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Religious leaders have reached new levels of bolloxology in their attempts to explain the tsunami in South East Asia. Plus: the unlamented demise of Fr. Martin Tierney and why documentarist and author Jon Ronson is in a field of his own.
Eamonn McCann, 20 Jan 2005
If there’s one thing religion ought to be able to make sense of, it’s disasters on a scale beyond ordinary human understanding.
But the commentaries of religious leaders on the Asian tsunami have been empty, banal, utterly inadequate. Uniformly, glaringly, obviously so.
Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames suggested that the disaster illustrated “the mystery of God’s love for all humankind.”
Ian Paisley mused on Pilate’s slaughter of the Galileans: “Christ asked the pertinent question, ‘Were these Galileans sinners above all Galileans?’ He answered with an emphatic ‘No.’ Then he said, ‘Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish.’”
For Pastor Billy Conville of the Irish Baptists, the tsunami was a reminder of “His (God’s) authority, compassion and love.”
Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, Belfast: “This has strengthened my faith.”
Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh composed a special prayer: “Enable us to become wiser in our time and, like You, to have compassion on all that lives.”
Do these people ponder the meaning of their words before utterance? Probably not. Being religious means never having to make sense.
Cardinal Murphy O’Connor of Westminster set new standards for fustian gibberish on BBC2’s Newsnight. Didn’t the scale of the suffering represent a challenge to the faith of all Christians?, he was asked. “Of course,” came the ready response. “No-one can view a disaster like this, with all its pain and grief without, somehow, one’s faith being challenged. But, you know, I think it would be a mistake to think of coming on a programme like this to, as it were, defend god. I think god is beyond all my thoughts, my expectation, my comprehension, and therefore the need to say I don’t believe in god because god has allowed such things to happen is somehow to try to bring god down to my expectations and my thoughts.”
Readers may care to retire to a darkened room and place a cold compress on the brow while considering that statement at leisure.
Britain‘s top Catholic continued: “The god I believe in has created the world with a divine purpose, for good reasons. And I think that we wouldn’t understand anything of this world or its activities if, somehow, god hadn’t shared this world. In other words, the mystery of evil and suffering and death has to be sort of balanced beyond the mystery of Christ, who is the son of god, who came into the world and shared our world.”
In what way does this explain an omnipotent, loving god permitting the slaughter of myriads of innocents?
There were two possible answers to this conundrum, the cardinal allowed. One—-that there is no god—-dissolves the conundrum. The other he defined thus: “That there is a god and there is a meaning and that, confronted with evil, therefore, not only is there no easy answer to it but the answer is somehow an answer whereby god allows evil but also puts on it balance (with) the good, the love that is the other mystery.”
Some say good may come of the vast evil of the tsunami. Perhaps so. We may earnestly hope that profound lessons are learnt from the prolonged spectacle of the leaders of the world’s major religions floundering in a morass of meaninglessness when called to pronounce on a matter hitherto assumed to fall squarely within their unique area of expertise.
Word whizzed and ricocheted around ex-St. Columb’s men of a certain age last month: The Bird had fallen off his perch.
The Bird was Fr. Martin Tierney, a teacher with a somewhat distinctive take on pedagoguery.
First thing some freezing winter’s morning: “Mahon, think of a number.”
Starting at the back: “Porter one, Johnston two, Patten three. Come out here, Patten.”
Patten was beaten until The Bird reckoned he’s whimpered piteously for a sufficiency of time. “Back to your seat. Don‘t blame me. Blame Mahon. He picked your number.”
There was the morning he swept in to discover that one of the class’s minor wits had scrawled on the blackboard: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit, Bird thou never wert.”
“Who wrote that?”
Minor wit: “Shelley, Father.”
“Come out here, Shelley.” The minor wit was battered around the room until he collapsed in a heap of sogginess.
The obituaries in the local press told of the great love and affection in which Tierney was held by all who’d passed through his shovely hands.
They don’t make teachers like that any more. At least, I hope not.
It’s some years since I first drew public attention to the fact that bestiality is only a venial sin. The result, I’m told, has been a sharp increase in the numbers getting it from goats.
I wonder if this has had anything to do with the Broadway and London West End success of Edward Albee’s Who Is Sylvia?
Albee’s hero, Martin, discovers his bent for bestiality when touring the countryside in search of a holiday home. He finds himself gazing idly into the eyes of a grazing goat and realises instantly that he’s in love.
By the time the play opens, Martin has been visiting Sylvia in her barn for sex for months. So natural does his love seem to him, he experiences no sense of wrong. Which makes him feel guilty. So he confesses to his best mate, Ross. Who blows the whistle to Martin’s wife, Stevie. Who can’t believe what she’s being told until recall of that strange goat smell from Martin’s jacket following his jaunts to the country.
In the end, Stevie bloodily slaughters Sylvia. I think the point is that Martin and Stevie need a scapegoat for the dysfunction of their lives. Or perhaps it’s about the toppling of taboos. Or maybe something else entirely.
Anyway. I’d just finished reading Albee’s script when my old friend Barry Duke, editor of the fascinating, infuriating, invaluable Freethinker, pointed me towards Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. One of the main characters in this work of strict non-fiction is Major General Albert Stubblebine III, for a number of years the US Army’s Chief of Intelligence.
In the early 1980s, Stubblebine set up a programme at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to develop special forces’ capacity to kill goats by staring at them. The idea was if they learned to stare goats to death they could then look at humans.
The programme wasn’t a great success. One master sergeant did manage to stop a goat’s heart by staring. However, sceptics insisted this could be coincidence. In another case, the goat being stared at remained none the worse—but the goat standing next to it suffered a fatal heart attack. Collateral damage, suggests Ronson.
I’m informed Ronson is an Irish-American, his roots in Donegal, the county from which there emerged in the 1980s a fine band about which I’ve often wondered, Goats Don‘t Shave.
I think I may have to return to this subject.