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THE WHO, WHAT AND WHY OF MARY POPPINS

Where and How and When and Why – had nothing to do with them [The Banks children].They knew as far as she [Mary Poppins] was concerned those questions had no answers. The bright shape speeding through the air above them would forever keep its secret”

Late last year,  after more than fifty years and much fanfare, the film Mary Poppins Returns reprised the charm of the original blockbuster Mary Poppins.  This time the update actually had a credible cockney in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Jack;  but despite being a bit closer to the  spirit of the original Mary Poppins books, it still didn’t take us nearer to the mystery  of the peculiar nanny of Pamela Travers’  books – a saga oddly described by her  as her  “autobiography”. Without being either a Travers scholar or a strong MP fan, the following aims to satisfy some curiosity by hopefully solving a few supposedly unsolvable mysteries. (A whole range of academic essays on Poppins and her author does of course exist for those who want theories, and a standard text for those who want to know many facts is Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins She Wrote, 2010).

My  Who  of  Mary Poppins defines who Mary Poppins most nearly and essentially is. The What will describe Pamela Travers’ relation to myth and mysticism she is dealing with. The How will examine, in line with Travers’ own fascination with astrology, her birth chart that considerably describes this person who didn’t wish others to know much about her. I believe the following is sufficiently accurate, even definitive. What I remain least certain about is the extent to which some of Travers’ ideas were arrived at, intellectually by research (she was a keen mythographer as her study What the Bee Knows,1989 indicates), or more spontaneously from archetypal affinity and symbolic logic.

That MP remains quite such an unsolved mystery is regrettable. Travers, whom writers like Yeats and AE believed had a touch of genius, despite her general popularity, remains  somewhat unknown and underrated as a writer with  messages to convey. And among other things, Travers, who called herself, not an Australian but “an Irishwoman with a Scotch mother”, represents an interesting and significant case of Celtic displacement. Some things said here complement other observations re Irish life and culture on this site like ” ‘Real Irish’ and Irish Reality” https://wp.me/p2v96G-17D. The subject of Travers is even a bit personal to me because of Ireland, having lived like her  in Queensland, in Dublin and London’s Chelsea, travelled in Asia (where I’ve also lived) and been in and out of love with various Asian ideas and art forms. Travers’  questing thus has some  resonance for me…though I don’t think  I should have greatly enjoyed MP if I had read her as a child!

AUSTRALIAN BEGINNINGS  AND PROBLEMS 

If she had ever been more obviously an Australian writer, P L Travers (1899-1996), who always aspired to be a poet, might have been more appreciated above the entertainment level. However she was seriously out of love with her place of birth where in her late teens and early twenties before leaving Australia in 1924, she had been a successful enough journalist and Shakespearian actress. But though her father had died suddenly of an epileptic seizure when she was only seven and a half, as very much her father’s daughter, she didn’t even wish to belong because he certainly hadn’t.

Pamela Travers was born in 1899 as Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland (the Helen name got dropped and Pamela assumed around the time PL was a Shakespearean  actress in Australia). Ever the fantasist, she claimed her father owned a sugar plantation there, though wealth and standing of this order applied more to her mother’s side – her mother was sister of the premier of Queensland. In fact, her father who remains a bit of a mystery to biography, was a bank manager (shades of Mr Banks) later demoted to a bank clerk possibly for health reasons (he was probably alcoholic). Travers, a name his daughter later assumed for literary reasons, was her father’s first name. His surname was Goff but Travers Robert Goff, who had arrived in Australia via a stint in Ceylon, was related to the Davis Goffs of Wexford and Galway. These were Anglo-Irish, probably rather horsey ones, who would later find PL’s obsession with Irish myth and life alien.

Travers Goff was, or strove to be,  ultra-Irish, carrying Ireland around with him (much as Joyce did Dublin) and insuring everything from horses to clothes would be Irish. Weeping over Irish poetry and past national woes, he was un Goff-like in everything save being Protestant, and managing to be born in London. The family disconnect seems so strong it’s tempting to speculate Travers Robert was illegitimate. (I find that idea more satisfactory than notions he was a talkative East Ender son of a shipping agent with an  improbable obsession with Erin’s isle! But even if his Irish origins constituted an elaborate deception, it should be recalled the mother’s side was Scottish and we are looking at some kind of Celtic family set up).

Though Travers Robert died young and after the family had removed to Allora in New South Wales, he was not the only Irish member of the household which included an Irish maid who liked to cast an air of mystery around herself and who cherished a strange umbrella with a parrot’s head – a first image supplied to the composite of being that would be MP. Although it was northern hemisphere mists and fantasy held the real glamour for PT, Australia had its influence. While PT complained Australians lacked a proper sense of tradition and the light Gaelic (rococo?) touch, numbers of her characters like Nellie Rubina,  Miss Quigley and Mrs Correy are based on persons known and observed in especially Bowral where the family removed after Goffs’ death. But arguably the greatest influence from Australia was the nature and atmosphere. The unusually brilliant and “near” outback  night skies made for a lifelong obsession with the heavens that Mary Poppins is able to touch, arrange or paint. But even more haunting were the  vivid twilights which seemed to convey some principle PT wanted to grasp, a  point and place of transition to which Mary Poppins belonged.

According to Travers, Mary Poppins had “arrived” to her  as a  fully fledged person or vision in 1934, but we know she had written a tale back in 1926 which included a Mary Poppins. So at least the name was well established but; her general  tutelage under the poet AE,  (who recommended letting fantasy emerge unfettered and writing something about the adventures of a witch), had been edging the author towards the magical nanny for some time.

Travers is supposed to have seen the MP name written in a book and just liked it, but I suspect she invented it. She possibly saw herself as a Mary from Maryborough who, like MP, who insists her  home is wherever she resides, “popped in” to people and places all the time.  Travers herself would voyage a great deal  internationally, but her true “home” remained an issue for her. However, reaching Ireland and getting involved with especially AE (George Russell), the Irish Blake, an economist, poet and painter, was the beginning of it. It marked her first engagement with her gurus (who would include Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti) because ever since the death of her father troubled the author’s childhood faith, she was on a quest for God and Truth liable to be confused with attachment to father figures.

Seen by many in England as a crackpot, AE  (for  Aeon of the new era)  was editor of The Irish Statesman and respected in Ireland but positively feted as a sage and prophet in America where he dined with Roosevelt and advised the administration. Travers could only feel flattered to be able to be mentored by AE (her “Zeus”)  and stay with him when he was away from Dublin at  Horn Head, Donegal, which he considered the power centre for Irish myth and revelation. There was no  affair – the married AE admitted not quite to understand women and was rather puritanical. And something in the romance of connection began to go wrong and it was Travers’ health. Possibly it was more psychological than physical, but the ailments began that would never quite leave her. AE recommended regimes and diets which sometimes worked but nothing ever really cured. AE recommended Travers live in England and visit Ireland rather than settle there, as the effect of the nation was so strong she could use the distancing. She went along with this and the first version of MP got written in Pound Cottage, Sussex (not to be confused with Stone Cottage in Sussex where Ezra Pound and Yeats sometimes lived and wrote). Later, and remembering AE’s recommendations, Travers, who spent most of WW 11 in America, on the suggestion of the Minister for Indian affairs passed a couple of fruitful years in Arizona. It was a region AE  had loved, and since Travers was relatively healthy there, one suspects she needed Australian or the similar Arizonian climate  for her precarious health as much as Celtic zones for mind and soul!

AE supplied Travers ideas and riddles to last a lifetime. Calling himself a Pantheist, AE had been involved with Mme Blavatsky’s theosophy which meant that Celtic myth blended in his mind with Asian themes (which they sometimes can do). Travers would both assimilate and question themes like the unity of all things. It was a huge loss to Travers when AE died in 1935. It was like another loss of another father and was the first loss of a guru.

The parent/child, teacher/pupil relationship would be more important for Travers than regular love. She never married having loved and lost in relation to the lazy, boozing and affluent bohemian lady’s man, Francis Macnamara. Everyone seemed to like him, even Yeats was willing to help him improve his writing, but he couldn’t be bothered. Despite the manifest weaknesses, Travers seemed able only to idolize him and even confessed that if she had written of MP for anyone it was for this “Irish poet” – who, ironically, admitted he had no care for children’s literature. She had intense relations in Sussex with Madge Burnand (a companion recommended for her English existence by AE) and  Jessie Orage.  There may or may not have been lesbian attachments involved but the greater obsession would finish by being the overwhelming desire of an unmarried woman of forty to have a child. In a sad, mad moment in Dublin in 1940, Travers selfishly and life-destroyingly intervened to adopt only one of two twins, grandsons of  Yeats’ first biographer, Joseph Hone, whose son’s family couldn’t cope with more children.

The repercussions would prove deadly.  The twins, one raised in wealth and one in poverty, accidentally met and finally discovered their identity aged seventeen. Neither quite recovered from the shock and the lies they’d been fed and both would fall victim to alcoholism. If Travers had wanted to assume the role of an intervening Mary Poppins, the experiment seriously failed. Or had she unwittingly demonstrated what was wrong with the character and ideas of her fictional creation whoever precisely she might be?

1

WHO: THE KEY QUESTION : WHO IS MARY POPPINS?

     

It’s notorious, and the subject of the itself somewhat fictionalized Saving Mr Banks film, that the author was twenty years wrangling with Walt Disney over how the mysterious nanny should be portrayed. Initially she wept tears of rage over the final result, (though she later settled down and decided the film was good at its own level). But just who and what was the Mary Poppins (i.e most essentially as she combines some traits of the author’s and other people’s character), writing of whose departure caused the author to drench her typewriter with tears. This itself points some  very deep complex and bedrock of feeling –  despite the fact that the nanny was anything but obviously appealing!  !n fact, hardly has children’s fiction ever contained a less attractive lead figure. Julie Andrew’s MP is “never angry, only firm”, but fictional MP is no fairly godmother, rarely smiles, almost always scolds and glares, threatens and berates and proves singularly unsympathetic to any condition a child could suffer like toothache. The children love and cling on to MP and want her back but only because they know, or just suspect, she is the pretext of their unique adventures and she will at least keep them safe.

Mary Poppins is, as the author kept insisting to Walt Disney, a character “with a dark side”. There is a lot of the witch about her and in awareness of the contrary,  difficult side of Travers’ character, her Irish mentor/guru, AE, had suggested she should write something fictional about a witch. However it was merely a trait in her character AE  felt she should express; there was no suggestion she was or should become a witch.  And despite her mystical explorations, Travers never became one, nor did she especially approve of the nowadays often related feminism. It was more a case, Jungian style, of seeing what the shadow self could be made to render up and transform into something positive. However, not to give too much credit to AE, although I have not read any James Stephens in years to check it out, I would suspect this member of AE’s Dublin circle and author of very ironic fantasy tales in urban settings was a likely influence upon Travers’ literary development.

MP wasn’t even conceived as a basis of children’s fiction but for anyone. The first pages were only written by the author for herself (i.e therapeutically), and only got further developed and offered for publication at the insistence of Madge Burnand. So while, for publication and remuneration purposes, it was expedient to keep the connection with children  once begun, I think we could say the real affinity is more with some writings like those of Kafka which will employ a fairy tale format to convey basically philosophical, often dark and grim messages. MP invites inquiry into reality because things aren’t what they appear. There is a whole world of marvels, dreams and mysteries that we should welcome and explore….but not uncritically either.

At their friendliest, MP tales have something of Wisdom literature about them, fable and parable or lyrical moments a bit like the poems of Rilke especially those where he personifies nature.  MP destabilizes and questions. In “Faithful Friends” Michael would repair some items with putty but has been forbidden to do so by Miss Andrew who wants them to stay exactly as they are. “Nothing does that”, interposes MP.  From the life and pen of Travers this  is almost guaranteed to be one of her nods in the direction of Buddhist impermanence teaching. So MP is first and foremost a teacher, more governess than nanny. When she leaves for the last time it’s said, “in the summer days to come…..they would remember Mary Poppins and all she had told them” almost as though some body of doctrine were involved.

Travers was notoriously secretive about herself and her work adopting her mother’s and the admired Beatrix Potter’s “never explain” principle. Accordingly she simply refused to answer questions about her chief creation.  The stern  manner and plain appearance of MP nevertheless owes something to Travers’ calvinistically unbending but well-intentioned Scottish great aunt, Ellie, who was generous towards Travers in her will. I should say, too, that the severities and austerities of the western guru, Gurdjieff, under whose spell Travers existed at one point, added to the emphasis on discipline and severity. The already mentioned Irish maid with the parrot umbrella played her part in building the mystery.

In a more than usually frank interview for the Paris Review but given when she was in her eighties, Travers insists the origins of MP were “entirely spontaneous and not invented”; however she admitted that despite always having had an interest in the Mother Goddess, it had “only recently”[!?] struck her that if one were to look for mythological origins of MP  then she “is either the Mother Goddess or one of her creatures” (1). She didn’t state which one, but I do so below with the greatest certainty possible.

Much earlier on Travers explicitly described the whole MP series as “autobiographical”. Apart from the fact the Cherry  Tree Lane setting is said to have something to do with a corner of Chelsea Travers often lived in (but with no park opposite and whose model might be Kensington Gardens), “autobiographical” has to mean philosophically and mystically. Travers explored many mythical and mystical traditions, East and West, though keeping close to the a degree of western Platonism as seems fairly clear from such as The Children in the Story where the three princes Floritain, Veritain and Amor are the Platonic trinity of Beauty, Truth and Love. The trio also seem to be on a casual basis with MP, able to laugh at her as the Banks children can’t. Again, it might be relevant that AE’s Dublin friends included Oliver St John Gogarty (the Buck Milligan of Joyce’s Ulysses). He took a fancy to Travers that was unreciprocated (perhaps because he was married), but she may have assimilated some of his ideas about bringing Celtic and classical culture closer together (in a sort of revolt against Yeatsian culture that Gogarty shared with Joyce).   

I think we can assume with AE that MP represents a figure of myth, a goddess. Even AE  wasn’t sure which though he suggested Maia who does appear in “Christmas Shopping” but according to the Paris Review article, he  had hinted to her MP might even be a modern version of Hinduism unsettling goddess Kali.  One of the key stories for the identity problem is,  in my opinion,  Full Moon from the first book. This  has adults locked in cages and treated like zoo animals waiting feeding time and the almost morbid atmosphere recalls a tale like Kafka’s “The Starved Man”. (The feeling of being trapped and punished is quite strong in the stories and “Lucky Thursday” in which children are left apparently permanently trapped in the kingdom of the cats, is hardly reassuring bedtime material).

Full moon celebrates a birthday and it’s not a birthday in winter as the children don’t drift out to it in winter clothes. The children  meet the  king of the beasts who is a Lion. The birthday turns out to be   Mary Poppins own, a fact drawn attention to by the hissing voice of a Hamadryad (normally a tree or tree spirit but apparently in this instance a snake)  near to the snakes who bow to her. A bear tells the children the Hamadryad is “Lord of our world” (the animal’s world) – “Lord of the jungle” hiss the snakes and in honour of the nanny the Hamadryad sheds a skin for her. The company call for “The Great Chain” presumably the Great Chain of Being of medieval philosophy. The children eventually wake from a dream but as though in proof it wasn’t that, find the shed skin is around MP’s waist.

This is not a story  that, so far as I know, has captured neo-pagan imagination like the celebrated Pan episode in The Wind in the Willows,  but it is in its way very pagan. It is  certainly making out MP to be a species of deity who has a life apart from that of mere mortals. Indeed, the point is made clear enough early in the first book when Amelia in “Bad Tuesday” asks what MP is doing. She receives the response, “”Oh, just going around the world you know’ said Mary Poppins airily as though going round the world was something you did every day”. So how do we see this? We know that the nanny arrives in Cherry Tree Lane on the East Wind. This could of course symbolize the author coming to Europe from the East, but it can also symbolize a deity nearer to home than Australia. In “The Marble Boy,” we learn MP is close friends with Neptune  in the Isles of Greece.

I think these details, plus the fact that the very last MP story has the nanny as niece of the Man in the Moon, hence lunar related, are enough to be getting on with and even to solve the problem. Travers was born on August 9th, so she is a Leo/Lion traditionally Lord of the Beasts. Is there a deity specifically celebrated in August? Yes. It is the moon goddess Diana, who was born on a Greek island, Delos, and who is herself  a lord of animals, of the hunt and nature. Traditionally Diana’s day could be celebrated in mid August or on any full moon of that month. Diana the huntress is typically portrayed with a hunting bow, but she can be portrayed with a poppy. Does Poppins, hide Diana Poppy? Diana is unmarried and childless, possibly lesbian, yet she can be a patron of children (Travers would disastrously adopt a child) as also, in the ancient world, the common people  and slaves. The latter point, despite Travers’ manifest snobberies and increasingly wealth, fits with her vague quasi-socialism which owes something to AE, to her admired Bernard Shaw and conflicts of her time in the context of which she declared, forced to a choice between Fascism and Communism she would prefer Communism by a small margin.

But Diana equates with MP in another way. Catholicism as opposed to Protestant and Orthodox churches,  holds a doctrine of the Assumption (or Ascension) of the Virgin into heaven. This festival, probably in rivalry with Dianic/ Artemis cult, got set for 15th August. There seems no question that in “The Other Door” which describes MP’s last of three departures and effectively ends the saga – later written tales would belong to earlier times within it – the highly emotional feeling is a form of Assumption, a religious event. “Then darkness folded its wing about her and hid her from their eyes”. This is a clear echo of the biblical “He was taken up and a cloud received him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), especially as it’s said the Banks children will remember what MP has told them as though it’s a body of doctrine to be preserved.

Does the Diana association mean that Travers had crypto-Catholic yearnings or neo-pagan urges? While that could be, at least consciously I think we are obliged to say she didn’t. To insist otherwise  comes up against hard fact that she remained an Anglican Protestant and when living in Chelsea was a communicant at the local Christchurch.  Her case is a bit like that of the Anglican T.S. Eliot who also underwent a Gurdjieff phase and peppered his verse with references to Asian scriptures. Also, as regards Asian religions Travers significantly denied one of their  fundamentals, namely belief in reincarnation. Travers perceived herself as a pilgrim in line with the famous Bunyan hymn sung at her funeral. But the peculiarly religious tone to MP’s assumption seems underlined by the way in which Travers signs off from this crucial story of the third book with the inscription “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest). This, if it doesn’t render MP a divinity or convenient literary divinity substitute in some fashion, at least suggests writing about MP is felt to be Travers’ life vocation fulfilled.

Anticipating the why section at this point, I will suggest that MP is definitely a modality of Diana (Gk Artemis), an assumption surely certified by Travers’ birth chart. Original Uranus rising in her chart at 4 Sagittarius, fortunately trines asteroid DIANA at 4 Aries in the house of creativity and which in turn is in positive trine to Venus at 5 Leo in the ninth house of religion and classic writing. As further proof, the Greek equivalent, ARTEMIS, is at midpoint Sun and Venus in the philosophy and classic writing ninth house (Sun 16,  ARTEMIS 10 Leo, Venus at 5 Leo).

 A possible objection to the Diana identification is that MP with her parrot headed umbrella like the maid of Travers childhood ought surely to be a Celtic goddess. The weakness of that idea is that though there are many Celtic goddesses, no single one has the range of functions and characteristics attributed to Diana, a desideratum if one wants to mull widely over philosophical questions or help shape people’s character. (At a pinch, but at the risk of seeming too trite and popular, Travers might have taken the figure of the pagan/Christian Brigit, who cares for children, nature and fire and is an all-rounder Celtic goddess/saint). A lot of Irish goddesses are however either goddesses of war or healing, and plainly MP is not that.

But if MP is ultimately Diana/ Artemis, a Graeco-Roman goddess, why is she so ill-tempered as opposed to being transcendently self-controlled and benign? I suppose we could say that like St Paul she and/or her author  would never “suffer fools gladly”; but one can’t easily mention the apostle and the Travers’ alter-ego together as though they were naturally allied…. St Paul was very much critic and victim of precisely Dianic cult whose devotees caused riots in Ephesus over her. It can be allowed that the cranky side of Travers is reflected in MP’s “philosophical” teaching nanny role, but that can’t cover the whole picture, so one has to ask what else might be involved? The abrasive manner of MP invites questions as to the  teachings the children are meant to remember she told them…

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WHAT is she saying and showing?

MP and her manner are really one of a piece.  Against neo-pagan romanticism, I would submit that the mythic as opposed to the outright divine will  always and inevitably finish to some degree like MP’s persona, a bit ugly, dark and/or unjust. Fairy tales from the Christian era may end happily ever after, but most pagan myth from almost anywhere comes with a sting in the tale, compassion very much a second thought I,f any.. A lot of even elegant Ovidian myth presents situations of rape. Celtic myth which was central to Travers inquiries into existence and “how we should live” questions, is less immoral than amoral. In the introduction to my play “Daughter of the Sea King”, an adaptation of a tale of the Welsh Mabinogion,  I reflect on my realization of the difficulty of working with Celtic material for dramatic purposes. (2)  This is due not only to the abundance of hard to include marvels, but to the lack of moral  structure that normally supports drama whose basis is an element of conflict. For the early Celts, where there isn’t the curse that makes for stasis, there is the mother culture’s all-acceptance that doesn’t lay blame where it could well be laid. Its all-acceptance belongs with a kind of  all-is-one, unitive, near pantheistic philosophy present in the early medieval Irish philosophy of Erigena.

I think that amid the mental corrections, play of ideas and imaginative perspectives of the Mary Poppins saga, Travers demonstrates –  with some honesty and symbolic logic – what certain problems of the imaginative life actually are, especially in relation to any starting point in the legacy of Celtic myth. The strangely dark and Dianic dominated world is where the Celtic dreaming may lead. Travers reveals the structure of myth (or a type of necessity within it), where it wasn’t quite admitted or perceived. We have indications of this in the following which is at once the possibility and limitation of all mythic  and mystical claims that all is one….which is where AE’s Pantheism would lead anyone to suppose it was possible to go. Travers allows for, perhaps hopes for, a mystical/alchemical union of opposites, but cannot honestly affirm that it is a particularly reasonable or likely prospect. If there is unity at some level there is plenty of duality at others. In “Happy Ever After”  unity’s existence at the moment between the old year and the new suggests virtual impossibility. Sleeping Beauty declares:

“And inside the Crack all things are at one. The eternal opposites meet and kiss. The wolf and the lamb lie down together, the dove and the serpent share one nest…..This is the time and place, my darlings – the only time and the only place – where everybody lives happily ever after”.

It is controversial enough, especially in writing supposedly directed to children, even if that isn’t quite the case, to assert there can almost never be happy endings; but it belongs with the way of myth, perhaps especially the Celtic.  I have written elsewhere on this blog of something approaching a Celtic curse and involved with a domination by the wrong archetypes. What is certain about Celtic myth is that, as in for example “The Dream of Oengus”, it has an exquisite, rainbow like beauty based on great longing and that could always be the basis of music and high art, but such writing singularly lacks   satisfactory  endings; and the compromise of having Oengus fly away with his love puts nature and fate well above the human value.

Arguably the most representative Irish myth –  and one can see a modern sculpture of it in Parnell Square, Dublin and  even in Antrim, N. Ireland – is “The Fate of the Children of Lir”. In this a king’s children are placed under a curse and turned into swans by an evil step mother and when they have suffered and survived everything for centuries and the curse is lifted, it is only to find they have so severely aged there is nothing to do but die.

More recent Irish fantasy such as might be compared with Grimm’s fairy tales, doesn’t notably improve on this. The Grimms tales are about problems, mostly overcome with some input from human will and a bit of outside magic, and they finish with happily ever afterwards situations, usually of marriage. There is a clear moral structure informing the whole  – though that could owe something to the Lutheran Grimm brothers’ anxiety to supply improving, positive messages and censoring their sources more than much early Irish myth got censored by the monks. Equivalent Irish fairy tales which usually involve  leprechauns and the little people, are more likely to end unfortunately. The little people are almost objects of fear, their assistance almost a liability and they too can be irritable  like MP. It’s Irish American with a dose of American optimism to arrive at fun and funny leprechauns!

The point of entry to the magic sphere is different. In the Grimms tales this can be familiar and domestic and almost anywhere from home to forest. While this may also apply in the Celtic, there is an undoubted association ever since the druids, of magic, vision  and the Otherworld with the twilight time that so fascinated Travers. In short, magic and its Otherworld source is involved with an alteration, not just of situation but of consciousness itself. It certainly also engages a degree of longing, but the longing may itself prove vampirish.

Faced with two twins  and ignoring advice to adopt both, Travers simply took the more obviously attractive one who also seemed the more manageable to her bossily Poppins-like fancy. Though a weakness for beauty is hardly unique to the Irish, it is sometimes enlarged among them because their Otherworld, when it impinges, is so exceptionally, obviously exquisite  nothing else appears desirable and worth striving for in compariso. The effect is to encourage belief with the (non Irish) Keats that “truth is beauty, beauty truth”. Which can be fatal to judgment as some of the most corrupt persons and cultures can present the highest levels of outward beauty and adornment. Lucifer and his offers can be beautiful, it is part of the seduction. “When the woman saw that the tree…..was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit” (Gen 3:6). The fruit can then be handed to the husband who as male would have been less spontaneously likely to associate Truth with beauty alone, (though many still will do that). In Ireland’s Old/New Spiritual Problems https://wp.me/p2v96G-126  I example the case of Brian O’Donohue author of the bestselling Anam Cara for whom beauty of nature and soul are effectively sufficient in a way that cancels out more  Christian perspectives the ex-priest  could, superficially, be thought to be defending. 

Once the Edenic style misjudgement has taken place, and the thought initiative in a sensitive area for perception has gone to the side of yin or the female, whose energy is primarily reactive rather than active, psychologically woman takes over….. As she largely does in Celtic myth and then, instead of men speaking it, Truth gets strangely identified with hags who must be taken on trust by revolted males and aspiring kings. It’s the matriarchal situation. Accordingly it is with symbolic logic that Dianic Mary Poppins, the truth teller, though not outright ugly, is certainly not any pretty, graceful or charming woman. If she were to be otherwise within Travers imaginative and Celtic universe, she would be either the goddess herself that St Paul was at variance with, or the Catholic Mary with which some Christians later tried to supplant the goddess.

So, with MP as  Travers’ voice of wisdom,  on the one hand  –  however consciously or unconsciously –  she  finishes with a Christian compromise of sorts. But as her thought develops she also rightly suspects there may be  need to be room for a special kind of realization or teaching beyond the Celtic dream; or put another way, she is on the lookout for a solution mystically, esoterically  by or through “spirit” as opposed to just  O’ Donohue’s “soul”. This is the basis of her (rather Yeatsian) sympathy for especially Japanese culture and Zen because this is a system that wakes people out of the enveloping dream into sudden awareness. Celtic myth contains the latter just a little – homes and palaces may suddenly disappear! – but overall, awakening and Zen’s secular Pentecost seems less desirable than the dream because it is not salvation to another place but rather a new response to the present world. And even Travers herself didn’t like this world  too much! (Some of her demanding nature and snobberies are of the Celtic variety that can never be impressed by anything or anyone of this world because they don’t belong to heaven itself – the novelist Sean O’Faolain, another of AE’s circle, described his mother as someone who could turn the world to ashes!.

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WHY is she like she is?

Pages could be written on Travers’ very revealing and apparently very accurate birth data. Salient points are the following.

Travers was born Aug 9. 1899 at around 12 pm with the sun in dramatic Leo at 16 degrees conjunct her 17 degree Midheaven career and reputation point and then Saturn in Sagittarius fortunately trines it. Just by itself this combination would incline to success and fame if with some Saturnian struggle and effort along the way not least through the parents and home base. Also, given that Saturn within the core combination is in the religion/philosophy sign, there would be an on-going struggle for self- definition and “meaning”. (Travers’ life story is the story of her reflections, the reason the MP books are “autobiography”)

The sun in regal Leo with Sagittarius rising describes a person with a great sense of entitlement in the course of their progress through life; Sagittarius rising supports, moreover, a self-image as seeker, pilgrim, philosopher. Leo is a sign much associated with children and popular, classic writing for them (Enid Blyton, Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter, JK Rowling). The tenth house is anything to do with the career; so with communicating Mercury there Travers was well set up to become first a journalist, then a writer…but very much on her own terms. The affliction square (90 degrees) of Mercury to eccentric, nervy Uranus in the first house of style and persona and in the sign of often tactless, bombastic Sagittarius, bespeaks the native worry and celebrated cranky eccemtricity. It gives fair warning of the endless, bizarre quibbling with Disney over Mary Poppins. It is almost certainly only because Disney was a Sagittarian that he put up with quite so much from Travers. And it is only because Jupiter as ruler of a rising Sagittarius pattern rules the whole chart, could Travers lifelong get away with the behaviour and attitudes that would sink many another person and career.

But specifically writing of Mary Poppins was Travers’ fated role. The nanny is mouthpiece of her questing and is fortunate for her because asteroid MARY at 1 Scorpio conjuncts expansive, philosophical Jupiter at 2 Scorpio. The fact that this conjunction is in secretive, fixed sign Scorpio in the twelfth sector of hidden things and the unconscious, bespeaks the fixed and almost exasperating secrecy around MP. The author won’t tell; but sometimes she doesn’t herself know all the answers because this Mary is hidden away in recesses of the mind.

With the sun opposite the Aquarian 4th house cusp of home and father, there could be uneasiness or conflict around home and father, especially with the ruler of the paternal sector being erratic, separative Uranus. Travers would memorably leave home and her father would early depart from her. The apparent accuracy of the chart to what must be within a minute or two of time correct is signalled by, for example, the way that Travers’ sun, ruler of her Leo sign and destiny, would conjunct by transit her fourth house cusp of family, origins and home on the very day, Feb 9,1924, that she memorably sailed away from Australia – she only ever made one return visit..Not liking Australia is reflected in the way asteroid AUSTRALIA at 6 Scorpio is in tension square to Venus (any likes and loves) at 5 Leo.

This compares with the way the moon, a general ruler of home affairs and feelings, at 14 Virgo stands in opportunity aspect to IRELAND at 14 Scorpio. So the Irish affinity was authentic – but in a haunted way as the asteroid is in the 12th of the unconscious and hidden influences. But the fact that IRELAND is also square the author’s sun bespeaks the beginning of health problems there – I said that Australia would probably have been better for Travers’ health and with a sun line through Queensland according to Astrocartography that is likely. Ireland could also compromise Travers’ reputation as much as inspire her. The adoption of the Irish baby, Camillus Hone, was a fiasco that shames her and is Leonine feeling for children gone horribly wrong.

In mitigation it could be said that Travers was not particularly well set up for either marriage or motherhood. Marriage would always be problematic given separative Uranus rising at 4 Uranus opposing the seventh house cusp of unions at 2 Gemini. The house of children (the fifth) is ruled by Neptune in the sign of Gemini (twins) It follows the disaster of her adoption of one of two twins is reflected in the fact Neptune is in affliction square by Mars  – misjudgement about a male child! Between the square of Uranus to Mercury and then of Neptune to Mars there is major potential for bad nerves and ailments of all kinds.

Also for potential bisexuality. It is often speculated that Travers was a lesbian, the theory supported by the intensity of the attachments and arguments between Travers and the women at Stone cottage, the fact that Gurdjieff had a notable lesbian following in Paris where Travers like T.S.Eliot would visit the guru, and because before the time such things were so accepted, Travers let herself be photographed in semi nude shots. The matter of nudity can be discounted in the case of a Leo for  whom it’s almost par for the course. Even Leo Jackie Kennedy was happy to be photographed in the nude; it belongs to the general sun worship and “exhibitionism” of the sign. The long standing crush on Francis MacNamara doesn’t bespeak a lesbian. However, I have always contended that above all other supposed possible signifiers, the basic building block for bisexuality needs to be a stressed/afflicted Neptune –  when Neptune doesn’t idealize and romanticize it dissolves boundaries, sexual, ethical or whatever and under affliction aspect does so in ways that can be problematic. So it looks as though, like Susan Sontag (Saturn opposite Neptune), Travers was bisexual reluctantly and by default from frustration.

It may or may not be coincidental and relevant that at 23 Aquarius the asteroid LONDON is in Travers’ fourth house of home but also, when relevant, any last home. Despite travelling and residing in numbers of place, the author did spend a lot of time and certainly her last years in London’s Chelsea, which had been home to everyone from Henry James to AA Milne of Winnie the Pooh, Some Irish notables like Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame) had also lived there but they didn’t gift the area with the fairy dust treatment of Cherry Tree Lane.

Leo is a sign much associated with children and popular, classic writing for them (Enid Blyton, Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter, JK Rowling). The tenth house is anything to do with the career, so with communicating Mercury there Travers was well set up to become first a journalist, then a writer…but very much on her own terms. The affliction square (90 degrees) of Mercury to eccentric Uranus in the first house of style and persona and in the sign of often tactless, bombastic Sagittarius, bespeaks the native worry and crankiness. It gives fair warning of the endless, bizarre quibbling with Disney over Mary Poppins. It is almost certainly because Disney was a Sagittarian that he put up with quite so much from Travers. And it is only because Jupiter as ruler of a rising Sagittarius rules the whole chart, could Travers get away with the behaviour and attitudes that would sink many another career. Capricorn and its ruler Saturn ruling the second of income and possessions bespeaks both the wealth and fears around it – Travers never left banks, lawyers, agents alone for constant checks and worries about income possibly engendered by some Leonine extravagance but mostly just her bad nerves. Saturn in or ruling the second can indicate the extremes, little or much money or both conditions in the course of a lifetime.

Specifically writing of Mary Poppins was Travers’ fated role. The nanny is mouthpiece of her questing and is fortunate for her because asteroid MARY at 1 Scorpio conjuncts expansive, philosophical Jupiter at 2 Scorpio. The fact that this conjunction is in secretive Scorpio in the twelfth sector of hidden things and the unconscious, bespeaks the fixed and almost exasperating secrecy around MP. The author won’t tell, but sometimes she doesn’t herself know all the answers because this Mary is hidden away in recesses of the mind.

With the sun opposite the Aquarian 4th house cusp of home and father, there could be uneasiness or conflict around home and father especially with ruler of the paternal sector being erratic, separative Uranus. Travers would memorably leave home and her father would early depart from her. The extreme accuracy of the chart to what must be within a minute or two of time is signalled by for example the way that her the sun, ruler of her Leo sign and destiny, conjuncts her fourth house cusp of family, origins and home on the very day, Feb 9,1924, that she memorably sailed away from Australia – she only ever made one return visit..Not liking Australia is reflected in the way that asteroid AUSTRALIA at 6 Scorpio is in tension square to Venus (any likes and loves) at 5 Leo.

This compares with the way the moon, a general ruler of homes and feeling for such, at 14 Virgo stands in opportunity aspect to IRELAND at 14 Scorpio. So the Irish affinity was authentic – but in a haunted way as the asteroid is in the 12th  house of the unconscious and hidden influences. But the fact that IRELAND is also tension square the author’s sun bespeaks the beginning of health problems there – I said that Australia would probably have been better for Travers’ health and with a sun line through Queensland according to Astrocartography that is likely. Ireland could also compromise Travers’ reputation as much as inspire her. The adoption of the Irish boy, Camillus Hone, was a fiasco that shames her and is Leonine feeling for children gone selfishly wrong.

In mitigation it could be said that Travers was not particularly well set up for either marriage or motherhood. Marriage would always be problematic given separative Uranus rising at 4 Uranus opposing the seventh house cusp of unions at 2 Gemini. The house of children (the fifth) is ruled by Neptune in the sign of Gemini (twins) and the disaster of her adoption of one of two twins is reflected in the fact Neptune is in affliction square by Mars. Misjudgement about a male child! Between the square of Uranus to Mercury and then of Neptune to Mars there is major potential for bad nerves and ailments of all kinds.

Also for potential bisexuality. It is often speculated that Travers was a lesbian, the theory supported by intensity of the attachments and arguments between Travers and the women at Stone cottage, the fact that Gurdjieff had a notable lesbian following in Paris where Travers often pursued wisdom  and because before the time such things were so accepted, Travers let herself be photographed in semi- nude shots. The matter of nudity can be discounted in the case of a Leo. Even Leo Jackie Kennedy was happy to be photographed in the nude; it belongs to the sun worship and “exhibitionism” of the sign and recently fans of the Leo tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas were surprised by his Instagram declaration “I like me better naked”. The long standing crush on Francis MacNamara doesn’t bespeak a lesbian. However…..I have always contended that above all other supposed signs, the basic building block of bisexuality is an afflicted Neptune – when it doesn’t idealize and romanticize, Neptune dissolves boundaries, sexual, ethical or whatever and in affliction does so in ways that can be problematic. So it looks as though, like Susan Sontag (Saturn opposite Neptune), was bisexual reluctantly and by default from frustration.

It may or may not be coincidental and relevant that at 23 Aquarius the asteroid LONDON is in Travers’ fourth house of home but also, when relevant, any last home. Despite travelling and residing in numbers of places, the author did spend a lot of time, and certainly her last years, in London’s Chelsea. The place had been home to everyone from Henry James to AA Milne of Winnie the Pooh. Some Irish notables like Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame) had also lived there but they didn’t gift the area with the fairy dust treatment of Cherry Tree Lane.  And some fairy dust might as well have been thrown about. In her final years the extravagant Leo settled for an address in the royal borough and, no matter that it was only a terrace house in Shawfield Street, nowadays and not far away I see from press report that Chelsea Crescent is Britain’s most expensive street. The average property price is  x74 the national average and  small terrace  houses sell for 12 million GBP. What  might Mary Poppins say to that, one wonders?

NOTE:

(1)  Paris Review, PL Travers: The Art of Fiction, No 63, Issue 86, Winter 1982

(2).  New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas   https://goo.gl/uz7m95

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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GREG SHERIDAN’S “GOD IS GOOD FOR YOU”. A MAJOR BOOK WITH AN ODD FLAW

Greg Sheridan’s God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times is for multiple reasons a timely, important book easily recommended to believers and sceptics alike. Critical acclaim has immediately attached to it. I will however dwell chiefly on what I consider to be a hidden flaw that threatens its edifice and entails an error of understanding that ironically contributes to the kind of spiritual impasse for Christianity and the West that Sheridan is exercised about.

The book is the work of a successful Australian political journalist and it’s perhaps only his being well known and highly regarded that apologetic work of his kind could get past publishing within the current climate of opinion.  This climate is well evoked at the book’s outset and in conclusion. Sheridan even goes so far as to characterize Australia as effectively atheist or soon to be so. He regards the media today as almost the enemy (tending to ignore or misrepresent religion) and I won’t enlarge on quite how much I know that scandal to be true.

It is tempting to classify Sheridan’s offering with last year’s more secular bestseller, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. Both authors push back against a crisis in western thought and direction, Sheridan being more concerned with the extent of the erosion in faith and the glib dismissals of Christianity by often intolerant elites whose dismissals additionally entail a contempt for western civilisation at a dangerous moment for it. Sheridan demonstrates that this civilisation and often the best in it too, is far more dependent upon the faith than the average reader is likely to have been aware. (Especially Christian readers may finish shocked at how much they haven’t been told, that their leaders haven’t defended and even religious schools haven’t taught).

For many, both with and without faith, God is Good for You could be an education in itself for its range. It’s readably about history, philosophy, theology (including how to enjoy and profit from reading the Old Testament and not just the New), along with  many facts about society and even science you may not know. And there are meetings and interviews with various leaders of Australian society vis- a-vis faith. (The author is Catholic but very fair and open around non Catholic Christianities).

PASSING ON A FAITH

…..But none of this is quite my concern here which is rather with one, almost hidden point. It’s nevertheless a crucial one that opens upon something that potentially undermines, or at least confuses, the apologetic thrust of the whole book and reaches into one of the chief reasons Christianity is insufficiently defended or proclaimed, (or is wrongly proclaimed), and either way loses power and adherents after the manner Sheridan regrets and would redress.

St Paul asks “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14). Sheridan would reasonably enough answer that a lot of belief is derived from family and school but for various reasons these are not currently vital sources for communicating Christianity and this must be faced. (It’s true many church schools may as well not be such!)

But despite his  quasi-evangelistic call to teach more and better, Sheridan has a surprise for us. Not only is his spouse a Sikh (I don’t wish to be personal but St Paul counsels believers should not be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, 2 Cor 6:14) but more significantly since mixed marriages do inevitably occur,  in consequence it seems his three sons are of the religion too (p.90). This strikes a note more obviously counter to St Paul’s concern with raising one’s children in the instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4).

Under elements of neo-Catholicism Sheridan somehow justifies his position, which includes attending Sikh services, by assuming that there can be great divine wisdom in non Christian religions  – theoretically Sikhism is monotheistic. So for Sheridan, while it’s perfectly true that Jesus is the saviour and even saves from hell (which he believes in since there must be “justice”), at the same time other systems can be true.

However reasonable this may sound, the position would for a start ignore that Sikhism, though monotheistic unlike the Hinduism it broke from, still teaches auto-salvation through multiple incarnations. In short, it denies grace, which is so original and radical in Christianity it distinguishes it from all other faiths as C.S. Lewis, one of Sheridan’s influences, affirmed when questioned on world religions. Christianity maintains evil is too engrained in life, nature and humans for anyone to reach perfection by their own efforts alone – and there’s anyway a limitation on the time for even  the best of would-be compensatory good works since we die once only and then is the judgment (Heb 9:27)!

A DISHARMONY OF FAITHS

It may be trendy or multiculturally convenient to maintain all the higher religions are essentially the same,  namely ways to God that make for love and peace. But it’s a far from obvious fact upon honest examination. Insisting upon it  ends in a fair deal of intellectual dishonesty, and that flight from any objective truth (or just the plain obvious) which is a part of the West’s sickness as Sheridan otherwise maintains.

Buddhism is theoretically atheistic and again allows no room for salvation as per Christianity; and the Buddhism of Burma, supposedly the religion’s purest, nearest-to-original form, when it comes to peace and toleration is clearly no paragon. Islam explicitly denies the divinity of Christ and the Koran enjoins execution and/or subjugation of infidels in stark contrast to the original Christian outlook like that of Tertullian, whom Sheridan cites, that though the gods of the pagans are demons, Christians are still to tolerate them in their beliefs. Polytheistic Hinduism is always hailed as a model of inclusiveness, but in its contemporary nationalist form under President Modi is anything but; it is currently turning a blind eye to the persecution of Christianity, the burning down of churches and beating even elderly worshippers senseless. (It belongs to the atheism and decadence of the West that the persecution of Christians outside the West is little reported or protested and concern with feminism enjoys more attention).

Even supposing claims are correct that God has supplied some vision to the higher religions, practically it doesn’t get through. At the grassroots in Asia people will say they are Buddhist or whatever, but  really they are  animists, devotees of local spirit or ancestral cults or gurus and shamans revered as though God (this somewhat happens among the Sikhs with their ten holy gurus).

FINDING THE PRIMORDIAL FAITH

It should be apparent from St Paul’s approach to Athenian paganism (Acts 17)  that he was not so much looking like some modern Christians to “dialogue” with existing faiths as guardians of  supplementary truths, as to uncover the world’s primordial faith, “the unknown god”, the creator who in world myth withdrew from human evil. In my The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness  https://goo.gl/ZHYQPw  I look into whether Asia, like Greece and the ancient West, ever had or has an unknown god, and the answer is yes. In some cases like the mostly Christian ethnic Karens of Burma (hated and persecuted by Burmese Buddhists),they had heroically waited centuries for the fulfilment of tribal visions that one day some stranger would arrive to bring them news of the true God.

Christianity is not a faith like Islam with a major conquest theme, but it is a religion of mission. Christ’s parting command, the so-called Great Commission, is to go and preach the gospel and to teach (Matt 26:16-20). Teaching rather than just rite and ritual as in most religions, is crucial to the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its notion of spiritual health. Otherwise it’s a case of “My people are destroyed through lack of knowledge” (Hos 4:6).

I would certainly agree with Sheridan that Christian religion is hardly being taught today, but would go further and maintain it has compromised its “evangelical” teaching task. It has done so to the point of substituting “the example” of charitable work alone to justify its existence, to cause least offence in a PC world and even perhaps to cover over what some may privately regard as the stigma of what the gospel message actually is, by emphasizing “unconditional love” to the exclusion of all else.

Undeniably Christianity is and teaches many things, but one still needs to be aware how at its core its message is one of deliverance from especially death and, by extension, hell’s destruction. Sheridan believes in hell while admitting to the difficulty most would feel as regards a perdition that’s eternal and/or apparently escaped from by an act of faith alone, two problems that receive astonishingly little treatment today given their controversial status within the whole.

A CORE DIFFICULTY

Actually, there is a perfectly simple, if nothing else logical reason to think of hell as eternal and it’s not, as per the Puritans, because God is so severe in righteous wrath against sinners he can never be appeased of their offence. It’s because, like heaven, hell stands outside of time in an intense eternal present (1).  God authored time which is a function of the (fallen, imperfect) material realm, and there will be a point at which God abolishes time along with the evil it permits. Where you are spiritually at that point fixes your essence into a single direction of will towards or against God.

It can seem reasonable enough to propose, and reassuring to believe, that evil souls will simply be annihilated (the sometimes chaotic contradictions of Pope Francis’ beliefs now countenance this along with atheists in heaven),( 2) , but to the extent God is “Lord/Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), divinity cannot destroy any immortal soul. Otherwise God becomes like Satan who Jesus says was “a murderer from the first” (Joh 8:44). God can only prevent and finish evil  through its exile and quarantine. It would follow the soul must, if need be, remain fixed in its (unregenerate) nature within the “eternity” which is outside time. This state, a very intense now, can well be portrayed as a sub-existence in tormenting “fire”, because everything exists through God and God is (spiritual) fire – albeit a lot more besides. But if God is rejected and separated from, there is only the divine fire left to subsist through, not the other elements which would render the fire creative and liveable rather than consuming and destructive.

Despite everything, Sheridan believes belief matters. It is important because no belief is exclusively rational but involves the will. It follows that for Christians to stress the importance of belief in Jesus is to stress that the will is and must be God-directed. This however allows Sheridan to argue that any talk about the claims of God upon us, or of deity being “jealous” around us, means we must be loyal and devoted to the Good. And this is something non Christians can unconsciously be, like the sheep in the parable of the sheep and the goats of Matt 25 where  the sheep are surprised to learn they had been serving Jesus by their actions all along.

TRUTH AND NAMING

There is truth in this perspective on the biblical picture of our destinies, but if taken too far it potentially undermines Christianity’s leading idea of any specifically “saving” belief and the obligation to  proclaim it.

Sheridan’s  universalist assumption is meaningful to the extent that many across history will never have known anything about Jesus and can hardly be condemned, especially not to hell, for that. As the apostle indicates at Athens, “the times of ignorance God overlooked but now he calls all people to repent”. (Acts 17:30). The statement is harmonious with another of the apostle’s claims that in the Last Judgement the thoughts of those outside the Law may condemn or excuse them before God (Rom 2:15). (And long before Paul Hebrew scripture has God declare: “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (Ex 33:19)  – a statement incidentally counter to all post-Thomas Merton trendy Catholic notions that heaven and hell are things we simply choose, not what God chooses or predestines). So there isn’t and never should have been, as per some lunatic medieval teachings, notions of automatic damnation for all except those souls who are baptized and  consciously, deliberately Christian.

But Sheridan’s universalist take on doctrine is misleading to the extent that being loyal to what you fancy as good (and which may not even be so) can never automatically amount to the same as being unconsciously devoted to the Christ self-described as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Joh 14:6). The gospel position is that Truth and Goodness are ultimately a name, not ideas. If you have the opportunity to connect to Christ then you should do so and in disregard of the claims of history, tradition and family upon you, salvation being linked to specifically calling upon the Name and especially in self-critical “repentance” (it means “mind change”). The original teaching  was always “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13) and “there is no other name under heaven….by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

With this emphasis to its doctrines Christianity has always had an edge of urgency about it (which has perhaps affected the drive and engagement of western civilisation) where its “proclamation” is concerned. This is because there is understood to be a real struggle within the mortal time frame which is a theatre for our possible deception or injury by the forces of evil. These forces are seen as ruling this world and are the main source of human suffering and even what principally Christ incarnated to confront (1 Joh 3:8)  So there is this dramatic undercurrent “… night is coming when no one can work” (Joh 9:4) and “today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2)… not your next incarnation or when you agnostically shuffle this mortal coil and find out what’s what!

SUFFERING, EVIL AND HADES

Though the supposedly definitive Nicene creed states, “we believe in all things visible and invisible”, plainly most Christians inhabit modern scientism’s materialist swamp alien to all mystery and don’t so believe. Sheridan rightly says if you can’t accept angels and demons you could have a hard time with Christianity and I agree. Certainly you’ll have a harder time explaining evil in the world (and a few miracles too) and Sheridan himself is weak in this area going little further than rather conventionally  to proclaim suffering a mystery and blaming the necessary existence of freewill which can’t be cancelled at every moment.

Reading him on the suffering theme I incidentally baulked at finding yet again the common error which has Jesus on the cross voicing doubt and despair at divine goodness in a sort of terribly human identification with us and human woes. Will even educated Christians never learn that Jesus was piously reciting from Israel’s death Psalm 22 (though now often seen as prophetic for his death)?  This  contains the forsaken cry, but any despair in Jesus’ case is part of the atonement sacrifice itself which involves temporary separation from the Father as he carries or becomes sin and  as such  undergoes what souls in hell must experience. This is “destruction” or  living death, severance from every source of the Good. Even atheists experience God indirectly in this life through whatever is good within it. Hell by contrast is Dante’s “Abandon hope”, the gospel’s “outer darkness”, final separation from the light – hence the sun itself is seen as dimming at the crucifixion.

Today, those who believe in an afterlife have decided most people just go to whatever or wherever heaven is (Sheridan quotes Australia’s former Prime Minister, the Catholic Tony Abbot, to the effect perhaps only Hitler and Stalin go to hell). But in the world of the New Testament,  the ancient West and arguably some other places like China, belief was that the soul, and just about everyone and everything including Lesbia’s sparrow, went to the prison of Hades and remained there. The gods did not spare or cure death though they might spare a few heroes to Elysian fields. Homer’s view of the afterlife in the Odyssey is particularly ghastly.  Blood alone brings  mournful ancestors to the surface and let’s them speak. Christianity arrived to confront this pessimism but Hades/Hell, though considerably challenged in their power  (Christ is seen as now having the keys to death and Hades) remain in place  and  I think if we are honest with the gospel  record, Hades/Hell is  seen as being – by and large – still the default fate of an unregenerate humanity….unless.

It is possible that if they even think about it at all,  deep down humanity even half believes and expects this negative outcome unless other influences from lively faith intervene. The last poems of D. H. Lawrence, for example, are surprisingly  depressing in this connection. He imagines his soul and that of others embarking for Hades,  but though he hopes “the oblivion god” may lead him to some kind of new dawn (reincarnate him?) it is hardly a strongly felt hope.

RESURRECTION FAITH

My father died some weeks ago and before this he had suddenly informed me as I put him to bed one evening, that this was the end and Jesus had told him he would soon take him to himself. The next day I couldn’t get him up  up or communicate with him, so he was taken to the hospital and passed away, faster than expected, within twenty four hours. Some people do have intimations of an end and some devout Christians might report an angelic message, but by any standards this experience and its claim, which took me off guard, could be considered a bit exceptional. But plainly it seemed downright extreme to those to whom I happened to mention it. I was impressed how much people couldn’t really deal with the subject of death, Jesus or the afterlife. It became clearer to me how little Australians (and probably many others in the West) believe or have any religious feeling. It’s the sort of thing should ring alarm bells for the churches;  but it doesn’t and it won’t because as Sheridan puts it, Christians seem to lack adequate “situational awareness” – some even imagining their society is somehow still Christian – leading to poor strategies(3).

Reading Sheridan, I was likewise impressed how little his Christians, even the devout, observant ones, seemed to have any clear notion of what form the afterlife might take and what mean and for whom, such as their relatives – the Christian afterlife is supposed to begin as a spirit in “paradise” such as Jesus promised to the penitent thief, which is a waiting place distinct from heaven and preceding the resurrection of the dead which entails the assumption of a new spiritual body akin to that of Christ after the resurrection.

I am not an evangelical, one of whose qualifications to be such would be belief in an inerrant as opposed to an inspired bible. However, when it comes to the afterlife I do sense that evangelicals are nearer to truth than the kind of hazy, confused modern Catholic and Anglican thinking represented by some of Sheridan’s interviewees like former PM  Tony Abbot. Beliefs like theirs neither quite help the self nor move the world, certainly represent no kind of gospel hope worth the proclaiming or like early Christians and  persecuted North Korean believers today, risking life and limb for. Abbot regrets that he doesn’t seem to hear from God. Again, I am not an evangelical to suggest such as Abbot should be hearing daily from Jesus (something surely reserved for the few, if any!),  but if he never has a few divine messages and intuitions there might be reasons. Belief should be clear, informed and committed if it is to work for you. There is such a thing as spiritual efficiency.

St Paul suggests that if you don’t believe in the resurrection your faith is futile (1 Cor 15:17); you might as well eat, drink and be merry and tomorrow die. I don’t like, and don’t think it’s quite possible, to go too far in deciding who is a “real” Christian by such standards as they’re highly orthodox, terribly “born again” , very prayerful or whatever. But I am coming to the conclusion that to possess some deep conviction of “the sure and certain hope of resurrection” could well be a litmus test for the definition. Unquestionably it was almost the central, original formula for Christian belief and identity:  “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

If nothing else Sheridan’s book can make you think about many things and essential ones. I will always wonder whether his book doesn’t arise from a kind of half unconscious penitential compensation towards society for what the author doesn’t seem to have been convincing his own offspring about in what could be deemed a dereliction of Christian duty. But  this doesn’t detract from the objective importance of the book’s information, statements and remarkable honesty.

NOTES

(1)  Conventional depictions of hell and some NDE accounts (of whatever validity), do seem to include a sense of time along with the possible anachronism  of free roaming, tormenting demons. Time in this case, along with any demonic freedom, would be a property of the pre/ temporal hell which is ultimately thrown into “the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14),at the end of time,  the true hell which is existence through God as “fire” alone.

(2)  I evoke Francis’  contradictions in two satirical poems, Heaven for All  https://wp.me/p2v96G-8y  and Ichabod or Papal Glory Departing, https://wp.me/p4kNWg-6c  (These poems incidentally allow the possibility that some of the issues Sheridan raises are in fact end of era, “end of days” type matters, a fulfilment of Christ’s anticipation of a loss of faith towards the end (Luk 18:8).  

(3) The remarkable blindness of churches  to the spiritual, and even just social situation, is reflected in the way over recent decades they have relentlessly targeted the gay issue, first just opposing the gay minority’s right to exist, then opposing gay marriage as a threat to family and society.  Ironically, if they wanted to criticize and reform society towards more Christian lifestyles, it is the vast un marriage of heterosexuals which should have been their primary concern. It is precisely amid the loosened  or non family friendly structures of a permissive society that children are not raised to any religious beliefs and just pleasure or the convenient become central life values. Yet how often did clergy seriously preach against the drifting, the unattached or the serially divorced? Almost never. It was only gay marriage was unnatural and unholy; and this targeting  of a minority only further alienated society from the churches seen as bastions of arbitrarily undemocratic views. This feature of modern social history is a good illustration of Christ’s words that the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light (Luk 16:8). (The previous article entered on this blog, Today’s Christian Image Problem is relevant to the question of lack of “situational awareness”).

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2018 in Mysteries, religion

 

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