make the most of life. It’s the only one you get.

December 21 2012: It’s not the End of the World (1)

And so December 21st 2012 has finally rolled around, and the UK is still here at least, although I admit we’re not in the Mayan time zone. Today being the End of the World is a belief that has gone from being a fringe concept alluded to in The X-Files and on conspiracy websites to achieving mainstream notoriety, although I’m not sure that many people are taking it particularly seriously – I think even the Mayans are perplexed at how the whole thing has blown up.

In response, then, I thought I’d repost a couple of entries from a gazillion years ago… Well, 2005. Some of the references are dated now, but I think the point still stands.

Originally posted September 5th 2005, which may help put things into context
It’s hard to watch the news lately. The pictures of a devestated New Orleans and its Gulf Coast neighbours are bad enough, but what gives the whole situation an apocalyptic air are the reports coming from the aftermath – looting, abandonment, refuge camps, failure to respond, the breakdown of civilisation’s fragile mask. You start wondering what would happen should it affect your town, your home. You start thinking about the end of the world, or at least the end of the little worlds we build up around us.

I think deep down within humanity there’s a sense in which we’d like the End to happen on our watch – sure, science reckons the universe will die gazillions of years after we’ve all passed on, but we keep on coming up with cataclysmic scenarios that will hasten our passing from this life.

So Christianity has the Rapture and premillennialism and RFID-as-the-Number-of-the-Beast. Science has a bunch of theories; the heat death of the universe, for instance, or the Big Crunch. And then there’s climate change, be it part of a natural cycle or accelerated by the activities of mankind. A meteor strike, like the one that took out the dinosaurs. Or maybe we’ll face a real technopocalypse, like the panicked frenzies surrounding the Y2K bug, or nanotechnologists’ theorising about the Grey Goo scenario.

Then there are comets. In 1066 Halley’s comet hung in the sky, four times the size of Venus, signalling the Battle of Hastings and the death of Anglo-Saxon England. When Halley made its 1910 tour of Earth, there were fearful newspaper reports about the possibility of millions dying of cyanogen poisoning as the result of passing through the tail of the comet. And when Hale-Bopp turned up in 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult took a mass-suicide assisted trip to the spaceship they believed was following it.

And then there’s plague. I think I’ve been around for the latest wave of death-by-scary-diseases frights – Salmonelle, Ebola, BSE, now its Bird ‘flu, and let’s face it, if the AIDS crisis in Africa doesn’t have apocalyptic overtones to it, I don’t know what does. Estimates put the European death toil of the Black Death of 1347-50 as up to a third of the population, with more worldwide – and this was on top of the little Ice Age, which had major effects on the human population for the following 400 years. The Spanish ‘Flu of 1918 wiped out between 25 and 50 million people worldwide – right on top of World War I, the war that saw the end of the 19th century world and that lead directly to World War II, which pretty much put a stake through the corpse of the old Europe.

Yeah. World War II. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Aushwitz. Dresden. The rape of Nanking. Japanese prison camps. Suddenly industrialised genocide and nuclear weapons emphasised the possibility that carnage on a grand, even worldwide scale, were possible. We entered the nuclear age, culminating in such reassuring events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, and Ronnie Reagan’s laser-beams-from-space ideas. I remember when they said they were developing a Star Wars program. That sounds a lot cooler than it was when you’re the type of kid who wanted to grow up to be Han Solo.

Some would say that this is all very maudlin, and it makes me feel very small in the face of it all. On the other hand…Well, that’s another post

Matt’s Derby Explorations #2: St. Alkmund’s Well

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So I figured that I might get some sense of the Derby’s history from its patron saint. Thing is, it’s not that straight forward.

We don’t know a huge amount about St. Alkmund. The story begins in the medieval kingdom of Northumbria, which covered the north of England and south-east Scotland – in other words, not Derby. It was an area plagued by dynastic struggles, and in 765, the Northumbrian king Athelwald Moll was deposed by a group of nobles who gave the crown to Alhred. In turn, Athelwald’s son deposed Alhred, who promptly exiled himself to the kingdom of the Picts in Scotland. Alhred’s family remained in exile for around 20 years, until Alkmund lead an army in an attempt to reclaim Northumbria. It didn’t work – he was killed by men working for King Eardwulf around 800 and buried in, you’ve guessed it…

Lilleshall, Shropshire.

However, those pesky Vikings kept raiding England, and in order to preserve Alkmund’s posthumous dignity, his body was moved to Northworthy – or, in Danish, Derby. A church dedicated to him was built to house his relics, although that’s now under the ring road; while they were building the road, Alkmund’s tomb was dug up, and now resides in Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

Pretty soon, by 803 at least, Alkmund had been canonised and become the focus of popular devotion and miraculous happenings at various churches, with one of his most ardent fans being Aethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great. This explains how someone we know next to nothing about became the patron of a bunch of churches throughout the Midlands. It also explains why, next to a block of residential flats at the back of Derby city centre, the last surviving Holy Well in Derby.

To be honest, I’m amazed at how easy it was to find Alkmund’s Well. I expected it to be in a field somewhere, or in a picturesque outlying village. Instead it’s pretty much in the city itself, almost as if an urban landscape grew up around it. Now it’s surrounded by railings, and a sign makes it clear that drinking the water wouldn’t be a good idea. It used to be part of the local tradition of well dressing, but that was discontinued in the sixties. Now it just sits there, trickling away, a monument to a near-forgotten saint.

Yesterday was a cold day, and to be honest I felt a little conspicuous standing at the well while other people looked at me suspiciously as they walked past or performed a three-point turn. I said a quick prayer for the people who lived around the well, and for those who’ll eventually live in the housing development that’s going to overlook it, and then I left for a quick mooch around the city.

I guess Alkmund’s Well is an example of how there’s more to the world than we see at first glance. A holy well can be found in the shadow of a tower block, and the distance between sacred and secular isn’t nearly as extensive as we may think. History lurks around every corner, the hidden stories of our towns and cities tucked away on street corners and on housing estates. You’ve just got to know where to look.

Grails and Grace: Happy birthday to The Last Crusade

Today is the 23rd anniversary of the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here’s a repost of something I wrote on it last year.

Ask yourself, why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory, or for yours?

Yesterday I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark and about how great it is. But let’s not forget it’s part of a franchise, one of the rare kind where the other films mostly stand up to the original. And, as I was talking about how Raiders is based in Judaism and the Old Testament, today I figured I’d go to the other end of the Bible: step forward Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and its quest for the Holy Grail.

Only despite the whole Da Vinci Code kerfuffle, there’s a problem. Because the Holy Grail isn’t in the Bible, or at least not in any direct way.

Jesus coins the wine/blood symbolism at the Last Supper but there’s no great description of a Grail, they just use a cup to drink from. Boring and conventional I know, but there you go. No, the Holy Grail is basically a medieval plot device.

See, somewhere between 1181 and 1190, a French poet called Chretian de Troyes wrote Perceval: The Story of the Grail. During the poem, Perceval manages to impress King Arthur, fall in love, meets the Fisher King and has a vision of the Grail. Here it’s an object of power, capable of healing the Fisher King if only Perceval asks the right questions – which he fails to do. It’s nothing to do with the Bloodline of Christ, it’s just the cup that the King’s communion is carried in, important because that’s the only food and drink he’s receiving.

The Grail became holy around a decade later, when Robort de Boron fills in the gaps of its history – Joseph of Arimathea uses the cup from the Last Supper to collect some of Christ’s blood after the crucifixion, eventually making his way to Britain (which links in with an early tradition that had Joseph and a bunch of other minor characters from the Gospels making their way across Europe, as well as being the source of the idea that Jesus once visited England as a boy – cue Jerusalem). None of this really has anything to do with the Bible – effectively it’s New Testament fanfic. Somewhere along the line the Grail became the object of a quest carried out by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and it became enshrined in literature as a sacred macguffin.

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And in a lot of ways, that’s the Grail’s purpose in The Last Crusade – it’s an excuse to reconcile Indy with his father, and once this happens, the Grail is lost again. However, it’s this story, contrasted with the actions of the film’s antagonists, that shows that Indy is capable of understanding, and experiencing grace.

Look at the film’s bad guy. Donovan is a suave but ruthless businessman obsessed with the Grail and its potential to bring him immortality. To this end he aligns himself with the Nazis and manipulates both of the Joneses; after all, they’re all really just tools to help him live forever. It’s that arrogance, however, that ultimately damns him – when confronted with a roomful of potential Grails, from which he must drink to receive eternal life, he picks the most ornate. He sees the world from a pedestal and the Grail as his prize – of course it’s going to be shiny and jewel-encrusted. But whoops, it’s the wrong one and it ages him to death instead – “He chose…poorly,” the Grail’s guardian wryly comments. Donovan’s Grail quest was all about the prize, not the lessons learned along the way – after all, he never learned them because the other characters did all the work.

Indy, on the other hand, has purer motivations – he just wants to save his dad’s life and go home. And yet because of this, because his quest is noble and involves risking his neck for that of another, Indy is able to succeed. He does his homework (“Jehovah is spelled with an ‘I!'”), he risks his life, and he’s finally able to act with humility and wisdom – he doesn’t want to be a king, he just wants his dad back. “That’s not the cup of a carpenter,” he mutters about Donovan’s false grail, before picking the cheapest and most inconspicuous cup on offer. This is the right choice, because this is the Cup of Christ and the Grail and it’s associated quest reflects this – humility, wisdom, self-sacrifice, reconciliation. The Christian concept of humanity being reconciled back to God is symbolised through the Spielbergian theme of a son’s relationship with his father, and once this happens the Grail is no longer needed – it disappears and its temple collapses, job done, and all that remains for our heroes to do is return home wiser than when they set out.

Heck, even the audience is enlightened in the final moments – we find out that Indy named himself after the family dog.

I guess it’s appropriate that a trilogy (let’s put aside The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for the moment) that began with Indy confronted by the Wrath of God (in the form of the opened Ark of the Covenant) should end with him encountering God’s grace – judgement and mercy meet around the Easter story in which the Grail myth has its origins. The prodigals return home and a fracture family is reunited. We’ve seen wrath – and melted Nazis – now we get to see healing.

There’s another Indy film after this, of course, but that plays with sci-fi more than it does with myth and somehow it’s weaker for it – it tries to emulate fifties B-movies, but bringing in aliens and Communists (the interchangeable ‘Other’ of films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers) weakens it somehow – Indy seems to be the detrrmined hero who doesn’t know when to stop even when divine forces are moving around him. It’s that determination and heroism that brings him a measure of healing in The Last Crusade. I’d say he deserved it, but that wouldn’t be grace – Indy’s always been a rough diamond for all his heroism.

But even rogues can sometimes be pilgrims.

PS. Shameless plug: by coincidence, I also talk about grace today over at my other blog, only there it’s in the context of mobile libraries. Feel free to call me eccentric.

Easter Sunday 2012

(This is a repost of something I wrote last year.)

Only a couple of days ago we commemorated an execution – an assassination, effectively, born out of a conspiracy and tied up with thoughts of politics and revolutions. Good Friday is a blood-stained day, and yes, it was a heroic sacrifice, but its centrepoint was still a crucixion and while we’re now more accustomed to seeing a cross as a piece of jewellery, in reality it’s a very brutal way to die.

And yet that was two days ago; now it’s Sunday, and this is where the story twists its final turn, where it stops being reductionist about death and starts talking about life again.

Not just life either – a different life, a transformation, a new start. That’s an idea that holds a tremendous weight; we’ve all been there, setting out towards a new horizon, excited and curious and yes, maybe nervous because the map says “There be dragons”, but you go out in courage and hope anyway, because the map only says that because no-one’s journeyed out there before to know the truth. You’re the first. You’re the pioneer. One small step.

That’s one way of looking at it; the other is that transformation is impossible or undesirable, because we’re too scared, or too comfortable, or too incapable, or maybe even too damned. There’s no new start ahead, just more of the same. Even when it gets boring or frustrating or horrific. Don’t vote, they’re all the same; don’t change jobs, there’s nothing else out there; don’t leave him, he might change but you never will.

Don’t give into those thoughts. Because sometimes a new start isn’t just a nice change, it can save your life. Really, it can save your life.

Easter is about new beginnings. The action in the story of Good Friday takes place in the afternoon, the day drawing to a close; Easter Sunday, well, that’s all about the morning, daybreak, the sun rising and all things unexpectedly become new.

And maybe it’s a second chance in another way. After all, by this time of the year all those new year resolutions have probably fallen by the wayside. Maybe we should think about Easter Resolutions as well – practical, spiritual, whatever. Because the story of the empty tomb is a story of new starts and second chances, of hope renewed and second chances, and of a fresh beginning, growing in a garden at springtime.

Happy Easter.