First question. Why would a person desire to kill a beautiful, majestic creature like this. Why would they spend £32,000 in order to be able to kill it. Why would skinning it and taking its head be important. How can we even begin to understand such behaviour from our own species. As so often in life, I want to try to turn David Attenborough (valuing all life and its behaviours) on the peculiar species to which I so often feel I only tenuously belong. Continue reading “Cecil”


All we like sheep

Although it’s poor style to start with an ‘incidentally’… It was odd when I googled the above phrase to discover (having sung it as part of the Messiah but somehow omitted to properly pay attention) that the sheep are not those who blindly follow, but those who dissent (in Isiah, they are those who wander or stray and who need a shepherd to bring them back to the correct path). It’s interesting because the cultural meme of a sheep corresponds, surely, more to the religious devotee than to the atheist. I’d forgotten that the bible verse gives the sheep the opportunity to make its own path. Continue reading “All we like sheep”

The Lamb

Something which often preoccupies me is how an atheist (like me) can fully engage with and experience art which is inspired by religious faith.  That’s not to say I don’t think it’s possible, as in fact I think rather the opposite. But defining how that works is difficult. Here’s a small snapshot of thought from the other day, inspired by Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’, which is a choral setting of a poem by William Blake.

I think how Blake interprets Christian imagery here (and I’m writing in full awareness that my literary culture in general and my knowledge of Blake in particular are poor: I just know he had an unorthodox, personal, and rather powerful visionary take on religious faith) is stunningly moving, and in the music there’s a sense of unease and awe that corresponds, for me, to the tremendous fear that comes through in the poetry, and which should come from genuine faith in these amazing, amazing ideas.

Once you accept God become man, and the power and mystery of the image of the Lamb embodying both incredible humility and incredible power (so that all depends on it and all comes from it – ‘we are called by thy name’) it has to lead to the kind of dark, solemn power which the music finds and conveys both through and beyond the poem.

Go here to listen to a beautiful version on Youtube. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing John Tavener’s “The Lamb”. 1998.

Do not let me have what I want

I found an interesting story when I was looking up Hans Christian Andersen in response to a post about scary French children’s stories on Facebook). It’s The Story of a Mother. Here is the summary on wikipedia, which is pared down but still moving, and here is a more fictionalised, stylised version.

The discussion about whether or not children should be exposed to dark ideas made me want to look up some Andersen because of the different type of darkness, death, etc in stories ostensibly aimed at children. I remember certain vivid images from childhood like the Little Mermaid’s pain when she walked (as if on a knife-edge); an image of a mother with three dead children, for which I can’t find the source.

Incidentally, I tend to dislike the existential twistedness of many French picture-books (of which there is a specific genre, I’d say; and which are aimed at very young children) compared to the profound discussions of death, loss and morality in stories like many of the Andersen stories, and other dark children’s literature (Dahl, Robin Jarvis etc).

I was particularly interested in The Story of a Mother (because there are lots of amazing Andersen stories) for the stunningly moving last appeal of the mother. She basically says “Do not let me have what I want” – and I’m *sure* there is a cultural reference elsewhere for this and I’ve been googling it ever since but can’t find anything but a few obscure Christian ideas. Perhaps it is a negro spiritual, or something: anyway it rings a bell.

Also, for me the story is scarily evocative of the depth of a mother’s love. She will do anything to find her child; she will literally bleed from her own heart, and walk to the ends of the earth and will find the child amongst millions. And it is the fundamental selflessness of a parent’s love, that, somewhat like the judgement of Solomon, she would rather lose the child (ie deny her own pleasure) than for it to suffer.

Interesting ethical questions. In fact, it’s not like the judgement of Solomon. There, the mother chose to give up her own pleasure (having the child with her) in favour of the child living (albeit, apart from her). The mother in the Andersen would rather the child die than risk its suffering; indeed, a 50-50 risk. But we have to remember the context of this story is that the child is going to God. A continued existence in bliss, presumably. So this skews the statistics of her decision making a little. 50-50 suffering or happiness for the child in life, against a 100% chance of the child’s bliss in death combined with a 100% chance of suffering for the mother who loses her child in life. So in the end, selfish versus selfless seems to be her only criterion for the decision.

Although Christians would presumably believe that they would be reunited with the child in death. Typical – religion provides a win-win situation for any problem.

Anyway, who knows – perhaps some suffering is valuable. Personally, I think I’d rather live fully and properly, and risk feeling some pain, than only live half-heartedly, and never feel pain or loss. Also, there is definitely a distinction to be made between what one wants, in the present moment, and what one should have. Naturally, I’d just query whether God should be in charge of making that distinction, as he is in the story. What the mother asks for is for God to decide what should happen – she places her fate in divine hands. Sadly, in reality, much as it’s tempting to delegate, I believe the responsibility for that type of decision is mine and mine alone.

Anyway, these thoughts are as far as I’ve got alone. Feel free to comment or discuss below.

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