The Armageddon Playlist

The ICBMs have been launched. This is it – the End of the World – so what would you like to watch or listen to in the few minutes before a massive EMP wipes out all electronic communication?

There is an urban legend that Ted Turner, founder of CNN, planned to capture this demographic with a pre-Apocalypse video to be played as the last broadcast on his channel, before the bombs fell. It turns out to be true, as reported in the Guardian, and you can see the video here.

Well, what do you think? I think it’s the expression of everything that made a nuclear war possible – sentimental jingoism, aided and abetted by a military band, to convince patriotic Americans that their sacrifice was worth the cause of defeating communism. Appropriating Nearer My God to Thee, famously played by the ship’s band on the Titanic, is particularly cynical. The iceberg was a blameless force of nature, nuclear brinkmanship a calculated political decision.

So what else might we while away the minutes with? Tom Lehrer, who gave up satire when real life began stealing his best lines, brought us this.

See? We’re all in this together. On the other hand, communal spirit sounds suspiciously like communism, so perhaps we shouldn’t go with that. What’s needed is some old time religion, conflating Jesus with the atom bomb.

For myself, the song that’s most associated with the end of the world is Waltzing Matilda. That’s because of Stanley Kramer’s powerful yet understated 1959 film about nuclear annihilation, On the Beach. Nuclear war in the the Northern hemisphere has wiped out all human life, but Australia is unscathed. Unfortunately, radiation is drifting into the Southern hemisphere and Australia waits to see if it will survive. It doesn’t. Everybody dies.

Waltzing Matilda threads its way through the soundtrack, in many different tones and arrangements, as a haunting refrain to the inevitable death of the human race. Here’s the opening scene.

And here’s the final scene.

What’s more sad than a song with no-one left to sing or dance to it?

Ecumenopolis

As promised yesterday, here are the photos of Nathan Coley’s exhibit at GoMA, The Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh 2004. He began with a couple of pages torn from the Yellow Pages.

The work is based on Ruskin’s idea that “buildings and architecture are two separate things – one being purely functional and the other having meaning” (GoMA handout). So Coley made cardboard models of 286 churches listed in the Yellow Pages and assembled them in a higgledy-piggledy fashion on GoMA’s floor.

I added what could be construed as meaning, if you believe in that sort of thing, by positioning a tall white pillar behind a spire to represent the elevator to Heaven. I also cropped the bit showing the ceiling so as not to spoil the illusion. But I did leave in the Yellow Pages, so there would be a bible of sorts.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of this strange ecumenopolis.

I find this fascinating. Architectural models of any sort always draw attention, whether it’s Hitler’s model of the new Berlin or a model railway layout. Here, the absence of streets focuses attention on the buildings and how you might navigate between them. Should you want to. Not many people do.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

ZealotZealot is a straightforward yet scholarly account of the life of Jesus, unencumbered by metaphysical speculation about what Christians regard as religious mysteries. For atheists or agnostics with an interest in mythology and religion as a social phenomena, Reza Aslan has done exactly what it says on the cover. It’s about “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Other readers may feel short-changed by the focus on the material facts of the life of Jesus in the context of first century Palestine. Yet others, apparently without reading the book, have been upset by the fact that it’s written by a Muslim, as if his religion disqualified Aslan from writing on the subject. See this toe-curlingly embarrassing clip from Fox News for a particularly egregious example.

As well as being a scholar of religions, Aslan is also an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and he takes a novelistic approach that emphasizes story, setting, and characterization. He begins in the present tense, taking us on a journey through the Temple in Jerusalem to witness the assassination of the High Priest in 56 CE by Jewish zealots. Along the way, he introduces us to the architecture, personnel, and functions of the Temple, even the smells of the place during Passover. It’s a brilliant, almost cinematic, introduction to the key facts.

Aslan accepts that a real, historical Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, was the basis for Christianity. As a careful scholar, however, he always distinguishes between the Jewish Jesus and accretions of the Christ mythos. While there are no footnotes to clutter up the text, he writes exhaustive chapter notes at the end of the book.

His historical background covers the period of Roman rule, up to and beyond the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, encompassing the many Jewish Messiahs, of which Jesus is the most well-known. The title of the book, Zealot, points to their common characteristic, outrage at both Roman occupation and the collaboration of the Temple authorities.

In conjunction with his focus on the historical Jesus, Aslan is painstakingly agnostic about the miracles recorded in the Gospels, those which allegedly occurred during his ministry and the resurrection itself. He merely notes that most people accepted them as true. As an atheist, I wanted more scientific rigour, but you can’t have everything.

Aslan spends some time analyzing what the word “Messiah” meant to Jews at the time, since the definition is central to the story of Jesus. To that end, he deconstructs the Gospel accounts to reveal Jesus as a zealot, leader of a movement aiming to wrest control of Israel from Roman rule. In terms of verifiable events in the life of Jesus, however, Aslan devotes the bulk of the book to the events of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. In part this is because there are so few verifiable events.

The idea of Jesus as Jewish zealot is not a new interpretation – I remember reading a book written in the Seventies with this premise – but Aslan’s combined scholarship and novelistic skills make a compelling argument. In the event, it was an easy sale, since I’ve long subscribed to the idea.

He is particularly interesting on the religious rivalry between the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem and Saul of Tarsus’ conception of Jesus as Christ. The former, led by James, brother of Jesus, saw him as a Jewish Messiah, and their church bound by the laws of the Torah. Saul, who became Paul after his attack of hysterical blindness on the road to Damascus, preached a vision of an eternal Christ to the gentiles. If Aslan’s novelistic approach lets down the scholarly side, it’s here. You can see in his characterization that he clearly dislikes Paul. As do I, so we’re on the same page. If I had a time machine, Paul would not be history. Literally.

This is not a book everyone will warm to, but I’ve not read a better account of the life of Jesus in his historical context. Highly recommended.

Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (7.2.2)

The Rings of Akhaten

BBC Doctor Who Site

This episode by Neil Cross is a welcome change from the enjoyable, but bloated, The Bells of Saint John. A proper alien location and much more focused. Touch of the Bondian theme in the business with the moped that nicely mocked the grandiosity of the previous episode. I’ll be looking out for a motorcycle/moped motif in the next one. Enjoyed the market, which is fast challenging the ubiquitous quarry in the classic series for favourite location, and loved the chocolate box selection of brilliant, unique aliens. As a nod to the 50th anniversary year, the Doctor reveals that he once visited the Seven Planets with his granddaughter. So that would be the original William Hartnell Doctor, with Susan.

This week we got a closer look at Clara’s past, with the Doctor becoming even more stalkerish, and investigating Clara’s parents in an attempt to solve the mystery of her apparent regeneration. The leaf on the first page of her book, 101 Places to See, is explained as the leaf that blew across her future dad’s face and almost got him run over in 1981, only to be saved by Clara’s future mum. Lovely scene, that. But the Doctor is no closer to solving the mystery – “She’s not possible” – and Clara explicitly warns him off: “I’m not a bargain basement stand-in for someone else. I’m not going to compete with a ghost.”

The Rings of Akhaten is all about stories and memories, which the Doctor equates with the souls the Old God wants to eat. One of best monsters yet, a stellar vampire feeding off the lives of those on the Seven Planets, who have evolved a religion where it’s sung to sleep by the choristers and the Queen of Years. To make Mary a child, lost and afraid like Clara was at Blackpool, comforted by Clara as an adult as she was by her mum, ties their stories together in a very satisfying way. Even the local currency is psychometric, any object of emotional significance that’s laden with stories.

But stories are more than about what’s actually happened, they’re also about what might have happened. As the Doctor says, “There’s an awful lot of one and an infinity of the other. And infinity’s too much.” This is what destroys the Old God. Clara, never one to walk away, goes to the Doctor’s rescue after the Old God drains him dry of his Time Lord memories. Her weapon is the leaf that brought her parents together, which also contains the life that might have been if her mum hadn’t died. Clara’s infinite yearnings are there, so many they can buy salvation from the monster who’s been holding the population in fear for millennia. A thoroughly satisfying way of defeating the Old God, much more so than anything the Doctor could have done with a sonic screwdriver or a spot of timey-wimey jiggery-pokery.

This episode is saying something interesting and paradoxical about religion. On the one hand, the Old God is a “parasite,” compelling worship in case it should wake and drink their souls. Yet the religion that evolves around it is extremely beautiful. The music is glorious, and the feeling in the arena one of awe and wonder. I think Moffat and Neil Cross want us to recognise the cognitive dissonance and think on.

There’s also an echo of the Great Intelligence from last week’s episode, a being who craves minds stuffed with stories, its food source being the social media. While the Great Intelligence is also a vampire, the festivals of offering it feeds on are rather more tawdry.

This is grown-up writing. I want to see more of Neil Cross’ work.