Silence and sunsets

‘The magic hour — that purple-and-orange twilight cherished by generations of cineastes — seems to last for weeks on end.  The Griffith Observatory might as well be heaven itself.’ A quote from the NY Times review of La La Land, which I saw and loved two nights ago.

A very different twilight, last night, looking down from Cranham Common to Painswick (we’re the western edge of the Cotswolds), cold already biting into the ground, the sheen of frost, the evening star brilliant, as high in the western sky as it ever gets, orange glow along the horizon, and just a few pinpoints of light – a house or car headlight.

Hollywood and Cranham. Not normally names that go together. Hollywood – Mia and Seb, Emma and Ryan is real life, break into song and dance (‘hoofing and chirping’). Cranham can’t compete.

But they do have silence in common. Silence before the dance, silence before return to the family hearth. Silence before the TV news, and Trumperie and tweets.

Another quote (attributed to George Orwell, and borrowed from Roger Cohen in the NY Times): “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Truth comes out of silence, out of time for reflection, a balancing of ideas, at each step, allowing us to hold that essential balance between fact and opinion. Truth will always be personal, but the more we give ourselves time to balance our truth against the truths of others – we will at least approximate to wisdom that way.

If only we could head out to the silence more often. Orwell by the way near the end of the life was holed up in a sanatorium in Cranham. The air is good here. I don’t know whether he ever appreciated the sunsets.

We need more like her…

I’ve just caught up with Marilynne Robinson on Radio 4, being interviewed by Robert McCrum. American authors in a R4 series are responding to Trump, inaugurated later this week. The original gold-plated inauguration.

Some forms of Buddhism equate nirvana with palatial splendour, as if it required the condition of princes to persuade people it was something worth aspiring to.

America – so strangely, hard-working America – last November also felt the need for bling.

Robinson is from a very different, almost backwoods, American tradition. The America, as she describes it, of possibilities. She highlighted, as authors to return to, four great 19th century figures, William James, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville… (Whitman was my companion when I greyhounded around America in 1971, and Thoreau has always inspired – so I’m with her all the way.) They were to her mind unique in world history in outlining the possibilities of what a society, American society, could achieve. There were many pessimists then of course, and there are now, but opportunity is still there.

An optimist? She hesitated when asked. The future is what we will make of it, and Americans engaging and re-engaging will make that future. And if, a year or two ago, political engagement for American writers and other like-minded souls would have seemed somehow unpalatable, now, as attitudes to foreigners, to the poor, to the environment, are threatened, she anticipates that will change.

Trump has brought out something deep in the American psyche, but the irony, as she sees it, is that social security and the Obamacare safety-net which benefit so many are precisely now what is under threat. She is also profoundly unhappy with the role of many Christian churches, who subsume their ethical responsibilities under a tribal, exclusive and excluding identity.

As for the UK – she wasn’t asked. But maybe the message isn’t so different – how could so many have invested power in people who have an agenda so different from theirs – so many who thought they were reclaiming sovereignty (Trump supporters likewise, but in protectionist terms, and protectionism is the last thing we need), but could have instead a radical economic agenda foisted on them by right-wingers who can’t believe they’ve struck so lucky. Right-wingers for whom social welfare has always been secondary – with their sense, given we’re all either strivers or shirkers, that we may not even need it.

Immigration. The enemy as Robinson sees it is fear, and that’s what’s been played in both countries. Muddled with identity.

Too many similarities. We, we Brits, have to engage. At a local level, yes – but at a national level as well. Even if we’ve normally left it to others. America and the UK desperately need new leaders on the centre and centre-left who can take up the challenge.

The LibDems are out there on their own.

We’ve Tristram Hunt, one of the good guys on the Labour side, abandoning one ship and heading off for another, one that rests permanently and very grandly in port along the Cromwell Road, the V&A… That is not good news. We need the likes of Tristram. But he has had to deal wth a bane that Americans are spared – all the stumbles and misdirections and fooleries of Corbynism.

We need a Marilynne Robinson or two over here. We need a voice, we need voices, of wisdom.  Philosophers, historians, politicians, scientists, novelists – even theologians! – speaking out. Though, damn it, they could all be stigmatised as experts.

I note that it’s Michael Gove, he who scapegoated experts, that The Times sent over to the USA to interview Donald Trump a day or two ago. No surprise they were both smiling so broadly.




Silence – Martin Scorsese

I’m just back from watching Scorsese’s new movie, Silence, described as ‘a powerful and haunting meditation on the nature of faith’. I focused in my last post on our Christian heritage, and how we downplay it in our own times. In an earlier ages, not least the 17th century, we Europeans did the opposite – we asserted our faith.

Inspired by the Counter-Reformation Jesuit missionaries took the gospel to Japan, and after a brief period of success, they were tortured, murdered, and the Christian faith driven out. Two Jesuits padres, Rodrigues and Garupe, seek out Ferreira, who led the mission in Japan, and is believed to have apostasised – converted to Buddhism.

Christianity as both personal quest and state religion, each reinforcing the other, with little room left for doubt.

The mission of Rodrigues and Garupe may have been very personal to them, but they wre also representatives of state power. The rulers of Portugal could only approve.

You only have to visit the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition (on until 16th January) to see how far the patronage of popes, bishops and nobility supported the work of Caravaggio and those he influenced, such as Gentileschi, Ribera and Guido Reni. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus is a powerful statement of faith, the spiritual operating at a very down-to-earth and human level, and yet it was commissioned by an aristocrat, kept in a private collection – and only since it became a part of a public collection can it be seen and appreciated by a wider audience.

Our Christian heritage is no simple thing. It expresses itself at a very personal level, but the higher levels of that culture were only available for the affluent and the educated. Which isn’t to devalue them, rather to be grateful that we live in a time when we can appreciate them.

The ironies and contradictions here are manifold, and I wouldn’t be able to unravel them in a thousand posts.

Likewise with the Scorsese movie. Christianity wasn’t out-argued in Japan, it was put down by brute force, by sustained sadistic torture, designed to dissuade and convert, all in the service of the state – violence of this kind had of course no place in Buddha’s teaching.

Rodrigues wanted some kind of message from God, to hear God speak as God spoke to Jesus in his despair on the cross, but none came. God keeps silence, and Rodrigues ultimately realises that God has been speaking to him in the silence. What that message is he must decide for himself. And how he should respond? Should he apostasise and thereby save the lives of the Japanese Christians who look to him, or hold to his faith and let them die?

History – political history, Christian history, Jewish history (as told so dramatically in the Old Testament) – is an endless succession crises, violence, treaties, of confusions and betrayals, dilemmas and ironies, and it will ever be so. But we can at least remind ourselves how others have been there before us, and how all the while they have conjured the beautiful and the spiritual, charity and compassion, peace and good neighbourliness out of all the contradictions of the past.

More than ever they now need to be our focus.



Chimes of freedom

Lest we forget, the civilization of which we’re all a part in the Western world is profoundly Christian. In the real sense of Christian. (Yes, I know this is a ‘zenpolitics’ blog, but do read on!)

We’re so mired down by the day-to-day that we forget, remove from our consciousness, that simple fact. And if we do connect to it, we secularise it, explain the music, literature, art, sensibility, the ethics of earlier times away as products of their own times, and allow only those ‘eternal values’ that suit our personal tastes and pleasure. We privatise history, recast it in our own image.

This attitude has long concerned me – part born of acquiesence, dealt with by an easy shrug, and part born of a determination to create a new, contemporary, ‘scientific’ understanding of the world.

The reality is that our history is as much as expression of the spirit as of the hand, and implicit in our everyday if we’d open our eyes to it. By downplaying it we remove the very binding of our culture.

The Christian focus on the unique status of everyone before God underpins our understanding of our individuality, and compassion for others lies at the heart of the Christian faith, as it does indeed of Buddhism.

And yet – Christianity for so many of us carries the taints of our upbringing, and by turning from the taint we disavow the substance. For the purposes of this blog the substance doesn’t have to be Christian faith as such, but simply an awareness that our heritage is Christian. Not the Christianity of violence, where politics takes over, but the Christianity that Jesus taught, of love and compassion.

Shouldn’t we be out there arguing, for compassion, for an open heart, an open mind? Taking the initiative. There’s much at stake. But we’re too often on the defensive. And we don’t help ourselves.

The American Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson, is a redoubtable champion of our Christian heritage. She argues powerfully against a purely scientific and amoral worldview, but it is Christians who draw her ire – those Christians, legion in the USA, with a few too many over here too, in the UK, who allow Christianity as an ethic to be muddled with Christianity as an identity.

Ethic is inclusive, identity too easily excludes, becomes an ‘us and them’ tribalism.  The ‘them’ would include the generality of sinners, deemed worse than ourselves, the disadvantaged, the outcast.

I’m not arguing for a redefined, evangelical Christianity. This would hardly be the place. and it’s not my scene, not my world. But simply for a renewed awareness of what we take from our Christian heritage – a better understanding of who we are, which is ever harder in a 24/7 world.

I’ve quoted Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom before (and this is just an extract from the list of those for whom the chimes toll):

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute/For the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute/For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit/An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

I could also have quoted from the Sermon on the Mount. Dylan managed a pretty good paraphrase.