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During my ongoing review of ancient scribblings by myself, I came across another essay that I very much enjoyed writing. Its subject matter, George Herbert’s 17th century anthology The Temple, is a wonderful example of “fine energies” being examined and released by “fine reasoning”, albeit inside a worldview that is entirely circumscribed by a belief in received interpretation of Christian scripture. Rereading it, I feel myself again seduced by the beautiful internal consistency of Herbert’s argument, won over by his sincerity, awed by his skill and respectful of his courage and his humility in facing his God.

It seems amazing that I wrote a 3000-word essay on a poem of just eight simple lines! Well, it was on The Temple as a whole, but as Dr. Ron Hall’s original question indicates, the themes of this great work are succinctly encapsulated in the tiny Bitter-sweet. This shows how powerful a good poem can be in stimulating and feeding meditation on huge life-changing subjects, and thus it should be no surprise, if one views the Bible as a poetic work (as argued in my previous posts Fine energies and fine (if erroneous) thoughts and Poetry and creativity in the press and in the Bible), that it has had the power to mould and move individuals and nations both to heights of achievement and, sadly, to depths of repression, as they reach for the perfection at which it hints.

I think that, as in the best poems, some of its power comes from its universality. Although I do not believe the Bible to be an accurate historical or empirical record of, nor a blueprint for, human development, I do believe that, along with many other writings of similar poetic power, it contains universal truths which attract those who experience their lives as a meaning-making journey, whether their medium be primarily that of the emotions or that of the intellect.

So… here’s my encounter with Bitter-sweet and The Temple:

Taking the poem Bitter-sweet as your point of departure, discuss the methods used in, and the effects achieved by, Herbert’s blending of “complaint” and “praise” in The Temple. (Dr R. Hall)

Bitter-sweet

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

George Herbert

After an oppressively didactic introduction in The Church-porch, Herbert opens the heart of his work with a series on the Passion of Christ. Despite the Judaeo-Catholic legalism of the preceding section, it is clearly these poems, with their Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace, that are intended to set the context for the major part of The Templei. The remainder of The Church is a meditation on the nature of the relationship with God exemplified in, and made possible by, Christ’s Passion. When Herbert imitates his God, as suggested in Bitter-sweet, he clearly has in mind the Christ who could complain to his Father, “…take away this cup”, yet in the next breath say, “…not my will, but thine be done”ii.

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Still on the topics of gender discrimination and of hypocrisy, the following articles in the Mail&Guardian today caught my eye:

Sex Bias and Hypocrisy by Lucy Ward begins with the following paragraph:

Teenage girls and young women in the United Kingdom overwhelmingly believe they face a future of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, with half worrying that their careers will suffer if they have children, according to a survey by the Girl Guides.

It goes on to say that while the majority of them believe that women can do anything they want to do, and that 94% expect to go back to work after having children, most of them also believe that they already and in the future face discrimination issues due to their gender.

In the same section, I came across an article by Sarah Churchwell (whose surname is doubtless considered ironic by members of the church, given her views) titled Who needs kids anyway? I think the title is slightly misleading, because it gives the impression that she thinks of kids as a burden and wouldn’t want any herself, whereas the article reveals that she is open to the possibility but is making the point that motherhood is a possible role, not the entire definition of a woman. The article starts like this:

Last week brought yet another report in the United Kingdom yelping about women “waiting too long” to have babies. I enjoyed this one, particularly as it was about graduate women born in 1970, of whom 40% have had children. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m one of the other 60%. The report had a clear message: get impregnated now or you shall rue the day. Oh, please. Can we get a few things straight?

She goes on to make four points with which I heartily agree:

  1. Raising children in the wrong partnership is painful and destructive for all concerned and when a suitable partnership isn’t available during the childbearing years then remaining childfree is far preferable.
  2. “… wanting children is not a foregone conclusion just because I am a woman.”
  3. “… not having children is not necessarily a selfish decision.”
  4. “… having children is not necessarily a selfless decision.”

For me, the most compelling reason is the last one. I am really irked by the hypocrisy of those who have had children for a huge complex of psychological reasons including the desire to live out an improved version of their own lives through their children, the need to feel empowered by controlling beings less powerful than themselves, the desire to achieve status in communities that value the number and/or achievements of one’s children, the need not to be considered inadequate by communities who believe that a woman is not fulfilled unless she is a mother, the hope that children will provide some kind of insurance against loneliness and poverty in old age, or even simply because it never occurred to them not to have children, and who then in retrospect justify the difficulties that they’ve faced in childbearing and childrearing by saying that they did it for love, or because they are “unselfish” in comparison with those who have chosen not to have children.

Of course, I understand the need to create meaning and a sense of purpose in order to sustain oneself through the struggles that having children entails, and I do believe that some people who start out selfish may become less so through the experience of having children, but it’s simply not true that the majority of women start out with the altruistic thought, “What can I give to the world? Oh, I know, I’ll have a baby.” Most people do it for themselves, or due to cultural pressure (which, in a way, is still for themselves).

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this isn’t a good reason for doing it, as it’s perfectly human. Just be honest. It’s no more or less selfish than the choice not to do so. And both choices may or may not have positive consequences for the world. One could be the mother of a serial killer. The other might be Mother Theresa.



The article Discrimination against girls ‘still deeply entrenched’ by Terri Judd and Harriet Griffey in today’s Independent quotes statistics from the Plan International report “Because I am a Girl” which show me very clearly that the issue of gender status is not yet a curiosity for the history books:

    Almost 100 million girls “disappear” each year, killed in the womb or as babies…
    … two million girls a year still suffer genital mutilation
    … half a million die during pregnancy – the leading killer among 15 to 19-year-olds – every 12 months
    … an estimated 7.3 million are living with HIV/Aids compared with 4.5 million young men.
    Almost a million girls fall victim to child traffickers each year compared with a quarter that number of boys
    …. Of the 1.5 billion people living on less than 50p a day, 70 per cent are female
    … 96 million young women aged 15 to 24 (are) unable to read or write – almost double the number for males.
    62 million girls are not even receiving primary school education
    … an estimated 450 million have stunted growth because of childhood malnutrition.

The article goes on to say that while many of the worst figures apply to developing countries, there is still clear statistical evidence of sexual discrimination in the north, and gives specific examples in the UK.

As I write about this, I’m obviously challenged to think what exactly I’m doing about it. I might be making a very tiny contribution by blogging about the status and perception of women (amongst the other things I’m interested in) and by contributing to Amnesty International who run several campaigns specifically on behalf of women, and by creating a website (sheTIME) which is intended to offer a place for women to exchange experiences, tips and information about the feminine cycle in order to change their perception of this definitive female experience from negative to positive. sheTIME has been held up a little while the two of us who’ve created it clarify our vision for its future, but I do hope that it will eventually be released for public view. But all of this seems so little a contribution from someone who comes from a place of relative comfort, rank and power when compared to the women the statistics above describe. I know there is more I can do, and in the next few months I will look for appropriate channels. My instinct is to go for educational programmes that target women, because education empowers in the long-term, but I know there are so many other urgent issues as well, like stopping the rape in Darfur.

This morning while musing and browsing, I came across this site that has a huge number of stories about successful programmes in India: http://www.empowerpoor.com/programmereport.asp When the enormity of the problem threatens to overwhelm one, it’s good to be inspired by such a long list of creative solutions that have made and are making a difference.

Here’s another good one to consider: http://www.plan-uk.org/becauseiamagirl/trafficking/



Yesterday we hosted one of our regular Shakespeare readings at home. The company was jolly and the food delicious, if very simple (crudites with organic hummus to start, then homemade veggie soup with homemade crusty bread at the halfway point, and strawberries and Lindt Lindor Extra Dark choccy balls for the final act!). With the help of some French organic cider and a very good Pinot Noir, the group launched into Measure for Measure with great energy, scrambling bravely over the rocky bits (French velvet and English kersey) and breaking out every so often for a spot of outrage or insight as we are wont to do. We were delighted by the variety of temperaments our readers captured in both large and small parts, with a menacingly sepulchral Angelo, Lucio as a canny, sassy, irreverent ne’er-sit-down whose wordplay gleamed like swordplay, Francisca sporting an Irish accent, a self-righteous Elbow, a truculent Barnardine, the passionate virgin Isabella, and all the other characters whose hilarious and shocking contrasts only fully emerge when embodied.

The play was, as always, very timely. We yielded willingly to the Bard’s genius in creating characters, situations and wordplay that make us laugh uproariously while reflecting on themes of moral hypocrisy, the unequal values placed on the testimonies of women and men, the power-relationships of relative rank, money, reputation, class and gender, over-legislation and interference by the state, and the obsession with sex as a focus for legislation and judgement due to supposed “public interest”, with repression the chosen tool despite the evidence of history that it is neither possible nor desirable to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (Pompey to Escalus, MforM Act II Sc i).

These topics are so ubiquitous and familiar still from our own everyday politics that it’s hard to blame anyone who takes up an attitude as cynical as Lucio’s, determining simply to follow whichever path (and suck up to whichever power source) is likely to lead to the greatest personal licence right now. However, in Shakespeare’s time one had a lot less choice about one’s position and advancement in society (at least relative to those who live in more or less democratic cultures now — I know that the majority of the world still lacks this privilege). Why don’t those of us who can in the 21st century require our leaders and opinion-formers in church and state and media to concentrate on education, health, gender equality and poverty relief or any of the other things where their intervention could actually be useful, rather than spending our time and our money on the prosecution of people whose service exists because of society’s need and desire to use it?

I say this in connection with “The madam, her girls and a city in fear” in the Mail&Guardian. How much has changed since Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure? Well, I smiled as I thought that it seems clear that the primal needs and the political motivations of the players haven’t altered at all, but at least there is a possibility that Mistress Overdone may get more airtime. That, at least, brings a bit of balance to the exploitation equation.

Overall, the play’s a peachy preach on a theme that’s too little heard these days:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

And I love the open question at the end… did Isabella say yes to Vincentio?



{Wed 9 May 2007}   Love as yardstick of truth
Well, this started out as a comment on another blog, but rapidly grew long enough to be a post in its own right, so I decided to open it for further comment here. If you want a bit more background, go to the previous discussion on What Theology Looks Like at Father Stephen’s blog.

In response to Father Stephen’s gentle suggestion that my original conversion experience might have been emotional rather than content-based, I responded as follows:

I don’t think anyone would be able to continue living with the consequences of their conversion if it contained no content, unless they really had a pathological need for rejection by and isolation from family, former friends and mainstream society. Although my conversion experience was emotional and therefore highly motivating, it was strongly founded on a clear intellectual understanding of the Christian gospel and much bible reading.

I experienced many further “proofs” of the reality and effectiveness of my faith over my years as a Christian, being a witness to and facilitator of many other conversions and physical and emotional healings, and was very involved in leadership and church-building in different communities, including one of the first truly multiracial churches in South Africa, based in Soweto before apartheid fell.

All my experiences further convinced me of the truth I espoused, because my framework was adequate to contain and explain them as long as my exposure to other worldviews was limited. When I began to read and travel more widely, this was no longer possible as some aspects of reality simply could not be forced to fit any more. Do not assume that acknowledging this was easy or quick for me. Finding a stance from which I could live positively thereafter was an extremely painful and lonely process over 10 long years. I’ve only recently begun to name that stance “negative capability” after Keats, and I know that name may turn out to be inadequate. The key factor for me (at present) is personal responsibility.

I think the issue is not to do with content or the lack of it, but with the names we give to the content. Our naming systems are impossibly inadequate for the task of codifying suprarational realities, and our attempts to do so, while inevitable as part of our efforts to make sense of our world, usually amount to no more than Babel-building, because we don’t have sufficient humility to acknowledge our limitations.

This is not the same thing as saying that everyone is “right”. I’m not sure whether that is a “quintessentially American idea” – it may be, but I doubt whether it originated in America. In any case, I’m not an American, so my current position is not due to the undue influence over me of what you might perceive as negative forces in American thought!

In my opinion, the state of the world offers clearer evidence that everyone is wrong, than that anyone is right! I do believe that everyone may (although many choose not to) draw some enlightenment and some sharpening of conscience from their traditions, but I do not believe that all traditions are equally right (or wrong). They (and sub-traditions within them) may be closer to or further away from the kind of love that respects all persons equally and facilitates each person’s becoming all that she can be. This love-in-action is the yardstick I choose to use for measuring truth.



Well, I’ve just given in to an impulse to update the grammar in the essay on “The Priesthood of the Soul“, although I admit that it’s 99.999% likely that I’m the only one who would notice the difference (as it’s just about as likely that I’m the only one who’s actually read it). Anyway, it’s infinitesimally less poncey and slightly more readable due to some shortened sentences, use of the active rather than the passive voice, etc. I couldn’t do more without really settling in to rewrite the thing, but it was a good way of revisiting these thoughts.

Today, I was struck by this quote from Keats that I used in the essay:

Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine… (In the same way) our reasoning though erroneous…may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry. (317)

I think this stood out to me because I’ve been re-engaging with theology and the Bible a bit in my new comments today on “The Nakedly Evil Origins of Ritual Oppression of Women“. It’s not a new thought that the Bible is poetic in nature and thus contains poetic rather than rational truth. The one is no less true than the other, but they are of a different order and arrived at via different processes. It is also not news that some very intelligent and highly trained thinkers believe that the Bible is rationally and empirically true. I think one reason for this may be that the “fine energies” in the Bible are so seductive that they attract thinkers capable of fine reasoning who sense its power but misinterpret its mode. Because these fine minds have a rational approach (and are not accustomed to seeing the poetry in everything), they insist on a form of biblical exegesis that requires reality to be modified in order to remain internally consistent.

This applies especially to the axioms on which the reasoning is built. Despite their intelligence, these thinkers simply cannot allow for any causes or conditions that do not support the extraordinarily finely structured house of cards that they have built upon their chosen foundations and on which they continue to labour lovingly day after day. Its very fineness, though erroneous, in its own way pays homage to the “fine energies” to which the thinkers are responding. Quite simply, it is too fine a thing to lose. And so mankind blunders on.



et cetera