Sunday, 6 March 2011

Taking Orders


Liszt took minor orders as a Franciscan monk in 1865 at the age of 54, which is what I am, but I’m not taking orders from anyone. Although Liszt never became a full priest, he was entitled to wear a dog collar and a black hat over his straw hair as well as to pontificate about the state of the world. His piano masterclasses, given in Weimar and Budapest from 1869, were very wide-ranging lectures, focused as much on good living (Franciscans liked a drink) or the nature of God as on keyboard technique.

As far as God is concerned, nothing Liszt said could have been as pertinent as Steve Reich’s and Beryl Korot’s The Cave which puts the Arab-Israeli argument into a nutshell. It really is time someone staged it again. Basically, the conflict boils down to ‘Whose mum is best?’. Abraham’s first wife Hagar is the mother of the Arabs, his second, Sarah, the mother of the Jews. The 4000-year-old row is about which one Abraham really preferred and their positions in the burial chamber. That’s all. In successive acts, Reich’s and Korot’s work poses the same set of questions (who for you is Abraham? Who is Hagar? Who is Sarah?) first to Jews, second to Arabs, and third to modern Americans.

Christians pretend that Abraham is their ancestor too, singing in Evensong of ‘our forefather Abraham’ at the end of the Magnificat. Before the translation of the Bible into the various European vernaculars, this probably didn’t mean very much to ordinary people, but one thing the understandable versions did was to make people familiar with the Old Testament history of the Jewish people. There were clear parallels with the emergence of nations independent of the influence of Rome. 

In time, this has worn off, and Biblical texts concerning the Jews are nowadays seen less as metaphors for our own state. At today’s enthronement of the new Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, the first reading was a prophecy of Jeremiah about scattered Jews coming together again. So they have done but the lines now have a secular political, flavour rather than any sort of divine message.

One can see this as a sort of mature objectivity in religion. The various faiths are much more endearing when shorn of the youthful passions which inspire people to burn one another or blow themselves up. Religions age. The most peace-loving creeds are those four-thousand year old ones associated with the Orient.  

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