Sunday, December 18, 2016

white mughals

Sixty-two. It was an impressive effort.

Once I finished William Dalrymple's White Mughals I turned to the Glossary and gave Barby the test. A bit of Hindustani here. A bit of Urdu and Persian over there. A lot of Koranic-Mosque terminology everywhere. But out of almost 140 words, she got 62 correct. Very impressive, don't you think? As a point of comparison, my score was 26. What do you expect? My Hindi opens mouths with laughter, while Barby's Hindi opens hearts with admiration. I love watching it happen. One of the highlights of living back in India...

It has been a long, hard year and with a bit of the doctor in our ears, we set off for a break and a five day exploration of a new city. Hyderabad. Overnight train each way, in a two-person 'coupe' all on our own. No work allowed. Not even contact with friends in the city (that always feels terrible). And what has White Mughals to do with all this? The story takes place in Hyderabad, largely between about 1795-1805. So... reading through the book at the very same time as walking through the places. My idea of fun!

The highlight was visiting this building, the home of the British Resident, or High Commissioner - and built by the main character in the book. It is massive - 'not unlike its exact contemporary, the White House' (xxxii). In ruins and unused now, but with some half-hearted, and probably poorly funded, efforts at restoration taking place.

On the front steps with my book.
There is a model of the original building out the back. Such a model features in the story...

It is such a sad story, a love story between the British 'Resident' (James Achilles Kirkpatrick) and a (very) young Muslim Indian princess (Khair un-Nissa). I am not going to spoil the plot for you, but reflect more peripherally on the story in a number of ways.

Just as Downtown Abbey engages with the erosion of the upstairs:downstairs class distinction in early twentieth century England, White Mughals traces the replacement of a 'fusion and hybrid' (500) era, characterized by mingling and mixing, with a separatist era in which the British Empire turns a bit rogue and ruthless. 'The easy labels of religion and ethnicity and nationalism, slapped on by a generation of historians, turned out to be ... surprisingly unstable' (xl). A Governor General (Waterloo's Duke of Wellington elder brother) and, to a lesser extent, 'Evangelical Christianity' attract much of the blame for this change.
For nearly three hundred years Europeans coming out to the subcontinent had been assimilating themselves to India in a kaleidoscope of different ways ... (but now it) was a place to be changed and conquered, not a place to be changed or conquered by (54).
James was among the last of the English officials in India who found it possible to truly cross cultures ... (making the leap) from Britain to India, from Georgian to Mughal, from Christianity to Islam. India was no longer a place to embrace and to be transformed by; instead it was a place to conquer and transform (454). 
One wonders about the transitions happening in our early twenty-first century. Has much changed?

There is a lot of chatter about colonisation coming out of my home in New Zealand. It seems to be the great evil. Evils have been perpetrated, that is for sure - but I don't find the narrative totally convincing. Lots of things are going on, at different layers, with colonisation - some even quite good. For example, for these 'White Mughals' like James Kirkpatrick, this is a story of  'the Indian conquest of the European colonisation ... the coloniser colonised' (10, 28). This insight brought a smile to me face. It took me back to boarding school days in the Himalayas. American kids would come out for a single year of high school. Routinely, they'd hate the first semester, but after a vacation trip around India and then a second semester, invariably the last thing they wanted to do was to go home to the States. Representatives of the great colonisers of the late twentieth century had themselves been colonised - and changed forever. Not such a bad thing. A difficulty I find with discussions around colonisation is the selectivity which is shown. Why are we not as critical of the colonisation of the world today by certain professional sports, certain brands of music, or a certain image of beauty - each, in their own way, disrupting the local and indigenous? One person's colonisation seems to be another person's globalisation.

A view inside ... I think I saw the sign forbidding photos after I took this one!
I won't critique Dalrymple for much, but I will on this point - as I do with much of the media and the academy. "C'mon people. Show some professionalism." A basic principle of research is that you paint your opponent in their best light and engage with what you see. With Dalrymple (and the media and the academy), Christianity is usually painted in its poorest light, while Hinduism and Islam are painted in their purest light. Glimpses of truth may exist with both representations, but it is hardly a fair and accurate truth. Maybe it is an early downpayment on post-truth and fake news! 'Islam overcame the English more by its sophistication and power of attraction, than by the sword' (19). Really?! The added complication for this perspective today is that you can be both truly Indian and truly Christian - even a truly admirable Evangelical Christian. Shock. Horror. But I know heaps of them...
[NB: I am in the midst of preparing some talks from 1 Peter - living for Christ amidst harassment and persecution - and I think this is one of the real, but admittedly milder, ways in which persecution happens in countries like New Zealand].

James Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa
Yep, they are memorable. Beautifully developed. I'd love to see a quality movie director have a go at this story. There is so much to like about James Kirkpatrick, for example. The way he operated cross-culturally, building trust and friendship with the Nizam of Hyderabad (who referred to him as his 'Beloved Son'). Case study stuff. The way he took a stand against the Governor General's demands to 'bully and bribe and browbeat', almost living to see the day when he was fully vindicated. What about with his young wife? He chose to be circumcised and to convert to Islam in order to marry her and oh, how his love prevailed.
It was James's fate for his love to be tested not once, but four times. Four entirely separate inquiries had been carried out into his affair with Khair. At each stage he could have easily washed his hands of his teenage lover. Each time he chose to remain true to her (400).
Also, on characters ... I enjoyed the portrayal of the power which older women can have behind the scenes in a Muslim world (see 248-259). But also Khair. So strong, 'a dominant force among the women ... in her widowhood, she clearly still retained her magnetism and her effortless ability to get her way with all those who were drawn into her orbit' (425) - at barely twenty years of age. Incredible. But then she went on to live 'the saddest of lives' (464) ...

A 'Chinnery' (the name of a painter) of the two children on the eve of their departure to England,
never to see their parents again. 'One of the masterpieces of British painting in India' (390).
[NB: later in life, the daughter was drawn into the orbit of the Clapham Sect folks].
The dilemma of the 'white mughal' is a bit like that of the missionary kid. These words sound so familiar:
England was no longer the place that James really considered to be his home. He had been born in India ... he felt most himself in India, and returning to England was the last thing he wanted ... (but) his spirit might feel comfortably at home in India; but his wretched body, less malleable, seemed to need England (352, 379).
Dalrymple is such a good writer. How does he do it? The way he wades into the details of history and comes out with a compelling story. In literary terms it is like developing a palace out of an archaeological dig. When James dies (in Calcutta - and buried in the Park Street Cemetery), Dalrymple writes:
But it cannot have been a very emotional affair. For James had died among strangers, away from everyone he loved, and far from everyone who loved him. His beloved wife, his two little children, his brothers, his friends, and his father: as he was laid in the muddy monsoon ground, not one of them even knew that he was dead. In place of tears, there was a cold military salute. The coffin was lowered, and the mud of the grave was filled in. (398)
Dalrymple closes with a word of hope, a hope that I share - but for different reasons, I suspect.
As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past, and they will do so again (501).
In their fullest expression 'East and West' (although this did cease long ago to be a helpful way to categorise the world) 'meet and mingle', experiencing both a unity and a diversity, in the gospel of Jesus. That is where people become the truest form of who they really are. That is where bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear is most fully expelled by the peace and dignity, the humility and harmony in what the cross of Christ achieves. I believe it with all that I am. And in this wretched world, giving us a ride through 2016 that I so often just wanted to get off, this hope is still something to celebrate this Christmas.

nice chatting


PS1: I've reviewed two other Dalrymple books here: The Last Mughal and Return of a King.

PS2: The Discovery Channel has done a 60 minute documentary, narrated by William Dalrymple, which basically tells the story of White Mughals in visual-audio form.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

from eden to the new jerusalem

Diversity came far earlier than unity. Appreciating all the different authors, all the different genre and all the different situations - oh yes, any self-respecting student of the Bible has walked the diversity road. That is where we all start. That is the bread and butter of exegesis. We know it is critical.

But what about the unity of the Bible? Yes, the Bible as a single story by a single (divine) author? It didn't seem to feature as much in my training way back then. I've been playing a game of seemingly endless catch-up over the last decade or two. I've had to read and think and teach my way into this world ... and I've been so glad to find books (there are heaps of them out there) to help me.

T. Desmond Alexander's From Eden to the New Jerusalem is right up there. The one I've read most quickly. So stimulating, so fascinating. I've never opened a book with so many footnotes that is so easy and engaging to read.

For Alexander, the Bible is a 'meta-story' (which I have always understood to mean the story by which all other stories make sense) in that it 'addresses two of life's most fundamental questions: (1) Why was the earth created? (2) What is the reason for human existence?' (10). To find the answers in this literary anthology we know as the Bible it is best to begin at the end. Revelation 20-22. Alexander sees 'very strong links' between these chapters and the opening three chapters, Genesis 1-3. His book is about demonstrating those links but then he also shows how the story grows and threads and deepens its way from that Genesis to Revelation. The plotline doesn't change. Fascinating, eh?!

Here, take a look at the chapter titles (with an added explanatory quotation), as they identify the Revelation-truth which then (a) he finds embedded in the early Genesis story, before (b) tracking it through the entire biblical story:

1. From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God
From the outset of creation, God intended that the earth would become a holy garden-city in which he would dwell alongside human beings. However, the disobedience of Adam and Eve jeopardized this divine project ... In the process of recovering the earth as his dwelling place, God progressively established the tabernacle, the Jerusalem temple and the church (74).
2. Thrown from the throne: re-establishing the sovereignty of God
By betraying God and obeying the serpent, the royal couple dethrone God. Adam and Eve, commissioned by God to play a central role in the building of his holy garden-city, not only forfeit their priestly status but also betray the trust placed in them to govern the earth. The ones through whom God's sovereignty was to be extended throughout the earth side with his enemy. By heeding the serpent they not only give it control over the earth, but they themselves becomes its subjects ... One day this present age will give way to another, when the earth will be rejuvenated and the sovereignty of God will finally become an undisputed reality in the New Jerusalem (78-79, 97).
3. Dealing with the devil: destroying the source of evil
By obeying the serpent, Adam and Eve take on his image and defile the earth. While Adam and Eve's actions have terrible consequences, all is not lost, for God introduces the idea that the serpent will be overcome through an offspring of the woman. From Genesis 4 onwards the reader's attention is directed to this offspring ... Whereas the Old Testament looks forward to the defeat of God's enemies and the establishment of his reign upon the earth, the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the one who overthrows Satan ... Stripped of his power, he will no longer, as 'rule of this world', be able to champion the cause of evil. Every vestige of Satan's influence will be destroyed (107, 111-112, 118).
[NB: Don't miss the three pages on 'Resisting the Devil' (118-120) - so helpful].
4. The slaughter of the Lamb: accomplishing the redemption of creation
Although the enemy, 'the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan', is presently 'ruler of this world', his days are numbered and he will ultimately be vanquished. Crucial to the demise of Satan is Jesus Christ, for he is the one who overcomes the devil. Remarkably, John's description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 contains no specific reference to the name of Jesus Christ ... However, each time he is mentioned, he is designated by the title 'the Lamb' (5x) ... reminiscent of the divine deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt ... However, whereas the first exodus was principally about rescuing the Israelites from slavery, John has in view a new exodus that brings about the deliverance of people 'from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages' (121-122, 124, 125).
5. Feasting from the tree of life: reinvigorating the lives of people from every nation
John's vision of the New Jerusalem anticipates human existence as we have never known it. The life to come will be truly abundant and fully satisfying [particularly as it relates to the role of three themes: holiness/wholeness, tree of life and the nations] ... When Jesus heals, it is about restring people to the holy status Adam and Eve enjoyed before sinning ... Citizens of the new earth will experience and enjoy both wholeness of body and longevity of life. They will have a quality of life unrestricted by disability or disease. To live in the New Jerusalem is to experience life in all its fullness and vitality. It is to live as one has never lived before. It is to be in the prime of life, for the whole of one's life ... John's vision of the New Jerusalem introduces an important international dimension, reflected in three references to the 'nations' (138-139, 153, 156, 163).
6. Strong foundations and solid walls: living securely among the people of God

Maybe you are still thinking what I am still thinking.
Can he really make a case for all that stuff going on in Genesis 1 & 2 & 3?!
Yes, he makes a pretty convincing case for it.
It is such an absorbing read.

Methinks the book has the makings of a sermon series in it for 2017 - or, at least, a series of serious small group studies? Go for it.

nice chatting


Sunday, December 11, 2016

great cities in history

While this horrid nativism has been sweeping around the world like a stinky tide, I have been finding solace in a book. John Julius Norwich's The Great Cities of History (and there is a 'coffee table' version, which would make a late, great Christmas gift!).

341 pages. 70 cities. That is less than five pages for each city. Short essays written by expert historians, often distilling a life's work into a few paragraphs. But, beautiful writers, too. Pick up and read, here and there. The book takes a vertiginous, roughly chronological, journey down through the centuries and across the time zones - 'from Mesopotamia to Megalopolis'.

Great Bibliography. Great Notes. But where is the Great Map?!  The omission almost put me in the fetal position. While on this theme of 'greatness', it is interesting to gather the features of great cities that tend to reappear. Greatness is linked to the capacity to host diverse peoples, particularly immigrants. Greatness is linked to the ability to provide safe harbour to artists and intellectuals. Greatness is linked to establishing peace. Greatness is linked to effective, enduring leadership. Greatness is not just European ('the fact of their being unknown to Europe in no way detracts from their greatness' (110), speaking of Benin and Timbuktu). Greatness doesn't last - it never does - and it is eclipsed by the greatness of God, for whom the nations (and their cities and leaders) are but 'a drop in the bucket' (Is 40.15).

Speaking of 'buckets', we'll come to bucket lists soon. But let's start where everyone will start, with 'how many of these 'great cities' have I visited?' And this is lingering-a-bit, not just in-transit at the airport. For me, the number was 16 (but 18 out of the 70 because two of my cities are mentioned twice):

Jerusalem, Constantinople/Istanbul (2x), Angkor, Cairo, Agra, London (2x), Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Budapest, Washington DC, New Delhi, Chicago, Los Angeles, Singapore, New York, and Sydney.

When my personal experiences are thickened with this elegant prose, my five favourite cities would have to be: Istanbul, London, New Delhi, Chicago and Budapest. Beautiful essays.

As is true for many New Zealanders, with our colonial history barely two hundred years old, I do feel the strength which eurogravity exerts on my wanderlust. I'd love to soak in the cities of Europe so amply distributed through this book: Athens, Rome, Paris, Florence, Lisbon, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Dublin, Vienna, Barcelona, and Berlin. I've never lingered in any of them. But then I am grateful that other overlooked great cities like Lagos and Jakarta, Lusaka and Phnom Penh, Kolkata and Lahore got into my heart first. It is helping to keep this horrid nativism at bay and prepare me better to participate in the mission of God in the world.

OK, so here is the deal. Based on this book alone, what cities head my 'bucket list'? Before I 'kick-the-bucket and die', what cities would I love to visit? I will restrict myself to a set of six, rather than sixteen, and then add a few sentences from the corresponding essay for some flavour.

'If Paradise be on earth, it is, without doubt, Damascus; but if it be in Heaven, Damascus is its counterpart on earth' (94, quoting the traveller, Ibn Jubayr). 'The citizens of Damascus considered it to be the oldest city on earth, for Cain slew Abel on the slopes of Mount Kassion ... For over a thousand years the vast crowds associated with the hajj pilgrimage would annually assemble outside the walls of Damascus for the desert crossing to Mecca' (94-95). [NB: it is where my namesake went after his conversion and I've always wanted to go there, too].

'Clearly, it could be successful in the long term only if three very different peoples, with three very different religions and speaking three different languages, could somehow be welded together into a single state; and this was the almost superhuman achievement of two men: Roger I and his son Roger II ... (the king's) court in Palermo was easily the most brilliant of 12th-century Europe. In the Middle Ages the two most important languages for science were Greek and Arabic, both of which were virtually impossible to acquire in northern Europe ... for any intellectual determined to master both, there was only Palermo' (117, 118). [NB: the 'three' being Greek, Arab, and Norman].

'Of all the great cities, Samarkand is the farthest from any ocean. It grew up instead on the human river of the Silk Road ... From this elysium, for more than thirty years, Tamerlane marched across Asia in a series of campaigns that devastated every state and city in its path, sacking Damascus and Isfahan, Baghdad and Delhi, crushing the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Turks, and leaving behind some 17 million dead ... The populace of Samarkand was a mine of expertise of diverse races and faiths, slave and free ... It was not its extent but its cosmopolitan splendour that provoked wonder. Perhaps never had a city been so purely the creation of one man ... Tamerlane coerced art and science to his own glory. In Samarkand, it seems, he aspired to concentrate and embalm the accomplishments of the entire world - a monument to himself, and perhaps to God' (124, 125, 126).  [NB; Samarkand is in contemporary Uzbekistan].

'But Venice remained apart. Those 3 km of shallow water - a far more effective defence than deep - served as a gigantic moat, giving her total protection from her envious and unruly neighbours and enabling her to turn her back on Italy and look to the East ... There, in the silks and spices, the gold and the furs and the slaves of the Orient, lay her wealth ... No other major Italian city could claimed to have remained inviolate for close on a thousand years. And no other could boast such wealth' (150, 152).

'Timbuktu is a city on the southern edge of the Sahara constructed of one part history and two parts myth ... It was only after the colonial presence of the French had ended that the true history and wealth of Timbuktu were revealed in the form of the great private libraries that their scholar citizens had patiently copied, preserved and transcribed ... The commercial lifeblood of towns such as Timbuktu had been sucked away centuries before (when) the inland trans-Sahara caravan routes were being replaced by seaborne traffic ... What has kept Timbuktu in existence for the last 400 years was neither gold dust nor slaves, but pride in a thousand years of Muslim scholarship and a carefully guarded inheritance of thousands of manuscripts' (161, 162, 164).

St Petersburg
'Peter the Great conceived his new capital as an elegant European paradise forged from the swamps and frozen wastes of northern Russia. It was to be the new Amsterdam or the new Venice, and was to act for Russia as a window on the West ... What always amazes about St Petersburg is the miracle of what has survived after war, siege and communism. The Hermitage remains one of the greatest museums in the world ... The churches of the city having been converted into swimming pools and gymnasia and, in the case of Kazan Cathedral, a museum to promote atheism, now resound again to the strong male voices singing the Orthodox liturgy ... St Petersburg has always fascinated its visitors - a city where the long dark winters and the sufferings of its recent past are relieved by the anticipation of the White Nights in the short summer, when darkness is entirely banished and beauty and optimism reigns' (242, 244, 245).

nice chatting - but where is the map? Or, did I already ask that question?


Thursday, December 01, 2016

the prevailing image

It is a principle of effective communication.

Check out the Economist magazine. It is right there - always there - between the title of the article and the body of the article. A simple, single, summarising sentence. One of the secrets for TED-talk effectiveness is that a given talk can be captured in the length of a tweet. 140 characters. The doctoral thesis needs this sentence - and so does the sermon.

Haddon Robinson calls it the 'big idea'. Alec Motyer asks, 'What is the one thing that all the other things are about?' Gary Millar and Phil Campbell speak of the 'freshly squeezed essence of the passage'. Every sermon needs it. The thesis. The proposition. To articulate it is a burden, but as the time of delivery approaches it becomes a saviour.

But it is not enough. I am increasingly persuaded that it is not enough.

The best biblical preaching is science - and art. It is prose - and poetry. It engages the mind, but also the imagination. What is said needs to be seen as well. Sadly, those most committed to biblical, or expository, preaching are often those with the least active imaginations. This should not be so. It is not good enough. 

This is why in recent years I have required students to include a prevailing image in their sermons. A picture over which they linger. Maybe it is there in the introduction - and then again in the conclusion. Maybe they sink into this image in the middle of the sermon somewhere. Maybe it is tied closely to the application. However it happens, people walk away from the sermon with their imaginations alive.

The best example I know of this happening is in the Bible itself. In the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134, what I like to call Hillsongs: the original soundtrack), we find prevailing images. Again and again, in these brief little psalms, the songwriter engages the imagination with pictures...

Here is my Top Ten, the prevailing images in these psalms which engage my imagination the most:

Psalm 129: 'those who plough have ploughed my back and made their furrows long' (3).

Psalm 124: 'the flood engulfed us ... the torrent ... the raging waters swept us away' (4).

Psalm 131: 'Like a baby content in its mother's arms, my soul is a baby content' (2, The Message).

Psalm 125: 'As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people' (2).

Psalm 126: 'And now, God, do it again - bring rain to our drought-stricken lives' (4, The Message).

Psalm 133: 'It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard' (2).

Psalm 129: 'May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow' (6).

Psalm 120: 'He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree' (4).

Psalm 130: ''I wait for you more eagerly than a soldier on guard duty waits for the dawn' (6, CEV).

Psalm 124: 'We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare' (7).

Here is a Top Ten without even mentioning 'your wife is like a fruitful vine within your house; your children like olive shoots round your table' (128.3). Oops, we now have a First Eleven.

If these psalms, with just a handful of verses in them, can find space for a prevailing image, so can our sermons. Notice, too, how utterly ordinary and everyday these images are. The advantage of being ordinary and everyday is that they have a better chance of engaging the imaginations of a wider range of people. Everybody relates to the ordinary and everyday ... that is what those words mean!

Arguably, the most frequently asked question in the training of preachers is 'where do I find illustrations?' Well, start by investing in your own imagination by seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary and everyday.

nice chatting