We are joined today by the scientist Emma Byrne. Emma normally specialises in the field of artificial intelligence, however she’s recently taken a different tack and is here to talk about her latest book entitled ‘Swearing is good for you’. Using peer reviewed science, she argues that swearing is likely to have been one of the first forms of language that we developed and that since then, it’s been helping us to deal with pain, work together, manage our emotions and improve our minds.
Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points. As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now.
Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating. Pea Soup. These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name). The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force. It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.
Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it. This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible. In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country. Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom. ‘It’s not scary at all. I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’. I was worried. I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’. Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it? I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again. Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?
When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved. I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception. It wasn’t. In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact. Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’. Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting. That’s not what they got with The Exorcist. There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’. In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience. With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype. However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it. I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere. The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing. It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable). While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.
After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all. That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio. With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again. I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before. More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.
Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience. I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further. You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom. You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed. I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals. The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect. There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.
On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness. During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring. While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery. It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu. It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness. I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all. However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil. The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.
Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists. Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions. Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.
The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras. Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character. We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help. Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good. The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith. When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.
Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon. The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4. As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall). The clichéd battle between good and evil begins. Except it doesn’t… not really. Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl. Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God). This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl. A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens. The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone. Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds. This is not what happens. Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament. In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’. The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.
Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions. Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise. The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society. By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.
‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.
John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed. A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion. Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian. On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition. Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career. I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.
‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.
There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled. This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists. The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided another category. There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).
‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.
Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction. He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released. He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain. While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’. Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help! A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album. As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.
‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.
He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian. He admitted that he was a bully. He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence. Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being. Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still. In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement. Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant. Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.
‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.
There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair. It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another. For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption. That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour. No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation. Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.
‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?
A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views. First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said. If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance. Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change. There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better. In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons. I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful. Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present. He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.
‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.
While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not. Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind. The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too). Of course, such figures need not be well known. We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance. If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves. This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice. I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.
‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?
Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)
All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).
Pictures (In Order of Appearance)
Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
We are joined today by Jacob Dunne. Jacob was jailed for manslaughter after a fatal one punch attack in 2011. He talks to us about his early life, his time in prison and the transformative effect of restorative justice, especially how meeting his victim’s parents completely turned his life around.
My relationship with Jesus of Nazareth has recently changed for the better. I’ve never felt particularity negatively towards him, as I have towards God (I just can’t respond well to a character who encourages filicide, slavery, bigotry and genocide, to satisfy their own jealous insecurities) and have always found his depiction to be strangely captivating. Yet I have not consciously regarded him as a figure of inspiration; I always felt that he was the property of practising Christians, and anyway, wasn’t he the Son and earthly manifestation of the God that I find so problematic? This, I am pleased to report, is no longer representative of how I feel (about Jesus, at least) and I’d like to spend some time explaining how this change of heart has come to pass.
As the assumed Son (and earthly manifestation) of a perfect God, it has always been posited to me that Jesus must also be perfect; this was either something you believed in or you didn’t, take this view of Jesus or don’t take him at all. I assumed that as there are compelling arguments to suggest that the Abrahamic God is far from perfect, then it must also follow that Jesus could not be perfect. Further confirming this view, a recent reading of the New Testament revealed a sometimes flawed and aggressive Christ rather than the serene, unshakably tolerant, haloed figure of Christian tradition. This Biblical character seemed leagues apart from the perfect Jesus that I’d been taught about, through art and carefully selected Bible readings. I also had the suspicion that even if I did find inspiration in Jesus, I could not do so openly and easily without belief in God – as an atheist (hard agnostic) I have often been asked (sometimes forcefully) why I celebrate Christmas, and the fact that my wife and I were married, as atheists, in our local parish Church has also caused confusion and even offence. When I considered all of this alongside the glaring inconsistencies in the New Testament my response was one of rejection.
In the past year or so I have read two books that have caused me to think again: Zealot by Reza Aslan and Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong. Although I discuss them here, this is by no means supposed to be a detailed analysis or synopsis. I would, however, recommend them both for reading. Aslan spends a lot of time exploring the historical context of Jesus’ life and of the subsequent writing of the books of the New Testament. I think he does this well and draws many interesting conclusions. The main one being that Jesus was a radical Jew who, as part of a wider movement, challenged the authority of Rome and perceived corruption of the priestly class, and despite being unsuccessful had a profound impact on those that followed him. In the decades after Jesus’s death and in the wake of the Roman’s retaliatory destruction of Jerusalem (following their successful expulsion), the foundations of the Christian church were laid – by some that knew him and by many that did not. Interesting as they are, such conclusions were not the most affecting aspect of my time with this book. Rather, by thinking about Jesus as a human being and the New Testament as a series of documents – both worthy of historical analysis and set within a surprisingly (for me at least) well understood historical context, I found that my entrenched rejection began to subside. The fact that Jesus might have existed (and I think it seems likely that he did, given the short time in which his cult developed following his death) and that I felt able to explore this possibility, without feeling that I should harbour some sort of Christian belief, has become fundamental to the way I am able to engage with him and the texts in which he appears.
One can argue, rather successfully as it happens, that to be inspired by Jesus’s life and message requires neither Christian belief nor interest in the historical figure. I agree, to an extent; why should one have to suspect that Jesus existed to respond positively to his message of forgiveness? One doesn’t. Nonetheless, by doing so I have been able to attain much more meaning from the Jesus story than I could before. Why then, should it matter if individuals or events can be argued to be historical in relation to the meaning they have for me?
Take the image of Father Christmas. I’ve long believed that the red and white colour scheme of his outfit was designed and introduced by Coca-Cola as part of a marketing campaign. Red and white are the identifying colours of the company and they do have an irritating habit of plastering Santa’s image over a massive articulated lorry that appears on their festive adverts and visits various towns and cities. It came to my town this year and people went wild, standing round it in large crowds staring excitedly – filming it on their mobile devices, no doubt. Anyway, this association with a) the advertising industry and b) a multi-national company, that has a rather chequered ethical reputation, tarnished the meaning of images of Father Christmas for me. I still had fond memories of childhood, of family getting together in merriment, of nativity plays, of Christmas smells (the list goes on) – but they were mixed up with notions of cynicism, commercialism and exploitation of communities in the developing world. Of course, the whole Christmas season involves these things, it is a time of excessive contradictions, but the idea of this treasured figure from my childhood being the cynical marketing construction of a company that I have had ethical concerns about distilled this somehow. Thus, I was quite delighted to find out that the story is probably not true. Yes, Santa’s image is widely used for cynical marketing purposes, but the fact that his traditional image is used, rather than having been created for, this purpose seems to matter to me. The story of Coca-Cola creating Father Christmas’s modern image still exists, but the knowledge that it is likely a misconception, rather than historical event changes, for me, the nature of its meaning, and the meaning of depictions of Santa.
Walter White and the series Breaking Bad provide another example of how confidence in the historicity of events can impact on the meaning they may have on an individual. I loved Breaking Bad; I didn’t want to, because of its popularity, but I did. The series is harrowing in places and the actions of White become increasingly extreme and difficult to justify. It skilfully explores a wide range of ethical issues, and I often found myself questioning not only the characters, but myself. However, if I’m honest, I was always on the side of White. No matter what he did, I was with him all the way. Now, if I ‘d gone into the series with the belief (or found out after) that it was either a biography based on actual events, or that it was a documentary, I would have had a very different response to White and his activities. The ethical questions would still be there, as would the wonderful grey morality in which the story revels, but my response, both intellectual and emotional would be very different; White and his story would have had different meanings for me.
By thinking about Jesus without personal associations of Christian dogma, I’ve been able to imagine, with varying degrees of confidence an individual of greater scope and depth. This does not require a separation of Jesus from either Jewish or Christian belief. Nobody seems to quarrel when historians study Alfred the Great or Joan of Arc. Both individuals were pious Christians, both have mythologies that blur the lines between history and fiction, and one does not have to share their beliefs to study or take inspiration from them. It seems acceptable, in a way that it often isn’t with Jesus, to examine the evidence and conclude with a degree of confidence that each of these figures existed and that some life events are more likely to have occurred than others. Joan of Arc (like most historical figures) is both a figure of mythology and of history, there is no conflict and the lines between the two need not be distinct. If I consider the possibility of Jesus as the radical reformative Jew described above and then take a hard-agnostic view on the possibility of him being the Son of God (whether he thought he was or not is often debated, but there is at least the possibility of finding historical evidence) then Jesus ceases to be perfect, and this is a good thing. Apart from being more interesting, his sometimes erratic and even intolerant behaviour becomes less problematic. As a human in a specific historical context, he can be excused for being imperfect, or even morally questionable in a way that God cannot. The New Testament can be similarly viewed. Even more than Jesus (who is not around today), the Bible has a history, its various books can be placed, with varying degrees of accuracy, within historical times and places. The authors need not be identified to understand the context in which they were written. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle is a vast document that details events over a long period. It’s often contradictory and seems to freely mix fiction with historical events and yet it’s place as an important historical document is rarely questioned. I don’t have to have the same beliefs as those that wrote it and I don’t have to think that everything that is written in it actually happened. Aslan, treats the New Testament in much the same way, not just studying the text itself, but also exploring the societies and historical events that frame their construction. While Aslan’s book enabled me to look at Jesus with fresh eyes and provided an interesting perspective, it didn’t describe a Jesus who significantly inspired me. Agreeing with all of Aslan’s conclusions felt unimportant compared to the process of exploration that he provided.
Spong’s book, on the other hand, did present me with an inspirational figure. Like Aslan, Spong also considers historical evidence for Jesus’s life and the formation of the books of the New Testament, but his focus is very different. In many ways, it’s an account of how he, as a Bishop and long standing Christian who can no longer adhere to mainstream Church teachings, has struggled and succeeded in maintaining his meaningful experience of Jesus and God. The Jesus he presents is (very roughly) a first century Jew whose radical activities and high levels of humanity, love and integration were able to inspire similar attributes in those that knew him and those that came to know the versions of him that existed after his death. Spong describes a Jesus that is able to inspire a deeper level of human experience; an integrated state that he calls the ‘God experience in Jesus’. For me, as someone who has no attachment to the idea of God, I would not describe such an experience in those terms. Nonetheless, a combination of my experiences with this society (especially Roberts explorations of inspirational integrated Christian figures such as St. Francis of Assisi) and the reading of these two books has allowed me to reassess and come to understand how one could experience and describe a ‘Jesus experience’ of integration, regardless of background or faith.
I haven’t had such an experience, but I’m now able to experience Jesus as a figure of inspiration alongside others, such as Julian of Norwich, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai. Another unexpected consequence is that my various Buddha figures have taken on additional meaning: instead of representing only the Buddha, the statues now seem able to represent all those who I find inspirational and who also appear to have experienced high levels of integration. For some, the historical existence of these characters, and others like them will have little impact on their relationship with them. For me, confident historical speculation seems to augment my experience with deeper levels of meaning. I have got no idea if the story of Jesus washing Peters feet (depicted above) represents something that happened but I still find it inspirational. If, however, evidence was discovered that increased my confidence in its historicity then the inspiration and meaning I experience would be further enhanced.