The Greatest Show on Earth

Part 1

This week I saw a trailer for a new movie coming out next month, called ‘The Greatest Showman’. It’s an American biographical musical about the showman P. T. Barnum, who lived from 1810 to 1891, and was from Connecticut, New England. He founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which ran for 146 years. Due to high operating costs and waning interest it closed earlier this year. Up until its closure it advertised itself as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Around the time of the American Civil War, P. T. Barnum was probably the most famous man on earth. We’re thinking about P. T. Barnum this morning because he is one of our religious forebears. He was not a Unitarian, but a Universalist, so part of our broader religious family. Unlike some we claim to be our religious forebears, because of tentative Unitarian connections, or vague assertions they may have made along Unitarian lines, P. T. Barnum was very vocal and earnest in his Universalism. He grew up in a very Calvinistic home, being exposed each Sunday to fire and brimstone services. As such, he, as many children do who grow up in that kind of context, had a very real fear that he would fall short and find himself in hell. As a teenager he discovered the Universalist church, and with a wave of relief, recognised that a God of love could not possibly allow the eternal suffering of his children. He became a lifelong advocate of the Universalist Church. Also unlike other Unitarians we might think about, P. T. Barnum was not a philosopher, or a minister, or an academic, or a poet. He was a businessman. A businessman with a theatrical flair.

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 - 1891)

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 - 1891)

After a short time running a small general store in his early 20s, he moved to New York city and bought an old museum, which he renamed after himself, ‘Barnum’s American Museum.’ We’re in the 19th Century, so we’re not talking about museums as we think of them today. Today they’re exclusively educational establishments; in the 19th Century they were much more entertainment focused, or oddity focused. We’re in the era of the “freak show”, gawking at strange medical oddities and the like - stuffed animals, but then more strangely, stuffed animals with different bits of different animals sown together. His museum was not about accurately portraying history, or biology, it was about giving people a weird and fun day out. As such he made extreme and exaggerated claims, such as, he had a slave named Joice Heth who he charged the public to see, claiming her to be over 160 years old, and that she was George Washington’s nanny. When thinking about P. T. Barnum, or to give his full name, Phineas Taylor Barnum, we run into the same problem we often do with historical individuals: should we be judging him by today’s standards, by our moral norms, or should we be framing him within the context he lived in? Taking the example I just gave, he was a slave profiteer, but at the same time he recognised the need for change, and when the anti-slavery Republican Party was established in 1854, he joined immediately. Being very much the pragmatist, he felt very strongly in the means justifying the ends. If people came to his museum, and had a fun day, the misinformation to get them in the door was irrelevant. This morning then, as we think about Barnum, we are forced to consider the issue of moral ambiguity. Barnum does not conform to a straight forwards narrative.

The media at the moment seems to be particularly obsessed with framing people in such two-dimensional terms. You’re either good, or a disgraceful human being. Evidently, this is not the world any of us live in. We might seek our own fortune, and inadvertently do good to another. We might seek to do good for another, but succeed only in upsetting them. We live our lives in the flux of paradox and contradiction. Though we often manage to convince ourselves that things are progressing along understandable lines, those frameworks by which we live and operate within the world are just narratives we’ve adopted or created ourselves. Things are more ambiguous, confusing, and chaotic, that we are often even willing to believe. As we enter into a period of reflection this morning, we think of those in pain, those all too aware of the world’s chaotic nature. Those who, with defences up, and brave faces on, are ready at any moment for the horrors of this world. The exhaustion of it. The monotony of it. Such tension, tight lips, furrowed brows, that hollow aching in the pit of the stomach. We bring such pain to mind, that in the rush of our everyday, self-centred lives, we might spare more than a thought for those living frenzied lives. With smiles, gentle words, and welcoming space, we might act as a light for them…

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A few days ago was Black Friday, which has become another American import, a day to shop and get big savings. We’ve all see those pictures, of consumers stampeding each other to get 50% off a television. Black Friday, the day after America’s Thanksgiving is all about shopping. There’s a myth that the origins of the day come from turning off lighthouses. If a lighthouse is off how does it warn ships of the coastline? It can’t, and therefore you can never turn them off. So how then do you give them maintenance? The only way is to have an agreed upon day, that everyone knows, the day when all the lighthouses are off for repairs. It’s a nice idea. Sadly though, it is actually all about the saving you get in store. Lighthouse repairs are done during the day, so it’s not actually an issue. Still, even this myth plays into an interesting idea; we turn off the lights, we blow out the candles, not trusting that they will really show us the way, that they will really point us towards the good. The myth points us away from binary ways of looking at reality, and towards the ambiguity we all live in. As we bring to mind then those who are struggling on the margins, in the ambiguity, without a sense of true north, unable to see the lighthouse, unsure what the good is, we together try to foster upon the tumultuous sea a place of warmth and welcome.

Part 2

The P T Barnum Museam. 

The P T Barnum Museam. 

You can hear from the second reading that P. T. Barnum may have been motivated by business, but it was certainly not his only passion. He took these theological questions very seriously. We heard in that reading how he hoped his Universalist Christian ideals would become more mainstream in the coming century. In actual fact he was writing at the height of Universalism. After the American Civil War, Universalism saw massive decline, and it was directly as a result of the Civil War. With such suffering (more Americans died in the Civil War than any subsequent war), the idea of a God not in some way punishing the evil deeds of humanity was no longer a palatable idea. So, the theatrical P. T. Barnum, he never thought small a day in his life. In his museum he also had live animals, elephants, lions, dioramas, scientific instruments, every weird and wonderful thing you can imagine, and more. A flea circus. A loom run by a dog. An aquarium, featuring a large white whale. The trunk of a tree under which Jesus taught his disciples. An oyster bar. A rifle range. As I said, not like the museums you get these days. He was the master of hype. Some even believed the word charlatan was more fitting, always ready to con people out of their money. There is a phrase wrongly attributed to him, “There is a sucker born every minute.” There is no evidence he actually said this, but the quote goes a long way to explain how people thought of him. In recent years, he has even been compared to certain US present. So it was, after 24 years his museum sadly burnt down.  The fire itself was said to be prolific, a towering inferno, with all manner of animals leaping from the various windows. Police officers were called to deal with an escaped lion. Police officers were called to carry a 400-pound woman from the building. Despite Barnum’s loss, by this point, P. T. Barnum was 55 years old and had made all the money he ever needed. With success under his belt, he turned his attention to politics, writing, and establishing the circus he is now best known for today. He wrote a great deal, focusing primarily on three subject areas: himself, how to expose hoaxes (because after all he was an expert in orchestrating them), and finally the Bible, God, and his Universalist faith. Barnum spoke often about the love of God that he believed lay at the foundation of the New Testament. He believed it was unreasonable when reading the New Testament to make arguments based on isolated texts. That did not constitute an argument. When reading the Bible, it was necessary to discern the arc, the trend to which the Bible pointed. Barnum used passages like the one we had read out, which suggested that all of creation would be brought into harmony under Christ. An end goal which pointed us towards a God who was ultimately loving and forgiving. A God who loves us all. That heaven was not a place up in the sky, but a state of heart and mind lived into here on earth.

In 1865, Barnum served as a Connecticut legislator, helping to ratify the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. In a statement he gave, he declared that Christ died for all souls, and that all souls were equal in the eyes of God. Then in 1875, he served as the Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, working to bring gas lighting to the streets, improve the water supply, and establish the city's primary hospital – Bridgeport Hospital – which still serves the people of Bridgeport. And then finally, in his 60s he set up the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which brought something of the spectacle of his museum to the rest of America. Again, by today’s standards his Circus was very questionable, but its popularity was unparalleled. Ultimately then, when it comes to Barnum’s legacy, we’re certainly left with a mixed bag; part charlatan, part con artist, part philanthropist, slave-profiteer, slave liberator. A man of joy and spectacle, who made a few bucks along the way. No doubt, like Barnum, to one extent or another, we will all leave mixed bag legacies. But if we arc towards love, and forgiveness, in the end all is made well. For Love triumphs over all else. Is this not our great hope also?

Amen.

Remembrance Sunday

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Remembrance Sunday is one of those difficult Sundays. It’s one of those Sundays that I don’t really know what to do with. I (unlike most of you I would imagine) did not grow up hearing about the war. World War Two is not my war, it was not my father’s war, it was my (long since dead) grandfather’s war. But then it wasn’t really even HIS war either, he was very cynical about the whole thing. He worked as a chief, so he didn’t have to fight. After the war he never marked the occasion, he never wore a poppy, he didn’t have any war memorabilia in his house. If he felt no need to mark the occasion, why would I feel any need? My grandfather was a quiet man. Every Sunday morning, he would go to Mass at his local Catholic Church. Every day he would sit at his dining table after work, smoking his pipe and reading the Morning Star. He must have had some very interesting views concerning politics and religion, and yet to my dad’s knowledge, he never spoke of them.

There’s an old lady in Tunbridge Wells. She’s watching television. To her disgust she sees a man on the BBC not wearing his red poppy. Dear the BBC. Principles really are the last refuge of old gits. And yet, we must remember, ‘lest we forget’, lest we repeat history. Lest we be drawn into another war, with more death, and more killing. I wonder how many more ‘lest we forgets’ we need before the wars end. I have a prayer: a prayer for understanding, for peace and reconciliation. That together we might forge a new, lasting, creative and perpetual peace. And when it comes to what’s on your lapel – frankly I don’t give a damn. Jesus said, a man is not defiled by what enters his mouth. Likewise, a person is not defiled by what is or is not pinned to them. Measure us by our fruits, that we would be peacemakers, and seek for love and justice.

Remembrance is by its very nature, personal. The associations and significance of the day’s various images and tropes will be different for each one of us. As such, to judge one another, by our adherence to ‘the poppy’ say, strikes me as being beyond wrong. You’re no longer operating as a conscientious  individual by that point; you’re a thug perpetuating an ideology. This is a time for Remembrance. A time to reflect upon the horrors that have been perpetrated, that we might imagine together a better world. Corporate acts of remembrance, corporate mourning, makes sense when there is a corporate experience of loss. That is not the England we live in anymore. Nevertheless, being aware of our history, I can salute the sacrifice of the fallen and injured which so shaped the 20th and 21st Centuries, those who had the courage to hang a little fascist out to dry. I light our chalice this morning then, in remembrance of that blood which was spilled. Red blood spilt in the Two World Wars, and subsequent wars. Spilt as a plea for peace. I light our chalice for Peace.

Amen.

Address

I am bewildered by the spectacle. When I think of the World Wars I don’t think of stories I have heard, because as I said, I did not grow up with them being told. I don’t think of poems like the poem David read out, expressing something of one man’s horror in the trenches, or other more famous poems – In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row. I picture the large tank obstacles on Omaha Beach. I picture Soviet officers, firing at Russian soldiers attempting to turn back from the bloody front. I picture the men upon the beach at Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated. I picture frail men and women, being shuffled into gas chambers. I picture these things because in computer games, or films, I have been to all these places. In reality though, of course I have been to none of these places. I am under the illusion that I understand, but I don’t really understand. I can’t understand. Nothing is directly lived. It is all representation.

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There was an interesting story this week, about an indigenous American model who had some photographs takes for a fashion magazine. Of course, fashion magazines are infamous for perpetuating a false image, particularly of the female form. Blemishes are airbrushed out, images are distorted to make waists thinner, lips fuller, colours more striking. And yet, the woman lodged a complaint because her hair, symbol of her indigenous American culture, was airbrushed out. Now this is a 21st Century scandal: an image we all know is distorted, we all know does not represent reality, is doctored to represent one illusion as opposed to another, and people are outraged. We no longer know what reality is. The social relationship between people is now almost solely mediated by image. Image is what drives opinion, political discourse; it is our new sense of reality. The word is not nearly enough. Show me a picture.

The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, compelled as we are to look, but never to respond. The spectacle is superior to reality. If it can be seen, we know it is real. Through social media, through Facebook, we become masters of perpetuating our own spectacle. Images with filters, images carefully curated to project an illusion of self. We are increasingly separated from the world. The closer our lives come to be our own creation, the more excluded from life we are. As such, normative tropes, or behaviour, or images, by virtue of being normative must by definition receive the most critique. They must be examined constantly, lest we be swept up into the spectacle, and blinded to all else. We must re-enter the present, into a present dialogue, and not allow that conversation to be framed by the spectacle. A very difficult feat. Our opinions, so often, are just gut responses to the spectacle.

A lot of art represents authentic dialogue within the world. How could we live as the artist, see the world as the artist? The real world is replaced by a selection of images projected above it. The Spectacle. Within the Spectacle, it is ‘commodity’ that dominates all living experience. Shallow representation of our human experience is packaged, and broadcasted back to us, by way of the spectacle, accompanied by the commodity. The commodity is imbued with a false identity.

Camera pans down from Spitfire. I feel such pride. Frame the single tear. That’s lovely… Okay down. Red Poppy. And pan back, British flag. Okay that’s a wrap.

The spectacle, like society itself, is at once united and divided. That’s why it’s so hypnotizing, there is an illusion of authentic dialogue in there. The polls of the conversation are defined for you, so you don’t have to think, you just have to follow your gut. You’re either with me, or you’re against me. Unity is presented as divided. Division is presented as unity. We don’t know what reality is. Behind the glitter of spectacular distraction there is a tendency towards banality which dominates modern society. Every commodity fights for itself. It avoids acknowledging the existence of other commodities, and attempts to impose itself everywhere. The spectacle is the epic collage of these various commodities fighting for dominance. There is an illusion of social unification through the act of consumption. The illusion of unity, despite catastrophic division. There is no obvious solution to the problem.

We resist this banality in sectors of society in which people knock up against one another in real time. Particularly when the spectacle, the algorithm, has not determined that meeting, as is often the case in modern society. We date, find jobs, go to gigs, get an education, all at the behest of the algorithm, the spectacle. All circles are directed towards round holes, squares to square holes. Church is in part in opposition to this model, though often dialogue within church is directed by the spectacle. In encountering the other, we at least present the possibility of authentic connection, between parties not playing out the spectacle’s predetermined scripts. One must at the same time not alienate oneself from normative society, conforming just enough that your presence is tolerable, and yet be at odds enough that you don’t become alienated from reality, and yourself. To use the images of society, but not be defined by those images. Fluidity helps us navigate. Hold loosely to your gut reaction in the face of the spectacle, and you may walk the tightrope between being alienated from yourself or the other.

Remember Remember

Part 1

Bonfire

Bonfire

Now, the 5th of November shows up as problematic for me, as it’s basically an anti-Catholic fire festival. Following the execution of the gunpowder plotters in January 1606, parliament passed a new Thanksgiving Act, an annual church celebration, marked by special sermons, bell ringing, and of course bonfires. It was a celebration that helped firm up national identity, and strengthen the bond between church and state. The Act laid the blame upon ‘devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests’. A thanksgiving for the failure of the plot, that God did protect both religion and King James. A protestant religious holiday, a holiday which signified that the crown of England had the protection of God, and thus divine legitimacy. A piece of masterful propaganda, an annual celebration which affirmed the protestant crown’s enduring legitimacy. It brings to mind the judicial killing of trouble makers, heretics, witches, catholics, the expedient burning of would-be rebels, to keep the masses on the straight and narrow. It’s interesting to think about the 5th of November as Unitarians. On one hand we are the would-be rebels, and yet are we going to sympathise with the plotters? Perhaps it would be more fitting for the day to mark more of an attitude of disobedience, that we might stand up for what is right, despite the consequences, not allowing the established authorities to define right from wrong. Or perhaps the day’s barbaric legacy should have us avoid it entirely. To this day effigies are burnt, of politicians, Thatcher, Blair, the Pope, Guy Fawkes, harkening us back to the popular spectacles of old, public executions, in which men, women, and children would file into public squares to watch the criminals being hung or burned. It links us directly to that dark past. And what of Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes, were their actions laudable? Did they fight for freedom in the face of oppression? Fight against an autocratic, persecuting monarch? Or, are their actions more akin to terrorism? You could certainly make that case. But if you’re inclined to justify some violence, the violence of the state, the violence of an oppressed people, then why not their violence, or attempted violence? History, as they say, is written by the victors.

History is one example after another of violence wrought by one people against another, and then those acts being subverted to serve pre-determined agendas. Their failure certainly could certainly be used to bolster a particular narrative: an anti-Catholic, nationalistic, crown and country agenda. We may decry the fact that most people who went into the park last night to celebrate bonfire night probably didn’t know the true significance behind what they were doing. But if the true significance, as I said, is the legitimation of the status quo, perhaps the fuzzy, secular, spectacle of fun is preferable. The devil is in the details. I am thankful that I live in a world, a country, secular enough and peaceable enough (the world I inhabit is peaceable at least), that I can look upon the development of bonfire night as something of a barbaric oddity, reflecting the normalised horror which characterised the lives of everyone not all that long ago… As we enter into a period of quiet reflection this morning, it is this thankfulness which first comes to mind. Throughout most of human history, we have lived short, desperate lives, in which expressing our own religious sensibilities has been a rare luxury, one that often attracted the persecution of kings or mobs.

Part 2

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes

A few weeks ago, as most of you know, I travelled up to Leeds, to give a paper at the Unitarian Theological Conference, which will be made available in due course for you to watch or read at your leisure. It just so happens that Guy Fawkes made an appearance in my paper. Part of my discourse was on the cross that Jesus died upon, the cross or crucifixion which lies at the very centre of the Christian faith. I spoke on that subject because it seems to me that the significance of the cross is largely overlooked within classic Unitarian thought. Theologies of the cross, or of the atonement, make us understandably squeamish, and so we downplay the role of the cross. But given the cross’s centrality within the Gospels, the fact that Paul sees the possibility of the new creation arising out of the ending or death of the old creation, an ending Paul sees manifested in the crucifixion, it seems to me that a blithe dismissal of the significance of the cross is misguided. The cross demands a robust theological treatment. To characterise Unitarian thought concerning the cross, I summarised James Martineau’s theological treatment of the cross. His position was that Jesus was, like you and I, a human being, a human being who had a divine mission - to reconcile first the Jews and then all of humanity to God. As a Hebrew man living in first century Israel, he was restricted in his mission by time and space. But through his death upon the cross, in quitting his mortal body, his spirit was able to, in effect, become immortal, and more than that, universal. His prophetic message could be carried by his people across seas, cultural and national barriers, to every corner of the earth. In this way, the cross opened the message of Jesus to the nations, his blessed way after the love of God. The death of Jesus then, as far as Martineau was concerned, was not to be imbued with any metaphysical significance in and of itself. It was not, for example, to be seen as a ransom for the sinful state of humanity, or as fulfilling some kind of predetermined plan. We are as such all called to be his messengers, to embody his truth, and to project it out into the world. The cross in Martineau’s theology merely universalizes Jesus’ message.

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta

I say I made reference to Guy Fawkes: rather it was a modern-day adaptation of the Guy Fawkes story, probably more familiar to my generation than the actual events, that I made reference to. I’m talking about the comic book written by Alan Moore in the late 80s / early 90s called ‘V for Vendetta’, which was adapted in 2005 into a movie starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. It’s set in the near future, in a dystopian Britain ruled by a nationalistic, immigration and Muslim hating police state. In this bleak and repressed society, the only beacon of hope is a vigilante who models himself on Guy Fawkes. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask, he orchestrates an elaborate and theatrical plot to bring down the fascist state. He stands up, in the face of oppression, for fairness, justice, and freedom. Those Guy Fawkes masks from the movie have been notably adopted by the online hacking group called Anonymous. There is a particularly harrowing scene in the movie, in which V withstands a barrage of bullets, and exasperated his opponent cries, ‘Why won’t you die?’ to which V replies, ‘Beneath the mask is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof’. This scene captures perfectly the Martineau–esque view of Jesus. For Martineau the pertinent issue is not so much that he died, but that behind the man there is an idea, a bulletproof idea. And that idea (in Jesus’ case) is love, the sacrificial love of God, the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity, and our individual affinity before God. Jesus points the way towards the Kingdom of Peace, and therefore we as his hands and feet on earth must now strive to make that a reality, first in our hearts and then ultimately in the world.

This difficulty with this reading of the Christian narrative is that this view of Jesus affirms the God of progress, the God of liberal values, the God of peace and kindness; all things which on the surface we would of course want to affirm. The trouble is it robs the crucifixion of any significance in and of itself. It affirms a trajectory towards wholeness and completeness which it has not and ultimately cannot deliver. Worst of all, it gives us a palatable way to frame the crucifixion, and make it all about our progressive ideals. It clarifies our place and purpose within the universe far too comfortably. The death of Jesus on the cross cannot be affirmed as significant because it merely lends weight to what we already know to be true, the crucifixion is supposed to be understood as an affront that ruptures our received wisdom. This Martineau–esque view underplays the significance of Jesus’ death, and fails to help us make sense of the secularizing trends which have swept across our culture, and our own movement. Guy Fawkes in Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ has been reappropriated as a symbol, to represent standing up against oppression and persecution, especially when the odds are stacked against you. The meaning and significance of holidays and celebrations evolves. My guess would be that given the cultural impact of the V for Vendetta film, that this interpretation, this slant upon the story, has probably shaped people’s conception of bonfire night not to an insignificant degree. And if today can be a day to celebrate liberty and autonomy in the face of fear, persecution, and dictatorial regimes, for me that is certainly preferable. You may have noticed I didn’t solve the robust theological treatment of the cross question. But now you all really want to read my paper.

Amen.