Monday 1 January 2018

Giles Fraser 'Forgets' to be Historically Accurate

This morning's Thought For The Day on Today was delivered by the Guardian-writing cleric Giles Fraser, as always seems to happen at New Year. 

Now, that's not just me imagining him to be ubiquitous on Thought For The Day at New Year. Giles himself tweeted yesterday that "I seem to do it every New Year."

Incidentally, he also tweeted that it's "highly possible that if I finish this bottle of red I will sleep through my alarm and there won’t be a Thought for the Day in the morning." Well, the red wine didn't make him sleep through his alarm and there was a Thought for the Day in the morning.

Now, I have to say that I thought it was one of the best Thought For The Days I've listened to (which may not be saying much of course). I learned something new - about New Year's Day being the Feast Day of the Circumcision of Christ in the Christian calendar (and why) - and I think Giles's overall point was both interesting and correct, and his 'thought' well-written and worthwhile. 

The problem comes with Giles's moment of linguistic historical inaccuracy - the bit where he calls Jesus "a Palestinian Jew".

Giles is one of those Anglican clerics who clearly sides more with the Palestinians than with the Israelis and can stray into 'activist thinking' when the issue comes up. Whether he was doing so here or merely being ahistorical in using the term 'Palestinian' I can't say, but Jesus wasn't 'a Palestinian' and he wasn't correct in describing him in those anachronistic terms. Jesus was a Hebrew-and-Aramaic-speaking (perhaps with some Greek and/or Latin) Judean from Galilee in the Roman province of Judea. It was a century or so later than Emperor Hadrian changed the province's name from Judea to Syria-Palestina (after the brutal suppression of the Jews by earlier emperors - especially Titus - after a disastrous revolt).

The issue here, bias-wise, is that due to Thought For The Day's highly circumscribed pool of opinion (comfortable, tightly-bound religion, BBC-style) TFTD speakers whenever they allude to such matters tend to tread much the same path as Giles Fraser. (And, yes, that includes you Lucy Winkett).

Anyhow, here's Giles's Radio 4 sermon in full:

Good morning. 
I've just been reading this fascinating book called Forgetfulness by Francis O'Gorman. His thesis is that modern life is obsessed with the idea of the future to the detriment of the past. As if every day's a New Year's Day, we exist in a permanent state of looking ahead of ourselves towards what's next, towards continual innovation and progress. The modern workplace is full of management gassing on about 'going forward'. Out with the old, in with the new. 
Though a Christian himself O'Gorman believes that Christianity was originally responsible for this slide towards cultural amnesia - all that stuff about repentance and starting afresh, about being renewed through baptism and born again in the spirit. Here, O'Gorman, insists is the source of the desire to live permanently in the future, as if in a rolling process of ever-repeating New Year's resolutions.  
But here's the thing: In the Church's official calendar today's not celebrated as New Year's Day. That's a more secular festival. Today comes eight days after the birth of Jesus which, according to Jewish law, is the day on which male Jewish babies have their brit milah - their circumcision. So, in Church terms, today is the Feast Day of the Circumcision of Christ. 
And this often-neglected festival is connected with O'Gorman's important theme because one of the most historically-common forms of Christian forgetfulness has been around the whole subject of its relationship with Judaism; indeed Christianity commonly presents itself as a 'new testament' to Judaism's 'old testament', as if the Christian bit replaces the Jewish bit as a sort of an update. That's why the language of the Old and the New Testaments can be both patronising and misleading. Because, as Jesus's circumcision makes it perfectly clear, this so-called replacement theology has a massive problem: Jesus wasn't actually a Christian. He was a temple-worshipping, kosher-keeping, circumcised, First Century Palestinian Jew who loved the Book of Isaiah and called God 'Abba'. St Paul may have come to see circumcision as unnecessary for Gentile converts but he certainly didn't mean to distance new Christians from God's promises as laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures.  
The Feast Day of the Circumcision of Christ is, therefore, a day for recognising the rootedness of the Christian faith in its history in Judaism. It redirects our attention to where we've come from and reminds us fundamentally that Jews and Christians are cousins. 
So, in terms of the Christian calendar, the First of January is not all about putting the past behind us with airy and unconvincing promises about the new person we would like to become. 
I agree with O'Gorman. We should be far more suspicious of all this shiny rhetoric of 'the new'. Today's about looking back and acknowledging the things that have made us who we are, and therein lies the possibility of much more meaningful change.


  1. This is really the problem with could equally do a meditation on the importance of being in the present or having an eye to the future...or even being completely outside the temporal dimension. Religious reflection can lead you just about anywhere you want to go! :)

    I have never understood why we don't have philosophers on TFTD...but then I just had an aural hallunication of AC Grayling banging on about Brexit and Fake News...maybe it's best left to the religiously minded.

  2. I wonder if the bbc is set to introduce the concept of ‘accuraciness’ any time soon, to complement ‘thruthiness’ on a ‘what might have been said’ basis?


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