Friday, 28 November 2014

An Original Idea

I want to share an insight that I came across recently to do with the origin of religious belief. 
I'll keep it fairly brief. 

The ancient world was a world full of gods. Every nation/tribe had their own god and it seems like there was a god for almost everything. There were Gods of agriculture (Artemis), of fertility (Isis), of beauty (Aphrodite), war (Mars), for pregnancy (Bes), of the ocean (Poseidon), of households, you name it. The big ones are well known to us, gods like Nike the god of victory, but many are not.

More like temperamental supermen/women (or X-Men) than supreme beings these gods were powerful, but moody with quite troubled histories. They were as likely to change as the English weather and notoriously difficult to please, Jupiter was notably hard to placate. Fanciful and mythological stories abounded about those gods and where they came from. Take, for example, the story of Cybele & Attis: Cybele, so it goes, fell in love with the (supernatural) shepherd man Attis. Atiis (regrettably) cheated on her by having sex with a Nymph (as you do), and what happened next reads like a late night episode of TOWIE. Cybele got jealous and afflicted Attis with insanity who, in a mad frenzy, castrated himself (owch), lay down under a pine tree and died of blood loss. Cybele then regretted what she'd done and raised him back to life to serve as her companion forever.

Gods were the physical representation of deep seated societal/personal needs and their idols were the objects people focused their petitioning toward. The gods represented whatever it was the people needed; safety, victory, health, happiness, and although we don't (in the secular west) bow down to physical statues we do still desire the same things the Ancients did. We may not burn incense to Artemis or bulls to Isis but we still sacrifice all sorts of things in pursuit of a a desire. We pursue wealth or success, sometimes at the expense of family or health and people are known to make themselves ill for the sake of a Ferrari or a weekend break in Florence. We may not bow down to Aphrodite the goddess of beauty but we do sometimes spend hours in front of the mirror pursuing the exact same thing our ancestors did. We're not too dissimilar from them.

this next bit is what fascinates me

Iraq. The first human cities and centres of civilisation began in ancient Iraq (known then as Sumer, later, Babylon). It was from here that humanity spread and when it did people took their gods with them. The Egyptian gods, for example, are simply rebranded and slightly reinvented versions of the gods from Ancient Sumer (Iraq). The Greeks took their gods from Egypt restyled them and made them cool, and the Romans (as we know) took theirs from Greece. So, the goddess Cybele (mentioned above) was already popular in Rome before traders from the East brought her to the city, only in Rome she was known as Magna Mater (the Great Mother). Same gods, same aim, different place and time.

In nearly all the world Polytheism (belief in many gods) was the only form of theism (or religion) available.

In Nearly all the world.

There was another god available, but he was a god vastly unlike any of the others. Whereas the gods of the nations were fickle, argumentative and immoral this god was, well pure. He didn't fight the other gods, he didn't lie, he could be relied upon and he loved human beings unconditionally.The stories about this god were placed in space and time and they were told in historical rather than mythological terms. This god was different from the others. Not only did this god claim to have created everything but he claimed also to be in charge of everything as well, actively involved in his creation. This god was insistent as well that he was the only god in the world and even went so far as to say that the 'other gods were not gods at all.' This god claimed to be God. 

The uniqueness of this god cannot be overstated. In a world full of gods the Jewish people had an original idea, a concept of a god so utterly different from anyone else around them. It wasn't until Zoroaster in the 6th Century BCE that anyone else even claimed to have such an idea (and even then it could be argued that Zoroaster stole many of his ideas from the Jews). 

I find this fascinating. In a world where polytheism was the only religious option on the menu Abram's family (again from ancient Iraq) not only invented monotheism, but they managed to stick doggedly to it despite all the pressure against them. When all around them were insisting that Asherah or Baal could be trusted, they kept to their conviction that there was and is only one God (albeit not without many slides into idolatry). 

Do you see how strange this is? 

This would be like insisting that Nokias were the only true mobile phone in the world and that all the other 'phones in the world weren't even 'phones at all. All the world may be Apple, but you don't buy into any of it. Bizarre. 

I'm not, by inference, now going to insist that since this god was original in his day that he therefore must also be right. All I'm saying is that it's well, interesting and maybe just a little bit intriguing as well. Seeing this makes me want to investigate more about this god, where he came from and how on earth the Jews came up with the idea in the first place...

Much of the information and ideas in this blog comes from Rodney Stark's 'The Triumph of Christianity' and Tim Keller's 'Counterfeit Gods'.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Knights Temporal: 4 Years On

4 Years ago today was my dad's funeral. For the past few years on this day I like to post a few memories and reflections about him and our life together. The previous posts can be found here.


Recently I've been remembering our games of chess together. My dad was good at chess since he was a good strategist, able to think several moves ahead. My dad rarely made any mistakes and he took great pleasure in reminding me often that chess is a game unlike any other, 'it's the only game in the world' he'd say 'where luck counts for nothing.' Which suited him to say since he won all the time.

He was right though, chess matches aren't decided by luck.

As a game, chess has sort of followed me around. Dad taught me to play when I was young and, to make him proud, I represented the local Cub Scouts in a regional tournament (I lost my opening game - pride should never be encouraged!). At Uni my housemates were keen players and after I moved to Eastbourne I found myself running lunchtime chess clubs at primary schools. Now aged 31 and living in Seaford my opposite neighbour loves the game and so we spend many an evening abdicating from parental responsibilities to do battle over the black and white. I'm still not very good, too prone to rash decision making. I  can still hear my dad reprimanding me after each careless move 'Think!' he'd say 'Think!'. I try - but then thinking has never really been my thing.

Some of my most precious memories are of playing chess with my dad over the internet. We'd each sit there with our boards in front of us and Skype one another, mirroring the moves on our respective boards. The last game we played together was in hospital on a phone app I'd downloaded. The last game we ever played, I won - at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Before he died my dad made me a chess set.

On what was our last Christmas together he presented us kids each with a special and personal gift. Stuart and Becky both received a picture of some significant shared memory and I was presented with a handmade chess set, two Roman armies made from moulds one set white, the other red. Honestly it's the best gift I've ever received and it was a moving and special moment in the life of our family. I used the set in a talk I gave at church a couple of years ago, proudly displaying the pieces to make a point about finding God in difficulty.

A few weeks ago my boys were playing with the chess set when one of the pieces fell out of their hands and broke on the kitchen floor. The head of a Roman infantry solider, a pawn, rolled helplessly across the kitchen tiles. I felt bad. I felt like I hadn't shown proper care to a family heirloom. I felt as though I ought to apologise to my dad. I thought seriously about giving a child up for adoption.


Chess can teach us a lot of lessons. I read recently about a man who teaches inner city kids life lessons by challenging them to games: 'you rushed and made a mistake.... you reacted in anger... you didn't think far enough ahead... you didn't protect the pieces most important to you...'

Apart from learning to keep the pieces up higher & out of kiddie reach, I learnt something significant that day. I learnt that superglue fixes things just fine and I learnt that what my dad had given me that Christmas was much more than a Roman chess set. He made for me a memento of our relationship and a reminder of our time together. Just as a wedding ring is an expression of a reality far more significant so with these chess pieces. By breaking one of the hallowed dad-carved pieces it stopped me placing the significance in the wrong place. What matters isn't the physical pieces themselves but the reality they represent. What is important isn't that I preserve those specific pieces but that I preserve the memory and carry on sharing the enjoyment of the game with my kids just as dad had done with me. By breaking a piece my son had actually freed the whole set up, enabling us to enjoy it together without it becoming a boxed up toy that's only good for stirring up feelings of nostalgia.

Riley and I played our first game of chess together on the set my dad made for me and he's been asking me ever since to play some more. 

All of life is temporal whether it's the physical tokens we accrue or the personal experiences we live through.

It's really only a question of prioritising our temporal things

What matters more to me is not that the chess set gets passed from me to my son and then in turn to his, but rather that my sons learn to play the game and share in the joy my dad and I experienced together. That way our lives aren't filled with a nostalgia that longs for the past but with experiences that build on the occasions and memories of the past. The past ought not be a sacred shrine, and so by refusing to get stuck in the land of yesterday we actually stay true to the spirit of those experiences we enjoyed so much. With any fond memory we can sometimes be so scared of losing it that we bury it, but doing this only limits its value to us. We reinforce a moment's significance and worth by wearing it out and allowing it to change into something that bears all the marks of present reality. Carpets are meant to carry stains that tell a story and sofas are supposed to get worn through.

This year as I look back on my dad's death and open up old wounds my Big Idea is that wearing something out, rather than storing it away, is a better way of showing it the honour it's due.  

A worn out teddy bear with new stitching, a ripped arm and an eye missing is clearly a lot more loved than one that's been kept in a box. It may not be worth as much on eBay, but who'd ever sell something that valuable anyway?

Miss you dad. 

Riley's First Ever Game of Chess from Jez Field on Vimeo.