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The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber


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Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This tale of a Christian missionary in space tells us more about life, love and faith than most down-to-earth fiction.

Michel Faber once said that he was an atheist. If that is still true, his latest novel — The Book of Strange New Things — suggests that he takes religion so seriously, considers it so valuable, that he cannot bring himself to sully it by believing. Within the novel, the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ is the Bible, and so Faber has written his own bible, what he wants to say to our common humanity about life and death, faith and doubt. He has produced something far more lucid and alive to human joys and sorrows than any bowdlerised attempt by AC Grayling.

The book is full of humour, that warm kind of wit that dimples the cheeks when we catch a glimpse of the fact that everyday human existence was ever part comedy. Yet Faber had me weeping in despair for humanity too, and he gently led me back and forth between the two until I understood the need for both.

Peter Leigh is an English Christian pastor who has been called to be a missionary. To say that Peter’s marriage to Beatrice is a happy one is an understatement: they are a perfect partnership and their love-life is good. But that mission means that they will be apart for the first time since they married. The novel opens with the couple driving to Heathrow Airport, finding a lay-by for last-minute lovemaking, and the nervous separation.

The Book of Strange New Things is sci-fi, but it would be wrong to pigeon-hole it as genre fiction. It depicts a near future: near enough for everything to be totally recognisable as if it were today. The only difference is that a faceless corporation — USIC — has started a colony on the planet Oasis (so named in competition by a schoolgirl in Nebraska). So much, so sci-fi, except that Peter has been called to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of Oasis, the Oasans — when a colleague refers to them as ‘aliens’, Peter reminds her that the humans are the aliens on Oasis. We are saved from too much sci-fi by the fact that we are limited to Peter’s experience and limited understanding of what is going on. As is common practice in sci-fi, Peter is put into a drug-induced suspended animation for the month-long ‘Jump’ to Oasis, resulting in some crazy, mind-bending jet lag. On arrival, his liaison, Grainger, apparently gives him a full briefing, but, as he cannot remember, we too are left in the dark about the practicalities of living in an extraterrestrial colony until Peter find out the hard way. And there is that nagging question: why would USIC want to spend millions to send a missionary into space?

The USIC base on Oasis is described as the most ugly airport terminal imaginable. Its concrete edifice is populated by a skeleton workforce that is still setting things up. Peter’s colleagues are characters, but not that characterful — somewhat self-repressed workaholics. The functional mess hall where the members of the community meet serves some expensive imported earth food alongside simulated earth favourites made from the various flora and fauna of Oasis, all to the background drone of Patsy Cline, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Like the food, all is recognisable and yet somehow alien.

While Peter is bringing the Good News to the Oasans, there is Bad News from Bea about far-away Earth. The ‘Shoot’ — a text-only interstellar messaging relay — enables Bea and Peter to write to each other, but their text-only relationship is awkward, unnatural. Both now inhabit worlds that the other cannot but fail to understand. First of all the news is full of terrible natural disasters, then Tesco stops stocking any decent chocolate desert, and finally Tesco goes bust. Culverting the sewer of Hollywood disaster movies, one wonders whether this is a more real description of how we might experience the beginning of the end of the world from suburbia. Michel Faber is on record for turning down British citizenship because of the Iraq war, and one can see that for him just nudging Cameron’s crumbling Britain up a gear makes for an apocalypse that is both frightening and believable.

At first the Oasans look like mediaeval monks. They are short and thin, wearing pastel-coloured hooded robes, and live a communal life of simple agriculture, without machines or electricity. When Peter first takes a look inside one of their cowls what he sees is described

“Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses — maybe three-months-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to forehead. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged into a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain — in some form unrecognisable to him — a mouth, nose, eyes.”

For Peter’s first, official visit to the Oasans, they have scrawled ‘WELCOME’ above the door to one of their houses. As his new flock gather, rather surprisingly they break into a few verses of ‘Amazing grace’, lisped and warbled by alien throats. They are desperate for him to read to them from the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ about the ‘technique of Jesus’.

The book design in itself is a delight: the white-and-gold dust jacket represents the spiral dance of the rain of Oasis. As a lover of fine typesetting, the publishers Canongate made the commendable decision to set the text in Eric Gill’s Perpetua, the ‘Shoot’ messages between Peter and Bea are in the clean, typewriterly Officina Sans, but best of all is the book’s use of Blambot’s We Come in Peace, a comic-book font for representing alien languages. Some of the Oasans have learnt English, but their inability to pronounce ‘s’, ‘t’ and ‘ch’ means that these are replaced by Blambot’s symbols. Later, as Peter learns their language, we see whole words, even speeches, in this script, and the reader is left to imagine how these alien sounds are made.

The Book of Strange New Things deserves rereading. Michel Faber has packed it with little observations and cryptic references. Faber litters the narrative with hanging questions and mysteries, letting a few go unanswered, and surprising the reader with some rather mundane answers to others, bringing sci-fi bang down to earth — and rather wonderfully.

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Liturgy bits: the Lord be with you

The phrase ‘The Lord be with you’, in various languages and in its Latin Dominus vobiscum, has been the greeting that gathers Christians together in worship for over a millennium. I might say that it is the church’s Hello, and I quite like that jolly interpretation. Nevertheless, it is important not to dumb it down: this phrase has power.

‘The Lord be with you’ is a presidential greeting, which is most often encountered at the beginning of the a liturgy and and the beginning of the eucharistic prayer. It is also found before the reading of the Gospel, before a blessing, before blessing baptismal water, in the middle of Exsultet, and before praying a collect.

The biblical references of Ruth 2.4, II Chronicles 15.2 and Matthew 28.20 are given in support of this phrase. It can be clearly dated back to the 6th century (Council of Braga and, later, Gelasian Sacramentary), but can be inferred from the Apostolic Tradition and other early texts.

Grammatically, of course, the Latin original has no verb: Dominus vobiscum means, more literally, ‘Lord with you’. English needs the verb ‘to be’ to act as a copula. An obvious choice would have been to translate the phrase with ‘The Lord is with you’ (this is in the indicative mood). Instead, our English reformers chose ‘The Lord be with you’, in the subjunctive mood. Unlike much spoken English, and indeed written English, the subjunctive mood is on quite frequent duty in the Book of Common Prayer. The subjunctive is often used in blessing formulas, and this shows an important interpretation of this phrase: it is not about stating a fact — the Lord’s presence — but is the blessing of the Lord’s presence. A major feature of a lot of liturgical language is that it is performative: it does something. This particular phrase is the greeting — the benediction — that constitutes the Christian assembly for worship.

The Eastern churches have ‘Peace to all’ / ‘And with thy spirit’, but its use is different.

And with thy spirit

The Latin response to Dominus vobiscum is Et cum spiritu tuo. The traditional English translation of this is ‘And with thy spirit’, and the agreed ecumenical translation into contemporary English is ‘And also with you’. The modern translation is clearly more of a paraphrase than a direct translation of the Latin. This paraphrase understands the use of the word ‘spirit’ as metonymy for the minister’s person or self.

The Epistles use this phrase at Galatians 6.18, Philippians 4.23, Philemon 25 and II Timothy 4.22.

The new Catholic translation of the missal has taken us back closer to the original by using ‘And with your spirit’. A friend who is a Catholic priest commented to me that he finds the former translation — ‘And also with you’ — more affirming of his whole person than the new translation.

Et cum spiritu tuo is clearly not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit does not belong to the minister. At its simplest, ‘your spirit’ is metonymy for ‘you’, and avoids the short, ungainly Et tecum, ‘And with you’ (even ‘And also with you’ uses extra syllables). Other commentators have described the phrase as an acknowledgement of the spiritual grace given the ordained minister by the Holy Spirit. It is similar to the Eastern affirmation of a priest’s ordination by the acclamation of the people: axios, ‘worthy’.

Praxis

It is important to speak about how we do, and should do, Dominus vobiscum. This is where I believe that the choice of the subjunctive in English is informative. The greeting is not a statement that Jesus is here so let’s get on with it. It is a benediction that recognises the icon of Christ in the assembly of the baptized, and draws out this image, verbally constituting the ekklesia. At the commencement, and at other high points of liturgy, the minister thus constitutes the church, and the people, in response, declare the human being before them to be their minister by grace.

Some principles

  1. It is important: do not rush it or belittle it.
  2. It is the greeting that constitutes the liturgical assembly.
  3. It should not be preceded or followed by more colloquial stock phrases of greeting, like ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, etc.
  4. The only thing that should preface the opening greeting is the Trinitarian invocation.
  5. Giving notices, and even announcing a hymn, before the greeting takes away from its impact.
  6. It is easy to remember, so it should not be read from a book.
  7. It can lead into words of welcome and introduction (the ‘intention’).
  8. It should be accompanied by the appropriate gesture: arms open in a welcoming embrace.
  9. The gesture should not be either poky or overlarge.
  10. The gesture should not be stiff or vague.
  11. Traditionally, a deacon makes no gesture with these words.
  12. The priest or deacon should be attentive to the people’s response, and drink in their affirmation before proceeding.

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What is Aramaic and Syriac?

11th-century West Syriac Melkite music book from Mount Sinai.

Robert Fisk recently wrote an article about Ma‘loula (معلولا) for the Independent. It is a good article, and I was glad to read it. However, there are a couple of small errors about the Aramaic spoken in Ma‘loula and its neighbouring villages of Bakh‘a (بخعة) and Jubb‘adin (جبّعدين) in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria. As someone who works in Aramaic, I tend to read many articles written by journalists touching on the language, and many make the same mistakes. So, I offer this article as a little corrective.

  1. Aramaic is a Semitic language — Fisk’s article declares “Did Arabic and Hebrew descend from Aramaic? Scholars – I always find that an odd word – are still undecided.” It is a rather silly statement because scholars, and it is always best to be a little more specific, are totally decided that the question of Arabic and Hebrew descending from Aramaic is rather silly. Aramaic, with Arabic and Hebrew, is part of the Semitic branch of Afro-asiatic languages (spoken throughout the Middle East and north-east Africa). All Semitic languages are descended from a hypothetical Proto-Semitic language, which branched off into the various Semitic languages that have existed throughout history. Thus, Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew do not have parent-child relationships, but more cousinly ones. In fact, Arabic branched off earlier, and so is slightly more distantly related to the other two, with Hebrew and Aramaic having more in common (these both belong to Northwest Semitic group). For example, the greeting of peace in Hebrew is shalom (שלום), in Arabic is salam (سلام), and in Aramaic is shlama (ܫܠܡܐ or שלמא).
  2. Aramaic has a long and diverse history — A major problem with reporting about Aramaic is that it is often treated as a monolithic language. However, no language stands still: we can see how English has changed from Shakespeare to hip-hop, let alone going back as far as Beowulf. Aramaic has a recorded history that is more than twice as long as that of English. Although, I would reckon that Aramaic has resisted change far better than English has, in different times and places people have spoken and written different Aramaics. Geographically, varieties of Aramaic tend to fall into two branches: the more vigorous Eastern Aramaic in Mesopotamia, and the near extinct Western Aramaic in the Levant. The earliest Aramaic inscriptions come from the tenth century BC. During the latter half of the eight century BC, the conquests of the Neo-Assyrian founder Tiglath-Pileser III, Aramaic became the diplomatic language of the region. Around the year 500 BC, Darius decreed Aramaic as the official language of Achaemenid Persian Empire. The standard Aramaic practised by Achaemenid scribes is known as Official Aramaic. After the conquest of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Seleucid Empire, Greek became the language of power and high society in much of the Levant, while Aramaic continued as a rural language, remaining strong in its Mesopotamian heartland. Thus, most post-Achaemenid Aramaic is written in Mesopotamian dialects. The Aramaic of Ma‘loula is the last living remnant of the western varieties of Aramaic. Greek and Aramaic coexisted for over a millennium, until Arabic gradually became the dominant language of the Middle East.
  3. Aramaic is one of the original languages of the Bible — The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was originally written down in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. However, a few parts of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic. The largest portion of Aramaic is Daniel 2.4b–7.28, with the rest of the book written in Hebrew. Daniel 2.4 is odd as the text changes from Hebrew to Aramaic mid-flow: ‘And the Chaldaeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live for ever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation”’ (where the narration is in Hebrew, then the quoted speech is in Aramaic, but then the narration and everything else continues in Aramaic). Portions of the Book of Ezra are also in Aramaic, as is one sentence in the Prophet Jeremiah, and one word in Genesis. The variety of Aramaic in Daniel and Ezra is post-Achaemenid with many Greek borrowings.
  4. Jesus spoke Aramaic — This is one of the big selling-points of Aramaic for many, and almost every journalist who mentions Aramaic has to make the connection with Jesus. I would too! However, we obviously have no sound recordings of Jesus speaking Aramaic, nor is he alleged to written anything down, except in the dust (John 8.6–9). Jesus’ speaking Aramaic is based on two bits of evidence. Firstly, we know that Aramaic was widely spoken by Jews and their neighbours, particularly among the lower classes. Hebrew and Greek were also important languages, and Jesus would probably have been able to speak them too. Secondly, the Greek New Testament records quite a few Aramaic words and phrases, names and places in transliteration (with no spoken Hebrew). These little fossilised bits of Aramaic are interesting in themselves — ‘talitha qum’, ‘ephphatha’ (actual Aramaic ‘ethpethach’) and  ‘eli eli’ or ‘eloi eloi lema sabachthani’ (in Mark 5.41, Mark 7.34, Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34 respectively). So, we are pretty sure Jesus spoke Aramaic. However, the Aramaic he would have spoken is clearly different from any Aramaic spoken today. We Christians who speak Aramaic like to say that we speak the language of Jesus, but in practice we all speak slightly different varieties of Aramaic to that spoken by Jesus. It is just not quite so glamourous to admit that we speak a language that is as close as you can get to that spoken by Jesus.
  5. No gospels were first written in Aramaic — There are people around (in the Internet sense rather than around universities) who will go to great lengths to prove that some of the New Testament was written in Aramaic, and then later translated into Greek. They are wrong.
  6. People of different religions speak Aramaic — Religion is a big deal, and Aramaic is the language of worship and theology for Christians, Jews and Mandeans. Christians make up the largest religious group among fluent Aramaic speakers. Aramaic as a learned language is used in prayer and study by many more Christians, Jews and Mandeans who do not speak it fluently. As well as liturgical texts in Aramaic for all three religions, a little less than a fifth of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic, and the base language of the Talmud is also Aramaic.
  7. There are a few million Aramaic-speakers today — It is often stated that Aramaic is an extinct language, or that some small group is the last few speakers of Aramaic in the world. However, there are thriving communities of Christian Aramaic-speakers in Chicago and Södertälje, near Stockholm, produced by different waves of refugees. However, the various modern Aramaics are endangered. Chronic turmoil in Aramaic-speaking homelands is a major factor. Also, Aramaic is less useful for everyday life if everyone around you is speaking Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish, German or English. The erosion of Jewish modern Aramaics is the most acute — each variety spoken by a small cluster of families from a Mesopotamian village, they have low intelligibility with each other, and most speakers are now in Israel and are giving way to Hebrew. Mandaic in both its classical and modern varieties is severely threatened, as is the Mandean way of life in Iraq and Iran. Mlahso, a Christian Aramaic from southeast Turkey, became extinct upon the death of Ibrahim Hanna in 1998. Turmoil and diaspora has created a koine, or amalgam, language of the previously diverse spectrum of Christian Aramaic tribal dialects spoken from the mountains of southeast Turkey to the plains of northern Iraq. On the more hopeful side, young people are using music (Aramaic hip-hop is pretty good!) and the Internet to keep their language alive, yet still there is major language erosion going on all around Aramaic.
  8. Aramaic is written in a number of different scripts — It is not straightforward to answer the question which script Aramaic is written in. The earliest inscriptions use a modified Phoenician script, which was used by many Northwest Semitic languages. Official Aramaic developed a formal, chancery script that was adopted by Jews for writing both Aramaic and Hebrew. What we think of today as Hebrew script (אבגד) is the descendent of Official Aramaic script. In Daniel 2.4, when the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic, there is no change of script. In the first century BC, the cursive Aramaic script of the city of Edessa began its development, which was taken up by Christian Aramaic-speakers, and is known as Syriac script (ܐܒܓܕ). Other cursive Aramaic scripts were developed for Mandaic, Nabatean and Palmyrene. Cursive Nabatean and Syriac were influential in the development of Arabic script (ابجد). When Robert Fisk asks about Aramaic being the forerunner of Hebrew and Arabic, he is clearly confusing the history of development of writing systems with the languages themselves, which, to be fair, is not an uncommon mistake. Syriac script has been found on Turkic gravestones in Central Asia as well as on a Tang Dynasty inscription in China.
  9. How do Syriac, Chaldean and Assyrian fit in with Aramaic? — Different varieties of Aramaic have their own names, and names of the varieties often bear a relation to the speakers’ ethnic and religious identity. The  Syriac identity is almost synonymous with Christian speakers of Aramaic. As Christianity was adopted by many Aramaic speakers the name ‘Aramean’ came to be associated with their pagan past (armaya means ‘pagan’ in Classical Syriac), and so the Greek translation of ‘Aram’, which is ‘Syria’, was adopted. Many Christian Aramaic-speakers now refer to themselves as Assyrian in reference to Northern Mesopotamia, which long remained known as Assyria after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (interestingly they often spell it ‘As-‘ after the Greek spelling or ‘Ash-‘ after the Akkadian spelling, rather than ‘Ath-‘ the historical Aramaic spelling). Modern Christian Aramaic varieties called Assyrian should not be confused with the ancient variety of Akkadian known as Assyrian, which is a very different Semitic language. The term Chaldean or Chaldee is quite confusing, it belonged to the Semitic people of the Southern Mesopotamian marshes who founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 620 BC. Seeing as the Book of Daniel is set during the final years of this empire, St Jerome chose to use the word ‘Chaldee’ to describe Biblical Aramaic (I have an old Aramaic dictionary that is charmingly titled A Chaldee Lexicon). After the fall of this empire, the term came to refer to the scribal class of Achaemenid Babylon, which led ‘Chaldean’ to becoming a byword for ‘magician’. The term received renewed use when a split in the Church of the East led to one bishop Yuhannan Sulaqa being consecrated as ‘Patriarch of the Chaldeans’ by the Pope in Rome in 1553, based on Jerome’s use of the term for the Aramaic language. This identity continues to be used by East Syriac-rite Catholics, and is occasionally used to refer to their dialects of Aramaic.
  10. Any other questions? — Leave a comment below.


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Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

This morning I took the train to North-West London on a personal pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. A few weeks ago I received my copy of the new Britain’s holiest places by Nick Mayhew Smith. It’s a wonderful travel guide with personal observations to the places of Christian heritage around Britain. I must confess that I had never heard of Our Lady of Willesden. Reading Mayhew Smith’s one page write-up, I jumped on the train this morning to make pilgrimage.

The Shrine is both oddly English and oddly London. It is in the Parish Church of St Mary Willesden, a rather pretty English parish church surrounded by a verdant graveyard, typical of so many village churches up and down the country. Yet just beyond its stone boundary wall is a busy roundabout with red London double-deckers ferrying passengers to and from Neasden Tube Station.

St Mary's Church, Willesden

St Mary's Church, Willesden

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Bright sadness: thoughts for Ash Wednesday

Those who know me know that I take fasting pretty seriously. That does not mean that I am a master of the fast; I get grumpy, get tempted when I fast; I am weak, ill-disciplined and self-centred. However, I am serious about fasting because I am slowly coming to understand that fasting helps me to understand those most deplorable qualities in me. It certainly is not pretty, but does give invaluable insight. It is a pain, but full of gain.

You see, the date of Easter is in the diary, it will come and there will be hallelujahs (that word was typed before Shrove midnight!) aplenty, but it can mean very little if we simply let it fall upon us. A few years ago I walked to the summit of Mount Snowdon. It was a great climb, but I was put out to see people arriving at the summit by train from Llanberis. They had not put in the time and effort, but just bought the ticket. However, I overheard their loud complaining about the weather or the less than perfect view, and I understood that my investment gave the greater enjoyment of the beauty and magnificence of that little bit of creation. We often arrive at Easter like those who roll off the train, and we might get something from the experience, but it is definitely worth arriving the hard way, for the hard way is the way of beauty.

The classic move of giving up chocolate is simply useless. I mean, what is the point or significance of that? Fasting need not be extreme (and should not be if you have health problems), but it should make some significant impact on our lives. This webpage offers some suggestions and advice on fasting. Remember that we can have Sundays off from fasting, and that is why there are 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. As the average British person consumes so much more than the global average, and not just in terms of food, fasting can have a social-justice focus too.

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Persecution or privilege: the Church Defensive

Not PersecutedDuring Holy Week, I had a couple of episcopal moments. On Palm Sunday, six bishops signed a letter in the Sunday Torygraph that didn’t use the word ‘persecution’, but the resulting headlines did, and one sermon I’ve heard since has. Archbishop Rowan felt it necessary to say publically that they should get things in perspective in his Easter Letter: hear, hear!

The next day, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of London felt it necessary refute ‘persecution’ claims in his chrism sermon, but then he went on to talk about how Christians have to fight against the discrimination aimed at us and battle the tide of secularism (this clunkily segued into the twice-repeated materialist motto ‘love is not an emotion’).

On Easter Sunday evening, Nicky Campbell brought out a TV documentary asking whether Christians are persecuted. The show gave fairly free reign to those who wanted to ramp up the persecution fears, but also got the sane voices of the Bishop of Oxford and Theos think-tank in there. I quite liked the clear outline of why the persecution fear exists: that it is based on

  1. the complex secularising of hegemony,
  2. increased non-Christian immigration
  3. and human-rights legislation.

Whereas the fearmongers, like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, would point to the secularisation of society as the cause, and crusade for the re-Christianisation of our public spaces, the documentary’s outline gives us more substantial handles for what is happening.

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A Christian Passover haggadah

Passover HaggadahJewish Passover usually falls sometime in Christian Holy Week. The two are connected, and the Christian celebration of Easter, Pascha, began as something of a continuation of Passover, Pesach. April DeConick has written a short blog post on today’s Christians celebrating Passover. She reminds me of the many issues about Christians celebrating the Jewish feast.

We celebrated Passover at All Hallows Church in Twickenham this week. It was an act of worship based on traditional Jewish haggadot, including some Christian elements. The Passover haggadah celebrated by All Hallows can be downloaded in PDF format. It is a Christian haggadah, whilst trying to remain faithful to Jewish tradition, in which the afikoman and third cup are reinterpreted eucharistically.

Thoughts and comments, please…