Saturday 16 September 2023

The path to happiness - Robert Kennedy Jr

"Money and fame are wormwood and bile" RFK Jr

Sometimes in life one hears something so well expressed that one has to write it down.  These thoughts came during a political interview with Harvard educated Robet Kennedy Jr - but they are not political.  He speaks like this because he has suffered greatly and come through all kinds of trials, including the violent and untimely deaths of loved ones and drug addiction, and attributes that to discovering a living faith in God.  

At 31 minutes into this interview, he explains what his father taught him but he puts it into his own memorable words. He says:

  • The path to happiness and self-esteem is through service to others
  • Life is not about making a pile of stuff for yourself and whoever dies with the biggest pile 'wins'
  • We are here to build something
  • The most important thing we build is character
  • The existentialists were the heirs of the Stoics, expressed in Camus's book The Myth of Sisyphus. Here was an iconic hero, doomed due to doing something good for humanity to push a boulder up a hill which rolls down again every night.  He was a happy man for the Stoics, engaged in a hopeless task in an absurd (to them) universe doing his duty, building character.
  • The only thing that we build that is durable and meaningful is character
  • Money can be taken away and fame can die but character cannot be taken away
  • Character endures after we die (i.e. into eternity)

My thoughts are: this is theological.  We are all being tested and we all develop through trials. We are supposed to come through trials through faith and find our true selves via the test of faith.   "What does not kill you makes you strong".  

Ultimately, the result is the 'gold' of a tested character.  God even allows acute suffering to achieve this one, incomparable end.  

One can add to this the thought of St Paul "We rejoice in our sufferings knowing that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character hope and\ hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us."  Romans 5. 3-5


Sunday 27 August 2023

Review of John Coldstream's Authorised Biography : Dirk Bogarde

As a 'refusenik' of mainstream media, when a film with Sir Dirk Bogarde flashed up on my YouTube, in early August, I decided to make him my 'silly season' themed topic. 

Little did I know that by the end of the month, I would have meditating at night of his various houses (having found that for twenty years, I have lived a mile or so from him); that I would have driven down a dark lane to locate the rough whereabouts of his Adam's Farm in Crowborough and also down the lane where his childhood idyll took place, near Alfriston.  I noted that a lady put on Amazon that when she closed the last of his biographies she felt 'empty' because there was nothing more of his life she could share.  I've definitely not reached that point, having another good book to hand, but I am changed. If you want to know the wider background, I need not repeat it : see here for The Guardian's review of the biography.

This book, though excellent, is no more fascinating than the several volumes of Bogarde's own biographies.  Whatever else, Bogarde was (or was not) he was fascinating, very alive and could really write.  Since he had skipped a basic education and failed all school exams (he could not spell) becoming a writer with two literary honarary doctorates ("Dr Bogarde") at St Andrews and Sussex universities seems incredible. The secret was that he could connect both visually and in writing and had a definite 'authorial voice'.  

One wonders whether, if his nose had been slightly longer and his left profile had been less handsome, if the left eyebrow had not lifted on command (a trick he taught others at school) and if grinding his back teeth together did not show on film as threatening inner conflict, he would have been happier as a journalist.  He had edited magazines when he was in the Army.  Maybe he would not have ended up a bitter old man, in spite of being the (knighted) toast of literary London -  as I well remember, in the late 1980s and 1990s?  

John Coldstream, who knew him well, never explains his sheer charisma. It was not really about good looks but about emotion. Behind it all was this rare ability to convey feeling and emotion, backed by high intelligence, storytelling, gravity and humour.  The qualities that served him as an actor also went into the writing - showing that the two are closely connected. I don't think it was odd that in England we heard of his death with barely a flicker of the eyelids (he knew that in advance and refused a funeral) while Italy nearly went into national mourning.  His ("romantic") heart had been conveyed on his face and worn on his sleeve. Expressiveness was at its core, unusual in an often stiff and formal man.  His voice was advantageous but his charisma lay in the power of the conveyed emotion which was enough to unhinge young audiences. 

Like Joanna Lumley, the first time I saw him as self-sacrificial, guillotined Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, I ended up in floods of tears feeling I had never seen anything like it (and never have, since).  He once gave a talk on the Holocaust at Tonbridge School and masters said that they had never heard anything to compare with its 'liquid emotion' : many boys were crying throughout. What gave him this power to convey feeling in words and expressions?  I guess it was instinctive imagination and a liking for (entertaining and moving) people. Coldstream never analyses it satisfyingly.

Bogarde's writing was used, while he was alive, by primary school teachers to teach writing and is still used now, in creative writing classes. I am not surprised as it is immediate and feels searingly honest (though often it is not fully accurate but embroidered). One sees and feels through his eyes and his original similes.  He was taught, as a lad, by his artistic father to sit on the Underground and know how many people sitting opposite him were wearing brown shoes:  he did that always.  He even knew the position of all his books on his shelves.  He was not just an artist and observer.  He had literary (letterwriting) relationships, which were like love affairs. Often he chose old, lonely women such as a woman nursing her husband with a stroke and the inspiring Mrs X, a Yale librarian, who encouraged him to write (while correcting his spelling).  He 'used' some people but he seems to have also loved some of them and he appreciated them in written tributes.

There was so much incident and colour in his life that all our own lives seem dull by comparison . There was the War, the stage, British films and directors, travel, people, relatives, places, houses, the reminder of periods of history so that this biography and his own volumes are a 'feast' of entertainment, filled with one surprising, intimate or laughable thing after another. Yet it all reads like a one-to-one encounter with his voice and personality.  How one man can write so much about himself, one wonders, and still not be tedious?

Through this, I have seen for the first time "Victim" (on YouTube) the (1961) film in which he plays a barrister suppressing his bisexuality, which put off many of his female fans, at the time. He uses his usual tehniques of a) the left profile b) the controlled, upperclass voice c) the left arched eyebrow d) the mocking smile as a fragile 'shell' which cannot contain the raging volcano of sexual ambiguity that erupts through this outer 'corset' and explodes, in fireworks, in a rivetting scene with his wife, played by beautiful young Sylvia Sims. He tells her that he was controlling (then) forbidden same-sex desire and that she has 'ripped it out of him'. Apparently, he wrote those lines, himself.  He thought films should aim to give audiences disturbing and challenging experiences. That one certainly did. The law at that time was, indeed, 'a blackmailer's charter'.

Of course, there are still some unanswered questions such as "How did he endure the financial insecurity of his acting career for so long?" (what a worrying life!)  "What would he have lived on if he had needed another ten years of 24-hour nursing care?"  "Do actors ever get pensions?"  "Why did he splurge so much earlier on grand houses, staff, Rolls Royces and entertaining?" 

He had to write, eventually, in order not to end up in a one-bedroom flat in Brighton, like his bankrupt Belgian grandfather. All credit to him that he mastered writing too, churning out bestseller after bestseller, eventually with advances of < £100,000.  The books that sold the best were all about him because the fact remains that Dirk Bogarde was a very interesting person. Some were even illustrated by him. Few if any today can compare : he was a renaissance man.

Peter Hall, the Shakespeare director, gave this assessment of Dirk Bogarde to his face 

"He is a dangerous man because he is a man of so many parts. He does so many things and so many things superlatively well...a movie star, a great actor, someone for whom the craft is so seamless that the seam is invisible... so honest with himself that he achieves the state of honest communication. He then went on to be a great writer.  There is the same simplicity, artlessness in that writing which there has been in his great performances".

It is a shame that in the end, he championed euthanasia and seems not to have had any faith. Apparently, any (Catholic) faith he did have (he built altars as a miserable schoolboy) died in the killing fields of World War Two. 

I have learnt a key lesson from his life this August - which is to try to develop a habit of observing everything minutely. It gave him the upperhand in writing, acting and art.   

Recommendation 9/10

Saturday 25 March 2023

It is a question of 'mindset' (Romans 8:6-11)


"It's a question of mentality. You need to think outside the box, try new approaches. Changing the way you think will make a huge difference to your outcomes." Here are some questions for you:
  • What is the basic orientation of your life?  Are you intellectual, practical, creative, meditative?
  • What is your main disposition of mind? Are you interested in concrete things, people or in ideas?
  • What prevailing thoughts characterise you?   What do you mostly think about?
  • What do you usually focus your attention on in life?  What are your underlying key interests?
  • What mental disposition or outlook characterises you? 

It is important to consider all these things critically. Psychometric tests will tell you that there are sixteen or more personality types and you can identify which one you fall into.  But the Apostle Paul, in this biblical text distinguishes two underlying categories which are distinct and completely opposite. He notes how they result in huge differences in outcomes. They involve, before God, precise consequences. 

One's mentality, our way of thinking, steers our way of considering things, reacting, reasoning, understanding reality and our relationships with our neighbour.  All these things are characteristics of us, as a unique person. Consider the text of Romans 8:6-11. It uses terms you are probably not familiar with, but need to be explained.

“For what the flesh is minded is death, but what the Spirit is minded is life and peace, for what the flesh is minded is enmity against God, because it is not subject to the law of God and neither can it be; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you, but if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, it is not his. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of justification. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11) .

Two opposing mentalities 

The apostle speaks here of two mentalities: the first he calls "carnal". The second "spiritual". Let's get familiar with this particular terminology.

The mind of the flesh (known as a carnal attitude) refers to an orientation of one's soul focused on worldly desires and interests, such as power, fame, money, success, pleasure and personal gain for its own sake. Someone may even have 'religious interests' and even say they are a professing Christian but it is crucial for them to check whether their tendency towards the world ('Vanity Fair') prevails or not. This mentality, Scripture considers 'sinful' because it goes against the healthy principles that God has established for the good of human creatures. It is a mentality absolutely not to our ultimate (or society's) advantage, even if it might seem the opposite, at first. Sinful inclinations include pride, selfishness, jealousy, anger, lust and other behaviours that actually harm ourselves, others, and our relationship with God. This is a materialistic and self-centered mindset known as 'venal', acting only on the basis of profit, 'gain' that can be drawn from every opportunity just for personal profit. However, it's not just about that.

The other mentality Scripture calls the mind of the Spirit which is a spiritual attitude to life. It represents an orientation to please God, the desire to live in accordance with His revealed will by following the guidance provided by His Holy Spirit. This has 'fruits': "The fruit of the Spirit, however, is 'love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control' (Galatians 5:22).

Unfortunately the carnal mentality repays, says the Apostle, with 'death'. Here we mean primarily spiritual death but mere human observation perceives how those who do not follow the spiritual life face all kinds of troubles and deterioration in this life.  

  • the self-induglent, lazy and profligate run into serious social and/or money difficulties 
  • the powerful find that complete possession eludes them
  • schemers and manipulators are 'hung' on 'the petard' of their own schemes
  • the greedy find that making money their 'god' does not satisfy and that obsession and lust becomes 'a thirst', a toxic sickness 
  • liars and the foolish lose respect and reputation  
  • the proud and cruel lose their heart - their feelings run dry  because God hardens the heart as a punishment on them 
  • the overwheeningly ambitious lose their rational mind and moral judgement - go 'mad' ..... 

The cracks of spiritual 'death' starts appearing in this life too.  People can fall from the good life, in a day.

Spiritual death is the inevitable result of maintaining a carnal mind because it is separation from God, the source of all life, compassion and feeling. It is a state of not being in communion with Him through sin becoming the dominant force in their life. This separation can manifest itself as alienation from God, a deep loss of inner peace, feeling and harmony (leading to anxiety and depression), and ultimately, exclusion from an everlasting life in God's presence. 

The 'mind of the flesh' is entirely focused on worldly desires and ambitions that are at odds with the teachings and the will of God. When a person focuses exclusively on worldly desires, he turns away from God and His laws, focusing on himself and on the temporal aspects of life. This mentality impedes the moral and spiritual development of our being and, in fact, over time degrades and alienates us from the world and others. The concept of 'death' in Romans 8:6, therefore, refers not only to physical death, but also to the spiritual consequences that follow from falling away from God. 

The 'mind of the Spirit', in contrast, leads to life and peace, as it is centered on love of God, His guidance, and following His teachings. Of course, everyone must undertake duties, achieve an adequate income, to avoid being a burden on others (where possible) and provide for their family: all this God knows and will provide means of doing this. But following the Spirit (not the world) allows believers to experience a deep sense of connection with God, the life force and independent 'freedom of spirit' allied to truth, delivering a meaningful life that enjoys inner peace and ultimately, results in what Scripture calls 'eternal life' in His presence. Also, it delivers avoidance of the spiritual consequences that come from turning away from God. The 'mind of the Spirit' resulting from conversion and repentance therefore leads away from death to life and peace, centered on love of God, expressed in the Cross and in the teachings of Christ. 

 The tragic condition of the carnal mind 

The Apostle delves into the tragic condition of those who cultivate a carnal mentality. He explains it this way, he says: “… for what the flesh has a mind is enmity against God, because it is not subject to the law of God and neither can it be” (7).

The reason why the carnal mentality leads to death is the pride and presumption of the unregenerate person which comes from a radical enmity towards God. This 'bias' is part of the fallen nature of natural mankind. Mankind opposes God's sovereignty, questions His power and omniscience, questions His justice and faithfulness, despises His goodness, His grace and mercy. This mentality finds fault with God's authority, decrees and intentions, resents the expression of His Providence (which is often through suffering) and manifests itself as ingratitude. This contempt goes so far as to laugh at the 'foolish' Gospel (the Cross) and the doctrines of grace. This is why so many people today like to play "I Did it My Way" at their funeral.  They are saying "I did not need God telling me what to do or how to live.  I was 'a winner' without Him".

This deep hostility is universal and integral to how the human mind works. It cannot be uprooted without a direct and powerful intervention by the grace of God. The carnal mentality manifests itself as estrangement from God, contempt for the godly and delight in living under the rule of sin (the Enemy). The carnal mentality is 'antinomian", that is, it refuses to submit to the revealed law of God. It may want to do so 'in theory' through false religion, but in practice it is far from the law of God which it hates because it limits personal freedom (or appears to from the outside). It contradicts the law in every instance and thereby nullifies it. 

Without the presence of regenerating indwelling grace, the carnally-minded refuse to submit to God's law because sin has a paralyzing effect on them. While theoretically someone might want to submit, they lack the strength to obey God. The need for an omnipotent power and an effective grace in conversion is most evident here. This is why the experience of having true conversion to Christ is essential.

One thing, however, is clear. As the Apostle Paul says "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" even if they pretend to be religious and 'orthodox', brought up in the church, baptised and confirmed. Their basic attitude, their heart is in fact far from God. They are alienated from Christ, devoid of grace and in particular from an enlivening and working faith without which it is impossible to please God. They may even welcome impurity and immorality in their life and justify these things. While they are in this condition, they do not enjoy Him or have fellowship with Him whatever they claim.  

Spiritually unregenerate people have no inclination or appetite for the things of God. Being in a condition of substantial enmity against God, they also find themselves in a dilemma. They cannot approach God, because He hides Himself from them. They cannot  approach Him to 'negotiate' with Him on terms of peace to be accepted, on their own terms; they cannot do anything to deliver peace with God. The truth is that Christ on the Cross is the only way someone can approach and find reconciliation with God. His atoning death alone can overcome the helplessness and ingrained biases of 'natural man' and achieve anything that is pleasing in God's eyes. There are many things that please God, such as 

  • prayer 
  • worship
  • reading Scripture and teaching others
  • praise and sharing the gospel
  • doing good, caring for the vulnerable
  • being responsible, telling the truth
  • healing the sick, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner
  • giving time and money 
  • fellowship
  • community service
  • stewarding creation and the planet
  • keeping His commandments and walking in his ways 

However, spiritually unregenerate people even if they do some of these things, cannot do them in a way that is acceptable to God because they are devoid of His Spirit and without authentic faith. In everything they do, they do not give the glory of God, but to themselves. They have neither grace, nor strength, nor right principles, nor right ends. God is also working to obliterate the remembrance of those who were not 'for Him' on the earth, wiping out any positive legacy.  They would be astonished to learn that their charitable actions (which may have delivered to them honours and awards) cannot overcome the impotence of 'natural mankind' to accomplish anything that is pleasing in the eyes of God. 

The spiritual mind is different 

This is the 'carnal mentality' of the person who has not been spiritually regenerated by the grace of God through Jesus Christ and of the 'prevailing mentality' of this world which might claim to be pure, even in some way 'religious' but is not. In Verse 9, the Apostle addresses the Christians of Rome. 

He says: "But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you but, if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not of he"(9). 

He states that believers in Christ are no longer 'in the flesh'. They look similar to others but their mentality has been completely transformed because, they are 'in the Spirit', that is, they have a spiritual perspective. The Spirit of God dwells in them in a concrete, not an abstract or superficial way. It can be seen with spiritual eyes. God is working through them and this can be verified because His is a spirit of enlightenment, regeneration, sanctification, consolation, adoption, intercession and wholeness This indwelling of the Spirit does not depend on someone's goodness or their ritual observance, but on their significant personal relationship with Christ. This is possible thanks to His ascension, His intercession for them and the love that God the Father has manifested through Christ. If His Spirit is not visible in actions, speech or character, it is not there. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ working visibly, it is not in their heart and life, no matter what someone claims.   Do they fail in their duties and promises, lie, deceive, 'follow the money', prefer the company of the godless and promote pagan ideas?    If so, His Spirit is not there.

It is not just a question of participating in the gifts of the Spirit, but of having made a positive decision for Christ, to obey His teaching and follow Him, of having 'communion' with Him. Anyone who does not have the indwellng Holy Spirit cannot claim any communion with Christ nor does this person enjoy Him.

Then the Apostle adds: "But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of justification"(10). The verse teaches that iif Christ lives in you, even though your body is mortal and subject to death (due to the wages of sin being death), the Holy Spirit, who is present in you because of your justification by Christ, gives you life and hope for the resurrection through Christ. In other words, your physical body is bound to die due to sin, but your spirit is quickened and renewed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within you, which is called the 'guarantee of eternal life'.  Your justification in Christ gives you the hope of eternal life with God, even after the physical death of your body. Since your spirit is closely related to Christ's, you can rest assured that your ultimate identity, your soul will not perish, with your body. 

Thinking about the implications of all this:

The present and future of the spiritual mind 

The last verse of our text confirms this point: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you”

This means that if we have entrusted our lives to Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God lives in us, having regenerated us, In the end we too will be resurrected as Christ Himself rose from the dead. Our body, which is subject to death due to sin, will be transformed into an incorruptible and immortal body. This beautiful verse speaks of the hope of the resurrection of our bodies through the power of God's Holy Spirit which has been granted to dwell within us.

All this is due to the basic (re)orientation of our life, of our new mentality. This orientation is crucial. It is true that  under certain conditions, following Christ can hinder and prevent the worldly success of our career, our business, our personal, family, social and to some extent our emotional life (or promote it). We must have the right mindset, be open to change and innovation within the limits, of course, of what is good and right before God. We have to abandon our 'basic mentality', the materialistic mental disposition (more or less still working in us even when we profess ourselves to be believers) to assume, by the grace of God, a spiritual one, in conformity with that of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Which of these two mentalities is the most “eternally productive”? Undoubtedly, this is indeed a question of eternal life v spiritual death. It goes without saying that this calls us to carefully examine ourselves and urges us come to repentance. May God give us grace to fully realise it.

Paolo Castellina, 18 March 2023

Text, summary and questions for discussion 

“For what the flesh is minded is death, but what the Spirit is minded is life and peace, for what the flesh is minded is enmity against God, because it is not subject to the law of God and neither can it be; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you, but if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, it is not his. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of justification. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11) .

The passage from Romans 8:6-11 focuses on the distinction between carnal and spiritual mindsets, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer's life. In this passage, the Apostle Paul explains that the carnal mindset leads to spiritual death, while the spiritual mindset leads to life and peace. It is emphasized that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer is what makes him part of the family of God and gives him eternal life.

  • What is the difference between carnal and spiritual mentality, according to Paul?
  • What are some concrete examples of carnal and spiritual thinking in our daily lives?
  • How can a believer go from a carnal mindset to a spiritual mindset?
  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, according to this passage?
  • How can the presence of the Holy Spirit influence the choices and actions of a believer in everyday life?
  • How does the Holy Spirit help us experience life and peace?
  • According to the passage, what is the sign that a person belongs to Christ and is part of the family of God?
  • How is the resurrection of Jesus related to eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer?
  • How can we encourage one another to live with a spiritual mindset and remain sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
  • What are some challenges believers may encounter in trying to live with a spiritual mindset and how can they overcome them?
For more information on Christianity see:

Sunday 8 January 2023

Actium, Cleopatra and St Paul

When I was a child, we had a series of red books about Greek myths which mesmerised me, just as Greek myths have captured countless other children all down history.  All that ephemeral  romance has floated in my mind ever since but completely disconnected from Christianity.  So, recently, it was with the same old feeling of ‘classical elation’ that I connected up Cleopatra, Antony, Caesar Augustus, the Battle of Actium - and St Paul.


‘Cleopatra’ the film, explains the geography of Actium

By eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain,  

Elizabeth Taylor did a memorable job of conveying Cleopatra VII as a heavily made-up, highly passionate queen but the truth is far more complex.  Cleopatra was an astute, ambitious intellectual and strategist. She was building an eastern Hellenistic Empire ostensibly under her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion

If she had succeeded (and she very nearly did), St Paul and Jesus of Nazareth would have been born into an eastern Hellenistic world ruled from Alexandria by Graeco-Roman Caesarion, dressed as a Pharaoh, not into a Roman world ruled by Caesar Augustus and Rome. The Western Empire, even Britannia’s history, would have been plunged early into a Dark Age.  Christianity may never have reached us before it reached Russia. The Christian faith may never have been driven forward by Rome.

How many women in history have had such ambition or such power at their disposal? So where did clever Cleopatra go wrong? The amazing story is told in this film (from 25 mins) and it is worth watching. Cleopatra, who spoke seven languages, was the driving force behind this bid for total world domination. She desperately wanted to destroy Octavian, later Caesar Augustus in a bloody Roman civil war, to assert the direct DNA line of Julius Caesar.  She used Antony to try to achieve this.

The peerless lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, had intended to attack Italy from the west coast of Greece, just south of Corfu, but Octavian preempted them by surrounding them on land and sea, amid malaria and shortages of grain and water, having cut their supplies from Alexandria.  After a sweltering summer, during which many of their troops defected to Octavian (one taking Antony's battle plan to the other side), they had to break out of Actium or die. So, on 2 September 31BC, Antony engaged the Roman fleet and the Augustan flagship just off Actium (although all his generals had advised him to fight on land). Cleopatra had urged a sea battle possibly to effect her escape more easily.  When it appeared that he was losing against Roman General Agrippa (their only general who was also a trained admiral), Cleopatra led her ships through the midst of the battle and headed for the open water. One wonders how many women have been present at a major sea battle?  Famously, seeing this, Antony jumped into the sea, climbed aboard a clipper and gave pursuit.  

All was lost: they would never rule the entire Roman Empire; Augustus would take over Egypt within a year and Caesarion would be murdered. Agrippa and Augustus (Octavian) would appear as equal heads on the Roman coinage. The skills of Agrippa had changed the course of the entire history of Western Europe.

Shakespeare conveys this scene as a tragedy of lovestruck foolishness but should we see it like that? After the battle, Caesar Augustus commanded that where he had camped on the northern peninsula should become a town called Nicopolis (‘Victory Town’) and a memorial should be built.  The base of the building is still there, amid the ruins of Nicopolis and can be visited.  Along the ruined podium, archeologists noted strange sockets : they have since realised that thirty now vanished Egyptian  beaks or ship rams, weighing half a tonne fitted into them.  This is how Romans remembered sea victories, from ancient times.

Jesus was born before 4BC which was only 27 years after The Battle of Actium and Paul was a contemporary of his. Paul, then Saul, was brought up in Tarsus the site of the famous conjoining of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra had wafted in on her luxury perfumed barge, in 41BC.  Someone who was a child inTarsus in  41BC may well have described the scene  to a 10 year old St Paul.  Even his grandparents could have told the story if they reached their 60s.

The Book of Titus in the New Testament tells us that St Paul decided to spend a winter in Nicopolis (most probably Victory Town near Actium). There was a nascent church there. We can imagine Paul wandering around the town, as he did in Athens, sightseeing. He would have seen the memorial to Mars and Neptune with the thirty intact bronze rams and considered how the skill of Agrippa had thwarted the worldly ambitions of Antony and Cleopatra.  How little it took:  just a superior plan.  Did he get encouragement from that? After all, the Holy Spirit would bring down a pagan Empire, with little more than faith and his pen.

St Paul may have thought about how Cleopatria ‘deified’ Julius Caesar with a temple in Alexandria (outside which Cleopatra’s Needle stood -  now in London).  The Romans did the same in Rome and wrote on the building that Caesar Augustus was ‘the son of a god’ i.e. of Julius Caesar.  St Paul would have scoffed at the blasphemous title.

It is fascinating that without brilliant, plebeian Marcus Agrippa, it is thought that Augustus would never have held the (Western) Roman Empire. His is a legacy which still reverberates today.  Agrippa was also responsible for the Pantheon, whose concrete dome has endured 2000 years of blistering sun and weather. One wonders whether there is anyone today achieving two thousand years of legacy? 

In essence, this was a battle between the decadent Hellenistic East and the more disciplined West and the latter won. The Hellenistic world of Alexander the Great had collapsed to Rome and into this collapsed world Jesus and Paul were born. This same stand-off continues through history where decadence faces more disciplined forces. The next great sea battle in the West was very close by - the Battle of Lepanto - against the Ottomans, in 1571.

Linking up mythology, Greece, St Paul and Cleopatra is pretty satisfying and merits a trip to see the romantic and historic shores where such exultant female ambition turned to dust, where western history was created - and where nascent Christianity converged.

  • For a European film (spoken in Greek and Latin) on The Battle of Actium see here

  • Actium, the Museum at Nicopolis and its ruins, the Temple of Neptune and Mars are accessible from Preveza  (BA flights go to Aktium Airport just across the water). 

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Jesus Christ was the non-accomplice of history

At Christmas, we are celebrating the birth of the non-accomplice of history: Jesus Christ. Born without human power and unwilling to use the limitless divine power that He had, He refused to compromise with evil. God makes no concessions to evil.  Like Father, like Son.

Silence in the face of evil, keeping one’s head down is a temptation for us all. We prefer not to think ill of others and particularly not evil of those in authority over us, who have titles and letters after their names.  

The famous Milgram Experiment explored the psychology of genocide, testing whether the defence “But they told me to do it…” is valid. It resulted in shocking and disturbing results. People were told to electrocute others (actually actors) by ‘doctors’ in white coats and researchers found that 65% of people will do what authority tells them to do, even if their actions result in agonising pain or even death, for others.  It had been presumed that carrying out this experiment on American men would prove that they would not do it - but they did. Later, other nationalities and women did it, too. It made no difference who the participants were. For a fuller description of the experiment see here

Most people, whatever nationality, cannot be counted on to realise that a seemingly benevolent authority may be malevolent, even when they are faced with overwhelming evidence which suggests that the authority is indeed malevolent. Hence, the underlying cause for the subjects' striking conduct could well be 'conceptual'. On the other hand, this may be because becoming the ‘accomplice of authority’ cancels out feelings of personal guilt and responsibility.  The trouble is that it does not, according to the Nuremberg principle.  We are all responsible for what we do, whether we are ordered to do it, or not.

So how can otherwise decent people become accomplices?  There are now advanced forms of military-grade brainwashing which play on the susceptibility of individuals not to question authority (although even this is not an excuse in a court of law). There are all sorts of ways of justifying being an accomplice, such as: consciously ignoring and covering-up evidence, not ‘observing’ what is going on, not reporting malfeasance, breaking the law in official reports, lying/misrepresenting facts.  Less passive ways are threatening whistleblowers and the censorship of open debate. 

How easy is it to justify such actions? People think “Who am I?  Poor me - how inconvenient for me. What difference can I make? They would 'shoot me down';  I might lose my job; I must pay our mortgage; I have to pay the bills...and go on holiday...” 

Jesus never entertained temptation.  He refused to be silent in the face of intimidation and threats.  “You white-washed tombs” He called those with real power of life and death over Him. Then He turned their revenge, the Cross, into victory.

The light and power of truth still shines in the darkness (of evil) and the (evil) darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5) 

Tuesday 13 December 2022

What is the point of adding new words about defending all religions to The Coronation Oath?

We are being told that King Charles wants to added wording, before or following the Coronation Oath to demonstrate that he will defend (or maybe respect?) all religions, in addition to the (official) Protestant reformed faith of the Church of England. 

Surely it is widely known that the Church of England respects those of other faiths as it does those of no faith? Does it need to be spelled out? Its main mission is The Great Commission or evangelism which is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those of religion and those of no religion. Supporting freedom of religion is 'a given'. 

There are some other things to consider in this: 

a) no other faith except the English Protestant and reformed faith, as expressed by the Church of England's Thirty Nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer constitutionally needs or requires our King as its Supreme Governor. They all have their own hierarchies and the role of religious head is not missing in them. So why should he wish to treat them equally with the one body of which he is the missing leader (of sorts) i.e. the Church of England? The Church of England is not the same as the Church of Scotland nor the Church of Wales. It is the only body of which King Charles is required to be the head. 

b) Catholics are not wanting King Charles to play a leadership role in the Catholic Church which is led by the Pope and Cardinals in this country; this is equally true of non-Christian religions. 

c) He declared in his Accession Oath that he would solely protect the Presbyterian Church in Scotland but now in relation to England he wants to say that he will defend all faiths. Will England be treated unequally with Scotland? 

d) representatives of non-CofE strands of Protestantism, such as Methodism and of Catholicism, Judaism and indeed of other religions appear at national services and often speak at them. This is already inclusive. 

e) how can you defend all religions if these religions have contradictory objectives? 

Of course, King Charles wants to be king of all his people, whatever their religion, or no religion, though in fact, such a role can only be acheived not by edict but by uprightness of character and duty (as we saw with the late Queen). 

What does 'defending' a religion mean and does it needs a King to defend it? The only obvious 'defending' that the late Queen did of her religion (which was Protestant and reformed) was to share her faith and devotion to Christ during her later annual Christmas broadcasts and to faithfully attend its services. Her final act was to use the funeral service of the Book of Common Prayer - and very impressive it was, too. 

I am not convinced that adding wording on serving, supporting or respecting all religions to the Coronation Oath will have any point.

Sunday 11 December 2022

Advent and female evil

Advent is not all about Christmas but it is about various "comings". It starts with the Second Coming in the first week, then the Prophets who foretold future comings and today, the third Sunday, it focuses on John the Baptist, the last Prophet of the coming of Christ. Three candles are now lit. There is one Sunday to go before the last Sunday of Advent, Christmas Day. 

 Today, one has to meditate on the state of mind of John the Baptist, sitting in chains in Herod's prison. John had preached that judgment was nigh and that the axe was at the root of every bad tree. Now he sends a message to Jesus asking if He is the one who will conquer evil and free the captives sitting in darkness - or whether he should hope for someone else. Jesus replies telling him to look at the signs of HIs ministry which are fulfilling Messianic prophecies. Sadly He does not promise him release from the evil circling him ever closer. 

 The background was a royal marriage. Herodias, a daughter of Herod the Great, had divorced Herod Antipas's half brother to marry him and Herod had got rid of his first wife to marry her, which caused a war which irritated Rome in later years. Herodias spelled trouble that resulted in their eventual expulsion from Galilee. Somewhere in France (Gaul), both Herod and Herodias died, kingdomless. 

Herodias was doing wrong without a conscience because of resentment eating her up inside against the popular preacher who had condemned her marriage to Herod as 'unlawful'. So when Salome, her dancing daughter, is offered an open promise by a probably drunken Herod Antipas, she is persuaded to fulfil her mother's dearest wish and ask for the head of John the Baptist. He was a blockage in Herodias's imagined path to prestige and power, a mere annoyance which would be 'eliminated'.

Little did she care that the people said John was 'Elijah' and that John was the greatest human being to have lived on the earth before Christ. She respected no one. 

 There are rare and 'attractive' female psychopaths who care nothing for the norms of society in their cold pursuit of power, prestige and money. They respect absolutely no one, especially not those who are great. But eventually their behaviour leads to their expulsion from society and to their total exile. As someone has said "Before you indulge revenge, dig two graves - one for yourself".