What does Christian atheism mean?

Two opposed camps can only have a fruitful debate if they agree on what it is they disagree about. A militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins is right to call out scientific ignorance in some religious settings. But at a deeper level his argument fails, because the deity he rejects is a blown-up thing, not the Creator conceived in classical tradition. Similar considerations apply to Slavoj Žižek’s Christian Atheism. When the claim that religion is no more than pious fantasy forms your starting point as well as your conclusion, then reason becomes the first casualty. This approach is as circular as beginning a book on socialism by asserting that all

The three most radical words Jesus said

Some Jewish friends recently asked me: ‘What is Good Friday?’ At first, they said, they had thought it was so called because of the peace agreement signed in Northern Ireland in 1998. Then they had learnt that it was a Christian thing, but they weren’t sure what. They wanted to know why it was ‘Good’. This put me to the test. You cannot explain anything about Christianity without paradox. It was Good, I hazarded, because it was bad: Jesus had to die to rise. My friends were scrupulously polite, but I thought I detected increasing perplexity. Many films of Christ’s Passion have been made, but all from a more or

The many Jesus-like figures of the ancient world

What people tend to forget about Jesus Christ is that he killed children. As a five-year-old, Jesus was toddling through a village when a small boy ran past, knocking his shoulder. Taking it like any five-year-old would, Jesus shouted after him ‘you shall not go further on your way’, at which point the boy fell down dead. Later, when the boy’s parents admonished Joseph and Mary for failing to raise their son properly, Jesus blinded them. Something to bear in mind next time you ask yourself: ‘What would Jesus do?’ Jesus smites teachers, sells a ‘twin’ into slavery, and has someone crucified in his stead If this story is unfamiliar,

Is the Virgin Mary being sidelined by Rome?

The Catholic church has always venerated Mary (‘Mother of God’) above other saints. But in recent years there has been a slight (a very slight) cooling in the church with regard to the inclusion of Mary in the liturgy of the mass. It’s been an English custom since medieval times to recite a Hail Mary (a verse of the rosary – the traditional Marian prayer) at the end of the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ – the sequence of introductory prayers in the main body of the service. But just over a decade ago Rome decided to gently discourage this practice. It still continues in many churches (old habits die hard)

This comedy duo should be on Netflix: General Secretary reviewed

General Secretary is a new drama with a dull title and an off-putting poster. A pair of angry women in sombre clothing glare into the middle distance. But the satirical premise is intriguing. What if two young females with no experience took over the world? Georgie and Cassie are working from home when they receive a mysterious message from the United Nations. A pushy German blonde appears on their screens and makes an announcement: ‘You vill now be presiding over ze vorld.’ That’s it. And so they take control from their kitchen. The first surprise is that the newly empowered sisters don’t set about exposing the faults of male-dominated governments.

Why Christmas sends a shiver down my spine

Does Christmas send a shiver down your spine? It should. We seek at this time of year to reclaim the magic of Christmases past. We think of snow thick on the ground. Rosy-cheeked children skating on frozen ponds. Carol services by candlelight in draughty churches. In 2020, there has been very little magic and wonder. Instead there has been sickness, death and a ban on seeing our loved ones; lost jobs and lost hope. To compensate, we feel more urgency this Christmas to seek out the magic, to find those spine-tingling moments, to reach beyond the humdrum and the daily grind. But, lovely though the fairy lights and colourful baubles

Away from the manger: the holy relics of Bethlehem

‘No crib for a bed,’ says ‘Away in a Manger’ rather puzzlingly, since a crib is a manger. ‘No one paid me much attention, lying on the hard stones, a young child in a crib,’ says God made Man in the Old English poem ‘Christ’. At the beginning of his prophecy, Isaiah declares: ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.’ The crib as a manger lent its name to the whole Christmas caboodle of stable, ox, ass, Mary, Joseph and all the trimmings of magi and shepherds. Francis of Assisi was keen on building cribs that put the Christ Child in his surroundings, and the idea

The way of the cross

Declarations of hope that Notre Dame can be resurrected have been much in evidence this Holy Week. Such is the lesson of Easter: that life can come from death. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, that other great emblem of Paris, Notre Dame provides the French with evidence that their modern and secular republic has its foundations deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is a monument as well to a specifically Christian past. Last summer, one of the world’s best-known scientists, a man as celebrated for his polemics against religion as for his writings on evolutionary

Why Peter Sellars’s staging of the St John Passion – which I sang in – was deeply flawed

It has been my privilege over the past two weeks to sing in the chorus of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under conductor Simon Rattle and director Peter Sellars in a staged production of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion. The experience has been life changing for some of my colleagues; it has certainly been unique. Dressed in black casual clothing, we spend much of the performance sauntering around the stage making abstract gestures intended to highlight certain words and distill the myriad emotions found in the music. Some find this effective; others find it silly. Sellars’s forte as a director is his ability to communicate to his performers

The star dreamer

‘Wake up, boy! Wake up…’ My father was shaking me and I was confused because it seemed that I had only just gone to sleep. ‘Get dressed. Hurry.’ The lamps were not lit and the house was silent. Outside, the night sky glittered with stars and silken moonlight shone across the sand. My father was the baker in our village not far from the city, and we could see the lights of braziers and torches and the oil lamplight, that seemed to run up and down inside itself, like water. We heard the bells and the blowing of the ram’s horn, the shouts of men as they shooed their animals

The stirrer and the monk

Sometimes Andrea Mantegna was just showing off. For the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, he painted a false ceiling above the Camera degli Sposi. Around a great trompe l’oeil oculus, apparently open to the sky, assorted gawpers and cherubs lean nosily over the parapet: ‘What’s going on down there, then?’ Only the Duke and Duchess of Gonzaga entertaining their friends from Ferrara. A terracotta pot is half off the edge, supported only by a thin rod. One nudge from a misbehaving putto and — whoops! — just missed the Duchess. Some of the putti stick their heads through the trellis. Another stands on a ledge, flashing us his bare, plump, crinkly

Original sin | 15 March 2018

This biopic of Mary Magdalene is a feminist retelling that may well be deserved but it’s so dreary and unremarkable that the fact it is well intentioned and even, perhaps, necessary can’t come through and win the day. Or even part of the day. Just the morning, say. Directed by Garth Davis (Lion), and written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, this is, according to the bumf, the Mary of the original gospels rather than the repentant sinner and ‘prostitute’, which is what, in truth, I always had her down as, but then I did get most of my learning from Jesus Christ Superstar. I now know, however, that ‘fallen

Vice and virtue

‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal when it’s divinely ordained, the price of salvation? A performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony this week celebrated the innocent joys of heaven; The Judas Passion invited us to count their sinful cost. You see them before you hear them. The 30 pieces of silver catch the light as they hang suspended as part of the

Woman to woman

Bump to bump they stand: Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, both pregnant, both apple-cheeked and glowing as expectant mothers should be. It is a moment of shared joy. The whispered intimacy of ‘I’m pregnant!’ ‘Me, too!’ Joseph and Zacharias stand sheepish in the background, as men do on such occasions. Joseph has more reason than most to feel left out. The baby isn’t his in the conventional sense. Zacharias has the look of a man overtaken by events. After so many ‘barren’ years, here is Elizabeth, pregnant and beaming with the future John the Baptist. The Visitation, the moment of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Judea to share the news

Why it’s obvious that morality precedes religion

At a beautiful church service recently I encountered again a Gospel parable that left me, again, torn between sympathy and doubt. You will recognise Matthew 25: 35-40, for its phrasing has entered the idiom: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food … sick and you visited me … in prison and you came to me … a stranger and you took me in … naked and you clothed me … ’ The story is of a king praising his subjects for these kindnesses to him. This puzzles them: ‘When did we see you hungry, and feed you … a stranger and take you in…’ (etc)? The king replies: ‘Inasmuch

Tales of the unexpected | 12 April 2017

It’s the oddest place to find a profound meditation on the death of Christ, but there it is on Radio 2 every year on the night of Good Friday, on the ‘light music’ station, and not on Radio 3 or Radio 4, where you might expect to find it. This year At the Foot of the Cross was sandwiched between Desmond Carrington — All Time Great and Sara Cox’s disco beats, the uncompromising reflections on the nature of belief adding a certain bite to the evening. Diane Louise Jordan and her host of guests at the Watford Colosseum (including the Bach Choir and the tenor Wynne Evans) created a sequence

Thinking of Israel

‘Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960,’ announces the opening sentence of Amos Oz’s challenging, complex and strangely compelling new novel. The story itself is easily summarised. At its centre is Shmuel Ash, a rather woebegone young man who abandons his university studies in Jerusalem when his girlfriend leaves him and his father withdraws his financial support. At a loss for what to do next, Shmuel takes up a job which requires him to live in a rickety, isolated house surrounded by an air of almost hermetic secrecy; and to provide tea, company and, most crucially, conversation for an

Flawed genius

An inspired decision to stage Jesus Christ Superstar in a summer theatre in Regent’s Park. The action takes place outdoors, in balmy climes, so the atmosphere is ideal for Rice and Lloyd Webber’s finest show. The songbook bursts with melodic inventiveness, and the score blithely rips apart the conventions of musical theatre and remakes them afresh. Lloyd Webber finds two contemporary registers and switches between them constantly: first the eerie, unhinged menace of late-1960s heavy rock, and secondly the sweet, escapist loveliness of 1970s pop. The transitions from blunt savagery to pure sugar sometimes occur with gunshot abruptness, on a single note. Tim Rice’s lyrical complexity and dramatic assurance are

The holy sinner

Many of the great faith narratives (the Holy Quran being a notable exception) are clumsy, rough-hewn things; makepiece amalgams of different texts from an abundance of sources that have been gradually hacked together over hundreds — sometimes even thousands — of years. Most have been found useful or resonant (spiritually and politically) at various stages in history, and some have been purposefully engineered (by individuals or institutions with agendas — their motives pure or otherwise). Eventually these fragments become embedded into a whole — a unity. A consensus is reached on what, fundamentally, works. This process is essentially pragmatic. How the interested individual chooses to approach such constructions can also

Ticket to ride

The latest film from the Coen brothers is a comedy set during the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood and in some respects it is utterly delicious. George Clooney wears what is effectively a leather miniskirt throughout, which may not be ‘age-appropriate’, as they say, but is wholly pleasing. (I was personally delighted, I must confess.) And Ralph Fiennes finally nails it comedically, which is a relief, as it’s been just so painful watching him try down the years. But the film is also troublesome, just as so many of the Coen films are troublesome. Why? Why this film, and what do they want us to take from it? Is it as