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.

In which I take for myself a patron saint…

Mark Berry recently told me that his community (Safespace, Telford) had a patron saint- St Brendan.

It had never previously occurred to me that a patron saint would be useful,  sensible or even possible- but in the moment I idly confessed to slightly feeling the lack of a personal saint…

I am not quite sure what they are for however. Some people believe that saints intercede for them in heaven- a kind of word in God’s ear from someone on the inside. I do not mean to be dismissive of other people’s faith, but this makes little sense to me.

However, I began a little journey of discovery on my holiday recently, enquiring into some of those old Anglo Saxon saints. In a trip round Whitby Abbey, you trip over them after all.

Whitby Abbey was founded (or perhaps organised by) Hilda in 657. All I knew about her and her times, I learned fromthis book

It is a good book- history made real, with some good earthy bodice ripping (if the Anglo Saxon’s wore bodices.) Certainly worth a place in the suitcase if you are away on holiday. But it is Melvin Bragg’s take on the times- information is pretty sketchy after all.

Melvin Bragg did a programme on Hilda’s influence on his wonderful ‘In our time’ programme- well worth a listen here.

What is clear is that Hilda was a pagan who converted to Christianity aged 13 along with a whole Kingdom. There is a fantastic story about how this came about- her own father had been on the wrong side of some dynastic troubles and ended up poisoned, and so Hilda, a princess of royal blood sought refuge at the court of King Edwin in Northumbria. Edwin came under the influence of Christian missionaries, and asked his whole court to come to a consensus as to whether they should convert to Christianity. One of his courtiers is recorded as asking the court to imagine a sparrow flying into the great hall and finding itself surrounded by the glories of court. The suggestion was that we too are sparrows, living a short life amid much uncertainty- and here was a faith that promised an eternal relationship with the divine…

They converted, along with Hilda.

The venerable Bede, author of  The Ecclesiastical History of the English People around 731 is our main source of information about Hilda. Bede probably met people who knew her.

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice. Considering all the fuss at the moment in the Church of England over women Bishops (and the Pope preposterous pronunciations about women priests being a sin along side child abuse) it is interesting to note that Hilda presided over two houses- one male and one female. She was part of a tradition of royal princesses who became leaders of holy houses all along the north east coast of England- wherever a river met the sea.

Hilda’s kindness and leadership seemed to allow others to flourish in learning and leadership- 5 of her monks went on to be bishops in the Anglo Saxon church. She was also well enough thought of that her house became the site of the famous Synod of Whitby, where the date of Easter was debated, and many believe the power of Rome finally overcame the Celtic churches.

She also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Cædmon, however. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it.

Although Hilda must have had a strong character she inspired affection. As Bede writes, “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.

The stories of lives of faith lived out in these ancient times are fascinating. The accounts are not history as we understand it- rather they are seeking to inspire and encourage devotion.

Hilda, because of her support of Caedmon , Hilda is regarded as the patron saint of Poets everywhere.

Everywhere- and here…

The Varieties of Religious Experience…

Another interesting discussion on the radio this morning courtesy of Melvin Bragg’s programme ‘In Our Time’.

It centred around the work of Doctor, psychologist and ‘natural theologist’ William James– brother of novelist Henry James.

In 1901 William James began a series of lectures in Edinburgh, which came to be collected together as a book entitled ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’.

It seems to me that James is of our time more than his. The modern obsession with logic and scientific reason- as the proper object and arbiter of all human endeavour- has been eroded by the events of the end of the 20th Century. Perhaps above all the fact that science has not delivered answers to the human condition, but rather has brought  us huge environmental, moral and ethical problems that we all live in the shadow of- Ozone holes, radiation, global warming, the failure of free market economics etc.

In a world where the Zeitgeist was (and perhaps still is) overwhelmingly concerned with the rational and logical, even our approach to religion, James stood out as proposing a totally different way to understand faith. Rather than focus on doctrine and dogma, solidified and codified within religious texts, or in the institutions of faith, he suggested that only valid way to understand faith was in individual subjective experience. He went further and suggested that the faith experience was at the heart of what it meant to be human- and to understand this was to understand better who we are.

This led James to investigate mystical experiences, including by using hallucinogenic drugs. He was less interested in whether faith was ‘true’, or whether God existed, but more in the effect and usefulness that transcendent experience had on those who experienced it. This individualistic and self-centred version of religious seeking feels very post modern.

“Not God”, James states, “but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.”

James was also interested in how personality and ‘spiritual health’ interacted with our choice of faith (which resonates with this post) and he spent a lot of his time in the lectures discussing people who had undergone conversion experiences.

A couple of quotes from here

James recognized a pattern in conversion experiences. It tended to happen when people were so low that they just ‘gave up’, the vacuum of hope providing space for revelation. The religious literature is full of stories along these lines, in which the constrictions and negative aspects of the ego are finally discarded; one begins to live only for others or for some higher goal. The compensation for becoming dependent upon God is a letting go of fear, and it is this that makes conversion such a liberating experience. It is the fearlessness and sense of absolute security in God that gives the convert their breathtaking motivation. An apparently perfectly normal person will give up everything and become a missionary in the jungle, or found a monastery in the desert, because of a belief. Yet this invisible thing will drastically change their outward circumstances, which led James to the unavoidable conclusion that for such a person, their conversion or spiritual experience was a fact, indeed more real than anything which had so far happened in their lives.

James acknowledged that science would be forever trying to blow away the obscuring mists of religion, but in doing so it would totally miss the point. Science could only ever talk in the abstract, but personal spiritual experience was the more powerful precisely because it is subjective. Spirituality is about the emotions and the imagination and the soul – and to a human being these are everything.

I find myself both in sympathy and at odds with James- in much the same way as I am with the pluralist times we live in. For him, religion was about personal transformative experience, a little akin to a piece of remarkable cognitive behavioural therapy. God became portable and useful- perhaps even something to be cherished as a way of giving life direction and meaning.

But I have this feeling that the Lion of Judah is no tame lion…

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…

The Siege of Münster and the Anabaptists, via Melvin Bragg…

The cages hanging from a church in munster which held the corpses of the anabaptist leaders

Another great programme on Radio 4 the other day- available as a podcast for your listening pleasure here.

This one digs into the story of the Anabaptist attempt to create a New Jerusalem in the city of Munster during troubled times in 1534.

I had not heard about this tragic part of church history before- and am grateful to old Melvin for waving it at me through the ether. It is a case study from the beginnings of the protestant experiment- in the early days of the old reformation. Much of what we children of this reformation have come to accept as the bedrocks of faith can be seen in the various sects and streams of the Anabaptists. They were the pioneers.

Indeed if you will forgive me for being partisan for a moment- they were the radical activists of the ’emerging church’ of their day.

But as this programme points out, they were a disparate bunch, who regarded persecution as signs of God’s election- so justifying some pretty odd wacky ideas too. So alongside adult Baptism, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the authority of Scripture (now widely available of course thanks to the technological revolution of the printing press) there were leaders who claimed to be the Godly ordained successors of David, or Gideon, and to claim Biblical justification for polygamy.

Oh- and the Anababtists of Munster thought that the world was about to end- and in such a context, murder, despotism and all sorts of evil became legitimate means to an end…

As ever, we grasp some things of the Kingdom of God, whilst confusing and even perverting others.

Perhaps above all, this is case study of what happens when Jesus (or at least his most fervent followers) and politics are thrown together in troubled and changing times.

Add in a dose of charisma, a dollop of religious zealotry, and the result is bloodshed and destruction.

I think one of the biggest lessons we children of a new unfolding reformation need to learn is that Christians are called to lay down power in the name of love and service.

Or the funeral fires of Munster will have burned for nothing.

Melvin does St. Paul…


Ah the joys of Radio 4.

If any experience refines and celebrates my sense of connectedness with the place of my birth, it is listening to Radio 4. And because I am often on the road driving around Argyll, the station has become my faithful traveling companion.

This morning is a case in point- Melvin Bragg speaking to theologians  about the impact of St Paul on western civilisation. You can listen again, or down load the podcast here.


Melvin and the miracles

I had a trip to Oban this morning to attend a meeting in the hospital there. A good morning to be driving- not just because of the lovely still calm day, with mountains mirrored on lochs, but also because of Melvin Bragg on radio 4.

‘In our time’ is a history/philosophy/faith (or what ever else the polymath Bragg is interested in) discussion programme, in which an issue is chosen, and Bragg quizzes some handpicked experts around a BBC microphone.

I love the programme- even when I have not got a clue what it is being said- which is quite often. I suppose I just like the fact that complex issues like this can find some prime-time air-time. Well done the Beeb…

This morning the discussion was on MIRACLES. You can listen again as a podcast here.

I discovered that the Hebrew word translated as ‘Miracle’ means ‘sign’, or ‘wonder’. Something unexplained that points us to God. The programme dug into these areas;

What are they?

Are the accounts factual, dependable, or mythological?

How have they been understood through history?

What meaning did they have in people’s lives?

What role have they played throughout church history?

The discussion covered stuff from the burning bush to the signs and wonders of Jesus. It also asked some questions about the vast trade in relics, at one point, perhaps the greatest import into England from abroad, and how the reformation initially tried to sweep away all this stuff as superstition, and suggested that the time of miracles was over, replaced by the time of reason and faith.

And of how, with increasing distance from these signs and wonders, people became increasingly dependent on scripture as rational evidence for God. And so the importance and centrality of scripture as central to faith life and belief grew and grew.

But as we know, the Protestants never gave up on miracles. From the very beginning of the Reformation, groups would describe the supernatural intervention of God, both on a personal,local level, and nationally.

And there are even now whole channels of satellite TV full of so-called miracles. And thousands flock to shrines at Lourdes or Walsingham seeking their own miracles…

Within the Charismatic movement that has shaped me and my faith, the power of the Holy Spirit was expected to be revealed in miracles- healing, prophecy, deliverance and direct provision.  Although it seems to me that we often hyped up and overpromised, I still have many stories that I can explain no other way but by using miraculous language.

Melvin led an interesting discussion about what Francis of Assisi had to say about miracles. How even then there was a concern to test and discern when this was of God, or of the Devil or some trickery. Little changes it seems! He also quoted St Francis (I think) as saying that the greater miracle was to be seen in the action of a family who meet a perceived need of the other...

Love lived out always did seem miraculous to me- and perhaps even rarer than a former cripple dancing the Highland fling on the God channel!

I kind of think that encountering God will always mean encountering miracles. Signs, wonders. I doubt these will ever be conclusive universal evidence for faith and belief. Even those of Jesus did not seem to offer that.

But the meaning they bring to my friends, in the way they live out their lives towards God- this is real.

So thanks for the mental and spiritual work-out Melvin…