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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A Hollowed-Out Classic - Far from the Madding Crowd


I'll start with the whinges, shall I?

Dorset, England is not 200 miles outside London, as the introduction tells us. Nor, in the context of Hardy's Wessex, is it "Dorset". It just looks and smells like it.

And in the 19th Century, "Crime of Passion" was not a legal defence against hanging. The one that was, was Insanity. Which, especially if you are showing signs of severe mental distress, could plausibly be proven in some cases. I'll say no more. Spoilers.


Not bad. Carey Mulligan gets nearly everything right about Bathsheba. Strong - actually stronger than in the book - feisty, veering between fierceness, wildness, tenderness and unfairness. Girlish, at times. But of course, like most Jane Austen heroines, we have a tendency to forget just how young Hardy's are. Bathsheba storms on the scene aged roughly twenty, not nearly thirty. And that, when she starts sacking bailiffs and running farms on her own, makes a difference, and would make a cinematic differnce. Enough. I've harped on too much. Mulligan plays everything well.

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak - tall, stolid, calm, dependable. Everything Oak should be in that respect. His silences speak volumes. His facial expressions great. His accent - just where in Wessex did Hardy locate Flanders? I mean, Wessex was the last place in England to preserve the "d" in the word "three", long after those of us in the Danelaw took to pronouncing our "th"s. So there's a dialectal link there. But Oak is immutable, solid, strong as a.... hang on, I'll think of a simile. He's part of the Wessex landscape. He should speak yokel, not sound like Jan Molby did after 10 years in Liverpool.

Michael Sheen as Boldwood - excellent. Treading the fine line between love, dignity, and breakdown. Really good, understated acting. He makes Boldwood look rather more attractive than Hardy paints, which makes the Valentine joke just a little less ironic.

And I really liked Tom Sturridge's playing of Troy. I liked the brittleness of his bravado, the sense that, under the charming abuser, he was actually a weak, useless flake.


Sadly, that's all the cast you can really talk about. The rush to pack the story into two hours meant we lost the light and shade, fun and yokel strangeness of Hardy's book. In jumping from set-piece to set-piece where Gabriel Oak, Action Man, saves the day again and again, we lose the things that make early Hardy so much more than a retailer of cow-pat melodrama. Joseph Poorgrass isn't dim enough. Jan Coggan - firm friend of Oak, provider of a room and a listening ear - gets barely a mention. Susan Tall, an absolutely cracking minor character in the original, not even mentioned - I think I may have heard her useless husband, Laban, mentioned at some point. Fanny Robin is so beautiful, so tragic and yet the poignancy of her life is sketched in so briefly. Without a bit more back story, the way Bathsheba takes the coffin into her house makes little sense.

The rush means we lose scenes that are important as well. The early scene where Bathsheba saves Gabriel's life, gone. The drunkenness in the tavern at Roy Town, where Joseph is declared unfit to drive due to a "multiplying eye". The circus scenes. And two scenes in particular. That weird, tragic event where Troy is overcome by the wreckage the gurgoyle has made to Fanny's grave - shedding light on the depths of passion Troy has for Fanny, and giving him some sympathy and more support for his heading out to sea sans culottes, as it were. And then the telling moment when Oak save's Bathsheba's harvest from the storm, and Oak discovers that Boldwood couldn't be bothered to protect his own. Key clues, chucked away for brevity.

A hollowed-out classic

So we have a hollowed-out classic. A love parallelogram sketched in, in front of some glorious scenery. It was like watching a filmed version not of a Hardy novel, but of the Hardy Plot Generator you can find on the full-screen version of this site. Smashing acting, lovely scenery, but no soul. I don't think it's unfair to judge a film on the book it's based on. We can make allowances for brevity, we know things have to be cut and rearranged. But to lose story and meaning for no purpose let me take the example of the singing at the Harvest Supper. In the original, Oak is asked to play flute while Bathsheba and Boldwood sing their duet. It's a symbolic moment - they are apparently to be married, while he is to play the supporting role he always does. But the song itself is "On the Banks of Allan Water". The story of a young woman who is stolen away by a soldier. It's prophetic. The mashup of "Seeds of Love" which is sung in the film, is at best rueful. What was the point?

Enough. If you like costume dramas and flying sheep, nice scenery and good acting, this is the sort of thing you'll like. It'll be on Sky Movies soon. I'm off to read both volumes of The Dynasts. That'll teach me to moan about things being rushed.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden

It was Stephen Fry, I believe, many years ago, who criticised the sorts of people who quote authors' characters and then tag them with the authors themselves. The example he gave was the sort of person who would say "Neither a borrower nor a lender be - Shakespeare!" and forget that the person who says it, Polonius, is an idiot.

And on this most holy of Towel Days, I remember this quote from Douglas Adams:
"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"
This is often quoted as a kind of counter to those of us who are deeply committed to both science and faith. I think there are three things wrong with this:

1. Wouldn't it be great if there were fairies at the bottom of the garden? It wouldn't diminish the garden's beauty one jot.

2. These words aren't directly Adams's views (though they may reflect them). If you take everything that is thought or done in Douglas Adams's works as being directly his thoughts, you would also think that stealing space ships is a good idea, going across zebra crossings is dangerous, you should stick fish in your ear and that nobody should ever talk to you about life.

3. They're actually attributed, as thoughts, to Ford Prefect, in response to Zaphod's belief that he has found the lost planet of Magrathea. In context they're funny, quite profound, and absolutely right - up to the point that they realise Zaphod has, in fact, discovered the lost planet of Magrathea. After that point, Ford is merely a cynic who was proven wrong. Turns out, in the context of the book, that the bottom of the garden was exactly  the place that the fairies were.

Towel Day

Archdruid: Does anyone know where Marvin is?

All: He's in the car park.

Archdruid: What's he doing in the car park?

All: Parking cars. What else does one do it in a car park?

Marvin: I don't know. Brain the size of a planet. And they won't let me in the Church of England "Talent Pool" because I'm "too Catholic." Just because I'm  shiny and silver. That, and the way the depression means I don't necessarily believe that the way forward for the church is to invest in leadership. After all, if you want leaders - here's some leaders. Captain Scott was a leader, and look what happened to him and his followers. Froze to death in a lonely Antarctic landscape. Columbus was a leader, and his leadership led to the enslavement and death of entire innocent races.John Franklin's men would follow him to the end of the earth. All died tragically somewhere in North America.  Call that leadership? Because I don't. I'm not getting you down, am I?

Archdruid: Not at all, Marvin. Is there anyone more cheerful joining our liturgy?

Zaphod Beeblebrox: Archdruid! Hi! Now, you don't mind if I miss out that "confession" bit do you? Only I'm such a hoppy frood that I don't have anything to confess to and if I did I would only be saying sorry to myself....

Zaphod Beeblebrox III: .....and to me. If you'd not been fooling around with that contraceptive and time machine....

Zaphod Beeblebrox: Grandad! Shhh! There may be Catholics reading!

Archdruid: Can I refer you to the birth rate in Italy to suggest that may not be a problem? OK, Burton. Rap me the God-word, coin-captain!

Burton: The what, Eileen?

Archdruid: Read the Scripture. Gee, you accountants are so un-hip it's a wonder your bums don't fall off.

Burton: Our what, Eileen?

Voice of the Book:  In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Archdruid: Precisely. The creation of the Universe was a bad move. Let's face it, we're born, we grow, we struggle to build fairer societies. We'd allow that to give us hope for the future of all lifekind.

All: Except of course we know it hasn't got one.

Archdruid: Exactly. And the fear is that when we die, instead of going to heaven, we end up at Milliways...

All: Not so much an after-life, more a sort of apres-vie.

Burton: Does anyone know what happens if I press this button?

A bowl of petunias and a sperm whale materialise and plummet to earth.

Archdruid: Oh well. That's another piece of creative liturgy that didn't quite work.

Hnaef: Archdruid, there's an infinite number of monkeys out here want to talk to you about a Giles Fraser piece they've just knocked up for the Guardian.

Archdruid: You know, it's at times like this that I really wish I had listened to what my mother had told me when I was young.

Ford: Why, what did she say?

Archdruid: I don't know, I didn't listen.

Arthur: Does anyone know where I can get a cup of tea?

Archdruid: You're in an English act of worship. You can get one at the end, in a green Beryl cup, just like anyone else. OK, everybody. Wave your towels in the air, to mark the wondrous genius of Douglas Adams.

Burton accidentally wraps the towel round his head, falls into the Total Perspective Vortex, and is tragically eaten by little pink creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Charlii: I thought you said that this liturgy was foolproof?

Archdruid: That's the trouble with fools. They are so ingenious.

Hymn Number 42.

Archdruid: Go into the world, don't try to disprove God's existence, and be careful on zebra crossings.


England is Dying

I have just seen a dog bursting 100 balloons live on national television.

The Roman legions leaving Britain must have felt a bit like this.

Extraversion Conversion Therapy

It's an odd thing. Every now and then, whether we like it or not, an extravert (or extrovert, for those who prefer the wrong spelling) sneaks into the Beaker Community.

Obviously, this can cause problems. They'll start going round asking how people are. They'll organise group trips to the pub, when traditionally the Beaker Folk like to sneak up there after Filling Up of Beakers feeling a little bit guilty. I'm not saying they're actually a threat to the community - after all, Hnaef and Young Keith are both suspected of extraversion, and yet manage to survive in the wild without minders. Their wives keep a close eye on them, though.

And we are a loving community and we want all to thrive - to allow a thousand flowers to bloom. A thousand, very similar, flowers. Wallflowers, ideally.

So we have done a limited experiment - for we are scientific as well as spiritual and deeply, deeply committed to long walks far away from other people - to see if we can cure extraverts. Obviously, we're not going to be beating them with sticks. We're not primitive, you know. Oh no. That's for completely different illnesses.

So it was a simple programme. We got five or six Beaker Folk to leap on a suspected extravert, stick a bag on their heads and then hold them down. I preached a sermon directly at them for 20 minutes on "Outgoing is evil. Jesus wants you to be more introspective." And then we chanted prayers for an hour or two to drive out the extraversion.

Sadly, it's not been a success.

In fact, quite a lot of them seemed to like the attention.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

God's Engagement Ring

It was one of the comic Guide to the Church type books of the late 80s on which this blog is so much dependent (in fact we've probably recycled every single thing to do during a boring sermon over the years). And it gave a definition that I've always loved.

"The Holy Spirit: God's engagement ring"

My cousin Chas had a habit of getting engaged. He couldn't kick the habit. He was a young man of deep emotions. He was constantly getting engaged to be married, and then it would all break up And then a few months later he was engaged again. It wasn't Chazzer we felt sorry for, on his constant emotional roller-coaster. It was his endless succession of fiancees. All lovely girls. And the later ones in the series must have wondered, at their one of the many engagement parties to which our family were invited, why we weren't buying them presents. It was simple. If Chas wanted us to give him another toaster as an engagement present, he was going to have to give a few back first.

That's the point about engagements - they are provisional. They don't give next-of-kin rights. They don't imply sharing worldly goods or debts. They are not the full thing. It used to be the custom in Dorset, according to Thomas Hardy, that young engaged couples would sleep together before marriage but, once a young bundle of joy was on the way, they would marry. If after a while no such blessing was apparent, they could be free to go off and get engaged again, no questions asked.

But an engagement ring is a promise. It says at some point - which may or may not be determined at the moment - we will marry. And the Holy Spirit is that promise in Ephesians 1: 
"In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit who is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory."
So the Holy Spirit is the promise of good things to come, the engagement ring that promises a future wedding, the down-payment on eternity. And she arrives at Pentecost.

In the Hebrew then Jewish calendar, Pentecost was a harvest festival. It was called the Feast of Weeks, because it was  7 weeks after Passover - but it was also called First Fruits.  It was the start of the wheat harvest - and in the Temple, an offering of two loaves was made, and other fruits would be brought to the Temple as an offering.

And when the Spirit falls on the people at Pentecost, it's about a first. They're the first fruit of the new world order that God is creating. They receive that first promise of eternal life - the Holy Spirit. They have God's Spirit - the Spirit who is with Father and Son in heaven forever - fall upon them. The Spirit who is the Love of God personified - or if you prefer, the Spirit from whom all love proceeds - falls on men and women and fills them with the love and praise of God, to such an extent and in such a way that their praise transcends their own languages and spills out into all the languages of the earth.

See, the thing about knowing something as incredible as that Jesus died for us, and rose again - is that you can't keep it to yourself. And the thing about something as amazing as the Holy Spirit deciding to take up residence - is that you can't stop talking about this, and talking about it with power. And before anyone knows where they are, there's hundreds and soon thousands of people all believing that Jesus is alive, and having the proof because God's Holy Spirit is living in their hearts. And the disciples - those firstfruits - become the start of something that spreads across the world, as people have joy in their hearts and power in their souls. Power from God's living Spirit. Pentecost is all about beginnings - that's why some call it the Church's birthday.

And Pentecost is about saying that, if you let the Spirit take control - if you're wanting to be with God, and you're listening to God, and you give God the chance to do what God wants, instead of clinging onto what you like - then the Spirit will take you on a journey. Washed the disciples across half the world, in their different directions.

But if you want to cling onto the way things are - if the disciples had gone back off fishing again, the Church would have been a few people, chatting about how great Jesus had been, until they all died. It's easy to cling onto how things are, decide we love the things we know. A church is a history store. There's memorials, there's memories. We remember what happened in Archdruid Angela's day (well, we say we do - as I've previously established, there was no such person). And maybe things were better when the church was full and there were 2,000 children in Little Pebbles and people far away across the fields used to fall to their knees when they heard the tolling of the iron bell. Maybe on Sundays in England the swings in the park were chained up and everybody spoke in whispers in the street and wore their best things. Maybe it was better in Ireland when the Catholic Church could run the joint and the government had to grovel to the bishops. Maybe that all happened. Maybe it was all true. It's nice, maybe, and it's encouraging, maybe but no matter how hard we cling to it it's not coming back. And if we cling to it then nothing new is going to happen either.

An engagement ring is something that pulls us forwards. It always points us to the future. An engaged couple will spend a lot of time talking about how they met, their shared stories, they'll try to tease out from each other when they first noticed the other, when they first fell in love. But if they never spoke about their wedding day, you'd think something was pretty wrong, wouldn't you?

And so with the Church. We study the Bible - that's the story of how the Church fell in love with God. It's the story of God's love for the Church. And we revere our tradition - the people who went before us, from the prophets and apostles all the way through to Oscar Romero. And it's lovely to be engaged. You can't get a better engagement ring that the Holy Spirit. She's God at work, in us, today. And we can receive the body and blood of Jesus - and we're united to him.

But it's still only an engagement. There's a world we're being called to, to which these are clues and foretastes. In the world to come, we won't know the Spirit in fits and starts - we won't be filled with him according to how full of other stuff we are already. We'll drink from the river that heals the nations. And the presence of Jesus won't be masked as bread and wine, and the body of Christ won't be a thing we try - with the Spirit's help - to be. Instead we'll know God as we are known. And we will throw the glories we piled up for ourselves on earth at his feet and know that the Lamb of God is with us, and among us, and we will be in his presence forever.
"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
That's where we are now, in the world as it is, in our lives as they are. If we have received the Spirit of God, we want more. We will pray to God for more of his presence, pray to be made more like Jesus. We will pray to be Jesus to those who don't know him so that, through us, they may know him. We will not face in on ourselves, cling to pasts that no longer exist, cling to the small experience of God that we have and try to hold that tight in our hands so it doesn't get away. We won't try to bottle up the Spirit  like we've blown air into a balloon and tie the knot tight, knowing that when the air has dissipated out through the rubber the balloon is useless.

Instead, we shall groan with the creation. We shall have a vision of what is to come - and a vision of how we can bring it into being in this world. The Spirit is not a Spirit of decay or of stasis - she is a power of forward movement and new life. Constantly, if we give the Spirit the chance, working new things in us, and through us into others.

The Spirit is God's engagement ring. One day, that engagement will be a marriage. One day.

Non-heretical Trinity Sermon Planning

I've just read Mandii's proposed sermon for Pentecost. 

Eschewing any attempts to discuss sanctification, or consider the rival attractions of Pentecostalism and Dispensationalism, she's preaching on the topic "Pamphylia is a long word, isn't it?"

On this basis, I'm giving her the gig for next Sunday as well. She'll be going with "Perichoresis is another long word."

I'm thinking this could be the least heretical couple of weeks we've ever had.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Nativity of Morrissey

Other religions have their saints, and so do we. We prefer people from the modern era, on the grounds that most of our target audience - sorry, mission field -  have no real grasp of history. Morrissey is about as near to a martyr as you can get, at any rate. Even if he is self-appointed.

Hi-viz colour: Grey


Leader:        Panic on the streets of London. Panic on the streets of Birmingham.

All:        I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now.


All: Sweetness, I was only joking when I said by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed.

Archdruid: The devil will find work for idle hands to do

All: I stole and I lied, and why? because you asked me to


Leader:        William, it was really nothing.

Realisation that it's the world that is wrong, and not us, all along

All: You shut your mouth how can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
just like everybody else does

Affirmation of vague belief

Oh, there is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out

There is a light and it never goes out

Primal-scream-like anger catharsis ritual

Archdruid:    Hang the D.J.

All:        Hang the D.J.

Archdruid:    Hang the D.J.

All:        Hang the D.J.

Archdruid:    Hang the D.J. Hang the D.J. Hang the DJ.

All:        Hang the D.J.

Liturgy of healing for a post-modern, liberal congregation

Those Requiring healing: I'm too tired, I'm so very tired and I'm feeling very sick and ill today

Archdruid: Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don't know.

Those Requiring healing:       Am I still ill?

Prayers of Intercession

All: So please please please let me, let me, let me
let me get what I want 
For once in my life let me get what I want
Lord knows it would be the first time
Lord knows it would be the first time. 


Archdruid: So you go, and you stand on your own and you leave on your own
and you go home, and you cry and you want to die.