JOURNEY THROUGH THE AFTERLIFE
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead British Museum
4 November 2010–6 March 2011
‘THE BRITISH Museum had lost its charm’ wrote Ira Gershwin, either to get a rhyme or to show just how low he felt in foggy London town. And if you were to ask, what is the charm of the British Museum? an exhibition with mummies would be a good answer. And it would be literally correct because this show has a display of charms made to help bring the dead safely into the realm of Osiris and with any luck into the Land of Reeds, the Egyptians’ own Elysian Fields.
The charms were just part of the magic needed to get the dead past enemies and gods before their life was judged. But the main feature of that magic was the spells and passwords which make up the ‘Book of the Dead.’ Originally written on the walls of the tomb, then later on the sarcophagus and finally on papyrus bindings around the corpse, the exhibition features a number of versions of the ‘Book of the Dead.’ The most notable of these is the 37-metre-long Greenfield papyrus, the longest extant version of the Book, made up of panels, which are all on show together for the first time.
These come at the end of the show as a summary. Before then we have followed the sequence of burial and progression through the underworld with other versions of the Book and with charms, statues and mummies to illustrate the text.
The centre of the exhibition is a recreation of a tomb with the various parts of a sarcophagus laid out plus little statues and related objects. It is a satisfying organisation of the material which brings together the standard book illustrations of Ancient Egyptian life, plus items we see usually behind cases and vaguely remembered photos of King Tut’s tomb. The exhibition makes sense of why these things existed and why they were found as they were.
But there is more to the show than intellectual pleasure for amateur Egyptologists. There’s echoes of The Magic Flute as you trace the dead’s journey through perils and tests to Isis and Osiris. There’s echoes of The Mummy Returns in the coffins which look just like something from a Hollywood melodrama. There’s enough wrapped-up corpses and gold and lapis lazuli – signs the dead were becoming gods – to entertain children and make the British Museum one of the few places where modern British society allows children to come into real contact with death.
And for the Christian there is the reflection, ‘thank God for Jesus.’ It’s not that the Egyptian view of the afterlife was particularly frightful, just dull with its endless repetition of returning night and day and the round of seasons (it’s also wrong as shown by the way energy seeps out of our universe so as the Egyptians feared there is no eternal repetition).
The spiritual dullness is also there in the way a significant part of the Egyptian economy was devoted to care of the soon to be departed. Of course, this was nothing like the sinister, genocidal death cult of the Aztecs.
The show gives us an example of what the likes of St Anthony were up against. Unsurprisingly there are echoes in the show of Biblical stories; the importance of safeguarding your name against devils – ‘aha, I know who you are Jesus’ – and the restoration of life by breathing into the dead. But set besides Christianity, the ‘Book of the Dead’ summarises a worldview which is crude and unreal.
Apart from the desire to end up in the body of some powerful animal it is the idea of magic which most lowers the spirits. If you are rich enough – and here’s nothing very elevated about the afterlife, it really does look like the worst bits of Harrods – you can buy the charms and fix final justice.
As a result the Devourer apparently didn’t get to devour many of the departed who came to judgement. What the curators think of this is hinted at in the room devoted to how the dog-headed Anubis balances the soul against its deeds.
They give chapter and verse of the political murders carried out by Queen Nodjmet and place this alongside her own Book of the Dead which shows her passing through judgement clean as the driven snow. A rare example of ‘hopeful universalism takes a kicking in Bloomsbury.’
This is a show to make you think and to get the imaginative juices going. It is not filled with treasures or things of beauty. But it gives the visitor the opportunity to understand another culture and make contact with other people. Which is the real charm of the British Museum.
LENT FOR EVERYONE: MATTHEW YEAR A
Tom Wright SPCK, 2011
TOM WRIGHT is a prodigious producer of books about the Bible. Among his most accessible works are the For Everyone books, which look at the four Evangelists in turn. These books are now being developed further into a lectionary-based resource for Lent, structured around three year format of the Revised Common Lectionary. So last year saw the publication of Lent for Everyone: Luke Year C, and this year St Matthew’s Gospel gets the same treatment.
The basic structure of the book is simple: for each day of Lent a passage of Matthew’s Gospel is set, within which a specific passage is chosen for particular reflection. This passage is printed in full; there then follows a substantial reflection by Tom Wright and a short prayer. The length and tone of these reflections is well judged: short enough to make daily reading a possibility for even the busiest of people, but substantial enough to make the effort worthwhile.
The biblical passages are set chronologically, which makes for a few initial surprises: encountering the birth narrative on Ash Wednesday, for example; but the coherence of Wright’s commentary more than compensates for that.
From the birth narrative he focuses on Joseph, and on how the unfolding events must have looked and felt to him. “Whenever God does something new, he involves people – often unlikely people, frequently surprised and alarmed people. He asks them to trust him in a new way, to put aside their natural reactions, to listen humbly for a fresh word and to act on it without knowing exactly how it’s going to work out.
That’s what he’s asking all of us to do this Lent.” And so the stage is set for the journey through Ash Wednesday to Easter Day with St Matthew as our guide and Tom Wright as our interpreter.
This is essentially a devotional aid, not a serious academic study of Scripture. As such, however, it works well. As Wright himself says in the commentary on the disciples’ failure to cast out a demon in chapter 17, “the most important Christians are not the ones who preach great sermons and write great books, but the ones who pray, and pray, and pray some more, sharing the quiet but effective victory of Jesus over all that defaces God’s creation.”
FOR THE PARISH: A CRITIQUE OF FRESH EXPRESSIONS
Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank (SCM Press, 2010)
NOT LONG ago, this reviewer attended a Fresh Expressions study day at which one of the speakers spoke of the great success of her Fresh Expressions initiative in bringing people to faith. “S**t, I’m a Christian,” was the profound way in which one of her proselytes acknowledged his new-found faith, and for our lecturer this appeared to be enough. But as we know, a person is made a Christian through Baptism and is sustained in the faith by regular encounter with the Lord Jesus in the Sacraments, so that these Chaucerian words should have been the beginning of our hero’s journey rather than the end.
The fact that the Fresh Expressions movement seems to suggest that it is possible for church (note the by now infamous absence of the definite article) to exist without many of the characteristics which have defined the Church throughout its history is one of the recurring themes against which this book fights, for as its authors make clear, “to be a Christian is to exist in the Church.”
There have been other critiques of Fresh Expressions, from a variety of ecclesiological and theological stables, but none which have the con brio which characterizes For the Parish. Nor indeed have I encountered any which share this book’s underlying assumption that the Fresh Expressions initiative is not simply lacking in certain respects, or capable of improvement, but fundamentally misguided – or even plain wrong.
For the Parish is the result of papers given by each of the authors at a conference at St Stephen’s House in January 2009, and is split into two halves: the first half offers a devastating critique of Fresh Expressions; the second seeks to offer an alternative vision based on the importance of the parish model and of mediation in, to and for the world. In the introduction, they tell us that the book “is written in the belief that an important choice is offered to the Church of England: to embrace her historic mission to evangelize and serve the whole people of this country, or to decline into a sect.” They are surely right in believing that the latter option is a danger inherent in the Fresh Expressions movement, or at least in many of its manifestations. The book is, they tell us, “unapologetically a work of theology, which is the subject least valued in recent reallocation of resources and in the literature surrounding the Fresh Expressions developments.”
If only more theology was such fun to read! A few quotations will give a flavour of the fervour with which the authors go about their task: “In our experience, much of what is offered liturgically in the world of Fresh Expressions is somewhat lacklustre and inept. It has an air of syncretism and pastiche.” So true, and so succinctly put!
Or how about, “The authors of Mission-Shaped Church” are quite clear that they wish ‘to close the divide between the experience of church and the rest of life.’ They cannot, then, agree with us in finding the contemporary milieu – by and large – to be vacuous, selfish and lost.” For all its rhetorical flourish, this is a crucial point in contemporary ecclesiology: the Church must be different to (better than?) the rest of society, otherwise she ceases to be the Church in any meaningful sense. This, after all, was one of the founding principles of the Oxford Movement: the Church is not simply another facet of life, another department of the state, but the Body of Christ on earth, a divine society, the ark of salvation.
My final example may ring even more bells for New DirecTions readers, though it only makes it into For the Parish as an aside in a footnote: “It is a feature of Church of England reports in recent years that they make some of their most significant points by means of quotations from other authors.
In earlier decades each point was argued in full rather than resting on such (often relatively minor) authorities. This trend towards using the words of others may represent a lack of confidence in the teaching office of the contemporary Church of England.” Or to put it another way, an attempt to find the lowest common denominator, to say as little as possible outright in the hope of offending as few people as possible.
Hardly the premise on which the Gospels are founded. The footnote continues: “Once, Church reports laid out the content of the Faith; now they function as ‘discussion documents’ … The question then arises whether acceptance of such a ‘discussion document’ by General Synod constitutes and authority for root and branch reconfiguration of the Church.” Well, quite.
Most of the critique of Fresh Expressions is written in this style, which might come to grate were it not for the fact that it all so badly needs saying. The treatment of the weak understanding of Anglican ecclesiology by much of the Fresh Expressions movement is a case in point, although the paen to Common Worship in this section is unconvincing on a number of levels. Overall though, I found myself thinking “yes, exactly!” time and time again as I read the first half of For the Parish.
A couple of relatively minor quibbles: First, for all of their instinctive conservatism, neither of the authors adheres to the teaching of the Western Church on Holy Order, and this manifests itself in some unnecessarily rude asides on a couple of occasions. However, our constituency is in good company: a wide spectrum of people, from Rowan Williams to Margaret Thatcher, is insulted somewhere; and unless you are a Fresh-Expressions-hating Affirming Catholic with neoMarxist tendencies (a niche market, surely, even in the contemporary Church of England?) then you are likely to be offended, as well as enthralled, by this splendidly abrasive book.
The second problem is more substantial: it is that the description of the problem is more compelling than the suggested solutions: the demolition of Fresh Expressions is (mostly) superb; whereas the constructive elements of the book are less exciting. Where they are most solid (in the chapter on the parish system, for example, and in parts of the chapter on Liturgy), they are also lacking in originality. Many of the suggested ideas for “rebuilding a Christian Imaginary in the Parish,” such as making innovative use of liturgical colours, are the sort of things which imaginative and successful catholic parishes are already routinely doing. That having been said, it does no harm to offer these examples of success to a wider audience – but it simply does not feel like the breath of fresh air which characterizes the first part of the book.
Related to this problem is the fact that beyond the description of examples of good practice, there is very little attempt in For the Parish to engage with anything approaching a successful attempt at creating Fresh Expressions. As regular pilgrims at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage will attest, such a thing is possible. Simon Rundell’s book Creative Ideas for Alternative Sacramental Worship, reviewed in these pages last month, tells us how. Rundell’s book had your reviewer – previously completely ignorant in this regard – proudly creating a video presentation of the Angelus within twenty minutes, and creating a montage for use in the parish Advent course within twenty four hours.
The result of reading Rundell’s book, coupled with attendance at the Youth Pilgrimage, is that my eyes have been opened to the possibilities (as well as some of the dangers) which modern technology offers us for presenting the faith once delivered unto the apostles in lively and innovative ways to a new generation. It is a pity that For the Parish seems reluctant to acknowledge this possibility. Nonetheless, it is an important book and while (as with Rundell’s book itself) there may be few people who will read it in its entirety or without reservation, there will be equally few who come to it with an open mind and fail to take something of lasting use and value from it. It is to be hoped it makes a difference. Because “s**t, I’m a Christian,” simply isn’t enough.
Carols, Songs & Hymns Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band
READERS OF a certain age (and/or musical disposition) will remember Maddy Prior as the lead singer in the Seventies folk-rock band Steeleye Span. Since then, she has worked with a variety of artists, including occasional tours and albums with The Carnival Band, a group of five multi-talented instrumentalists whose repertoire ranges from medieval dances to music hall songs in a folk style (their instruments include lute, guitar, tabors, double bass, recorders, bassoon, and many more). Their first album together was a Christmas album entitled A Tapestry of Carols (1987), followed in 1990 by Sing Lustily and With Good Courage, a selection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gallery hymns which brings old favourites such as ‘Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending’ and ‘The God of Abraham Praise’ to vigorous new life through the lively and innovative renditions. More recently, 2007 saw the production of Paradise Found: A Celebration of Charles Wesley, which saw more of Wesley’s hymns given the Sing Lustily treatment.
In their most recent album, Prior and the band have turned their attention to a wide variety of Vaughan Williams’ music, from a hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘Down Ampney’ to a bawdy account of ‘Drinking Song’ from Sir John in Love. There is also an amusingly boisterous performance of ‘King’s Weston’ (sung here with the words of ‘At the Name of Jesus’), in contrast to a gently moving version of ‘Whither Must I Wander?’ Prior’s pure voice is in fine form, and the band give sterling support, albeit in a slightly less prominent way than on the other albums.
Indeed, this is in many ways a subtler, more serious album than its predecessors, a little less fun perhaps, but just as beautiful. It also amounts to a serious examination of Vaughan Williams’ music, which makes the lack of any commentary in the cover notes all the more disappointing. But this is a minor complaint: Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band have produced another stunning album, of interest alike to those of a certain age and/ or musical disposition, and all with an interest in hymnody and church music more generally.
MUSIC FOR THE
A Joint Commission of Catholic Bishops Conferences
LITURGICALLY-MINDED READERS of New Directions (is there any other type?) will be excited to learn that the website of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) now includes the music for a wide variety of the texts of the
forthcoming Roman Missal. The music available is for study rather than immediate use, since it is the responsibility of the individual Bishops’ conferences to determine the definitive versions. Nonetheless, there is much that is of interest here – most of the Prefaces, for example, and the complete Ordinary of the Mass. Other highlights include the Solemn Intercessions for Good Friday, and most of the music for the Easter Vigil. This reviewer is delighted to note that the bees make a triumphant return to the Exsultet. The Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts is provided for, as are
many ritual and Votive Masses, and the Epistle and Gospel tones. The music is reassuringly uncompromising in consisting entirely of plainsong (albeit written out in modern notation), and there is little doubt that this is another important milestone along the way to the reform of the reform.