A humanist (mis)reading of Harry Potter?

I confess, the third paper in the Ravenclaw Reader has made me question the wisdom of this blog project. And at the least it shows how very differently people can read the Potter books. Siddarth Pandey, who appears to be a PhD student at Homerton, Cambridge, approaches them with a copy of Deleuze in his back pocket.

Let’s start with a few observations. Pandey wants to argue that magic is fluid, and this fits Deleuze’s way of thinking about the universe.

Movement indeed determines both the being and the experience of magic, so that Rowling’s fictional world is forever embrace by shiftiness. (p.57).

To that end he evidences the changing staircases of Hogwarts, the Burrow “burst[ing] with the strange and unexpected” (Chamber p.37), the enchanted Ford Anglia that takes on a semi-wild existence of its own in the Forbidden Forest, what he suggests is a “mysterious magical pact” (p.55) between the Marauder’s Map and the Room of Requirement which means the room doesn’t appear on the map, the ways in which the dark magic objects in 12 Grimmauld Place resist attempts to clean and remove them so that it seems as if they’re actually “waging war on the house” (Phoenix p.109), teapots that go berserk and squirt tea on their Muggle user, the paintings whose occupants wander off from time to time, and so on.

marauders_mapThe problem with this list is its equally easy to go through it and point out other explanations specific to these features. The absence of the Room of Requirement from the Marauders’ Map is explained explicitly within the narrative as part of the magic of the room, and implicitly by the probability that the Marauders never found it in their time in the school.  The strange things of the Burrow are only strange to Harry, who has never been in a wizard’s house before. They are regarded explicitly in the text as “perfectly normal” (Chamber p.37). The objects of Grimmauld Place are the detritus of a dark wizarding family, who imbued the house with all the things they could think of to keep people like the Weasleys (and the Ministry) away. The teapots that go berserk have been bewitched to do so by Muggle-baiting wizards.

There are only three things on the list which might suggest some unpredictable fluidity to the world. However, of these, the changing staircases of Hogwarts are presented as part of the ingrained magic of the building, without explanation – a peculiarly magic exaggeration of the normal predicament of the child new to a secondary school: getting lost on the way to class because they’re unfamiliar with the building. The paintings are a more interesting case: their magic is never explained, but there appears to be a consistent logic to them. Whereas photos only seem to have the movement of their subjects, paintings participate in the personality – perhaps the soul – of their subject. The apotheosis of this in the narrative is the way in which Dumbledore’s portrait engages actively in events after his death.

In the end, it is only the car which proves unpredictable, given life of a kind by the charms placed on it, and presumably, the beating inflicted on it by the whomping willow. I feel that Pandey reads his “fluidity” into the text:  on closer inspection the evidence for it is blown away as chaff before the wind of narrative logic.

He is right, I think to read magic as entirely non-transcendent in terms of the Potter universe. Yet I can’t see myself that this has anything to do with the “force of magic [having] a indeterminable interiority” (p.58), it is more because it is the science and technology of the magical world. The non-transcendental nature of magic doesn’t mean there is no transcendence in Rowling’s creation, it just means the transcendence is located elsewhere, and I would say that it is love to which Rowling allocates the transcendent value that weaves through the heart of the story.

As for Pandey’s idea that the takeover of the Ministry by Voldemort’s supporters is somehow a critique of “religion in a fundamentalist sense”, and that the motto “Magic is Might” seems “closer to the hallowed tone of ‘May the Force be with you'” (p.63), well, I can only suggest he fails to see a parody of political sloganeering that almost certainly has literary echoes of 1984’s “War is Peace” and the like. There is nothing about the paraphernalia of Voldemort’s rise to power that carries any overt or even implicit religiosity; there is much that carries explicit echoes of how power operates in a fascist dictatorship. I assume Pandey has had some very extreme experiences of fundamentalist religion, which might explain – if you will excuse the politically incorrect word – this misreading of the text.

There are some very interesting observations in Pandey’s argument. His attempt to offer a (very clever) Deleuzean reading is probably beyond my limited intelligence, but it seems to me to flatten the detail of the book and impose a framework on it which doesn’t fi. He is also unusual in arguing for “magic’s humanist pull” and its “aversion towards transcendence” (p.65) This essay, more than most is crying out for a response. Unfortunately, it does;t really get it. The response is briefly complimentary to the author, and then goes off on a line of its own. I would have expected this paper to generate a lot of discussion, and a fair bit of push-back.

Stale Expressions of Faith?

39_ArticlesOne of the few things that’s clear about “Anglicanism” is that Anglicans can’t bring themselves to agree what it means. The mechanisms whereby Tudor monarch, parliament and archbishop acting together could impose any kind of doctrine on a divided church are long since gone and have never been replaced. History also proved that they were of strictly limited effectiveness, and very few contemporary Anglicans would see much biblical or theological justification for Henry’s approach to Church government.

Doctrinally, this has left the foundation documents of the Church of England somewhat stranded. The official position is this: first in Canon A5

The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.
In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.

Then comes the declaration of assent which each licensed minister, lay and ordained is required to make:

I … declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness;

These appear to agree on a gradation: Scripture is bedrock, the creeds are a distillation of that faith, and the Prayer Book, Ordinal and Articles are signposts to, or examples of, the said doctrine. That said, the phrase “historic witnesses” is generally taken read as a downgrading of those documents. One very conservative Anglican, on behalf of his equally conservative organisation, fulminates against the wording:

It ought to be plain to everyone that the Declaration has not stopped people entering the Church of England ministry who do not believe in God, nor those who do not accept the divinity of Christ, nor those who engage in or promote sodomy.

Clergy in the past were required to ascribe ex animo (from the heart) to the Articles, because they are a faithful exposition of the teaching of Scripture. But this modern wording merely says, that the Church has borne witness (past tense) to this faith in the formularies. (David Phillips, Church Society article accessed 08/10/15)

More than that, actual practice in almost every existing strand of Anglicanism rarely uses the Prayer Book for worship, very few of those who have been ordained have been ordained with Cranmer’s Ordinal, and the 39 Articles are not much used, as far as I can tell, in theological formation and education.

In what I expect to be an occasional series, I want to renew a conversation with the 39 articles, and bring contemporary readings of scripture and tradition into that conversation. I think that, like all Church tradition, they need to be treated more seriously than an historical anachronism. They are, even on their own terms, open to revision and reformation. Nobody reading them properly should be able to claim they should be excluded from semper reformanda (part of a Reformation slogan meaning “always being reformed”).

They belong also in a package with the worshipping life of the church, anchored as they are to the prayer book and ordinal. Turning to the articles alone, as though they were a complete and discrete confession of faith, seems to me unjustified both in historical and theological terms. They are much more like a series of boundary markers laid down in the disputes of the Reformation. Those disputes look different today, and many (most?) of our questions were not even on the horizon. Some of the boundary markers may need moving, some may be wrong, and some may need shoring up.

Exploring an historical root of Anglican expressions of faith, also leads into questions of renewing catechesis – that is, being serious about the teaching of the faith, and not just the sharing of faith. Catechisms have also got a little lost: as one of the Reform and Renewal papers noted at the start of this year: “The Catechism of the Church of England is an important but neglected document.” (Developing Discipleship GS1977). Neglected indeed, the present revised catechism (yes it does exist) appears nowhere, as far as I can see, on the Church of England website.

A long time ago, on a blog far, far away, I wrote a series on the 39 articles, no vanished into the ether (or possibly buried beneath the sands of Tatooine). One of the ways in which this series will, I hope, differ from that one is that I will be keeping some of those catechetical questions in mind. That seems to me one of the better reasons for engaging a particular snapshot of where Anglicans once thought both their core beliefs as well as their hot-button issues were in our formative past.

This series could take a long time: I don’t intend to post items frequently and I do intend to give each article at least one post to itself. So if you’re at all interested, stay tuned. Once I’ve got enough posts together, I’ll do an index page.

(The first in a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion)

Death of death and Voldemort’s destruction

The second chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader homes in on the theme of death in Harry Potter. The main paper is written by John Dunne: ‘The Death of Death in the Death of the Boy who Lived” According to his Academia page, he’s studying at St Andrew’s for a PhD under Tom Wright’s supervision. Finding this out helped explain to me why he felt a need to refer to Wright’s slogan of “life after life after death” (p.36): whether this is a description of Paul’s viewpoint that the apostle would have recognised is a moot point. The (very brief) response comes from John Granger, an early advocate of Christian readings of Potter.

This essay certainly addresses a major theme in the books, and Dunne helpfully explores many of the key ways in which Rowling depicts death in the books. He is particularly concerned with the second part of his title: “The Morality of Mortality in Harry Potter.” He wishes to tease out whether death is, as the citation of Paul on James and Lily Potter’s headstone has it “the last enemy that shall be destroyed” (1 Cor 15:26 KJV in Rowling’s citation) or whether death is something to be embraced. Dumbledore’s description of Nicholas Flamel seeing it as “the next great adventure” (an echo of Peter Pan’s “to die will be an awfully big adventure”?) in the first book is taken further in the ‘Tale of Three Brothers’ in the last: there the youngest brother “greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly” (Deathly Hallows p.332).

I am not sure that the questions Dunne raises are the ones I see as most natural. Rowling, it seems to me, uses Paul’s quotation mainly because of its embeddedness in the broader Christian story of sacrifice of love in death leading to triumph of life in resurrection and the defeat of evil. I don’t think she’s interested in its specific Pauline location. The snippet of conversation Dunne discusses, I think, also makes this point.

‘”The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” … A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. ‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?’
‘It doesn’t mean eating death in the the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,’ said Hermione, her voice gentle. ‘It means … you know … living beyond death.” (Deathly Hallows p.268 – the ellipses are Rowling’s pauses not my excisions)

It is those who follow Voldemort who hold that death is to be either inflicted or avoided. It is they who make it an enemy in the books. Harry Potter’s triumph is that he learns to embrace it in self-sacrifice in order to find the path of life and peace, as he sees it, for his friends and his world. He expects to die in the forest, fortified only by his faith in the presence of his own personal communion of saints: Lily, James, Lupin and Sirius. Granger’s response rightly emphasises the sacrificial nature of the death that destroys death (p.47-48). It is in giving up the attempt to master death that death is mastered.

It is both Harry’s embrace of death, and Voldemort’s fear of death, that leave me disagreeing with Dunne’s strongly argued point that Voldemort is a personification of death as enemy to be defeated (pp.30-41). Despite his subtitle, mortality does not have a morality. Mortality is a condition, a constraint, a non-moral fact of life. Morality comes in how we live with this human condition. All Voldemort’s evil is about his refusal to be human, his desire to be special. As Dumbledore comments after reliving his memory with Harry of that day he told Tom Riddle he was a wizard: “Riddle was perfectly ready to believe that he was – to use his word – special.” (Half-Blood Prince, p.258).

Generally, I like the film adaptations. There are some things I think they get wrong, and by far the worst of those in my book, is giving Voldemort a special effects death. Rowling, I think, is very careful in her treatment. The final duel of the wands is the climax of a conversation after the battle has paused, and at the end

Voldemort fell backwards, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upwards. Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snake-like face vacant and unknowing. (Deathly Hallows p.596 my emphasis)

It comes to us all, even those who have gone beyond all normal magic and humanity in trying to avoid it, and instead tried to master death by power, skill and sheer brutality. Voldemort in death is no-one special, just shrunken mundane Tom Riddle, who had fled mundanity all his life, and for whom death was the ultimate symbol of the ordinariness he was fleeing. The morality at the heart of the story is one of embracing a common humanity not resisting it. Our creatureliness is bounded by our mortality, ultimate sacrament of contingency, on the planet, on one another, and on one who created all things.

The non-reality of a Hogwarts education

Hogwarts ClassroomIn yesterday’s introductory post, I mentioned that the Ravenclaw Reader consisted of paper-and-response pairs. The first such pair looks at Hogwarts as a school. The paper “Learning, Understanding, Experience: Harry Potter and Pedagogy” is by Jessica Tiffin, the response “Hidden in Plain Sight” is by Joel Hunter. Dr Tiffin is a Student Development Officer in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town; Dr Hunter is a philosopher who’s moved out of traditional university into a community college. (I really do wish they’d provided a page describing contributors to save me time on Google.)

I have to say, Tiffin’s paper doesn’t strike me as the most auspicious start to the book. However, given the centrality of Hogwarts to the story, I can see why the editors started with it. Tiffin discusses the very limited appearances education actually makes in the Potterverse, the technological way in which magic is largely taught as practical skills within the narrative, and the vanishingly small appearances of competent teaching. Hogwarts, we may be sure, would not have passed its OFSTED (the English schools government inspection system).

Teaching is frequently ineffective and alienating to its students, and the knowledge it purports to teach often impenetrable; its function is secondary to the demands of what I choose to identify as the heroic plot, Harry’s destined confrontation with Voldemort. (p.2)

She presents an overview of dysfunctional learning in the school ranging from Professor Binns’ History of Magic class (an object lesson in the worst kind of old-fashioned recital of facts and dates approach) to the outrageous bullying and favouritism exhibited by Snape. Her observations of these details are largely accurate, although one suspects the reason there is no portrayal of a lesson teaching magical theory is that it would be poor narrative. We know there is such a thing (after all Dolores Umbridge will only let theory be taught) but Rowling does not portray it on the page. In drawing attention to the paucity of education on the page, Tiffin delineates something interesting that is often overlooked.

It is, however, the more general conclusions she draws from her observations I have problems with. The fact that the narrative majors in “Magic, Sport and Heroism” is less about “the elitism of a magical curriculum” (p.6) and more about the school as a backdrop for a different kind of adventure story. The fictional antecedents of Hogwarts attended by made-up adventurous children are largely as unlike the schools of the readers as the magical world is unlike the Muggle one. In many ways, Rowling’s story-telling is more of a throwback to earlier forms of children’s fiction where narrative compulsion takes precedence over educational virtue, and is probably all the more educative for it. In comparing her with more recent writers, Tiffin misses something of the point the child readers appreciate reflexively.

Indeed, the largest conclusion she draws (and to which the paper works) seems to me to be the most misplaced:

Important lessons, the series says, are only learned outside the classroom; … formal classroom outcomes are deemed [utterly irrelevant] in their subordination to the heroic narrative. … [The popularity of the stories of this school] demonstrates, I think, that across our education system, something is very wrong. (p.19)

The idea that the Potter books are popular precisely because the awful experience of education therein resonates with children’s awful experience of school strikes me as almost exactly upside-down. While there are recognisable elements of school, often exaggerated for comic effect, the appeal of Hogwarts is in being exactly unlike real school for most of today’s pupils, a place they’d like to belong to as those two orphaned protagonists Voldemort and Harry came to feel they belonged for the first time. The violation of Hogwarts between Umbridge in book five and the Carrows in book seven is meant to be as deeply felt as the loss to death of any of the characters. The analysis of Hogwarts as a school does little to further appreciation for Hogwarts as a narrative character.

In that respect, I find Hunter’s response much more in tune with my reading of the book. He sets the portrayal of Hogwarts against the largely dysfunctional nature of the wizarding world (p.27) which comes increasingly under question. (Dumbledore is one of the few who stands for a different way of doing things, and it is only late in the narrative arc that we find the deeply personal story of human frailty that stands behind his apparently unique stance.)

As the dystopian magnitude of wizarding society unfolds in Order, Prince and Hallows, readers may inevitably look back and ask “How did we ever get here?” only to find indicators of just how horrid Hogwarts schooling is in the first half of the series. (p.29)

Part of the answer is, of course, to be found in the reminder that this is a society that is scarred by a war which has never quite gone away, and part in the implicit racism that has become endemic to the world of magic. In drawing attention to this, Hunter reminds us that having created a wonderful world apparently unlike ours, initially attractive for being a fantasy to escape into, Rowling then turns the mirror back, so that we can see ourselves and our world more clearly.

For the trick to work, however, the nature of Hogwarts as fantasy education has to draw us in first, and after all, which of us wouldn’t like to play Quidditch, or learn Defence against the Dark Arts. The fantasy draws us in precisely as being unlike our world, not because we recognise the poor pedagogy of Potterworld as our own. It seems to me that Tiffin has been so taken with observing the details some very interesting and easily overlooked tress, she’s not realised that she’s wandered into the Forbidden Forest.

Harry Potter and the Groves of Academe

RavenclawReaderSo, as I was saying, Harry Potter gets his first academic conference. The edited proceedings of a 2012 conference at St Andrew’s University have just been published as The Ravenclaw Reader. Potterheads will get the allusion: Ravenclaw is the house “where those of wit and learning / will always find their kind.” (Philosopher’s Stone p88 – The Sorting Hat’s song). I hope to blog my way through the articles (each paired with a response) over the next couple of weeks. This post is by way of a starter.

I’m rather proud that when it comes to all things Harry Potter, I started ahead of the curve. It was sometime in the winter of 1998/9, I think, that I became intrigued to see a number of boys at our church primary school, none of whom you would think of as eager readers, spending lunchtimes with their heads in books (it was less of a surprise with girls). And it appeared to be one of two books, either Philosopher’s Stone (none of this American Sorcerer’s nonsense, please, the philosopher’s stone is a celebrated trope of alchemy) or Chamber of Secrets.

I decided to try one, and enjoying it greatly moved on to the other. I was hooked. I bought Prisoner of Azkaban (which remains my favourite book) on its publication day, as I did the next two. By the time we got to Half-Blood Prince I was queuing at midnight outside the shop (fortified in-between times by regular reading of Mugglenet). But it was, memory tells me, soon after the publication of Azkaban that the bandwagon began to roll, and by the time, two years later, the first film came round, it had become an apparently unstoppable media juggernaut.

As the momentum swelled, the odd (and they were very odd) fundamentalists started to swim out of the walls, like some kind of Puritan Peeves. (Peeves is a chaotic poltergeist and troublemaker absent from the films.)

I found myself being told very firmly that the books were evil. “Have you read any?” I enquired. “No. But she uses real spells from mediaeval grimoires to draw children into evil,” came back the answer. “Hmm,” I said, “that spell to make chewing-gum fly out of a keyhole and up a poltergeist’s nose must have been all the rage in the Middle Ages.” (Waddiwasi, if you should care to try it.) Alas, the self-righteousness was such that they didn’t even get the mockery.

It seems a long way from the respectability of a Harry Potter conference at a prestigious Scottish university. Interestingly, the foreword (by James Thomas, Professor of English at Pepperdine’s Seaver College) notes that “Conservative Christian opposition has abated a good bit now that Harry’s story has been told in full” (p.i) Those of us who’ve been arguing for its roots in classical and Christian cultural themes for some time can only say “Amen”.

Even more interestingly, the book’s two editors appear to be Christians from the more conservative end of the theological spectrum. Micah Snell is a priest in the Anglican Church of North America (Anglican in name, but not in communion with Canterbury) and John Patrick Pazdziora is an alumnus of Moody Bible Institute and Belfast Bible College. They are both studying with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrew’s.

(It is one of the frustrations of the collection that there is no list of contributors – I’ve had to Google to bring you these biographical notes.)

In their introduction they note the “moral neutrality, both of Rowling’s fictional magic and of the imagination” (p.viii) and point out that “loved or loathed or preserved as quaint enigma, Harry Potter will remain the definitive cultural literary text of the generation that read its way into the third millennium.” (p.vi) Whatever their literary merit (much no doubt to be disputed) the books are a cultural phenomenon. I hope that the collection will live up to my hopes and the promise of its own foreword.

Bootstrapping the blog

It’s been a long time since my blogging was anything but desultory. I have it in mind to make the effort to get back to a more regular posting schedule, and that means finding some things to write about in a more organised way to get myself back into the habit.

I’m picking two starters. A long time ago, on a blog far away enough to be largely beyond the reach of even Google’s wayback machine, I ran a series on the 39 articles that proved (to me at least) rather more interesting than it said on the tin. I still have some of the source material, even if my views have sometimes moved on. Over however long it takes, I’d quite like to rework that series, perhaps a bit more with catechesis in mind.

(Should you be asking why I was so stupid as to delete a blog that was more widely read than I expected or it deserved, the answer is a complex combo of blog-weariness, a bout of depression, and (for in depression you lose most of your sense of proportion) what I felt I was experiencing as cyber-bullying from a couple of individuals whom I shall not name, but who are now indelibly etched in my spam filters.)

The other project, with which I shall start shortly, is to blog my way through the newly published (and edited) proceedings of a 2012 conference: the first academic conference devoted to Harry Potter. The first up on that will be a general introduction.

Well, so much for good intentions, let’s see if I can put them into practice.

Sorry, but I don’t think that’s evangelism

I was just now in Foyles, trying to look at newish theology books. A couple of young women, one head-scarved, one not, came by. One said to the other that this is where she could get a Bible. Immediately, an older man by the shelves with a friend, leapt in: “The Bible, yes, you should read that. It’s true.”

The head-scarved woman hit back. “Are you saying that to be helpful, or because you’re prejudiced?” The dialogue, such as it was, developed. She tried to challenge him about his presuppositions. He denied he had presuppositions because he knew the truth, and indeed, knew the author of the Bible so he could understand what it said, since it was God’s word, and anyway, Jesus said the Bible was true.

When he quoted it, it was the KJV, and virtually all his quotations, prefixed “Jesus himself actually said” were from St John’s gospel: this is a definition of “actually said” which is somewhat stretches the semantic resources of that phrase!

He’d clearly also read some kind of “Evangelical Apologist’s Guide to Where Islam Goes WRONG”, and kept telling the woman what she believed, and why it was wrong, since it contradicted the Bible. He didn’t, of course, listen to what she was saying about her belief.

I give her credit for a) being feisty, b) not letting him get away with his views and c) being far more intelligent and sophisticated about truth, faith and texts than he was. She had the advantage that she’d read at least parts of the Bible, had Christian friends, and was an Arabist and student of the Quran. He knew the Authorised version, and what other people had told him about (I approximate his pronunciation) “The Book of Korrrr-ran”.

I wanted to apologise to her on behalf of other Christians. Instead I left to catch a train, leaving her with at least a friendly remark which she seemed to appreciate, and pointing out to the would-be evangelist that of course he had presuppositions, and if he wanted an honest conversation he’d acknowledge them.

There was no relationship in this conversation. There was no respect for her as a human being. There was no consideration of the dynamics of an older man approaching a young woman. There was no attempt to listen to what she actually said, since he “knew” what Muslims believed.

And I’m sorry, that’s not evangelism as I see it.

Evangelism might have started in that context with a “Do you need any help choosing a Bible?” and seeing where the conversation went. But it would have included listening to what the woman was saying, and not assuming that there was an automatic right of a man in his sixties to approach a head-scarved young woman with a peremptory challenge about her beliefs, before he’d even found out what they were, or received any signal his approach was welcome.

Frankly, it made me embarrassed to admit I was Christian.

Good neighbours. Sermon in Morogoro Cathedral

I don’t often cross post things. And I almost never post sermons. (In fact, I hardly ever write sermons down, so posting them would be an impossibility!) However, I put this on or diocesan web site earlier today, and I’ve decided I also want to place it here. I hope it reflects an encouragement to take partnership in mission and cross-cultural friendship seriously.

The Chair of our (Tanzanian Diocese of) Morogoro Partnership Group asked me if I could write down a summary version of the short sermon I preached in Morogoro Cathedral on Sunday 30 August. This is an approximation of what I said intended for phrase by phrase translation. I have tried to reconstruct what I said on that occasion, and run it by colleagues to check. I have added a couple of glosses in italics. The Gospel Reading set for the Sunday was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:23-37).

This is, as best as memory serves, what I said.

Dear brothers and sisters, thank you. Thank you for your warm welcome to our group, thank you for inviting us to join you today in worshipping our Lord, thank you for the privilege of this invitation to share the scriptures with you. Asante sana. (Thank you very much.) We have already read you our bishop’s greetings, and offered you our own, but again I greet you in the name of the Lord on behalf of our brothers and sisters – and yours also – in the diocese of Worcester.

My brother John has already read one of the most famous stories in the Bible, and one that is much loved in our church in England. Today I think that story gives us both a challenge and a comfort. Like many of Jesus’ stories, it starts with a question.

In my country, children are full of questions. I expect the same is true here in your lovely country as well. Children ask questions, don’t they? It is how they learn things they don’t know. But in my country, something happens when we grow up. A lot of us stop asking questions, in case people think we are stupid.

But Jesus tells us we must become like little children. That means a lot of things, but I think it means we must always go on asking questions, because we all have a lot to learn. And when it comes to reading our Bible, we must keep asking God questions about what it is he wants us to learn.

Today’s story starts with a question. It is not a good question. The teacher of the law, the expert, is like a Bible professor: he is asking his question not because he wants to know the answer, but because he wants to test Jesus. He wants to be able to say either “good answer” or “bad answer”, he is like a teacher giving a child a test.

Jesus is not trapped so easily. He makes the teacher give an answer. It is Jesus’ own favourite answer: “Love God, love your neighbour.”  Then Jesus says “Well done.” Imagine how it would be in the Bible College if the student tells the Principal “well done”, or in school if the child tells the teacher “Good answer”.

The teacher of the law is not happy, he tries again. “Who is my neighbour?” This sounds like a better question. But Jesus doesn’t like it. It sounds good, but it means: “Who are the people I have to love?” Is it my family? Then I can ignore those who are not family. Is it my village? Then I don’t have to help people in another village? Is it my country? Then I don’t have to love people from another country.

Brothers and sisters, we are all here together today because of we know Jesus not only wants us to love people from other countries, but wants to make us his brothers and sisters, and so make strangers, English, Tanzanian, people from all countries, into family. But the teacher of the law does not know this, and so he asks “Who is my neighbour? Who are the people I have to love, and therefore who are the rest who I can hate?”

And so Jesus tells the story of the man who falls among thieves and lies wounded and bleeding by the side of the road. The priest (the pastor) passes by, the levite (the catechist) passes by, the Samaritan (the foreigner, the heretic) stops to help. And at the end of the story Jesus asks his own question: “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?”.

Look at Jesus’ question: “Who was a neighbour?” It means our question must not be the question of the teacher “Who is my neighbour?” but a new question: “Who can I be a neighbour to?” The Samaritan turned the wounded man into a neighbour by helping him: he did not see a Jew, he did not see a relative, he did not see a fellow countryman, he saw a man in need of help. He saw a man who needed love. And he helped, he loved, without asking questions about the man’s race, or family, or wealth, or status. This is Jesus’ challenge to us: he wants me, he wants you, to be a neighbour to anyone who needs help.

But there is also comfort. St Augustine was a great north African theologian 1600 years ago. Once he preached a sermon on this story in which he said the Good Samaritan was Jesus himself. He did not think of the risks to himself, he did not ask if we were worthy of help, but he loved us, and gave himself for us. He brought us to an inn, his holy church, so that we could be cared for, he handed over two coins: baptism, in which we are washed clean of our sins, and holy communion, the food of life which sustains and heals us.

There are times in our lives when we feel unable to help another, when we feel like the man who is wounded, beaten, bleeding by the side of the road. We are unable to get up unaided and continue our journey through life. But Jesus is always there to help us, to rescue us, to carry us and save us. And in his holy church he gives us each other to act as neighbours, to act as brothers, to act as sisters, to love, and care for, and help each other. This is a great comfort, that we do not journey alone, but with Jesus, and his whole company of friends.

Brothers and sisters, I spoke of St Augustine, child of Africa. He was not only a bishop and teacher for his own church, but his writings, his sermons have inspired the church for hundreds of years. One of the greatest theologians and teachers who has ever lived was African. And there were Christians in Africa before there were Christians in England. In my country and in your country we need to remember this.

Yet for many centuries, there were very few Christians in Africa. In many places, the church disappeared. In recent centuries, European countries acted as neighbours again and brought the faith of Jesus back to Africa. We were not always good neighbours. Even if we shared the faith, we did many things neighbours should not do. Many times in the past we Europeans behaved more like the thieves and not like the Good Samaritan. But now our Christian faith is strong again in you.

In Africa, Christianity disappeared in most places for centuries. In England, in Europe, it is disappearing today. We are like the wounded man by the side of the road. We need a neighbour. In Europe, in England, the church needs a neighbour to help us on our journey. You know you have much material poverty in your country. We have more poverty than you think, but we are still a rich country – in money, in buildings, in material things. Yet we have grown very poor in the things of the Spirit. You are very rich in the Spirit, in faith, in hope, and in love of Jesus. We need you to be neighbours to us as well, to be a neighbour to our church, to bind up our wounds and support us on the journey.

Brothers and sisters, I thank God for our friendship link. I thank God that Morogoro and Worcester can each give something to one another. That we can belong together to the family of Jesus, his one holy church. That we can help each other. That we are neighbours to each other. I pray that we will continue to learn to be good neighbours.

Bwana asifiwe. (= “Praise the Lord”. Response: Amen)

Alleluia. (Response: Amen.)

Please do not feed the paranoid

Western Christians seem to be developing a rather unhealthy persecution complex.It can be seen in the ways in which Christians have assessed early media interviews with Tim Farron. It can certainly be seen in a recent (well almost any vintage) story from the Christian Institute, which I noticed when a Facebook friend shared it at face value. It’s growing more common.

I want to offer a couple of brief observations, starting with the Farron election and subsequent interviews. Gillan Scott, in one of the more thoughtful reactions, provides the key links from The Times (paywall), the Spectator’s transcription with comment of the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News. He signs up to the persecution reading of these:

This whole episode has demonstrated that it is not Tim Farron who is being illiberal in his views and beliefs, but rather those who have set themselves up as a liberal elite, casting scorn and treating as pariahs those who do not bow down at the throne of secularism. God has been pushed to the margins, and religious illiteracy glories in its own folly.

I am not so certain this is the right way to read it, and Gillan’s comment about “religious illiteracy” seems to me nearer the mark. The more interesting reaction, and to my mind the more helpful one, is the reading offered by Ben Ryan at Theos. Media stories rely far more than we usually allow on two factors, a pre-existing script or story template into which the story can be fitted, and an easy controversial point, ideally with a completely contradictory view for balance.

When you take the religious literacy problem prevalent in our media into consideration, then Humphrys’ and Newman’s crassness becomes rather more understandable as floundering for cheap controversy without a decent story template to help them.

The problem with the easy cry of “persecution” or even just “marginalisation” is that it doesn’t put the core problem, media ignorance of a subject that is central to an increasing amount of global reporting, into the spotlight. (To which we should add Christian incompetence at providing accessible and intelligent presentations of the faith that sound like there may be a though worth pursuing.) And developing religious literacy in the media is key to developing it in society. See these repeated calls for a BBC Religion Editor to give the area due weight and competence.

The other story I saw today which illustrates the Christian persecution problem comes from the Christian Institute. Sadly, I came across it from someone on Facebook seeming to take the CI’s headline as gospel: Police to crack down on street preachers in Manchester. Their overblown news release starts off with “Police and council officers will target street preachers in Manchester city centre.” Their cited source, however, from which it appears the whole story has come, says something rather different:

Council officers will target pedlars and chuggers but officers will also crackdown on any nuisance booksellers, preachers and noisy musicians (emphasis added)

Frankly, if Manchester is anything like Birmingham, my sympathies lie largely with the council and police. By the time I’ve passed several stalls of Muslims on da’wah, a troupe of Hare Krishna, endless charity collectors, competing Christians with shouted KJV verses, Yoda impersonators, more charity collectors round the corner and so on, I sometimes wish I hadn’t ventured out.

Treating a crackdown on cacophony as “persecution” shows just how deeply this narrative has embedded itself in some people’s psyche.

The first problem with this modern Christian persecution mania is that it is not going to encourage us to find creative ways to address the key problem of religious illiteracy, especially in and among media people. The second is that it is likely to lead to short-term and knee-jerk thinking about campaigns, most of which show every sign of being fought in the wrong ditch. The third is that is likely to grow an us-and-them mentality and so become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Did Jesus make love a general principle?

Last week I was listening to one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation talking about applying the teaching of Jesus to politics. I have to confess to being disappointed. His approach was to isolate the double love commandment, the “summary of the law” as Jesus’ central ethical principles, and then suggest that we today had to work out how to apply those principles.

I have problems with this, the first of which is that it is unexceptional almost to the point of vacuity to say that politics should practice and promote the love of neighbour, while being controversial to the point of displacing liberal democracy to say it should promote the love of God. Unfortunately the emphasis was on applying the principle of the former while neglecting the disruptive nature of the latter.

The second problem I have with it is that I seriously wonder whether the way these commands are abstracted is helpful. There’s a sense in which there’s nothing that unusual in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe in Mark (12:28-34). It belongs with the rabbinic tradition that attributes to Hillel the summary of the law as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” (Matthew’s Jesus also has his own version of that summary – Matt 7:12.)

While Matthew (22:34-40) essentially re-uses Mark’s story while making the scribe more antagonistic, Luke attributes the combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18 to the teacher of the Law. It is possible to read this as Luke not seeing its attribution to Jesus as significant. It is equally possible to see it as Luke thinking his readers / hearers will be so familiar with it as Jesus’ teaching that they read / hear the story as the lawyer deliberately choosing to parrot Jesus’ teaching back to him. John, of course, has neither command, but provides a potentially more sectarian “love one another” that appears nowhere in the synoptic tradition.

A love-ethic does feature significantly in Paul and early Christianity, and appears to echo Jesus tradition in many cases. However, there’s no evidence that, for those at home with first century Jewish readings of Torah, there is anything particularly unusual or exceptional in Jesus’ appropriation of these verses as either a summary or hermeneutical key to Torah. The way in which later Christian tradition singles them out as unusual, or revolutionary, may just be the default setting of Christian anti-Judaism. Given the priority of love, that is desperately ironic.

But there’s that other thing about detaching them from the rest of Torah, or Paul’s communal practice, as “ethical principles”. It means any particular definition of love, which may or may not owe anything to the particular practices the text has historically been embedded in, can be read into it without any other controls. Abstracting love as a general principle allows it to become whatever the reader wants it to be, and Jesus’ hermeneutical key for reading Torah becomes a contemporary means for ignoring it.