I’ve been enjoying Kaptin Barrett’s playlist, Now That’s What I Call A Renaissance Christmas, filled with old and new interpretations of Christmas carols from 1400-1600.

There is something quite otherwordly about the older carols. It is partly the Latin and the polyphonic structure, but also the exuberance and sense of mystery that is tonally very far away from the standards (‘Once In Royal David’s City’, ‘Hark the Herald’, ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘While Shepherds Watched’).

The older carols (of which ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ is probably the most commonly sung example nowadays) seem to celebrate the sheer miraculousness of God made flesh and the virgin birth, and rejoice in the promise of redemption – in the depth of winters that would have been full of fear, hunger and death for many. There’s a lot of allegorical greenery reflecting the promise of spring’s eventual return, and a carnivalesque element of “It’s midwinter, we’re alive, Jesus is born, so let’s have a party!” (see, for example, the Boar’s Head Carol or Sir Christemas).

The Victorian crop, by contrast, seem much more formal, even staid. They focus on the details of the nativity, on the holy family as some sort of sentimental exemplar (my parents always used to stare at us pointedly while singing, “Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he”). The ‘humility’ of God’s incarnation and the attendance of the shepherds is underlined. The carols are more interested in the humanity of Jesus – in his ‘relate-ability’ – than his divinity.

One reason for the difference may be the hiatus in carolling that took place after the Cromwellian suppression of Christmas celebration. From this brief history, it seems that carols were only really revived in the 19th Century. That’s quite a jump intellectually from the time of the Protectorate. To remain respectable, ‘true religion’ had to be filtered through enlightenment values, and to eschew mystery and saturnalia. The Victorian Christmas carol celebrates a properly ordered society, where dignity could be found in the lowliest conditions, where trumpets acclaim the majesty of God, and where the family is held sacred as the foundational unit of social structure.

But the long list of things I am inexpert in includes carols, enlightenment religion and medieval theology, so please take these musings as no more than that.

And, Merry Christmas.

Slow Train Coming – apocalyptic glee and abandoned adoration

It was forty years ago today (or last Tuesday anyhow) that Bob Dylan unleashed on the world the stream of invective, religious chauvinism, misogyny and racism that is Slow Train Coming, the first of his born-again albums.  All these years later, Slow Train is still shocking and enthralling in equal measure; much against my better judgement, it’s one of my favourite Dylan albums.
Mark Knopfler’s guitar has rarely sounded better than it does casting shimmering chords and arpeggios around the punchy backbone of the Muscle Shoals Horns and Pick Withers’ drumming. Helena Springs and Dylan’s future wife Carolyn Dennis provide backing ballast to Dylan’s voice, which sounds unusually clear, lively, committed.
Most of the good stuff is on the first side. The loping Gotta Serve Somebody sets up the album’s basic Manichean thesis – the world is divided into the godly and the wicked, and you gotta choose your side. Three tracks later, the belligerently swaggering title track pours scorn on everything from food surpluses, to OPEC, to Alabama road safety regulation.
But it is the tracks that these two sandwich which draw me back to the album time and again.  Dylan starts Precious Angel thankful for his damascene conversion, but swiftly moves on to excoriating those who remain unredeemed. Then he switches to a chorus – “Shine your light, shine your light on me” –  that is sparkling and joyous, a sincere riposte to the woozy gospel posturing of Shine a Light on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St a few years earlier.
One of the song’s joys is the way that, over six minutes, the pace picks up and Bob Dylan’s voice audibly warms and becomes more enthusiastic. By verse two, he directs his attention to his immediate circle:
“My so-called friends have fallen under a spell;
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, ‘Well all is well’.
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them, and they won’t be able to die?”
The pay-off stings like a slap in the face – talk about throwing shade – and the lines are sung with almost indecent glee. Dylan has not found a friend in Jesus but rather a harsh avenger.
The next track, I Believe In You, is very different in tone. Rather than triumphantly overseeing the apocalypse, Dylan is himself cast out, persecuted for his beliefs, for his love. The song mixes divine and secular imagery, sometimes seeming to address itself to a one-night stand, sometimes to an absent lover, sometimes to a forsaking deity. “Don’t!” – twice Dylan pleads not to be abandoned, his voice contorting into the yelp of wounded animal. Few Dylan songs sound so raw and direct, so adoring, with some of the eroticised longing that early medieval hymns direct at the bloodied body of Christ.
It’s the sound of someone utterly convinced of his righteousness, in love with his own new-found passion. It is as captivating as it is horrifying.

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Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid got shot down in twitter-flames this week for referring to Socrates\’ writings, when defending freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The thing is, as any classically-educated fule kno, that Socrates didn\’t write anything; that was Plato.  Cue lots of sneering. 

Well, fair enough, though the two philosophers are more or less identical for all practical purposes: Plato didn\’t write anything but dialogues in which Socrates was the speaker, and Socrates\’ philosophy is only recorded in Plato\’s writings.

More interesting, to me anyway, was the thought that even if Socrates was executed by the Athenians for his atheistic opinions, and his \’corruption of the young\’, he was far from being a believer in democracy and free expression (indeed, his association with shady oligarchs may have been one of the factors that led to his downfall).

For example, Socrates would almost certainly have banned Charlie Hebdo.  In his discussion of the just city, The Republic, Socrates presents it as one governed by a paternalistic \’guardian-class\’ of warrior philosophers.  Later in the book, Socrates expounds his theory of ideals (sometimes \’forms\’, but I think \’ideals\’ is less confusing).  Put very simply, everything that we see in the universe takes its identity from its imitation of, or resemblance to, a metaphysical ideal.  A table is a table in as much as it resembles the ideal Table; something is good in that it resembles the ideal Good.

This theory explains why, controversially, Socrates exiles poets (and depending on your reading, other artists) from his Republic.  Their art is an act of mimesis, imitation, but worse than that – it is an imitation of an imitation.  My depiction of a table is a poor copy of a poor copy of the ideal Table.  Socrates also suggests that art, particularly effective art, inflames the passions, and is therefore inappropriate material for his serene and ascetic guardians.  Anyhow, one way or another, the artists have to go, and certainly the publishers of satirical magazines would have had to go with them.

Socrates\’ conclusion troubled Victorian admirers (who had been happily going along with the rule by warrior philosophers up to that point), and it worried his interlocutors too; Socrates admits uneasiness with his conclusion, and challenges them to find counter-arguments.

I was reminded of this stipulation when listening to a man being interviewed about the prohibtion on images of the Prophet Muhammed last week.  Generally, this prohibiton is understood in terms of the strictures against idolatry found in the Old Testament – we shouldn\’t confuse workshipping a God with worshipping an (imperfect) image (like the Golden Calf or the Fish-tailed God Dagon, whose followers are so enthusiastically smitten in the Bible).

The interviewee went further, explaining the prohibition in strikingly Platonic (or Socratic) terms: Muhammed was such an excellent, virtuous and handsome man, indeed the ideal Man, that any attempt to portray him is bound to fall short of the reality, and will therefore represent a slander on him.  Plato (or Socrates) could hardly have put it better himself.

To be honest, I\’m not sure what this shows.  Perhaps it is a) that if you throw enough classical education at people, some is bound to stick (however imperfectly) even 25 years later; b) that if you follow any metaphysical theory far enough, logic will lead you down some curious cul-de-sacs; c) that those who die because of expressing their views are not necessarily liberals; and d) that irrational prohibitions are not the exclusive preserve of the abrahamic religions, but can be found in \’rational\’ Greek philosophy too.

The wrong sort of community

A few years ago, I visited one of the poorer districts of Sao Paulo.  Not a chaotic favela, but a cluster of housing projects in an isolated location on the edge of town, as grim as a concrete structure can be under the blazing Brazilian sun.

The Paulistanos – architects, urbanists, social scientists etc – who were showing us round explained how areas like this suffered from very weak social capital, with few organisations in place apart from well-organised gangs like PCC. What about the huge buildings by the side of the highway? one of our party asked.  Ah, they were just evangelical churches, we were told.  There was a brief pause, and then the conversation moved on, avoiding any further mention of what are clearly some of the most powerful players in Brazil\’s civil society.

I remembered this a couple of days ago when I read, in Zoe Williams\’ comment piece in the Guardian, that London Citizens had been one of the few success stories in the Government\’s dismal Work Programme, getting 1,500 people into work.  I have had dealings with London Citizens over the years; they are an effective community organising and campaigning organisation, which has been assiduous in securing solid commitments from local authoirities and other public bodies, by offering public adulation or denunciation.

But you\’d have to look reasonably closely at London Citizens\’ website to see that this is a group with deep roots in the churches and mosques of London.  My first meetings with the group, almost ten years ago now, tended to involve an Muslim imam or two as well as a multi-denominational smorgasbord of Christian ministers (though one of my colleagues remarked sotto voce as their list of demands were read out, \”They\’re not priests, they\’re fucking Trotskyites\”).

These religious roots are politely ignored on all sides, not only because the unified front would fracture if theological matters were brought to the surface.  There is a faint feeling of embarassement among secular middle class liberals (like those sitting the other side of the table in City Hall) when dealing with religion.  The awkwardness increases when the religious belief is manifested fervently, as a central plank of identity, rather than as a private hobby that goes unmentioned in polite company.

But travel on any tube in east London, and you quite quickly see people (usually poorer, ethnic minority people) poring over their copies of the Qu\’ran, Bible or other religious text.  And the big razzle dazzle evangelical churches (some, like UCKG, imported from Brazil) can pack out auditoria every weekend.  So I\’m not surprised that London Citiens succeeded where private contractors have failed: they are reported to have preached the scheme in church and mosque and to have intervened directly (dressing unemployed people up, and driving them to job interviews).

However unsavoury some of their teachings to liberal ears, these \’faith communities\’ still seem to be able to touch the parts of society that the best-intentioned outreach programmes fail to get anywhere near.  It seems perverse to ignore them, then to talk of \’hard to reach communities\’.