The meaning of the Passion is not just religious

Dali-Christ

On Good Friday, I was very moved by a fine performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the chapel of New College, Oxford.  This was not specifically because of the religious significance of the words and music.  I don’t believe in the Bible story as a literal account of events, but I do think that the story of Christ’s passion has the resonance of great literature because it is so much about everyday human life, today as twenty centuries ago. The word passion, of course, refers to suffering as something that both has to be endured and is fully felt in the body.  Christ’s suffering is evident, but many people endure great physical and emotional pain in their everyday lives that is hidden and private.  The passion of Jesus Christ, whether read in the pages of the New Testament or heard in the Bach oratorio, channels the feelings of many.

Is a story of betrayal – several betrayals – and of heroism; a story of the use and misuse of political power, of “false facts”, and the compromises required by circumstance.  Judas, one of Christ’s disciples, betrays him for ”thirty pieces of silver” to a detachment of troops and officers from the Jewish Chief Priests and Pharisees, who are jealous of Christ’s influence with the people.  Simon Peter, another disciple, enraged, attacks the High Priest’s servant; but he later denies three times his association with Jesus.  When the High Priest asks Jesus about his disciples and his doctrine, Jesus replies:

I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing … Ask those who heard me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.

One of the officers interprets Christ’s testament of openness and honesty as insolence, and strikes him with the palm of his hand: “Do you answer the High Priest like that?” They take Jesus to the Praetorium, where Pilate, the Roman governor, has ultimate legal power.  Pilate asks to know of what Jesus is accused, but is diverted by an answer that asserts authority without evidence: “If he were not an evildoer we would not have delivered him up to you.”  Pilate has the ambivalence of a sensitive colonial authority.  He finds no fault in Jesus, but doesn’t want to contravene the law and customs of a subject people.  Having interviewed Jesus again, he asserts strongly: “I find no fault in him at all,” and attempts to resolve the situation by following the custom that one prisoner should be released at the Jewish celebration of the Passover.  But the crowd cry for the release not of Jesus but of Barabbas, a robber.

I find it impossible to read or hear this story without being reminded of the everyday betrayals, small or large, that we commit and experience; of the recent spread of “fake news”, with its emphasis on the “fact” rather than the evidence; of attempts to avoid offence and displeasure that merely worsen a situation.  Pilate asks, in response to the Pharisees’ insistence that Jesus be crucified: ”Shall I crucify your King?”  With acute mendacity, they reply: “We have no king but Caesar!”  During the performance in Oxford, the near-shouting repetition of the chorus (representing the crowd) that they preferred Barabbas to Jesus was to me a sickening recollection of the populist preference of Trump over the previous president.

Pilate attempts to redress the situation by insisting, against the wishes of the Chief Priests, that the the crucified Jesus be labelled “The King of the Jews”.  He replies with dignity to their protests: “What I have written, I have written.”  But the fact remains that crucifixion was the supreme Roman punishment, used to humiliate and degrade as well as to execute.  The soldiers at the Cross think it normal to strip the body of clothing.  This, as Katie Edwards and David Tombs have recently pointed out, was done to humiliate the captive and expose him to mockery; it is sexual violence or abuse.  In this respect, too, the meaning of The Passion is not confined to the history of religion.

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A few words on privilege…

This fine piece by Paul Bernal articulates what I have been thinking about privilege (including my own privileged life) for a long time. He wrote it in 2013 and has reprised it via Twitter, following recent comments by Boris Johnson.

Paul Bernal's Blog

I’m a hugely privileged person. Almost all the advantages that can be bestowed upon someone in our society have been bestowed upon me. I was brought up in a family for which money wasn’t really an issue. I lived in a nice place – in leafy, privileged Cambridge – and went to very good schools. State schools, as it happens, but in Cambridge the state schools are remarkably good, and Hills Road Sixth Form College, where I did my A Levels, can compete at an academic level with pretty much all the ‘top’ public schools in the country. I went to Cambridge University. I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’ve always been able to find jobs. I’m married, have a child, have a great job, own a nice home, I’m able-bodied, not suffering from mental health problems and reasonably healthy. I tick almost all the right boxes – and have…

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Grenfell shows the way to (or from) Brexit

The Grenfell Tower fire in London is the most disruptive event in our national life for a very long time.  It illustrates graphically what has gone wrong over recent decades: the entirely avoidable loss of life resulted directly from a managerial culture that did not regard the tower’s inhabitants as equal human beings in a wider community.  Being poor, working-class, in many cases immigrants, they could not attract the attention of officials in the richest borough in the UK.  Hundreds of people were lodged in a 24-storey tower block without fire alarms or sprinklers.  For years, they petitioned, phoned, blogged and used any other means to protest the obvious danger in which they were living.  Their complaints about the cold environment of their old draughty flats were assuaged by the application of low quality cladding that, when the inevitable happened, fanned the fury of the fire.

The anger they are now expressing, while infinitely more furious, resembles the emotion expressed by the many people in forgotten parts of the country who voted to leave Europe in last year’s referendum.  The most common reason for their vote was to “take back control”.  By a projection skilfully encouraged by the politicians and activists in the Leave campaign, immigration was blamed for poverty, unemployment, poor living conditions and a general sense of exclusion from the life and wealth of the UK.  “Brussels” became the scapegoat for unnecessary, supranational regulation that was allegedly holding back British enterprise and restricting employment opportunities. On 7 April 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a letter to all government ministers on “cutting red tape”.   One paragraph reads:

Our starting point is that regulation should go or its aim achieved in a different, non- government way, unless there is a clear and good justification for the government being involved. And even when there is a good case for this we must sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy and complexity, and gold-plating of EU directives, and challenge overzealous administration and enforcement.

Elsewhere, the document states: “Of course we need proper standards, for example in areas like fire safety and food safety.”  But the tone and line of the argument is that government — which presumably includes local as well as national government — should take less responsibility for regulation.   Further, the glib injunction to “sweep away” bureaucracy, and to end the “gold-plating of EU directives”, indicates that the writer has not actually taken account of the responsibility of government authorities in framing and enforcing appropriate regulations.  It is this mindset that has resulted in the Grenfell fire.

The one good thing that could come out of this national disaster would be a sober rethinking of what we are doing as a country and where we are going.  It is becoming clear to everybody (except a few ideologues) that the British political system,  based for centuries (as Leave campaigners constantly reminded us) on the sovereignty of Parliament, should never have made radical changes to international economic policy on the basis of a referendum.  The Grenfell fire makes clear where the problems of the UK lie.  A future government should address these, and base international economic policy on a clear vision of the need for greater equality and better communication in our national life. In a word — to use the word condemned by Margaret Thatcher — we need to rediscover community, both national and international.

Grenfell-outside.jpg

 

Trump’s impeachment may hang on a point of grammar

Comey_Screen_Shot_2017_06_08_at_11.05.09_AM.0James Comey speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Donald Trump spoke these words to James Comey, former Director of the FBI, at a private meeting in the Oval Office. As Alex Ward of vox.com states, these are the most important words of Comey’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Comey felt that these were a direction to him by the President of the United States.

Primary school children in England are taught that a command includes a verb in the imperative mood. In everyday social life, however, the context of an utterance helps to determine its meaning. Questioning James Comey on 8 June, Senator James Risch sought to deflect Comey’s view that Trump had given him a direction:

Sen. James Risch

He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey

Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch

He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey

Again, those words are not an order.

Pressed by Risch as to whether, as the former director of the FBI, he knew of any case where a person had been charged with a criminal offence for hoping for an outcome, Comey replied:

This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

Comey is drawing attention to the context of Trump’s words, and in particular to the power relationship between himself and his interlocutor. He is implicitly making a grammatical analysis of language as a social semiotic – as deriving much of its meaning from the context of use.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate Intelligence Committee will accept this more adequate socio-linguistic analysis of the President’s words.

A longer version of this post appears on http://research1english.wordpress.com/

Testing grammar

Female pupil writing

There has been much comment, discussion and even fury in the media about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high-stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view of language enshrined in the tests is so limited.

November moon

moon-1

The moon comes up trumps

on fourteenth November, determined to outshine

the golden hair of political aspirants.   Man, dress’d in brief authority,

performs fantastic tricks; will May set sail from Europe

on fearful course of political expediency?

Urbane discourse becomes the trolls of social media,

Faraging in their own back yard. And yet the moon

controls the ebb and flow of human fate,

And when the new world order’s long since gone

she will arise to light the ember’d earth.