The wisdom about Solomon…


Old Melvin Bragg did it again this morning- great discussion on what we know (and don’t know) about King Solomon. You can listen again to this programme (and all sorts of others spanning years and years) here.

Solomon- the archetypal enlightened Oriental monarch, the nearest thing we have in our adoptive western tradition of a Sun King. He is said to have lived in relative peace, accumulated great wealth, a vast harem of wives and concubines, built temples and palaces and a network of ‘chariot towns’ in an expanding Kingdom. He was said to have been visited by great Queens, and to have ‘satisfied’ them. Along the way, he asked God to grant him wisdom, and is accredited with authorship of several books in the Bible- Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Songs. He is revered in Hebrew tradition as presiding over a golden age, and in the Islamic tradition as a prophet.

The truth of all this is in the dust. No certain evidence of his existence, or that of his great building projects, has been found. Authorship of his books in the Bible are almost certainly more complex. Having said that the written record of the minutiae of his life in the Bible are beyond almost any other comparable ancient figure. There is no doubt that Solomon is a dominant Icon in the history of us.

He is also a flawed figure. The Bible story talks about his enslaving of the people, and his descent into the paganism of his many wives. He accumulated vast wealth and thousands of horses- all on the back of slavery. According to scripture, God was not pleased, but rather than destroy his Kingdom in Solomon’s lifetime, God decided that the Kingdom would not stand. Solomon’s sons fought, argued and it all fell apart.

The interesting thing is that despite the obvious flaws that the Hebrew tradition records in this great leader, we remember mostly the wisdom and the glory. We somehow root for Solomon- we envy him his achievements- his wealth, his women, his worldly wisdom.

This led me to wonder what wisdom might these stories communicate to us, here, now? Why are these stories so central to the Bible story? Whatever the historical truth of these stories, what truth do they have to our spirits?

It is all there I think- the pursuit of a nationhood of conquest and empire. The accumulation of wealth and fame. The exploitation of women and sexuality. The enslavement of the powerless individual towards the wealth of the few. The demonisation of those outside the boundaries as less-than-human.

Then there is the rise and inevitable fall. Like boom and bust economics. And at the core of it all, the loss of the core of things- the turning from what is good and pure towards idolatry.

I look at this story through what we know of the journey that was to come, and perhaps most of all through the person of Jesus; who had no stately majesty, no wealth, no interest in power, other than power-to-save. Jesus who came to proclaim that other word that we have heard too much of over the last few days in the UK- Jubilee.

Jubilee not in the sense of a celebration of wealth and pompous privilege. Jubilee that had nothing to do with looking backwards towards an empire now gone, and had nothing to do with jingoism or nationhood. Rather it was about this;

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

(See Luke 4 and Isaiah 61)

The focus shifts to the little people like you and me.

Solomon has had his day. May all Kings and Queens take note.

Melvin does Calvin…

This morning Melvin Bragg’s programme ‘In our time’ discussed the life and influence of John Calvin, Protestant ‘guard dog’ of the reformation. You can listen again here.

Highly recommended for those of us who need to engage with some of the big theological ideas in bite sized chunks. And all the more important for those of us who perhaps stand as part of a new reformation.

It is all there- the passion, the seeking after the purity of truth distilled from correct study of the Bible, the desire to release people from what were regarded as empty superstitions fed by the Roman Catholic church.

But also the austere, sometimes brutal regime that emerged in Geneva around his teachings- the rigid inflixible and systematised faith. And the persecution of anyone who dared to hold a different view.

It also dealt quite well with the way that Calvin’s teaching fitted in with, and perhaps even inspired enlightenment thinking, and was able to spread and flourish via the new information technology of the printing press.

Oh- and the pre-destination thing.

Definitely worth a listen with a cup of coffee…

Highland heritage history…

I drove to Lochgilphead this morning, and found myself listening to Melvin Bragg on the radio talking to historians about the dreadful murders of 38 members of Clan MacDonald in Glencoe in 1692. 40 0thers died through exposure to the cold and snow, after their houses burnt, and families were forced to flee into the winter hills.

You can listen again here.

It was a strange experience- driving through a Scottish landscape that would have looked very familiar to the 17th Century protagonists, only such a short distance from their bit of Argyll. With snow on the hills, just like then…

Here is a test then- think about what you know of the story of Glencoe. We all sort of know the story right?

It has become part of our inherited folklore in Scotland. Fed by the glorious splendour of the Glencoe landscape, and stoked up by the 19th Century ‘discovery’ of the noble Highlander, victimised and harried from house and home by the English. It is a story celebrated in a thousand songs, and lamented in poetry and prose. It marks for us a bloody landmark on road towards the victimisation and subjugation of Scotland by her powerful southern neighbour.

Except, the story, as ever is far more complicated.

First, the context. Those were bloody times- characterised by feuding, cattle raiding and convenient murders. Vengeful memories were long, and power struggles gave opportunities to those who rose to the top of the tree, which were grasped enthusiastically. Massacres were far from rare events. Glencoe was not even a particularly big one. In my home town of Dunoon, for example, in 1646 over 100 men women and children of Clan Lamont were killed in the church yard after a bloody skirmish with the Campbells, as revenge for murderous rampages by Sir James Lamont . Events like these are lost to our collective memory. I have never even heard it discussed in Dunoon.

Next- the major players.

King William was the imported Dutch King of England and Scotland who signed the order to send the troops to Glencoe. His major motivation was ongoing European politics, and his war with France. He was a Protestant, and fought and won a war against Jacobite troops in Ireland, routing his rival for the crown at the Battle of the Boyne. His great fear was that France would get a foothold in Scotland in support of the Jacobite cause (as they had begun to do in Ireland) and so he was concerned to make peace with the wild Highlanders- who were after all overwhelmingly protestant (although of an Episcopalean tradition, rather than the lowland Presbyterian form of faith.)

William appointed a man to sort out the Highlands for him…

John Dalrymple was a Scot, and was appointed as William’s trouble shooting secretary of state for Scotland. It seems he was not the obvious choice, as he was an Episcopalean, and so unlikely to be acceptable to most of the power mongers of Scotland. He it was who negotiation and bribed his way to deals with most of the Highland chiefs, in order that they should pledge their allegiance to William. It was also his idea to send the troops to Glencoe, and his orders that led to the deaths of the MacDonalds. He survived the subsequent enquiry into the massacre, because he remained useful to William.

Then there were the men who carried out the murders- those who so scandalised others by killing the people who had offered them Highland hospitality, on the pretext of billeting soldiers in lieu of unpaid taxes. These were Scottish soldiers, led by Scottish officers, most notably-

Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. Drinking man, gambler, turned soldier after a cattle raid by the Campbells of Glencoe bankrupted him. A man with a grudge, and a chance to have revenge. Captain in charge of the force sent into Glencoe in 1692.

Died in poverty in Bruges in 1696 after fighting in William’s European wars.

So what is the point of all this history? I think it is interesting, as it is part of the subsoil hereabouts.

I am also interested in the mythology- what one of the contributors to Melvin Bragg’s programme called the ‘Highland Heritage myth.’ How we make history suit our ends, and in turn become shaped by this history. Scottish anti-English sentiments are deep seated, and there is no doubt there are many real grievances passed down over the centuries.

But honesty and truth is important still, I think.

Particularly when the alternative becomes a breeding ground for prejudice and division…