end_is_nighThere’s a thread that runs through much of the Old Testament, which sees conflict between the perspective of the prophet, and the perspective of the king.

Prophets and kings were basically two sides of the same coin, they had a kind of symbiosis. And they both had much to fear from the other too: mainly death, of one sort or another.

Whereas kings represented the rule of earthly law, and were all about gathering power and wealth,  prophets on the other hand lived a marginal existence, eschewed power and privilege, and spoke instead of the primacy of God’s law, and of the ultimate rule of justice. There was little profit in being a prophet.

When it comes to the considering the archetypal prophet, certainly the one that looms  largest over the Hebrew identity, is Moses. He is the one who, according to the Exodus story, ushers the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert and on to the promised land. Matthew of course draws a number of direct parallels between the hero figure of Moses, and the new hero: Jesus. Matthew is depicting Jesus as the new Moses. (Miraculous birth, divinely appointed role, comes out of Egypt, water miracles, feeding miracles, goes up a mountain to deliver God’s rules, etc.)

For some people these clear comparisons are an example of the way in which Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy, and from a faith standpoint that’s a perfectly valid way to look at it. An alternative, and similarly valid way of looking at this however, is to say that “Matthew” is using the tropes of Moses to develop his portrait of Jesus in a way that shows him to be the new Moses (the new liberator). In other words he uses the Torah as a means of retrospectively foreshadowing Jesus’ story. There’s probably a technical literary term for this, but I don’t know it.

Adding weight to (either) of these two theories/approaches is the way that the same thing happens with Jesus and King David, again the similarities in Matthew’s Gospel are notable (Bethlehem birth, tribe of Judah, ‘Shepherd’ role, wilderness battles, betrayal by trusted friends, and of course significance of the Mount of Olives for both, etc.) This sort of thing doesn’t stop with David and Moses, but they are suitable for illustrating the point. *

The writer of Matthew is, in my opinion something of a master of clever literary devices. (One of the best being the way he portrays the choice of the crowd when it comes to the crucifixion: do they want ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Barabbas’? This is clear word play, bar Abba means ‘son of the father’, so the question is: do they want Jesus, or Jesus son of the father? Sadly this word play has been lost in translations which use newer versions of the Matthew text.)  So my suggestion is that Matthew is using a sophisticated literary device to paint a picture of Jesus as both the new David (important politically too), and the new Moses. And its the Moses bit that’s important here, because what I want to do is get to the idea of Jesus-as-Prophet.

If and when we talk about a prophet today, there tends to be an idea that we are talking about someone who can ‘see’ or ‘predict’ the future, in the sense that a clairvoyant or soothsayer might be said to do. But really the role of the prophet is to speak truth to power, to stand up to the powers that be and announce the word of God. This is the role of Moses. Of course there is a sense of prediction here, but its mainly in the sense of consequences, rather as I might have said to my children when they were younger: ‘don’t do that, or else you’ll hurt yourself.’ (Now they say it to me.)

A prophet then is not really there to say ‘this is what will happen when you die’, or ‘this is when the crops will grow’, the prophet is there to critique the king, particularly when the king slips into injustice, as they more or less all did. The King role is the establishment role, the ‘state’ role, while the prophet is the outsider, the reformer: it’s a deeply political role of course. Depicting Jesus as the new Moses says to the reader that this is Jesus’ role, to critique the action of the state, to lead a reformation, to usher in a whole new way of living. Depicting him as both king and prophet casts him as a Platonic style philosopher king, a vital idea for Matthew’s gentile readers.

* Readers will understand that I don’t necessarily see the figures of either Moses or David as ‘genuine’ historical figures, from my perspective, they are both mythic figures from the Hebrew tradition, who occupy important places in the collective imagination. It’s not whether they ever lived that’s important to me, it’s what people understood about them that matters.  

angelsThe book we now call the Bible is an edited collection of books – a library if you like, which has been compiled over time. For a long time there was no single collection of books, and instead there were a multitude of books which belonged to different traditions. Even today different branches of Christianity use different Bibles, with different books in, and favour different translations of individual texts.

So the books which make it in to the Bible, as you may already know, are called the ‘canon’ (from a Latin term meaning, according to rule). They have been accepted over time as being particularly special. But there are other books too, which date from Old and New Testament times, which fall outside of the canon (precisely what the canon is depends somewhat on your tradition, but there y’go). These extra-canonical books are known as ‘apocryphal’, and one of the oldest of the New Testament era apocryphal books is the gospel of James, also known as the protoevangelium of James (click through to read a version of it.)

It’s a short book, and to be fair it’s quite a good read, short sentences, lots going on. It is also very old, best guesses seem to have it pegged to the middle of the second century of the Common Era. It is written in the name of James, the brother of Jesus. That is to say a half-brother, being a son of Joseph by a former wife. There’s no particular reason to think it was written by the same person, or people who wrote the epistle of James (which, incidentally, was one of the least favourite books of monk-bothering anti-semite and reformer in chief Martin Luther, he called it a ‘right strawy epistle’).

James’ gospel tells the story of the birth of Mary, her upbringing in the Temple, her betrothal to Joseph and Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. Key to it is the establishment of the purity (virginity) of Mary, as checked upon by a midwife. Among other interesting factors, the book contains the story of Jesus being born in a cave, which remains a popular trope to be found here and there, particularly in paintings.

It also seems to have directly influenced the writing of the Quran, containing as it does, details of Mary’s upbringing in the temple, including her angelic visitations. Mary is of course very highly regarded in Islam, and is the only woman named in the Quran. Early Islamic writers certainly seem to have been familiar with the tradition found in James’ Gospel, as well as the Gospel of Thomas, another non-canonical book, demonstrating that it was well known in the early Christian world.

Like many of the apocryphal books, James’ Gospel has some unusual details, which somehow make the book all the more fascinating. One can’t help but wonder if they rather went against it’s inclusion in the eventual canon though. The fact that there are also mentions of breasts, menstrual flows and internal examinations, with the midwife giving Mary and understated warning: “position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place”, probably didn’t help make its case.

If I were a literature-of-the-Bible teacher, I would call the idea of reading James’ gospel, ‘reading around the text’, or ‘wider reading’. And there is a lot to be gained, I think, by reading these texts. As another example, wider reading around the Old Testament Canon gives us the books of the Maccabees which, among other things, explain the origins of Hannukah. All these readings provide an amount of context to the stories with which we are so familiar. I’m not making an argument for them to be given some sort of different status to that which they currently have. But they do cast the Bible in a slightly different light, making it seem more like the kind of living dynamic text it certainly once was.

My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas.  I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.

So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.

Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.

I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.

Every year people ask me why I wear a white poppy. The post below is something I wrote a few years ago for my old blog, it goes somewhere towards explaining why.

Wearing the White Poppy

un-gunIt’s been quite a few years since I last wore a red poppy.

Instead, because I think that remembrance is important, I wear a white one, which I buy from the Peace Pledge Union.

It’s not an act of betrayal, nor is it a denial of the genuine human sacrifice made by human beings who were motivated to offer up their bodies because of love or duty.

Both of my grandfathers fought in WW2, they did what they thought they should do, what they believed was right. They were brave men, they emerged alive from that dreadful conflict, but not unscathed.

I do not wear a white poppy as some kind of denial of the sacrifice that millions made.

I wear a white poppy because I believe in remembering all who died.

I wear a white poppy because I don’t want to see any more wars.

I wear a white poppy because death doesn’t win.

I respect the right of everyone to wear a poppy, or not, according to their conscience. I don’t think you should wear one just because that’s the ‘done thing’. I choose not to wear a red poppy, and I do so for the same basic reasons as I choose to wear a white one.

In the UK the red poppy has come to be almost totally synonymous with the remembrance of dead service personnel, specifically dead British soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. I have no problem with remembering dead servicemen and women, of any sort. But I want to go further, I believe we should remember all who die in war. The innocent victims, the enemy combatants, the conscripts, the deserters, the shell shocked, the courageous and the cowards. The children, the women, the young, the old, the pregnant, the unborn, the confused, the disturbed, the traumatised and the tricked. Those who did what they were told, and those who did what they believed in, those who weren’t sure, and those who were overconfident.

The red poppy has come to be synonymous with the aftermath of international conflicts, it’s as if those conflicts are an inevitability. They aren’t. The more we consider war and its causes, the more we see that there are other ways of dealing with conflict. War is not inevitable, and shouldn’t be seen as such. We should be working together to bring an end to war.

“Last years British Legion Young Professionals’ Poppy Rocks was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms company. Lockheed Martin also manufactures the Trident missile. Each of Britain’s missile submarines is capable of carrying 16 missiles. Each of these missiles can kill far in excess of the 888,000 dead represented by the red poppies at the Tower of London.” PPU.

The red poppy, with its blood stain shape and colour is a reminder of the bitter truth that in war, blood is shed, real, hot, red, human blood. That is the horrific reality of war. The myth of war is that if enough blood is shed, we can triumph. The myth is that good can overcome evil, if only there is enough death. It’s not true. Perhaps the only real inevitability is that wars lead to more wars.

The white poppy with its simple, central, bold message of ‘peace’ calls us to reconsider, to stand back from our allegiance to death and the myth of redemptive violence and remember the dead.

What is called the utopian dream of pacifism is in fact a practical policy – indeed the only practical, the only realistic policy that there is.
Aldous Huxley

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TKcropIt’s always sad to hear of a death. The knowledge of a life passing means the loss of a connection, and our bodies react instinctively to that. Too many people seem to go too soon, but having reached the age of 95, that at least can’t be said of Fr Thomas Keating.

Fr Thomas, a Trappist Monk, died this week, and with his death comes the end of the life of a man who profoundly influenced me and many others in our approach to the Christian life.

I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard of Centering prayer – although I know what era of my life it was, I was living in South Wales, and was at that time developing my interest in all things contemplation and meditation.  Reading Fr Thomas’ book ‘Open Mind Open Heart’ was a release and a revelation to me at that time. I’ve also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the youtube videos in which he appeared, which have been immensely helpful to me in the development of my own meditation practise.

When I started practising Centering prayer I found it life giving and freeing – and ever since then I have encouraged others to follow the same path.

Centering prayer is the nearest tradition to a Zazen practise that I have fully engaged with, and that was something else that Fr Thomas taught me. A respectful and humble approach to wisdom and spiritual traditions which are different to my own has now been part of my life for so many years its hard to imagine being any other way, but of course it wasn’t always like this.

For me it was crucial to find pioneers like Fr Thomas leading the way in to genuine interreligious dialogue, he acted as a kind of permission giver in my own journey in to deep friendships with those of other religions. I can honestly reflect on those relationships and recognise immense treasures that have come from them, they have challenged, stimulated and encouraged me in ways I could never have expected otherwise.

So while I feel a sense of sadness at the passing of this wonderful man, who I never had the chance to meet, I have a much greater sense of gratitude, both for his life, and for his many gifts.

Sociologists and theologians have much to say about the idea of gift, because gifts are transactions, we give in the expectation of receiving something in return. So we approach life in this way, we expect to have to earn good things, we struggle with the idea of accepting something entirely un-earned. Fr Thomas recognised this challenge in terms of our approach to spirituality: “The gift of God is absolutely gratuitous. It’s not something you earn. It’s something that’s there. It’s something you just have to accept. This is the gift that has been given. There’s no place to go to get it. There’s no place you can go to avoid it. It just is. It’s part of our very existence. And so the purpose of all the great religions is to bring us into this relationship with reality that is so intimate that no words can possibly describe it.”

I am running a meditation retreat in a fortnight, Centering prayer will be the key approach and technique for that time, and on that weekend of remembrance, we will find a way of remembering Fr Thomas.

Fr Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. 1923 – 2018

Rest in peace, rise in glory.

calfThere’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures, about the people of Israel after they had escaped from Egypt. In the story, which is absurdly rich in symbolism and image, the people are making their way through the desert when their leader Moses climbs a mountain to commune with God.

To cut a complicated narrative unreasonably short, the impatient Israelites get fed up waiting for Moses to return, and decide to melt their golden jewellery to create an idol – a golden calf, which they then proceed to worship.

Moses, who has spent 40 days on the mountain eventually returns to find all this going on, loses it a bit, and a load of the Israelites pop their clogs. When you read serious Jewish interpretations of the story, it grows more complex around the edges, considering the motivations of those who built the calf, and so on.

So here’s the thing: as with many Bible stories, there are two predictable dangers when we read the story: 1) The story is written off as complete nonsense: “It didn’t happen, and it has nothing to say to us.” 2) The story is taken totally literally, as though it is a modern historical account: “This is exactly what happened to a ‘real’ people, in a ‘real’ place, at a ‘real’ time.”

Neither of these two approaches manage to capture the complex subtleties of the story, which was almost certainly written down or collated from oral tradition as part of the process of nation building while the Israelites were in captivity a few centuries BCE. While this whole question – the historicity of the text – makes for fascinating reading and discussion, I’m not about to run through all that here.

I’m more interested in the question of the Golden Calf: what does it represent?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for the Golden Calf as representative of certainty.

Moses’ disappearance up the mountain was for ’40 days’ a term used to represent a long time. Faced with the disappearance of their spiritual leader, the people grew upset, and eventually chose what they felt to be a logical course of action.

“Give us a god to go before us,” they said, “for we don’t know what has come of this man Moses.” (Exodus 32:1)

What the people wanted was some sense of security, a kind of certainty that they could cling to. Moses, a man who had difficulty communicating at the best of times, had left them to wait for him while he communed with an invisible, unknown God. Would he ever return?

To put this in to a framework with which people who read this blog are familiar: Moses led the Israelites into a period of major league deconstruction. He took them out of the brutal certainties of Egypt, where they had suffered, but at least they knew what was what, and into the wilderness.

And then he had left them…

Extended uncertainty, lets be honest, really gets to you. It grates. maxresdefault

And after a while – a long time – they began to crave some sense of certainty. ‘It’s time to reconstruct, to rebuild: give us a god to go before us…’

When they eventually came to act upon this craving, they constructed something which would have been culturally very familiar – and they gave a lot to it – this was no petty endeavour. A lot of gold went into making that statue.

This is precisely what happens to many who try to find some solid ground on which to stand after deconstruction, they go for something familiar, they invest in it, they give it their all, and in the end they create another idol.

I feel huge sympathy for the Israelites, mainly because I think I may have felt just as they did. And yet from the benefit of some elevation, looking down from Mount Sinai, Moses who was a somewhat absolutist sort, could see the futility of this search for comfort. And lost his rag. Understandable yes, but harsh, Moses, harsh: dwelling in uncertainty is difficult.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help. 

doorway1I hear from a lot of people who have been through, or are going through, a period of deconstruction. I’ve come to realise that, as with many things, there are stages, and one or more of those stages involves a strong desire to reconstruct.

It’s natural – anyone who has had to pull down an edifice around which they had built their life, is likely to reach a point where they think ‘ok, that’s all gone, now I can rebuild.’ For some this means seeking out a church or other religious space where they can feel at home. For others it becomes about latching on to a particular spiritual or religious leader or movement with which, or with whom, they identify.

In some circumstances, this is positive. For instance, the discovery of a safe, supportive and nurturing community can be a real boon. Particularly when one has been without such a support network for an extended period of time.

This is not universally the case, however, and it can indicate that the individual has not yet reached a point of maturity where they feel able to engage with the causes of their deconstruction in genuinely grown-up terms. Over the years I’ve observed, in myself and others, the desire to strongly attach one’s self to a figure head or cause, something which is, ultimately, indicative of a lack of spiritual maturity. It speaks of our desire to deify ideas and people, which is natural for a child, but in an adult quickly becomes unhealthy and unhelpful.

At best, reconstruction is very helpful – it allows us to develop our questioning narrative in a safe place, and in community rather than in isolation. But it can easily dull the senses, and give us a sense of security which we don’t want to lose by doing too much questioning. Dogma is safe, solid, and secure – or at least it has that illusion, but when you feel safe, you’re much less likely to take a risk with a step in to the unknown.

I don’t discourage anyone who feels that for them the time is right to reconstruct, if they can make that work, I’m glad for them. However, I am deliberate in my refusal to prescribe it: the great story of Jesus in the desert tells how he was tempted in a number of important ways. The unwritten, but implied temptation was the temptation to run back to civilisation, to a place of safety. Had he done so, it would have spoiled the story, of course. So I encourage people who are in the desert, and have the capacity to remain there a while longer, to do so. Face the reality of who you are, what you have built up around you, your motivations, and your desires. That’s difficult – I recognise that, and if you can find someone to walk with you, it’s a good thing.

The story of Antony of Egypt, a renowned ‘Desert Father’ goes that he stayed in the desert for twenty years, before returning to found a monastery. And even then, the cells were scattered and the monks were solitary for much of the time. That is because, when/if the time comes to reconstruct, that which we rebuild may be quite different to that which went before.

When I teach stillness meditation I teach people to neither resist, resent nor retain any thoughts, for its amazing how many wonderful ideas flood into your head while you sit in meditation. Better to let those thoughts pass by, than to try to grab them. If they are as marvellous as they seem, they will return in time. Likewise, when you’re in a period of deconstruction, don’t rush to reconstruct. If in time a natural opportunity comes your way, then by all means walk with it a bit, but don’t cling to it too firmly, and don’t allow a new dogma to replace the old one.

Finally, there is a koan that goes: ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.’ The Buddha, the road, and the killing are all symbolic: it means that if you find precisely what you think you are looking for, be careful, for what you are looking for may not be what you really need.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help.