‘These are the days of miracle and wonder’

By skepticlawyer

A few thoughts occasioned by our fighting over abortion and law, abortion and terror, abortion and Christianity, abortion and rights. They are scattered thoughts, alas. These debates do not bring out the best in us.

As I wrote it I was listening to War of the Worlds. Go figure.

1. When my parents married, my father refused to convert to Catholicism (he was a diffident Protestant, although he had very little time for any of it). This meant my parents married ‘behind the altar’, and that when the priest came to visit my mother and my newborn older sister, he told my mother that my sister was a heathen who would burn in Hell. My father heard it and decked the priest.

2.  Are you a cattle-tick or a proddy-dog? Protestant, protestant ring the bell, protestant, protestant go to hell! Catholic dogs — leap like frogs — in and out of the waaaater!

3. It was a slow day
And the sun was beating on the soldiers
By the side of the road 
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio

4. When the Roman historian Tacitus wrote his account of the great fire of Rome in AD64, he gave the first account of the early Christians, who — among other things — Nero recycled as firelighters in his gardens. No friend of Nero, when Tacitus came to describe the early Christians, he accused them of ‘hatred of the human race’.

5. When it came to religious education, the primary school didn’t know what to do with me, not with a ‘mixed marriage’ like that. I was told I’d have to sit out. I wanted to run around the oval instead of RE (I was that sort of child), but when I was told I’d have to sit quietly and read, I suggested that I spend each week in a different religious education class, even the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and — shock horror — pagans. Well, it was the 70s.

6. The school — perhaps flummoxed by my request — acceded to it. I learnt a lot in a short space.

7. Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives– 
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side 
Like an outdated combine harvester, 
And everyone young going down the long slide 

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if 
Anyone looked at me, forty years back, 
And thought, That’ll be the life; 
No God any more, or sweating in the dark 

About hell and that, or having to hide 
What you think of the priest. He 
And his lot will all go down the long slide 
Like free bloody birds.

8. In 197 AD, the early Christian writer Tertullian wrote an Apologia for his Christian faith. There had been a spate of persecutions in his home city of Carthage. There’d been the usual Roman response to the Christian refusal to partake in Roman civil religionChristians to the lions!, although Christian criticism of the religious practices of the Roman Governor’s wife provoked a distinctive response from her. A devotee of Aphrodite, she had joined during a festival in a rite involving sexual celebration in the Goddess’ temple. This involved priests and priestesses and devotees dancing on the temple forecourt and pulling chosen revellers from the crowd by the hand — ‘like Bruce Springsteen in the clip to Dancing in the Dark‘, as one classicist friend puts it — and taking them inside for a very good time. Christians called the Governor’s wife a whore; pagans did not understand what the Christians were going on about. Her response was to send one of the Christian women to the Temple of Aphrodite instead of to the lions.

9. When I see a couple of kids 
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s 
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, 
I know this is paradise 

10. Civil religion and monotheism do not get on well: witness the tussle over God, the Bible, the Flag, the military, the schools etc in the United States. To appreciate the Roman angst over Christian failure to partake in civic observances, recall the silliness that attended Barack Obama’s occasional failure to wear a flag pin on his lapel, or to put his hand over his heart when the Pledge was recited (this last practice was identical in the Roman world). Now multiply that hysteria by several orders of magnitude.

11. The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry, don’t cry

12. ‘Too many Christians, not enough lions’: graffito outside several amphitheatres in the Roman world, now popular among people with, ahem, a rather grim sense of humour.

13. I divided my time between Italy and the UK for most of 1996, and at one point had to make an unplanned visit to the UK end. The trip was urgent — I had business dealings to attend to — and I booked a flight that took me into Luton. I’d have preferred Heathrow or Gatwick, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I arrived on June 17, shortly after this incident. I made the mistake of pulling the ‘greenie’ out of my pocket and showing it to the Sikh behind the counter.

14. I spent four hours in detention. This included a strip search. I was told we tend to know you people by the company you keep

15. I have never renewed my Irish passport.  

16. In his Apologia, Tertullian is writing for his fellow Christians: his is not a piece to cajole or persuade his enemies. He cheerfully insults everything pagan, in so doing revealing a great deal about himself (sexual hangups, natch) and about pagan religious practices (superficially sexually liberal, but actually highly managed). It’s a very revealing document. The most interesting section is his account of how otherwise sober and restrained Romans of both sexes would ‘break’ during festivals and appear to throw any morality out the window. 

On these grounds then the Christians are regarded as public enemies, because they do not offer to the emperors either useless or lying or ill-advised honours. Men of true religion celebrate even their regular festivals conscientiously rather than wantonly. It is thus made an important duty, to bring out hearths and couches into the public street, to feast community by community, to recreate the city under the guise of a tavern, to produce mud by wine [a reference to libation], to run about in crowds for the enjoyment of outrages, insults and incitements to lust. Is it thus that public joy is expressed by public disgrace? Why does such behaviour become the festal days of emperors, but does not befit other days? Shall those who observe order out of regard to Caesar, abandon it on account of Caesar, and shall loyalty grant a licence for immorality, and religion give occasion to indulgence? 

17. Anthropology can explain this practice, and its fundamental importance in maintaining social order: the festival represents entry into a liminal state, where normal social rules are upended for a period of time. In a seminal paper on liminality, anthropologist Victor Turner describes similar practices across a range of pagan/animist/tribal/polytheistic cultures. The practice has been largely obliterated by the monotheistic faiths, although many Latin-inflected cultures retain something of the old Roman carnivale and combine it with left over practices from Aztec or Inca peoples.

18. Monotheism counsels moral perfection, but we cannot be perfect. So we break. And we break each in our own way, in our own private hell, consumed by guilt as we break and punished by our monotheism for breaking. Tertullian rails at the queues of Roman women at the gates of the abortionist after their festivals, making an argument with a modern and familiar ring:

But to us, to whom homicide has been always forbidden, it is not permitted to break up even what has been conceived in the womb, while as yet the blood is being drawn (from the parent body) for a human life. Abortion is premature murder, and it makes no difference whether it is a life already born that one snatches away [Romans usually killed the physically disabled at birth], or a life in the act of being born that one destroys; that which is to be a human being is also human. The whole fruit is already present in the seed.

19. Medicine is magical and magical is art
We’ve got the boy in the bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart

20. Tertullian records that pagans considered Christians enemies of the free market. 

21. Having lost both pagan liminality and monotheistic morality and retained only the latter’s guilt, we scrabble over the bones of religion all the while the free market cannibalizes the lot, repackages it and makes it both shiny and meaningless: This is what scientologists actually believe.

22. And immediately 
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: 
The sun-comprehending glass, 
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows 
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

[Poetry by Philip Larkin and Paul Simon]

UPDATE: Pavlov’s Cat on a related theme.


  1. Posted June 15, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    LE: Me too. It is associated with a turbulent and emotional period in my life. I played the tape of it alternately with an Art Garfunkel album that came out at around the same time for months.

  2. Posted June 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    And SL, we used to have “Proddy dog, stink like dogs, in their mother’s bathing togs” in NZ in the 1950s. Ugh.

  3. Posted June 15, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Poetic –

    Do you mean by the Green what I think you mean? No don’t show that at an airport.

    When it came to religious education, the primary school didn’t know what to do with me, not with a ‘mixed marriage’ like that.

    Never had this problem even tho’ I’m from a ‘mixed marriage’. Calvinist atheist/liberal Irish Catholic. My mother’s father owned a highly successful construction firm and my father’s people were posh and professional.

    But surely the Cath’lics don’t amend God’s laws if you’ve got a bit of dosh! No?

    My father heard it and decked the priest.

    Excellent. Keep up the family tradition.

    This involved priests and priestesses and devotees dancing on the temple forecourt and pulling chosen revellers from the crowd by the hand — ‘like Bruce Springsteen in the clip to Dancing in the Dark‘, as one classicist friend puts it — and taking them inside for a very good time.

    Now I bet green money that the Romans didn’t have much trouble with attendance at Church. 🙂

    The Catholic Church does continue this somewhat. They show you lots of pictures of almost naked people, condition you to feel guilty about it and then of course you pay them so God won’t put you in a sandwich toaster for 20 000 millenia.

    War of the Worlds 🙂 Haven’t heard it in quite a while.

  4. Posted June 15, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    M-H: not heard that one; a lovely (?) addition to my sectarianism file. Sometimes I think I can remember the tail end of sectarianism purely because I was living in Joh’s Qld, and we were behind the rest of the country. That said, I can remember going over to a friend’s house and seeing all this weird statuary and lit candles everywhere and assuming they were Catholic until I actually looked at the artwork: it was all pagan stuff. I saw the Wicker Man not long afterwards and had one of those ‘aha!’ moments.

  5. Helen
    Posted June 15, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Lovely writing, SL.

    If you haven’t seen the remake of Wicker Man, don’t – it’s the essence of stupid!

  6. Posted June 15, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    It’s got Nicholas Cage in it. Takes a hell of a lot to get me past that and into a cinema (although I quite liked Knowing – reminded me of The Forgotten, which also relies on you being able to accept the premise to appreciate it).

  7. Posted June 15, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    TY Helen.

    And yes, Nicholas Cage — a slight talent for making turkeys, natch?

  8. Posted June 16, 2009 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Do you mean by the Green what I think you mean? No don’t show that at an airport.

    No Adrien, if it had been that kind of green, she’d have been cavity searched as well.

  9. Posted June 16, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Lovely post, SL. My name for this mode (which I love) is Collage Gestalt.

  10. John Greenfield
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Graceland, Lloyd Cole, Patti Smith and Cold Chisel as I did SE Asia on A Shoestring.

    Ah, them were the days.

  11. Posted June 16, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Patti Smith and Cold Chisel
    I somehow sense there’s a clue to the contradictions at the heart of your personality there somewhere.

  12. Posted June 17, 2009 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    I left AUSTRALIA to get away from Jimmy sodding Barnes, now he follows me here?!

  13. Posted June 17, 2009 at 7:03 am | Permalink


  14. Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Another one to add to the pile, Tony. I was taught not to do that at high school (where I was, unsurprisingly, educated by proddy-dogs).

  15. John Greenfield
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Hardly a “contradiction”. I like both kinds of music, country and western. 🙂

  16. John Greenfield
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink


    I am just the man on the Clapham omnibus. 😉

  17. John Greenfield
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Oh, and in moderaion, AGAIN. 🙁

  18. John Greenfield
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I need BEER! NOW!!

  19. John Greenfield
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Jeez, now Akismet is a bloody wowser, too.

  20. John Greenfield
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Do they mind if you drink? After all, my understanding is that The Koran says, “No Muslim shalt not skull Blackberry Nip, take your top off, and sing Jimmy Barnes songs on the tables, but the silly bint infidels are quite free to make total tits of themselves”! 🙂

  21. Posted June 18, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    No Adrien, if it had been that kind of green, she’d have been cavity searched as well.

    Just saw that.

    I didn’t mean that literally. Skeptic doesn’t seem anywhere near dumb enough to carry drugs thru national boundaries.

    She doesn’t seem like someone who indulges either.

  22. Posted June 18, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Akismet ist ein Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung!!!

  23. Posted June 18, 2009 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    She doesn’t seem like someone who indulges either.

    I don’t have access to the Bill Clinton defence, though…

  24. Posted June 19, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t have access to the Bill Clinton defence, though
    You mean you don’t have a smarmy grin and an arsenal of missiles to distract a bunmch of people with when you stuff up?

    You probably have a conscience too. :0

    As a heavy metalfan who’s been dicovering ‘art’ music you might appreciate this.

    First bit of Romantic Classical music I ever fell in love with.

    And the first Death Metal style playing that ever got to me as well. These guys are my new favourite band.

  25. Posted June 19, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    ever come across Opeth
    No Death Metal has been one of the few genres I’ve eschewed. ‘Til now. (Unless NIN or Ministry count which I don’t think they do)

    All so simple. Just play it on cellos. Boot these guys up on YouTube. They’re authentic metal guys, the whole bit. Just cellos!

    They’ve done another one of my favourtie things” “Heroes” by David Bowie. Sublime. The video clip is a masterpiece.

  26. Dave Bath
    Posted June 19, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Adrien et al.
    Anyone who wants a bach flute piece (bwv1031.1 from memory) munged into distorted guitar can ask me for a copy. My deathmetal-, tattoo-, piercing-loving “godson” (i made it in a probably vain attempt to civilize him) loves it. (“that’s f***ing awesome, is it from the 70s?”… “nah, 1700s”, “no f***ing way!”).

    This thread is making me want to unpack the vinyl and play “Deep Purple & the Royal Philharmonic at the albert hall: Concerto for Group & Orchestra”.

  27. Posted June 19, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Okay, that’s really good, but also part of a long tradition in metal as Dave points out. Metallica live in concert with the San Francisco SO rocks and rules.

    For some reason baroque goes into metal really well, and every metal band on the planet seems to be cool about nicking riffs off Bach…

  28. Posted June 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Having lost both pagan liminality and monotheistic morality and retained only the latter’s guilt, we scrabble over the bones of religion all the while the free market cannibalizes the lot, repackages it and makes it both shiny and meaningless

    Does it?

    Capitalism and Christianity are at loggerheads; a fact I think that’s just beginning to dawn on the conservative mainstream. Too late.

    I reckon the need to create belief systems runs pretty deep in the human animal tho’. I suspect that the Abrahamic faiths will only survive the next few centuries in the way in which the Hebrew temple religion and Roman state religion ‘survived’ thru the establishment of the rabbinical Jewish faith and the Catholic Church.

    But unless they can turn back clock on scientific discovery their days are numbered. The belief systems have to gel with our picture of the Universe. This picture, the image in the popular mind, is not accurate. It’s filled with Star Wars and Star Trek iconography and a convenient absence of a deep appreciation of just how cold and dangerous the Universe is.

    Still it’s too large to support the notion of a wise old wizard with a big long beard creator god. That image seems quaint. And considering that the sexual mores that underpin it are unnecessarily Spartan nowadays. Not to mention bigoted. I can’t see it surviving.

    But something new will emerge. As the Scientologists demonstrate however a bigger picture of the Universe doesn’t necessarilly lead to a more sensible religion. But good sense is irrelevant. It just has to make sense.

  29. Posted June 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ll give the new robot religions a miss. I’ll take the Old School ones. Catholicism for imagery and something else entirely for how to actually behave.

  30. Posted June 28, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    One of the themes of the novel I’m writing has turned out to be the extent to which the free market is not Christianity’s friend. The free market goes much better with paganism, to be fair — the supermarket approach to religion. It’s why the Japanese are so irritatingly good at it (both not getting silly about religion and capitalism). All the while Christianity tries to make common cause with free market capitalism, the more precipitous will be its decline.

    There are other quirks, too. Read pagan opponents of Xianity and they can sound like 19th century liberals when (Julian or Symmachus, say) are going on about toleration and Christianity’s desire to obliterate anything unlike itself. If you keep reading, however, they’ll start criticizing the early Christians for giving welfare to ‘just anyone’ rather than only to ‘the working poor’. One of them even comes out with the ‘but if you give them help they won’t do anything for themselves’ line.

    Roman paganism goes much better with Chicago School economics than does Xianity, have to say.

  31. Posted June 29, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    ‘Do unto others’ tho’? It’s very simple and it’s the one essential thing Abraham’s lot contributed. They’ve made a bit of a mess at actually walking the walk tho’ inn’ey?

    Just started reading Shriver’s book about the world’s guiltiest mother btw. Looks to be quite brilliant. Prose sparkles. methinks a lot of girls’ve been reading Nabakov.

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