April 5th, 2003


(no subject)

Bits of language that get created in one place get picked up in another when they say something it would be harder to say in any other way. I noticed this this morning when I was listening to the new classical record release programme on Radio 3 - which, for the US readers, is the BBC's classical music, jazz, world music and serious intellectual stuff channel and old stuffy, untrendy BBC. Mostly.

The reviewer was explaining the text of one of Prokofiev's more obscure choral works, now not much played because it is a eulogy to Stalin of the sort people write in dictatorships. 'He was the father of his country, a brilliant general and linguist, kind to children and small furry animals, and had a sense of humour' sort of thing - and the reviewer read this out with a straight-faced voice and then said 'Yeah, right.' On Radio 3. Some locutions get to conquer the world.

I found myself saying 'Yeah, right' later in the day when reading a book on the closing of the Western mind at the end of antiquity. You know the sort of stuff - Cyril of Alexandria has his thugs torture Hypatia the Philosopher to death with oyster shells for being an uppity woman; Julian the Apostate is remembered for persecuting the church when what he tried to do was sabotage it by imposing universal tolerance; and then there was Saint Ambrose.

Ambrose was one of those churchmen who think anything they do is all right because they are chaste. He did not want to have sex, so he was terribly moral and nothing else he did counted against that. From time to time people asked awkward questions about why the church donations went into silverware rather than charity and he explained that with all these barbarians about it was important to be able to move it in a hurry - which is a bit too much like Father Ted telling us that the money was just resting in his account to be comfortable.

The interesting thing is the point at which he was having serious problems with one emperor or other over the exact nature of power now the empire was Christian - the emperor wanted to punish a mob who had burned down temples and synagogues and Ambrose did not want this to happen. So he announced he had had a vision and that he knew where the bodies of two martyrs from the persecutions a century or so earlier were. People went and dug, and there were the bodies. They were so fresh that the blood was pooled around them in the grave - Ambrose announced that this just proved what a miracle it was - their being so fresh and his knowing where to look - and the emperor gave up and knew when he was beaten.

This is a well-known story among people who read ecclesiastical history but what interests me is that no-one I have ever read about it, except vaguely Gibbon who could represent the planet in the intergalactic irony competition, has ever gone 'Yeah, right'. The Imperial police were clearly just not very bright - I wonder who went missing and what they had done to annoy Ambrose. But what a wonderful way to get away with not having to hide the corpses!

When I read about ecclesiastics like Ambrose, I find myself wondering about the way that hatred and malice are so attractive to people who are supposed to be preaching a doctrine of universal love and kindness. It is the sort of thing which reminds me that it is not Christianity I dislike, just many Christians and what they have done to it.