Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Author: Justin Lewis-Anthony (Page 2 of 43)

A priest of the Church of England, who, either, has a "cocky" and "knowing" tone (Church Times), or is "a bold, idol-smashing thinker" (Catholic Herald). I masquerade as the 3 Minute Theologian (words about God for the Attention Deficit Generation) and evangelist for the "Killing George Herbert" movement in the Church of England. Now, I have fled to the New World, and teach at Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria.

Does it mean nothing to you? 3

“It’s a dirty job”, they usually say. But then they add, “and I’m glad it’s not me that has to do it.” And without a hint of gratitude. No: “and I’m glad that somebody does it”, or even: “and I’m glad that you do it, Bartholomew.” I mean, I don’t expect much in this world, and I know that I live in hard times in a hard land, but just occasionally, it would be good if a little word of thanks could fall like refreshing rain onto my path.

Of course, I know all the reasons why I get ignored in this way. Everybody dies, and no one wants to be reminded of it. Everyone, in the long run, is dead, and nobody wants the long run to be shortened. It’s funny, it’s as if being reminded of death, or coming into contact with death will somehow shorten their lifespan. “That’s not the case,” a Rabbi once told me, with a scarf wrapped around his face in case he forgot to keep away from me. “Being near the dead does not shorten our lives—it just shortens our useful lives. Coming into contact with the dead is a good thing, when we are performing the duties required of us towards our mother and father. But even then, it means that we become ritually impure, and are thus unable to worship God in the way he requires. Cleansing ourselves of such impurity takes times, and that is time away from the study of God’s word, away from worshipping God in synagogue and Temple, away from sacrifice. Life is too short to miss out on the important things.” And then he threw a copper coin at me, and told me to go away in most unrabbinical language.

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Does it mean nothing to you? 2

Apparently, it’s a holiday. Although, to be honest, most days seem to be a holiday here. And not the sort of decent, joyful, singing-in-the-street sort of holidays we’re used to back home. Here the holidays go on for days at a time, and everyone stays indoors, only emerging to look stroppy and bad-tempered and ready for a fight. Too much religion and not enough wine. Something to do with their miserable mountain god, I suppose.

Anyway, I hate holidays in Judea. Holiday for the Jews, double overtime for the soldiers. You never know when the empty streets will suddenly fill, for no apparent reason, with crowds looking to roll-over a legionary. There are forty crosses on a roadside in Galilee which I filled after the last holiday: I know I told the legates it had been an insurrection, and it probably was, but in my book, as soon as a sword or a club or a rock was lifted towards a Roman, I don’t care what the motivation is. I’ve been a centurion for long enough to know that Pax Romana is not concerned with fine distinctions, and neither is the Governor.

But now here I am, in the capital, for the longest and worst holiday of the year. Appropriate, I suppose, for this is the smallest and worst capital in the Empire. Stuck high up on a desert mountain, where water is short and the air is thin, and nights are freezing cold. The olives are wizened and the wine is worse. All in all, I almost prefer being in Britannia. And the crowds!

The whole of Judea is here, and swarms of people from all over the Empire, pouring into the tiny city as if their lives depend on it. And for such a strange religion as well: a cruel and capricious and changeable god (only one!), who makes demand after demand on his people, and never allows them anything in exchange. Such an exclusive god as well. I’m a well-brought up Roman citizen, and I’m perfectly prepared to offer libations at the altar of Mithras and Zoroaster and Toutatis and Lud. But when I arrived in Jerusalem I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I am NOT to go to the Temple, and I am NOT to attempt to pay respects to the Jewish god: “a jealous god” they call him. Psycho, more like.

And now dumped into mopping up duties. Mopping up after another religious-political mess up. A man who claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a holy man; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a prophet; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a political leader; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a rival King to Caesar. Honestly the story isn’t straight, and I don’t think it ever will get straight. Any little respect I might have had for the Jewish religious leaders, and the little respect I have for legates and governors has long gone. The naked pursuit of private agendas is one thing: how else did Pax Romana get to be Pax Romana without it being imposed so decisively? What really annoys me is the incompetence shown by the priests and the Governor. This trouble-maker could’ve been arrested long before the holiday, or he could’ve been “disappeared” until after the crowds dispersed. But a public trial and a public execution on the day before the holiday when the city was at its most volatile? … well! If you want a problem solved, best call the Legion VI Ferrata!

The execution spot, just outside the city walls, is prepared. Golgotha, the Jews called it (barbarous tongue): Calvary to civilized folk. We’ve had executions there regularly, the last three days ago, and the bodies have been taken down this morning. There are four crosses ready, although we’re only going to need three: one for the Galilean political, and two for ordinary criminals— robbers? bandits? something like that. The next problem to sort out is getting to the execution ground. The streets between the Governor’s palace, the Antonia, and the nearest gate to Calvary are narrow, and bound to be crowded. Short swords might be needed, but clubs will be more effective for close-up work. Better make sure that the detail are issued with them. I’ll pick up the execution party (party! Great name for it!) at the Antonia, and lead them through. Should I ride? No, that’s foolhardy in these streets. I’ll have more control on foot. Easier to get to miscreants at their level.

The robbers are not pleased to see me: one swears, one cries. The “political” says nothing, and just stands there. Is he too dazed to know what is going on? His face and back are certainly streaked with blood and bruising. Let’s see when I order them to shoulder the cross-bars. Hmm… he’s looking around him, like he’s examining the guards who will accompany him to Calvary. He knows what’s going on. More than that: he thinks he’s in control. He’ll learn soon enough.

The streets are tumultuous, but there doesn’t seem to be any resistance. In fact, the crowds are out to jeer at the prisoners. That’s unusual. Jews don’t normally take against the subjects of Roman justice like this. A man could be a rapist and a murderer, but if he was being killed by Roman law, then he immediately turns into a hero for the crowds. But I know enough Aramaic to recognise an insult when I hear one. Ugh! And the air is filled with curses and spit. “Watch it, you! Improve your aim if you don’t want to end up on a cross!”. Better keep a close eye on the political. No reaction. He’s staggering under the weight of the cross bar, banging its outstretched ends into walls and corners and people. But he’s not answering back. His eyes are focussed on the man ahead of him. Sometimes he’s looking into the crowd, like he’s looking for someone in particular. He’s not going to find them, not in this mob. They are always disappointed. No rescue crew coming. He still hasn’t said a word, though. Nice quiet prisoner.

There’s space to breathe outside the city walls, and the air is fresher. Fresh enough for a rain storm? Dammit. I wish I’d brought my long winter cloak. I’m going to get soaked through on this exposed hill waiting for the prisoners to die. I’m going to get a brazier and break their legs after four hours if they aren’t dead by then. No point in prolonging my inconvenience.

Strip the prisoners naked, throw them to the ground, lay them upon their cross bars in front of the uprights we’ve already fixed into the ground. Arms stretched out. Legionaries! Get those nails in! Hope the cross-bars haven’t been used too many times before. Sometimes it’s hard for the nails to grip in stained and splintered wood as they go through the prisoners’ wrists. Two of the three cry out. Ah! A grimace of pain from the political! Still alive then, and not drugged out his suffering by some friendly supporter. Thread the ropes through the hooks on the back of the cross bars and over more hooks on the tops of the stake. Drag the prisoners upright. Pull them to the tops of the stakes. No, I don’t care if their bodies dangle in the air for a bit whilst you get things sorted, legionary! You’ve made sure their arms are tied to the cross bar as well? I don’t want them dying of suffocation too quickly. That always happens if it’s just nails. The people need to see Roman justice, and that takes time.

All three prisoners make it to the cross alive. Practice and professionalism! Final nails into the feet! Push their legs up into a crouch. Just enough purchase to lift their bodies up when they feel their lungs being crushed. Longer to die, and longer to bring the message home to the people about Roman justice.

One last job for the political. Get me a ladder against the political’s cross. Climbing up, I can see the crowds, a decent, and safe distance away. Hand me the titulus. No, that wooden board. A last nail to fix it above the political’s head. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. So that’s his name. Some Jewish VIPs shout at me as I climb down the ladder: “You can’t put that up there!” “Speak to Pilate.” “But, he’s not our king!” “Speak to Pilate.” “Put ‘He said he was king of the Jews’”. “Speak to Pilate. And don’t speak to me again.” This last with my hand on my sword. They shut up.

Not for long though. They turn their attention to the political. Abuse and curses and religious language, I suppose, though I have no idea what most of it means. They must really hate him. The political says nothing for a long while. The screaming continues until one of the robbers joins in as well. Even on a cross you can find someone worse off than yourself. Eventually the political opens his mouth. Finally! “Father, forgive”! In barely a whisper. It stops the abuse for the moment. Everyone looks slightly bemused, as if surprised to find themselves where they are, in a boneyard, screaming at dying men.

The sky’s clouded over. The storm is coming. Good job I ordered that brazier. Three of the lads are playing dice in its warmth. The crowds have thinned now, sensibly enough. The political isn’t going anywhere. Two people remain, standing as close to the cordon of soldiers as they dare. The political is speaking to them, a man and an older woman. Something about looking after each other. You should’ve thought about your will before you got into trouble, sonny.

One of the robbers has already died. The other is close to it. A hour inside my timetable. Good job too, because it’s now as dark as pitch, and the rain is lashing down. Only the political is still going, pushing himself up on his nailed feet, stretching towards the heavens. “I have finished…” (true enough, sonny). “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” And then the political shudders, and dies.

That’s odd. What’s was that all about? Have I missed something in all the events of the day. Perhaps, all in all, this man really was righteous? Even so, righteous or not, he’s dead.

Thank the gods that was over. Mopping up successfully accomplished. Time to get the body down before sunset. Let the relatives have him, and then we can forget all about him. I wonder if the water is hot in the barrack bath house?

Does it mean nothing to you? 1

I bloody hate holidays, me. Everyone asks, every year, “what you doing for Passover?” “Celebrating passover with anyone nice this year?” “Who’s hosting your passover meal for you this year?” “The usual”; “No”; “Me” are my standard answers. Passover doesn’t mean holidays for innkeepers. Passover means extra work, ungrateful clients, absent servants, inflated prices that I can’t pass on to the ungrateful customers, and crowds, crowds, crowds.

I mean, look at what happened yesterday. She had gone again. Whatsherface? Tabitha. Takes off every high day and holy day, and leaves me to do the women’s work, the servant’s work. If we’re going to hire the rooms for the provincials’ passover parties then the rooms need to be cleaned. Even Galileans can tell when a room hasn’t been swept, and Galileans especially would take that as a reason for a discount. So rooms need to be cleaned, and brooms need to be used and water needs to be fetched. Women’s work, servant’s work. And then Tabitha disappears again, and I have to go to the well to fetch the water. Honestly, if I hadn’t got all those bookings, I wouldn’t have bothered. The grief I get from the neighbours! “Here comes the dancing girl!” “Give us a drink, love!”. I’ll give you a bloody drink!

So there I am, on the third trip back from well, with that enormous jar under my arms (how do women manage them on their heads),when up comes creeping two of the Galileans, all cloak and dagger, like, as if they were on some secret mission. And they were pathetically obvious. Provincials, with their scruffy clothes and worse accents.

“The Teacher says…”, they start. “Teacher? What teacher?” says I, knowing full well that it’s the Galilean rabbi who made the booking three days ago. (Rabbi? Another nutter, more like). But they have to go through the whole “on his majesty’s imperial secret service” routine. “The teacher wishes to know where is the guest room.” “Oh”, says I, thinking to have some fun. “And the screech owl hoots in the valley of the tombs,” and gesture to them to give the pass-code. The look on their faces! Pure panic!“Don’t worry, legates. I know who the teacher is, and I know where his booking is. Come with me. Lovely room, freshly swept, ideal for intimate Passovers for family and friends. Good times guaranteed. When Elijah comes, these are the rooms he’ll use for his Passover”. Honestly, like shooting fish in a barrel. No sense of humour, Galileans.

So along they come, and sniff out the room, like they’ve ever seen anything better, mutter things about “the teacher’s place at table” and “away from the scribes”, still playing the frumentarii secret service nonsense. And then they hang around, getting under my feet, all afternoon, as I boil the eggs, and lay out the plates and cups, and roast the lamb, and pour the wine in the jars around the room. “We’ll need more wine”, they say. “More?” says I. “How many cups of the Passover do you propose to drink tonight? The usual twenty-three?” “There are only four cups of the Passover,” says the big one, a lumpen fool if I ever saw one. “But there will be thirteen or more of us for the meal”. More wine it is then.

And then, as it gets dark, the rest of them turn up, more frumentarii secret service nonsense. This time literally cloak and daggers: some are packing ironmongery under their travelling cloaks and I think to myself, “Great. Legions every where and no weapons in the city, and I’ve got the Maccabees Brothers’ reunion Passover happening in my rooms!” The Teacher turns up, and then I remember why I didn’t like him when I took the booking earlier in the week. It’s the same bloke who encouraged all that fuss the day after the Sabbath: donkeys, colts, branches and shouting. The holidays are bad enough without adding street theatre to it as well. People’s tempers are short enough without angering the Temple guards and the Roman soldiers. Typical drippy Galilean rabbi: all sweet smiles until something annoys him, and then its cursing fig trees and condemning pigs. Thank God Passover is over in a night; at least I haven’t got them for a week of Tabernacles.So in comes drippy rabbi, and he immediately starts changing things and ordering people around. I’m standing there, holding the water and the towel (and biting my tongue in best servile manner), and he nicks them off me and starts washing his guests’ feet. It’s that kind of inverted snobbery I can’t stand. I’m the most important person in this room, and to make sure you all know it, I’m going to take the servant’s job from him and ostentatiously do the foot-washing.
Big-Lump objects, and at first I think he’s brighter than he looks. You’re being called out on your inverted snobbery, Rabbi, thinks I, but then I realise that Big-Lump just doesn’t get it either. Big-Lump thinks he should be doing the washing. What about the servants! I want to shout. If we don’t wash you, we don’t get the tips. Are you planning to roast the lamb as well. Don’t suppose you’ll get into a fight about the washing-up, will you?

So they get the foot-washing sorted out, and there’s a sort of embarrass pause as they all realise what the Boss has done, and then they’re back into squabbling mode, trying to get a cushion closest to the boss at the top table. Handsome  wins, and sits at Boss’s right hand. The rest settle themselves discontentedly. As they are doing so, one of the guests, the one with the money satchel, catches my eye. He raises an eyebrow and gives me a quick grin. Yeah, you’re a sharp cookie, thinks I. You know what’s going on.

So the meal starts and carries on in the usual way, and I’m rushed off my feet serving wine, because these Galileans are thirsty chaps, and they drink the four cups of Passover, and five or six cups of greed between. I’m going to have to change my pricing scheme for next year: I can’t afford all-inclusive rates. And as I rushing in I realise that the Rabbi is doing his own version of Passover. It’s not just good old Moses stuff, but he’s giving his own commentary, his own explanations. Worse than that, he’s inserting himself into the stories: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”; “this is my blood of the covenant”; “Do this in remembrance of me.” I don’t know about you, but I happen to thing that if it was good enough for Moses then it was good enough for me. I don’t hold with new-fangled mucking with the Passover.

And then the wine started to have its effect, and the Boss started getting testy with his guests. Something about “betrayal” and “hands raised against me”. Ah, thinks I, divide and conquer. And, of course, an argument breaks out, with Big-Lump denying stuff and Handsome whispering questions and Boss handing out bits of bread and making pointed remarks. Honestly, people forget that servants are there, and that we hear everything.

So Boss hands a bit of bread to the wry guest I shared a grin with earlier, and mutters something to him, and wry guest grabs his satchel and stumbles his way to the door. Most of the rest of them are too bleary-eyed to notice, but I do. I go to the door just as Wry Guest gets there. I decide to be helpful, as he was the only one of the whole lot I liked. “Can I get you, anything Master?” He looks distracted, and fiddles inside his satchel, before looking up at me. “Um.. No.. Thanks. No, I’ve just got to.. Do an errand or something.” “Well let me get the door for you, in any case.” And I open the door, helpfully, for him, and let him out in the night air. My goodness, but it’s dark. As if Jerusalem has never heard of lanterns. He stumbles off into the darkness, and I shout, cheerily after him “Thank you for your custom! See you again, I hope!” And he waves a hand as he disappears.

It’s what I call the “destruction of the temple” stage of the evening. Everything is eaten, and most everything is drunk. The story (with additions!) has been told, and there’s not much left to do but sleep it all off, and wait for the quiet of the Sabbath the next day. But Boss-Rabbi is hassling his guests once more, and they are all looking for sandals and cloaks (and the swords they have hidden in them).

“Are you going anywhere, Master?” I politely ask, without a bit of irritation. “We wish to continue our worship elsewhere,” he replies. “We don’t wish to disturb you or your neighbours. Or be disturbed. We will leave. Did Judas settle the account?” “Judas?” I ask. “The disciple who left.” “No. Not yet. But I trust him. He can pay me in the morning. He looks like a reliable man with money.” Just a harrumph from the Boss. I don’t know why I bother trying to compliment anyone.I open the door, and they all sweep out, most unsteadily, into the night, Boss, Big-Lump and Handsome in the lead. The others launch, a bit uncertainly, into a hymn as they go. A rather wobbly hymn, to be honest. It would be better once they sober up a bit.

“Good night! Good night! Happy Passover! A peaceful Sabbath to you all! And perhaps next year in Galilee!” (I added that last bit under my breath– I don’t want them back, but I don’t want to lose the custom).

Eventually, before midnight, they’re gone. What a relief. I can’t tell you how glad I am, and I hope I don’t see them again. I have no idea why that nice man Judas hangs around with them. Perhaps I’ll be able to share a cup of wine with him when he pays the bill in the morning.

In the meantime, without Tabitha, the clearing up is left to me. That’s the worst thing about holidays.

Psalm Sonnet

The smooth round stone lies coolly in my hand,
Its whorls and scars glint, clipped from mountain’s scree,
Erosion’s circles formed by softest sand,
In river pools falling into the sea.
From sediments pressed before old Adam—
Stars in the heavens are more juvenile.
My bones will be gone, my grave forgotten,

When my stone will form eternity’s dial.
The temporary holds the permanent,
Massed dust and fluid gainsays gravity,
A blink pretends it is not transient;
Dirt relinquishes immortality.

’Tis grace to know such fleetingness at last.
I cling to the tower; God holds me fast.

“In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy.”
JRR Tolkien, Return of the King, VI.3

..the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence…

A mourning psalm for this Holy Week:

Psalm 74

1 O God, why do you cast us off for ever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago,
which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage.
Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.

4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling-place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, ‘We will utterly subdue them’;
they burned all the meeting-places of God in the land.

9 We do not see our emblems;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is no one among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name for ever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand;
why do you keep your hand in your bosom?

12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You cut openings for springs and torrents;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
you made summer and winter.

18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

20 Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
23 Do not forget the clamour of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Mary, mother of our Saviour, prayer for us and the people of Paris.
Jesus, who stretched out your arms in love for the world, save us.

How to preach, how not to tell the truth

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has had to make a judgment against that scholar, statesman and all-round paragon of civic virtue, Boris Johnson. In a column for the Daily Telegraph (for which he receives £275,000 a year) Johnson referred to polling which indicated that a no-deal Brexit was increasingly and overwhelmingly becoming the favoured option of the British public. A statistician from Reading, obviously someone wholly and embarrassingly caught up in old-fashioned “reality-based” models of discourse, complained, saying that there was no evidence of such polling or shift in the public’s opinion at all.

Benjamin Disraeli, who knew something about the nature of statistics,
and Boris Johnson, who doesn’t care

The newspaper defended their columnist, completely justifiably, saying that:

…the article was clearly an opinion piece, and readers would understand that the statement was not invoking specific polling – no specific dates or polls were referenced. …the writer was entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions… it was clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters.


Michael Stirling, the statistician, unreasonably told The Guardian: “a potential prime minister shouldn’t be able to make things up in a weekly column”.

You see, that’s where Mr Stirling is wrong. A potential prime minister should be able to make things up in a weekly column, in fact the British public expect him to make things up in a weekly column, and I have here numerous opinion polls which, satisfyingly, concur with my opinion. Opinion becomes fact, through the magical medium of wishful thinking.

Which makes me think about preaching. How often does preaching manifest itself as an opinion piece, with no connection to specific learning, chock full of sweeping generalisations based on sincerely but wishfully held opinions, and in no way confusable with “a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”? All we can hope for, infrequently, is that it might be “clearly comically polemical”, and by that I don’t mean a weak jokey story at the beginning, three paragraphs all beginning with the same letter in the middle, and a pun at the end.

How many times do we preach, as if our sermons have absolutely nothing to do with the truth?

(an unfashionable idea, I know, and certainly one that will never catch on).

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and “polemical opinion pieces.”

Preaching the Christian Gospel must never fall into any one of those categories.

How to be a pilgrim, part ii

Don’t confuse escaping with deserting:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say ‘the land you loved is doomed’ to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.

J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, New ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 109–61.

How to be a pilgrim, part i

Travel lightly, and lighter than you think is necessary

It is often the case that travellers take more than they think they need. If you are moving yourself from places that are familiar to places unfamiliar, isn’t it reasonable to accompany yourself with familiar objects. Thus, in the words of Neil and Tim Finn, “everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.”

When I was a teenager I was invited to take part in a youth service expedition to Lesotho, in southern Africa. We were to help build a water supply for a youth centre in the highland village of Thaba-Tseka.1 It was my first time in Africa, and I didn’t know what to expect, or how to furnish myself for being away from England for three weeks. I borrowed a suitcase from my parents, one of those 1950s heavy-duty suitcases, designed for three-week ocean transportation to the Far East, with a frame constructed from teak, good English oak, and the dreams of Empire. It must’ve weighed 50 kg empty. So, to fill its cavernous and weighty spaces, I took a box set of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books: because, you know, when you’re travelling to Africa for the first time as a 17 year old, you will want and have time to read seven allegories of the Christian life…

Ironically, C. S. Lewis himself had already addressed this tendency. In the spring of 1927 Jack Lewis went on a short walking holiday with three friends, Owen Barfield, Cecil Harwood, and Walter ‘Wof’ Field. As Jack relates, in a letter to his brother, one of them had over-prepared for the occasion:

Now for my own adventures. I was joined [on 19 April 1927] at Oxford station by two others and we proceeded together to Goring. One of them was new to the game and turned up carrying a Tommies pack filled square like a tommy’s pack, for inspection. On the way we extracted from it a large overcoat, a sponge, four shirts, a heavy tin mug holding about a pint, two strong metal cigarette cases of pudaita proportions, and a number of those insane engines which some people associate with holidays. You know— the adaptable clasp knife which secrets a fork at one end and a spoon at the other, but in such a way that you could never really use the fork and the spoon together — and all those sort of things. Having recovered from our delighted laughter and explained that we were going to walk in an English county and not in Alaska, we made up the condemned articles into a parcel wh. we compelled him to Post home from Goring. It weighed about seven pounds.

C. S. Lewis, Letter to His Brother, 26 April 1927, in Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper, Revised and enlarged edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), pp289-290

We need to learn to travel lightly.

  1. Curiously enough, this was right at the end of the period in which James Ferguson studied the work of the Tabha-Tseka development project, and criticised it as The Anti-Politics Machine . Unwittingly, I was part of post-colonial economic imperialism, a project that continues to this day – just look at the argument developing between Italy and France over the latter’s economic “assistance” program for Africa. []

One of my colleagues is a leading scholar of the work of an English poet on whom he has written some major studies. Partly as a result of a chance personal connection, in recent years he helped choose the exhibits, write the captions, and make other contributions for a display at a small museum devoted to this writer’s life and work. I spent no small amount of time in 2011 and 2012 chivvying the poor staff at this museum. Could they supply visitor numbers? Sorry, could they please document those numbers in a publicly verifiable form? Did they have evidence of what visitors to the exhibition made of the experience? Did they ask them to fill in questionnaires, did they have a comments book? Sorry, could they provide extracts in a duly authenticated form? What was the evidence of the benefit the visitors derived from their visit? Sorry, I mean evidence of what the exercise calls ‘change in their behaviours’? And so on.

…But in reality these kinds of effects, even if desirable in themselves, as no doubt many of them are, do not testify to the quality of the research at all. My colleague’s scholarship on this poet would still have been of the same high quality whether or not he had happened to be involved with this museum, let alone whether we could demonstrate beyond doubt that a thirteen-year-old visiting with a school party had written in the comments book that the exhibits were ‘ace’.

Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (London; New York: Verso, 2017), pp 50-51

Fromm on the Art of Conformity

Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority. The consensus of all serves as a proof for the correctness of ‘their’ ideas. Since there is still a need to feel some individuality, such need is satisfied with regard to minor differences; the initials on the handbag or the sweater, the name plate of the bank teller, the belonging to the Democratic as against the Republican party, to the Elks instead of to the Shriners become the expression of individual differences. The advertising slogan of ‘it is different’ shows up this pathetic need for difference, when in reality there is hardly any left.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1957; repr., London: Thorsons, 1995), p.11

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