Thursday 29 December 2022

Bronze Age further away


Still in the Bronze Age, and fascinated by the long anticipated report of the seventeen tons of cargo from a ship wrecked off what is now Uluburun, Turkiye in about 1320 BC.  This Mediterranean coastal trade is the background to all the stories over the alleged fifteen generations (perhaps half a millennium) from Abraham to Solomon. 

The tin on board had come two thousand miles from mines well west of the Caspian Sea and must have crossed modern Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria to loaded aboard in Haifa.  There was ten times as much copper, so exactly the proportion needed for making bronze.

There were a hundred and fifty Canaanite amphora with foodstuff like olives and tree resin for making fragrant oils.  Prodigious quantities of murex shells for making purple dye.  Ingots of glass in colours like cobalt blue which could be melted to create glassware.

It has taken me back to the rare Amarna Letters, records from Egyptian court and diplomatic correspondence around 1345 BC, almost precisely the same time.  One had a request from exactly the coast of the shipwreck to exchange a similar range of goods including copper, oil and timber.  Others speak of tribute and mutual gifts from royal daughters to lapus lazuli which would have had to be brought from Afghanisatan.

The letters evidence a range of city states and larger empires, some treated as subservient and others as equal partners, many pleading for assistance as attacked by neighbours and external invaders.  One comes from the guard of the gates of Gaza and Joppa recalling being a young man brought to Egypt where he had guarded the palace gates.

And, oh, how the temptation has always been to use all these rare sources simply to secure the historicity of the biblical narratives - the internet in particular being a trap in which impartial academic analysis is sometimes indistinguishable from partial fundamentalist confirmation bias.   But these two sources give sheer richness in filling in a general background of the trade routes and conflicts in what we read.

From Abraham’s at first finding Canaan famine ridden and travelling straight on to Egypt, to Solomon calling in favours from neighbouring kings to supply timber for building the temple, via Joseph abducted to Egypt but finding a role in the palace there, the Amarna letters and, now, the shipwreck’s cargo, spell out a vibrant Bronze Age context.

The temple’s curtain used blue, purple and red thread, all among the dyes in the shipwreck.  The ‘Habiru’ in the letters are tantalisingly either the Hebrews or generally bandits ranging across areas including those Joshua’s genocides traversed.  And so it goes on.

This time, going back to it all, it is the subservient language of Abi-Milki, overlord of Tyre, which tingles my spine.  Generally the letters are deeply grovelling, the senders describing themselves in standard forms such as ‘dirt beneath your feet, the mire on which you tread’ (bowing seven time and seven times - just possibly proverbially echoed in Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness?).  But some of his particular language could be set out as if half forgotten verses of the Psalms:

My lord’s... words give life and prosperity:

to all lands his power gives peace.

...  He thunders down from heaven:

the earth trembles before him.

...  He who listens to the king his lord:

and serves him with love,

...  a good word from the mouth of the lord:

gives him life.

If he heeds not the commands of his lord:

his city will fall, his house perish.   

Meanwhile, the picture is from my Boxing Day walk and is a hamlet an hour east of here; remote, yet now still within earshot of the city's new eastern bypass; Greetwell's eleventh century church, abandoned mediaeval village and Jacobian manor.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

Bronze Age near by


The moulds are for creating axe heads in the Lincolnshire Wolds about 3000 years ago, and are among a small collection being displayed almost next door to me at The Collection alongside this tiny exquisite bronze pendant of about the same age (which the British Museum is allowing to tour four galleries in the country - it was in Cornwall and will eventually be in Orkney).  It seems extraordinary to have such things brought to my new doorstep.

Wednesday 16 November 2022

I sense a space I am at home in


The priest-poet David Scott has been a background voice through all my ministry.  His first collection was published in the year I was first ordained, and I learn that he died last month three weeks after I retired.  More importantly, I recognised so much his poetry revealed, from his early boarding school experience to his enigmatic pastoral encounters.

I’ve been re-reading much of his work over the last few days, including his poems in memory of a teacher we just happened to have shared to a friend whose life had changed his perspective:

...  The outer life is burnt or buried on a particular date,

but faith flies away from there, to become something suddenly other.. 

...  Now I tell the secret that resurrection is the glass through which we see differently, and what was first in the mind of God becomes the truth at last.

But, rather than this predictable choice from among the many places where he references looking beyond death, it is the title poem from his final collection Beyond the drift which echoes for me most tonight. 

He had contrasted his brother’s smudged left-handed writing with the clarity of his own right-handed ability to pull his pen ahead of the letters, until ‘becoming left-handed in my soul’ every poetic venture is owned as ‘unclear, slow, unsure of what it is to know’, concluding:

...  Beyond the drift of language I sense a space I am at home in; which is the mystery of the heart, wordless, patient, and wrong.  Being right seems insufficient now. 

And a poignancy in all this, of which I wouldn’t have been aware other than through his publisher’s announcement of his death, that he had been cared for with Alzheimer’s in the last few years.

Two Lincoln Cathedral pictures tonight as well.  Unexpectedly finding a Spitfire parked when coming in for Evensong last night, and remembering being installed as a Canon twenty years ago today.

Friday 11 November 2022

Those who have taken their own lives


Treading gently in York yesterday in visiting (in the Minster) the first display of the Yorkshire Speak Their Name Suicide Memorial Quilt, before stepping across to the neighbouring St Michael-le-Belfry Church in which my late wife’s first wedding took place (a marriage ended by her first husband’s suicide), not quite knowing how to navigate the emotions involved, carrying with me the friendship of one of the Quilt’s principal instigators (whose daughter’s funeral I took after her suicide and who is commemorated on the Quilt) and the love for my adult step-children (with whom I’ve not had the sorts of conversations being replayed on a screen in the Minster’s Chapter House), and noticing on the way that the word ‘suicide’ (which I had been taught to avoid in favour of the phrase ‘took their own lives’) has been reclaimed.  The Quilt comes down today but moves to Ripon Cathedral after Christmas (28 December to 30 January) and will reach Haworth Parish Church for a few days in August.  And prominent on the Minster’s West Front is a fresh statue of the late Queen, which has been visited by the new King the previous day, in advance of which my friend had warned me off trying to visit then.

Saturday 5 November 2022

Susan Wilson self portrait



The 'colour and emotion' in this 1996 self portait by Susan Wilson in the Usher Gallery is what attracted the attention of a men's support group, so it was highlighted on the Gallery's Twitter page, and so I've been brought to stand before it several times in my first few weeks living nearby.

I've tried holding my hands in the same position as she is in the portrait, which has emphasised and made unavoidable a puzzling and agonising by the artist intent on her image in a mirror in front of her.

Her website was easy to find, and the sole item in the 'About' section is an interview with art critic Michael Peppiatt from 2008, which mentions her care with what people wear in her portraits as well as her habit of using a large mirror for her self portraits.

Peppiatt comments on another work of hers 'bursting with some sort of unspoken longing... as if they had bottled up some sort of secret identity thats become almost painful' and that is what I see in this work as well.

Wilson observes that 'teaching people to draw from observation, it becomes apparent that they are drawing from a memory store of objects or places or how things look' and Peppiatt comments 'so we never get the direct confrontation - we are influenced hugely by what we've seen in the past', and Wilson's feels here like someone intent on getting past that.

Perhaps my interest in the picture arises in part from an increasing awareness of how our seeing, perceiveing, remembering, arguing and writing are each also much more dependant on our brain reproducing what we expect to encounter, all necessarily inhabiting a managable limited distorted reality.

In the New Testament, the word 'mirror' (es-optron - the root of our word 'optician' is here) occurs twice.  In the interview, Wilson cites Paul's 'we see as through a glass darkly'; the translation 'glass' in 1 Corinthians 13.12 is esoptrou, the 'darkly' is ainigmati, a puzzle, a riddle (the root of our word 'enigma' is here).  

Almost more haunting is James 1.23, 24's awareness that we can observe ourselves (our 'birth face') in a mirror and then quickly forget what we look like (perhaps because, although James does not say this, we have a preferred memory store).  

Wilson's face, hands and stance here feel like a longing to be free from these limitations - what the two texts long for as to be fully known and to act out what we profess and intend.

And then, standing in front of the picture again yesterday, it felt like God puzzling away at me, agonising over my limitations of insight and action.  Her robe is encrusted with the paint of her creativity, and I am her workmanship (Ephesians 2.10 this time, sometimes given as her 'handiwork' even her 'work of art').

Sunday 30 October 2022

Mother and Child, Temple Gardens

 A couple of minutes walk from my new home, originally (I learn from the interpretation board) a Pleasure Garden, now (I knew already) a small public park within which sits the 1920s Usher Gallery: the general scene is taken from in front of the pseudo-temple with the land then rising sharply to the neighbouring Old Palace site.

Saturday 8 October 2022

On Black Holes



My time as a parish priest appears to have been book-ended by Stephen Hawking's reflections on Black Holes.  I was still a Curate when he published A Brief History of Time (subtitled From the Big Bang to Black Holes).  Almost the last issue of New Scientist published before I retired a couple of weeks ago ancipates Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's forthcoming Black Holes: the key to understanding the universe, an article beginning with Stephen Hawking's discovery that Black Holes slowly give off radiation.

Now, of course, Hawking's book is famous for being widely sold but seldom read or understood, and, although I find I had marked a passage on page 115 (out of 175 pages), that puts me at a great disadvantage.  Hawking's book identifies the event horizon (the edge of the Black Hole beyond which we cannot observe) as the place at which quantum theory might predict that particle and anti-particle bonds split, one falling in and one radiating out.  Or something like that. 

Cox and Forshaw's book then builds on this, suggesting that such quantum entanglements of particles and anti-particles reveal something more fundamental than space-time itself, something from which space-time is 'woven', whereby it can be simulatneously true that information (what is) can both be lost in a Black Hole and radiate from it.  Or something like that.

I was mesmerised reading this.  I wouldn't want to fall into the 'God of the gaps' trap (placing God at the point at which current but passing scientific understanding identifies an opening).  Rather, it seemed to me to provide a parable.  Or to provide an illustrative framework in which to lay out for myself things Christian people have always been trying to say about God.

So Cox and Forshaw's conclusion that 'All that really exists is information.  Space and time emerge from a bunch or entangled quatum units... and the result of that is the universe we live in.  We really do seem to be saying that space and time emerge from something deeper which is absoluteky fundamental' has a poetic chime for me with the opening of St John''s Gospel where 'the Word' was with God, and was God, without whom nothing was made which is made.

And their wrestling with the way in which such information can be perceived being destroyed by the forces which have formed a Black Hole and be peceived as radiating from it has a poetic chime for me with 'the Word of God' both killed and detected in life.  Neither paradox lending itself to normal human understanding.

No claim here that this science gives us a short cut to a better understanding of God (notwithstanding Hawking's teasing conclusion to his book that an eventual understanding of why the universe exists would mean 'we would know the mind of God').  Perhaps rather simply wonder and comfort in the normality of scientific, theological (including language of pre-existing Word, Trinity and resurrection) and poetic understanding each has to operate with awareness that our immediate logic and perceptions are stretched to breaking point by real truth, and, in doing so, occasionally provide illustrative parallels.

Meanwhile, my new best friend is this lion in the small park (Arboretum) through which I divert most days now.