With a promised end to restrictions in the UK at the end of the month, I’m hoping that this post will serve as my final Covid diary. Indeed, it now seems time to call time on almost two years of life-altering, state-mandated restraints. For all its raging transmissibility, the Omicron has thankfully resulted in very low numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.
What continues to rage, however, are the fiery cultural divisions in society. There seems to be a perverse, inverse relationship between the level of threat of the virus and how mad and maddening we behave towards it and one another. Why is this? In large this is because the pandemic has been a moral crisis as well as a public health one. To be sure, we are fooling ourselves if we think that the last two years has simply been about health. At root, the last two years have laid bare deep and troubling metaphysical assumptions about risk,purity, death.
We’ve seen these cultural and moral assumptions play out in two recent events: first, the revelations of PM Boris Johnson’s attendance at mass party events in May 2020 and second, the deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia. Both events raise two distinct questions which I will explore in what follows:
First, the question of legality and fairness: were the rules created applied consistently and fairly (including, in the case of the first event, by those who created them!)?
And second, and more deeply, the question of morality and reasonableness: are the rules themselves worth following?
For week 1, see here. For the lectionary I am using, see here.
Old Testament (Genesis 10-16)
1. Genesis 11:1-9: What’s the main point of the Babel story?
At face value, the central thrust of the Babel narrative is that human hubris—symbolised in progressive attempts to build towards the heavens—leads to divine judgment, specifically taking the form of scattering the peoples and confusing their languages.
Set against the literary and historical context of Genesis, though, the meaning becomes a bit clearer. There is anti-Babylonian streak to the story which I hadn’t noticed before but which makes sense in light of the near eastern parallels against which Genesis 1-11 is written. With this narrative there is no specific parallel but rather the use of motifs related to Babylonian religion—for instance, Babel literally means “gate of the god” . As Wenham writes (ECB, 37): “The ridiculing of Babylonian pretensions is even more apparent in the tower of Babel story. Far from its vaunted tower touching heaven and the name Babel (Babylon) meaning “gate of the god”, the Lord had to come down from heaven to see the skyscraper—so far short of his dwelling did it reach; and its name means ‘confusion’ or ‘folly’”. The Hebrew roots for the word “confuse” (“let us confuse”) and “folly” are almost the same.
This week I became a father (so posts will be a bit sporadic for a while!). My experience as father of witnessing labour was incredibly intense and scary and, well, a bit surreal!
A friend reminded me of this wonderful passage from CS Lewis from The Screwtape Letters on the nature of the real. What struck me is how easy it is to focus on the blood and guts and gore (what is “real”) and thus dismiss the joy and emotion that comes with the gift of a new human life (“mere sentiment”). I was thankful for the reminder!
when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”‘. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view…Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
Last week, I began reading my yearly read through the bible using this lectionary (I’ve never actually read through the entire bible in one year and this plan will, in fact, take me two). As I did so, I found I had an accumulating set of questions related to various historical, literary and theological issues raised by the text. I hope to record these questions each week and try and provide ways of approaching and answering them briefly (some of which I hope to come back to over time). Perhaps these are questions that you’ve wrestled with, in which case, please do feel free to provide your noughts via a comment.
Since, I believe, we are not only encouraged to ask questions of the scriptures but also let it ask questions of us, I also aim to provide a brief reflection on a part of the week’s reading that struck a chord or challenged me in my discipleship.
This first week features quite a few questions, most of which cluster around the Old Testament passages. A few are provided below (and a full list at the end). I haven’t had enough time to research these as I’d like owing to personal circumstances (I’ve just become a father!) so these are first stabs.