Thursday, 28 April 2011


I DO NOT CLAIM, or even pretend, that I am in touch with your God. I am not in touch with my parents' or grandparents' God, or the one whose Holy Writ we studied in Religious Knowledge classes at Warwick Academy. The political God who watched over racially segregated Sunday school classes at St. Mary the Virgin does not attend me. The Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Mormon Gods have also abandoned me, at my request. No sign of the God of the Muslims. Does he have a long beard? Are we allowed to guess? I do not have the God of the Jews calling out from a doorway I had not noticed until then, as I pop a butterscotch sweetie in my mouth:

"Come on in. I will put words in your head. Words in your heart. Words in your mouth. Words on your page. I am a God, after all."

Still, I have something. Echoes move me. What a clever God to give us that second and third chance to hear exactly what we are saying, the opportunity to call again across some canyon or down a valley:

"Sorry. That came out all wrong! I will try again."

Echoes and pictures. While treating myself to some fine art and culture over the Internet, I discovered the face of Christ in Michelangelo's 'Pieta' (sculpted in 1498and 1499, presently in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome) this week. This is the most famous Pieta; Michelangelo created several. You will recognize this one. You might not know the face, and that is what moved me to write about it, the other faces of God, and the smug faces of men.

To be honest, my memory of this Pieta is a sense of a picture that is not so clearly detailed, but that has what we might call a sensory language, a psychological effect on the viewer. A man's body very nearly broken over a woman's lap. That is what I have been seeing for fifty-seven years. That might have been Michelangelo's intent. Yet it is not broken, if you look a little closer. There is, after all, no pain in it. I cannot feel anger towards anyone, even myself, for this expression of Christianity.

Christ's face is looking very nearly to the ceiling. A friend went to see this monument to faith and, just as importantly in my opinion, the genius who carved it. It is now behind a bulletproof glass wall, you cannot get much closer than thirty feet from it. You can, I suppose, see the body language, if not the face of the Lord.

However, someone has climbed onto a high ladder and photographed the face of Christ. Content in his mother's arms. His face looks like that of some noble-born man of the Renaissance. He hardly looks like some rough-hewn saviour, some Jewish carpenter with blistered hands, any man of the Holy Land. The expression on the face, the lips slightly open. Lips that you would kiss without fear should it come alive. I think there is God in it.

God also appears in the fog that visits Amble-by-the-Sea, where I live, quite often. All the straight edges become soft. The world is changed. Colours change. The presence of God makes things look very different. Things sound different too. Like echoes in the subway.

I heard it from his lips one day.
It touched my heart
and moved me.
I believed there was no other way,
no other way but to stay and pray.
Everything I'd lost was found
Thanks to the busker in the Underground.
The busker in the Underground.

Performed by The Hoover Damsels

I was raised in the Church. My first book was a child's hymnal that my two grandmothers bought in a bookstall in Canterbury Cathedral in 1952. A gift for my third birthday. I still have it.

Even as a very young boy I wondered why each and every one of the black children had to file out of St. Mary's church hall and head up the hill to their neighbourhood before we might step inside. During Holy Communion, their parents could stay in the church itself, in a designated area at the back. Not quite so near our God. My father might nod his head to his house cleaner and her grown daughter. A smile would not have been appropriate.

It is the law, my father would have said. He approved of it. I suppose it was a law. If the lawgivers did not pray about it, I can only think the clergy did. Who shall we invite in? What else did they pray about? What answers did they get? What promises?

We used to pray for the Royal Family on our white knees. I recall we sounded most enthusiastic. We prayed for our leaders and were told prayer works—if not, why bother—and I guess white boys of an age in single digits unwittingly subscribed to some political kingdom of God. What did black boys in white shirts and little bowties, with their hair slicked down with pomade, and their sisters in pastel coloured smocks with hair pulled tight, braided and tied up in ribbons to match, pray for?

In 2007, should we pray for our boys in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should the British Royal Family, our Prime Minister and his Cabinet, our military leaders, and our young men and women bleeding out there in dusty places feature in the prayers offered at mosques here? If not, isn't something very wrong?

Every Sabbath on his knees
with some burden on his back,
blinking in the lights,
dry mouth.
A broken smile
is what you see,
a common sort of courtesy.
No President can pray alone.
Our Kings were once in touch with God,
believed themselves divine.
Basking in glory,
from youth.
If only a King,
the President's always begging.
Then I might lead and pray alone.
Performed by The Hoover Damsels

In America, it seems to me, a considerable part of the population subscribes to a form of Christianity that centres itself on men. Sometimes women, though they must be subject to the men, of course, as the Bible tells us so.

To remake an old tale, a group of women sit at the foot of the cross weeping:

"He would not let us walk upon the water. We were not permitted to raise the dead. We could not break bread and feed the thousands. And now we cannot be crucified."

On television in America, religious frustration and friction becomes a fire. We are called to follow our host, the leader, the man selling the book, the man who shook the President's hand and promised him a passel of votes come November. Are you registered? If Ross Eldridge is not exactly godly, by belief or works, a man in a Hawaiian shirt and glasses on a chain, holding that book we should call in for, is positively glowing. Godliness boils down to a look, a ceremony, a backdrop, a blue screen, something that, actually, defies one's belief. Yes?

Why hide your light?
Why hide your light?
Why hide your light under a bushel, baby,
when a thimble will do?
Send us your money, baby,
and we will send one to you.

Performed by The Hoover Damsels

Fifty years ago, a friend of mine had his aged granny make him liturgical vestments to wear on weekends. He stayed home crossing himself and genuflecting at a mirror. My sisters and I went to the movies and followed the adventures of Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon, of course, wore odd costumes too. You should see Mormon temple clothing!

My friend drank himself to death before he was forty-five.

As a boy, he had a cotta,
a chasuble and a cope.
He'd wear a mitre and an alb,
with a cincture of gold rope.
Solomon's glory!
Still singing boy soprano,
he got into his parents' wine
and blessed it to his use.
Blessed a Ritz Cracker biscuit,
you know.
A communion he could not refuse.

Performed by The Hoover Damsels

It seems to me that there is no greater divide than that between Science and Religion, yet they are constantly entwined. Like the wheat and the tares. Both are constructed by men from very little, and far-from-reliable evidence. When Michelangelo was chipping away at his Pieta, the world was flat, the sun, moon and stars spun around the Earth. Heaven was not immediately available; Hell was, but so was the last minute confession. A ledger full of indulgences added up very nicely. One quick postcard from Purgatory and on your way over the rainbows! Here they have a thorn. A church in Greece had a holy relic, a feather from one of the wings of the Angel Gabriel.

Can we be sure that it is all quite correct now? In balance? Can a Pope be absolutely sure that God frowns on cloning and euthanasia? Can even one person preach forgiveness, as many of us are told to, and be quite happy about criminals being despatched by lethal injections? Perhaps death is suitable for abortionists. Eyes for eyes. Injections prepared and administered by scientists. In addition, presidents hang dictators for the good of us all. Here is something to make you wonder, a mad creationist at work.

Where, oh where, does life
first come in?
Is it by the prick of a pin?
Does it go out by the very same way?
Death, where is your sting?
Grave … Is this your win?
Can a cloned man die
a thousand deaths?
Performed by the Hoover Damsels

There are peculiar notions, of both Christians and Muslims, as to our Fate. Where are we going, then? Should we pack a suitcase? Build a pyramid?

The notions are all about exclusion. A good Christian will not have to sit next to some dusky Arab chap on the cross-town bus in Paradise. Or Asians, or Africans. If they had converted to Christianity, as they should have, praise God, they would have been washed clean by the blood of Christ. Mormons believe that dark-skinned converts will have their skin magically lightened. The Jews will have converted too. Or else. Some believe that. St. Mary the Virgin's church might have been the template for the new Heaven and Earth when I was a boy on my white knees.

You only see coloured angels on ethnic Christmas cards. Be honest, white Christian folks, most of you would not buy and send out those cards yourselves. Or the black Jesus greetings.

Yet, we always—always—recognize Jesus when we see him, in any colour, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. That is remarkable. Even recreated in our own images. That is the God in it.

Does a Muslim easily recognize Jesus in a picture, a piece of art? We are not to see Mohammed or Allah portrayed in a picture. That difference in beliefs, religious customs, is a big one.

I shared a room with two other homeless men a few years back and one was a Muslim. Well, he did not have the certificate, but he had changed his name. When I first went into a Mormon temple, I was given a new sacred and secret name. If I revealed that name to anyone, it would be the death of me. The name was Dan. That day, every man being processed in a Mormon temple was given the magical name of Dan. At confirmation, some take on an extra name. These things happen.

On the wall of our tiny shared cell, there was a large poster on a board. (Actually, the board was the back of a mirror; it would sometimes be taken down, turned over, and used for drug-taking involving fire. Scared the daylights out of me.) On the poster was a row of pictures, from paintings, of all the major Islamic prophets. Jesus was there. An artist's likeness. Actually, he looked much like the other bearded gentlemen, but fortunately had a name attached. I found that all rather odd. Prophets, the godly, are of a type.

As far as I know, Mormonism is the only religion that preaches that God had been a man once, and that men—so long as we buckle down to some hard work—can become gods. Why not?

You must be married for eternity,
sealed across an altar of the one True God,
and raise up children to that former man,
to become a god yourself.
They told me.
You must exercise paternity,
and if you hold tight to the iron rod
your every word will be a holy Word.
No stopping yourself
from becoming a god.

Performed by The Hoover Damsels

I think there is no man alive, no matter how godly, who knows a whole lot about a whole lot. We guess at things and robe ourselves in piety. Some of us. Others take up the sword, which is a form of piety if we believe the history books are honest accounts.

As I am not in touch with your God, and I am scarcely in touch with my own, I will tell you I think we have to enjoy the scenery, wherever it arises. A tree is godly, beautiful, yet you could lynch a black man from it with impunity in my lifetime. Still could, actually.

Bibles and the tongues—the words—of men, even prophets, are used to convict innocents if it is convenient. And to execute them. They are also used to excuse friendly fire and collateral deaths and damage. Greater love hath no one.

A president goes to church each Sunday, God bless him, and he may pray for us. That he might better lead us where he feels inclined to go. Even to Armageddon. With a Bible in his hands, shown on the evening news, some can pretty much accept that. Should we?

Can you take a Koran into a Christian church and not have it burst into flame? Of course, but it might be regarded as bad taste. I wonder if you might shed your shoes at the door of a mosque, and carry in a Bible. Maybe not.

A comedian's line about public transport:

"If the subway carriage is crowded in the morning rush hour, I just start praying aloud to Allah. Fifteen seconds later I'm by myself."

They are just books. Just words. However, the world might be changed if a president carried a Koran from his limousine into the chapel, and meant it.

The word of God, for me, is imprinted on my senses, usually suddenly, from time to time. Impressions. The Pieta. However inaccurate the face of Christ might be two thousand years after the fact, it moved me. I wrote some odd song lyrics during a discussion about a Christmas party, invented The Hoover Damsels to sing them, sat down here tonight and typed this out, and it seems to me that Jesus might not object if one greeted him with a kiss on the lips. Unless one is Judas. Even then, maybe not. Forgiveness. You learn things.

14 September 2007 / 28 April 2011

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