Gollum and the Ring of Power

[This post has now been followed up by a loose series labelled ‘But Seriously’ in which I explore the biblical texts on the relation of Church and state.  For now just check other posts under the ‘But Seriously’ heading; I’ll try and get some better indexing or whatever as my blogging skills improve]

I frequently look at the website ‘Ship of Fools’, which is Christianity with a sense of humour.  As well as forums and news it has the ‘Secret Worshipper’ feature where people in effect review church services and comment on them, and some pure fun bits like ‘Signs and Blunders’ – an assortment of usually unintentional ‘gaffes’ from posters, noticeboards, church newsletters etc. (One intentional one I liked was the American church noticeboard saying “Will whoever is praying for snow please stop”!)  One of these features is ‘Born Again’ which amusingly suggests, on the basis of a resemblance, that some well-known figure is a reincarnation of someone (or occasionally something!) else; Ian Paisley of Christopher (Dracula/Saruman) Lee, for instance.  Recently this feature suggested that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wellby, might be a reincarnation of Gollum, the Andy Serkis CGI-generated character from the Lord of the Rings.  I sort of saw what they were getting at; but at first I did feel that for once the suggestion was a bit cruel, that ‘Born Again’ had gone too far….

But later I realised that while it might be rather cruel as a personal comment on the Archbishop’s appearance, it might actually be quite relevant as a comment on the reality of the Anglican Church.  Gollum of course starts life as ‘Smeagol’,  an imperfect but not particularly evil hobbit-like person who comes into contact with the One Ring and is led to murder his brother Deagol and ends up as the Gollum we meet in The Hobbit and then in the LOTR saga.  Not a bad person underneath, but corrupted by his addiction to his ‘Precious’, the evil, deceptive and destructive Ring of Power which in the end he simply will not let go of even when this means he casts himself into the fiery Crack of Doom in Mordor.  For the Church of England, the corrupting Ring of Power is the Church’s ‘Precious’ established status….

OK, historically the Church of England didn’t start relatively innocent like Smeagol; it grew out of a Catholic Church already corrupted by being tangled with the state since the days of Constantine, so it started already addicted to its ‘Precious’ in the hands of Henry VIII who wanted religious uniformity and control of his subjects.  Indeed despite a pretty good attempt under Edward and Elizabeth at restoring the Biblical gospel, one could argue that the narrowly national establishment of Anglicanism was a slightly worse form of establishment than the Roman version.  (I should mention here for the record that though currently Anabaptistic much of my early education in Christianity came from Anglicans and I still really appreciate many Anglican scholars like Stott and Packer and other clergy and laity I’ve known myself.)

Right from square one under Henry, the Anglicans persecuted dissenters; not only the Roman Catholics, but also at the other end a party of Dutch Anabaptists were executed by them.  Persecution (such as the imprisonment of John Bunyan) continued till the Act of Toleration under William III, and all manner of petty discrimination carried on even beyond that – exclusion of dissenters from the universities for many years, for example.  However, as will be a major theme of this blog in many of its posts, the big issue is not the obvious problems like wars and persecutions but the simple fact that being an established church is disobeying the Word of God and confusing the gospel teaching in all kinds of ways.  It is particularly frustrating to us serious non-conformists that when one reads books by the like of Richard Dawkins; generally more than half of his criticism of our faith is not dealing with real biblical issues (which he’s usually misunderstood anyway!), but with the completely unnecessary faults and problems of the various established churches, and of others like Ian Paisley who want unbiblical favour and privilege in the state.  We find ourselves having to fight through all that unnecessary stuff – where, let’s be blunt, we agree with Dawkins that it’s wrong – before we can get a hearing for the real biblical teaching.

As things currently stand, the Anglican establishment no longer means the totalitarian uniformity it started as under Henry and Elizabeth; it no longer even means that Anglicans (albeit often nominal) are the majority of the population – partly of course because much of Anglicanism has put people off religion generally.  But still the Church clings resolutely to its destructive ‘Precious’, still the good it does is undermined by the contradictions and practical problems of establishment; still establishment is probably the biggest bar to Christian unity simply because it is impossible to be united with Anglicanism without accepting their entanglement with the state, their position as precisely the kind of ‘kingdom of this world’ that Jesus rejected when he defended himself before Pilate.

So, on the one hand, yes, it’s cruel and wrong to compare Archbishop Justin’s appearance to Gollum – Ship of Fools please repent in sackcloth and ashes; but on the other hand, yes, Gollum with his split personality and his destructive addiction to his ‘Precious’ is a pretty good symbol of the Archbishop’s church and its contradictory personality with its unbiblical clinging to the rags that remain of the tempting power and influence of establishment.

A brief word on Biblical interpretation

I’m not exactly a fundamentalist, certainly not in the modern hyper-literal sense.  But unlike many I have read some of the original early 20th Century tracts ‘The Fundamentals’ – I even have one volume on my own shelves – and I think I’m broadly in sympathy with their approach.  Many of the writers were far from backwoods hicks, and they included British professors as well as American contributions.  They appear to have intended the classical idea of ‘literal interpretation’ going back to the Reformation.  For the likes of Calvin and Luther, this was a scholarly issue of ‘interpretation according to the literal sense’, which was part of the medieval idea of the ‘Four-fold Sense’ of Scripture.

In this scheme every text was flatly and indiscriminately interpreted according to four ‘senses’ including ‘prophetic’ and ‘allegorical’ and the ‘literal sense’ in this context didn’t mean some special hyper-literal interpretation but was more a case of ‘reading it like an ordinary book’.  The ‘literal’ sense had come to be down-played by scholars in comparison with the other more exciting, indeed exotic senses; but the Reformers realised that it was nevertheless the one that mattered most, because it was by the plain meaning of the literal sense that the validity of other interpretations could be judged, while the questionable practices of the Roman church were often supported by the exotic interpretations but actually contradicted the humble literal sense.  The idea, in effect, was that you should be able to show the rightness of your interpretation by inviting your hearer to read the Bible with you and see for themselves what it meant; not always possible with the exotic ‘senses’.

To show what was meant by the ‘literal sense’ I particularly like the following quote from the Bible translator Tyndale; it’s also useful because he wrote it way before some of the modern controversies like Darwinism and can’t be accused of just ‘making up excuses’ to ‘get round’ such later issues….

“Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way.  And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way.  Nevertheless the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.

In other words, it’s that ‘read it like an ordinary book’ thing.  Ordinary books use all kinds of literary and artistic devices to get their message across, as does all human language – that’s what Tyndale means by ‘as all other speeches do’ and so does the Bible. Intelligent reading will take account of them.  Figures of speech, literary conventions of the day, different genres (poetry, annals, saga, prophecy, allegory); God inspiring his word is no less artistic than a human writer!

I won’t go into all the detailed consequences of this approach now, but I do want to offer one particular insight that I have into the issue of ‘literalism’.  It took till I was 50, but we eventually discovered that I suffer a mild form of autism, somewhere at the ‘absent-minded-professory’ end of Asperger’s Syndrome.  No, I’m not a mathematical nerd; rather I got the ‘hyperlexic’ version and have been a fluent reader since age three.  But consider the following, used as an illustration of the problems of autism

It’s school sports day, it’s the big race, the starting pistol fires and they’re away.  It soon becomes clear that young Johnny is lagging and hasn’t got his mind on it; thinking to help, you call out to him, “Johnny, pull your socks up!!” …. And Johnny stops and pulls his socks up!

Johnny is autistic, maybe a bit more severely than I am, and he takes things literally; which in a world of people who use language more normally and use figures of speech and so on, can often have awkward consequences, and sometimes rather more serious than a misunderstanding about pulling your socks up!  This is a problem that I’ve largely (though not entirely) avoided myself, partly I think because my hyperlexia allowed me to understand about figures of speech at an early stage.  I quote it here to make it clear that being ‘literal’ is not as straightforward as some people make out; there really is such a thing as being too literal!  And I do not think we honour God when we insist on reading the bible as if we are autistic even when we aren’t; or indeed in a way, reading as if God himself were autistic and capable only of the dumbest of dumb wooden literalism.

So my basic view is that we are meant to take the Bible seriously – very seriously – but not in a ‘dumb wooden literal’ way.  More in future blogs ….

An ‘Un-Stable’ Story ….

This material was originally put together for a church housegroup and I’ve lightly revised it for the blog. The study booklet provided based most of its questions on the traditional version of the nativity story – which unfortunately is wrong. The biblical account is right, of course; but there has been a later misunderstanding.  Here follows the explanation ….

Not just ‘no room’, actually NO INN!

“What different events came together to bring Mary and Joseph to this place at this time?” asked our discussion booklet.  Well, the text is straightforward;

In those days an order went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole (Roman) world.  This registration first occurred when Cyrenius (Latin ‘Quirinius’) was governor of Syria.

They all went to be registered, each to his own city, and Joseph too went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be registered with Mary his betrothed wife whose pregnancy was advanced.  While they were there, her days were completed to give birth, and she bore her first-born Son, whom she wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest-chamber.

That’s right – ‘guest-chamber’; that’s what the Greek word actually means, as it also does in its only other biblical use, when it describes the ‘upper room’ of the Last Supper.  And it’s surprising what a difference that makes.  When Luke means ‘inn’ he uses a completely different word (Luke 10; 34).

In the standard story – the ‘inn-version’ – we get a rather upside-down (‘inn-verted’!) world in which people go to be registered for tax not where they now live, or where they have current connections and property, but where their ancestors once lived centuries earlier.  Consequently Joseph and Mary are forced to make a trip from their Nazareth home while Mary is heavily pregnant to spend a short time at an inn in Bethlehem.  Now I know bureaucrats can be pretty stupid – but not that stupid!  So what’s really going on?

Read it with the ‘guest-chamber’ instead of the ‘inn’, and a significantly different story emerges.  Joseph isn’t going to Bethlehem because his ancestors lived there long ago – he is going back there because Bethlehem is home.  This brings us to another slight misunderstanding of the original – Joseph isn’t a ‘village carpenter’ as we generally imagine it, he is a ‘tekton’, a builder; the word is from the same ‘root’ as ‘architect’.  At that time there was a lot of building going on in Palestine;  mostly initiated by the Herod family, but of course other noblemen, merchants, etc. needed their mansions and so forth in the Herodian new cities, and the Romans were building as part of their alliance with Herod.  Joseph is working in this environment; he’s a kind of “have Transit – will travel” builder, except that his Transit comes with four legs and long ears!  Why up in Galilee?  Certainly Galilee was a major area of such building, particularly in the city of Sepphoris (later destroyed in the uprising over the AD6 census).  It was also where Mary lived; and another reason might be because, with Herod becoming increasingly paranoid in his last years, a member of a junior branch of David’s family might find it safer to be away from Judea and less likely to attract Herod’s attention.

However, for registration purposes Joseph does have to return to Bethlehem.  In Galilee he isn’t a legal resident for tax purposes, he’s more like an immigrant worker.  Bureaucrats then, much as now, don’t want to mess around registering a guy who lodges here and there following the work around the area.  They want him registered at his primary family home where they can send the bailiffs in!  Of course if he can’t produce evidence of registration when he’s working in Nazareth they’ll make life difficult for him ….  So Joseph has to go home.

Archaeology tells us that at the time Bethlehem wasn’t quite the prosperous town it had been.  Joseph’s family weren’t totally poor, but they weren’t exactly living in a mansion either.  The typical house was rather like the longhouses or ‘bastel-houses’ that were built in Britain by Saxons and Vikings (and for the housegroup I was able to show an illustration of an Israelite version in an archaeological book ).  Downstairs were daytime living accommodation and stalls for animals – in this case mainly the afore-mentioned ‘four legged Transit’.  Upstairs were bedrooms and the ‘guest-room’.  As the gospel tells us, while Mary and Joseph were there, it came time for the birth.  For some reason the guest-room wasn’t free, so they cleared out the animal stall and used the manger as a cradle.  (Some of the houses were even sort of caves; but the layout was similar in principle, with ‘upstairs’ as a ledge or a higher level inner cave rather than a second floor.  I believe tradition identifies one of those cave dwellings as the nativity site)

So the story which emerges is Joseph taking Mary back to his home – with an advanced pregnancy but not so advanced as to make it really risky – probably during a slack season for building, and therefore in the winter months, though not necessarily December, nor was the birth necessarily on the 25th.  We shouldn’t exaggerate the difficulty of the journey; the Holy Land is only about the size of Wales, and Mary had already made a similar journey earlier in the pregnancy when she visited Elizabeth. They were probably in Bethlehem for some time before the birth.  This is advantageous to them in fudging the awkward discrepancy between the conception of Jesus and the actual marriage.  Mary leaves Nazareth in mid pregnancy, arrives in Bethlehem likewise – nobody realises it’s been a short nine months ….

Following the birth they stayed a while; at least the week for the ritual period of purification (v22).  Again, this fact speaks against them going to the expense of staying in an inn!  Then as Luke says they went back to Nazareth at least briefly.  But it seems that Joseph, as you would expect, established Mary and Jesus in his home – Bethlehem – while he travelled for his work. (When Matthew refers to Joseph ‘taking Mary as his wife’ he may be referring to Mary’s journey to Joseph’s home as the formal settling of the marriage)  Then, possibly nearly two years later (see Matt. 2; 16) the arrival of the ‘wise men’ drew Herod’s attention to the new born ‘king of the Jews’. This forced Joseph and Mary first to flee with Jesus to Egypt and then to relocate to Nazareth….  The restoration of the translation ‘guest chamber’ not only makes better sense of Luke’s words; it also makes it easier to relate it to Matthew’s version.  As tradition has it, Luke probably had his account from Mary or her family, so tells the story from a ‘Nazareth is home’ perspective;  Matthew got his version from the other side of the family, or perhaps from Jesus himself and his brothers, so tells it as ‘Bethlehem is home’.  The translation as ‘inn’ makes anomalies for both accounts; the restored ‘guest-chamber’ version resolves those anomalies in many ways.

(A possible reason for the ‘inn’ is that early Latin translations may have used ‘mansio’ – a staying-place – as the equivalent of the Greek ‘kataluma’.  Later the word ‘mansio’ came to mean the way-stations of the Roman ‘pony express’, which operated as inns to reduce the expenses.)

First Post

Welcome to the Home Page

Sorry, this is still very much a ‘work in progress!  The main reasons for this are first that I still don’t have internet at home and have to load the blog during the few hours when I have access elsewhere, and secondly that I’m a bit of a novice at the blogging business and still need help from more expert computerists to avoid making ‘orrible mistakes.

Anyway, check out the page ‘Setting out my Stall’ for a quick guide to me and what I’m trying to do with this blog.  For now everything else will be posted below this bit – a mix of news and essays.  Look out for the ‘But Seriously’ strand in which I will be exploring the biblical teaching on ‘church and state’.

I belong to the Greater Manchester Anabaptist Study Group, although that’s a rather formal name for a friendly get-together of usually a dozen or more assorted people with an interest in the issues raised by Anabaptism (if we all turned up together I think there are around 30 of us).  These meetings are at the Quaker Meeting House on Station Road, Cheadle Hulme, STOCKPORT – about a 5 min. walk from Cheadle Hulme railway station.  They are usually on the third Monday of the month, from 7.30 till 9.30 approx., so the next one will be Monday 18 March Coffee/tea/biscuits supplied, we usually make a £1 each donation to the Quakers for using the premises.  Currently we are looking at I Peter; despite Peter’s status as the supposed ‘first Pope’ this epistle is about the least Catholic and most Anabaptist bit of the New Testament!