Thursday, 26 April 2007

Follow all of 'FATHER FRANK'S RANTS' - Rant number 258 - 25th April 2007


EXCLUSIVE TO: SETA'S ARMENIAN BLOG

Genocides


Ararat. The mountain on which Noah’s Ark came to rest, after the Flood. And the ancient people of Ararat are the Armenians – the root ‘ar’ being common to both. Look at the black hood worn by priests of the Armenian Church – lo and behold! It is Ararat-shaped. QED.

The Bible says that of old human race had grown so wicked that God decided to exterminate it. And so he did – righteous Noah and his family excepted. Divine genocide? No, a parable of God’s justice. And a good illustration of what sin does to the world. Close to our time, the tragedy of the Armenian people is a fearful reminder of how that aboriginal evil still rages in the hearts of men.

Yesterday, in the gorgeous Victorian chapel of St Mary Undercroft, serving the Houses of Parliament, I preached and prayed. Before a congregation of Armenian people. On Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Later a wreath was laid at the Innocent Victims Memorial by Westminster Abbey. A deputation from Darfur attended. I wish a Bosnian person had been present, too. Genocides old and new – what’s new?

The first nation in history to convert to Christianity, Armenians have traditionally displayed the virtues of trade and thrift. ‘Christian Jews’, somebody termed them. In the Ottoman Empire, despite debilities and sporadic persecutions, such as the pogroms launched by the ‘Red Sultan’ Abdul Hamid II, they lived in relative peace and prosperity. Then in 1908 the Young Turks seized power. Liberal and egalitarian, secular and Masonic at first, the new rulers underwent a Jekyll to Hyde transformation. The new ideology of panturkism, nationalistic and xenophobic, signalled the end of the old multinational, multifaith empire. Instead, ‘one nation – one people’ became the ominous slogan. And WWI, fought by the Ottomans in alliance with Germany & Austria-Hungary, supplied the pretext to systematically cleanse ethnic groups regarded as hateful aliens.

US Ambassador to Constantinople Henry Morgenthau’s Secrets of the Bosphorous makes harrowing reading. ‘The death warrant of a whole race’ that noble American Jew aptly describes the Young Turks’ extermination orders. In 1915 Talat Pasha had more than one and a half million Armenians deported to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. Those serving in the Ottoman Armies had been previously disarmed and slaughtered in batches. In the caravans, men were separated from others, taken out and murdered outright. The sadistic tortures to which the Turkish gendarmerie submitted their defenceless prisoners do not bear repetition. Bandits and tribesmen harassed and raped the distraught survivors. To escape the torments, women and children, dehumanised and abused, often committed suicide by flinging themselves into chasms and rivers. Of the survivors to reach the Arab provinces, many more, naked and sick, died of starvations, exposure and epidemic. Thus the biblical land of Ararat, for 3000 years the homeland of the Armenians, was bereft of its ancient people.

Islamophobes would be wrong to stress the faith factor – Muslim executioners & Christian victims. Of course, the Young Turks exploited religious prejudice but their ideology was un-Islamic, secularist and by today’s reckoning even racist, based as it was on the doctrine of panturanism - the alleged superiority of Turks over others. Furthermore, the Austrian writer Franz Werfel, in his riveting novel about these enormities, The 40 Days of Musa Dag (get hold of it, I recommend it!), narrates a telling episode. The Sheikh of the Mevlevi order of dervishes, the top Sufi brotherhood in the Ottoman Empire (institutionally charged with girding a new Sultan with the sword, the equivalent of a coronation in Islam), secretly meets with an Armenian leader and warns him of the government’s intentions. So we learn Sufis and the Young Turks gang are like chalk and cheese. They have diametrically opposed world-views. As the rightful spokesman for Islam, the Sheikh will not be complicit with mass murder. The message is that true people of religion do not condone the killing of the innocent, of whatever race or faith. Because God never commands that. In fact, God hates it. I haven’t a clue whether the novelist based himself on historical record or just made the story up but, regardless, it is a wonderful one. If the story isn’t true, it should be true – I do hope you agree with me, dear reader.

By why dig up these horrors? The attempted genocide of the Armenian people took place 92 years ago. Another century. Another world. There was never a Nuremberg trial for the Young Turks. Shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones? What’s the point…? Well, no one says the WWII massacres of the Jews happened half a century ago, therefore let’s put it behind us & let’s forget it, what’s the point… does one? (Hell would break lose if anybody did!) What’s more, no one travels to contemporary Berlin and comes across a museum dedicated to ‘the victims of the Jewish genocide’- meaning Nazis massacred by the Jews. Unlike what one sees in Turkey vis-à-vis the Armenians. I mean, no, this isn’t Fr Frank’s getting gaga, I assure you. With my own eyes I have seen such museum – reversing roles, Armenians murdering the Turks - near Lake Van, in Eastern Turkey. It was not a pretty sight.

Today the very occurrence o the genocide is denied by the Turkish state. The Turkish penal code makes it a crime even to mention that historical fact – writer Orhan Pamuk was indeed prosecuted for daring merely to allude to it in his book Snow. Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead in Istanbul only weeks ago. Revisionism – pseudo-academic denial of the genocide – is a government-sponsored activity. Again, fancy the German authorities commissioned ‘scholars’ to cast doubt on the genocide of Jews and gypsies in WWII – can you picture it? No, you can’t. But in Turkey it is true, all too true.

As a friend of Turks (my enigmatic Arkadash Network proves it, surely…), I can’t see why the present, moderate Islamist government in power in Turkey could not be bold and acknowledge the truth. As I have pointed out, the massacres should not be laid at Islam’s door. Xenophobic, secularist nationalism – voila l’infame! The Islamic party would gain a huge moral victory by doing the right thing. Will they ever do it? Allah a’alam.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 259

2 May 2007

Nihilism

Ex nihilo nihil fit. Nothing comes out of nothing. An old metaphysical maxim. Thomas Hariot, an Elizabethan mathematician, invoked it to cast doubt on the creation account in Genesis. God just could not have created the world out of nothing, he argued, precisely because ex nihilo nihil fit. It stands to reason, eh? But God (or the Nothing) had the last word. Out of the tip of Hariot’s nose came a tiny nihil, ‘a little speck, exceedingly small, which grew bigger and bigger.’ At last that ‘nothing’ killed him. Sobering tale.

A powerful, killing Nothing. Does it make sense? Last week five British young men of Asian origin earned life sentences for plotting to commit murder and mayhem in London. A mega-media coverage unleashed a plethora of details. An orgy of familiar, inflated terms like, at random, Al Qaeda, jihad, shariah, madrasas, mad mullahs, radicalisation, extremist mosques and extremist Imams, terror training, Afghanistan, Bin Laden, Pakistan, Kashmir etcetera – but also misogyny – Jawad Akbar, 23, saw nothing wrong in blowing up a nightclub, because, he opined, ‘slags dancing around aren’t innocent’. Huh! Even the king of all woman-haters, Otto Weininger (look it up), would have baulked at that!

Anyway, what’s new? Militant Islamism – voila’ l’ennemi! But now Bill Durodie’, from Cranford University, valiantly challenges this engrained narrative. Not fanatical faith is the real cause but…the Nothing.

In his provocative paper, ‘Home-grown Nihilism – the clash within civilisations’, Durodie’ focuses on the young suicide-bombers who hit London on 7/7 2005. The priest was only two hundred yards from the scene of one of the massacres and he’ll remember it as long as he lives. On examination, Bill observes, the murderers were not driven by ‘social deprivation or exclusion’. They weren’t poor, spoke vernacular English & ‘belonged’ in British society. Nor were they particularly religious or well-versed in the Qur’an. One was keen on playing cricket – that quintessential English game, imbued with an almost mystical ethos of fair play. Even their links with foreign Islamist networks appear minor. Instead, their violence reflects ‘a broader sense of alienation that has gripped the modern world.’ Its name is nihilism.

The power of the Nothing. Far-fetched? Not on recalling the allure that, for example, National-Socialist ideology held out for philosophers like Martin Heidegger. It was Hitler’s revolutionary, wilful nihilism that bowled over for a while the celebrated author of Being and Time. (Karl Loewith’s book on Heidegger and European nihilism is a treat.) But of course the grim cult of the Nothing has had its left-wing votaries as well. Such as anarchist Bakunin’s creed of ‘pan-destruction’ and the XIX century Russian ‘progressive’ revolutionaries so masterly portrayed in Dostoyevsky’s The Demons. A malaise also diagnosed by sundry French intellectuals, ranging from Proudhon to Baudelaire, Flaubert to Renan. Proudhon puts the modern predicament well: “Prostitution of conscience, exaltation of mediocrity, confusion of truth and falsehood, selling out of principles, the vilest passions, moral indolence, denigration of what is noble, praise of lying, mendacities…a polluted society, carnage, blood baths, darkness everywhere…” Equally apocalyptic sounds that most famous apostle of the Nothing, Friedrich Nietzsche: “The waters of religion are ebbing and they are leaving behind swamps or ponds…a hugely contemptible money economy carries along the edified groups and nations…never was the world more poor in love and good…the educated classes are no longer beacons or sanctuaries amidst this stormy secularisation…people become more thoughtless and loveless. Everything, from art to science, ministers to the coming barbarism.” And our Fred preached his lamentation 120 years ago. What would he say of today’s world – a zillion times worse - I wonder?

Nihilism. The worship of the Nothing. A crazy egghead’s fixation or disease? Hardly. Surely the commander in chief of the British Army cannot fall under that description. Yet Sir Richard Dannatt’s frank interview to the Daily Mail a year ago comes down to something similar. Not only did this Christian soldier expose the fatuity if the NATO adventure in Afghanistan, he also denounced the moral chaos right here at home. His heartfelt condemnation of the decline of Christian values in Britain was coupled with a warning. “If you pull the anchor out”, he said, “ the danger is that society will move with the prevailing wind…It is said we live in a post-Christian society…I think it is a great shame.” Hear, hear!

The Nothing threatens to swallow us. We can’t just lament. We must act. What then is to be done? At least three things. I see a goodly jihad (yep – no mishtake) on three fronts: ideological, theological/spiritual and practical. First, ideology. The battle of ideas. Cultural criticism. Standpoints will differ, of course. Durodie’s declared humanism, emanating from the Manifesto Club, is far removed from the patriotic perspective of Sir Richard’s. Or even the priest’s anti-secularism, rooted in transcendence. But, insofar as we all oppose the misanthropic cult of the Nothing - well, it’s all grist to the mill!

Second, theology. The Church, theology incarnate, should be in the frontline. Having heard Rowan Williams at Chatham House yesterday lecturing on Christianity in China, I could succumb to depression – no plain, unequivocal condemnation of the atheist, persecuting regime there. But there are many good, faithful people and priests in the Anglican Church who think & do better than that. And, of course, we have confidence in Christ’s assurance: the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church.

Third, action. Such as – shock and horror! - the alliance of Cross and Crescent. On crucial causes of common concern. The priest’s favourite hobbyhorse? But what better way to combat the loony preachers of hate & the violent idiots than to show how Muslims and Christians can not only be friends but also share practical goals? Which ones? Had you heard two Muslims & I on Channel Four (er…the Iranian one, I hasten to say, modestly) this morning, discussing what is good for all human beings, such as parental love and care, you’d have an idea. Nihilism got a pretty good kick in the teeth from us, I tell you. Much ado about nothing it was not. We planted real seeds. As a St Francis’ song has it: ‘small beginnings, greater ends’.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 260

8 May 2007

Slave Auction


Imagine a man who parades himself through Paris public gardens with a lobster in tow, tied to a silk blue ribbon as a lead. Like once did poet Gerard de Nerval. Bit of a show-off, eh? Actually, Nerval went on to do something even more eccentric. In the Cairo slave-market, he bought himself a slave. For 625 francs. From a gentleman called Abd el-Kerim. A pretty Javanese girl called Zeitnab. Not for sex, no. He needed a cook and housemaid. However, things did not quite pan out the way the buyer expected. After he had installed Zeitnab in his house, not without admitting to an ignoble frisson (‘I owned a magnificent bird in a cage’), to the master’s chagrin the girl refused point-blank to do any work. ‘I am a lady. A princess. I don’t cook or do housework’, she intimated, disdainfully. ‘And if you don’t treat me well, I shall demand you sell me back to Abd el-Kerim. He’ll find me a proper master.’ Bully to you, Zeitnab! Guess it served Nerval right.

Our air is thick with slavery-talk. Britain is remembering the bicentenary of the slave-trade abolition throughout the Empire. Thanks partly to the efforts of that great Christian apostle, William Wilberforce. Not that everybody is happy. ‘You should be ashamed…I want all Christians who are Africans to walk out of here’, a black fellow shouted in Westminster Abbey during a slavery commemoration service. One of many to snipe at the celebrations. Huh! Sounds almost as if Britain should apologise for having abolished the slave trade. That’s by the by, however. Slavery is intrinsically immoral - that’s that. It’s got to be clear, because I am going to pull a real shocker – a slave auction.

I kid you not. People for sale. And not only people. Ideologies & organisations too. The auction room is full. Buyers, bargains galore! First merchandise is a shaggy-bearded but distinguished-looking man in black. Rowan Williams his name. Says he is Archbishop of Canterbury. Clever chap. Any offers?

What are you good at, Rowan?

Rowan Er…theology. Divinity. Religion. That sort of thing.

Oh, yes. That’s impressive. Wait a minute. A recent survey reported nearly half of all Anglican clergy don’t believe in the Virgin Birth. (Something even Muslims accept!) That means many of your priests disbelieve the Creed. Are you doing anything about it?

Rowan Ahem… yes. I ordain women priests. We need them.

Hmmm…alas, the same survey says unbelief about Christ’s physical Resurrection is even higher amongst supporters of women ordination. It seems the liberal Catholicism you represent can’t even muster 25% of its members to grasp the key teachings of the Church. Your unbelieving priests are like doctors who don’t believe in medicine. And your churches are empty. Only a scatter of oldies. No youth. As a leader you are a wash-out. But you speak good English. You can teach my kids the language of Shakespeare. Bought!

Now, here comes an ideology. Christian Zionism. Any buyers? What? No one steps forward? Funny. Seems quite successful…in America, especially. Bit of self-contradictory, I suppose… Don’t give me dirty looks, folks. OK. Unsold. Next.

The next for sale is really high-value. A Prime Minister. Tony Blair his name. Buyers, ask him whatever you like. Test his cash worth.

What are you good at, slave?

TB I have run countries. My own, of course. And others.

For example?

TB (snooty) Don’t you know? Where have you been lately? Iraq.

Wot! You are responsible for that mess? And you’ve got the cheek to boast about it?

TB George and I got rid of a tyrant! A great achievement.

And killed more than a hundred thousands innocents in the process? And turned the place into a hell? Civil war between Muslim sects. Country being dismembered. People being kidnapped every day. Kids on the way to school seeing dead bodies in the streets. Bombs blowing up people even inside Parliament. Over one million of Iraqis had to flee abroad. And you call that an ‘achievement’?

TB (stiffly) God will judge me.

Sure He will. Meanwhile I’ll begin. I’ll purchase you. Got a job for you as grave-digger. Condign punishment, geddit? (Tony grins and grimaces.)

What have we got now? Another ideology. And another beard. This is called the caliphate. What’s it about?

Caliph A worldwide, transnational state for Muslims. It has existed before. Till 1924. The Ottoman Empire. Great civilisation. And it was multi-faith. Multicultural. Topical, eh? Truly its time has come.

By peaceful means, I hope. But in the West I can’t see most people going in for, say, banning the sale of alcohol or legalising polygamy.

Caliph Our state is only for Muslim lands, have no fear. And we reject violence.

Good. But what about the millions of Copts in Egypt? Their status in your caliphate…?

Caliph They are protected people. Their position is safeguarded in the Qur’an & in Shariah.

But can they elect the Caliph?

Caliph Only Muslims can appoint the head of the Islamic state.

Aha! Non-Muslims would be less than full citizens then. Sorry. Interesting idea but…no play. Unsold.

Now, here comes…the BBC! World-renowned British broadcaster. (Islamists call it ‘Blair’s Backside Channel’ but that’s gross. Must keep this clean.) Once upon a time top drawer. High quality English pronunciation. And programmes. Who bids for it, folks?

Customers BBC, eh? Maybe it was glorious once. These days we mostly see moronic soaps, dumb cookery stuff, football matches, promiscuity, bad language, quizzes, brainless kitchen-sink drama & so on. It’s rubbish. We don’t want it.

Sigh Sir Patrick More The Times suggests it’s women’s fault. He says the ladies have taken over the BBC. Unfair. The fault is both women’s and men’s. The wrong ones. But, whatever the causes, the result is the same: crap. BBC: you are unwanted. Next!

Here is a short, tough-looking guy. Huh, a Frenchie. Nicholas Sarkozy. Just elected President. Wants to wake France up from her hedonistic slumbers. Privatise things, a la Madame Thatcher. Bash the Unions. And keep Turkey out of Europe. Quite a handful, shorty…

Sarkozy Call me Napoleon, mon cher ami. I am his reincarnation. Hope you noticed.

Er…then Europe needs another Duke of Wellington! Help! Au secours!


Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 261

16 May 2007

Reason and Unreason

'Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God Himself is bound by reason.' Thus expounds Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton's celebrated priestly sleuth. In the short-story The Blue Cross, whilst absorbed in theological disquisition with a fellow Catholic priest. But, the latter wonders, might in some infinitely far-away universe even reason be 'utterly unreasonable?' Fr Brown placidly disagrees. 'Thou shall not steal' could never be rationally denied. In fact, the sceptic is no priest at all but that colossus of crime and arch-fiend Flambeau in disguise. The precious sapphire cross in his pocket, Flambeau laughs at Fr Brown and prepares to flee. Suddenly, coup de theatre! It transpires the great detective had sussed out the villain all along & policemen spring on him. 'A part of my trade.made me sure you weren't a priest', the real cleric tells him. 'What?' demands the gaping Flambeau. 'You attacked reason', says Fr Brown. 'It's bad theology'.

I bet a certain blonde Norwegian boffin would love this story. Professor Janne Haaland Matlary is the name. Fr Brown also would approve of her. A brave knight of reason the lady is. A redoubtable champion of the logos in politics, law and legislation. All set out in her admirable little book, When Might Become Human Right, published by Gracewing. Listening to the lecture by this attractive scholar & former politician (yep, sorry for the appalling sexism - she sure is good-looking) at the Thomas More Institute last week, I was well-nigh spell-bound. Human Rights, this pervasive and hegemonic standard of universal right and wrong, are now the new political 'Bible'. And they are used & abused to smuggle in dubious values and legislation. E.g. Amnesty International apparently intends to impose a HR to abortion. Quite contrary to the stated intentions of the original draughters of the UN Charter - they wrote of a 'right to life', not to death. To combat such aberrations, Janne argues we need to ground HR objectively in truth, objectivity and reason - in sum, in Natural Law.

Well, that opens a can of worms. NL is a venerable doctrine, going back to Cicero and the Stoics. Often contrasted with God's revealed, Scriptural law, yet St Paul himself upholds it in Romans. Though the written Torah was not promulgated to Gentiles, non-Jews, 'they have the Law written in their hearts', the Apostle says. Goody. Ahem, but what is this unwritten, natural law, exactly?

Ulpian, a Roman jurist, wrote that NL is what is manifest 'in all animals'. Guess he meant (hetero)sexual conjunction and procreation. Fair enough. But animal behaviour includes other things also. Some animals eat their young. Big fish eats smaller fish. The female praying mantis first copulates with the male, and then proceeds to devour its head. Mother Nature - 'red in tooth and claw' - is often step-motherly. How can it be normative for us?

Quibbles, of course. Human nature certainly includes an animal part. Aristotle indeed conceded man is an animal all right, but a rational one. And it is rationality that the NL tradition rightly stresses, not imitation of animal instincts. The lovely Greek logos, from which 'logic' is derived. As the Prof puts it, 'natural law.is the ability to discern - ratio - right from wrong, good from bad.' Fab. Still, in practice, a sceptic might ask.what? How does reason guide conduct? Voluntary euthanasia - is that irrational or unreasonable? Practical moral law, St Thomas Aquinas taught, commands that 'good is to be followed and pursued, and evil avoided.' Wow! Who'd possibly disagree with that? But how can we logically pass from that ponderous, platitudinous premise to a conclusion that, e.g. euthanasia is unnatural and wrong? And, to seize the bull by the horns, even admitting that x is 'unnatural', does necessarily it follow that x is immoral?

In her nice book, the Prof tackles some of these and related questions head-on. Valiant for truth she is all along. And she roots for the logos. Against the onslaughts of materialist and mechanistic thinkers like Hobbes and infidel sceptics like Hume. Good stuff. Her fighting passion fills the priest with admiration. For me, as a philosopher (B.A. Hons. Londinium), rationality isn't negotiable. And yet, and yet.I pricked up my ears when during her talk she mentioned Pope Benedict. Concerning his ill-fated Regensburg lecture last year. The Holy Father too had learnedly set out to defend reason in theology and ethics. Should have been kosher. Alas, an unfortunate, de passage reference to Islam's Prophet made the sky fall in. A storm of rage swept the Islamic world. Diplomats protested. Demonstrators in London yelled for the Pope's head. An innocent nun was murdered in Somalia. And so on - it took the Vatican weeks to contain the worldwide fallout. A cautionary tale.

Of course, some argue the fierce, emotive reaction by Muslims constituted precisely the vindication of Benedict's point. Proved the dangers of irrational, unreasonable faith. We need reason, not passion in religion. Problem is, 'the heart has its reasons that reason knows not', as Pascal shrewdly observed. Passions too, like it or not, are part of human nature. We ignore them at our peril, because rationality has its limitations. (Original sin: geddit?) As Chesterton says of a ratiocinating policeman in The Blue Cross, 'exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason.'

Nonetheless, being anti-reason not only is bad theology - it is bad anthropology too. Professor Haaland Matlary is right in upbraiding the rampant relativism and subjectivism of our culture. Ably, she contends how genuine, core human rights cannot be free-floating but rest on a conception of the human person - and its intrinsic dignity - ultimately derived from the natural law tradition. Her book supplies a battery of intellectual arguments which any critic of our stultifying, effete Zeitgeist will lap up. Not that she is starry-eyed about the magnitude of the task. 'It remains a tall order to restore rationality to Western politics', the last line of the book starkly states. I agree. Because I suspect the rot has gone too far. No one can reverse what the Hindu call the Kali Yuga - what we are at. However - confession - the priest is a romantic. As such, the more desperate a cause.the better!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 262

24 May 2007

Sacred & Profane

"Nice collection. But they ought to call it the funeral of the sacred", the pale-faced young man seemed to mutter to himself. Just inside the British Library. By the entrance to the widely praised Sacred exhibition. Sporting a green turban and a flaming red beard, and clutching an outsize Qur'an, he shot me a devilish look and rushed out. 'A queer fish' I thought then. But, after I inspected Sacred, I think I see what he meant.

'Discover what we share', announces the British Library hype. Prima facie, that's good. Islam, Judaism & Christianity - yep, the commonalities are a fact. Great. But why has this exhibition made me think rather of the opposite - how much we do not share? Positively perverse of the priest? Hold your horses. The profane, the opposite of the sacred, is what I am really gunning for.

False, dishonest and mendacious. Three epithets that well describe this mess of an exhibition. False, because it omits the fierce strife that the three 'Abrahamic' religions historically have engaged into - and also the real differences between us - we children of Abraham are, for good reasons, real rivals. Dishonest, because, under the 'reassuring', general rubric of the sacred, it fails to mention those features of religion that are incompatible with our post-modernity, such as hatred of sin and uncompromising supremacy of eternity over time. Mendacious, because it lies about what the sacred stands radically opposed to - the profane, today chiefly embodied in the decadent institutions & life of this society and this culture.

Why the funeral of the sacred? Walking out into British Library's great red-brick courtyard, the answer was at hand. The happy brigade who lay all about, intent on munching Tesco sandwiches, listening to walkman, jabbering into mobiles or snogging each other were peaceful, harmless, even pleasant folks. Fellow men OK. One thing was crystal clear though - the sacred is something they didn't give a monkey for. Like the people on a train I travelled with on Good Friday. The awesome sacred day when what used to be a Christian nation each year paused to pray & fast & remember the death of Christ. Nothing in the people's behaviour indicated even the most remote awareness of the holy.

'Ah, Fr Frank! So judgmental! Some might have been Buddhists or Hindu or Sikh.' None of which appear in Sacred, by the way, which is pretty shocking. Regardless, I saw no turbans or robes around. No, most of my fellow passengers looked as English as apple pie. Again, nice, civilised lot. The sacred was wholly absent, that's all.

Too harsh an analysis? Cruel to be kind. Homiletic exaggeration? Well, as the dying Kierkegaard said to Pastor Boersen: "It has to be this way, otherwise it is of no avail. When the bomb explodes, I know well enough. Do you think I should tone it down, first speak to awaken, and to tranquillise?' Or even priestly odium? But a priest has to be into celebration and I do not see much reason to celebrate in a society in which the sacred is absent.

Actually, the sacred has fled from many of its votaries, too. 'When the priests of a religion smile or giggle at each other during the celebration of their sacred mysteries, it means that religion is dead' someone said. Words that make me tremble. Because I recall having witnessed such horrors in many a parish. The nemesis of liberal religion, I suppose. And not only of the Anglican variety.

'Fr Frank, you are giving in to despair then?' God forbid. The death of the sacred must be followed by its resurrection, just as Easter follows the desolation of Good Friday. Hence despair is a no-no. What would the return of the sacred practically entail, though? Listen to polymath Professor Roger Scruton, my favourite philosopher & former teacher. "The restoration of the sacred may be a political hope, but it cannot be a political task: to make it one is to risk the most violent cataclysm and the collapse of liberal political institutions." Huh! Is that bad?

Kierkegaard reference to a bomb was of course a metaphor - like G.K. Chesterton's saying that the Easter resurrection proclamation should sound like a gun going off - whilst other present-day explosions are real, all too real. The steady, apparently endless number of suicide bombers in Iraq, for instance, never ceases to amaze me. Those good souls who curated Sacred would never have dreamt of mentioning them, to be sure. Perish the thought. Features of a dark, irrational, violent religiosity. Medieval, intolerant stuff, like the Crusades. Something that should have no place amongst reasonable Abrahamic folks. But has it ever struck these bright boys, I wonder, how much strength a faith must have that can inspire men to lay down their life thus? The same power which fourteen centuries ago drove a band of warriors out of the Arabian deserts to conquer half the world - a drive that is not exhausted yet?

During a recent discussion of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza by the hideous Melvin Bragg on radio, any real reference to the great man's condemnation by the Amsterdam synagogue was carefully doctored out. In fact, the rabbis cursed Spinoza with all the curses in the Book. A chilling recitation. 'Cursed be ye in coming in, cursed be ye in going out.' and so on. The truth is, curses are as much a feature of religion as blessings. Cranmer's superb Book of Common Prayer contains the service of Commination, or 'the denunciation of God's anger & judgment against sinners'. That too is part of religion - a sober truth the organisers of Sacred had neither the guts nor the intellect to acknowledge.

Where is the battle for the sacred hinted at by Roger Scruton being fought today? Afghanistan's Helmand province? The killing fields of Iraq? London's Holy Trinity Brompton? (Well, maybe not quite in the same sanguinary league but still a favourite spot of mine - go along - give it a try!) Palestine? Turkey? Texas? Huh! Tricky to answer.
What's vital is to know which side you are on.


Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 263

12 June 2007

Allah akbar!


Allah akbar! God is great….wait a minute. No, according to feisty Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, He isn’t. God is not great – the title of a lampoon by the dissolute-looking Brit has it. Ah, Chris, poor Chris! Did anything go wrong with your potty training, I wonder? OK, that’s a bit too ad hominem. More cogently, Hitchens obviously has never heard of St Anselm’s proof.

An Italian Archbishop of Canterbury back a mere 1000 years ago, Anselm spent most of his busy life standing up to bullying English kings. In between episcopal chores, however, he wrote books. In one, the Proslogion, he set forth his celebrated ontological argument – the most brilliant logical demonstration ever of God’s existence.

The argument is staggeringly simple. Even a Vanity Fair scribbler can get it. It starts with a clear definition. God is that than which no greater can be conceived. Got it? Conceive, imagine anything you like. A man, a tree, a thought, a star, a universe. God will be ‘greater’, more perfect than that. Because the very concept of God is that of a being who has all conceivable perfections. Wrack your brains as much as you like, you can’t come up with anything ‘greater’ than God. Just logic, see? Now, crucially Anselm points out that if God existed only in the mind, but not in reality, He would then lack perfection, as existence adds perfection to anything, i.e. a million dollars which has only mental existence isn’t quite as perfect as a million dollars that actually exists - bet your bank manager agrees with that. Hence when Hitchens says that God is not great – or that He is not the greatest – he is uttering a contradiction. Like the Fool of the Psalms that says in his heart ‘there is no God’, he isn’t aware the very conception of God he employs entails the existence of its object. (Descartes too centuries later argued you cannot conceive of God except as existing, anymore that you can have a mountain without a valley.) The existence of God thus follows from His very conception. Because He is that than which no greater can be conceived. QED.

Gasping a bit dear reader, eh? The monk Gaunilo also had wee doubts. ‘I can conceive of an island endowed with all the perfections’, he observed, ‘yet it doesn’t follow that perfect island actually exists.’ But, shot back Anselm: ‘There is no parity. The two cases are not similar. No matter how perfect your imaginary island is, you can conceive of a more perfect one. Not so with God. Because God is that than which no greater can be conceived.’ As a postscript: later Gaunilo sailed off and discovered some gorgeous island somewhere. Guess God has a sense of humour.

Aha! I figure the terrible Chris exclaiming. Pitiful proof. Have I not heard of Professor Kant’s devastating destruction of Anselm’s argument? Robespierre might have killed thousands of aristocrats but the tiny, withdrawing Prussian prof logically ‘killed’ God. ‘Existence is not a predicate’ Kant asserted. Not an attribute of a thing, on top of all other attributes. That million dollar, remember? In speaking of real or existent dollars, we add nothing to that imaginary million bucks…

Counterintuitive? Looks like that, prima facie. Take my son Linus. Sounds a bit arrogant to say that it adds nothing to my lovely Swedish lad (he was brought up in the land of the bears – don’t ask why – folies de jeunesse) whether he exists or not. Bet he’d be angry not to – if he does exist, that is. And of course existence is a predicate. A grammatical one. But, groan – Kant is kind of right. All existence claims are synthetic, not analytic, forgive the technical lingo. Matters of fact, not of meaning, that is. And a concept, however sublime, is not at least increased through acquiring existence beyond it – sad.

Cantankerous Chris should not croak, however. The same Kant (he was as devout a Christian as St Anselm, by the way) who demolished the ontological argument for God’s existence went on to invent another proof to the same effect – one based on morality - that’s a matter for another Rant, though.

Allah akbar! The hoary argument won’t give up the ghost so easily. Yankee philosopher Norman Malcom – a personal disciple and friend of Wittgenstein, no less – has resuscitated it. The proof is sound, he contends. Kant’s critique does not apply to necessary existence, because God’s existence cannot be simply contingent – He can’t happen to exist just today and not tomorrow, for instance - hence God necessarily exists…but enough. I trust at least the flavour of the dispute is at least intelligible, mate. (See what comes from spending two weeks in the company of Aussies?)

St Anselm’s famous motto was ‘faith seeking understanding’. Note he started from faith, from revelation, from Holy Scripture but wanted to show it was legitimate for a believer to use reason, argument and logic in order to deepen his insight into the divine. Shallow people who unthinkingly blab about medieval obscurantism and the ‘dark ages’ could learn from this brave champion of reason in matters theological. Of course, the question arises whether the ontological argument could possibly convert any atheist into belief. Too rationalistic and intellectual, some say. But how can we scoff at the intellect? Without it, what’s left? Surely reasons are what persuade. And, as a matter of fact, people are convinced by intellectual arguments, even in matters of faith. James II, the last Catholic king of England, converted on the basis of a purely intellectual reasoning – alas, it cost him the crown, eventually.

But what use is this great God? Well, just imagine the greatest burden, the greatest sin, the greatest crime. Something men would never forgive. It makes my flesh creep to think of examples. Indeed, when I was a parish priest I knew a person who confessed to me something so ghastly that I recoiled in horror. ‘I am accursed’ he said. ‘Who will ever be able to forgive me, to wipe out my guilt, Father? Nothing, nobody could possibly…’ that wretch cried out. But he was wrong. Someone could. That than which no greater can be conceived.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS



Rant Number 264

19 June 2007

Who’s afraid of (Muslim) women?


A picture tells a story. None more than Velasquez’s didactic Temptation of St Thomas Aquinas, recently on show at the National Gallery. A diverting episode in the saint’s youth. Hell-bent on distracting him from his vocation, Thomas’ parents arranged to smuggle a luscious bit of fluff into his cell. Compared with the thrills of orgasm, wouldn’t any boy feel the religious life insipid? Nope. Thomas leapt up, snatched a dying ember from the fire and drew a cross on the wall. Whereupon the dismayed temptress fled. (An alternative account has the saint keeping the girl at bay with a flaming torch. Too tricky to paint even for a Counter Reformation artist, I guess).

Velasquez’ painting is naturalistic. It shows a distinctly potato-faced female running away in the background. But the ordeal has caused young Thomas to swoon (no eunuch he), so two ministering angels are now caring for him. Ahem…the heavenly beings look human, all too human. And hermaphroditically handsome. One almost kisses the saint’s beardless face. Huh! Good job St Thomas was straight. A bit tongue in cheek, Velasquez, eh?

There are biblical precedents for the idea of woman as a temptress. The 39^th chapter of Genesis has Potiphar's wife trying to seduce Joseph. But Holy Scripture offsets that with innumerable holy women playing crucial roles in God’s history of salvation. From Sarah, Rebecca and Leah to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even Rahab, a holy prostitute, makes it. Tellingly, as poet & priest John Donne once preached, nowhere in the gospels we see a woman showed as an enemy of Christ. And not all pious churchmen have been chary of womanly charms. Indeed, it almost cost St Dominic his sainthood that the man of God had once said he preferred the company of young women to that of old ones. The fiery founder of the prestigious Dominican Order clearly wasn’t afraid of the fair sex – refreshing.

Alas, some men are. Misogyny does occasionally rear its ugly head. Wrong to assume the perpetrators are the godly, however. Sometimes the latter are the victims. Like in the case of pious Muslim females. Chap called David Sexton opined in the London /Evening Standard/ that “we’ve all been too deferential…about the veil, the hijab, the niqab.” This luminary finds “such garb, in the context of a London street, first ridiculous, then directly offensive.” And he does not leave it at that. All his rhetorical guns blazing, this authority inveighs that a Muslim woman’s religious dress is “abusive, a walking rejection of all our freedoms”, no less.

'All our freedoms’. Really? The UN Human Rights Charter lists a few. Freedom of thought, conscience, movement, residence, peaceful assembly. Freedom from torture or cruel and inhumane treatment. Freedoms implied in rights such a liberty, life and so on. How does Islamic dress threaten any of those precious freedoms, one wonders? Does a diligent, hijab-wearing student at London University import a downright negation of British freedom of residence? I think we should be told. Maybe the sight of a veiled girl shopping on Kensington High St. is offensive to our scribe - even ‘tortures’ him mentally, who knows? But that would be a matter for his shrink, surely, hardly an affair of public concern. Or does he regard any Harvey Nichols-shopping Fatima as threatening to life and limb as the 9/11 bombers? That syndrome has got a name: paranoia. As to freedom of thought, that is perhaps the most essential and most relevant of all. It presumes, however, that a man knows how to think. Does Mr Sexton? His comments might cast some doubt on it…

Intolerance is the name of the game, that’s plain. Of a blatantly one-sided and irrational kind. Against one of those very freedoms the scribe claims to have at heart. Religious freedom, that is. Once again, anything having visibly to do with faith arouses prejudice, even hatred. A disturbing sign of the times. So easy to get away with. But imagine, just imagine – if that is at all conceivable - a religionist blowing his top publicly about contemporary styles of ‘undress’. A Christian apologist, say a Billy Graham suicidal enough today to have a go at scantily-clad females in the streets. ‘Immodest, provocative, improper nudity’, he preaches. An incitement to lewd behaviour. Offensive to children and old folks. Now picture the fury, the furore, the scandal, the big clanking fist of the law. ‘This invite attacks on women, rape, murder…’ feminists would roar. ‘A repressed Victorian nincompoop, a medieval fanatic, a suitable case for treatment…’ the gleeful media would ridicule and pillory. At last the police would have to take the martyr into custody – for his own protection. Just a whiff of double standards, eh?

A fantasy? In après le deluge 1950’s Italy a Christian Democrat MP walked up to a lady dining in a restaurant. She was wearing a rather risqué décolletage. ‘You are disgusting. Should be ashamed of yourself!’ the MP told her. And he slapped her face, too. Yep. Ancient history but true. How have things changed. Some Italian MPs today are more likely to shout at a nun, if she wears too traditional a habit.

What worries the priest is that no doubt there are cusses who dream of doing something similar to Muslim women today. Bullies never pick on people their own size - a maxim that applies here. We are dealing with a small minority. Muslims amount to roughly 2% of the British population. That means their women constitute about 1%. Of those, some will be secular or not bothered about their faith’s dress code. It is not very brave to single out for opprobrium such a small proportion of devout females who freely choose to wear Islamic style of clothing. Actually, it is very dangerous. Although London strikes me as a most tolerant city, on the face f it, intolerance is never part of human nature. (I know original sin is not part of Muslim theology but… it should. Don’t mind being a bit bellicose here. Because it is true. And to me as plain as a pikestaff.) There are plenty of yobs around who look for easy targets. God forbid anyone should encourage them.


Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 265

3 July 2007

Live and let die or the British way of life


Aaargh! Dastardly terrorists out to get the priest. No kidding. Proof positive he can produce. Two years ago, on the 7th of July, they just missed me. Had I arrived five minutes earlier, in London's Tavistock square, the explosion that shattered a bus and its passengers would have engulfed me too. Last year, the liquid bombs-on-planes scare, real or presumed, stopped me leaving Edinburgh Airport. And now.they tried it again in Glasgow. That jeep rammed at the terminal, looks pretty cack-handed, I must admit - more dad's army than the professionals. Still.the details I am not at liberty to disclose (secret mission to the Scots, another Bonnie Prince Charlie or thereabouts, geddit?), but pretty close to the cyclone's eye I found myself..brrrr! The Tiger-Tiger Club too - what a close shave! Must thank St Pio da Pietralcina, one of my patron saints. His prayers keep the poor priest going, I have no doubts.

'We Brits believe in live and let live, it's our way of life, but now these people.' Hamish, the speaker, was a young bus driver I met last week in Scotland. Hailing from the Gorbals. (Great accent there!) Garrulous, paunchy, genial - and, by the way, a self-confessed BNP voter. Tolerance is what he was going on about. The British way. Live and let live. An admirable maxim. Indeed, a typical national virtue. In his celebrated Letters on Toleration, three centuries ago, Englishman John Locke spelled out the 'live and live' principle. Arguing philosophically against extremism in religion and politics. Mind you, Locke's toleration wasn't unlimited. Intolerance of atheists was OK. On the ground that human relations depend on trust - and you cannot trust, he says, someone who does not believe in God. Ditto for English Roman Catholics, because of their allegiance to the Pope. What would this renowned teacher of tolerance today advise about British Muslims or godless chaps like Professor Richard Dawkins, eh?

My bus-driving Hamish would agree, I surmise. Surely 'live and let live' must come to an end sometimes? He was of course, sigh.gunning chiefly for the immigrants in our midst. Nonetheless, the question stands. What do you do when some people are out not to let you live? Guess that is what dour PM Gordon Brown meant when, in response to recent terrorist shenanigans, he announced that 'the first duty of a government is to protect the lives of its citizens'. Well, yes. When any bastards set out not to let you live, you've got to stop them, mate, as simple as that. Of course, as Gordon well knows, statistically very, very few lives are lost because of terrorism. Far more perish from traffic accidents or alcohol-related illness. Or, but this the PM will never aver, because of abortions. And smoker David Hockney, Britain's greatest living (gay) painter, has declared that if he was going to die tomorrow because of his fags-addiction, so what? 'I love life, actually' he said, 'It's exciting, but death is an adventure too, a mystery.' Huh! When did you last hear an Anglican bishop talking like that? I hereby propose David as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

The plain truth is that life never was nor is an absolute value. The long and bloody history of patriotism proves that. Honour, glory, faith, the fatherland, lust, money, pillage, plunder, sport, adventure - all pursuits for which millions of men at all times have felt it perfectly willing, even enthusiastic, to lay down their lives. And no nations or states have seriously sought to prevent them. Sure, the Gospel teaches that life is sacred. And murder foul. 'Thou shalt do no murder', God commands. The same God who also ordains just war and capital punishment. Divine self-contradiction? No. Unlawful killing is what is at issue. The slaying of the innocent and the righteous. That is why capital punishment is licit and terrorism illicit. Simple.

'Terrorists want to destroy our way of life', both BNP Hamish and the new PM Churchillianly maintain. Now, what's that, exactly? Forgive the poor priest. An exotic Latin immigrant, he once thought he admired what used to be called the 'Anglo-Saxon way of life' but the phrase is rather unfashionable now. Racking my brains.what comes up? Warm beer? Old maids cycling to Holy Communion early on Sunday morning? Not quite enough. So I asked my friend Helen, a true Britisher. Her list includes: "Saying what you like; going where you like; respecting the past (?); love of animals; equality; milk deliveries to your doorstep; maps; tolerance; restraint; etcetera." Feel free to put in your own supplementation. For myself, I would add Habeas Corpus, the Church of England and the Queen - she is part and parcel of the British way, oh, yes.

What Islamists are likely to think about maps and milk deliveries I do not profess to know but, regardless, the priest is going to be dogmatic. The chances of present-day terrorism affecting any of the above are less than nil. Pubs, I suppose, would have a thin time under Shariah but the opposite is more likely. I mean, if you were to tell the Muslim people of, say, Uzbekistan, that a resurgent Caliphate would require giving up the quaffing of vodka, which they drink like water, you can bet your bottom dollar it would kill the thing stone dead. A fortiori that would apply here too.

In fact, the British way of life - the real one - is dramatically under attack right now. Lethally so. But not by terrorists. The EU and globalisation are amongst the true attackers. Alas, no Scotland Yard, Special Branch, MI5 or MI6 or the Army can do a sausage about those. Nor does the British Government intend to lift a finger. Because the Government - any conceivable government - is part of the problem, not of the solution.

Depressing, Fr Frank, depressing. Is this really the message you wish to convey? Despair? There is no hope then?

I am sorry but it looks that way.oh, wait a minute. There is always that recourse to St Pio da Pietralcina. A wonderful wonder-worker.


In other words, we must ask for a miracle?


Yes.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 266

10 July 2007

Bush, A.H., Freedom and the Sufis

George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler. A dictator and a democrat. Like chalk and cheese, surely. Still, apparently united by a common aspiration: to become Khalifa, supreme ruler of Islam. Or perhaps Amir al-Mumineen, Commander of the Faithful. Don’t laugh – not as loopy as you think. Pray, read on.

“Mark my words, Bormann, I am going to become very religious.”

Bormann: “You’ve always been very religious.”

“I am going to become a religious figure. Soon I’ll be the great chief of the Tartars. Already Arabs and Moroccans are mingling my name with their prayers…the only thing of which I shall be incapable is to share the sheik’s mutton with them. I am a vegetarian, and they must spare me from their meat. If they don’t wait too long, I’ll fall back on their harem!” (Hitler’s Table Talks, OUP,1988)

This droll display of National-Socialist humour took place in January 1942. Between party boss Martin Bormann and his beloved Fuhrer. Was Hitler in his cups? Unlikely, as he was a teetotaller. Wait a minute, wasn’t he on some kind of dopey medication provided by dodgy Dr Morrell? Chemically high, in other words. Only way he could have got the crackpot idea mosques were praying for him. That must be it.

Not being a fly on the White House’s wall, President Bush’s private jokes are beyond my ken. Nor am I privy to his medical record. I do occasionally peruse, however, the Wall Street Journal. (Pick it up for free at a posh London hotel, occasionally. Priestly poverty, alas….) ‘Bush plans Islamic envoy’, I thus learnt two weeks ago. A special representative to a 57-nation Islamic Organisation. The President wants to promote ‘respectful dialogue and continued friendship’. Fair enough. And vague enough, of course. Interfaith today is a trendy, government-sponsored bandwagon. Even English Local Councils by law must set up an interfaith committee. Can’t get more harmless than that. But the President’s intentions don’t stop at such benign bromide. He aims higher. To bring freedom to the Muslim world – would you believe it? Like Persian Cyrus, the conqueror who set the Jews free from Babylonian captivity – a sacred exploit for which the prophet Isaiah saluted him as ‘God’s Anointed’ or Messiah – George W. Bush wants to set Islam free. To be its liberator. Well!

As it happens, that liberation has bellicose overtones. Syria and Iran are attacked for repressing freedom and the President assures their people that “you are not bound forever by your misery.” Prelude, presumably, to a ‘real liberation’. Through military invasion? Portending a freedom like that offered to Afghanistan and Iraq? Hmmm…its juicy fruits seem to have turned a little sour, unfortunately. Bad PR, to put it mildly. So, I fear Bush’s appeal will go down into the Muslim world ‘like a bomb’ – in the Broadway sense of that expression, including the more lethal one. Besides, unless the President has secretly converted to Islam, in Muslim eyes he must be a kaffir. An unbeliever. The idea that Islam might need ‘liberation’ at the behest of such a person won’t be all that pleasing to the Faithful, I suspect.

A.H. and Bush’s bizarre courting of Islam has even bizarrer historical precedents. Mussolini once boasted of brandishing ‘the sword of Islam’. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s errant grandson, to consolidate Germany’s alliance with the Turks put it about that he descended from the Prophet Muhammad. Emperor Napoleon III once affronted the visiting Ottoman Sultan by claiming a similar kindred relationship, going back to a French Christian slave in the Seraglio, later married by Sultan Mahmoud II. And didn’t King Richard the Lion Heart propose marrying his sister to the son of great Saladin? There is even an amusing rumour, put about by some Quisling Islamic body in the States, that Prince Charles, Hilary Clinton and Princes Diana all embraced Islam. Well, as far as Diana is concerned, she hadn’t. I ought to know. But my lips are sealed.

Let us get real. Western politicians are scared stiff of Islam. By its radical, juristic and violent expressions. And by its religious fervour. But they also like to believe that, deep down, Arabs and Muslims in general crave to become like Western, secular and permissive fat cats. To shed their peculiar moral rules, laws and taboos. Preferring to them bread, circuses and night clubs. All Muslims desire are inducements enough to become ‘like us’. Hence, whilst Tory Leader David Cameron demands the banning of militant but non-violent groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, he courts ‘moderate’ Muslims by appointing one to his opposition front bench. Bush’s envoy fits into the same half-baked strategy. Indeed, the President is also courting the Sufis. A mocking Islamist newsletter shows him smirking next to a short, white turbaned and white bearded smiling fellow, who has his arm around the presidential shoulder. It’s Sheik Hisham Kabbany. The leader of some putative Sufi fraternity. (How long before we hear of Bush having turned Sufi, eh?) Do you follow? Sufis are another ‘good’ lot. Muslims who aren’t a problem. Sufis interest the priest, sure. But Sufis, like Gaul, can be divided into three parts. Obviously, Kabbany stands for those acceptable to America. They get on well with rulers. Some might call them creeps, collaborators – never mind. Another tendency shuns politics, to concentrate on attaining mystical union with the Divine – I confess to a liking for them. But there are also fiercely nationalistic and war-like Sufis, like Turkish Mevlevis. And the Lybian Senoussis. And the formidable Chechen version. And the Algerian hero of resistance against the French, Abdel Qadir. You can guess whose side these kinds of Sufis are, in ‘the war on terror’. Mr President, beware Sufism!

Freedom. A beautiful word. Virtue is freedom and vice is slavery, an old tag. Problem is, men are held responsible for vicious deeds, as well as virtuous ones. That means that freedom is implied in and by both. Freedom can be used either to save lives or to destroy them. To love or to hate. Assume Bush succeeds in bringing his ‘liberation’ to the Islamic world. That Mubarak in Egypt and Assad in Syria go down the drain. Have the President’s advisers told him the liberated Muslim masses may then freely choose something very different from Coca-Cola and McDonald’s? Some stronger, domestic brew, perhaps? A brew called the Caliphate?

No chance then they’ll invite him to be their Caliph. He’d better be told.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 267

16 July 2007

Monstrosities


The Monster Market. It once existed. 2000 years ago. In Rome. With plenty of customers. Read all about it in Plutarch. (On Curiosities) Despite laws requiring freaks to be drowned at birth, it seems purchasing them was kind of attractive. So much so, it annoyed our Greek historian. He had to reproach weirdoes who preferred unfortunates born with a dog-head or snake-like arms or various other deformities, to normal, even handsome youths. Hmmm… obviously Plutarch was a bit naive about human nature.

Freaks-lovers of the world, cheer up! The Monster Market may soon be back. Right here in rainy, Summerless Britain. A draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill will allow scientists to cross human-animal boundaries. To create ‘chimeras’. Organisms combining genetic different tissues. Three diverse types of mixed embryos, in fact. A useful Catholic Herald article indicates that the first “is made by injecting cells from an animal into a human embryo. The second, the human transgenic embryo, involves injecting animal DNA into a human embryo and the third – a cytoplasmic hybrid – is created by transferring the nuclei of human cells, such as skin cells, into animal eggs from which almost all genetic material has been removed.” Research into these chimeras, the Government argues, is necessary to find remedies for various diseases. All interspecies embryos so created will be destroyed after two weeks.

Will they? There’s the rub. Forget the crude, mad scientist caricature. Scientists are responsible people. They only do what society allows – from designing nuclear weapons to making contraceptives. What matters is that we are a free-market society. Indeed, the super-market society. Some might think it a good thing. No centralised, totalitarian, Orwellian body will control which kinds of beings there will be. Good. But wait: is the free-market model better? Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick 30 years ago virtuously extolled the idea of a genetic supermarket, “meeting the individual specifications (within certain moral limits) of prospective parents.” Well, moral limits certainly are what this is all about! But supermarkets are supermarkets. Across them, limits can be stretched. They already are. Abortion is illegal in Portugal but abortion-shoppers can get what they want in Britain. Adopting (buying?) a child is strictly controlled in most of Europe, less so in many poor countries, as Madonna’s recent example shows. Thanks to the wonders of globalisation, with the right dough, you pays your money, you makes your choice. And why should purchase be restricted to the old-fashioned category of ‘parents’? Does the Harrods pet store dept. ask for a marriage certificate when you buy a Jack Russell? Soon, in some hyper-liberal haven, bull-like humanoids may be freely available for sale. Or sirens. Or centaurs. And why not, eh?

Counter-intuitive, you’ll object. Because the idea of half-human/half-animal beings disturbs. If mentally inferior to us, they would end up being our servants. Slavery is now morally beyond the pale, so, a fortiori we would recoil from that. But, should the hybrids be superior to us, servitude would be our lot. Neither option appeals. Still, could they be just…different? Diversity is a good thing, we hear repeated ad infinitum. And a society including chimeras would maximise diversity. Awkward though it might feel at first to receive jackal-headed men and cat-women in our midst, only prejudice would stand in the way to full acceptance, surely.

But it’s only in horror movies or science-fiction that one encounters such freaks, you burst out! Such as Jules Verne’s adventures, H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and Cordwainer Smith’s lyrical Rediscovery of Man cycle. Why would anyone ever want to create real chimeras? (‘Why would anyone wish to create an angel? A man with wings?’ So asked a clueless boffin during a radio debate. Sigh…an angel, take it from me, is no ‘man with wings’. But no doubt the winged man would be snapped up on the Monster Market.) Yes, concedes the priest. But Jules Verne wrote about submarines and rockets to the moon and they are now reality. Likewise, crossing species-boundaries is happening. As to why would anyone want to engender monstrosities, I refer you to Plutarch. The dismal chronicles of endless human perversity are enough of a warning. Aware of that, and no doubt with the best of intentions, the Catholic Church is already asking that chimeras should have the right to life and respect that other human beings have. Agreed, but with a crucial caveat. Other things being equal. I mean, should it turn out that a particular breed of chimeric beings posed a grave threat to human survival, well, that would change things a bit, I fear.

To be fair, it isn’t just a matter of biology. The creatures that most depress and disgust the sane person are not physical freaks. Take the wave of nausea often generated by the media. By many of the BBC darlings like, say, the garrulous Andrew Marr and the loathsome Melvin Bragg. It has nothing to do with their looks. It’s the impoverishment, the one-dimensionality, the sheer emptiness of their verbal droppings, palmed off as ‘culture’, that reveals the genuine horror they represent and embody. The horror of beings who – pace St Thomas Aquinas, who argued that not even God can do that – have no soul. That is, no rational soul. Their empty jabber makes no sense. Like that monster in antiquity, a satyr who, allegedly, was captured and brought before the Roman general Sulla. Questioned, the poor creature made unintelligible noises, half-way between a horse and a goat. So do the Marrs and the Braggs sound to me. Truest, saddest monstrosities of a most sad epoch.

What sort of people should there be?” A question raised by Oxford ethicist Jonathan Glover, back in 1984. About dodgy uses of genetic engineering. Such as crossing species boundaries. The answer surely is that neither the present-day State nor the Market should decide. Because they cannot be trusted. But who then?

One, and only One, has the wisdom and the authority and the omniscience truly to decide what sort of people there should be.

No prize for guessing the priest’s answer. It is not original, I know, but I’d rather be right than original.


God.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 268

24 July 2007

The Last Confession

The oddest argument ever for the Church's truth must be a story in Boccaccio's Decameron. Jehannot, a Parisian Christian merchant, invites the righteous and upright Abraham, a Jew, to embrace the faith of Christ. Abraham of course demurs. The Christian politely keeps on. Until the good Jew bargains thus:

"Listen, friend. I'll convert on one condition only. Tomorrow I am travelling to Rome. Once in your holy city, I will closely observe the behaviour of Pope and cardinals. If I am content with what I see, I'll accept your faith is superior to mine. And I'll gladly undergo baptism. Otherwise I won't. And you'll stop pestering me. Agreed?"

"Mon Dieu, I have already lost!" feels dismayed Jehannot. "The moment Abraham sees the base and wicked life our top prelates lead, he'll stick to Judaism - that's for sure!" But he has no option. With a heavy heart, he agrees.

So, Abraham journeys to Rome. Predictably, there he witnesses the shocking conduct of Christian leaders. Enough to make many an honest believer turn Turk. "I have seen enough", he tells himself. He returns to Paris and makes straight for Jehannot's place.

"Make the necessary preparations. I am going to become a Christian", he announces. Amazed and overjoyed, the friend says: "You mean, our top men are paragons of love, charity, goodness and..." The Jew interrupts him. "Not at all. Bishops and clergy in Rome all grossly revel in the seven deadly sins. Lust, avarice, greed, envy, gluttony, the lot!"

Uncomprehending, Jehannot stammers: "Why then?" "Despite all that" Abraham explains "Christianity everywhere flourishes. I see more and more people turning to Christ. There is only one logical explanation. Your religion must be of divine origin. The Holy Spirit surely keeps it going. Therefore I will become one of you."

Royal Haymarket theatre-goers who like me watched Roger Crane's ecclesiastical thriller, The Last Confession, might not judge Boccaccio's tongue-in-cheek tale too implausible. The play revolves around events surrounding the sudden death of John Paul I. Only 33 days after his election in 1978, the Pontiff was found dead in his bed. Wild rumours circulated. Did his own cardinals, like the worst mafiosi, lace the Holy Father's coffee with strychnine? Putative motive: a progressive, 'nice' Pope - (sigh) a good Christian - bumped off by crusty Curia reactionaries. To stop him reforming the Vatican, cleaning up financial scams and other misdemeanours. C'est pittoresque mais c'est ne pas l'histoire! But it still makes for a fine piece of drama. Rather didactic and stereotyped - Archbishop Marcinkus surely can't have been quite so preposterously an 'ugly American' and the Roman Curia can't be much worse than the British Government - but still enjoyable stuff. Regardless, I doubt any good Roman Catholics will be led into unbelief because of the play's thesis. Call me perverse, I can even imagine potential seminarists being stirred to join up. After all, murder, mystery, power - kind of sexy, isn't it?

Don't get this poor, marginal and maverick priest wrong. A kind of Protestant (groan), he holds no brief for powerful church panjandrums - of whatever denomination. His bane, and the bane of Christendom they are. Nonetheless, the playwright's dichotomies are a bit clichéd. Worse, they are simplistic. Like the conflict between a simple, austere, spiritual Pope and a worldly, power-hungry, scheming Vatican establishment. Writer Ignazio Silone portrayed all that in The Adventure of a Poor Christian. Based on the true story of the hermit Pietro da Morrone. "Colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto", as Dante puts it. Elected Pope in 1294 as Celestine V, that naive ascetic led a short, disastrous pontificate. Forced to abdicate by the ambitious Boniface VIII (also disastrous, albeit for opposite reasons), Celestine was imprisoned and possibly murdered. But it does not follow that a mystic or contemplative or even saintly man would be incapable of properly being at the helm of Peter's Bark. St Gregory the Great suggests the contrary. When he gave himself and his successors the title of "servus servorum Dei" - the servant of God's servants - he did not do it out of false humility. He was the real McCoy. St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, and an outstanding example of 'contemplative in action', also would have made a splendid Pope. John Paul II might be invoked to make the same point.

Boccaccio's paradoxical argument, if serious, is dangerous. Because, for one thing, it drives a wedge between truth and holiness. The true Church is also a holy one. And its holiness should be reflected in the lives of its members. Visibly so. Saints change lives and convert souls, not scoundrels. No one contends that some priests' sexual abuse of minors strengthens the appeal of religion. Rather, it undermines it. Conversely, it is the shining examples of persons like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Abbé Pierre that makes the faith attractive. For another thing, it would be a diabolical inversion of the Gospel. Christ commanded His disciples to bring about a metanoia, a change of heart and mind in people's lives, not to confirm them in their sins - God forbid!

In fact, the early Christians had no truck with the idea that sinfulness may be a mark of truth. Tertullian, a brilliant apologist for the faith in Roman Africa, invited pagans to consider the wholesome way of life of the followers of Christ. "We are not like you." he told them. "We do not kill our unborn or shed other men's blood in the arena. Instead, we share our goods, we help the poor, we abstain from abortion and infanticide and we recoil from bloodshed in gladiatorial fights." How Christians lived, Tertullian claimed, was clear evidence of the superiority of Christ over >he disreputable conduct of the old gods. A cogent reasoning that persuaded the heathens. And so the bracing moral strictness of those early Christians was a vital factor in effecting huge conversions to the nascent Church. In other words, it is not immorality that leads to truth - it is the other way around.

I wonder, though, how Abraham, that honest Jew, would have looked on the conduct of the present Church of England. 'Just futile...' I guess he'd have shrugged his shoulders. Yeah, Abe. She is insipid. Wishy-washy. And you know what the Angel in the Book of Revelation says about a similar church? "You are neither hot nor cold. I will spew you out of my mouth."

Revd Frank Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 269

5 August 2007

Hell, Self-Help and Pelagius

Hell 26. A splendid chapter in Dante’s supernatural poem. Inhabited by the counsellors of fraud – our present-day, ubiquitous spin doctors. Each is punished by being consumed in a high flame. There the poet encounters the soul of that craftiest of all Greeks, Ulysses. (The Sindbad of the Arabian Nights!) He who advised the trick of the Trojan horse. From him Dante learns the story of his last transgression. As a restless oldie, coveting new worlds, Ulysses persuaded his companions to leave hearth and home in Ithaca to sail off into the unknown, in ‘a mad flight’. They made it past Hercules’ Pillars – the Straits of Gibraltar – for the ancients the farthest limit of the earth. Alas, just as the mariners glimpsed the shape of a huge mountain ahead, the stormy ocean rose and swallowed them all up, as it pleased God.

For a certain Harriet Rubin Dante’s Divine Comedy is a ‘self-help book’. Writing, significantly, in that peerless avatar of capitalism, The Wall Street Journal, she opines that Hell 26 in particular ‘works as a kind of literary medicine’. It does so by curing readers of their ‘self-created ills of ego and reckless opportunism’. And, in support, she conjures up the ghosts of mighty authorities like Mandelstam, Dickens and Dr Fraud….oops! Sorry, Freud is what I meant, of course…

Arguments from authority are notoriously the weakest. But that’s by the by. What’s wrong with Ms Rubin’s trendy, therapeutic exegesis is far more devastating. About self-help the Divine Comedy certainly is not. Dante does admire Ulysses, sure. His inexhaustible thirst for knowledge and excellence, his desire to become expert in human ways, vices and virtues alike. “Think of your breed’, the Greek hero harangues his men, “you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow wisdom and virtue”. But the whole point is that Ulysses’ exploit was bound to fail. Because the adventure was one for which mere human reason was not enough. Self-reliance, self-confidence, initiative, ‘can-do’ attitudes, the whole familiar psycho-babble, could not suffice. The flight was truly mad insofar as it was undertaken without divine grace – a gift precluded to the pagan Greeks. Fantastic assistance is available, Dante teaches, but we cannot find it inside us, unlike what the garrulous sirens of the gospel of self-help (very similar to the devious ‘consultants’ populating Hell 26, actually) sing in their tracts. Real help, help that transforms hearts and minds, comes from the Creator, not from the self. Thus the sublime Beatific Vision later granted to the poet is achieved through heavenly grace. Thanks to that the Florentine succeeds, while the Greek fails.

The self-help scam is nothing new. In fact, it is almost as old as Christianity. Pelagianism is its technical name. Do I see your eyes glaze over, dear reader? Please, resist that. Pelagianism today is all the rage. A most topical, live and widespread heresy. Exquisitely English, too, as anybody who has experienced the wonders of public school education would recognise.

It all goes back to a Romanised Celt called Morgan – ‘man of the sea’ or Pelagius in Greek. Might be the patron saint of self-helpers. Basically, Pelagius taught that man need not sin. ‘I am all right, Jack’, kind of hearty fellow he must have been. Through their own efforts, human beings can be all right with God. Sort of lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. Sounds reasonable? The greatest heresies often are. Otherwise they would not matter. To be fair, Pelagius was a Christian. Hence he laid stress on the life of Christ. Through the example of his life, his commandments and his teachings Christ brought ‘help’ sufficient to overcome the power of sinful habit. As I said, it sounds reasonable, harmless enough.

Unfortunately Mr Morgan forgot that people can sit pretty lightly to, even not give a damn about, good examples and teachings. Signs and directions, guidelines and exhortations – that’s what divine grace was all about for him. A kind of megaphone voice, encouraging a race driver through a track. But better theologians argued instead that God’s help is more intrinsic, effective and substantial, like an auxiliary engine on a racing driver’s machine, or as Pelagius’ great foe, St Augustine, suggested, as the machine itself. Grace thus is the real McCoy, the indispensable, necessary power from on high. To vary the metaphor, man cannot lift himself up to Heaven by his own bootstraps. God has to let down a rope of grace, so that His creatures can climb up to Him. Self-help gets no purchase. God-help does. Dante knew it. That’s why he would have shuddered at the thought of the Comedy being viewed as self-healing nonsense.

Today Morgan has conquered the world. The private school system especially – quirkily called ‘public’ in arch-Pelagian Britain. What Eton and Harrow unfailingly churn out are ‘good chaps’. Young men who know how to make the grade. Exuding self-confidence, self-sufficiency and self-conceit. Chaps who can cope in all situations. Who don’t need grace. Who, by the way they look, walk, speak and dress, can make plebs feel inferior. Forget Hitler’s half- baked ideas about the master race. Or sad and mad Nietzsche’s fantasies about the uebermensch. The true uebermenschen are in our midst. Only 7% of British school kids, sure – that’s what elites are all about, no?

Worse, Morgan-Pelagius has triumphed over church people too. How often, on visiting parishioners, I have heard the familiar mantra: “You know, Father, I am a good, decent person. I do nothing wrong. As far as that is the case, I do not have to come to church to be all right with God.” Such opinions are typical of the British population at large. The priest cannot condemn folks for not darkening the church’s door, of course – services are so boring and the people more so. But God’s grace is not an optional extra. Without that, no salvation. Simple.

A woman who persisted in going on about the Arian heresy, Dr Johnson said, would be a nuisance. Misogyny apart, maybe so. But it is to their peril that faithful believers ignore that most pestilent of all heresies: pelagianism.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 270

13 August 2007

Down There in Fairyland

‘Tis merry, ‘tis merry in fairyland,

When fairy birds are singing,

When the court doth ride

By their monarch’s side,

With bit and bridle ringing. Sir Walter Scott

The fairies. The very idea of those tiny, lovely, imaginary beings is charmingly child-like. And innocent. Yet fairies have a dark side. Well illustrated in a teeming painting by Victorian artist Sir Joseph Noel Paton. The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling – Midsummer Eve now hangs in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery. The fairies do indeed ride along merrily, like the beautiful, noble ladies of medieval romance. We see them escorted by their smiling knights and champions, whilst elfins and gnomes march alongside them in the undergrowth. However, on closer examination the viewer notices some small, fair human children further ahead. With alarm, he perceives the chains on their ankles. And the mournful look on a child’s face, as he looks back over his shoulder. The truth dawns. The tot is saying farewell to the world of men he has been cruelly abducted from. In his place, the unlovely fairies have left a useless changeling, an idiot baby. All is decidedly not merry in Paton’s fairyland.

I guess anxiety is the mood this painting would have engendered in the Victorian mind. Despite Darwin and the ascendancy of positivist thought, the supernatural in its more irrational forms still had plenty of devotees. (Even Sherlock Holmes’ inventor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was hoodwinked into believing in actual, existing fairies.) Horrendous infant mortality must have heightened the sense of precariousness of infant life, too. All behind us, surely? But consider the painful case of missing Madeleine McCann. Sadly the most famous child in Europe right now. 103 days ago she disappeared from her parents’ holiday flat in Praia de Luz, a popular Portuguese seaside resort. Overnight, the pretty, blonde girl seems to have vanished into thin air. The search for her till now has been fruitless. And the police basically clueless. One would almost be tempted to say with old Sherlock, “When all the possible hypotheses have been discarded, what’s left, whatever improbable, must be true.” And then go on to speculate about Maddie’s abduction by the fairies.

Arrant nonsense, of course. Fairies, a la Paton, allude to ambiguous, malevolent drives and tendencies buried in the human unconscious. From time to time, Satan causes such forces to come to the surface. The most terrifying instance known to me is that of Bluebeard. No, not the fantasy character of Perrault’s tale. Rather, the all too real, historical figure of Gilles de Rais. A monster so fiendish that…words fail me. I apologise for soiling cyberspace with even the slightest reference to his inhuman crimes.

De Rais was an aristocrat, a valiant soldier and a companion of St Joan of Arc. Later, he turned child stealer, torturer and murderer. On a massive, unbelievable scale. It is not possible to relate details of the man’s – if he was a man and not some primeval filth - grotesque, vile abominations. French writer J.K. Huysmans narrates them in his weird novel, Down There (La Bas). Having forced myself to read it, I much regret it. The very memory fills me with nausea. Policemen, lawyers, jurors and judges have to bear the burden of listening to such horrors…of course, priests may have too but…too much is too much.

The Inquisitors eventually found out Bluebeard, tried him and executed him – surely a case when one must cheer the Inquisition. What kind of unimaginable hell his soul now inhabits I cannot even begin to imagine.

Still, I wonder. Remember Myra Hindley? The notorious British child murderer. One truly beyond the pale. And yet, as nice and lovable a Christian as the unforgettable philanthropist Lord Longford believed that, after 30 years behind bars, Hindley was a truly changed person. That she had genuinely repented, was purified of her sins and deserved parole. (I believe that too. I wrote to Myra in prison to that effect.) But no Home Secretary was brave enough to withstand the popular rage his mercy would have unleashed. So Myra never got her release and died in jail.

“God loves Myra Hindley, Himmler and Idi Amin more than Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King and Gandhi”. A deliberately shocking opening line of a sermon the priest used to preach. To bring out the extravagant nature of God’s redeeming love for the sinner, however terrible. The parable of the lost sheep, in other words. All well and good – in homiletic terms. But, in reality? Does God really care for the despicable abductors of defenceless children like little Maddie more than for the selfless nuns who labour for the poor and the starving in some malarial swamps? Does it even make sense to believe so? Whatever the theologically correct answer, human justice has still to follow its course. That, one must hope, would be stern and severe enough.

Dostojevski in Brothers Karamazov has Ivan say that the suffering of innocent children induce in him a novel form of atheism. Actually, it is no atheism at all. Ivan does not disbelieve in God. He simply ‘returns him the ticket’. Wishes to have nothing further to do with a callous god who allows such pointless suffering. People have taken the Russian writer to task for that. Too sentimental, they have commented. I disagree. What’s wrong with Karamazov’s argument is not the heart but the head. Little Maddie’s tragedy is hideous, yes. But it is only the great, luminous God of the Bible – Cosmic Reason Himself - that delivers man from the stupidity and the childish sadism of the fairies – from the lurking irrationalities of his own mind, in other words. God is our sure protector against the very real potentialities, nay, the inclinations that human beings have for sin and evil. The justice of men too is limited and often faulty. In this world criminals and the wicked often flourish like the green bay tree, as the Psalmist lamented long ago. But fear not. God is not mocked. Where the hand of human judges cannot reach, God’s will.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 271

28 August 2007

Ways of the Imams


“The time will come when one will not even be allowed to utter God’s name in this world.” A dark prediction by a wise Iranian sheikh half a century ago. Far-fetched? Apocalyptic? Not really. That day is already here. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor in chief, acquired infamous immortality with a remark precisely to that effect: “We don’t do God.” His reaction to phoney Tony’s proposed ‘God bless you’ at the end of a speech. The wily Campbell knew God is no vote-winner in post-Christian, neo-pagan Britain. Hence the Creator’s name indeed went unuttered.

The European Union has joined in. It barred mere mention of the Almighty in the preamble to its Charter of Fundamental Rights. At the instigation especially of France’s loathsome President Chirac. It much pained Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory. But the Holy Father would have known. We live in the days of the great betrayal. Funny how atheism, despite its arrogance, is insecure. In order to deny God in his heart, the fool of the psalms had to invoke Him. Now the Holy arouses such a fear in Europeans that they seek to abolish His name altogether.

Confronted with such secular bigotry, what is to be done? Well, perhaps two Shia Imams suggest a couple of useful strategies.

Eh? Father Frank, wot? You turned Shia Muslim?!?

Well, guess I am a bit of Muslim – after my own fashion. However, relax. The ideas arose out of an address I gave yesterday to the Muhammadi Trust, a worthy Shia charitable body. Belief in twelve sacred successors of the Prophet Muhammad, called Imams, is distinctive of that brand of Islam. Husayn, the third Imam, went into battle, along with a few followers, at Karbala, against the usurper Yazid. The tyrant had demanded the Imam’s allegiance but he refused. The injustices committed in the name of Islam were too many. Husayn could hardly have hoped to prevail, with only 70 men, over Yazid’s large army, yet he fought. They all met with martyrdom. The day of the massacre – A’ashura – is the most solemn in the Shia tradition.

Husayn’s way, I told my attentive Muslim audience, was that of arms. Active rebellion against tyranny. His right to do so was the counterpart of an Imam’s duty, naturally. And the Church also recognises a right to rebellion against unjust oppression. St Thomas Aquinas sets out the conditions clearly in ‘On sedition’ in the Summa Theologiae. In his Letter to Romans, Chapter 13, St Paul might have advocated submission to the governing authorities, on the ground that all earthly authority is from God, but surely he would not have regarded Nero Caesar, the savage persecutors of Christians, as a rightful ruler. Revelation 13, in alluding to Nero under the guise of a blaspheming, satanic beast, should be read in conjunction with Romans 13. To balance it out, so to speak. Pacifism in the face of an evil ruler is permissible to those called to such high Christian vocation. It is not, however, an obligation for the Church as a whole. Just war, just rebellion, under strict, well-defined rules, may well be the lesser evil – or even a greater good.

Is the priest advocating waging war on the European Union? Dynamiting the BBC? Or storming 10 Downing Street? (A bit dodgy the latter: today the PM’s place, with barriers, metal gates and grim-looking cops with submachine guns at the ready, looks like the SS Kommandantur in German-occupied Prague.) Tempting, perhaps, I must confess but…not quite. Today’s tyranny takes subtler, infinitely insidious forms. Bullying, hegemonic secularist ideologies can only be combated ideologically – with intellectual weapons. Armed resistance is a no-no. In our neck of the woods, at least…

But another way exists. That of the fourth Imam,

Zayn al Abidin. Husayn’s son by a Persian Princess, the daughter of the last Sassanian ruler of Iran, Yazdigird. For most of his life, he lived in seclusion in Medina. His piety was proverbial. Yes, piety. Devotion. Prayer. Spiritual practices. Religious traditions. Against the might of the Umayyad empire, the defenceless fourth Imam stood no chance. Hence he chose to make piety his resistance. Piety can be as valid an expression of opposition to secular norms as the use of force. And here lies the lesson. Why are secularist bigots so enraged by Muslim women wearing the veil or the jilbab? Or why are young men dragged out of their home and shot simply because they wear long beards? What is it about the form of life pious Muslims freely choose to follow that so provokes and enrages the otherwise ‘liberal’ mind?

It isn’t just Muslims. A British Airways woman employee has had to fight a legal battle through the courts in order to be allowed to wear a little cross around her neck. A schoolgirl wanted to wear a ‘fidelity ring’ in class. The ring shows her commitment to chastity. In a society that boasts the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, that girl wished to manifest her resolve to remain pure. You’d have thought a responsible educational institution would welcome that, if not actively promoted it. Wrong. Incredibly, the full weight of the school authority and power was employed to crush her. Justice – or what passes for it these days - has spoken: the girl has no right to wear the ring. I suppose if she had turned up in class pregnant, that would have been OK. Chastity…no.

The priest is a revolutionary. That’s why he is jolly glad to recommend the way of Imam Zayd Al Abidin. Piety is now revolutionary in the desacralised waste land modern man inhabits. An excellent way to oppose the new tyrannies. Also because it is non-violent. Doesn’t Christ command me to love my enemies? “Do no be overcome by evil”, says St Paul, “instead overcome evil with good.” And piety is good. Very good indeed.

The once and future Imam is of course the twelfth. Imam Al Mahdi. The Hidden Imam. He who never died but went into occultation. His return will inaugurate a kingdom of justice on earth. Along with…would you believe it? Jesus!


Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 272

3 September 2007

Diana & War


“Were she alive today, Princess Diana would be against the war in Iraq – and the next war, too.” Watched – or rather, mobbed - by camera crews from around the world, I told the assembled faithful that much. In my short sermon, during the open air service held outside Kensington Palace Gate for the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death.

The People’s Service – so termed by media commentators – was widely covered next day. Some of the priest’s words, too. None picked up the anti-war statement, though. Why not? Ludicrous? Irrelevant? Fanciful? Offensive? Dangerous? A sceptic might opine any or all of these. OK. A challenge I shall meet.

Diana against the war. That’s quite plausible. Sure, Mother Teresa Diana was not. But, through her work to help the victims of landmines, the Princess well knew the horrific effects of war. On the innocent, especially. That the chief victims of war are the innocent is a truth as old as warfare, of course. Civilians, women and children. Diana personally comforted such victims in Bosnia and Angola. She hugged and caressed limbless children. Also, she was filmed walking though a recently cleared minefield, in support of the Halo Trust. Beauty and barbarism powerfully contrasted. Indeed, she contemplated going on to visit Afghanistan, Cambodia and other lands similarly blighted. ‘I am a humanitarian’, she declared, in answer to toffee-nosed critics. Moreover, working with the Red Cross, she got interested in the plight of refugees in Rwanda. Now, confronted with the ghastly, much greater human tragedy of Iraq, can anyone really doubt which side the Princess would be on?

But her children, William and Harry, now serve in the Army. How could Diana ever be against them? No, she wouldn’t. Above all, she would not want them put in harm’s way. Another reason, I feel, why she’d be anti-war. An illegal, aggressive, unnecessary, unjustified war. The Iraq invasion was wrong in itself. No need therefore for the British Army to be there in the first place. The fault lies with a disastrous government that has sent brave, professional soldiers to fight in a wicked conflict. Or to remain in Iraq. And which is likely to be complicit in the next, imminent outrage – the attack on Iran.

‘Come off it! Diana was a lightweight. She’d never figure big world issues out.’ Sure the Princess had no intellectual pretences. ‘I have the brain the size of a pea’, she once joked – which suggests she hadn’t. But a basic grasp of right and wrong can come by instinct, by feelings, as well as brains. One does not need to be Dr Condoleeza Rice (a pretty intellectual cop-out, actually) to judge soundly in key matters of life and death. 2300 years ago the Greek writer Aristophanes described a women’s sex strike for peace in a hilarious play, Lysistrata. I doubt the good Athenian females all boasted PhDs.

Fine, Fr Frank, but so what? Had Diana not died and be now alive and kicking and a Pasionaria campaigning for Stop the War, what difference would that make? She didn’t mean all that much, did she?

You kidding? Lady Di in life was dynamite. A global icon. She frightened the government of the day. So much so, an Establishment stooge termed her ‘a loose cannon’. They tried to stop her getting involved in the Red Cross. Ten years on, from the grave, she still is hot stuff. Had she married Dodi, with the entailed Islamic connection, especially after 9/11, man, Diana today would put the wind up lots of big panjandrums, you bet! By the way, amongst the various conspiracy theories, one has it that was the merchants of death – landmine makers – who engineered her elimination. Maybe they’d have another go…

Er…you used to word ‘dangerous’ about this subject. How so?

Look, the fact is that quite a few people closely associated with the Princess have met a violent end. From her personal bodyguard to a well-known paparazzo present at the scene of the car crash in Paris. Others have been threatened with a similar fate. The Secret Services are known to take a close, ultimate interest in anybody who is perceived as ‘a threat’ to…well, I’ll let you guess. All this is in the public domain. Even Her Majesty the Queen was said to have alluded in this connection to forces or powers ‘of which we have no knowledge’. My learned friend Tim surmises Elizabeth II might have had in mind metaphysically hostile, cosmic forces, such as the ‘principalities, powers and rulers of darkness’ fingered by St Paul in Ephesians, chapter 6,v.12. Maybe. Or maybe the Queen meant more material but equally lethal, close at hand agencies. Though conscientious in her religious duties, Her Majesty is not particularly known for Scriptural inclinations. Sigh…pity the priest can’t be a fly on Buckingham Palace’s walls…

Hmmm…tricky matters. Does it not strike you at all as offensive, though, trying to enlist a dead Diana into a controversial political cause? Should she not rest in peace?

Indeed, I prayed for the repose of her soul at the service. The Church always does that. Diana’s soul is of special concern to me. She was my parishioner. I was her Curate. And a Curate is he who is ‘in cure’ of souls. From where she is, I know Diana has forgiven all. As I said in my sermon, unless one forgives, one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. As she ascends the Seven-Storey Mountain – that is how Dante calls his symbolic geography of Purgatory – the poor Princess justly craves for peace. She will attain it eventually, that is certain. We mortals, however, weeping children of Eve, still dwell in this vale of tears. The stark realities of sin are therefore inescapable. Controversy in her life Diana courted aplenty. Like it or not, she still does. Because, for one thing, the precise manner of her death still has to be determined. The Coroner’s inquest is due to start next month, at long last. The shenanigans we will then be treated to, may God preserve us!


Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 273

10 September 2007

Terrorist


The mind of a terrorist has often fascinated men of letters. Conrad, Dostojevski, Chesterton, Camus…they all had a go. The Demons, The Secret Agent, The Man who was Thursday, The Just – all works of high, even metaphysical merit. Novelist John Updike’s recent contribution to the genre must be refused access to the same pantheon, however. His 18-year-old hero, Ahmad Molloy, is slim, dun-coloured, pious and always wears a dazzling white shirt. An assortment of qualities that might conceivably attract some teenage girls. Ahem, not quite enough. This would-be suicide bomber cant’ hold a candle to a Kaliayev or a Gabriel Syme or a Mr Verloc. Sigh…and the other dramatis personae fall short, too.

Not that Updike lacks ambition. To me, Terrorist echoes a medieval mystery play. Typically, such theatre involved Christ and the devil fighting over the soul of Everyman. Here the Saviour’s role is filled by a New Jersey High School guidance counsellor, Jack Levy, aged sixty-three. A non-practising Jew married to a Lutheran. Flabby but caring. Luxuriating in gross adultery with Ahmad’s Irish-American single mom. Forgive the priest, he thought at first the older man’s keen interest in young Ahmad a bit fishy. A case of closet pederasty? Mercifully, not so. In fact, theologically Jack’s affection for Ahmad makes good sense. Like the Christ who was slain for sinful man’s salvation, this secular Jew is willing to lay down his life in order to save a Muslim boy from self-destruction. That’s why Jack jumps on the explosive-laden truck driven by Ahmad and rides on with him towards death – till the boy sees the error of his ways and relents. Had I been the writer, I might have allowed the sacrifice. More radical and final denouement, methinks. Hasn’t failure nobility, like a Samurai’s way – or like the Cross? Pity Updike has opted for a conventional happy ending. How much unlike life…

And Satan? No surprises here. An alien, Yemeni-born Imam is he. In sharp contrast to handsome Ahmad and his basically all-American nature – Islam notwithstanding - Sheikh Rashid is weird, violet-lipped and dagger-faced. Naturally, he wears a caftan. (Shades of Dr Goebbels’ anti-Semitic caricatures?) He compares Yankee unbelievers to vexing flies and cockroaches, unclean insects whose destruction is a devout duty. Still, this is no vulgar yob preacher, after the fashion of our British-based Abu Hamza, ‘the Hook’, or droll Omar Bakri. Sheikh Rashid is a scholarly man. Amidst his Qur’anic exegesis to pupil Ahmad, he amazingly drops abstruse Greek technical terms, like hapax legomenon, meaning ‘a unique and therefore undeterminable word’. (You learn something new every day…) Can’t quite believe, though, that a fanatical Imam would relate to someone he is grooming to be a martyr Professor Luxemberg’s deflating view as to the promised reward, namely the dark-eyed virgins of paradise. According to that anonymous & malicious German, the word for ‘virgins’ should actually read ‘raisins’! Sigh…the perfidy of these hellish infidels! Verily, there is nothing they will not stoop to, to discredit the Book.

Well, the figure of Charlie, the chatty Lebanese agent provocateur, at least makes for a measure of realism. He’s the guy who gives away the dastardly plot against America, though the foiled terrorists suss him out and torture him to death. Tough but I am dead sure there are plenty of Charlies in 99% of Islamist cells and groups and meetings today. (When attending a Muslim event, I occasionally amuse myself in trying to spot the undercover MI5 man in the audience. Or maybe woman.) A very old problem for revolutionaries, anarchists, nihilists and their ilk. The underground Bolsheviks in tsarist Russia too were thoroughly infiltrated by police spies. Lenin knew it. His solution was pragmatic. Put up with the spies. Just use them. Get them to do as much agitation & propaganda work for the party as possible. Of course Lenin, astutely, had forsaken individual terrorism as a tactics. He knew only mass action could have real results. The New Jersey Muslim conspirators have not twigged that. Notable that Updike doesn’t quite go as far as J.K. Chesterton here. The latter’s anarchist group gradually turns out to be wholly consisting of police informers! Which is why The Man who was Thursday is both such a hoot and really deep stuff.

Despite its predictable plot and corny characters, Terrorist kept me turning the page. Because John Updike is a master craftsman of the English language. A superb wordsmith. His transatlantic prose tastes like Scotch broth, thick and juicy. I lapped it up avidly. If style was all, Updike would be home and dry. But it ain’t and he isn’t. So the sensuous words after a while clot up and the tasty soup in my mouth felt like chewing paper.

Not that the author hasn’t done his homework. Transliterations of the ayat of the Qur’an are many and meticulous. His researchers must have worked hard in supplying him with technical Arabic and religious details. And yet, I wonder whether Updike really understands Islam. Or at least what it means to be a young Muslim radical. Considering the way he describes young Ahmad’s perturbations, the impression arises that Updike thinks the solution to extremism is simple. The key to preventing a Muslim youth from becoming a suicide bomber is to get him a girl friend. Or, more crudely, ‘to get him laid’. A remedy some will no doubt enthusiastically approve of. Old, mad Dr Wilhelm Reich would have been one. That heretical Freudian became notorious for his thesis that fascism and national-socialism were the result of the sexual repression of the Italian and German masses. Neat, eh? (Roehm and the SA seem to have had plenty of erotic fun, actually.) Shame nutty Wilhelm ended up in a loony bin. However, Islam is hardly sexually repressed. And the 9/11 terrorists appear to have happily exchanged bodily fluids with infidel girl-friends and prostitutes galore. It did not deter them from their violence, alas. Truth is, ‘Make sex, not war’ is no way to combat terror. It’s just a dumb slogan. It was dumb in the heady 60’s, the days of the ‘flower power’. It is even dumber today.


Revd Frank Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 274

19 September 2007


Angry Goddess

This morning I woke up in a sweat. After a grizzly dream. Director and whole cast of the Complicite theatre had been found horrifically slaughtered in their beds. A scene too gruesome to describe. Literally torn to pieces. As if a pack of wild beasts had got to them. Then I watched a pasty-faced, Hilary Clinton look-alike pundit on the BBC News stunning viewers by suggesting the culprit was… a Hindu deity! Fellow called Narasimha. A lion-god, in fact. Why was he so mad at the wretched thespians? Simple. He was acting at the instigation of his wife, the angry goddess Namagiri. Toujours cherchez la femme, indeed!

Murder can never be glorified, of course. Yet, this Christian priest must confess to a sneaking empathy with Namagiri’s hurt feelings. Complicite has foolishly provoked her. In their play, A Disappearing Number, showing at the Barbican theatre. About the Indian mathematical prodigy, Ramanujan. Namagiri’s beloved pupil and protégé’. Goddesses do not take kindly to being ignored. A lesson even dumb atheists have to learn, sometimes.

Ramanujan’s brief life reads like the stuff of legend. He was a poor Brahmin, labouring modestly and darkly as a clerk in Madras, till the maths don G.H. Hardy invited him to Cambridge. Staggered by the young Indian’s sheer genius, the Englishman believed he had discovered a new Newton. But Ramanujan was eccentric. It seems he got his insights and proofs in dreams from the goddess Namagiri. She deposited the right equations on his tongue. Hardy found that hard to swallow – like the Complicite philistines, evidently. In A Disappearing Number the helpful goddess is herself unhelpfully made to disappear. Like Hamlet without the ghost, or Macbeth sans the witches? No, worse than that. It is a monumental failure of the imagination. This pretentious production replaces the alluring, mysterious Eastern deity with a bespectacled, dowdy and smooching female lecturer. As dull as ditch water. A dullness not even redeemed by her early death. No wonder Namagiri isn’t amused.

Director-cum-writer Simon McBurney intended the play to demonstrate ‘how creativity consumes you’. I perceive an irony there. This production abounds in lively, if over-familiar, stage effects. A cinematic screen shows endless waves of numbers flowing inexorably on, a metaphor of infinity, I presume. Another revolving screen allows for quick change of scene. Eerie sounds and shifting lights and so on. Enough perhaps to mesmerise a gullible and shallow audience. But creativity is exactly what the play lacks. In the misguided attempt to be inventive, and to make his subject ‘sexy’, McBurney has spliced two disparate stories together. The result is an abortion. One story, the mercifully sexless one of Ramanujan and his friendship with Hardy, is incoherently interwoven with that of the frumpish female lecturer and her dalliance with some futures-trading Indian-American guy. This latter one offers only unmitigated boredom. Pity. Nice actress Saskia Reeves could have been better employed playing sexy Namagiri, I guess…

If Complicite was worried about how to make numbers and number theory come alive on stage, it could have shown more imagination than to fall back on a corny love-tale. Darren Aronovski’s fabulous, brains-blowing, low-budget movie, Pi, shows how that can be done. Computers, Wall Street skulduggery, cabbala mystics & rogue rabbis all blended into the hell of a movie. To find a number that unlocks the secret of the universe. It almost moved the priest to search for it. By contrast, A Disappearing Number generated only yawns and annoyance. Maybe Aronovski too is friendly with Namagiri? The divine makes all the difference: Complicite, take notice!

Creation, as McBurney would know if he knew the essential Book of his culture, the Bible, is par excellence a divine activity. Human creativity partakes of that. Has not Western drama itself got its roots in religion? Alas, theatre has severed those vital roots – that is why, despite all the stagecraft and props and technical wizardry, our drama today is in the doldrums. Its sounds and fury signify nothing. I can prove it. By comparing Complicite’s well-funded and glossy exercise with a little play in three acts by the Light of Guidance company of amateurs. Something I watched in Maida Vale a week ago. Entitled The Appearance of Our Mahdi, the production could not have been more basic, rudimentary and even naïve. The action revolved around the birth, life and return of a messianic figure, the twelfth Imam of Shiism. The cast, young men and women, clearly had never attended RADA or any other famous drama school. Yet, the play’s simple magic and mystery soothed and charmed me. Such are the effects of the Holy…is it not wonderful the way it works and touches you?

Sure, the small and pious Muslim audience contributed. Their devoutness was almost palpable. Forget the restless kids from time to time running around the seats. (Eastern peoples are truly child-friendly.) Despite the difference in faith, I felt I belonged. I was like one of them. The many Barbican theatre-goers, on the other hand, were like aliens to me. Worse, they inspired me with distinctly unbrotherly feelings. Like the goddess, the priest got real angry. A few jokes and gimmicks by the actors apparently were enough to win the people over. The way those Guardian-readers gave a Disappearing Number a kind of ovation at the end was the last straw. Had they not eyes to see, ears to hear? Did they not realise the pretence, the cheat, the emptiness of the thing? Truly tragic. It means our so-called educated, culture-soaking and overwhelmingly white middle classes are no longer able to grasp the difference between the genuine and the phoney in art. Hardly new, of course, but painful to witness it, nonetheless.

I only hope Namagiri and Narasimha do not take it out on them too…

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 275

25 September 2007

Degenerate Kultur


Entartete Kunst. Degenerate art. A tag that sends shivers down any right-thinking German’s spine. Because of its Third Reich connection. Now suddenly brought back into circulation by the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne. Old codger called Joachim Meissner. Caused amazing hue and cry, poor fellow. Secular anathemas being hurled at him by his fellow Teutons. Meissner might soon be burned at the stake in front of his cathedral. Whose hand will set light to the faggots, though? Not mine, mate – that’s for sure.

The priest possesses a fun & scholarly book, entitled The Nazification of Art. It includes a picture of a jackbooted Hitler visiting the famous 1937 Entartete Kunst, ‘Degenerate Art’ Munich exhibition. Cap in hand, the dreadful Fuhrer gapes at some painting: “Mein Gott! How is such rubbish possible?” he must be fuming. The place is crowded with frowning National Socialist party coves. Still, 20.000 people came every day. Could it be the degeneracy tickled some of them? Quite likely. Not unlike those ‘re-educated’ Germans who in 1974 flocked to a show of Nazi art in Frankfurt. Despite the many exorcisms by way of PC warning captions and photos of concentration camps, the stuff obviously fascinated. (Fascinating Fascism – an apposite phrase coined by Jewish feminist writer Susan Sontag in reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s glorious film, Triumph of the Will.) Badness, whatever we take it to be, often grabs.

Actually, not all Nazi art was folksy and anti-avantgarde. Dr Goebbels had initially championed the new German art of Expressionism, as promoting ‘the national revolution’. Hitler’s aesthetics, however, was problematic. Sigh…for him all art should be realist and representational. A stultifying dogma, shared with Soviet Russia. There ‘bourgeois art’ was the standard invective, equivalent to ‘degenerate art’. Enforced Communist party norms drove revolutionary painters and poets like Majakovski to suicide.

The Archbishop of Cologne is far-removed from any un-Christian totalitarianism. He targets an art and culture ‘cut off from God, become mere ritualism and so degenerating’. What on earth might the good man mean? Despite having (it is rumoured) German offspring, the priest is ignorant of Goethe‘s language, so he can’t check the original wording. Religious art poses difficulties, anyway. Because the conjunction between beauty and virtue is tricky. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus shocked by depicting Christ and the disciples as lowlife Roman tavern types. Canova’s sculpture, Ecstasy of St Teresa, shows the Saint’s face with an expression indistinguishable from orgasm…und so weiter. Nor is style the point. Is Gauguin’s Jacob and the Angel less Christian a painting than Van Dyck’s Theodosius and St Ambrose because Gauguin uses non-naturalistic colours? Or Roualt less spiritual than El Greco because of his grotesqueries? I bet even out and out medieval artists like Duccio and Beato Angelico would paint differently today. Their faith would be the same, but the times certainly are not. That the best art – the highest expression of the human spirit - should be rooted in spirituality, the priest has no doubt. What precise form that should take…ahem, I leave it to fools to rush in. Like the angels, there I fear to tread.

Even the traditional notion that art is about beauty is up for grabs. I admire & feel turned on by Welsh bard Dylan Thomas but I screw up my nose at a line like “I smelt the maggot in my stool” (yak!). Baudelaire, Georg Trakl and Allen Ginsberg also come to mind. Still, if beauty is perhaps passé, it does not mean the sane man - to use Brian Sewell’s sexist trope – has no standards at all to go by in judging art. Once you’ve done your homework and made the effort to understand, you may still wish to opine that the likes of Tracey Emin & Damien Hirst & Georg Baselitz are crap, crap, crap. Here I stand, I can say no other.

Death and degeneracy are presumably akin. So my painter friend, Kiwi Justin Sommerton warned time ago that “when art is dead, a culture is dead”. Guess the Archbishop would agree. But, art apart, is our culture kaput? The British Government & all those who misrule us, economically, financially, mediatically and ecclesiastically – yes, I do mean our absurdly ridiculous and pathetically decadent Established Church - would vehemently deny it. A sure sign of guilt. Here Meissner is on safer grounds. He once infuriated the liberal-minded by comparing the anti-abortion pill to the use of gas in gas chambers. A bit extreme, granted. Also, a tasteless analogy? But there is nothing tasteful about abortion. Pictures of bloody foetuses wrenched out of the womb are the ultimately obscene, a frightening icon of legalised immorality, as the unborn baby is harmless and innocent by any definition. And yet modern Western society is predicated on the so-called ‘freedom to choose’. The Hippocratic oath now forsaken or forgotten by the medical profession, euthanasia round the corner, animal-human hybrids, monstrosities about to be legally created for experimentation – hmmm…no doubt some would call it progress but you can hardly blame a Christian leader for condemning such death-culture in forceful language.

The Archbishop of Cologne, in fact, is a moderate bloke. With the Apostles James and John, he could have called down fire from Heaven on a sinful lot. (St Luke 9:54) But, as saturation bombing by US and Britain virtually obliterated his city in WWII, he surely would not wish that to happen again. His fellow Germans should perhaps relax a bit about their dark past. After all, Brits are laid back about slavery and colonialism, Americans do not lose much sleep over the fate of the Redskins or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Italians have re-invented themselves as anti-fascists and Turks flatly deny the Armenian genocide. Stalin was right – Germans always do things by the book. For them, guilt really has become part of the drill.

A European Kultur divorced from God. A melancholy truth. If, as Professor Huntingdon claims, religion is the essential feature of a civilisation, then Europe may indeed be kaput. Because her nations now increasingly try to live ‘as if there were no God’.

What about that fire from Heaven, after all?


Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 276

4 October 2007 -


St Francis of Assisi’s Day –


Fr Frank’s onomastico. Of Monks

Up there, somewhere in some transcendental Oriental Heaven, Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, the Awakened One, must be laughing – or crying, perhaps?

Thanks to their brave Burmese colleagues, his monks are now flavour of the month. The crassly materialist West, which does not give a monkey for monastic ideals, is wildly cheering the saffron brigade. Standing up to the military junta, for the sake of freedom, democracy and…their supper. Yep. In Burma Buddhist monks eat two meals a day. Which they get, as mendicants, from the people in whose midst they live. But foodstuff prices have shot up so much that the people can no longer afford to give. So the self-denying monks’ rebellion rides on their empty stomachs. The body, huh, the body! Even seekers after Nirvana cannot neglect its demands, evidently. Ahem…the priest, a rather portly figure, can hardly condemn.

The British media all cheer the rebel monks. Bit ironic. In a country whose modern roots date back to Henry VIII. The wife-killer and syphilitic monster who ordered the dissolution of the English monasteries. Between 1536 and 1540 the king and his henchmen – chief amongst them Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, the ‘Hammer of the Monks’, shared out the loot. Huge lands and wealth owned by religious men and women whose solemn vows included that of ‘poverty’. Many former ascetics had grown fat and sensual. Henry may have been the unwitting instrument of chastisement from on high. But not all the monks had gone soft. The Prior of the London Charterhouse, an Order of working contemplatives, despite threats refused to surrender the keys of his monastery. For that, he was hung, drawn and quartered. An arm was nailed at the cloister’s entrance, as a warning to the remaining monks. Many other example of pious heroism occurred. Those goodly Englishmen still had some Gospel fire in their belly, thank God.

Another irony. The upheaval that swept away monasticism was initiated by an ex-monk, Martin Luther. An exceedingly zealous and conscientious German Augustinian. Despite strenuous efforts and pieties, he still didn’t feel ‘right’ with God. Until a passage in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans on Abraham & justification by faith liberated him. (A trip to Rome, where he witnessed the unseemly behaviour of Pope Leo X and his cardinals, along with their concubines, did not help.) The Reformation followed. Luther got married to a former nun. “Every man should marry a nun”, he advised. “They are excellent housekeepers".

It fell to my favourite Lutheran, Soren Kierkegaard, to urge Christians back to the monastery. Protestantism had degenerated into ‘a spiritless worldliness’, he writes, prophetically. “The turn which Luther brought about was a mistake…he made things easier…the fault is that the rigour of Christianity was reduced…instead, wherever God is present, the demand become greater and the difficulties increase.” Once again, a call to heroism, to the scorning of bourgeois values and to the practice of those extraordinary virtues the best monks had stood for.

The great Dane was right. When the Oxford Movement awoke a little the national Church from her soporific slumbers in the early 19th century, it also revived monasticism. After three centuries’ break, devout men and women again consecrated themselves to God’s service in Anglican parishes. Forsook the ways of the world, the flesh and the devil. Vowed to go the extra mile. That heroic business. Indeed, my own spiritual director was an Anglican monk, Fr Augustine – before the ordination of women would drive him, aged 80, into the welcoming arms of Rome. Today the Church of England is basically a cadaver, stirred jerkily by the strings of Establishment trappings and by the scraps of her historical endowment. A farce sedulously fostered by atheists and secularists alike. It suits the wicked to pretend the C of E is still alive, otherwise real Christians might actually emerge and make a much feared difference.

Three vows are what a monk commits himself to. Three revolutionary ideas. Dynamite, man! Enough to turn the world upside down. What are they? Poverty, chastity and obedience. Mind you, they were never meant to be universal. Christ counselled them, not command them. Vocation to heroism is for the few. Still, figure the alarm, the horror, the hue and cry in the City of London, the EU, among the globalisers and that lot at the prospect of much of our youth embracing the vows. Voluntary poverty? You kidding? Huh! In a society based on consumption at all costs? Makes the Jihadists look like Quakers by comparison. Chastity, ye gods! What would become of TV, movies, advertising, fashion, mags, newspapers, condoms & pills sales, etcetera if the young went mad and really vowed that? It’s thinking the unthinkable. No way. Too awful a prospect to contemplate. Let us change the subject, shall we?

After that, obedience looks like a cinch. But is it? Priest friend of mine once tried to be a monk. Joined a community in the US. A highly sexed fellow, he feared the challenge. In fact, Eros was easily brought under control, as he found that Christian love is so much greater than the drives of the flesh. Obedience turned out to be the stumbling block, actually. So much so that he left. But better to be a failed monk than a bad, unhappy one.

Obedience. The military virtue par excellence. Indeed, some of the greatest saints had been soldiers, from St Martin of Tours to St Ignatius of Loyola. Interesting the fabulous hymn Onwards Christian Soldiers is practically banned in the Anglican Church. That is why the priest chose it whenever he could get away with it. Sometimes I feel like singing in at the top of my voice in the street.

“There will be no monasticism in Islam” it says in the Qur’an. But then in other passages monks are praised as friends to Muslims. Maybe, as Oswald Spengler wrote, the jihad is the true monasticism of Islam. Or maybe Muslims could reflect on the meaning on ‘monk’. From the Greek ‘monos’. Alone or one. Shades of the dogma of tawhid, divine unity. Bit provocative, I know (“what about the Trinity, you!”) but then the priest likes divine mischief…

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 277

10 October 2007

Shadowlands

“How many books that I don’t need to read!” While browsing in bookstores, the priest often thinks that thought. Once in a blue moon, it’s different. C.S. Lewis’A Grief Observed, a slim affair – a mere 63 pages – was mind-blowing stuff. Literally shook me to the very marrow. Like the Delphi oracle, a mirror held up to one’s own self. The restlessness! That night I lay awake, facing my inner land of shadows.

A film and a play, Shadowlands, have sprung out of the book. The current production at the Wyndhams Theatre is funny, tough and thoughtful. The imposing Charles Dance as crusty, grief-stricken Oxbridge don Clive Lewis is a treat. Ditto for Janie Dee as the spirited lady he falls for – plain-speaking American divorcee Joy Gresham. Her little boy is delightful, too – methinks a young star is born. They all live up to the play’s painful subject. Guess for a rare change the West End audience took taxi or Tube back home pondering not on smut or trivia but on the eternal verities, inshallah.

As a parish priest, it fell to me to console the bereaved. “She is with God”, I would whisper. “You mean with the incomprehensible and the unimaginable? How does that help?” they might well have replied.

“She is at peace where she now is”. Another standard, hackneyed line often proffered. Lucky was I nobody ever countered with C.S. Lewis’ ruthless logic. To paraphrase. Where and now imply a place and a time. But what could the spatio-temporal coordinates of a departed one be? Not about her body, surely, as we well know what happens to mortal remains. Hence to talk of a post-mortem bodily location is nonsense. And to speak of a now, a present time, is to speak of a date or point in our time-series. As if I waited a friend coming back from shopping, and I looked at my watch and said ‘I wonder whether she is at Hammersmith Station now’. However, Lewis implacably observes: “Unless Joy is proceeding at sixty seconds a minute along this same time line that we the living travel by, what does now mean? If the dead are not in our time, or not in our sort of time, is there any clear difference, when we speak of them, between was and is and will be?” Hence, are they anything at all?

“She is in God’s hands”. Another pious platitude we clergy are doomed to indulge in. “But wasn’t she in God’s hands all the time? Hands not all too gentle, it seems. Any reason to expect it is different now, Father?” the bereaved may acidly retort. Huh! The old problem of evil rears up its ugly head once again. After all, God broke Joy’s body, ravaged by bone-cancer, bit by bit, week after week. Conjuring up a Spinoza-sounding dictum: “God always geometrises”, Lewis in his grief wonders whether it might be better said instead: ‘God always vivisects.’

No good either to fall back on the Deity’s goodness. ‘Why should I be afraid of a good God?’ a believer may ask. Ahem, dentists presumably are good too but we still fear the drill…

Even prayer tastes bitter. He recalls all the prayers and the hopes the two of them had fervently offered during her illness. What good were they?

Lewis compares himself to man who has lost a leg. All right, after some time and much pain the wounded stump heals. He gets about on crutches pretty well. Learn to wear an artificial leg. But not only will the pain recurs throughout his life, he knows he will still remain a one-legged man. ‘I shall never be a biped again’, he notes.

What makes A Grief Observed such a devastatingly true text is its total honesty. The author, one of the finest apologists for the Christian faith England has produced, confesses to his own dark night of the soul. His doubts. His anger. His misery. His desperate love for his dead wife. And what a love! “She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign…my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier…my mistress”. And he goes on to call his Joy an Amazon, a Penthesileia and a Camilla. How many men would sing a woman a song of praise like that?

Still, did Lewis’ bravely reasoning and unsentimental mind, faced with the finality of his beloved’s death, in the end succumb to faith? Not blind faith, of course. He had enough intellectual weapons under his belt to argue his way to the desired goal. So the cliché of being in God’s hands gained a new meaning when he thought of joy ‘as a sword’. God was now perhaps ‘grasping the hilt…making lightnings with it in the air. A right Jerusalem blade.’ Beautiful, poetic image but…is poetry enough here?

He also wonders whether man’s sensory apparatus, his discrete intellect and haphazard memory be adequate to grasp total reality. Fair enough. Immanuel Kant argued for something similar. We can only grasp phenomena. The noumenal world – the world of the Ding an dich, reality in itself – is forever precluded to us. Kant thereby drew a wedge between reason and faith. Lewis, on the other hand, whilst rightly abhorring any spiritualist nonsense, wishes to be not merely fideistic but also rational about the future state. Falling back on the intrinsic limitations of our senses and our reason smacks dangerously of intellectual cop-out, alas.

A Grief Observed arose out of the jottings the author wrote down after his wife died. Hence its excitingly fragmentary form. It’s a personal, felt testimony, not a tight argument. It is right the reader should be left with a disquieting sense of challenge, of unfinished business. And of infinite, desperate longing and consuming beauty. A beauty nowhere better expressed than in the final line. A quotation in Italian from the thirty first chapter of Dante’s Paradiso. The poet’s final, rhapsodic vision of his eternal love, Beatrice. His heavenly guide. In whose love and spiritual care Dante passionately perceives the instruments of his salvation. Beatrice listens, looks smilingly at her votary and then, like Joy on her death bed, ‘towards the Eternal Fountain turned’.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 278

17 October 2007

Diana’s back!

Hold on tight. This is the dizziest conspiracy theory of all. Princess Diana ain’t dead. Only in hiding. Where? Ah, that would be telling. The Big Apple, possibly. Or Tel Aviv, huh! Or, like Osama Bin Laden, in Pakistan? Not that it matters. Wherever her abode now, Lady Di must be enjoying reading the daily reports about the inquest on her death a lot.

You guessed it: this crazy notion has reached me, anonymously, through our helpful, electronic Gehenna, the Internet. You see, apparently, she was not mortally wounded. Only, as indeed some thought at first, slightly injured. The M16 officers present at the scene of the crash instantly saw the window of opportunity. At some stage during the long time the ambulance took to get at the Salpetriere Hospital, the narcotised Princess was transferred to another, comfortable vehicle. The Paris morgue provided a timely substitute. Meanwhile the real Diana was spirited away. The rest is charade.

Do you smile, dear reader? Rightly so. Fiddlesticks, isn’t it? But wait a minute. Nothing wrong with a bit of fantasy. So, let us develop this perverse counterfactual. Our beloved Princess, somehow released at last from her golden exile, is back in England. Tomorrow she turns up at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, where Lord Justice Scott Baker efficiently presides and where the jurors, five men and six women, resignedly sit. She makes her way into the courtroom. All right, ten years have gone by. But at 47, she isn’t quite decrepit yet. A tall, long-legged good-looker, she is recognisably our Diana. Everybody stares. ‘A look-alike’, they naturally think, what else? “Here I am. I am alive.” General disbelief. Laughter. Annoyance. Sternly, the judge warns the intruder to desist. Yet, she keeps at it. No one takes her seriously. But the strange woman won’t go away.

Ejected from the courtroom, even the paparazzi outside ignoring her as a vulgar attention-seeker, Diana makes for Kensington Palace. “They’ll know me there.” Ahem, do you figure the scene? Gets no further than the guarded gate. ‘A shameless impostor. How dare she?” The cops standing guard outside warn her. “If you keep on, love, you’ll be arrested.” And the Princess, forlorn, looking back over her shoulder, leaves…

Where next? Clarence House? Where Charles and Camilla happily reside? Do me a favour! The legality of their marriage has already being questioned – on top of that, do you want Charles to be a bigamist? No way. “My boys…there’s somebody who won’t let me down.” Well, yes. William and Harry would love to have mum back. But, groan… the same accursed incredulity factor arises. “She was the best mum in the world. Was, do you hear!?! She is dead. And we don’t believe in ghosts. How dare you? A crude plastic job. Some kind of newspaper stunt, are you? Officer, please, remove this mad woman. A clone, at most she is. She can’t be our mum, no way.”

What now? She rings up her various friends. Mohamed Al Fayed at Harrods. Is there any reason their reaction would be different? I doubt it.

“The Parish Church. Where, I remember, that kindly, eccentric priest I knew lives. Surely he’ll listen and believe.” Father Frank’s no longer there, of course. But the Princess knows of my memorial services. She tracks me down, rings my number. “Frank, this is Diana…” I hate it to say it, I have a terrible fear, I feel it in my bones, my reaction would not be all that much different from the others. Sure, a priest is a man trained to believe in the Resurrection, the supernatural, but this…no, must be a plant, a trap, a lunatic, you name it. Can’t be real.”

Unless…unless of course Diana told me things which only the two of us knew. Which I have disclosed to no one. Confronted with that, the sceptic in me would have to capitulate. To believe her. Sounds fine, at last but…is it? What about everybody else? If people did not believe the Princess herself, would they then trust me? A marginal, maverick, peripheral priest? One whom an Anglican bishop once termed ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know?’ The two of us would be made out to be in league. Like, back in the 1871, the notorious Tichborne Claimant. Two jolly rogues conspired to have a low character, a butcher, one Arthur Orton, declared to be Sir Roger Charles Tichborne, a baronet lost at sea, heir to a title and a vast fortune. Eventually the Claimant was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to 14 years in the clink. And his partner died in a mysterious accident. Doesn’t sound auspicious, does it?

Definitely, it looks as if a Diana rediviva – come back from the dead – would have a real credibility problem. Painted, unfairly, in life as paranoid by her detractors, I feel she’d now probably turn that way. Her behaviour would then become more and more erratic, playing into her enemies’ hands. Hmmm… a bit of an impasse, it seems. As Lenin might say, what is to be done?

But of course! Why did I not think of it before? She has a trump card. The tape. I mean the famous taped interview that Diana once took down. A confidential testimony concerning something…explosive. Stuff that, it is rumoured, would make the monarchy totter. Or, God forbid, fall. No one knows where the tape is. She does. So all she has to do is to retrieve it and produce it and…hey, presto! Everybody will have to accept she really is the real, the unique, the divine Princess we knew and loved.

But there is a snag. The priest would never wish to do anything that would harm the Royal Family. Because he loves the Queen. And the institution. He really does. A staunch monarchist at heart he is. Britain without the monarchy is like Italy without the Pope. No way. Can’t allow it. We’ll have to think of something else.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 279

30 October 2007

The Father of Europe

In 802 AD a curious gift reached the Christian West from the Muslim East. An elephant. Sent by Caliph Haroun Ar-Rashid to Emperor Charlemagne. An event so curious that some thought it apocryphal. “Possibly it never happened”, wrote literary magus Jorge Luis Borges. That in the Middle Ages such a mighty beast could travel from the famed city of Baghdad all the way to the capital of the kingdom of the Franks, Aachen, in Germany, seemed merely legendary. Stuff from the Thousand and One Nights, in other words.

Actually, Borges was unduly sceptical. The story is true. The elephant did come all the way from the Orient to the Occident. We even know his name, Abu el-Abbas. Charlemagne gratefully received him, reciprocating with gifts for Haroun. Abu el-Abbas lived on in Europe until 810, when he died at Lippenham, in Westphalia. Insh’allah, his sojourn was a happy one.

Last week, ambling through the lively streets of the modern city of Aachen, the priest found himself meditating on Kaiser Karl der Grosse, aka Charlemagne. Not a difficult feat, as the emperor’s presence is ubiquitous there. Temptation to interview him was irresistible. I succumbed to it.

Your Majesty, your empire extended from the Pyrenees in the West to the Elbe and the Danube in the East. Nearly the whole of Christendom at the time. The epic Chanson de Roland sings of your military foray into Spain. You and your heroic paladins fighting the Moors. Happy with that?

Remember that I spoke a German dialect, so I could never read the Chanson. I crossed the Pyrenees because three Arab emirs, at war with the Caliph of Cordoba, had asked my help. I drove my enemies across the Ebro but failed to take Saragossa. On the way back, my rearguard and Count Roland were treacherously slain at Roncesvalles by wild Basque tribesmen. A worthless race, whose only achievement in history has been to milk cows. Despicable bunch. Not even worth soiling my sword with their low blood.

Ahem…a bit non-PC but let’s let it pass. You are obviously a man of your time…

A man of all times, you mean, priest. And an emperor for all seasons. Today you talk of Europe a lot. I like that. I was the first European. All right, I had to do a bit of killing in the process. Smash the pagan Saxons, for example. But I don’t see how you can condemn me for that. My Saxon wars were fought in self-defence. And for the Faith. There was no booty to grab. Your America and Britain, supposedly ‘democratic’ and secular, blather on about human rights and altruism. But you send armies to invade countries as faraway as Afghanistan and oil-rich Iraq, which hardly threaten you. We fought the enemy like soldiers, face to face and sword against sword, whilst your ‘civilised’ lot majors on raining monster bombs and missiles on primitive foes safely from a distance. And I personally engaged in combat, along with my men. I have not heard of your leaders – what are their funny names? - Bush and Blair, risking their skin in Basra or Helmand province.

Touché’, Your Majesty. Better to move on. Your relationship with the Church. You were quite a pious monarch, they say.

A Christian one, certainly. I won’t apologise for that. We Franks had embraced the Faith since the days of King Clovis. That made us true citizens of a universal city, both earthly and spiritual. No longer barbarians out of primeval forests but children of both Rome and Jerusalem. I always believed the temporal and the spiritual must go hand in hand, united, like the soul with the body. Aristotle says that the highest life is that of the intellect. Reason should rule. Had that fountain of all wisdom been a Christian, he would also have added faith. Politics works out best with Church and State conjoined. When St Paul in Romans writes that ‘all power is from God’, his words apply most perfectly to the polity I established. That is why I was happy to have Pope Leo crown me Emperor at Rome in AD 800. In God’s name I become ruler of a restored Roman empire. So I swore to be the protector of the Church – as it ought to be, surely. Isn’t your Britain today ruled by a monarch who bears the official title of ‘Defender of the Faith’?

Er…yes. But can’t imagine the Queen going to war to spread Anglicanism, or to defend the Archbishop of Canterbury. By the way, why did you override the authority of Byzantium? There was already a roman emperor in Constantinople, no?

Indeed. That meddling female, Irene. She was a usurper, because she called herself not empress but emperor. And no woman can be that, anymore than a woman can be a priest. So the throne was vacant. What! You think I am a misogynist? No way. I loved my daughters so much, I kept them always by my side, as everybody knows.

Interesting views, Sire. So you really claim to be the Father of Europe?

Priest, consider my name, Charles. In all the Slav languages, and in Hungarian, it has become the name for ‘king’. Carol, Kital, Kral. That must be significant. I, Charlemagne, am forever Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great. My empire was German, Roman and Christian at the same time. Fine fusion of religion and cultures. The good Saxon from York, Alcuin, implementing by enlightened cultural policies. ‘Education, education, education’ was my slogan. And I got on ever so well with the Jews. And with the Muslim Empire. I sent Haroun ar-Rashid fine hunting dogs in return for his elephant. I could go on…

If God wills it, I will.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 280 6 November 2007

The Bomb

‘There is no morality in war’. I saw a small, prune-faced oldster growl that out on telly, last week. Fellow called Paul Tibbets. Aged 92, he had just kicked the bucket. But who he? Of course, the US B29 pilot who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Huh! He would say that, wouldn’t he?

80.000 Japanese instantly died, or were badly wounded by ‘Little Boy’ – the bomb’s nickname. A temperature of over 5000 degrees F. raged where Little Boy did its nice job. Plenty of blackened and charred bodies long littered the streets and the ruins. Three days later, another A-bomb hit the city of Nagasaki. 40.000 people were incinerated. Kyoto had been mooted as a target, but the American War Secretary, Henry Stimson, obviously was a cultured man. Did not like to destroy a historical city. Jolly considerate of him. Being civilised really is a wonderful thing.

In a subsequent communiqué Stimson stated that the bombs had been dropped to shorten the war, thereby saving many lives. However, he also let slip reference to the Japanese’s beatings and torturing of US prisoners. Frank but unwise. Because it suggests that the motive behind the attack was not exclusively ‘humanitarian’, or even utilitarian. Hence it marred the given rationale a bit. Desire for revenge may well be inherent in our fallen humanity. Even rational, perhaps, but a humane or moral instinct certainly it is not.

‘There is no morality in war.’ Yet Tibbets also justified his atomic warfare with the standard ‘saving lives’ argument. Was he aware of the contradiction? To advance the saving of human lives as a reason for destroying many others is a moral argument – what else? Whose lives did he mean? His fellow Americans’, exclusively, or did he include Japanese lives? Those of the innocent civilians, particularly? Or did he think, immorally, they did not count? But I imagine he’d shrug his shoulders at these finicky questions. Orders must be obeyed. That’s what soldiering is all about, isn’t it? Only wonder why that did not apply to some of the Nuremberg trial defendants…

Tibbets claimed he never lost a night’s sleep over the raid. Maybe that’s just as well. Would it help or console the dead, the maimed and the radioactively-contaminated survivors to know that Little Boy’s pilot had spent sleepless nights thinking about them? It may be different with the Supreme Judge, however. Like the rest of us, Tibbets is called to render an account. The outcome, of course, lies beyond human ken.

‘There is no morality in war.’ Kind of reminiscent of General Sherman’s often-quoted ‘war is hell’. Fascinating utterance. For its theological ignorance. Did Sherman ever realise that, whatever punishment the souls of the damned may suffer (and, mind, as a German mystic wrote, ‘nothing burns in hell, except the ego’), it is inflicted according to the strictest, indeed the highest justice? Thus, contrary to Sherman’s intended meaning, there is justice in hell. Justice is what fashioned hellfire (again, mind, not at all like gas fire!) and justice is what apportions condign punishment in the infernal regions. To the guilty ones. War, on the other hand, as waged by men, is a singularly inept instrument for effecting justice. That is so because often those who suffer the most in war are the innocent.

‘There is no morality in war.’ A lawless remark. Words that militate not solely against the idea of restraints in fighting – churchy stuff the tough-minded can easily dismiss – but also against the ancient law of nations and indeed modern international law. Quite wrong, in fact. As Tibbets might have learnt, had Japan won the war. He might have found himself arraigned before a tribunal for war crimes. Or he might not. The conduct of the Japanese armies in China was horrific, granted. And Japan at Pearl Harbour had attacked first. But two wrongs do not make a right. Otherwise, what would remain of the lofty, ethical ‘superiority’ of the West?

‘Saving lives’. In itself, a commendable aim. But can you trade human lives for human lives? In bulk, like sheep or potatoes? Hmmm… I am told there is a ban on that in Jewish law. However, halacha, casuistry based on the Talmud, states that ransom can be paid to free prisoners from captivity. So, Israeli religious parties support the Government’s exchange of prisoners, even if it means dealing with Israel’s deadly enemies, like Hezbollah and Hamas. What view the learned rabbis would take on an actual, massive ‘body trade’, I haven’t a clue. Must ask my friend, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, when we discuss Family of Abraham issues on Al-Mustaqillah TV, soon on the 15th.

The Christian view is clear, however. Those who do evil so that good may come deserve condemnation, as St Paul teaches in Romans (3:8). Hence no good end can justify an evil means, pace the cynical and failed Florentine politician, Machiavelli. The deliberate, intentional and direct targeting of innocent non-combatants in war – no matter if the war itself is a just one – is morally illicit. And that regardless of any presumed utilitarian calculus. The medieval Church wisely saw warfare as a Grenzmoral – a painful case, poised on the edge between the moral and the immoral. Hence it tried to put up barriers and limits as to the harm that it was done. Some classes of persons were considered immune or exempt from fighting (like bishops! The priest would put them right on the frontline!), and truce was enforced at certain seasons. What the Church could not do of course was to eliminate the human drives towards aggression and violence. Another Flood would be needed for that.

‘There is no morality in war.’ Did poor Tibbets ever realise what a diabolical statement that is? Were that the case, no believing soldier could fight without sinning. The extermination of the innocent would be OK. Notions like bravery, loyalty, honour and patriotism would be either meaningless or intrinsically evil. Some of the most admired Christian heroes, from St Charlemagne (a sop to my friend Werner…) to Wellington, would be merely butchers…and so on.

‘There is no morality in war.” Verily, Satan would say that.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 282 21 November 2007

Labours of Hercules

My latest appearance on Al-Mustaqillah Pan-Arab TV, the ‘Family of Abraham’ programme, has led me to revisit Greek mythology. I mean the figure of the strongest man ever, the superhero Hercules. And his celebrated twelve labours.

It is like this. In a fit of madness, Hercules has slain his own family. To do penance, the Delphi oracle orders him to go to King Eurystheus and be his slave. The King, in league with Hercules’ sworn enemy, the goddess Hera, thinks up some twelve fiendish tasks. And each one well-nigh impossible. The famous Twelve Labours of Hercules.

1. To kill the lion of Nemea. A beast no weapon could harm. Tricky, eh? No matter. Hercules just strangles it with his bare hands.

2. To dispose of the Hydra of Lerna. A swamp monster with nine heads, one of them deathless and the others, as soon as cut off, each sprouting up two more. (An incubus of geometric progression!) Not a pet you’d like to have about the house. But our hero enlists his nephew with a burning torch to sear each neck after he has chopped the head off - the Hydra cannot not grow them again. And the immortal head? Easy. Hercules just buries deeply under a huge rock. (Must still be there, I guess. And mighty bored.)

3. To capture a wondrous, golden-horned stag, sacred to Artemis. Hercules could kill it in a jiffy, of course, but the creature is wanted alive. It takes the hero a whole year to do that.

4. To get a huge, lethal boar, living on Mount Ereymanthus. Hercules hunts it for ages from lair to lair, until the brute is worn out. And so easily taken.

5. Now a simile part of the English language, the Augean Stables contains thousands and thousands of cattle. Shocking! For years no one has cleaned them. In one day poor Hercules has to do it! Thank God, apart from brawn he also has brains. He turns the course of two rivers, causing them to rush through the stables. It washes away the muck jolly quickly.

6. The people of a place called Stymphalus are pestered by countless pesky birds. Ahem, maybe it isn’t fair but the goddess Athena helps a bit. She scares them out of their nests and Hercules then shoots the lot.

7. This labour entails a trip to Crete. To seize some beautiful savage bull. A gift from the sea-god Poseidon to King Minos. All right, it isn’t as bad as fighting the Minotaur, yet it is a Herculean task OK and the hero is victorious.

8. King Diomedes of Thrace owes much-feared man-eating mares. To get them, Hercules first takes out Diomedes and then he ensnares the nightmarish mares. A trifle.

9. To bring back the girdle of Hyppolita, Queen of the man-hating Amazons. A complicated plot. And, groan, ungallant. Suffice it to say that Hercules slays the Queen, fights off the furious Amazons and makes off with the girdle.

10. There is an island with the cattle-owning Geryon, a monster with three bodies. On the way there, Hercules uproots two great rocks and sets them as mighty pillars in the sea, to commemorate his exploit. They are, of course, Gibraltar and Ceuta. And he completes his mission, too.

11. To bring back the golden apples of the Hesperides. ‘Take off the vault of Heaven from my shoulders and I’ll give you the apples’, promises Atlas, the Hesperides’ father. Hercules obliges but Atlas refuses to honour the bargain. ‘OK, but just take back the vault from me one moment, as I put pads on my shoulders’, wily Hercules suggests. Boy, isn’t Atlas dumb? He buys it. So Hercules walks off with the apples.

12. You ain’t heard nothing yet. A journey to Hades, no less. The underworld. From which no one has ever returned. Two tasks in one, actually. To free hero Theseus from the chair of forgetfulness and to bring back the hideous, three-headed hell-hound, Cerberus. The story again is complex but…yes! Hercules lifts up the wriggling monster and carries it up to King Eurystheus. Hurrah! The hero’s labours are over.

Well, you might dream up a thirteenth difficult task for our Hercules. Stopping global warming, maybe. Or turning the Sahara desert into a garden. Or getting our London Underground to run efficiently. Or, to plump for the hyper-impossible, to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict to the satisfaction of both. However, my own modest task arises out of satellite exchanges with a certain Dr Abdullah. From Saudi Arabia. The third panel member on the TV discussion mentioned above. You see, Dr Abdullah suffers from an unshakeable conviction. That ‘the West’ is out to attack Islam. He fired off battery after battery of sundry, disjointed and unrelated names and data: the Crusades (he would, wouldn’t he?), Dante, Voltaire, Renan, President Bush, the Danish cartoons, Pope Benedict…and so on. Despite my reasoned objections, like the Hydra he went on to sprout up new grievances. Not that I’d have wanted to treat him as Hercules dealt with the Hydra, of course…

Dr Abdullah seemed to live in a very one-dimensional, almost paranoid universe. One in which there is a universal conspiracy to get at him and his side – the Wahabi one, presumably. His discourse was monotonous, obsessive and inflexible. All the wrongs in history were on the other side and all the goodness and justice and right on his own. Totally Manichean. And this towards fellow Abrahamic believers! I felt a bit like a Jew might have felt, subjected to a tirade by a Jew-baiter like Julius Streicher. It was sad.

Saddest of all was Dr Abdullah’s incapacity to distinguish between ‘the West’ and Christianity. 200 years ago that equation might have had validity. Today no longer. ‘The West’ as such no more stands for Christ than for Zoroaster. Some Western quarters are anti-Islam, yes. But often the same forces are anti-Christianity, as well. It is the priest’s God-given (Herculean!) task to persuade good Muslims and good Christians to unite against the common foes of ‘Ahl al-Ibrahim’. Maybe a Hercules might manage to get that message into the thick head of some misguided monotheists, insh’allah without using his club.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 285 12 December 2007

Fifth Columns

In 1936, early in the Spanish Civil War, General Franco had five armies, or military columns, menacing the enemy government in Madrid. Four of them were converging on the capital from the outside but the fifth column was inside. They were Franco’s supporters, lurking within republican areas, waiting the right moment to strike at los rojos. Fifth columnists, they were called. Three years later, Franco won.

According to a well-known British journalist, we have a fifth column in our midst. Muslim extremists – who else? So she wrote in a major tabloid newspaper not too long ago. Last week a speaker in a mosque, whilst fingering rabid Islamophobes, drew my attention to her. Well, call it sheer coincidence or Jungian synchronicity, next day I found myself in a media gathering that boasted that very lady’s presence. Blandly, I raised the issue: are fifth columnists really at work in this country? Interesting answer I got, only…it should be confidential – sorry!

History abounds in fifth columns, real or imagined. Centuries before the phrase got coined, Roman Catholics in Protestant England fitted the bill. When Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, ipso facto he absolved Catholic Englishmen from oaths of allegiance to their heretical Queen. With a clear conscience, they could conspire against her. For Protestants, that rendered any Catholic person potentially disloyal, a traitor. Indeed, numerous foiled plots against Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs involved Catholics. QED. In consequence, Catholics in England had to suffer much persecution and discrimination ever since. Even today, the fires and frenzies of the Reformation totally banked, if Prince William married a Catholic girl, he would forfeit his right to the British throne. Isn’t that crazy?

The Armenians too were branded fifth columnists by the Young Turks during WWI. ‘This alien Christian race is in collusion with the Russians. Want to stab us in the back’, the decadent Ottomans claimed. Despite the fact that Armenians have served under the Sultans for hundreds of years. In military capacity too, e.g. as sappers at the siege of Vienna. The wholesale massacres of innocent Armenians quickly followed.

Japanese Americans suffered not so horrifically in WWII but the US authorities saw them as potential pawns of the Rising Sun in America. So they were herded into concentration camps. When the Soviet Union still held sway, and the red menace loomed, comrade Krushchev truculently warned the capitalist West: ‘We shall bury you!’ (Not much of a prophet he.) Communists and their sympathisers in ‘the free world’ were deemed quintessential fifth columns. Mind you, Soviet agents and spies and fellow travellers did not exist only in Senator McCarthy’s fertile brain. There actually were people like that. Besides, consider this counterfactual: if the Russian tanks had ever swept into France and Italy, to set up people’s republics, on whose side would local communists have fought?

Well and good. But let’s get a bit analytical about this thing. Franco’s fifth columnists lay murkily hidden. What made them dangerous, however, was their link with el Generalissimo’s other four columns, plus Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. (The Republicans had Stalin, of course.) Our native, aspiring jihadists, by contrast, who can they count on? The al-Qaeda column? Maybe it exists. Now and again, it causes real havoc with its nasty suicide bombings and low-tech shenanigans. And big casualties. But its chances to topple the mega-armies and gigantic, sophisticated police and security machineries of the West are actually less than zero. 9/11 and 7/7 were directed against the innocent and so they were atrocious and despicable acts. But they never came anywhere near destroying the States involved. And please, do not muddy the waters by bringing in Iran, the nuclear threat and that kind of garbage. The Shia State has as much love for Sunni al-Qaeda as Bush does. True, the Shia support liberation movements OK. I doubt, though, that Iran is behind the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru or the Free Alaska Eskimo faction. Part of a loose, worldwide guerrilla force our home-bread radicals may well consider themselves to be – lethal fifth columnists, posing a threat to our very survival, they are not.

Don’t relax, yet. A fifth column may be real, after all. A malignant cabal, a spiteful spider that wishes to destroy Britain, yep. A hundred times more damaging than the Luftwaffe was. But where is it? Here is my surprise candidate. It’s called the British Government. An internal ‘column’ in active collusion with malevolent external columns. Called the EU. You see, controlling the social policy of its member states, the EU has gradually eroded and undermined key religious and ethical values. For instance, the ideal of the family based on the New Testament. Cohabitation and same-sex partnerships have become the legal equivalent of marriage. Divorce is almost the norm. Abortion and contraception are palmed off as ‘reproductive rights’. Under the banner of obsessively repeated shibboleths, talisman-like slogans like ‘equality’ and ‘anti-discrimination’, the British Government gleefully works in tandem with the EU gang to dismantle the core values constitutive of the very fabric of British society.

A dire state of affairs. And a challenge, for Christians especially. From the beginning, we Nazarenes had to object to certain pagan practices of the Roman Empire. Abortion, infanticide, human fighting in the arena, sacrificing to the deified emperor and so on. To the extent of suffering martyrdom. Of course, Christian resistance to paganism was not violent – that is the significant, qualitative difference with today’s men of violence. Christians were peaceful fifth-columnists. The weapons they fought with were spiritual. As St Paul lists them: ‘the shield of faith’, ‘the breastplate of righteousness’, ‘the helmet of salvation’ and ‘the sword of the spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13-17). With same unbloody weapons the Church – the true, visible and invisible Church of Jesus Christ – must fight today. In concert with innumerable other columns: those of the angelic hosts in Heaven.

So, it turns out that I myself am a fifth-columnist. Amazing! You know what? I am going to enjoy it.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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Father Frank’s Rants

Rant Number 286 18 December 2007

A Gnostic Golden Compass

Two stars contend for the viewer’s attention in the movie The Golden Compass. Nicole Kidman as the ambiguous Ms. Coulter has oodles of sex appeal. Ravishing enough to stir up tumult in any man’s loins. The other is the heroine proper. 12 year old Lyra, played by Dakota Somebody. A pretty lass and a no mean budding actress. Still, something bothers me about her acting. That hardness about her eyes. The constant, scornful frown. A spiteful little mouth and mien. Why does she scowl so much, like a spoilt or disturbed brat about to throw a tantrum? A suitable case for child psychiatry. Hmmm… director's directions apart, lovely Dakota must have wanted to act like that. Why? Elizabeth John in The Shia Newspaper to me suggests an answer. The media, she argues, have “influenced the minds of girls and produced today’s confused generation of women filled with masculine notions of violence and challenge, rather than easing the pain of the world by their delicateness, compassion and motherhood. Instead of living her femininity, the young woman of today is engaged in fierce battles with rough men”. Thus speaks a Muslim woman – don’t stone the poor priest, please!

Not just big, rough blokes Lyra takes on. Her greater fight is against the malevolent ‘Magisterium’. A child-stealing male mafia intent on robbing human beings of their souls and free-will, to subject them to the blind authority. It ‘works by telling people what to do’. Writer Philip Pullman is gunning for the Christian Church, surprise, surprise…

The Magisterium hates science. So it attempts to poison Lyra’s uncle, scientist and explorer, Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel. (Sporting a particularly nasty-looking, spiky beard.) To stop him from investigating some wondrous cosmic dust that gives access to other worlds. Funny how my mind runs back to another, all too real scientist. Dr James Watson got the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. But last October this eminent scientist was suspended for his research laboratory. The Science Museum in London cancelled his lecture. Hysterical voices asked for his prosecution. Fanatics threatened demonstrations against him. So Dr Watson issued a public, grovelling recantation. (Shades of Galileo before the Inquisition!) The Magisterium’s long hand, surely? Actually the illustrious scientist’s sin had not been against God. His comments had been about race and intelligence. Taboo subjects. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe blacks are superior to whites, who knows? Science should decide. The point is that the new Inquisition, the sinister despisers of knowledge and reason today aren’t always or necessarily religious. Mr Pullman, take note, on the doubtful assumption you give a damn for truth.

Truth matters because the Golden Compass of the title is an Alethiometer. (Aletheia: the Greek word for ‘verity’.) A magic truth-telling device, looking rather like a snuffbox. It infallibly helps Lyra in her quest. Pity the A-meter fails to tell her about the true Christian take on freewill. Far from wishing to take freedom away from us, the Church teaches that: 1) freedom is a gift from God; 2) man was created free; 3) freedom is the real possibility to choose between good and evil; 4) men have a right to exercise this freedom; 5) freedom makes human agents real moral subjects. As St Irenaeus of Lyon put it long ago: “Man…is created with free will and therefore master over his acts.”

I confess it: much of the above comes from ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’. Admittedly, Reformers like Luther and Calvin were a tad less glowing on human freedom. As at least half a Protestant, I take their point. But Pullman is attacking Rome, not Geneva. Hence, if he really believes that Catholicism condemns freewill, he is an ignoramus – full stop.

Besides, the Alethiometer might have informed the author about a fashionable and influential determinist anthropology. From troglodyte Marxists to the limp, moaning Left of our time. If anyone seeks to undermine human freewill, it’s that lot. Whenever they claim that someone was forced to steal, maim or murder ‘because society is unjust and the way he was brought up and he had no choice but to be a criminal and blah, blah, blah’, they implicitly make a mockery of our freedom. The most precious of God’s gifts. The most resounding moral J’accuse is what such people deserve. Because they slander and degrade human dignity. Maybe next time morose young Lyra should throw a tantrum or two in that direction.

The movie has its (few) moments. The hilarious whisky-swilling, talkative armoured bear is one. The rumbustious, shaggy and Yiddish-looking ‘Gyptians’ could have been lifted from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. But my absolute favourite is the big-moustachioed, cum-Texas-drawl cow-boy aeronaut Sam Eliott. A scream! And the proof the wonderful myth of the Wild West still rides on OK, never mind if on an improbable dirigible in this ramshackle fantasy world.

The Golden Compass smells of Gnosticism. That ragbag of pseudo-spiritual ideas and doctrines proliferating in the early centuries AD. The Creator of our human universe, Gnostic Marcion held, was neither omnipotent nor good. Rather, a second-rate, inferior deity. Similarly, Pullman sees the God of monotheism as a negative, spent, dying force. (Tell that to the millions of pilgrims now on Haj at Mecca, Phil!) Dupe Marcion set out to denigrate the Old Testament, too. I wonder whether Pullman realises his atheism implies anti-Semitism? Anyway, the Church told Marcion where to get off. As to the peculiar cosmic stuff sought by Lord Asriel, it echoes somewhat the particles of supernatural light some Gnostics believed to have been entombed in matter and human bodies. Even pesky little Lyra could be a distant transmutation of the fallen female wisdom of Simon Magus… And the ‘daemons’ that appear in animal forms too could have a counterpart in the Gnostic daimones – good and bad spirits of the air. But maybe what’s at play here is more primitive, like shamanism. Either way, the cute shape-shifting critters don’t amuse the priest at all. The human soul comes from God. It is infinitely noble, unique. I see why godless Pullman wishes to mingle it with animalism, of course. Old Nick’s hand, eh? But fear not, folks: Non Praevalebunt!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 287 3 January 2008

Dombey and Son

‘Papa! What’s money?’ asks pensive little Paul Dombey of his dad in Dickens’ great work, Dombey and Son.

Mr Dombey, a wealthy City man, is nonplussed. Pounds, shillings, gold, silver and copper – surely the familiar words will do? But, unpleased, the child insists: ‘What’s money after all? Papa, what can it do?’

‘Money, Paul, can do anything’ proclaims the adult, patting the child on the head.

‘Anything, papa?’

‘Yes, anything – almost’, says Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mamma?’ returns Paul, meaning the mother who died giving him birth.

A devastating question. But not quite enough to floor his capitalist dad. So Mr Dombey launches himself into a heartfelt, if pagan, paean to money. ‘Money causes us to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired and makes us powerful and glorious in the eyes of all men.’ All much desired attributes, no doubt. That is, desired by people like Paul’s father. Still, the man is at least honest. Note how his pompous list does not include the word ‘love’. Even a tragic figure like Dombey senior, obsessed with his firm, his male heir, his status and his power, realises that his money will never be able to buy him his little boy’s love. Indeed, nemesis awaits him at the novel’s end.

The priest read Dombey and Son over Christmas in Rome. Now, that’s a bit serendipitous. Because the Eternal City has a secret name. No kidding. ‘Rome’ was only the public, exoteric name of Rome. Ancient Roman writers like Pliny tell us that the city’s true name was hidden from the masses. Only a few chosen ones knew it, such as the High Priest of the state cult. Should an enemy have got intelligence of the mysterious word, Rome would have fallen. Hence, the penalty for such abominable betrayal was death. A certain Valerius Soranus, Pliny informs us, actually did the unthinkable act. He disclosed the Name to the uninitiated. A crime he paid for with his life.

What was that secret name? Sigh… nobody really knows. Because the secret was well kept. But, imagine I knew, dear reader. I would be faced with a dilemma. I am a Roman. And a priest. In a sense, I am connected with the ancient priesthood of my birthplace. So, if I were to blab out the secret name…how do I know the ancient curse would not fall on my head? Call me superstitious but, like Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once put it, it’s safer ‘fare le corna’ – namely, to do the old misfortune-averting gesture…

However, cheer up! Rome’s most secret name must remain hidden, yes, but a second best, not-so-secret name exists. And it can be revealed.

Consider Rome’s name in its proper Latin spelling. Roma. Now read it backwards. Amor. Love. Geddit?

Too simple, eh? Of course. That is why Amor cannot have been the mysterious, hidden name. Uncovering it would have been too easy. Amor is simple but…simplicity is the mark of truth, a useful Latin saying goes. And so I feel it is fitting I should have happened upon the wonderful passage from Dickens in the City of Love.

Love…yes, love. Not money, mind you. Nor sex. Those who equate the two are idiots. Because love and sex cannot be the same. If they were, love of country and love of music would mean sex with country and sex with music, which is nonsense. Whether they realise it or not, by doing so such people fall below the beasts. With apologies to the latter, which are at least innocent of good and evil. Also, Rome’s ancient emblem shows a she-wolf, so I have to be nice to animals! The Creator fashioned human beings in His image, to follow virtue and knowledge and love. Whenever they deviate from those, they soil and profane the Maker’s work, as well as fouling up their own nest.

Love. A simpleton’s hope for 2008? Probably. The media are full of violence, as usual, and those who can read the runes are not optimistic. But love is prescriptive, not descriptive. When Christ commands his disciples to love one another, and indeed our enemy, He is certainly not describing what is actually going on. Maybe Luther was right. There are two cities on earth, he claimed. One, composed of true Christians, true disciples of love, who follow the sublime prescriptions of the Gospel. The other city is people by a very different, nasty crowd. They are the children of Cain, the first murderer, he who slew his own innocent brother. St Augustine of Hippo, himself a proud Roman citizen, did not scruple to equate pagan Rome with the second city – hadn’t Romulus killed his brother Remus at the city’s very inception?

Luther, however, was too pessimistic. He gives no hint whether the citizens of the City of God might not go about converting the inhabitants of the wicked city to better ways. To win them over to the ways of Love. I submit that way is itsef….well, figure you’d divine it: Love.

Love, not money. Mr Dombey found that out too late. Only saints and hypocrites can afford to despise money, of course. Most of us need it and appreciate its advantages. But money ain’t enough. Money itself will not only not save us from death, it isn’t enough to keep us alive, either. Doomed little Paul is partly a vindication of that eternal truth. Indeed, even animals – snakes and insects excepted - will not prosper without an atmosphere of warmth and love. Unloved babies certainly don’t flourish at all…

After losing his beloved son, his firm and being forsaken by his second, unhappy wife, Mr Dombey seems damned. But Dickens believed in happy endings. Thanks to young Florence, the slighted and humiliated daughter, whose love has stayed steadfast despite her father’s many cruelties, he at last grasps the enormity of his inhuman selfishness and begs for forgiveness. Love has saved him.

Methinks the old, unfeeling Dombey lives on unredeemed, though. In the spirit of our stupid age. An age, a civilisation that teeters on the brink of an abyss. Does it stand a chance?

Yes. If it responds to Divine Love.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant 290 28 January 2008

Oxford and Islamic Prayer

AD 732, France. Momentous history is made. At the battle of Tours Charles Martel routs the invading Arab armies from the Umayyad caliphate. Had victory gone to the Muslims, ‘the interpretation of the Qur’an would be taught in the University of Oxford and her pulpits would teach Islam’ mused a thousand years later English historian Gibbon.

Huh! What would that great infidel say, I wonder, if he knew of the current proposal to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer from a mosque in East Oxford?

Well, the priest is now hearing the Muezzin’s voice five times a day. In Doha, Qatar, a little, finger-like peninsula that waggles gently out into the Arab Gulf. He is a visiting fellow at the Qatar Foundation – smart guy, eh? Looking out of his spacious flat’s windows, he can view the beige silhouettes of elegant minarets lancing up into the hazy sky. Guess there is no actual man up there crying out his pious summonses. These days the Muslim faithful listen to a pre-recorded message. The very first Muezzin of Islam, a black slave called Bilal, might not be quite fond of that, I figure, but…hadha hayat, c’est la vie.

The Oxford debate is raging. Newspapers carry letters pro & con. If Christians can ring their bells, why can’t Muslims cry out their prayers, one reasonably asks? But bells are just a signal, whilst the Muezzin is proclaiming an ideological message, counterattacks another. ‘Along with Chris Hitchens and Professor Dawkins, I might agree God is not great, but I wouldn’t wish to have it broadcast it outside my window five times a day’ insinuates an able dialectician, astutely muddling the issue. Then a Muslim spokesman states that their prayer calls would go out not five times every day of the week, but only three times on Friday. Whereupon the enemy exults – ‘Hurrah! Muslims are retreating, thanks to our opposition. Charles Martel, we have done it again!’ Presumably they know not how, according to tradition, Allah meant the prayer calls to be daily far more frequent. Only the intercession of the Prophet brought them down to the current five.

The cleverest critics eschew any reference to religion altogether. Because they fear being branded as intolerant. Instead, it is simply a matter of peace and quiet, they swear – and who’d object to that? The noise is what it’s all about. But bells are noisy OK, so why the asymmetry? When I was curate of St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, our bell ringers’ sonorous evening practice would make some locals grumpy indeed, I recall. And Muslims say they propose to go back to Bilal’s days – no amplification by loudspeaker – or will they? I am not sure but it won’t pacify the critics, you bet.

In Charles Martel’s days, you can guess where Christian clergy would have stood in this debate. However, times are a-changing. We are now ‘enlightened’. So the Anglican Bishop of Oxford backs the Muslims. A rare occasion to make himself relevant, as I surmise the chap is normally about as useful as a dog on a motorbike. Also, a certain Canon Partridge invites the opposition to enjoy the prayers’ beautiful classical Arabic. The priest approves of the Partridge being dovish – better a dove than a hawk, sure – but how many of the people of East Oxford – largely a working-class area - are conversant with al-Fusha – the language of the Qur’an, he asks himself? Please, dear reader, don’t take this amiss. I used to know a nice Anglo-Catholic vicar in East Oxford, Father Flatman. Not much appreciated by some of the local folks. ‘I even got spat upon’, he told me. ‘In fact, the nicest people to me are the Muslims.’ A remark I shall never forget. I imagine Father Flatman, were he still on this earth, would not mind the Muslim prayer one little bit, and that for good, spiritual reasons.

Anglicans aren’t the only ones to side with Islam. Some bloke from Blackfriars, the Roman Catholic Dominican house, also made approving noises. That is kind of encouraging, given that the good Dominicans of old might have reacted a wee bit differently. You see, they used to run the Inquisition.

Islamophobes of course are angered by the Bishop’s line. ‘He has betrayed us’, somebody lamented. Holy simplicity! As if anyone anymore took seriously most of the stooges sitting on the Bishops’ Bench as having anything to do with upholding Christ! I read in the Salisbury Review how stunned the Bishop of Bradford looked when someone suggested to him that he might be a ‘leader of Christianity’. He somehow found the idea shocking. I wholeheartedly agree. I would no more expect authentic Christian leadership from those mitred asses than I would from the useless King Log of Aesop’s fable. The sooner our faithful people realise that, and take condign action, the better.

I know a bit about Oxford. Because I trained for the Anglican priesthood at Cuddesdon Theological College, in its environs. Cuddesdon, huh! A college so damned wet and liberal that the word ‘sin’ was hardly ever mentioned by our ordained lecturers. Maybe just as well, as sin is something they and the students knew a lot about. Especially the unforgivable sin, that against the Holy Ghost. These days, by the way, I learn that three Muslims students from the famous Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo do a stint on an exchange at my old college. What they might learn there I do not wish to say…

There used to be another, better and greater Oxford. That of the Tractarians. Those pious and learned Anglican divines, who brought back devotion, liturgy and sacramental spirituality into the bloated and smug body of the late Hanoverian Church. A valiant band of goodly, scholarly priests, such as John Henry Newman, Pusey, Keble and Froude. The movement they initiated infused new life in the Church of England. But the devil (who else?) has been at work. A catastrophic failure of nerve has pervaded and taken over what used to be a fine Christian Church. Today in Oxford you will seek in vain for the spirit of the Tractarians. Instead, you’ll meet the wan, bloodless spirit of conformity to the ways of a stupid post-modernity. If the Muezzin’s voice stands against that, why not?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 291 6 February 2008

Ash Wednesday in Doha

Lent last night began with a curious Ash Wednesday dream. The priest was wandering about the narrow lanes of an Eastern city. All around stood dizzingly tall towers. Of the oddest shape. Spiral-like, they mounted the sky, tapering towards the top, piercing the heavenly vault like daggers. ‘Like Towers of Babel’, I think I thought. Outsize Arab calligraphic motifs, askew and luminous, encrusted their walls, like fantastic shells. Some spelt out ‘Bismillah’ – in the name of God, others were too difficult to make out. Staring up at the vertical spectacle, I bumped against a wall. A blind alley. Suddenly, I realised I was lost, surrounded by steep high walls. Panic assailed me. ‘How do I find my way back…back to what? Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here?’ Anxiety tightened its fingers round my throat. I started shouting, cried out for help, blessed or cursed, became incoherent. Shadows – men? women? ghouls? - glided past but they ignored me.

Till one of them stopped. And materialised as a lithe, dark-shrouded female form. ‘Why do you cry, Frank? There is no need.’ Relief gave place to wonder. ‘How…who told you my name?’ Her answer was a smile. And silence. Her sallow, oval face conveyed only sweetness and peace. Like some contemplative Madonna. ‘Never mind’ said I ‘I am so glad, anyway. I am afraid I am lost. Will you be my guide?’ ‘No, he will’, she answered, raising a tiny, frail hand towards the sky.

The arabesque-laden towers had given place to glittering skyscrapers. Striking silhouettes, shiny glass cakes topped by pyramids, yet kind of familiar, like London’s Canary Wharf. Many looked still under construction, unfinished. ‘Of course’ I thought, forgetting the incongruous shift ‘I am in Doha. By the bay. Near the Corniche. Where I take my strolls every day. How reassuring all this...what is she pointing at…?’

Then I saw the bird. First small and faraway, swifly growing near and huge. An amazing green shape, head crowned by a rainbow-like crest of bright feathers. Lighted on top of a near skyscraper, so near yet so far. Where have I seen it before? In vain I wracked my brains. ‘He is the Simurgh, Frank. Hud-Hud, we call him in Arabic. You know. Comes from God. He expecting you. Here in Doha. How fortunate you are!’ the woman spoke. Her large brown eyes held me in thrall. Opening my mouth, I began to formulate the first of a thousand questions when her face instantly fell apart. Dissolved. Instead, a voice resounded…God is greatest. There is no God but God… it was the Al Fajr, the dawn prayer. The early call to of the muezzin had dissipated my dream.

God sometimes speaks to man in dreams. The Bible proves it. Doesn’t the angel of the Lord appear to St. Joseph in a dream, to tell him that Mary is pregnant of the Holy Ghost? And aren’t the Magi warned of God in a dream about Herod’s murderous intentions? Pace unbelieving philosopher Thomas Hobbes, ‘God spoke to me in a dream’ is not the same as ‘I dreamt that God spoke to me’. Which is not to say that a dream’s message, whatever its origins, is always easy to comprehend. Mine, however, does not strike me as impossibly cryptic, al hamdulillah!

Today is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of the holy season of Lent. Christian Ramadan, if you like. A preparation for Easter. A time for fasting, spiritual self-exertion and self-denial. But also a time of temptation. Amidst the fat cows, the hedonism as well as the horrors of our globalised world, it is easy t get lost. So, kind of suitable the dream began with the experience of being lost. The tall towers resembled a bit the description of the bizarre mud zyggurats of Sana’, in Yemen, about which I have recently read in Jonathan Raban’s Arabia. The futuristic skyscrapers are the sight familiar here in downtown Doha, a city in gestation, partly Manhattan, partly a building site. But what about the mysterious female, huh? Madonna-like. No hint of her name. So I’ll give her one. I shall call her Maryam. Outwardly similar to the many Arab women here, clad in alluring dark dresses, and ambling about leisurly in the big Western-style shopping malls. But she wasn’t like the others. She was different. Special. Very.

As to the bird, well, that’s a cinch. Maryam gave me the clue. The hoopoe. And the Simurgh. A mystical creature, the protagonist of Farid Uddin Attar’s Conference of the Birds. One of my most loved – but also most disturbing – books. An allegory. It tells of the birds’ search for their king, the simurgh. In Persian, it means ‘thirty bids’. They only know he lives in a remote, faraway land. So they set off, led by the wise hoopoe. Hardly an easy, touristy desert safari as they do in Qatar. They have to cross endless barren wastes, climb formidable mountain ranges, fly over interminable, stormy oceans, dodge bandits, undergo tests and trials galore. Many birds lose heart, drop out, or are diverted by laziness, carnal temptations, foolishness. Others run away, or die of illness or are killed by brigands. In the end, only thirty birds reach the desired goal. They find at last the Kaf, the vertiginous mountain where the simurgh lives. And they are taken into his presence…

I won’t tell you the conclusion. Which is not very satisfactory, anyway. Read it for yourself. The point is, I feel, that Lent is the right time to pause and reflect a while about mine and yours life’s journey. In Doha, London, New York, Banjul or any where else. Like a Shakespeare’s play, life can be said to consist of five acts. Some of us are in the second or third act, others play their part in later acts. Macbeth suggests that the whole thing is a tale told by an idiot, full of noise and signifying nothing. That is not religion’s view. Life is not meaningless. Despite the TV screen’s daily terrible reports of violence and mayhem, this is still God’s world. Created by the provident Creator for a benevolent purpose. Each atom, each particle of matter, each human person fits into that divine scheme. And Lent comes in handy for figuring out what role God wants us to play in His divine plan.

In Attar's lovely story, each bird stands for different human types. Different characters and attitudes, as diverse as human beings are. Coward, courageous, decisive, shy, active, slothful, chaste, lustful, stupid, bright...you name them. The hoopoe is their guide, which is paradoxycal, as the point of the quest is that they do not yet have a leader, they are searching for it. And the sought-out king, you would have guessed, stands for the Creator.

To tell a secret, the priest has already flown with the Simurgh once. Twenty years ago. On Iran Air. Airline that sports the figure of the sacred bird on its fusellage. Quite a flight it was, as the airplane cop somehow got it into his head that I was a British Intelligence agent. Which suggests that he wasn't very bright!

Maryam. The most difficult part of my dream. All right, I am going to spare you corny references to Beatrice, Laura and that kind of poetic stuff. But as God's plan for man's salvation was effected through the agency, the willing submission of Mary, the extraordinary Hebrew maid from Nazareth, every human being's existence depends on woman. God indeed in Genesis calls Eve 'the mother of all living'. But woman's role certainly is not just physical or reproductive. Spiritually, the priest feels, her role is immense. Probably superior to man's.

It would be unwise, nevertheless, for anyone to expect to find a Maryam amongst the women of Doha. Though so many look sweet and attractive and even beautiful, as the swish about in their long, elegant, silken black dresses, a husband's or father's sword is likely to be administered unto any male who was bold enough to approach one, however innocently. You just don't do that here.

Oh, well, I shall just have to wait that a mystical Maryam finds me.

And she might already have....

Now, joyfully to the hardships of Lent. To the greatest glory of God.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 292 11 February 2008

Rooting for Rowan: The Archbishop and the Sharia

What’s wrong with me? I am in living in Qatar , not in Yemen . I mean, here there is no qat, Yemen ’s popular hallucinogenic weed. Yet, something peculiar is happening. I’d never, never have believed but…yes, I confess it: I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He backs sharia law in Britain . You bet he isn’t chewing qat either. Still, he happens to be right.

A friend even suggested it’s my influence. Well, maybe. The priest’s occult powers…even I don’t fully know them!

It is droll to see how berzerk Rowan’s enemies have gone. Stoning, beheading, chopping off of limbs and flogging, he is calling for them, they scream. Even his druidical roots are mischievously imputed. (Groan… the priest himself has poked fun at Williams for that in the past: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) Didn’t his Celtic ancestors practise the cult of the severed head? Proof positive this Welshman hankers after the same, under the cover of Islam. Might as well charge Scot Gordon Brown with being a Pictish marauder at heart, or Texan George Bush with rooting for lynch law. A veritable apotheosis of missing the point – that sums up many people’s reactions to the ABC’s sensible remarks – in part.

Truth is, allowing Muslims in England voluntarily to submit to sharia rulings in certain family and marital disputes is no more judicially enormous than letting Catholics ask the Sacra Rota ecclesiastical tribunal to annul their marriage. Or permitting Anglo-Catholic traditionalists to bar women priests from the altar. My good friend Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg could provide condign examples affecting Jews. Angry or anguished cries of ‘there is only one British law’ ignore these plain facts. The most rational comment I have come across on the web is that of an African Christian. He observes that in their African colonies the Brits always allowed ‘parallel universes of common and customary laws’. And that worked out pretty well. But never in England ! shout Islamophobes. Do they mean it? Unless they propose to boot out all Muslims from this sceptred island, as 400 years ago Spain’s King Philip III did with the Moriscos, how can they prevent this minority from enjoying some of its own religious or customary laws, if it so wishes?

But what if religious rulings conflict with the law of the land? More about that anon. Meanwhile I note that the law of the land, like Heraclitus’ river, and unlike God’s law, is always in a state of flux. A church marriage was once prescriptive, now there is a civil alternative. Today capital punishment is off the statute book. Homosexuality was once a crime – now no longer. Ditto for same-sex unions. Whilst fox-hunting has become illegal. The priest does not pass judgment here, only notes. Parliament changes the law all the time, man!

Of course, sharia law isn’t just about humdrum family disputes and jolly Imam’s counselling. It is a whole, comprehensive and total system, embracing every social, political, economic and personal aspects of human life. Guess that is what puts the wind up a lot of Western people these days. ‘Jesus Christ we have largely disposed of, are we now having to suffer Muhammad?’ our secularists moan, shaking with fear and loathing. For such people I have no sympathy. Also, in reality sharia isn’t monolithic. OK, the Saudi and Sudanese models aren’t quite everybody’s cup of tea, and that includes many Muslims. But in many countries, like little Qatar , the Sharia Court is only for domestic cases, family troubles, whilst state courts are fashioned after a mix of Western legal practices. The Qur’an officially underlies legislation, yes. Qataris, unlike many Europeans, are in no doubt as to their identity…

The British Government, unsurprisingly, equivocates. ‘British law should apply in the UK , based on British values’, thunders Gordon Brown. British values, eh? Like what? Queuing, saying ‘thank you’ a billion times a day and being generally nice? A bit too weak a brew to work as the basis of a culture. (Note how the wily PM always keeps mum about that authentic English value, Christianity.) Anyway, his spokesman admits that legally ‘small adjustments had been and will be made’. Mini-sharia’s OK, in other words. Which is broadly what the Archbishop is pleading for. In other words, the government cynically fudges the issue. What’s new?

So, dear Rowan, the poor priest defends you. But I ask you to go one better. As a leader of Christianity - please, don’t get nervous now – you must start beating the drum for Christian principles, too. There is something faintly comical about the way in your recent lecture you set yourself up as interpreter of sharia – leave that to Muslims to determine. But you can/ought to speak strongly about Christian law. Right to have 3/% of the population have their laws, but Christians are a bit more numerous than that in England . So we too must have our share. I bet you know what Christian law is.

Wot! You don’t? Pulling my leg, eh? But just in case, let me remind you. The laws of Christianity are set out in Holy Scripture. For example, both in the Old and the New Testaments we find God through His chosen Christ, His apostles and prophets forbidding and blasting adultery and fornication. Sins also explicitly cited in Cranmer’s Anglican Prayer Book. So you must demand that the British state allow church courts to try such crimes and punish them. (No stoning, no. Maybe just a few

pebbles, plus naming and shaming the reprobates.) Our liberal rulers won’t have it of course. They’ll get mad at you. Because church courts would conflict with their permissive, iniquitous laws. When then? Rowan, this is your chance. No longer the establishment’s bearded jester everybody’s takes you for, you will take up the mantle of Christian prophecy. Proclaim loud and clear, like our first martyrs did, that Christians must serve God rather than men. Oh, boy, how they will revile you!

But at last you will truly become what you are meant to be: a leader of Christians.

Revd Frank Julian GellI


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 293 24 February 2008

Doha Dialogue

Vox pop has it that meeting a Qatari in Doha is difficult. So I must be lucky because a Qatari met me. ‘A’an idhnak… I saw you on Al Jazeera. You are a priest. I have some questions, if you have time.’ Indeed I did.

Verily, today to be is to be on television. Being interviewed by Al-Jazeera TV last week did the trick. Such is fame. An immaculately clad man in starched white robe and red-checkered head dress introduced himself as Muhammad. In the City Centre, a five-storey mega-shopping mall which might as well be in London ’s Bayswater, given its disappointingly non-Arab hordes of shoppers.

Ensconced on plush pea-green armchairs in the Café Richoux, Muhammad and I conversed amiably. Bespectacled and middle-aged cove, sporting a neat, black goatee, an interpreter and translator with a government department, he was not narrow-minded – ‘as a Muslim, I am interested in all religions’, he asserted – but also proud of his own faith. My bold claim that Cross and Crescent should not be enemies but allies, had intrigued him. ‘Friendship is fine. Friendship is human. But how can we be allies, if we worship a different God?’ His first question.

‘Our conceptions of God are not identical, true’ I answered. ‘Nor are our scriptures. But, speaking philosophically, of necessity there can only be One True God, however we conceive him. Moreover, we have been kind of allies before. Didn’t the Prophet before the Hijra send many Muslims to Christian Ethiopia, to enjoy protection from persecuting polytheists? His example proves it is possible to be allied today.’

‘I see…but times were different…Christians today want to wage war on us.’

I shook my head. ‘Please, beware of the logical mistake to pass from ‘some’ to ‘all’. I don’t lump all Muslims with some murderous fanatics. Most Christians preach peace, not war. Besides, Church authorities are firmly against war-mongering. If anything, they are accused of being too pro-Islam. Just think of Archbishop Williams and the sharia…’

‘What about the Christian Zionists? On Al Jazeera you said they are a heresy. Why doesn’t your church brand them that?’

‘Only a church council can declare a doctrine a heresy. The Archbishop of Canterbury maybe should have a go. But the influence of the C.Z is vastly exaggerated. I can prove it. Their power supposedly comes through the Republican administration, the Neo Cons and so. Now, wait for the next Democrat US President. You’ll find him, or her, (la samaha Allah!), no friends of C.Z., yet just as pro-Israel as Bush. Maybe more. Hence the C.Z. make no fundamental difference to US policy towards the Middle East .’

He mulled that over a bit. ‘Why doesn’t Europe help the Palestinians?’

Actually a generous EU already hands out dollops of hard cash to the poor Palestinian Authority. But I reiterated my utopian proposal, boldly advanced in the interview: Europeans should invite both Israel and Palestinians to join the EU. Once inside, they would have to get along. Unlikely? Sure, but not more than any other arguably ‘realist’ solution I know of.

‘The Inquisition…’ God forgive me, that historical jibe prompted a bit of a tit for tat. ‘Hey, give me a break! Remember I am a Protestant. The Inquisition persecuted me too. You could say I am a fellow victim. They burned our Bibles as well as our bodies. Which forces me to put a question to you: why doesn’t Saudi Arabia allow Bibles into the country? What are they afraid of? Isn’t that being like the Inquisition?’

‘They are Wahabis. I am not.’ ‘Are you a Shia?’ ‘No. I am Ahmadiyya’ he disclosed, somewhat reluctantly.

Well, that was a revelation. A Muslim heretic! Because his sect has been declared non-Muslim in Pakistan . They are not flavour of the month in Islamic countries. But the priest did not wish to intrude upon private grief. ‘At least you know what is like to be suffer, as a minority.’

Muhammad assented, nervously, and went on: ‘We revere Jesus as a Prophet. Why doesn’t your church so accept Prophet Muhammad?’

‘You should read my unpublished book on the Prophet! (No Christian publisher will touch it, alas. It’s dynamite.) But I shall not dodge a hard question. First, be aware that whilst ‘prophet’ is the highest title accorded to a man in Islam, Christians consider Christ much higher than that. To call Christ simply a prophet falls far short of what he is to us. It’s like calling the Pope an ordinary priest. Certainly Muhammad was a prophet in the sense religious phenomenology gives to the term. But I recall a R.C. prelate who during a conference in a Muslim country got carried away by interfaith fervour and let slip that he believed in the Prophet Muhammad. ‘Catholic bishop converts to Islam!’ the local press screamed. The Vatican was not amused…

He enjoyed the story and pumped me up with some more excellent Turkish coffee. ‘On air, you explained how God can have a son. I did not understand it.’

‘We believe God has a son because our Scriptures say so. It is a truth of faith. Further, as a philosopher, I do not place limits on God’s omnipotence. If God wills to have a son, then He can do it! And it is tied up with the Christian notion of God as supreme, divine love. It belongs essentially to love to issue in procreation, as any human parent knows. I do not expect these points to convince you. You would not be a Muslim if they did. Only hope you understand them.’

‘I’ll have to think about that…but the Trinity? How could that be true?’

‘Well, the great mystic Sufi Ibn Arabi defends the Trinity somewhere. He says that Father, Son and Holy Spirit mean no more than calling the One God also the Lord, the Merciful and the Compassionate, as the Quran does. Three names for the same Being.’

He looked doubtful: ‘You can’t use that argument for your Trinity.’

I pointed out Ibn Arabi did. But time pressed, as it is its habit. We got up, shook hands and exchanged cards and pleasantries. ‘Fursa Sa’ida!’ Happy meeting, he said. ‘As’ad’ I replied. Even happier for me.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli



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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 294 4 March 2008

World of Jinns

Somebody is watching us. Right now, as I click away at my computer, and as you are reading this. We may believe ourselves to be alone. Actually, we are not. Because there is another world parallel to this world. An invisible reality to which we have no access, yet its creatures can and do enter our world. It is an unimaginably vast and unseen universe, its strange inhabitants innumerable. They are born, marry and are given in marriage, have homes, children, eat and drink, own property, animals…all that. Just like us. And, like us, they are rational beings. Hence they can choose between good and evil, and so some of them are good and others wicked. Some follow chastity, others practice fornication. Some have faith in divine revelation and some do not.

Jinns. That is their name. So does the Qur’an calls them. There is even a Sura named after them – Sura Al Jinn. It speaks of a troop of these creatures that once listened to a prophetic recitation and finally accepted its high message. And so those jinns became Muslims.

Jinns are, like men, created but, unlike men who were moulded from wet clay, their ‘matter’ is smokeless fire. Fascinatingly, a large body of legal rulings exists concerning them. The ulama’s large and detailed discussions range from whether jinns are material or immaterial, to their sexual habits and their property rights. Yes, because mischievous and randy jinns haunt the dreams of human beings and sometimes have intercourse with them. A scholar from a prestigious Islamic college, I learn, once found out that the woman to whom he was married, and from whom he had had ten children, was in a fact a jinnia. Whether that unsettling discovery constituted ground for divorce, I do not know.

Still, let us not be gloomy. It is important to remember, there are also benevolent and beneficent jinns.

Here in Qatar, in a place called Al Khoor, there is a house haunted by jinns, my driver, Zoogi, told me. And a certain lean, scrawny and moon-coloured cat which scavenges in Doha’s Al Fajma district is also suspected of being a jinn. To be fair to Zoogi, he is also a bit of an empiricist. He admits that ‘I have never seen a jinn’.

Which introduces one little problem about invisible jinns - and indeed about any disembodied entities. What are the criteria of individuation, of identification of jinns? Physical beings can be seen, touched, smelled etcetera. That is, they are in principle accessible to our senses. So they can be recognised. When I shall meet Zoogi again tomorrow, hopefully I will identify him as the same Zoogi I saw last night because he will look like the same man. But how would I recognise today’s jinn as the same as yesterday’s jinn? Indeed, how would I count how many jinns there are near me now? One? Two? A thousand? Billions? If they take up no space, there are no limits as to their number. Such potential teeming of jinns would be immeasurably worse than any human population explosion. Jinn proliferation, huh, there’s the rub!

Of course, a similar difficulty arose for the learned Schoolmen of the Middle Ages regarding angels. How many did dance on the point of a pin? The question vexed them a great deal. Oh, well, one day I’ll find time to read St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, on this subject – I will then know the answer.

Sophisticated Islamic thinkers may well pooh-pooh the whole matter. Relegate the jinn concept to the dustbin of mythological, pre-modern and magical forms of thought. It’s up to them, though I’d think applying such a reductive procedure to a verbatim divinely dictated text is tricky business. Were I in their shoes, I’d be cautious. I’d rather follow Karl Barth. In his massive Church Dogmatics Barth defends belief on angels. Despite the fact that trendy theologians ignore the lovely beings as passé. His argument is neat: ‘I believe in angels because the Bible says so.’ Too simple? But ‘simplicity is the mark of truth’, Barth might reply.

Confession: I think I recognised a jinni the other night. Fear not, only a fictional one. I mean Heathcliff, the sombre, unredeemed anti-hero of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. As I was perusing the novel, it dawned on me that Heathcliff could well be described as either a jinni or as the progeny of one. Found wandering as a stray child on a Liverpool dock, a ‘little black-haired swarthy thing, as dark as if it came from the devil’, mouthing a ‘gibberish that nobody could understand’, Heathcliff is a prime candidate for the role. Charlotte Bronte herself, in her introduction to her sister’s great work, notes insightfully that his character was less a human being than ‘a man’s shape animated by a demon life – a Ghoul – an Afreet.’ Both epithets derive from the Arabic language, I note…

Another, not quite bad but definitely mischievous and real a jinni, I guess, was a long vanished young man I once met in Prague. He did not exist, I later discovered – I mean, he was the person he pretended to be. For years I suspected him to be a golem – much more like a jinni, I now feel.

A good jinnia, on the other hand, is likely to have been the blonde female tram driver who kindly assisted me one desperate night when I was lost in Dresden. A buon intenditor…poche parole!

My good friend Shahin, a maverick Iranian, is a more difficult case. An intrinsically good and meek person, almost Christ-like, yes, but also a crazy, even dangerous character, on reflection. Maybe half human, half a jinn? And he looks like one – now I see it!

Wait a minute…it has just dawned on me…what about the priest himself? I seem to hear a small voice whispering: ‘You too could be a jinni.’

That’s got to be wrong, I am sure. But, were it so, one of the nice ones, I trust.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 295 19 March 2008

Muslim Saint or Muslim Sinner?

The execution took place before a jeering crowd. One chanting God is great and Islam is the solution. So they put a hood over the old man’s head and a noose round his neck and then they hanged him. On January 18, 1985 . Inside Khartoum ’s Kober Prison. Eye witnesses record no memorable last words. Only that the prisoner looked calm and unafraid, his eyes ‘defiant’.

His name was Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. A Sufi sheikh. A mystic who had been jailed by the British in his youth, for fighting for Sudan ’s independence. One who had turned his two years’ captivity into a time of khalwa, spiritual retreat. A suitable time for meditating on dreams, visions and deepening insights into sacred things. (Feel my time in Doha is a bit of a khalwa, too.) Later small bands of followers gathered about him. He organised them into a republican party - a body advocating a socialist agenda but also a radically revolutionary, new concept of Islam. Which eventual led to his being sentenced to death. On charges of sedition and apostasy.

To simplify. The sheikh argued and preached that the earliest parts of the Qur’an, the surahs revealed at Mecca , embody the purest Islam. Mostly spiritual, non-political verses. Contrariwise, the later, so-called Medina revelations, would display menaces, invectives, legislations, war regulations – much more coercive stuff, on the whole. Their content, according to Taha, is spiritually mixed and dated. So Muslims today should prioritise Mecca , not Medina . Because the Meccan revelations represent the real, deeper message of Islam. Warlike jihad and penal sharia rulings belong to the past. The time has finally come for a new, liberating stage in mankind’s development.

Not a theology Islamic authorities would enthusiastically back, the priest surmises. But Taha also taught the total equality between men and women. So his movement was a champion of women’s right and inclusiveness. Female members were active on colleges and public places. In that, time has vindicated the Sufi saint. His garrulous Islamist arch-enemy, Hasan Turabi, no less, in recent years has recanted previous views and has gone in for an unprecedented out-and-out feminism. Sussed out which way the wind is blowing, eh? Taha must be smiling bit, wherever he is now.

The sheikh was against the introduction of sharia in Sudan . Quite apart from the checks that stern code places on the female of the species, Taha argued sharia was unfair to Christians and animists, overwhelmingly the majority in Southern Sudan . He pointed out that bringing in Muslim law would antagonise non-Muslims, making them hate and distrust Islam. Huh! You know what? I am so friendly to Muslims, I like Islam so much, I hadn’t thought of that! But maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury might cogitate on it a bit. Community cohesion, interfaith relations, as the cant goes, might not do well under sharia. Just look at the popular & media reactions following his lucubrations. Does not augur well.

Indeed, Taha broke many taboos. He urged Arab countries to talk to Israel . For that, his enemies vilified him. Spread rumours that he was a Zionist agent. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? But nothing could be clearer that one day Palestinians (Hamas included) and Israelis will have to make a deal. There is no other solution, is there? So maybe the Sheikh’s spirituality was not all that other-worldly…

Do not, mind you, mistake the Sudanese Sufi for a Western liberal in tall white turban and jellaba. He stood for Islam and defended politics and theology alike in terms what is true in Islam. Guess he would have made an unusual Mahdi. Why did he not proclaim himself so? Perhaps because he knew how much blood there is attached to the figure. He was right to eschew any claims to that.

On the other hand, visionaries like Taha are ‘damned’ by their friends. By which I mean liberal, progressive Western writers, journalists and human rights activists. People who – surprise, surprise – like the sheikh and his ideas a lot. They bestow on him sobriquets like ‘a pacifist Muslim’ and ‘the moderate martyr’. There’s the rub. If Taha’s spiritual, daring interpretation of his own tradition is to have any hope, it cannot not be seen as one welcomed by a motley crew that includes Bush, Blair, the BBC, The New Yorker, the EU, the Israeli government and Salman Rushdie. Is it credible young Muslim radicals and intellectuals would take Qur’an lessons from that lot? Their approval bestows the kiss of a thousand deaths. Consider, a Sudanese academic in the US who currently defends Taha and propagates his views is unwise in ganging up with…Irshad Manji! If there is anyone likely to be a red rag to Muslims…can’t think of a better candidate than sweet, deviant Irshad.

Was he a martyr? His followers certainly revere him as one. And his killing was a judicial crime. The judge gave him no chance to recant, unlike the followers who were tried with him. The whole farce was engineered by the military ruler, Numeiri, an unprincipled dictator who had courted even communists to keep going. The sharia card was another attempt to hold on to power by pandering to Islamists. Years later Numeiri pretended to have offered Taha a way out while awaiting execution. Were that true, Taha would have behaved somewhat like Socrates in his last days – better being true to his beliefs than mere survival. Survival after death is what he would have believed in, anyway.

In an interview, Hasan Turabi after the execution mocked Taha. ‘He thinks he is Jesus Christ’, he said, no doubt intending to make light of the dead man. A remarkable comparison, methinks. Because Jesus Christ, amongst many other things, preached a gospel of peace and did not kill anyone. Instead, he was accused of blasphemy, given over to a mob and judicially murdered. But, to the astonishment of even his disciples, he came back from the dead. Numeiri had Taha buried in an unmarked grave, fearful of any martyrdom cult. But I read that his disciples waited for him to return. He did not. He is dead. Are his ideas?

Allahu a’alam.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 296 27 March 2008

The Pope and the King

Throne and altar. A hallowed alliance thought to be defunct. Killed off – or rather, drowned in blood – by the French revolution. But now resurrected, wonder of all wonders, thanks to Saudi King Abdullah and Benedict XVI. My nice local paper, The Gulf Times, reveals how, when Pope and King met months ago, they discussed an interfaith project of ‘ways to safeguard humanity.’ Abdullah praises ‘a meeting I will not forget, a meeting of a human being with another.’

Al Hamdulillah! It would be mean of me to observe that he could hardly have said less. Instead, it was generous of the Saudi ruler. Especially after the Holy Father’s ill-starred Regensburg speech. And those nutters in his own kingdom who scream that religious dialogue leads to the abrogation of Islam and the creation of one world religion. Guess the head of the house of Saud is far-sighted. He acknowledges not only the need for dialogue but also that the two faiths have common goals. So he rightly blasts ‘the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world - a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish.’ Huh! With that tough message, should the eternal Bin Laden ever succeed in subverting Arabia and exiling the King, Abdullah could easily get himself a job as preacher in an evangelical parish in the Midlands, believe you me.

Still, as himself a former atheist (folies de jeunesse, je jure!), the priest won’t damn the poor sods too much. Theoretical atheism is largely a bolshie adolescent’s posture. With The Necessity of Atheism the young poet Shelley fancied he was shaking the foundations of society, instead Oxford University simply sent him down. His pamphlet reads like an ill-digested, pretentious undergraduate’s essay, a queer melange of Humean scepticism and Spinozistic mysticism. In the final section, Shelley decries belief in post-mortem survival. I wonder what our poet is thinking of that where he is now, if he has not perished…

There is, however, another kind of atheism. I’ll call it a moral one. That exemplified by Ivan, he of that tremendous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan does not, strictly speaking, deny that there is a God. He just wants to have nothing to do with him and ‘returns him the ticket’. Why? Because of innocent children’s suffering. A God who allows something so atrocious to happen is a deity Ivan Karamazov will not have any tracks with. A sentimental, mushy argument! Why should the torments inflicted on helpless old people in some sadistic ‘home’ be less theologically harrowing than those of kids? But Ivan’s reaction is morally cogent in relation to the general problem of evil. Why does a God of love allow the innocent to suffer? Christians still have to wrestle with that. Leibnitz’s rationalistic, clever theodicy does not quite satisfy. Islamic theology is, I believe, harder on this subject. Innocent suffering seems to bother it less. Wonder why? Iskander, shaqiqi, any thoughts? (One of my sharpest, relentless readers, folks!)

A third type of atheism, very obnoxious, is a state or political one. China of course swears there is no religious persecution there but that is untrue, as any Falung Gong practitioner will aver. Moreover, both the persecution of Islam in Chinese Turkestan and the repression of culture and religion in Tibet speak volumes about the evil nature of Chinese communism. A true hero of our time is the Dalai Lama, a profoundly spiritual and non-violent leader. We must certainly include Buddhism in the wider religious dialogue. A faith I once flirted with, via Zen. I still believe Christ and Buddha have a lot in common, yep. China may mean big and lucrative business for the West but rubbish on that! I’ll be the first to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games. Athletes should not run on victims’ blood.

So, it is good to talk & to act together, whenever possible. But serious confusions exist. The 130 Islamic scholars who wrote to the Pope, urging dialogue, claiming that the peace and future of the world could depend on that, meant well. They instanced trust in only one God and caring for one’s neighbour as key common beliefs. Goody. But don’t the scholars understand that the influence of the Catholic Church, or indeed any other church, on Western policymakers is virtually nil? The Holy Father can preach against wars but he can stop none. Why do they persist in mixing up the West and Christianity? Back in Victorian times, being an Englishman was synonymous with being a Christian and state and church were in symbiosis. To day, sadly, the British Government is an infidel entity. Ditto, in practice, for all the major Western nations. Muslim spokesmen should get that into their heads and not make the Cross responsible for the sins of a godless secularism.

Which brings up another difficulty. The separation between Church and state in the West, one of our biggest unholy cows. King Abdullah, the unelected ruler of a theocracy, may find that a tad difficult to comprehend but, alas, it’s a fact. The ways of Providence, however, are wondrous, as well as infinite. In bringing the Church to such a pass in Europe, maybe God has given us a window of opportunity. In the past the Church could count on the coercive power of the state to back it up. None of that obtains today. Christians can only rely on the Word of God, the Gospel, and can only employ the powers of love, persuasion and good works. Surely all that is better, because much closer to the Founder’s teaching and practice. Saudi Arabia is different. Sigh...the religious cops may come along at prayer times and enforce observance by escorting people to the mosque even if they do not wish to go. That to me shows not a religion’s strength but its weakness. At least European secular society – I speak as its fiercest foe – still allows for the exercise of man’s freedom, the greatest of God’s gifts to us.

On YouTube you can watch the King giving Benedict the gift of a diamond-encrusted sword. I think I heard the Pope exclaiming ‘St Paul’s!’ No doubt a reference to Ephesians 6:17 - the sword meaning ‘the word of God’. Let it be the best of all weapons.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 297 4 April 2008

Fitna

Trouble and strife indeed. Fitna, the short film in Dutch by Geert Wilders physically hurt my eyeballs, like a video nasty would. Some of it is so harrowing, I had to cry. An attack on the Qur’an and the Prophet, no doubt. Implicitly, however, Wilders provokes deep and hard questions for strong believers of any faith, including myself.

Happy shall be he that takes and dashes your little ones against the stones’ sings Psalm 137. The children of the Edomites, a kindred race of the Hebrews yet loathed by them, are meant. And, should you ever desire a warrant for genocide at God’s behest, just peruse the Book of Joshua, chapters one to ten and have your fill. However, hypothetical Mr & Mrs Cohen, of London’s Golders Green, do NOT go about gleefully praising those verses and even less urging their imitation. Ditto for the overwhelming majority of Jews. And I hardly need to state that Hebrew scholars do not interpret such passages literally. Indeed, Christian writers like St Augustine and Origen held that OT conflicts are symbolic of wars of virtue against vice. Christians certainly should understand them spiritually, not militarily.

The NT Book of Revelation looks more challenging. Its cosmic scenario of strife between good and evil, culminating in the final battle of Armageddon, has been injudiciously invoked to buttress some human conflicts. Such as the now defunct confrontation between the Soviets and the West. Way back the priest protested against that lethal misuse of a holy text. To justify being willing to nuke millions of Russian civilians. I pointed out the key actors of Revelation are God and his angels, not the CIA or the SAS. The righteous suffer innocently. They do not go about cutting off the wicked’s heads. The mysteries of the book are indeed profound and still await full unravelling. St John’s vision is perennially valid. So Revelation has much to teach humanity. Because its pages are suffused with God’s breath. It does not enjoin killing but forbearance.

Jesus’ message is one of peace. That did not stop philosopher Bertrand Russell from penning ‘Why I am not a Christian’. The Messiah’s blasting of an unfruitful fig-tree and his sending demons into a herd of swine which then rushed into the sea and perished would indicate he was not a nice guy. Huh! While bowing before Russell’s high logical and mathematical mind, I must grin at his religious exegesis. Wittgenstein was right when he sniggered, apropos such popular scribbling, that ‘these days Russell is not going to kill himself doing philosophy’. Bertie was a non-conformist, yet I surmise he judged Christ by the standards of a liberal Anglican vicar, with all his feebleness and stupidity. Jesus of Nazareth was made of sterner stuff. By the way, at some stage in his dotage, Russell actually advocated using the atom bomb on the Rousskies. Definitely not nice, that one!

Adumbrating these matters with Sergei, a snazzy German lawyer, in a café in Doha’s fashionable Villaggio (an apotheosis of kitsch globalisation), he brusquely challenged me: ‘All very well, Father. But you are beating about the bush. Fitna is about Islamic violence, not Jewish or Christian. Where do you stand on that? Or do you just enjoy pandering to Muslims?’

Wallahi! Plain speaking, eh? Just to go on pandering. Fitna has an imam attacking liberalism and democracy as Western ideas. He was right. Indeed they are. Europeans have enthroned them in the place of the God of their fathers – a God whose very name our shabby politicians are ashamed even to mention. But, intellectually speaking, there is nothing self-evidently true or eternal about such concepts. And they represent only a strand of Western thought, though one currently all-powerful. What is more, the fruits of liberalism and democracy are not uncontroversial. The invasions of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both flagrantly illegal and immoral acts, have been waged in the name of liberal democracy. NATO troops fight and rain bombs there everyday for, they say, democracy. And liberal Britain, the modern cradle of this gaff, and party political-crazy Italy, the countries I know best, are a mess. Soaring crime, drugs, abortion, alienation, rootlessness, immorality, religion in sharp decline, family in pieces, illegal immigration, youth adrift…geddit? Maybe it is time for those who think, and who are men and not mice, to put their heads together and to study whether a better system to manage society may not be at all conceivable – and desirable.

Fitna also extrapolates ‘hard verses’ from the Qur’an and links them with violent and repugnant deeds, like 9/11, the beheading of hostages and so on. Extremist preachers and desperate men are portrayed as if they represented over a billion Muslims. Wilders has gone over the top there, and deliberately. He may well have wished for large-scale violence to follow, to validate his point. He knows there are thriving Islamic and ‘Islamist’ movements in the West, from Turkey to Egypt, that worry Western people and media and politicians alike. So much so the latter have all rushed, like Gadarene swine, to defend Islam against Fitna. With friends like those, Muslims do not need enemies…

As to holy but hard verses. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells somewhere of a discussion he had with a very strict Orthodox rabbi over a passage in I Samuel 15:8-23. The prophet Samuel tells King Saul God commands him to wage war on the Amalekites. To utterly destroy them: men, women, children, infants, animals, the lot. That Saul does. He massacres the enemy. He only spares the leader, King Agag, plus some juicy animals. But Samuel hears God telling him he is angry with Saul, because the king has disobeyed him in not slaughtering everything and everybody. So Saul repents and, when Agag comes to Samuel, trusting in mercy, the Bible says: ‘Samuel hewed Agag into pieces before the Lord in Gilgal’.

After much soul-searching and inward struggle, Buber relates, he told the wise rabbi he could not believe God had really dictated that awful action.

‘You don’t believe that?’ countered the venerable old man, with deep voice and terrible eyes. ‘What do you believe then?’

Again Buber hesitated, struggled with himself and spoke eventually: ‘I believe Samuel had misunderstood God’s will.’

The rabbi looked him in silence for a while. Then he spoke, quietly: ‘I believe that, too.’

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 299 17 April 2008

I have not sinned enough

Non ho peccato abbastanza. ‘I have not sinned enough’. Wallahi! A sentence to make you sit up. Worry not, it’s only poetry. The title of a stirring anthology of contemporary female Arab poets. Pleasingly rendered into Italian by orientalist Valentina Colombo.

‘I have not sinned enough’. Thus sings Lebanese Joumana Haddad. Her poem, Lilith’s Return, is wickedly droll. Lilith was originally a female fiend haunting desert places. (Isaiah 34:14, King James Version, renders her name quaintly as ‘the screech owl’!) Later in rabbinical lore she became the woman who deceived Adam. Haddad has her boasting of being ‘the dissolute angel, Adam’s aboriginal mare, seductress of Satan’. Her sexuality insatiable, she thrives on transgression. A supposed symbol of female liberation and a skilful manipulator of her lovers, Lilith voices a freedom independent of men’s desires – and of divine laws, I should add, but then demons are prone to do that, anyway.

‘I have not sinned enough’. Has Haddad ever heard of Carpocrates? Who he? An ancient heresiarch. Based in Alexandria of Egypt, the famed city founded by Alexander the Great, a celebrated seat of culture and learning, where East met West. There Carpocrates flourished, during the second century AD. Teaching an abominable and stupid ethics. Bet Lilith would have thoroughly approved of it. You see, Carpocrates got it into his head that the more sin, the more grace, the more salvation. So he set out to break all the 613 precepts and prohibitions of the Torah. Just think about it: from bestiality to marrying his sister, from tale-bearing to gorging oneself on swine’s flesh. It must have been quite a chore. However, at last having run through the whole sorry list, the fool must have smugly said to himself: ‘All right, I have sinned enough.’ Doubt he quite enjoyed the final reward, though.

Sexual frustration seems to be one running thread through many verses. So the Egyptian Iman Mersal reproaches her lover. ‘You made me believe the world is like a girls’ school and that I should extinguish my desires, so to be the teacher’s darling.’ And she makes it clear she won’t. Her poem evokes violent fights with the male. A bit melodramatically, she threatens suicide but she ends up telling him: ‘You must die before me – the death of loved ones is a great chance to consider finding

replacements.’ A novel thought, no doubt.

Another rebellious voice is Saudi Fawzya Abu Khalid. ‘I have torn up my past heritage, uprooted the trees of my tribe, embraced the freedom of outlaws’. And she inveighs against the man who is nothing more than ‘the Sultan’s messenger, a pimp who extols the merits of the fruits of the Fertile Crescent’. Such lyric anger displeased the Saudi authorities. They did not appreciate her giving public readings, so allowing ‘strangers to listen to her voice’. Gosh, I can imagine worse sins than that.

Subversive feeling is partly allied to technical revolution. Arab poetry goes back to pre-Islamic times. Rhythms and metre were governed by strict, unchanging formal rules. But in1949 Iraqi poetess Nazik al-Mala’ika broke away from traditions, advocating free verse. And she tackled head on the hardest question. Arabic being a sacred language, the speech of the divinity, that of the supernatural author of the Qur’an, any critique of its grammar could be problematical. Yet she accused Arabic of being the language of a people who ‘do not value women’. Proof? Arabic grammar prioritises the masculine gender over the feminine. Also, the Arabic word for ‘illiterate’ ummiya, comes from umm, mother. Etymological argument – tricky.

In the entertaining War labours a lot, another poetess, Dunya Mikhail, shows herself refreshingly free from the stock pacifist language de riguer about military strife. Instead, she goes in for irony. And enumerates warfare’s hard-working deeds:

‘War – how serious – how active – how able…war is unstoppable, night and day. It inspires tyrants’ long speeches, bestows medals on generals and subjects to poets…war works hard, it has no equals, but nobody praises it.’ Delightful, isn’t it?

I have not sinned enough makes for pleasurable reading. I mean this as a compliment. The priest is a hedonistic reader. He only reads what he enjoys. And much of this poetry strikes him as both good and enjoyable. Form and content often combine in a harmonious whole. As to criticism. Some will say I have the wrong glands to offer credible comment. Alas, I cannot help it. That said, I wonder whether it is self-evidently true that unbridled sexual freedom should be the summit of women’s aspirations. Islamists are saying that the infidel West is trying to use women as Trojan horses to penetrate into the sacred citadel of Islamic customs and mores, in order to undermine them from within. Sounds like the mirror image of the Western paranoia about young Muslim males in our midst being ready to become terrorists. Pious Muslims might well object that many of the women’s voices in this anthology are westernised, deracinated ones. Unrepresentative people, because alienated from their own culture. Or simply highbrow feminist viragos, incompetent to speak for millions and millions of ordinary Arab women. Normal women who would never wish to take harlot Lilith as a role model. Women whose chief, natural aspiration is to marry and form a family, have children and care for them. The notion that all that Arab females deeply desire is the freedom to have as many sexual encounters as possible is false. A fantasy. It is a projection of the decadent mores and disvalues affecting most men and women in secular western societies. A Satanic construct. Hence one to condemn and reject outright. Thus speaks my hypothetical critic.

I have not sinned enough. A haunting title. Because, let us face it, sin attracts human nature. There would have not been any need for Moses to bring down the Ten Commandments from the holy mountain, had sin been per se unappealing. And, as the parable of the Prodigal Son teaches, especially the young are all too liable to err in that direction. But beware! Whether our Zeitgeist likes it or not, sin must be resisted and defeated. Hence the words of the Apostle still stand as a warning to all: the wages of sin is death.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 279

30 October 2007

The Father of Europe

In 802 AD a curious gift reached the Christian West from the Muslim East. An elephant. Sent by Caliph Haroun Ar-Rashid to Emperor Charlemagne. An event so curious that some thought it apocryphal. “Possibly it never happened”, wrote literary magus Jorge Luis Borges. That in the Middle Ages such a mighty beast could travel from the famed city of Baghdad all the way to the capital of the kingdom of the Franks, Aachen, in Germany, seemed merely legendary. Stuff from the Thousand and One Nights, in other words.

Actually, Borges was unduly sceptical. The story is true. The elephant did come all the way from the Orient to the Occident. We even know his name, Abu el-Abbas. Charlemagne gratefully received him, reciprocating with gifts for Haroun. Abu el-Abbas lived on in Europe until 810, when he died at Lippenham, in Westphalia. Insh’allah, his sojourn was a happy one.

Last week, ambling through the lively streets of the modern city of Aachen, the priest found himself meditating on Kaiser Karl der Grosse, aka Charlemagne. Not a difficult feat, as the emperor’s presence is ubiquitous there. Temptation to interview him was irresistible. I succumbed to it.

Your Majesty, your empire extended from the Pyrenees in the West to the Elbe and the Danube in the East. Nearly the whole of Christendom at the time. The epic Chanson de Roland sings of your military foray into Spain. You and your heroic paladins fighting the Moors. Happy with that?

Remember that I spoke a German dialect, so I could never read the Chanson. I crossed the Pyrenees because three Arab emirs, at war with the Caliph of Cordoba, had asked my help. I drove my enemies across the Ebro but failed to take Saragossa. On the way back, my rearguard and Count Roland were treacherously slain at Roncesvalles by wild Basque tribesmen. A worthless race, whose only achievement in history has been to milk cows. Despicable bunch. Not even worth soiling my sword with their low blood.

Ahem…a bit non-PC but let’s let it pass. You are obviously a man of your time…

A man of all times, you mean, priest. And an emperor for all seasons. Today you talk of Europe a lot. I like that. I was the first European. All right, I had to do a bit of killing in the process. Smash the pagan Saxons, for example. But I don’t see how you can condemn me for that. My Saxon wars were fought in self-defence. And for the Faith. There was no booty to grab. Your America and Britain, supposedly ‘democratic’ and secular, blather on about human rights and altruism. But you send armies to invade countries as faraway as Afghanistan and oil-rich Iraq, which hardly threaten you. We fought the enemy like soldiers, face to face and sword against sword, whilst your ‘civilised’ lot majors on raining monster bombs and missiles on primitive foes safely from a distance. And I personally engaged in combat, along with my men. I have not heard of your leaders – what are their funny names? - Bush and Blair, risking their skin in Basra or Helmand province.

Touché’, Your Majesty. Better to move on. Your relationship with the Church. You were quite a pious monarch, they say.

A Christian one, certainly. I won’t apologise for that. We Franks had embraced the Faith since the days of King Clovis. That made us true citizens of a universal city, both earthly and spiritual. No longer barbarians out of primeval forests but children of both Rome and Jerusalem. I always believed the temporal and the spiritual must go hand in hand, united, like the soul with the body. Aristotle says that the highest life is that of the intellect. Reason should rule. Had that fountain of all wisdom been a Christian, he would also have added faith. Politics works out best with Church and State conjoined. When St Paul in Romans writes that ‘all power is from God’, his words apply most perfectly to the polity I established. That is why I was happy to have Pope Leo crown me Emperor at Rome in AD 800. In God’s name I become ruler of a restored Roman empire. So I swore to be the protector of the Church – as it ought to be, surely. Isn’t your Britain today ruled by a monarch who bears the official title of ‘Defender of the Faith’?

Er…yes. But can’t imagine the Queen going to war to spread Anglicanism, or to defend the Archbishop of Canterbury. By the way, why did you override the authority of Byzantium? There was already a roman emperor in Constantinople, no?

Indeed. That meddling female, Irene. She was a usurper, because she called herself not empress but emperor. And no woman can be that, anymore than a woman can be a priest. So the throne was vacant. What! You think I am a misogynist? No way. I loved my daughters so much, I kept them always by my side, as everybody knows.

Interesting views, Sire. So you really claim to be the Father of Europe?

Priest, consider my name, Charles. In all the Slav languages, and in Hungarian, it has become the name for ‘king’. Carol, Kital, Kral. That must be significant. I, Charlemagne, am forever Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great. My empire was German, Roman and Christian at the same time. Fine fusion of religion and cultures. The good Saxon from York, Alcuin, implementing by enlightened cultural policies. ‘Education, education, education’ was my slogan. And I got on ever so well with the Jews. And with the Muslim Empire. I sent Haroun ar-Rashid fine hunting dogs in return for his elephant. I could go on…

If God wills it, I will.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 280 6 November 2007

The Bomb

‘There is no morality in war’. I saw a small, prune-faced oldster growl that out on telly, last week. Fellow called Paul Tibbets. Aged 92, he had just kicked the bucket. But who he? Of course, the US B29 pilot who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Huh! He would say that, wouldn’t he?

80.000 Japanese instantly died, or were badly wounded by ‘Little Boy’ – the bomb’s nickname. A temperature of over 5000 degrees F. raged where Little Boy did its nice job. Plenty of blackened and charred bodies long littered the streets and the ruins. Three days later, another A-bomb hit the city of Nagasaki. 40.000 people were incinerated. Kyoto had been mooted as a target, but the American War Secretary, Henry Stimson, obviously was a cultured man. Did not like to destroy a historical city. Jolly considerate of him. Being civilised really is a wonderful thing.

In a subsequent communiqué Stimson stated that the bombs had been dropped to shorten the war, thereby saving many lives. However, he also let slip reference to the Japanese’s beatings and torturing of US prisoners. Frank but unwise. Because it suggests that the motive behind the attack was not exclusively ‘humanitarian’, or even utilitarian. Hence it marred the given rationale a bit. Desire for revenge may well be inherent in our fallen humanity. Even rational, perhaps, but a humane or moral instinct certainly it is not.

‘There is no morality in war.’ Yet Tibbets also justified his atomic warfare with the standard ‘saving lives’ argument. Was he aware of the contradiction? To advance the saving of human lives as a reason for destroying many others is a moral argument – what else? Whose lives did he mean? His fellow Americans’, exclusively, or did he include Japanese lives? Those of the innocent civilians, particularly? Or did he think, immorally, they did not count? But I imagine he’d shrug his shoulders at these finicky questions. Orders must be obeyed. That’s what soldiering is all about, isn’t it? Only wonder why that did not apply to some of the Nuremberg trial defendants…

Tibbets claimed he never lost a night’s sleep over the raid. Maybe that’s just as well. Would it help or console the dead, the maimed and the radioactively-contaminated survivors to know that Little Boy’s pilot had spent sleepless nights thinking about them? It may be different with the Supreme Judge, however. Like the rest of us, Tibbets is called to render an account. The outcome, of course, lies beyond human ken.

‘There is no morality in war.’ Kind of reminiscent of General Sherman’s often-quoted ‘war is hell’. Fascinating utterance. For its theological ignorance. Did Sherman ever realise that, whatever punishment the souls of the damned may suffer (and, mind, as a German mystic wrote, ‘nothing burns in hell, except the ego’), it is inflicted according to the strictest, indeed the highest justice? Thus, contrary to Sherman’s intended meaning, there is justice in hell. Justice is what fashioned hellfire (again, mind, not at all like gas fire!) and justice is what apportions condign punishment in the infernal regions. To the guilty ones. War, on the other hand, as waged by men, is a singularly inept instrument for effecting justice. That is so because often those who suffer the most in war are the innocent.

‘There is no morality in war.’ A lawless remark. Words that militate not solely against the idea of restraints in fighting – churchy stuff the tough-minded can easily dismiss – but also against the ancient law of nations and indeed modern international law. Quite wrong, in fact. As Tibbets might have learnt, had Japan won the war. He might have found himself arraigned before a tribunal for war crimes. Or he might not. The conduct of the Japanese armies in China was horrific, granted. And Japan at Pearl Harbour had attacked first. But two wrongs do not make a right. Otherwise, what would remain of the lofty, ethical ‘superiority’ of the West?

‘Saving lives’. In itself, a commendable aim. But can you trade human lives for human lives? In bulk, like sheep or potatoes? Hmmm… I am told there is a ban on that in Jewish law. However, halacha, casuistry based on the Talmud, states that ransom can be paid to free prisoners from captivity. So, Israeli religious parties support the Government’s exchange of prisoners, even if it means dealing with Israel’s deadly enemies, like Hezbollah and Hamas. What view the learned rabbis would take on an actual, massive ‘body trade’, I haven’t a clue. Must ask my friend, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, when we discuss Family of Abraham issues on Al-Mustaqillah TV, soon on the 15th.

The Christian view is clear, however. Those who do evil so that good may come deserve condemnation, as St Paul teaches in Romans (3:8). Hence no good end can justify an evil means, pace the cynical and failed Florentine politician, Machiavelli. The deliberate, intentional and direct targeting of innocent non-combatants in war – no matter if the war itself is a just one – is morally illicit. And that regardless of any presumed utilitarian calculus. The medieval Church wisely saw warfare as a Grenzmoral – a painful case, poised on the edge between the moral and the immoral. Hence it tried to put up barriers and limits as to the harm that it was done. Some classes of persons were considered immune or exempt from fighting (like bishops! The priest would put them right on the frontline!), and truce was enforced at certain seasons. What the Church could not do of course was to eliminate the human drives towards aggression and violence. Another Flood would be needed for that.

‘There is no morality in war.’ Did poor Tibbets ever realise what a diabolical statement that is? Were that the case, no believing soldier could fight without sinning. The extermination of the innocent would be OK. Notions like bravery, loyalty, honour and patriotism would be either meaningless or intrinsically evil. Some of the most admired Christian heroes, from St Charlemagne (a sop to my friend Werner…) to Wellington, would be merely butchers…and so on.

‘There is no morality in war.” Verily, Satan would say that.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 282 21 November 2007

Labours of Hercules

My latest appearance on Al-Mustaqillah Pan-Arab TV, the ‘Family of Abraham’ programme, has led me to revisit Greek mythology. I mean the figure of the strongest man ever, the superhero Hercules. And his celebrated twelve labours.

It is like this. In a fit of madness, Hercules has slain his own family. To do penance, the Delphi oracle orders him to go to King Eurystheus and be his slave. The King, in league with Hercules’ sworn enemy, the goddess Hera, thinks up some twelve fiendish tasks. And each one well-nigh impossible. The famous Twelve Labours of Hercules.

1. To kill the lion of Nemea. A beast no weapon could harm. Tricky, eh? No matter. Hercules just strangles it with his bare hands.

2. To dispose of the Hydra of Lerna. A swamp monster with nine heads, one of them deathless and the others, as soon as cut off, each sprouting up two more. (An incubus of geometric progression!) Not a pet you’d like to have about the house. But our hero enlists his nephew with a burning torch to sear each neck after he has chopped the head off - the Hydra cannot not grow them again. And the immortal head? Easy. Hercules just buries deeply under a huge rock. (Must still be there, I guess. And mighty bored.)

3. To capture a wondrous, golden-horned stag, sacred to Artemis. Hercules could kill it in a jiffy, of course, but the creature is wanted alive. It takes the hero a whole year to do that.

4. To get a huge, lethal boar, living on Mount Ereymanthus. Hercules hunts it for ages from lair to lair, until the brute is worn out. And so easily taken.

5. Now a simile part of the English language, the Augean Stables contains thousands and thousands of cattle. Shocking! For years no one has cleaned them. In one day poor Hercules has to do it! Thank God, apart from brawn he also has brains. He turns the course of two rivers, causing them to rush through the stables. It washes away the muck jolly quickly.

6. The people of a place called Stymphalus are pestered by countless pesky birds. Ahem, maybe it isn’t fair but the goddess Athena helps a bit. She scares them out of their nests and Hercules then shoots the lot.

7. This labour entails a trip to Crete. To seize some beautiful savage bull. A gift from the sea-god Poseidon to King Minos. All right, it isn’t as bad as fighting the Minotaur, yet it is a Herculean task OK and the hero is victorious.

8. King Diomedes of Thrace owes much-feared man-eating mares. To get them, Hercules first takes out Diomedes and then he ensnares the nightmarish mares. A trifle.

9. To bring back the girdle of Hyppolita, Queen of the man-hating Amazons. A complicated plot. And, groan, ungallant. Suffice it to say that Hercules slays the Queen, fights off the furious Amazons and makes off with the girdle.

10. There is an island with the cattle-owning Geryon, a monster with three bodies. On the way there, Hercules uproots two great rocks and sets them as mighty pillars in the sea, to commemorate his exploit. They are, of course, Gibraltar and Ceuta. And he completes his mission, too.

11. To bring back the golden apples of the Hesperides. ‘Take off the vault of Heaven from my shoulders and I’ll give you the apples’, promises Atlas, the Hesperides’ father. Hercules obliges but Atlas refuses to honour the bargain. ‘OK, but just take back the vault from me one moment, as I put pads on my shoulders’, wily Hercules suggests. Boy, isn’t Atlas dumb? He buys it. So Hercules walks off with the apples.

12. You ain’t heard nothing yet. A journey to Hades, no less. The underworld. From which no one has ever returned. Two tasks in one, actually. To free hero Theseus from the chair of forgetfulness and to bring back the hideous, three-headed hell-hound, Cerberus. The story again is complex but…yes! Hercules lifts up the wriggling monster and carries it up to King Eurystheus. Hurrah! The hero’s labours are over.

Well, you might dream up a thirteenth difficult task for our Hercules. Stopping global warming, maybe. Or turning the Sahara desert into a garden. Or getting our London Underground to run efficiently. Or, to plump for the hyper-impossible, to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict to the satisfaction of both. However, my own modest task arises out of satellite exchanges with a certain Dr Abdullah. From Saudi Arabia. The third panel member on the TV discussion mentioned above. You see, Dr Abdullah suffers from an unshakeable conviction. That ‘the West’ is out to attack Islam. He fired off battery after battery of sundry, disjointed and unrelated names and data: the Crusades (he would, wouldn’t he?), Dante, Voltaire, Renan, President Bush, the Danish cartoons, Pope Benedict…and so on. Despite my reasoned objections, like the Hydra he went on to sprout up new grievances. Not that I’d have wanted to treat him as Hercules dealt with the Hydra, of course…

Dr Abdullah seemed to live in a very one-dimensional, almost paranoid universe. One in which there is a universal conspiracy to get at him and his side – the Wahabi one, presumably. His discourse was monotonous, obsessive and inflexible. All the wrongs in history were on the other side and all the goodness and justice and right on his own. Totally Manichean. And this towards fellow Abrahamic believers! I felt a bit like a Jew might have felt, subjected to a tirade by a Jew-baiter like Julius Streicher. It was sad.

Saddest of all was Dr Abdullah’s incapacity to distinguish between ‘the West’ and Christianity. 200 years ago that equation might have had validity. Today no longer. ‘The West’ as such no more stands for Christ than for Zoroaster. Some Western quarters are anti-Islam, yes. But often the same forces are anti-Christianity, as well. It is the priest’s God-given (Herculean!) task to persuade good Muslims and good Christians to unite against the common foes of ‘Ahl al-Ibrahim’. Maybe a Hercules might manage to get that message into the thick head of some misguided monotheists, insh’allah without using his club.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 285 12 December 2007

Fifth Columns

In 1936, early in the Spanish Civil War, General Franco had five armies, or military columns, menacing the enemy government in Madrid. Four of them were converging on the capital from the outside but the fifth column was inside. They were Franco’s supporters, lurking within republican areas, waiting the right moment to strike at los rojos. Fifth columnists, they were called. Three years later, Franco won.

According to a well-known British journalist, we have a fifth column in our midst. Muslim extremists – who else? So she wrote in a major tabloid newspaper not too long ago. Last week a speaker in a mosque, whilst fingering rabid Islamophobes, drew my attention to her. Well, call it sheer coincidence or Jungian synchronicity, next day I found myself in a media gathering that boasted that very lady’s presence. Blandly, I raised the issue: are fifth columnists really at work in this country? Interesting answer I got, only…it should be confidential – sorry!

History abounds in fifth columns, real or imagined. Centuries before the phrase got coined, Roman Catholics in Protestant England fitted the bill. When Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, ipso facto he absolved Catholic Englishmen from oaths of allegiance to their heretical Queen. With a clear conscience, they could conspire against her. For Protestants, that rendered any Catholic person potentially disloyal, a traitor. Indeed, numerous foiled plots against Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs involved Catholics. QED. In consequence, Catholics in England had to suffer much persecution and discrimination ever since. Even today, the fires and frenzies of the Reformation totally banked, if Prince William married a Catholic girl, he would forfeit his right to the British throne. Isn’t that crazy?

The Armenians too were branded fifth columnists by the Young Turks during WWI. ‘This alien Christian race is in collusion with the Russians. Want to stab us in the back’, the decadent Ottomans claimed. Despite the fact that Armenians have served under the Sultans for hundreds of years. In military capacity too, e.g. as sappers at the siege of Vienna. The wholesale massacres of innocent Armenians quickly followed.

Japanese Americans suffered not so horrifically in WWII but the US authorities saw them as potential pawns of the Rising Sun in America. So they were herded into concentration camps. When the Soviet Union still held sway, and the red menace loomed, comrade Krushchev truculently warned the capitalist West: ‘We shall bury you!’ (Not much of a prophet he.) Communists and their sympathisers in ‘the free world’ were deemed quintessential fifth columns. Mind you, Soviet agents and spies and fellow travellers did not exist only in Senator McCarthy’s fertile brain. There actually were people like that. Besides, consider this counterfactual: if the Russian tanks had ever swept into France and Italy, to set up people’s republics, on whose side would local communists have fought?

Well and good. But let’s get a bit analytical about this thing. Franco’s fifth columnists lay murkily hidden. What made them dangerous, however, was their link with el Generalissimo’s other four columns, plus Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. (The Republicans had Stalin, of course.) Our native, aspiring jihadists, by contrast, who can they count on? The al-Qaeda column? Maybe it exists. Now and again, it causes real havoc with its nasty suicide bombings and low-tech shenanigans. And big casualties. But its chances to topple the mega-armies and gigantic, sophisticated police and security machineries of the West are actually less than zero. 9/11 and 7/7 were directed against the innocent and so they were atrocious and despicable acts. But they never came anywhere near destroying the States involved. And please, do not muddy the waters by bringing in Iran, the nuclear threat and that kind of garbage. The Shia State has as much love for Sunni al-Qaeda as Bush does. True, the Shia support liberation movements OK. I doubt, though, that Iran is behind the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru or the Free Alaska Eskimo faction. Part of a loose, worldwide guerrilla force our home-bread radicals may well consider themselves to be – lethal fifth columnists, posing a threat to our very survival, they are not.

Don’t relax, yet. A fifth column may be real, after all. A malignant cabal, a spiteful spider that wishes to destroy Britain, yep. A hundred times more damaging than the Luftwaffe was. But where is it? Here is my surprise candidate. It’s called the British Government. An internal ‘column’ in active collusion with malevolent external columns. Called the EU. You see, controlling the social policy of its member states, the EU has gradually eroded and undermined key religious and ethical values. For instance, the ideal of the family based on the New Testament. Cohabitation and same-sex partnerships have become the legal equivalent of marriage. Divorce is almost the norm. Abortion and contraception are palmed off as ‘reproductive rights’. Under the banner of obsessively repeated shibboleths, talisman-like slogans like ‘equality’ and ‘anti-discrimination’, the British Government gleefully works in tandem with the EU gang to dismantle the core values constitutive of the very fabric of British society.

A dire state of affairs. And a challenge, for Christians especially. From the beginning, we Nazarenes had to object to certain pagan practices of the Roman Empire. Abortion, infanticide, human fighting in the arena, sacrificing to the deified emperor and so on. To the extent of suffering martyrdom. Of course, Christian resistance to paganism was not violent – that is the significant, qualitative difference with today’s men of violence. Christians were peaceful fifth-columnists. The weapons they fought with were spiritual. As St Paul lists them: ‘the shield of faith’, ‘the breastplate of righteousness’, ‘the helmet of salvation’ and ‘the sword of the spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13-17). With same unbloody weapons the Church – the true, visible and invisible Church of Jesus Christ – must fight today. In concert with innumerable other columns: those of the angelic hosts in Heaven.

So, it turns out that I myself am a fifth-columnist. Amazing! You know what? I am going to enjoy it.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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Father Frank’s Rants

Rant Number 286 18 December 2007

A Gnostic Golden Compass

Two stars contend for the viewer’s attention in the movie The Golden Compass. Nicole Kidman as the ambiguous Ms. Coulter has oodles of sex appeal. Ravishing enough to stir up tumult in any man’s loins. The other is the heroine proper. 12 year old Lyra, played by Dakota Somebody. A pretty lass and a no mean budding actress. Still, something bothers me about her acting. That hardness about her eyes. The constant, scornful frown. A spiteful little mouth and mien. Why does she scowl so much, like a spoilt or disturbed brat about to throw a tantrum? A suitable case for child psychiatry. Hmmm… director's directions apart, lovely Dakota must have wanted to act like that. Why? Elizabeth John in The Shia Newspaper to me suggests an answer. The media, she argues, have “influenced the minds of girls and produced today’s confused generation of women filled with masculine notions of violence and challenge, rather than easing the pain of the world by their delicateness, compassion and motherhood. Instead of living her femininity, the young woman of today is engaged in fierce battles with rough men”. Thus speaks a Muslim woman – don’t stone the poor priest, please!

Not just big, rough blokes Lyra takes on. Her greater fight is against the malevolent ‘Magisterium’. A child-stealing male mafia intent on robbing human beings of their souls and free-will, to subject them to the blind authority. It ‘works by telling people what to do’. Writer Philip Pullman is gunning for the Christian Church, surprise, surprise…

The Magisterium hates science. So it attempts to poison Lyra’s uncle, scientist and explorer, Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel. (Sporting a particularly nasty-looking, spiky beard.) To stop him from investigating some wondrous cosmic dust that gives access to other worlds. Funny how my mind runs back to another, all too real scientist. Dr James Watson got the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. But last October this eminent scientist was suspended for his research laboratory. The Science Museum in London cancelled his lecture. Hysterical voices asked for his prosecution. Fanatics threatened demonstrations against him. So Dr Watson issued a public, grovelling recantation. (Shades of Galileo before the Inquisition!) The Magisterium’s long hand, surely? Actually the illustrious scientist’s sin had not been against God. His comments had been about race and intelligence. Taboo subjects. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe blacks are superior to whites, who knows? Science should decide. The point is that the new Inquisition, the sinister despisers of knowledge and reason today aren’t always or necessarily religious. Mr Pullman, take note, on the doubtful assumption you give a damn for truth.

Truth matters because the Golden Compass of the title is an Alethiometer. (Aletheia: the Greek word for ‘verity’.) A magic truth-telling device, looking rather like a snuffbox. It infallibly helps Lyra in her quest. Pity the A-meter fails to tell her about the true Christian take on freewill. Far from wishing to take freedom away from us, the Church teaches that: 1) freedom is a gift from God; 2) man was created free; 3) freedom is the real possibility to choose between good and evil; 4) men have a right to exercise this freedom; 5) freedom makes human agents real moral subjects. As St Irenaeus of Lyon put it long ago: “Man…is created with free will and therefore master over his acts.”

I confess it: much of the above comes from ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’. Admittedly, Reformers like Luther and Calvin were a tad less glowing on human freedom. As at least half a Protestant, I take their point. But Pullman is attacking Rome, not Geneva. Hence, if he really believes that Catholicism condemns freewill, he is an ignoramus – full stop.

Besides, the Alethiometer might have informed the author about a fashionable and influential determinist anthropology. From troglodyte Marxists to the limp, moaning Left of our time. If anyone seeks to undermine human freewill, it’s that lot. Whenever they claim that someone was forced to steal, maim or murder ‘because society is unjust and the way he was brought up and he had no choice but to be a criminal and blah, blah, blah’, they implicitly make a mockery of our freedom. The most precious of God’s gifts. The most resounding moral J’accuse is what such people deserve. Because they slander and degrade human dignity. Maybe next time morose young Lyra should throw a tantrum or two in that direction.

The movie has its (few) moments. The hilarious whisky-swilling, talkative armoured bear is one. The rumbustious, shaggy and Yiddish-looking ‘Gyptians’ could have been lifted from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. But my absolute favourite is the big-moustachioed, cum-Texas-drawl cow-boy aeronaut Sam Eliott. A scream! And the proof the wonderful myth of the Wild West still rides on OK, never mind if on an improbable dirigible in this ramshackle fantasy world.

The Golden Compass smells of Gnosticism. That ragbag of pseudo-spiritual ideas and doctrines proliferating in the early centuries AD. The Creator of our human universe, Gnostic Marcion held, was neither omnipotent nor good. Rather, a second-rate, inferior deity. Similarly, Pullman sees the God of monotheism as a negative, spent, dying force. (Tell that to the millions of pilgrims now on Haj at Mecca, Phil!) Dupe Marcion set out to denigrate the Old Testament, too. I wonder whether Pullman realises his atheism implies anti-Semitism? Anyway, the Church told Marcion where to get off. As to the peculiar cosmic stuff sought by Lord Asriel, it echoes somewhat the particles of supernatural light some Gnostics believed to have been entombed in matter and human bodies. Even pesky little Lyra could be a distant transmutation of the fallen female wisdom of Simon Magus… And the ‘daemons’ that appear in animal forms too could have a counterpart in the Gnostic daimones – good and bad spirits of the air. But maybe what’s at play here is more primitive, like shamanism. Either way, the cute shape-shifting critters don’t amuse the priest at all. The human soul comes from God. It is infinitely noble, unique. I see why godless Pullman wishes to mingle it with animalism, of course. Old Nick’s hand, eh? But fear not, folks: Non Praevalebunt!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 287 3 January 2008

Dombey and Son

‘Papa! What’s money?’ asks pensive little Paul Dombey of his dad in Dickens’ great work, Dombey and Son.

Mr Dombey, a wealthy City man, is nonplussed. Pounds, shillings, gold, silver and copper – surely the familiar words will do? But, unpleased, the child insists: ‘What’s money after all? Papa, what can it do?’

‘Money, Paul, can do anything’ proclaims the adult, patting the child on the head.

‘Anything, papa?’

‘Yes, anything – almost’, says Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mamma?’ returns Paul, meaning the mother who died giving him birth.

A devastating question. But not quite enough to floor his capitalist dad. So Mr Dombey launches himself into a heartfelt, if pagan, paean to money. ‘Money causes us to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired and makes us powerful and glorious in the eyes of all men.’ All much desired attributes, no doubt. That is, desired by people like Paul’s father. Still, the man is at least honest. Note how his pompous list does not include the word ‘love’. Even a tragic figure like Dombey senior, obsessed with his firm, his male heir, his status and his power, realises that his money will never be able to buy him his little boy’s love. Indeed, nemesis awaits him at the novel’s end.

The priest read Dombey and Son over Christmas in Rome. Now, that’s a bit serendipitous. Because the Eternal City has a secret name. No kidding. ‘Rome’ was only the public, exoteric name of Rome. Ancient Roman writers like Pliny tell us that the city’s true name was hidden from the masses. Only a few chosen ones knew it, such as the High Priest of the state cult. Should an enemy have got intelligence of the mysterious word, Rome would have fallen. Hence, the penalty for such abominable betrayal was death. A certain Valerius Soranus, Pliny informs us, actually did the unthinkable act. He disclosed the Name to the uninitiated. A crime he paid for with his life.

What was that secret name? Sigh… nobody really knows. Because the secret was well kept. But, imagine I knew, dear reader. I would be faced with a dilemma. I am a Roman. And a priest. In a sense, I am connected with the ancient priesthood of my birthplace. So, if I were to blab out the secret name…how do I know the ancient curse would not fall on my head? Call me superstitious but, like Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once put it, it’s safer ‘fare le corna’ – namely, to do the old misfortune-averting gesture…

However, cheer up! Rome’s most secret name must remain hidden, yes, but a second best, not-so-secret name exists. And it can be revealed.

Consider Rome’s name in its proper Latin spelling. Roma. Now read it backwards. Amor. Love. Geddit?

Too simple, eh? Of course. That is why Amor cannot have been the mysterious, hidden name. Uncovering it would have been too easy. Amor is simple but…simplicity is the mark of truth, a useful Latin saying goes. And so I feel it is fitting I should have happened upon the wonderful passage from Dickens in the City of Love.

Love…yes, love. Not money, mind you. Nor sex. Those who equate the two are idiots. Because love and sex cannot be the same. If they were, love of country and love of music would mean sex with country and sex with music, which is nonsense. Whether they realise it or not, by doing so such people fall below the beasts. With apologies to the latter, which are at least innocent of good and evil. Also, Rome’s ancient emblem shows a she-wolf, so I have to be nice to animals! The Creator fashioned human beings in His image, to follow virtue and knowledge and love. Whenever they deviate from those, they soil and profane the Maker’s work, as well as fouling up their own nest.

Love. A simpleton’s hope for 2008? Probably. The media are full of violence, as usual, and those who can read the runes are not optimistic. But love is prescriptive, not descriptive. When Christ commands his disciples to love one another, and indeed our enemy, He is certainly not describing what is actually going on. Maybe Luther was right. There are two cities on earth, he claimed. One, composed of true Christians, true disciples of love, who follow the sublime prescriptions of the Gospel. The other city is people by a very different, nasty crowd. They are the children of Cain, the first murderer, he who slew his own innocent brother. St Augustine of Hippo, himself a proud Roman citizen, did not scruple to equate pagan Rome with the second city – hadn’t Romulus killed his brother Remus at the city’s very inception?

Luther, however, was too pessimistic. He gives no hint whether the citizens of the City of God might not go about converting the inhabitants of the wicked city to better ways. To win them over to the ways of Love. I submit that way is itsef….well, figure you’d divine it: Love.

Love, not money. Mr Dombey found that out too late. Only saints and hypocrites can afford to despise money, of course. Most of us need it and appreciate its advantages. But money ain’t enough. Money itself will not only not save us from death, it isn’t enough to keep us alive, either. Doomed little Paul is partly a vindication of that eternal truth. Indeed, even animals – snakes and insects excepted - will not prosper without an atmosphere of warmth and love. Unloved babies certainly don’t flourish at all…

After losing his beloved son, his firm and being forsaken by his second, unhappy wife, Mr Dombey seems damned. But Dickens believed in happy endings. Thanks to young Florence, the slighted and humiliated daughter, whose love has stayed steadfast despite her father’s many cruelties, he at last grasps the enormity of his inhuman selfishness and begs for forgiveness. Love has saved him.

Methinks the old, unfeeling Dombey lives on unredeemed, though. In the spirit of our stupid age. An age, a civilisation that teeters on the brink of an abyss. Does it stand a chance?

Yes. If it responds to Divine Love.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant 290 28 January 2008

Oxford and Islamic Prayer

AD 732, France. Momentous history is made. At the battle of Tours Charles Martel routs the invading Arab armies from the Umayyad caliphate. Had victory gone to the Muslims, ‘the interpretation of the Qur’an would be taught in the University of Oxford and her pulpits would teach Islam’ mused a thousand years later English historian Gibbon.

Huh! What would that great infidel say, I wonder, if he knew of the current proposal to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer from a mosque in East Oxford?

Well, the priest is now hearing the Muezzin’s voice five times a day. In Doha, Qatar, a little, finger-like peninsula that waggles gently out into the Arab Gulf. He is a visiting fellow at the Qatar Foundation – smart guy, eh? Looking out of his spacious flat’s windows, he can view the beige silhouettes of elegant minarets lancing up into the hazy sky. Guess there is no actual man up there crying out his pious summonses. These days the Muslim faithful listen to a pre-recorded message. The very first Muezzin of Islam, a black slave called Bilal, might not be quite fond of that, I figure, but…hadha hayat, c’est la vie.

The Oxford debate is raging. Newspapers carry letters pro & con. If Christians can ring their bells, why can’t Muslims cry out their prayers, one reasonably asks? But bells are just a signal, whilst the Muezzin is proclaiming an ideological message, counterattacks another. ‘Along with Chris Hitchens and Professor Dawkins, I might agree God is not great, but I wouldn’t wish to have it broadcast it outside my window five times a day’ insinuates an able dialectician, astutely muddling the issue. Then a Muslim spokesman states that their prayer calls would go out not five times every day of the week, but only three times on Friday. Whereupon the enemy exults – ‘Hurrah! Muslims are retreating, thanks to our opposition. Charles Martel, we have done it again!’ Presumably they know not how, according to tradition, Allah meant the prayer calls to be daily far more frequent. Only the intercession of the Prophet brought them down to the current five.

The cleverest critics eschew any reference to religion altogether. Because they fear being branded as intolerant. Instead, it is simply a matter of peace and quiet, they swear – and who’d object to that? The noise is what it’s all about. But bells are noisy OK, so why the asymmetry? When I was curate of St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, our bell ringers’ sonorous evening practice would make some locals grumpy indeed, I recall. And Muslims say they propose to go back to Bilal’s days – no amplification by loudspeaker – or will they? I am not sure but it won’t pacify the critics, you bet.

In Charles Martel’s days, you can guess where Christian clergy would have stood in this debate. However, times are a-changing. We are now ‘enlightened’. So the Anglican Bishop of Oxford backs the Muslims. A rare occasion to make himself relevant, as I surmise the chap is normally about as useful as a dog on a motorbike. Also, a certain Canon Partridge invites the opposition to enjoy the prayers’ beautiful classical Arabic. The priest approves of the Partridge being dovish – better a dove than a hawk, sure – but how many of the people of East Oxford – largely a working-class area - are conversant with al-Fusha – the language of the Qur’an, he asks himself? Please, dear reader, don’t take this amiss. I used to know a nice Anglo-Catholic vicar in East Oxford, Father Flatman. Not much appreciated by some of the local folks. ‘I even got spat upon’, he told me. ‘In fact, the nicest people to me are the Muslims.’ A remark I shall never forget. I imagine Father Flatman, were he still on this earth, would not mind the Muslim prayer one little bit, and that for good, spiritual reasons.

Anglicans aren’t the only ones to side with Islam. Some bloke from Blackfriars, the Roman Catholic Dominican house, also made approving noises. That is kind of encouraging, given that the good Dominicans of old might have reacted a wee bit differently. You see, they used to run the Inquisition.

Islamophobes of course are angered by the Bishop’s line. ‘He has betrayed us’, somebody lamented. Holy simplicity! As if anyone anymore took seriously most of the stooges sitting on the Bishops’ Bench as having anything to do with upholding Christ! I read in the Salisbury Review how stunned the Bishop of Bradford looked when someone suggested to him that he might be a ‘leader of Christianity’. He somehow found the idea shocking. I wholeheartedly agree. I would no more expect authentic Christian leadership from those mitred asses than I would from the useless King Log of Aesop’s fable. The sooner our faithful people realise that, and take condign action, the better.

I know a bit about Oxford. Because I trained for the Anglican priesthood at Cuddesdon Theological College, in its environs. Cuddesdon, huh! A college so damned wet and liberal that the word ‘sin’ was hardly ever mentioned by our ordained lecturers. Maybe just as well, as sin is something they and the students knew a lot about. Especially the unforgivable sin, that against the Holy Ghost. These days, by the way, I learn that three Muslims students from the famous Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo do a stint on an exchange at my old college. What they might learn there I do not wish to say…

There used to be another, better and greater Oxford. That of the Tractarians. Those pious and learned Anglican divines, who brought back devotion, liturgy and sacramental spirituality into the bloated and smug body of the late Hanoverian Church. A valiant band of goodly, scholarly priests, such as John Henry Newman, Pusey, Keble and Froude. The movement they initiated infused new life in the Church of England. But the devil (who else?) has been at work. A catastrophic failure of nerve has pervaded and taken over what used to be a fine Christian Church. Today in Oxford you will seek in vain for the spirit of the Tractarians. Instead, you’ll meet the wan, bloodless spirit of conformity to the ways of a stupid post-modernity. If the Muezzin’s voice stands against that, why not?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK'S RANTS

Rant Number 291 6 February 2008

Ash Wednesday in Doha

Lent last night began with a curious Ash Wednesday dream. The priest was wandering about the narrow lanes of an Eastern city. All around stood dizzingly tall towers. Of the oddest shape. Spiral-like, they mounted the sky, tapering towards the top, piercing the heavenly vault like daggers. ‘Like Towers of Babel’, I think I thought. Outsize Arab calligraphic motifs, askew and luminous, encrusted their walls, like fantastic shells. Some spelt out ‘Bismillah’ – in the name of God, others were too difficult to make out. Staring up at the vertical spectacle, I bumped against a wall. A blind alley. Suddenly, I realised I was lost, surrounded by steep high walls. Panic assailed me. ‘How do I find my way back…back to what? Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here?’ Anxiety tightened its fingers round my throat. I started shouting, cried out for help, blessed or cursed, became incoherent. Shadows – men? women? ghouls? - glided past but they ignored me.

Till one of them stopped. And materialised as a lithe, dark-shrouded female form. ‘Why do you cry, Frank? There is no need.’ Relief gave place to wonder. ‘How…who told you my name?’ Her answer was a smile. And silence. Her sallow, oval face conveyed only sweetness and peace. Like some contemplative Madonna. ‘Never mind’ said I ‘I am so glad, anyway. I am afraid I am lost. Will you be my guide?’ ‘No, he will’, she answered, raising a tiny, frail hand towards the sky.

The arabesque-laden towers had given place to glittering skyscrapers. Striking silhouettes, shiny glass cakes topped by pyramids, yet kind of familiar, like London’s Canary Wharf. Many looked still under construction, unfinished. ‘Of course’ I thought, forgetting the incongruous shift ‘I am in Doha. By the bay. Near the Corniche. Where I take my strolls every day. How reassuring all this...what is she pointing at…?’

Then I saw the bird. First small and faraway, swifly growing near and huge. An amazing green shape, head crowned by a rainbow-like crest of bright feathers. Lighted on top of a near skyscraper, so near yet so far. Where have I seen it before? In vain I wracked my brains. ‘He is the Simurgh, Frank. Hud-Hud, we call him in Arabic. You know. Comes from God. He expecting you. Here in Doha. How fortunate you are!’ the woman spoke. Her large brown eyes held me in thrall. Opening my mouth, I began to formulate the first of a thousand questions when her face instantly fell apart. Dissolved. Instead, a voice resounded…God is greatest. There is no God but God… it was the Al Fajr, the dawn prayer. The early call to of the muezzin had dissipated my dream.

God sometimes speaks to man in dreams. The Bible proves it. Doesn’t the angel of the Lord appear to St. Joseph in a dream, to tell him that Mary is pregnant of the Holy Ghost? And aren’t the Magi warned of God in a dream about Herod’s murderous intentions? Pace unbelieving philosopher Thomas Hobbes, ‘God spoke to me in a dream’ is not the same as ‘I dreamt that God spoke to me’. Which is not to say that a dream’s message, whatever its origins, is always easy to comprehend. Mine, however, does not strike me as impossibly cryptic, al hamdulillah!

Today is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of the holy season of Lent. Christian Ramadan, if you like. A preparation for Easter. A time for fasting, spiritual self-exertion and self-denial. But also a time of temptation. Amidst the fat cows, the hedonism as well as the horrors of our globalised world, it is easy t get lost. So, kind of suitable the dream began with the experience of being lost. The tall towers resembled a bit the description of the bizarre mud zyggurats of Sana’, in Yemen, about which I have recently read in Jonathan Raban’s Arabia. The futuristic skyscrapers are the sight familiar here in downtown Doha, a city in gestation, partly Manhattan, partly a building site. But what about the mysterious female, huh? Madonna-like. No hint of her name. So I’ll give her one. I shall call her Maryam. Outwardly similar to the many Arab women here, clad in alluring dark dresses, and ambling about leisurly in the big Western-style shopping malls. But she wasn’t like the others. She was different. Special. Very.

As to the bird, well, that’s a cinch. Maryam gave me the clue. The hoopoe. And the Simurgh. A mystical creature, the protagonist of Farid Uddin Attar’s Conference of the Birds. One of my most loved – but also most disturbing – books. An allegory. It tells of the birds’ search for their king, the simurgh. In Persian, it means ‘thirty bids’. They only know he lives in a remote, faraway land. So they set off, led by the wise hoopoe. Hardly an easy, touristy desert safari as they do in Qatar. They have to cross endless barren wastes, climb formidable mountain ranges, fly over interminable, stormy oceans, dodge bandits, undergo tests and trials galore. Many birds lose heart, drop out, or are diverted by laziness, carnal temptations, foolishness. Others run away, or die of illness or are killed by brigands. In the end, only thirty birds reach the desired goal. They find at last the Kaf, the vertiginous mountain where the simurgh lives. And they are taken into his presence…

I won’t tell you the conclusion. Which is not very satisfactory, anyway. Read it for yourself. The point is, I feel, that Lent is the right time to pause and reflect a while about mine and yours life’s journey. In Doha, London, New York, Banjul or any where else. Like a Shakespeare’s play, life can be said to consist of five acts. Some of us are in the second or third act, others play their part in later acts. Macbeth suggests that the whole thing is a tale told by an idiot, full of noise and signifying nothing. That is not religion’s view. Life is not meaningless. Despite the TV screen’s daily terrible reports of violence and mayhem, this is still God’s world. Created by the provident Creator for a benevolent purpose. Each atom, each particle of matter, each human person fits into that divine scheme. And Lent comes in handy for figuring out what role God wants us to play in His divine plan.

In Attar's lovely story, each bird stands for different human types. Different characters and attitudes, as diverse as human beings are. Coward, courageous, decisive, shy, active, slothful, chaste, lustful, stupid, bright...you name them. The hoopoe is their guide, which is paradoxycal, as the point of the quest is that they do not yet have a leader, they are searching for it. And the sought-out king, you would have guessed, stands for the Creator.

To tell a secret, the priest has already flown with the Simurgh once. Twenty years ago. On Iran Air. Airline that sports the figure of the sacred bird on its fusellage. Quite a flight it was, as the airplane cop somehow got it into his head that I was a British Intelligence agent. Which suggests that he wasn't very bright!

Maryam. The most difficult part of my dream. All right, I am going to spare you corny references to Beatrice, Laura and that kind of poetic stuff. But as God's plan for man's salvation was effected through the agency, the willing submission of Mary, the extraordinary Hebrew maid from Nazareth, every human being's existence depends on woman. God indeed in Genesis calls Eve 'the mother of all living'. But woman's role certainly is not just physical or reproductive. Spiritually, the priest feels, her role is immense. Probably superior to man's.

It would be unwise, nevertheless, for anyone to expect to find a Maryam amongst the women of Doha. Though so many look sweet and attractive and even beautiful, as the swish about in their long, elegant, silken black dresses, a husband's or father's sword is likely to be administered unto any male who was bold enough to approach one, however innocently. You just don't do that here.

Oh, well, I shall just have to wait that a mystical Maryam finds me.

And she might already have....

Now, joyfully to the hardships of Lent. To the greatest glory of God.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 292 11 February 2008

Rooting for Rowan: The Archbishop and the Sharia

What’s wrong with me? I am in living in Qatar , not in Yemen . I mean, here there is no qat, Yemen ’s popular hallucinogenic weed. Yet, something peculiar is happening. I’d never, never have believed but…yes, I confess it: I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He backs sharia law in Britain . You bet he isn’t chewing qat either. Still, he happens to be right.

A friend even suggested it’s my influence. Well, maybe. The priest’s occult powers…even I don’t fully know them!

It is droll to see how berzerk Rowan’s enemies have gone. Stoning, beheading, chopping off of limbs and flogging, he is calling for them, they scream. Even his druidical roots are mischievously imputed. (Groan… the priest himself has poked fun at Williams for that in the past: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) Didn’t his Celtic ancestors practise the cult of the severed head? Proof positive this Welshman hankers after the same, under the cover of Islam. Might as well charge Scot Gordon Brown with being a Pictish marauder at heart, or Texan George Bush with rooting for lynch law. A veritable apotheosis of missing the point – that sums up many people’s reactions to the ABC’s sensible remarks – in part.

Truth is, allowing Muslims in England voluntarily to submit to sharia rulings in certain family and marital disputes is no more judicially enormous than letting Catholics ask the Sacra Rota ecclesiastical tribunal to annul their marriage. Or permitting Anglo-Catholic traditionalists to bar women priests from the altar. My good friend Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg could provide condign examples affecting Jews. Angry or anguished cries of ‘there is only one British law’ ignore these plain facts. The most rational comment I have come across on the web is that of an African Christian. He observes that in their African colonies the Brits always allowed ‘parallel universes of common and customary laws’. And that worked out pretty well. But never in England ! shout Islamophobes. Do they mean it? Unless they propose to boot out all Muslims from this sceptred island, as 400 years ago Spain’s King Philip III did with the Moriscos, how can they prevent this minority from enjoying some of its own religious or customary laws, if it so wishes?

But what if religious rulings conflict with the law of the land? More about that anon. Meanwhile I note that the law of the land, like Heraclitus’ river, and unlike God’s law, is always in a state of flux. A church marriage was once prescriptive, now there is a civil alternative. Today capital punishment is off the statute book. Homosexuality was once a crime – now no longer. Ditto for same-sex unions. Whilst fox-hunting has become illegal. The priest does not pass judgment here, only notes. Parliament changes the law all the time, man!

Of course, sharia law isn’t just about humdrum family disputes and jolly Imam’s counselling. It is a whole, comprehensive and total system, embracing every social, political, economic and personal aspects of human life. Guess that is what puts the wind up a lot of Western people these days. ‘Jesus Christ we have largely disposed of, are we now having to suffer Muhammad?’ our secularists moan, shaking with fear and loathing. For such people I have no sympathy. Also, in reality sharia isn’t monolithic. OK, the Saudi and Sudanese models aren’t quite everybody’s cup of tea, and that includes many Muslims. But in many countries, like little Qatar , the Sharia Court is only for domestic cases, family troubles, whilst state courts are fashioned after a mix of Western legal practices. The Qur’an officially underlies legislation, yes. Qataris, unlike many Europeans, are in no doubt as to their identity…

The British Government, unsurprisingly, equivocates. ‘British law should apply in the UK , based on British values’, thunders Gordon Brown. British values, eh? Like what? Queuing, saying ‘thank you’ a billion times a day and being generally nice? A bit too weak a brew to work as the basis of a culture. (Note how the wily PM always keeps mum about that authentic English value, Christianity.) Anyway, his spokesman admits that legally ‘small adjustments had been and will be made’. Mini-sharia’s OK, in other words. Which is broadly what the Archbishop is pleading for. In other words, the government cynically fudges the issue. What’s new?

So, dear Rowan, the poor priest defends you. But I ask you to go one better. As a leader of Christianity - please, don’t get nervous now – you must start beating the drum for Christian principles, too. There is something faintly comical about the way in your recent lecture you set yourself up as interpreter of sharia – leave that to Muslims to determine. But you can/ought to speak strongly about Christian law. Right to have 3/% of the population have their laws, but Christians are a bit more numerous than that in England . So we too must have our share. I bet you know what Christian law is.

Wot! You don’t? Pulling my leg, eh? But just in case, let me remind you. The laws of Christianity are set out in Holy Scripture. For example, both in the Old and the New Testaments we find God through His chosen Christ, His apostles and prophets forbidding and blasting adultery and fornication. Sins also explicitly cited in Cranmer’s Anglican Prayer Book. So you must demand that the British state allow church courts to try such crimes and punish them. (No stoning, no. Maybe just a few

pebbles, plus naming and shaming the reprobates.) Our liberal rulers won’t have it of course. They’ll get mad at you. Because church courts would conflict with their permissive, iniquitous laws. When then? Rowan, this is your chance. No longer the establishment’s bearded jester everybody’s takes you for, you will take up the mantle of Christian prophecy. Proclaim loud and clear, like our first martyrs did, that Christians must serve God rather than men. Oh, boy, how they will revile you!

But at last you will truly become what you are meant to be: a leader of Christians.

Revd Frank Julian GellI


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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 293 24 February 2008

Doha Dialogue

Vox pop has it that meeting a Qatari in Doha is difficult. So I must be lucky because a Qatari met me. ‘A’an idhnak… I saw you on Al Jazeera. You are a priest. I have some questions, if you have time.’ Indeed I did.

Verily, today to be is to be on television. Being interviewed by Al-Jazeera TV last week did the trick. Such is fame. An immaculately clad man in starched white robe and red-checkered head dress introduced himself as Muhammad. In the City Centre, a five-storey mega-shopping mall which might as well be in London ’s Bayswater, given its disappointingly non-Arab hordes of shoppers.

Ensconced on plush pea-green armchairs in the Café Richoux, Muhammad and I conversed amiably. Bespectacled and middle-aged cove, sporting a neat, black goatee, an interpreter and translator with a government department, he was not narrow-minded – ‘as a Muslim, I am interested in all religions’, he asserted – but also proud of his own faith. My bold claim that Cross and Crescent should not be enemies but allies, had intrigued him. ‘Friendship is fine. Friendship is human. But how can we be allies, if we worship a different God?’ His first question.

‘Our conceptions of God are not identical, true’ I answered. ‘Nor are our scriptures. But, speaking philosophically, of necessity there can only be One True God, however we conceive him. Moreover, we have been kind of allies before. Didn’t the Prophet before the Hijra send many Muslims to Christian Ethiopia, to enjoy protection from persecuting polytheists? His example proves it is possible to be allied today.’

‘I see…but times were different…Christians today want to wage war on us.’

I shook my head. ‘Please, beware of the logical mistake to pass from ‘some’ to ‘all’. I don’t lump all Muslims with some murderous fanatics. Most Christians preach peace, not war. Besides, Church authorities are firmly against war-mongering. If anything, they are accused of being too pro-Islam. Just think of Archbishop Williams and the sharia…’

‘What about the Christian Zionists? On Al Jazeera you said they are a heresy. Why doesn’t your church brand them that?’

‘Only a church council can declare a doctrine a heresy. The Archbishop of Canterbury maybe should have a go. But the influence of the C.Z is vastly exaggerated. I can prove it. Their power supposedly comes through the Republican administration, the Neo Cons and so. Now, wait for the next Democrat US President. You’ll find him, or her, (la samaha Allah!), no friends of C.Z., yet just as pro-Israel as Bush. Maybe more. Hence the C.Z. make no fundamental difference to US policy towards the Middle East .’

He mulled that over a bit. ‘Why doesn’t Europe help the Palestinians?’

Actually a generous EU already hands out dollops of hard cash to the poor Palestinian Authority. But I reiterated my utopian proposal, boldly advanced in the interview: Europeans should invite both Israel and Palestinians to join the EU. Once inside, they would have to get along. Unlikely? Sure, but not more than any other arguably ‘realist’ solution I know of.

‘The Inquisition…’ God forgive me, that historical jibe prompted a bit of a tit for tat. ‘Hey, give me a break! Remember I am a Protestant. The Inquisition persecuted me too. You could say I am a fellow victim. They burned our Bibles as well as our bodies. Which forces me to put a question to you: why doesn’t Saudi Arabia allow Bibles into the country? What are they afraid of? Isn’t that being like the Inquisition?’

‘They are Wahabis. I am not.’ ‘Are you a Shia?’ ‘No. I am Ahmadiyya’ he disclosed, somewhat reluctantly.

Well, that was a revelation. A Muslim heretic! Because his sect has been declared non-Muslim in Pakistan . They are not flavour of the month in Islamic countries. But the priest did not wish to intrude upon private grief. ‘At least you know what is like to be suffer, as a minority.’

Muhammad assented, nervously, and went on: ‘We revere Jesus as a Prophet. Why doesn’t your church so accept Prophet Muhammad?’

‘You should read my unpublished book on the Prophet! (No Christian publisher will touch it, alas. It’s dynamite.) But I shall not dodge a hard question. First, be aware that whilst ‘prophet’ is the highest title accorded to a man in Islam, Christians consider Christ much higher than that. To call Christ simply a prophet falls far short of what he is to us. It’s like calling the Pope an ordinary priest. Certainly Muhammad was a prophet in the sense religious phenomenology gives to the term. But I recall a R.C. prelate who during a conference in a Muslim country got carried away by interfaith fervour and let slip that he believed in the Prophet Muhammad. ‘Catholic bishop converts to Islam!’ the local press screamed. The Vatican was not amused…

He enjoyed the story and pumped me up with some more excellent Turkish coffee. ‘On air, you explained how God can have a son. I did not understand it.’

‘We believe God has a son because our Scriptures say so. It is a truth of faith. Further, as a philosopher, I do not place limits on God’s omnipotence. If God wills to have a son, then He can do it! And it is tied up with the Christian notion of God as supreme, divine love. It belongs essentially to love to issue in procreation, as any human parent knows. I do not expect these points to convince you. You would not be a Muslim if they did. Only hope you understand them.’

‘I’ll have to think about that…but the Trinity? How could that be true?’

‘Well, the great mystic Sufi Ibn Arabi defends the Trinity somewhere. He says that Father, Son and Holy Spirit mean no more than calling the One God also the Lord, the Merciful and the Compassionate, as the Quran does. Three names for the same Being.’

He looked doubtful: ‘You can’t use that argument for your Trinity.’

I pointed out Ibn Arabi did. But time pressed, as it is its habit. We got up, shook hands and exchanged cards and pleasantries. ‘Fursa Sa’ida!’ Happy meeting, he said. ‘As’ad’ I replied. Even happier for me.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli



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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 294 4 March 2008

World of Jinns

Somebody is watching us. Right now, as I click away at my computer, and as you are reading this. We may believe ourselves to be alone. Actually, we are not. Because there is another world parallel to this world. An invisible reality to which we have no access, yet its creatures can and do enter our world. It is an unimaginably vast and unseen universe, its strange inhabitants innumerable. They are born, marry and are given in marriage, have homes, children, eat and drink, own property, animals…all that. Just like us. And, like us, they are rational beings. Hence they can choose between good and evil, and so some of them are good and others wicked. Some follow chastity, others practice fornication. Some have faith in divine revelation and some do not.

Jinns. That is their name. So does the Qur’an calls them. There is even a Sura named after them – Sura Al Jinn. It speaks of a troop of these creatures that once listened to a prophetic recitation and finally accepted its high message. And so those jinns became Muslims.

Jinns are, like men, created but, unlike men who were moulded from wet clay, their ‘matter’ is smokeless fire. Fascinatingly, a large body of legal rulings exists concerning them. The ulama’s large and detailed discussions range from whether jinns are material or immaterial, to their sexual habits and their property rights. Yes, because mischievous and randy jinns haunt the dreams of human beings and sometimes have intercourse with them. A scholar from a prestigious Islamic college, I learn, once found out that the woman to whom he was married, and from whom he had had ten children, was in a fact a jinnia. Whether that unsettling discovery constituted ground for divorce, I do not know.

Still, let us not be gloomy. It is important to remember, there are also benevolent and beneficent jinns.

Here in Qatar, in a place called Al Khoor, there is a house haunted by jinns, my driver, Zoogi, told me. And a certain lean, scrawny and moon-coloured cat which scavenges in Doha’s Al Fajma district is also suspected of being a jinn. To be fair to Zoogi, he is also a bit of an empiricist. He admits that ‘I have never seen a jinn’.

Which introduces one little problem about invisible jinns - and indeed about any disembodied entities. What are the criteria of individuation, of identification of jinns? Physical beings can be seen, touched, smelled etcetera. That is, they are in principle accessible to our senses. So they can be recognised. When I shall meet Zoogi again tomorrow, hopefully I will identify him as the same Zoogi I saw last night because he will look like the same man. But how would I recognise today’s jinn as the same as yesterday’s jinn? Indeed, how would I count how many jinns there are near me now? One? Two? A thousand? Billions? If they take up no space, there are no limits as to their number. Such potential teeming of jinns would be immeasurably worse than any human population explosion. Jinn proliferation, huh, there’s the rub!

Of course, a similar difficulty arose for the learned Schoolmen of the Middle Ages regarding angels. How many did dance on the point of a pin? The question vexed them a great deal. Oh, well, one day I’ll find time to read St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, on this subject – I will then know the answer.

Sophisticated Islamic thinkers may well pooh-pooh the whole matter. Relegate the jinn concept to the dustbin of mythological, pre-modern and magical forms of thought. It’s up to them, though I’d think applying such a reductive procedure to a verbatim divinely dictated text is tricky business. Were I in their shoes, I’d be cautious. I’d rather follow Karl Barth. In his massive Church Dogmatics Barth defends belief on angels. Despite the fact that trendy theologians ignore the lovely beings as passé. His argument is neat: ‘I believe in angels because the Bible says so.’ Too simple? But ‘simplicity is the mark of truth’, Barth might reply.

Confession: I think I recognised a jinni the other night. Fear not, only a fictional one. I mean Heathcliff, the sombre, unredeemed anti-hero of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. As I was perusing the novel, it dawned on me that Heathcliff could well be described as either a jinni or as the progeny of one. Found wandering as a stray child on a Liverpool dock, a ‘little black-haired swarthy thing, as dark as if it came from the devil’, mouthing a ‘gibberish that nobody could understand’, Heathcliff is a prime candidate for the role. Charlotte Bronte herself, in her introduction to her sister’s great work, notes insightfully that his character was less a human being than ‘a man’s shape animated by a demon life – a Ghoul – an Afreet.’ Both epithets derive from the Arabic language, I note…

Another, not quite bad but definitely mischievous and real a jinni, I guess, was a long vanished young man I once met in Prague. He did not exist, I later discovered – I mean, he was the person he pretended to be. For years I suspected him to be a golem – much more like a jinni, I now feel.

A good jinnia, on the other hand, is likely to have been the blonde female tram driver who kindly assisted me one desperate night when I was lost in Dresden. A buon intenditor…poche parole!

My good friend Shahin, a maverick Iranian, is a more difficult case. An intrinsically good and meek person, almost Christ-like, yes, but also a crazy, even dangerous character, on reflection. Maybe half human, half a jinn? And he looks like one – now I see it!

Wait a minute…it has just dawned on me…what about the priest himself? I seem to hear a small voice whispering: ‘You too could be a jinni.’

That’s got to be wrong, I am sure. But, were it so, one of the nice ones, I trust.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 295 19 March 2008

Muslim Saint or Muslim Sinner?

The execution took place before a jeering crowd. One chanting God is great and Islam is the solution. So they put a hood over the old man’s head and a noose round his neck and then they hanged him. On January 18, 1985 . Inside Khartoum ’s Kober Prison. Eye witnesses record no memorable last words. Only that the prisoner looked calm and unafraid, his eyes ‘defiant’.

His name was Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. A Sufi sheikh. A mystic who had been jailed by the British in his youth, for fighting for Sudan ’s independence. One who had turned his two years’ captivity into a time of khalwa, spiritual retreat. A suitable time for meditating on dreams, visions and deepening insights into sacred things. (Feel my time in Doha is a bit of a khalwa, too.) Later small bands of followers gathered about him. He organised them into a republican party - a body advocating a socialist agenda but also a radically revolutionary, new concept of Islam. Which eventual led to his being sentenced to death. On charges of sedition and apostasy.

To simplify. The sheikh argued and preached that the earliest parts of the Qur’an, the surahs revealed at Mecca , embody the purest Islam. Mostly spiritual, non-political verses. Contrariwise, the later, so-called Medina revelations, would display menaces, invectives, legislations, war regulations – much more coercive stuff, on the whole. Their content, according to Taha, is spiritually mixed and dated. So Muslims today should prioritise Mecca , not Medina . Because the Meccan revelations represent the real, deeper message of Islam. Warlike jihad and penal sharia rulings belong to the past. The time has finally come for a new, liberating stage in mankind’s development.

Not a theology Islamic authorities would enthusiastically back, the priest surmises. But Taha also taught the total equality between men and women. So his movement was a champion of women’s right and inclusiveness. Female members were active on colleges and public places. In that, time has vindicated the Sufi saint. His garrulous Islamist arch-enemy, Hasan Turabi, no less, in recent years has recanted previous views and has gone in for an unprecedented out-and-out feminism. Sussed out which way the wind is blowing, eh? Taha must be smiling bit, wherever he is now.

The sheikh was against the introduction of sharia in Sudan . Quite apart from the checks that stern code places on the female of the species, Taha argued sharia was unfair to Christians and animists, overwhelmingly the majority in Southern Sudan . He pointed out that bringing in Muslim law would antagonise non-Muslims, making them hate and distrust Islam. Huh! You know what? I am so friendly to Muslims, I like Islam so much, I hadn’t thought of that! But maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury might cogitate on it a bit. Community cohesion, interfaith relations, as the cant goes, might not do well under sharia. Just look at the popular & media reactions following his lucubrations. Does not augur well.

Indeed, Taha broke many taboos. He urged Arab countries to talk to Israel . For that, his enemies vilified him. Spread rumours that he was a Zionist agent. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? But nothing could be clearer that one day Palestinians (Hamas included) and Israelis will have to make a deal. There is no other solution, is there? So maybe the Sheikh’s spirituality was not all that other-worldly…

Do not, mind you, mistake the Sudanese Sufi for a Western liberal in tall white turban and jellaba. He stood for Islam and defended politics and theology alike in terms what is true in Islam. Guess he would have made an unusual Mahdi. Why did he not proclaim himself so? Perhaps because he knew how much blood there is attached to the figure. He was right to eschew any claims to that.

On the other hand, visionaries like Taha are ‘damned’ by their friends. By which I mean liberal, progressive Western writers, journalists and human rights activists. People who – surprise, surprise – like the sheikh and his ideas a lot. They bestow on him sobriquets like ‘a pacifist Muslim’ and ‘the moderate martyr’. There’s the rub. If Taha’s spiritual, daring interpretation of his own tradition is to have any hope, it cannot not be seen as one welcomed by a motley crew that includes Bush, Blair, the BBC, The New Yorker, the EU, the Israeli government and Salman Rushdie. Is it credible young Muslim radicals and intellectuals would take Qur’an lessons from that lot? Their approval bestows the kiss of a thousand deaths. Consider, a Sudanese academic in the US who currently defends Taha and propagates his views is unwise in ganging up with…Irshad Manji! If there is anyone likely to be a red rag to Muslims…can’t think of a better candidate than sweet, deviant Irshad.

Was he a martyr? His followers certainly revere him as one. And his killing was a judicial crime. The judge gave him no chance to recant, unlike the followers who were tried with him. The whole farce was engineered by the military ruler, Numeiri, an unprincipled dictator who had courted even communists to keep going. The sharia card was another attempt to hold on to power by pandering to Islamists. Years later Numeiri pretended to have offered Taha a way out while awaiting execution. Were that true, Taha would have behaved somewhat like Socrates in his last days – better being true to his beliefs than mere survival. Survival after death is what he would have believed in, anyway.

In an interview, Hasan Turabi after the execution mocked Taha. ‘He thinks he is Jesus Christ’, he said, no doubt intending to make light of the dead man. A remarkable comparison, methinks. Because Jesus Christ, amongst many other things, preached a gospel of peace and did not kill anyone. Instead, he was accused of blasphemy, given over to a mob and judicially murdered. But, to the astonishment of even his disciples, he came back from the dead. Numeiri had Taha buried in an unmarked grave, fearful of any martyrdom cult. But I read that his disciples waited for him to return. He did not. He is dead. Are his ideas?

Allahu a’alam.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 296 27 March 2008

The Pope and the King

Throne and altar. A hallowed alliance thought to be defunct. Killed off – or rather, drowned in blood – by the French revolution. But now resurrected, wonder of all wonders, thanks to Saudi King Abdullah and Benedict XVI. My nice local paper, The Gulf Times, reveals how, when Pope and King met months ago, they discussed an interfaith project of ‘ways to safeguard humanity.’ Abdullah praises ‘a meeting I will not forget, a meeting of a human being with another.’

Al Hamdulillah! It would be mean of me to observe that he could hardly have said less. Instead, it was generous of the Saudi ruler. Especially after the Holy Father’s ill-starred Regensburg speech. And those nutters in his own kingdom who scream that religious dialogue leads to the abrogation of Islam and the creation of one world religion. Guess the head of the house of Saud is far-sighted. He acknowledges not only the need for dialogue but also that the two faiths have common goals. So he rightly blasts ‘the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world - a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish.’ Huh! With that tough message, should the eternal Bin Laden ever succeed in subverting Arabia and exiling the King, Abdullah could easily get himself a job as preacher in an evangelical parish in the Midlands, believe you me.

Still, as himself a former atheist (folies de jeunesse, je jure!), the priest won’t damn the poor sods too much. Theoretical atheism is largely a bolshie adolescent’s posture. With The Necessity of Atheism the young poet Shelley fancied he was shaking the foundations of society, instead Oxford University simply sent him down. His pamphlet reads like an ill-digested, pretentious undergraduate’s essay, a queer melange of Humean scepticism and Spinozistic mysticism. In the final section, Shelley decries belief in post-mortem survival. I wonder what our poet is thinking of that where he is now, if he has not perished…

There is, however, another kind of atheism. I’ll call it a moral one. That exemplified by Ivan, he of that tremendous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan does not, strictly speaking, deny that there is a God. He just wants to have nothing to do with him and ‘returns him the ticket’. Why? Because of innocent children’s suffering. A God who allows something so atrocious to happen is a deity Ivan Karamazov will not have any tracks with. A sentimental, mushy argument! Why should the torments inflicted on helpless old people in some sadistic ‘home’ be less theologically harrowing than those of kids? But Ivan’s reaction is morally cogent in relation to the general problem of evil. Why does a God of love allow the innocent to suffer? Christians still have to wrestle with that. Leibnitz’s rationalistic, clever theodicy does not quite satisfy. Islamic theology is, I believe, harder on this subject. Innocent suffering seems to bother it less. Wonder why? Iskander, shaqiqi, any thoughts? (One of my sharpest, relentless readers, folks!)

A third type of atheism, very obnoxious, is a state or political one. China of course swears there is no religious persecution there but that is untrue, as any Falung Gong practitioner will aver. Moreover, both the persecution of Islam in Chinese Turkestan and the repression of culture and religion in Tibet speak volumes about the evil nature of Chinese communism. A true hero of our time is the Dalai Lama, a profoundly spiritual and non-violent leader. We must certainly include Buddhism in the wider religious dialogue. A faith I once flirted with, via Zen. I still believe Christ and Buddha have a lot in common, yep. China may mean big and lucrative business for the West but rubbish on that! I’ll be the first to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games. Athletes should not run on victims’ blood.

So, it is good to talk & to act together, whenever possible. But serious confusions exist. The 130 Islamic scholars who wrote to the Pope, urging dialogue, claiming that the peace and future of the world could depend on that, meant well. They instanced trust in only one God and caring for one’s neighbour as key common beliefs. Goody. But don’t the scholars understand that the influence of the Catholic Church, or indeed any other church, on Western policymakers is virtually nil? The Holy Father can preach against wars but he can stop none. Why do they persist in mixing up the West and Christianity? Back in Victorian times, being an Englishman was synonymous with being a Christian and state and church were in symbiosis. To day, sadly, the British Government is an infidel entity. Ditto, in practice, for all the major Western nations. Muslim spokesmen should get that into their heads and not make the Cross responsible for the sins of a godless secularism.

Which brings up another difficulty. The separation between Church and state in the West, one of our biggest unholy cows. King Abdullah, the unelected ruler of a theocracy, may find that a tad difficult to comprehend but, alas, it’s a fact. The ways of Providence, however, are wondrous, as well as infinite. In bringing the Church to such a pass in Europe, maybe God has given us a window of opportunity. In the past the Church could count on the coercive power of the state to back it up. None of that obtains today. Christians can only rely on the Word of God, the Gospel, and can only employ the powers of love, persuasion and good works. Surely all that is better, because much closer to the Founder’s teaching and practice. Saudi Arabia is different. Sigh...the religious cops may come along at prayer times and enforce observance by escorting people to the mosque even if they do not wish to go. That to me shows not a religion’s strength but its weakness. At least European secular society – I speak as its fiercest foe – still allows for the exercise of man’s freedom, the greatest of God’s gifts to us.

On YouTube you can watch the King giving Benedict the gift of a diamond-encrusted sword. I think I heard the Pope exclaiming ‘St Paul’s!’ No doubt a reference to Ephesians 6:17 - the sword meaning ‘the word of God’. Let it be the best of all weapons.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 297 4 April 2008

Fitna

Trouble and strife indeed. Fitna, the short film in Dutch by Geert Wilders physically hurt my eyeballs, like a video nasty would. Some of it is so harrowing, I had to cry. An attack on the Qur’an and the Prophet, no doubt. Implicitly, however, Wilders provokes deep and hard questions for strong believers of any faith, including myself.

Happy shall be he that takes and dashes your little ones against the stones’ sings Psalm 137. The children of the Edomites, a kindred race of the Hebrews yet loathed by them, are meant. And, should you ever desire a warrant for genocide at God’s behest, just peruse the Book of Joshua, chapters one to ten and have your fill. However, hypothetical Mr & Mrs Cohen, of London’s Golders Green, do NOT go about gleefully praising those verses and even less urging their imitation. Ditto for the overwhelming majority of Jews. And I hardly need to state that Hebrew scholars do not interpret such passages literally. Indeed, Christian writers like St Augustine and Origen held that OT conflicts are symbolic of wars of virtue against vice. Christians certainly should understand them spiritually, not militarily.

The NT Book of Revelation looks more challenging. Its cosmic scenario of strife between good and evil, culminating in the final battle of Armageddon, has been injudiciously invoked to buttress some human conflicts. Such as the now defunct confrontation between the Soviets and the West. Way back the priest protested against that lethal misuse of a holy text. To justify being willing to nuke millions of Russian civilians. I pointed out the key actors of Revelation are God and his angels, not the CIA or the SAS. The righteous suffer innocently. They do not go about cutting off the wicked’s heads. The mysteries of the book are indeed profound and still await full unravelling. St John’s vision is perennially valid. So Revelation has much to teach humanity. Because its pages are suffused with God’s breath. It does not enjoin killing but forbearance.

Jesus’ message is one of peace. That did not stop philosopher Bertrand Russell from penning ‘Why I am not a Christian’. The Messiah’s blasting of an unfruitful fig-tree and his sending demons into a herd of swine which then rushed into the sea and perished would indicate he was not a nice guy. Huh! While bowing before Russell’s high logical and mathematical mind, I must grin at his religious exegesis. Wittgenstein was right when he sniggered, apropos such popular scribbling, that ‘these days Russell is not going to kill himself doing philosophy’. Bertie was a non-conformist, yet I surmise he judged Christ by the standards of a liberal Anglican vicar, with all his feebleness and stupidity. Jesus of Nazareth was made of sterner stuff. By the way, at some stage in his dotage, Russell actually advocated using the atom bomb on the Rousskies. Definitely not nice, that one!

Adumbrating these matters with Sergei, a snazzy German lawyer, in a café in Doha’s fashionable Villaggio (an apotheosis of kitsch globalisation), he brusquely challenged me: ‘All very well, Father. But you are beating about the bush. Fitna is about Islamic violence, not Jewish or Christian. Where do you stand on that? Or do you just enjoy pandering to Muslims?’

Wallahi! Plain speaking, eh? Just to go on pandering. Fitna has an imam attacking liberalism and democracy as Western ideas. He was right. Indeed they are. Europeans have enthroned them in the place of the God of their fathers – a God whose very name our shabby politicians are ashamed even to mention. But, intellectually speaking, there is nothing self-evidently true or eternal about such concepts. And they represent only a strand of Western thought, though one currently all-powerful. What is more, the fruits of liberalism and democracy are not uncontroversial. The invasions of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both flagrantly illegal and immoral acts, have been waged in the name of liberal democracy. NATO troops fight and rain bombs there everyday for, they say, democracy. And liberal Britain, the modern cradle of this gaff, and party political-crazy Italy, the countries I know best, are a mess. Soaring crime, drugs, abortion, alienation, rootlessness, immorality, religion in sharp decline, family in pieces, illegal immigration, youth adrift…geddit? Maybe it is time for those who think, and who are men and not mice, to put their heads together and to study whether a better system to manage society may not be at all conceivable – and desirable.

Fitna also extrapolates ‘hard verses’ from the Qur’an and links them with violent and repugnant deeds, like 9/11, the beheading of hostages and so on. Extremist preachers and desperate men are portrayed as if they represented over a billion Muslims. Wilders has gone over the top there, and deliberately. He may well have wished for large-scale violence to follow, to validate his point. He knows there are thriving Islamic and ‘Islamist’ movements in the West, from Turkey to Egypt, that worry Western people and media and politicians alike. So much so the latter have all rushed, like Gadarene swine, to defend Islam against Fitna. With friends like those, Muslims do not need enemies…

As to holy but hard verses. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells somewhere of a discussion he had with a very strict Orthodox rabbi over a passage in I Samuel 15:8-23. The prophet Samuel tells King Saul God commands him to wage war on the Amalekites. To utterly destroy them: men, women, children, infants, animals, the lot. That Saul does. He massacres the enemy. He only spares the leader, King Agag, plus some juicy animals. But Samuel hears God telling him he is angry with Saul, because the king has disobeyed him in not slaughtering everything and everybody. So Saul repents and, when Agag comes to Samuel, trusting in mercy, the Bible says: ‘Samuel hewed Agag into pieces before the Lord in Gilgal’.

After much soul-searching and inward struggle, Buber relates, he told the wise rabbi he could not believe God had really dictated that awful action.

‘You don’t believe that?’ countered the venerable old man, with deep voice and terrible eyes. ‘What do you believe then?’

Again Buber hesitated, struggled with himself and spoke eventually: ‘I believe Samuel had misunderstood God’s will.’

The rabbi looked him in silence for a while. Then he spoke, quietly: ‘I believe that, too.’

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 299 17 April 2008

I have not sinned enough

Non ho peccato abbastanza. ‘I have not sinned enough’. Wallahi! A sentence to make you sit up. Worry not, it’s only poetry. The title of a stirring anthology of contemporary female Arab poets. Pleasingly rendered into Italian by orientalist Valentina Colombo.

‘I have not sinned enough’. Thus sings Lebanese Joumana Haddad. Her poem, Lilith’s Return, is wickedly droll. Lilith was originally a female fiend haunting desert places. (Isaiah 34:14, King James Version, renders her name quaintly as ‘the screech owl’!) Later in rabbinical lore she became the woman who deceived Adam. Haddad has her boasting of being ‘the dissolute angel, Adam’s aboriginal mare, seductress of Satan’. Her sexuality insatiable, she thrives on transgression. A supposed symbol of female liberation and a skilful manipulator of her lovers, Lilith voices a freedom independent of men’s desires – and of divine laws, I should add, but then demons are prone to do that, anyway.

‘I have not sinned enough’. Has Haddad ever heard of Carpocrates? Who he? An ancient heresiarch. Based in Alexandria of Egypt, the famed city founded by Alexander the Great, a celebrated seat of culture and learning, where East met West. There Carpocrates flourished, during the second century AD. Teaching an abominable and stupid ethics. Bet Lilith would have thoroughly approved of it. You see, Carpocrates got it into his head that the more sin, the more grace, the more salvation. So he set out to break all the 613 precepts and prohibitions of the Torah. Just think about it: from bestiality to marrying his sister, from tale-bearing to gorging oneself on swine’s flesh. It must have been quite a chore. However, at last having run through the whole sorry list, the fool must have smugly said to himself: ‘All right, I have sinned enough.’ Doubt he quite enjoyed the final reward, though.

Sexual frustration seems to be one running thread through many verses. So the Egyptian Iman Mersal reproaches her lover. ‘You made me believe the world is like a girls’ school and that I should extinguish my desires, so to be the teacher’s darling.’ And she makes it clear she won’t. Her poem evokes violent fights with the male. A bit melodramatically, she threatens suicide but she ends up telling him: ‘You must die before me – the death of loved ones is a great chance to consider finding

replacements.’ A novel thought, no doubt.

Another rebellious voice is Saudi Fawzya Abu Khalid. ‘I have torn up my past heritage, uprooted the trees of my tribe, embraced the freedom of outlaws’. And she inveighs against the man who is nothing more than ‘the Sultan’s messenger, a pimp who extols the merits of the fruits of the Fertile Crescent’. Such lyric anger displeased the Saudi authorities. They did not appreciate her giving public readings, so allowing ‘strangers to listen to her voice’. Gosh, I can imagine worse sins than that.

Subversive feeling is partly allied to technical revolution. Arab poetry goes back to pre-Islamic times. Rhythms and metre were governed by strict, unchanging formal rules. But in1949 Iraqi poetess Nazik al-Mala’ika broke away from traditions, advocating free verse. And she tackled head on the hardest question. Arabic being a sacred language, the speech of the divinity, that of the supernatural author of the Qur’an, any critique of its grammar could be problematical. Yet she accused Arabic of being the language of a people who ‘do not value women’. Proof? Arabic grammar prioritises the masculine gender over the feminine. Also, the Arabic word for ‘illiterate’ ummiya, comes from umm, mother. Etymological argument – tricky.

In the entertaining War labours a lot, another poetess, Dunya Mikhail, shows herself refreshingly free from the stock pacifist language de riguer about military strife. Instead, she goes in for irony. And enumerates warfare’s hard-working deeds:

‘War – how serious – how active – how able…war is unstoppable, night and day. It inspires tyrants’ long speeches, bestows medals on generals and subjects to poets…war works hard, it has no equals, but nobody praises it.’ Delightful, isn’t it?

I have not sinned enough makes for pleasurable reading. I mean this as a compliment. The priest is a hedonistic reader. He only reads what he enjoys. And much of this poetry strikes him as both good and enjoyable. Form and content often combine in a harmonious whole. As to criticism. Some will say I have the wrong glands to offer credible comment. Alas, I cannot help it. That said, I wonder whether it is self-evidently true that unbridled sexual freedom should be the summit of women’s aspirations. Islamists are saying that the infidel West is trying to use women as Trojan horses to penetrate into the sacred citadel of Islamic customs and mores, in order to undermine them from within. Sounds like the mirror image of the Western paranoia about young Muslim males in our midst being ready to become terrorists. Pious Muslims might well object that many of the women’s voices in this anthology are westernised, deracinated ones. Unrepresentative people, because alienated from their own culture. Or simply highbrow feminist viragos, incompetent to speak for millions and millions of ordinary Arab women. Normal women who would never wish to take harlot Lilith as a role model. Women whose chief, natural aspiration is to marry and form a family, have children and care for them. The notion that all that Arab females deeply desire is the freedom to have as many sexual encounters as possible is false. A fantasy. It is a projection of the decadent mores and disvalues affecting most men and women in secular western societies. A Satanic construct. Hence one to condemn and reject outright. Thus speaks my hypothetical critic.

I have not sinned enough. A haunting title. Because, let us face it, sin attracts human nature. There would have not been any need for Moses to bring down the Ten Commandments from the holy mountain, had sin been per se unappealing. And, as the parable of the Prodigal Son teaches, especially the young are all too liable to err in that direction. But beware! Whether our Zeitgeist likes it or not, sin must be resisted and defeated. Hence the words of the Apostle still stand as a warning to all: the wages of sin is death.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS

Rant Number 300 23 April 2008

Wickedness

One ordinary day in sleepy Roman Africa, the great empire already sick with that decadence that would soon result in the sack of Rome by the Goths, a band of little boys raided an orchard and stole some pears. There was no famine and the lads were neither poor nor hungry. They had no material necessity for stealing the fruit. The deed was done simply for kicks. As children often do. One of the boys was called Aurelius Augustinus. Later known as St Augustine. One of the shapers of Western thought. Many years later in his Confessions the Saint writes at length about that apparently trifling prank. Not trifling to him. Augustine saw in it the proof of the dark side of human nature. Because the motive for the stealing was not any outward temptation. It lay in the theft itself. Pure, distilled lust for wrongdoing. That is why the boys stole. The action ‘was foul and I loved it…I loved my own fault’ he laments.

Bertrand Russell, in his excellent History of Western Philosophy, upbraids Augustine for carrying on too much about his childish fling. The Saint was being excessively sensitive. Typical Christian hang-ups, things of that sort. But great minds detect the important even in bagatelles. Great souls like, say, Mahatma Gandhi. He too spoke of his own failings in ways the shallow-minded would think exaggerated and ‘morbid’. In fact, both the Christian and the Hindu saints realised that in order to treat a serious illness, a wise healer has to have a clear diagnosis of its causes.

The poor priest’s sins are scarlet (well, at least his rants are read!), so he needs no personal pranks to agree with Augustine. But one hot day last month he visited the Doha Zoo. A pleasant and well-kept establishment. What? You feel I am a bit too long in the tooth to go to the zoo? How rude! Thing is, I wanted to see the unicorns. I mean, the famous oryxes. Maha in Arabic. Kind of desert deer. Nice, harmless beasts that have been hunted almost to extinction. The Qatari government has set up a natural reserve for them in the North of the country but the zoo was handier. I call them unicorns because a legend has it that their two gently curving horns, when viewed in profile were mistaken for a single one by ancient observers. Anyway, off I went to the zoo, saw the graceful maha, snapped pictures and that made me as happy as happy as a sand boy. Indeed, like a lively party of Qatari school boys whom I saw near the exit. (No coeducation in Qatar, sorry.)

Like all school kids in the world they were fooling around a bit. I observed how some were intent on mocking, tacking the mickey, mildly tormenting, call it what you will, another boy amongst them. An African. Coal-black. And, to tell the truth, clearly effeminate. Camp. Both in voice and demeanour. Picture to yourself an Arab Graham Norton. I heard repeated a lot the word shaadh, ‘gay’.

Actually, the kids were very nice. They liked my speaking a little Arabic to them and readily agreed to pose for a group photograph, along with their young teacher, laughing, shouting and pulling faces. All so natural. They may indeed have been much like the kind of boy I myself was long ago, in another time, another place. Or like Eton school gents. Or kids from any bog comprehensive in the Midlands. Each one of them was Everyman.

Mountain out of a molehill? Don’t know. Nothing especially bad about those kids, got to make that ultra-clear. On the contrary, they were perfectly normal. And pleasant. But they also appeared, to me at least, to enjoy making their ‘different’ fellow pupil’s life a bit miserable. Why is that?

The boys were Muslims. Islam does not believe in original sin. Muslim writers never tire to stress that. Fine. Any religion has a right to its own doctrines. I suspect, however, that Muslims, just like any other persons, lock their front door on going out. If human nature is intrinsically good, why do that? And why does sharia law prescribe draconian punishments like stoning the adulterer and cutting off a thief’s hand, if, again, people have no deep-rooted inclination to sin? No one has answered me that, yet. (Bilal, are you there?)

Original sin, of course, is widely misunderstood. The Bible in Genesis has the Creator behold his creation and ‘God saw that it was good’. Hence the Word of God teaches original goodness, not original sin. That much displeased the philosopher Schopenhauer, a cosmic pessimist. He saw in it a mere Hebraic prejudice, a crude form of optimism, as opposed to the profound truth of our aboriginal failure. But sound Christian theology maintains both. Man’s original goodness is grounded in divine creation – a Scriptural fact. The Fall messes things up, that too Scripture teaches. How bad is the damage? Calvin believed that the sin of Adam radically depraved our nature. That is ultimately incoherent. A radically depraved mind could not even grasp the message of salvation. And it could only produce depraved thoughts. St Thomas Aquinas wisely interpreted the results of the Fall as having produced a dislocation of the human will, an inclination to evil-willing, not a radical corruption of our being. It follows we cannot lift ourselves up by own bootstraps, so to speak. We cannot will the good unaided. We need God’s grace. For Christians that culminates in the saving work of Christ – well, I’d say that, wouldn’t I?

All that a long way from scrumping pears or ribbing a fellow pupil. But bullied children committing suicide at times. Small cruelties can be magnified in the minds of sensitive youngsters. That inclination to do wrong for the sake of it, for the sheer pleasure of doing the deed St Augustine adverted to for good reason. As to the treatment…it is called the Church. Not of course the ridiculous and pathetic and apostate Church of England of today. I mean the Invisible Church. The Church whose members are known only to God.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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6 comments:

Seta said...

I would like to take this opportunity and thank Father F J Gelli in sending me this exclusive, as he puts it, ‘Rants 258.’ He makes me very proud to be a part of the race who’s historic background dates back to Biblical times, but what is even more outstanding is that this man of, ‘The Cloth,’ speaks his mind knowing the implications. Father Frank, I applaud you! I ask that the Lord keep a close watch over YOU! Your words mean so much, they are a source of inspiration.

isobel said...

And I would add my thanks as someone coming from N Ireland who has personally 'fought' all my adult life against being labelled Protestant or Catholic ..and then being seen as knowledgable about the' religous' war in my home country. Having nursed the casualities on both sides and as they face death I can tell you as a believing christian it was not their 'faith' in God that drove them..rather thir 'faith' in a political system because when they get to the 'other side' God won't ask ..what church did you go to ? or what political party but He will ask 'what is your relationship with My SON ..the one who died to forgive your sins'?
Similarly when I married my husband an Armenian ..also a believing christian the Armenians were more worried ..that I was 1) not Armenian 2) exactly where could they 'place' him as he has a background of Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic and Armenian Protestant in his family!!!!!
May I say that we have been happily married for 30 years and are still serving God in a variety of christian churches ....English and Armenian

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