The death of Diana – a cultural watershed

640px-Diana's_funeralThe death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.

The watershed of paganism

The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).

What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week.  You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now.  Continue reading “The death of Diana – a cultural watershed”

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Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski

Eagle Unbowed‘You started it. You invaded Poland!’ Tragically, that punchline from Fawlty Towers is all that most people know about Poland’s experience of the Second World War. Most young people know the story of Auschwitz, but I wonder how many of them know it is situated in Poland? Our ignorance of Poland’s tragedies in World War Two is widespread, at a time when in Britain we have a large and growing Polish community that we need to understand. Where better to look then that to the brilliant but unsung book The Eagle Unbowed- Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski.

Reading military history is a long-standing hobby for me, and I try and ration my reading because it easily becomes obsessive, especially when it comes to WW2. I find it good to read about an aspect of the war I know nothing about, rather than yet another book about D-Day. Halik Kochanski is a respected Historian at London University, the child of Polish refugees whose story she subtly weaves into her narrative. She assumes you know nothing about Poland, and educates while drawing you into the story. The book even comes with a helpful pronunciation guide, but like reading War and Peace, you have to get past the names issue.

She starts with the rebirth of Poland in 1920 and their victories over the Bolsheviks in the east (which stores up trouble on Poland’s eastern border for later on in the story).  Then Poland’s humbling at the hands of Hitler and Stalin in 1939 is described in detail – while we had our ‘phoney war’, there was nothing phoney in Poland. What people never realise is that Poland was the only country overrun by the Nazis in Eastern Europe that never surrendered. The government went underground, as did key parts of the army to form the ‘AK’, while others crossed the border into Hungary and Romania, and made their escape to fight with the allies in Western Europe. Polish pilots formed two RAF squadrons, 303 squadron being based at RAF Northolt and making a huge contribution to the battle of Britain. George Vi was heard to say ‘One cannot help feeling that if all our allies had been Poles, the coursed of the war, up to now, would have been very different.’ Continue reading “Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski”

Great Summer Reads 3: Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home_(Marilynne_Robinson_novel)_coverartMarilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist. I know that is a huge claim to make, considering she has only written four novels, but as one novel has won a Pulitzer and another the Orange prize, she deserves special attention. Why is that? I think it is because she has created a unique genre of novel, the pastoral novel. Not in the sense that Thomas Hardy wrote pastoral novels about the bucolic charms of his beloved Wessex. Marilynne Robinson writes novels about pastors. That is why I am so drawn to them, and why I urge you to step into her world this summer.

The huge industry that publishes novels has done to death several different genres. Romantic fiction from Jane Austin and the Brontes to the modern chick flick can surely have nothing much left to say. Crime novels are still a huge industry, as are legal and military thrillers, but like their TV adaptations, you do tire of them after a while. Couldn’t someone create a new genre of drama sometime? Just as I was thinking that, I stumbled onto Robinson’s novels via Twitter, and they are a door into a world I have inhabited for twenty five years in pastoral ministry, and they are written as great literature.

Gilead  is the name of a small town in Iowa on the American prairie, where John Ames is a pastor reaching the end of his life, and writing the book to his young son so he can understand his roots when his father is gone. The framework of the story only suggests itself gradually, and key facts slip effortlessly into the cake while the mixture is slowly stirred at the kitchen table. The main interplay is between the Ames family and the GileadcoverBoughtons, the local Presbyterian pastor and his family. Meanwhile, the beauty and thoughtfulness of small town America is worked out in domestic scenes so rich and warm that you feel yourself invited to sit at the table. There is plenty of theology that comes up in conversation, and the struggles that a pastor has in trying to care for his flock, and the frustrations he has with those who reject the gospel. All of this is brought to life in the most dazzling prose that will ease the stresses of life from you and evoke a world of swing-seats out on the stoop, rocking chairs by the fire and a hardwood kitchen table where meals are shared as expressions of the gospel. Robinson establishes a huge sense of place and lets you inhabit it and feel fully at home. But do not imagine that these sedate scenes are free from trouble. There is grit in the story. Dark tones come to the surface, just as rural life can often be darker than any urban dystopia, and Jack Boughton is the source of the trouble. This gives a brilliant opportunity to trace the interplay between the grace of God in the gospel and the prodigal who rejects it and runs away. How is he to be handled? Who will say the wrong thing? What are his real motives? What is he really thinking as the pastor talks to him? The characters are drawn so brilliantly that not one of them is a cliché.

Home is the second novel of the series, and the focus moves from the Ames household to the Boughtons. Young Jack Boughton has been away from Gilead for twenty years, but now he comes home seeking refuge from his past. The question is how his father and his sister Glory will handle this, and how Jack will respond to God’s grace when he encounters it. I found my heart aching for him as the conversations were played out across the kitchen table. The heart of a pastor aches to see gospel change in those who waste their lives, but it is a change that only God can give. Will it come to Jack as he tries to rebuild his life? There are layers to this exploration of regret and repentance that run so deep, and both father and sister find their own hearts and attitudes examined. I am confident that there is no work of fiction that explores this better.

I have yet to read the third in the sequence, Lila, which tells the story of Ames’ second wife and how she came to Gilead from a background of wandering and tragedy, and then married him. But I am thinking I need to re-read the nuances of Gilead again first to be ready to savour its riches. And sit by that fireplace and nod my agreement with the old man.

Great summer reads 2: C. S. Lewis-A Life by Alister McGrath

CSLewisI used to have a rule that it was good to take a C S Lewis book on holiday every year, and that way make progress in his so varied body of work as one of the great twentieth century writers and thinkers. It’s a good rule. Start with Mere Christianity,  then try The Screwtape Letters or the Four Loves, and then maybe a book of essays like First and Second Things to get a wider sense of his thinking. But that is only to scratch the surface of his work, and the more you read the more you wonder about the author. That is why I can’t recommend too highly enough Alister McGrath’s brilliant biography, C S Lewis – A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant prophet. This is the story of his life, told by a fellow Irishman who is also a great Oxford academic apologist and one of our best minds, yet written in a way that is accessible to a wide audience.

C S Lewis is an enigma. Loved by many most of all for his children’s fiction, his greatest work was in the area of literary criticism, yet he is known most among Christians as an apologist. He should also be known as a committed young Oxford atheist who reluctantly became a Christian. McGrath explores his troubled childhood, his dreadful days at Malvern School, and then his defining years next to my native Leatherhead where he was tutored by ‘the Great Knock.’ He charts his journey through the trenches of the First World War to his settling in Oxford in the relatively new discipline of modern English literature, and also his irregular relationship with ‘Mrs Moore.’ Then we are plunged into the intellectual and spiritual agonies through the 1920s and the early days of his academic career that led to his conversion in 1931-32. It was no intellectual surrender, but rather the logical solution to the intellectual and imaginative riddles that had troubled him from his youth. Continue reading “Great summer reads 2: C. S. Lewis-A Life by Alister McGrath”