Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

John Betjeman statue

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Dan Rather, Solving The Migration Crisis Through Poetry

Dan Rather - MSNBC

The migration crisis cannot be solved by feelings alone

Dan Rather – elder statesman of American television journalism, disgraced during the George W. Bush administration but lately rehabilitated before a new social media audience in the Age of Trump – thinks that the best way to tackle the intractable, thorny issue of mass immigration and the global migration crisis is to read a rather jejune, unsubtle poem about the subject, and let our feelings be our guide.

From the veteran newsman’s permanently outraged Facebook page:

Immigration is always going to be a difficult subject but we cannot allow that to rob our nation of its decency, humanity and empathy.

It is true that we do not have the capacity to welcome everyone who wishes to come here. But at the same time, we cannot forget that our country has been shaped by immigration. And can we not see the echoes of our own history in the faces of the men, women, and especially children, now coming to our borders and shores?

It is a tragic irony that many who now wish to slam the doors shut to the newcomers without a shred of empathy have their own ancestors who must have felt the same swirling emotions as our newest arrivals. Their dreams, the bravery of their journeys, and their fears are undoubtedly similar to the basic human experiences of those who yearned to be Americans in decades and centuries past.

[..] I recently came across the poem “Home” by the young British poet Warsan Shire. It is a powerful and thought provoking work of art. I think it is something everyone should have to read before participating in the immigration debate or formulating policy.

Dan Rather then links to a poem by young British poet Warsan Shire, entitled “Home”. In this poem, apparently, we can find the Arkenstone of wisdom which will allow us to effortlessly solve a global migration crisis brought about by persistent dysfunction and turmoil in some countries, and a growing unwillingness to enforce or acknowledge national borders in the richer, stabler countries to which millions of people now flock.

A choice excerpt:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

And then this articulate reflection on the reaction to illegal immigration (cast deceptively in the poem, as elsewhere, as opposition to immigration and asylum in all their forms) in the recipient countries:

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

This is, in fact, not a very good poem. It is certainly not remotely original, in language, imagery or message. One might more accurately describe it as standard boilerplate leftist open borders talking points, fractured and separated into verses to lend the words a vague air of profundity.

It also happens to be factually incorrect. Many people leave home when they are far from imminent danger, but rather for economic advantage. The poem attempts to describe the plight and emotions of refugees, but does not account for people who pass through multiple other safe countries en route to the United States, or who move illegally simply because financial prospects are better on the other side of a national border. Unfortunately, this is the standard modus operadi of the Open Borders Left, cheerfully conflating economic migrants and refugees, legal and illegal immigrants under the same banner and presumptuously declaring that opposition to or equivocation about one form equals opposition to all.

Only recently I moved from my native Britain to America, not because the United Kingdom is ravaged by armed conflict and strife but because I am attending law school as part of a career change. I immigrated legally, willingly subjecting myself to an intrusive, expensive and stressful process in order to comply fully with the laws of the United States. And I was glad and grateful to do so.

People move countries for a multitude of reasons, but Dan Rather wants to you read this mediocre poem before you engage in the immigration debate because he (and many others like him) do not want you to think about people moving for economic reasons when you ponder immigration controls and enforcement. He wants to trick you into thinking that all illegal migrants are refugees fleeing immediate peril, and then tug on your heartstrings to push you toward the de facto open borders position he clearly holds but lacks the courage to embrace outright.

So we have read the poem – now what? What exactly does Dan Rather think we should do with this “information”? How should we let it inform our policymaking, both our long-term strategy and day-to-day tactical decisions in response to changing situations at the border? Rather neglects to spell it out in his Facebook post, but you can place a pretty safe bet that his unspoken hint could be summed up as “let everybody in, all the time, no questions asked”.

Dan Rather would rather emote and share sentimentalist poetry on Facebook than propose an alternative immigration scheme for the US, or spell out the compassionate but forever-ethereal approach that he would adopt. He says that not everyone can be welcomed but then has nothing but criticism for anyone who attempts to draw or enforce any line against illegal immigration or selective asylum seeking (attempting to reach a preferred country rather than the first safe one) as cruel, unfeeling and inhumane.

We see this time and again from many on the Left who are all too happy to bank the political and social capital which comes with being seen as compassionate and pro-immigration while remaining infuriatingly evasive about where exactly they draw the line on enforcing the rule of law. If Donald Trump’s present policy of separating parents and children apprehended while making illegal crossings rather than presenting at official points of entry is morally reprehensible – and it is – then the self-satisfied preening of many on the Left, effectively endorsing open borders without having the courage to say so, is political deception and moral abdication of a different sort.

Dan Rather believes that everybody should have to read a poem which addresses only one category of overall migration and one type of migrant experience in order to manipulate our mindset before participating in the immigration debate. Yet he and others of his persuasion are the same people who accuse the other side of being reactionaries motivated by base emotion while they are the enlightened, compassionate disciples of reason. How hollow, how fatuous, how utterly hypocritical does this claim sound in light of Dan Rather’s call for everyone to read a poem and legislate based on their immediate feelings?

The global migration crisis is a complex, intractable problem involving millions of people in many countries and regions. You cannot formulate good policy of a systemic nature by responding to emotional manipulation, or by relying exclusively on feelings rather than qualitative and quantitative facts. Individual stories of hardship and injustice are certainly a key component when it comes to informing political decision-making, but what is best for the heart-rending case before us today is not necessarily what is best for people tomorrow, or for society overall.

Many on the Left continually fail to recognise this basic truth, doing (or advocating for) what makes them feel good and compassionate in the short term, even if it leads to greater problems or evils in the longer run. How many hand-wringing speeches and editorials have we witnessed in Europe and Australia decrying the idea of turning back illegal migrant boats, even though their preferred policy of allowing or even encouraging illegal sea crossings leads to more failed attempts and more drownings in the longer term? Yet this seemingly does not matter to the Open Borders Left – by this point they have already burnished their reputations as progressive, compassionate people by advocating for the previous boat, even as the next overcrowded raft capsizes and slips beneath the Mediterranean.

That’s what happens when you act purely on feelings rather than evidence. People who forever accuse Trump and Brexit voters of being motivated by reactionary feeling and superstition over facts and reason should appreciate this, yet on the subject of illegal immigration and the migrant crisis they tend to be the ones most likely to cast any strategic long-term thinking out the window in pursuit of whatever salves their conscience in the given moment.

Poetry at its best is arresting, sublime, transfiguring, a wonderful way of evoking or capturing the essence of its subject in a way that prose alone can not. But no intractable problem in human history that I am aware of has been solved primarily through poetry. It took the Apollo Program and a Saturn V rocket, not the words of Carl Sandburg or Maya Angelou, to put a man on the moon. The great Homerian epics evoked mighty and fantastical deeds from the past; they were not a contemporary call to action.

Dan Rather’s suggestion that we all need to read a rather insipid, pedestrian poem about the plight of refugees in order to be more well-rounded participants in the wider immigration debate suggests a prevailing lack of sympathy which is largely nonexistent among policymakers of all stripes. Most of us feel viscerally for the plight of people driven to leave their homes in search of safety or greater prosperity, and would likely do the same placed in their situation. Unfortunately the rule of law, national security and the viability of the nation state do not lend themselves so easily to florid literary depiction, but this does not make them any less important.

Emotional manipulation, whether it originates on the Right or the Left, is always unhelpful and never conducive to the kind of political compromise which we all know is ultimately required in order to address immigration, namely compassion for those already here illegally in exchange for serious future border control and enforcement.

Dan Rather in his prime would probably have readily acknowledged this fact. Sadly, the dried out husk that is Dan Rather today would rather emote with his social media audience than help lead his country to that necessary compromise.

 

Dan Rather

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The Age Of Anxiety

Now is the age of anxiety

Both professor and prophet depress,
For vision and longer view
Agree in predicting a day
Of convulsion and vast evil,
When the Cold Societies clash
Or the mosses are set in motion
To overrun the earth,
And the great brain which began
With lucid dialectics
Ends in a horrid madness.

W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

 

We are just back from a refreshing weekend away in Paris, where we were able to soak in some culture and indulge in excellent food.

If you find yourself in the vicinity, I strongly recommend a trip to Yam’Tcha for lunch or dinner. In an horrific act of oppressive cultural appropriation (…), chef Adeline Grattard makes an amazing dim sum style bun filled with molten Stilton cheese and cherry, a sublime Franco-Chinois combination that works so well that you just want to stuff one into the whining mouths of every little SJW on tumblr, only of course they are far too good to waste. It is a beautiful but small space, so you will need to book well ahead to get a table. Non-celebrities like us gave it a month.

We also took in an excellent exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie, entitled “The Age Of Anxiety“, a display of American art from the depression-era 1930s. The exhibited works (featuring paintings by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Cadmus and Grant Wood, including the first overseas loan of “American Gothic” from the Art Institute of Chicago) give an insight into how different artists of the period captured or reacted to a period of great economic turbulence, uncertainty and (for many) deprivation.

The theme of the exhibit picked up the thread of my last blog post, in which I pondered why it is that Americans were able to endure the Great Depression with its attending sufferings and indignities without coming close to electing a hyper-authoritarian strongman as president, while today’s America may potentially elect Donald Trump to the presidency on Tuesday.

As I wrote last Thursday:

Now, this blog has every sympathy for many of Donald Trump’s supporters, who feel utterly let down by an American political class which has alternately pandered to them before betraying them, ignored them or held them in open contempt. And while this blog is very much pro free trade and managed immigration, the fact that Americans have not even had a choice when it comes to these issues based on the position of the two main parties is sufficient reason alone for the rise of a populist like Trump, albeit not necessarily a candidate with Donald Trump’s gargantuan personal flaws.

So yes, things are bad, and yes, the political class has not been responsive. But America managed to survive world war and economic depression in the twentieth century without coming this close to electing a dangerous authoritarian. Whatever afflictions the struggling “left behind” class said to make up much of Trump’s support may now be experiencing is nothing compared to the suffering of, say, the Dust Bowl. To react to these present circumstances by reaching for Donald Trump when their ancestors typically bore their tribulations far more stoically is in some way a reflection of American moral decline, which is very worrying indeed.

A few Trumpian defences immediately spring to mind – the fact that the stagnation of real wages and living standards among the squeezed middle is in some cases decades long now, leading to a much greater build-up of anger than was perhaps the case prior to 1929, or the fact that the alternative to Donald Trump is such a flawed candidate. But I think the criticism remains valid, and the question a pressing one.

Regardless: given that we are but two days away from the American presidential election in what is very much shaping up to be a 21st century age of anxiety, today’s Music For The Day is the Masque (Part 2, Section B) from Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety, performed here by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, with pianist Kirill Gerstein.

This nervous, skittish piece with its odd syncopated rhythms and unpredictable air seems to perfectly encapsulate the current American political climate (and my mood).

I’ll be live-blogging the election results here on Semi-Partisan Politics on Tuesday night and through into Wednesday morning, while also hosting an election watch party and serving up some of Sam Hooper’s famous Buffalo chicken wings.

Do pour some strong coffee and join me.

 

 

edward-hopper-newyork-movie-1939

Bottom Image: New York Movie by Edward Hopper, 1939

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Left Wing Hyperbole Watch

Left Wing Hyperbole Watch - George Osborne

 

This thoughtful poem was contributed by a reader today. It is presented here exactly as it was sent to me – I think it speaks for itself.

IDEOLOGY

She put a drawing in grandmas coffin,
Afterall shes only five years old,
How do you tell an infant,
How her grandma died so bold. ?

She fought the bedroom tax,
But Atos dealt deaths blow,
59 years old,
Its Tory ideology we know.

Fit for work despite her heart,
And arthritus in her bones,
4o years in that house,
A place she called her home.

When her grandaughter is older,
She will read and then she.ll know,
Why mummy cried and grandma died,
Its Tory ideology you know.

– Norman Dickson

 

More Left Wing Hate Watch examples herehere and here.

Resisting The Evil Tory Austerity Agenda Through The Power Of Poetry

Austerity poem - David Schneider - Conservative Party

 

Meet Dave Schneider.

Dave is an actor (as well as being a writer, director, coach, voiceover artist and social media guru).

But despite the demands of his multifaceted career, Dave still managed to have a good, long think about the injustices of “austerity”, and produce this gem of a poem.

Here’s the best bit:

There’s no money there’s no money

Hedge-fund people, have some money

Have some Royal Mail, NHS money,

There’s no money, there’s no money

You get the drift.

Naturally, all money belongs to the state, and exists to be parcelled out equally among all British citizens (as well as anyone else who wanders across the English channel, apparently). So Dave Schneider is able to talk about “NHS money” and “Royal Mail money” with a straight face, because as far as he is concerned, money doesn’t belong to the entrepreneurs, risk-takers or investors who create it – it all belongs to the government.

Thus tax cuts are phrased as “have some money” from the state, because in the world according to Dave Schneider, the money never belonged to the people who created it in the first place.

So let’s all join in a rousing chorus of “There’s No Money”. And when we have memorised and recited the Austerity Poem, perhaps there will be time left over to perform some pro-NHS propaganda street theatre.

After all, there’s no such thing as bad art among the anti-austerity crowd.

 

h/t Vickster51Corner.