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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Thomas Paul Burgess

An interview with Thomas Paul Burgess,

author of Through Hollow Lands by  – Urbane Press.

Paul Burgess, punk star, academic and novelist, was back home in the Shankill this week for a dander round old haunts and an interview about his latest novel, Through Hollow Lands.

This book is a study in evil. It is one of the best novels I have read for years.

What I want to know is how a Belfast working-class background leads to this, a book set around the 9/11 attacks on the US. From where does he derive such plausible studies of evil and redemption. Is it because you are a Protestant?

Well, sort of.

One might as well ask, however, how such a start in life, in a two-bedroom house in Jersey Street, to parents who had had minimal education, led to him being a drummer and songwriter for the punk band Ruefrex and what would take a man on from there to doing his Masters degree in Oxford and now being a lecturer at Cork University.

It all seems so unlikely.

As for why the book is set around the 9/11 attacks, Burgess says that he had a near miss. He had made a last-minute dash to board a plane to Las Vegas, while on a fly-and-drive holiday with his wife, torn between that option and Flight 93 to San Francisco.

The lightness with which they made that decision saved their lives. They woke up in their Las Vegas Hotel room to a call from home to check that they were safe. Then he turned on the television.

They saw the Towers fall and learned that they were to be stuck in Las Vegas. No flights were taking to the air at all.

And that sets the basis of the story in his book.

“It was surreal.”

 

Through Hollow Lands

My well thumbed copy

The twist that unfolds, however, is that Las Vegas, for lead character George Bailey is not what it seems.

Bailey is the sort of man it is easier to describe with expletives. He is a worthless liar and a cheat.

Good women have loved him and suffered for it.

We meet them in the book too.

But as George’s journey takes him deeper into Hell we see that he is by not the worst that a human being can be.

And there are angels who even now seek to redeem him.

There are people — and he has crossed them — for whom the depths of evil are the only redemption they can conceive of, for whom wisdom comes with loss of innocence.

But George Bailey has been given a second chance. His Las Vegas is a sort of purgatory, in which the sins of his past revisit him and he has a second chance.

The echo here, of course, is with that other George Bailey, played by James Stewart in A Wonderful Life, who is given a vision of how much worse off the world would be without him. In Through Hollow Lands, George is shown how much worse the world is because of him.

I put it to Paul Burgess, this is religious thinking.

“I have often wondered if human beings are fundamentally good, but capable of great evil, or fundamentally evil, but capable of great good,” he says. “As I grow older, I begin to think it’s the latter.”

Original sin. The fallen state.

“Yes.”

But he also says the book can be read as a comment on modern America.

“It’s ultimately about the redemption of the United States, because the main political premiss that runs through it is how America has fallen from grace, fallen away from the American dream. And my belief is that the catalyst for that was 9/11.

“And so, while the rest of the novel is about a wrestling match for the soul of George Bailey, it is also for the soul of what the American dream is supposed to be about.”

Burgess failed his 11-Plus and went to the Boys’ Model in Ballysillan. He demonstrated an interest in reading and a teacher encouraged him to do exams.He took a job as a clerk in Shorts and finished A-levels at night classes.

One consolation in this struggle was his love of drumming.

“The first time I played drums was in the Pride of Ardoyne Flute band, when I was 16. It was a genuine community thing. A lot of my buddies were in the band. It was a good way to meet girls.”

But the fit was not a good one, between his growing political awareness and the wider culture of loyalism.

“After about a year, it was plain that a lot of the associated culture was inconsistent with my emerging political analysis, which is that there are aspects of this triumphalism that I can’t sanction and don’t want to be part of. So I walked from that.”

He formed Ruefrex with other local boys. With Tom Coulter, a bass player, they made a single with Terry Hooley. It got played on Radio 1 by John Peel.

“And you couldn’t put a price on that at the time. Write-ups in NME.”

Playing one night at the University of Ulster he saw the attractions in being a student, so caught up again with education, only to find himself behind again.

His peers had moved on before he got in.

But he enjoyed his studies of literature and graduated, only to find himself back in the Boys’ Model and other Shankill schools as a supply teacher. This was going to be rough.

He had one boy tell him he would get his da’ up to shoot him and even had to put on a bit of swagger to counter threats like that.

“Then word went round that Burgess is connected and I enjoyed that for a time and then got sick of it.”

He faced a tension between being part of a working-class Protestant community but not a monarchist, or a loyalist.

“I variously went through stages of being apologetic and, as I moved into bourgeois, middle-class circles and then flipping and saying my community is as entitled to a cultural expression as anybody else’s and just because it doesn’t tick a lot of the boxes that are currently politically correct, I’m not sure that that’s enough.”

A chance came to go to London, sleep on floors, revive the band, make albums.

In a very short time he was successful beyond his dreams, being played on daytime radio.

For a time in London, the music Press liked the idea that he was from the Shankill and made him out to be an extremist, often contrasting Ruefrex with a band from Derry, That Petrol Emotion.

You can still see him looking stiff and formal in his white shirt and moustache on old videos, hammering out the beat to the Wild Colonial Boy, not the traditional version, but a sneering parody on the attitude of the Irish American who supports the IRA. The song ends with the words: “It really gives me such a thrill/to kill from far away.”

But success wasn’t going to last, forever. He saw himself being a teacher again and decided to get properly qualified, applied to Oxford, since there was nothing to lose, and to his surprise got in.

Then he taught a year in Chipping Norton and went back to Oxford to do a Masters degree by research on Integrated Education in Northern Ireland.

He has great stories about that time and later that are not in the books.

A hate figure for him — perhaps a study in evil — is a former headmaster who suspended him and made him bring his parents into school and humiliated them.

He believes in class-based politics, a perspective drawn from his mother’s work in a clothing factory owned by Brian Faulkner, the former Northern Ireland prime minister, and his brother.

He recalls the deference shown to the Faulkners. Years later, after Oxford, he was working on the Opsahl Commission, a project to assess the prospects of peace in Northern Ireland, when he received a message that Lady Lucy Faulkner wanted him to call on her.

Intrigued, he visited her at home.

She had a job for him. She wanted him to move some boxes.

“I told Davy Ervine that story, God rest him, and he got a great laugh out of it.”

 

This article was first published in The Belfast Telegraph, September 15, 2018

 

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I believed in Santa Claus before I believed in God.

And when I was taught first about the baby Jesus, the story to start with was the one about the little poor baby who got presents for Christmas, brought by men who looked a bit like Santa in their colourful robes and head gear, who came from very far away, following a star and probably said things like Ho Ho Ho.

I didn’t think much of the gifts that Jesus got, the gold and frankincense and a mirror. I doubt he was keen on them himself. But the lesson of the story was that, like Jesus, you should always be glad of what you get and not complain, as I should be glad of the things Santa had brought me, which weren’t exactly what I had asked for.

So, my first religious faith was in Santa Claus, not in Jesus, who was just too complicated, who set an example for children that was not really attainable.

This was not how the nuns had intended to direct me, but if they had thought it through they would have seen that this was an inevitable consequence. What child wanted gold, frankincense and a mirror for Christmas? None that I knew.

There were other mysterious fat men in big coats in the Christmas stories. Like Good King Wences who last Last looked out on the feast of Stephen. I had trouble placing King Wences in the narrative. How he actually met his end was not clear to me either.

All I knew was that he never looked out again.

It was as well we weren’t relying on him to deliver the presents.

Or on God either.

When my theological education advanced a little further I understood how the story of Santa Claus integrates with the Christian one. He was St Nicholas. Say it quickly and Sanicklaus is Santa Claus.

This reconciliation of the two mythologies saved me for a time for Christianity and without it my entire spiritual development would have been focused on Santa Claus, a divine being who was bountiful and good and uncomplicated.

There were no stories in the lore about Santa which presented him as smiting cities, sending plagues, even asking people to sacrifice sheep for him. True, Jesus was an improvement on the old God, for when shepherds brought lambs to him he didn’t asked them to kill them. But he was still a moody God.

I have heard of a Japanese department store in which the intertwining of the stories of Jesus and Santa was so confused that Santa was depicted crucified. Santa was never crucified; he never would have been crucified because – well he never annoyed anybody – not anybody at all.

In recognition of the integration of my faith in Santa with my faith in Jesus, when the time came round for my confirmation and I had to choose a name by which to be more fully inducted into the church as a soldier of Christ, I chose the name Nicholas.

I am Malachi John Nicholas O’Doherty.

In some countries little boys could take or be given the name of Jesus, or Haysoose, as they pronounce it. And in Hindu tradition almost all boys have a name of God, Vishnu, Ram, Ishvar.

I was very young and I wasn’t declaring with any heretical confidence that Nicholas, Santa Claus, was senior to Jesus in the celestial hierarchy; but essentially that is what I felt.

For, if we wanted Jesus we went to his house, the church, to pray to him and to receive him in communion.

But, Santa came to our house.

Jesus gave you this little bit of bread which wasn’t like any bread we ever ate at home. And you were supposed to be very solemnly grateful, though it stuck to the roof of your mouth and you weren’t supposed to use your finger to get it off but to let it dissolve.

Santa gave you plastic helicopters, guns, Indian head dresses, games of Ludo and Snakes and Ladders and books.

And yet, despite this obvious contrast between them, the church and your teachers and even your parents told you emphatically and over and over again, that the one who would look after you and get you into Heaven if you were nice to him was Jesus. Jesus would give you a harp and a cloud to sit on after you died.

Santa would give you a chemistry set.

The two men even looked starkly different from each other. Santa was big and jolly and fat and Jesus was scrawny and he bled. I began to wonder if Jesus’s problem was that he didn’t believe in Santa.

For all that Jesus was good and cured sick people and woke them up when they were dead, he never seemed exactly happy. And I knew who I would rather spend a dark and wintry night with.

In truth though, Santa had his limitations too.

In the weeks before Christmas my mother would take me to Woolworths and the Co-op to see what presents I might like Santa to being me.

That is where I discovered the Johnny Seven gun. This was an amazing toy. It fired seven different types of projectile.

‘You’ll only lose them’, said my mother. ‘Why don’t you trust Santa to bring your something that will last you longer.’

She even brought me to see Santa in the Co-op. We had to go in a space ship. Or rather, we had to get into a spaceship, which then rocked about and discharged us through a different door when it stopped.

I was beginning to understand that there was an element of make believe about this, that this wasn’t really a space ship, and that therefore this wasn’t Santa, whose knee I was sat upon, but that if I went along with this pretence, I had a better chance of getting what I wanted for Christmas.

For it was also coming clear to me that not all of my presents came from Santa.

My mother was buying some of them.

I also began to realise that some people stopped believing in Santa Claus altogether and were content to only have the presents that their parents bought for them.

Many of them, indeed, carried on believing in Jesus after they had stopped believing in Santa Claus. They preferred, or found more plausible, a God who might punish them, who had a rule book, who wanted you to suffer with good grace and trust to everything being better after you died.

How could this, I wondered, be preferable to Santa who, come what may, would every year bring you gifts.

People bemoan the something for nothing culture but that’s only because they don’t get enough for nothing themselves. There is nothing better than getting something for nothing. And I think the followers of Jesus who open food banks and give to the poor embody Santa Claus.

True, your parents said he would only come if you behaved yourself through the year, but this patently wasn’t true, for the gifts came whether you were good or not.

Jesus said, inasmuch as you fed the hungry and clothed the naked you did it onto me, and that’s what gets you into Heaven. Santa does that too, but he also brings gifts to children who aren’t hungry, who aren’t naked, who aren’t in prison.

He’s the one who’s looking after the likes of you and me.

And they still gifts come. There are still times when life surprises me with unwarranted bounty and good fortune.

I have been that person who, stuck for a bob, found a pound note down the back of the sofa. I have been lucky many times in life, and unlucky too, I suppose.

But whether good things come to me or not seems little to do with justice.

I know about the world that demands obedience and patience and stoical acceptance of the bad breaks, the world that Jesus talks about, that we should put up with because we’ll be better off when we die. Much of what he teaches me, life teaches me anyway, though what he promises me I still can’t be sure of.

He forgives us as we forgive others – there’s too much of the balance sheet in that thinking.

But Santa Claus still happens along occasionally without a tally in his hand, without an accountant at his side, and gives you what you don’t deserve, and that is what I hope for most in life.

Therefore do I still place my hopes and faith in him.

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I was invited today to sit on a panel discussing diversity and division at the DUP party conference. This was chaired by Sammy Douglas and also there were Fr Tim Bartlett, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Hume, for the Orange Order.
The first question is for Fr Tim.

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It’s not hard to imagine the jaws dropping onto desktops when the
letter arrived from Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asking museum
heads to pay a bit more attention to matters of vital concern to him
like the Ulster Scots heritage, the Orange Order and the origin of the
universe.
On reflection, museum managers might have considered a range of
options short of telling him to get stuffed.
Mr McCausland’s view is that a museum should reflect the culture and
beliefs of the community it serves. In seeking to refute this, the
museums might seek to actively explain the world to a community with
reference to the gaps in the understanding of even its leading
cultural funders.
In short, if Mr McCausland wants the university to offer discussion of
Intelligent Design theory, let them do it. There are a lot of people
among us who believe that religion can still hold out against
scientific discovery. They would have been on the side of the Pope
against Gallileo and they still think they can refute Darwin. They
want to retain the conviction within scientific institutions like
universities and museums that God created the world in seven days.
Well, let them try.
The first comfort for museum heads is that Intelligent Design theory
is already a concession to science. It is a relaxation of the demand
by religious creationists that the Book of Genesis be taken as a
sufficient account of the emergence of the universe, life and
consciousness.
The court cases in the United States, around the demand for the
teaching of Intelligent Design , were attempts by religious
fundamentalists to argue science with scientists, conceding in effect
that there was no point in trying to impress them with scripture.
Scientists and secularists saw this as a threat. It was in fact, the
movement of religious fundamentalists on to ground on which scientists
can defeat them, if they are confident of the strength of their case.
Why shouldn’t we have an exhibition on Intelligent Design
incorporating a discussion of the arguments around it in the museum?
People like Nelson McCausland might soon discover that there is no
comfort in it for them. If they are hopeful that Intelligent Design
restores the Christian explanation of the Universe to them, then they
may be well served by having the full case and its implications laid
out for them.
The problem for creationists is that their argument, if won, might
only establish that an intelligence initiated the Big Bang.
For all they know, that intelligent being might have been killed in the blast.
He, she or it may reside still in another universe and have lost all
interest in this one. There are no grounds for supposing that that
being knows about us or has any benign intentions towards us. There
are no grounds even for supposing that it is an infinite Deity. There
may be another universe in which children spark off Big Bangs with
their chemistry sets. They may not even know that they are doing it.
They will live in a different time frame so our whole span of
existence in this universe may be just a blink to them.
The problem for Intelligent Design freaks is that they don’t read
enough science fiction.
Rationalists might say this is absurd. But we are already making black
holes under Geneva ourselves with the CERN project, so what is so
implausible about an intelligence more advanced than our own
conducting similar or more radical experiments elsewhere?
What Intelligent Design believers do read – some of them – is the
theories of John Polkinghorne, a scientist and minister of the Church
of England who won the £1m Templeton Prize for research that
reconciles science and religion.
The usual experience of religion in the contest with science is that
literal interpretation of scripture loses every encounter. Then those
who continue to insist that religion retains lost ground begin to
sound more desperate and absurd in the secular world. Scientists feel
little need to go on arguing points that they feel that they have won,
like natural selection. Some scientists like Richard Dawkins continue
to wave the victory in the faces of the religious defeated, but there
is no scientific need for them to do so.
Polkinghorne said that the universe looks like a ‘put up job’. If the
pull of gravity was fractionally greater than it is, the universe
would compact into a hard ball; if less, it would scatter like vapour.
It has to be just right if you are to have solar systems and planets.
Look at the Earth. Without a wobble in its revolutions there would be
no seasons and without seasons no cycle of nature. Without our
unstable crust there would have been no volcanoes and we would be a
ball of ice, but the instability has to be just enough to allow life,
not enough to destroy it.
So, what is the scientific answer to the perfect ‘just-rightness’ of
this universe for life? One answer, seriously put forward, is that
there are millions of failed universes, or universes that turned out
differently, and that this is the one that by chance is just suited to
us. That explains our survival agains the odds.
In other words, the answer is a call to faith in the existence of the
unknowable; the sort of thing that religious people come up with.
The difficulty in this debate is that both the religious and the
scientific contenders have cranks on their side; adamant Christians
who think the Bible tells them everything they need to know and ardent
rationalists who fantasise that the job of explaining the universe is
complete.
What about an exhibition at the Ulster Museum that acknowledges the
mystery of our being here as mortal but self conscious beings in an
unlikely universe?
Would Nelson be happy with that?
I suspect he would want to see models of humans hunting dinosaurs, but
it is easy to deny him myths for which there are no evidence.
But just because we have a crank for a culture minister doesn’t mean
that the unexplained universe shouldn’t enthrall us.
And some smarty pants in the museum is bound to agree that a serious
discussion of intelligent design theory would tick the right box to
get Nelson off his back.

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A few private thoughts will have circulated among churchmen and their
critics when the news came through on Tuesday night that Cardinal Sean
Brady had been rushed to hospital.
Those who love and defend the Cardinal, as many do, will have worried
that this was the outworking of the pressure put on him by media
manipulators and scandal mongers who have never understood the
Catholic church or known what a good man he is.
Others will have thought, more deviously; Isn’t this convenient?
At 70 the Cardinal does not look like a spry and durable man but he
climbed the pilgrim mountain Croagh Patrick just a few years ago and
he may have a more robust body under that black suit than is suggested
by his ambling manner.
He is not due to retire until he is 75 but an early retirement on
health grounds might be the best diplomatic response to the pressure
on him to resign.
In 1975 Fr Sean Brady, as he then was, administered an oath of secrecy
to young people who had been abused by the horrific Brendan Smyth.
Smyth was one of the most prolific predators on children to have
emerged from a church that has, we now know, never been short of the
type.
Cardinal Brady told his congregation on St Patrick’s Day that he would
take the season of Lent to reflect upon his position. That now extends
to Pentecost. Other bishops similarly tainted by their association
with inadequate episcopal procedures for curtailing paedophiles –
usually by shifting them to other parishes – had offered to stand
down.
Brady was heartened that his congregation applauded him and he said
that we wanted to consider whether the church still had a place for a
wounded healer, comparing himself to St Patrick.
If this seemed not the right tone for a man who was conceding that he
had done wrong, few in the pews seem to have been offended.
One of the concerns of many Catholics in Armagh is that Sean Brady is
being reviled for doing what any other priest of his standing at the
times would have done, he followed the instructions of his bishop, to
whom he had sworn obedience.
Another concern is the old rivalry btween Dublin and Armagh over who
leads the Irish church. Armagh is proud to be the seat of the Primate
and to have a primate who is a cardinal.  Some would worry that the
centre of gravity of the irish church would shift south and that the
historic ecclesiastical capital would lose it shine.
And in Dublin there is an archbishop who now makes a more credible
case for himself as a champion of the new clean up in the church.
Of course, the church is making such a botch of presenting itself as
more concerned to protect children than to preserve its good name,
that it can not be safely assumed that men like Archbishop Diarmuid
Martin will prevail anyway.
After the publication of the Murphy Report, disclosing the scale of
abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin last year, the church had seemed
ready to accept radical change.
Since then it has made a series of horrific mistakes.
The pastoral letter to the people of Ireland from the Pope himself
plainly dismissed the claim that the application of canon Law had been
part of the problem. It said that Canon Law had simply not been
properly applied.
So it was still, in his eyes, the job of the church to punish
paedophile priests, though the state should be deferred to in its
‘areas of competence’.
The latest smug riposte was the drivel from Cardinal Bertoni in
Brazil, suggesting that child abuse was more likely to stem from
homosexuality than celibacy.
Other senior churchmen have maintained the line that the church is
under attack from the media.
One said last week that he had heard the persecution of the church
compared to the persecution of the Jews.
The men who would be the moral leaders of the whole world may preach
the parable of the mote and beam but many appear not to have grasped
its meaning.
And this deepening defensiveness within the church comes in the run up
to a papal visit to the UK.
And anger is growing there, so much that it seems unlikely that the
Papal visit can proceed without protest.
Gays will not accept that they are more likely to rape children than
are men who commit themselves to living celibately for God.
And the legal case that the Pope is himself answerable for the cover
up of abuse all over the world now seems strong enough to warrant
testing if there was a court he could be brought before.
In all of this, there must be many in the church who realise that the
only way to prove good intention and a proper sense of moral
responsibility is to sacrifice a sacred cow.
And there he goes, striding the holy hills of Armagh, fit as a sandboy
but succumbing to pressure.
They may hope there are medical grounds for prompting him to make a
dignified stand down. On the other hand, they may be starting to
realise that sacking him out right would be the better face saver.
More likely they will do nothing, for this is a church as frail as the
dim old men who lead it, men unfit for clear action or moral courage,
hobbling through every crisis.

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I saw this protest outside the church of St Nicolas in Nantes last week, March 13. The Catholics on the church steps were conducting a service around an icon, the protesters were objecting to Catholic teaching on abortion and women’s rights, and the police were in the middle.

You can hear both the protest chanting and the prayers in this clip below.

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