Friday, 19 July 2013

Trenches and kidneys

My number came up to preach on the parable of the Good Samaritan last weekend, which is a tough one: what more is there to say? But what struck me is that we normally concentrate on the social barriers which the story describes being overcome, and use it implicitly to congratulate ourselves on our liberal-mindedness. We pay less attention to the inconvenience, expense and risk to which the Samaritan in the story exposes himself in order to help a total stranger. The old allegorical reading of the parable, which saw the Samaritan as a type of Christ and the robbers' victim as ourselves, was obviously problematic, but it did at least get that point.

I was reminded, though, of a recent episode of the delightful BBC statistics programme, More or Less, which featured a young man who had decided to donate one of his kidneys to a total stranger - not even a particular stranger, just into the donor pool. He was very matter-of-fact about it, but I was struck by the Samaritanish, which is to say, the Christlike magnitude of this. It made me ashamed still to be in full possession of two kidneys. Will think about that one.

And this made me reflect - which was part of the burden of my sermon - on the churches in modern Britain and their public image: an image of, let us be clear, a shrinking, ageing and largely incomprehensibly weird community, which is widely seen irrelevant, self-serving and self-righteously hypocritical. 'Moral authority' is not the phrase that comes to mind.

My personal theory is that the Church of England in particular never regained that authority after the First World War, when it was widely seen as complicit in a slaughter which is now generally seen as merely pointless. (Whether either of those perceptions is correct is a different argument.) I don't think that England has forgiven the C of E for that yet, nor am I sure that the C of E has earned it. (Is one of the reasons the USA is much less secularised than Europe the fact that it stayed out of the war until 1917?)

Still, we have an anniversary coming up. It would not be a bad thing if the Church of England used it to become known as a community of people who give blood (or indeed kidneys) rather than cheerfully sending other people to shed theirs - or, indeed, arguing about sex the whole time.

... On which note, I am going off-grid for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The applications game

As UCAS season is on us, I was asked by a journalist from the Guardian for some thoughts on what makes a good 'personal statement'. I ran away with myself a bit: for what it's worth, here's my thoughts in full. I should add, this is an entirely personal take on the process: caveat emptor.

There's no formula for a good personal statement: the opposite, in fact, because if it looks like you're following a formula that can sink you. It's relatively easy to say what you shouldn't do. Don't write a list of things you've done, or (worse) of exciting places you have been: that makes it look like you've been deliberately trying to amass CV points in order to bolster your personal statement. If you must talk about how a holiday (especially an exotic holiday) sparked your love of your subject, keep it to a minimum: it can sound as if you are saying, 'I was bored and indecisive, and then my parents took me somewhere expensive, and I thought, yeah, history (or whatever), that could be fun!'

Remember that admissions tutors are reading these things by the hundred: they all blur into one. You want to be one of the ones that stands out - not for being crass, cheesy or embarrassing (we have seen plenty of those) but for being fresh and genuine.

The kind of personal statement that warms an admissions tutor's heart is the kind which is honest: which describes, in genuinely personal terms, quite why the student loves the subject, and conveys something of their passion for it. We, as academics, think our subjects are wonderful: we like students who give the impression of thinking that too. When we sift through personal statements, we are not looking for someone who can tick every box but for someone who has that spark: a real sense of engagement with their subject, and of thinking and reading about it. So do talk about what made you love your subject, even if it was a foreign holiday: but tell us why it made you love it, and why you think you need to study it more. Tell us what about it excites you, and make us feel that excitement. Don't write a miscellany of disconnected facts - I volunteered for this, I worked for that - but tell us a story about yourself; make us feel that you are a person of vision and imagination, for whom your outstanding A-level performance is just the beginning.

So there are no rules as to what goes in and what doesn't: everything that needs to be part of the story should be in, and anything that doesn't contribute should be out. Though if you really do have a Paralympic gold medal, there's no harm in mentioning it in passing.

And don't get too stewed about it: it's not the be-all and end-all of your application. Most applications are decided on the predicted and actual results. Almost no amazing personal experience is worth dropping a grade for.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

England and Japan: Rome and America

Now recovering from a marathon of three conferences and a public lecture in, respectively, Stratford, Durham, Durham and Lambeth. Normally I'd like to pick out papers given by some of the graduate students at these, but there is a limit to how much I can go around praising my own current or former students (Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti, Anna French and Susan Royal all spoke to great effect). And the other papers that really struck me were from two more well-established scholars.

In Durham, Anne Dillon (of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge) spoke about how English Catholics in the 1630s were devouring martyr-stories from the near-extermination of Japanese Christianity: so we were given a tour of the breathtaking brutality of the persecution, and of how the stories gained in the telling (importing a wild tiger, for example). The sucker-punch came at the end: apparently, there is a strong case that the shift in Japanese policy from scepticism and discrimination to active persecution was triggered by the arrival of an English commercial mission in Japan in 1613. The English were all too ready to spread tales of Jesuit duplicity, and to relate conspiracies such as the Gunpowder Plot. This apparently sparked the beginning of real persecution in Japan.

Anne was inclined to read this as an irony: the conspiracies of one generation of English Catholics ended up inadvertently feeding their children's hunger for martyr-stories. I'd see a bitterer pattern at work. Isn't this absolutely typical of English imperialism: not exactly to commit large-scale atrocities, but to create the circumstances in which other people are going to do it for them? And to do it deniably, with some degree of justification (these were half-truths, not lies), and not entirely inadvertently?

The other paper that stays with me addressed another empire, or empires: David Anderson of the University of Oklahoma spoke about Shakespeare's Coriolanus, a grim play which has been a favourite of mine ever since studying it as a teenager. The point of David's fascinating paper was to read the Christian symbolism of the play, which - he argued - used its setting in the pre-Christian era to depict Rome as the Augustinian city of the world, the opposite of the city of God: the city of the wolf (who suckled Romulus and Remus), not of the lamb (of God). 'Pray you, who does the wolf love?', Menenius asks in Act II scene 1: the answer being, of course, 'the lamb'.

And in this light, it seemed to me and to some others (David was cautious about this), Coriolanus himself looks like an anti-type of Christ: the man more virtuous than the whole city, but who therefore despises the city rather than having mercy on it. When he stands for election as consul, he has to humble himself before the people, and show his battle-scars, in grotesque parody of Christ showing his wounds and inviting doubting Thomas to put his hands into them. 'If he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds,' one of the plebeians comments, 'we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them'. Later, Coriolanus, enraged by the humiliation of having to pander to the crowd, says with vicious irony, 'I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private. Your good voice, sir; what say you?'

Which fits with my own longstanding instinct about Coriolanus: that this is a play, not about Rome nor about Christianity, but about the USA: the new, ever-so-classicist republic, where, from George Washington, through Jackson, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and even to John Kerry and Colin Powell, war heroes are expected to cash their reputation into a political career, and to do by kowtowing to the whims of the electorate regardless of the cost to their dignity. Mercifully, the US has not yet elected a Coriolanus, but you can imagine it, can't you? What I'm now thinking about is the US's place as the new Constantinian empire, as well as the new Ciceronian republic: the self-consciously and genuinely Christian power, which also sits askance to Christianity, both because of its plural and secular identity, and also because, as Augustine knew, a truly Christian state is an impossibility in this world.

So far, I think, the US has negotiated these contradictions better than the Romans did. But when someone (please!) makes a film of, or based on, Coriolanus set in modern American politics, I'll be first in line.