Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

DIARY: Stormy weather, Apostolic Succession, Local rags, Poppycock Watch: Penguins, Profundity of the Week

The River Exe in flood

As I write this, the wind is screaming past my office window, rain slashing into the glass. Our major river, just 200 yards away, is brown and angry and lapping at the top of the flood defences. It doesn’t bode well.

There was catastrophic flooding here in the late 1960s which prompted the building of substantial preventative barriers along the river banks. The problem is, they were built to defend against a one-in-40 year emergency. By my reckoning they are well past their timeout.

The Council is reported to be trying to raise money to finance new works aimed at a one-in-100 year episode. Given the nature of official response times, that will not be soon. It will take another disaster to get things moving fast. Not much breath is being held around here.

If David Cameron needs any incentive to slice away at the grotesque European Union budget, let him consider how much we need that money here in Devon.

Keep it in the family, Dave!

* * * * *

I have never believed in the concept of Apostolic Succession — that someone appointed by their predecessor carries a special mark or mission to succeed them.

Most religions do this. Leading Buddhists are said to be able to trace their spiritual lineage all the way back to Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago, despite the many holes in the early lists of enlightened teachers.

One can see that a reputed connection with the Founder, however tenuous, might add a little glitz and authenticity to a sitting leader, but in practice it has never guaranteed success, either in religion or in politics.

Thus the rejection of the appointment of women bishops by the Church of England Synod on roughly those grounds — women can never be part of an Apostolic lineage because they weren’t there at the beginning — leaves me uneasy about the future of a great institution that is failing to adapt to the present moment.

Ministry in the Church is mainly about empathy, not intellectual jousting; dealing with people in trouble and distress, not putting an elegant case before one’s peers.

The difference is profound and women are much better at it than men, which probably accounts for the fact that half of priests are thought to be homosexual.

In any case, the tale has little truth in it. We know that Rome excised women out of the early Jesus story, especially the enigmatic Mary Magdalene (almost certainly Mary of Bethany, not a woman of the night), who has her own gospel in the Gnostic tradition and was said to be the best, even the highest, of the apostles.

We’ll never know the true story, but we can take the broadest and most generous view. Why would the Almighty object to that?

Time for a change, surely?

* * * * *

Daily Mail, has sold its local and regional newspapers to a consortium led by ex-Mirror man, David Montgomery. Thus the illustrious name of Northcliffe has been lost and “Local World” arises like a phoenix.

Northcliffe’s list of titles was valued at £1.2 billion just months ago, but were sold for a paltry £110 million, showing how their profitability has tumbled off a precipice in the online age.

Indeed, the daily local papers are to be replaced with weekly ones, something that has already happened in the West Country. A few, such as the 150-year old Western Morning News remain, but for how long?

Montgomery has been speaking of a string of quality websites, reminiscent of the big dailies, gradually taking over from the printed page.

Although I’m a website man myself, I do appreciate a real newspaper, hot off the press, for more comfortable reading at the weekends. That’s when monstrous property supplements dominate the news and features sections. In the Sundays a dozen other bits and pieces are added too.

There’s no ideal solution, but the bottom line is that they must all be profitable. Syntagma wishes David Montgomery well, but wonders if he’s more romantic than visionary.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times and various academic strands, has issued a trading statement confirming that it has reached agreement to combine Penguin Books with American Publisher, Random House. In other words, to sell it to the German media giant, Bertelsmann.

So passes one of the last great British publishing houses, thrown into the global melting pot where bottom line counts for more than quality.

Like local papers, national publishers are becoming treasures of the past. So long as Penguin maintains its immense backlist, we can just about endure it, I suppose.

* * * * *

Profundity of the week
“An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.”
John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps and later Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada. He was also editor of The Spectator, around 1900 — bet you didn’t know that!

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Saturday Ramble: The Church and a State of Grace

Archbishop of Canterbury Christianity is plausibly the world’s greatest organized religion, both in reach and in power. The West would be a very different place without the Church’s curate’s-egg influence down the long centuries since the reported birth of its founder, the shadowy Jesus Christ.

It differs from other faiths beyond the three related “Book” religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), by tone, by magnificence, and regrettably, by its bloody history of domination.

As a writer on Christianity, and religion generally, I dislike the political aspects now indispensable from its dispensation. It is an old saw that power corrupts. This Easter especially we are all too aware of the weaknesses of clergy on an almost industrial scale. Even the Pope is mired in sleaze after a blizzard of accusations centred on child abuse.

This gathering ecclesiastical storm easily outruns our own Parliament’s expenses scandal which seems trivial in comparison with the lost lives of thousands of preyed-upon children. If only they had been prayed upon instead.

Into this incendiary mix come two seemingly unhelpful interventions. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, chooses this moment of maximum weakness to counterattack the Pope’s landgrab of Anglican members who dislike the “liberal” cast of current personnel, including the Archbishop himself. If this is a deliberate distancing exercise, it is very welcome at long last. Ecumenicism, like European Union, has only one boss: Rome — as the EU has Brussels. This is all about power, not spirituality.

Second, Philip Pullman, of His Dark Materials fame, has a new novel out questioning the authenticity of the character and existence of Jesus. The book, The Good Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, supposes that Mary had twins called, oddly enough, Jesus and Christ.

Jesus is the good guy, strong and truthful. “Christ” is small and weak — the real Satan — which sounds very much like Paul. While Jesus preaches the optimistic message that comes down to us today, the jealous Christ tempts his brother in the wilderness, and even manufactures his divinity.

I haven’t yet read the book, so can’t comment too keenly. However, it seems to ignore the awkward fact that “Christ” derives from the Greek, Khristos meaning, annointed and thus in Hebrew, Messiah. Had Jesus been born around 7 BC as is supposed, he would certainly not have been called Christ, nor would a twin brother. The term Christ was possibly applied to him by the Greek-speaking Paul, who is said to have cooked up a lot of what we think we know of Christianity.

The problem remains that half the texts attributed to Paul in the New Testament are forgeries. What is left show that Paul was a Gnostic, a mystic who believed in a direct relationship with the source of all things, and no founder of churches or funder of bishops.

Hardly any of the much-redacted “Christian” texts can be taken at face value, except perhaps the very early books of sayings (“Q”) from which the synoptic Gospels were clearly developed, adding in the narrative history of an apparently real person. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is the closest we have to the Gospel of Q. It is a purely mystical text that resonates with Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and other Idealist (consciousness-based) religions of knowledge.

To make any definitive historical statement about these later documents is, frankly, assumption piled upon assumption, not good scholarship. At least John’s Gospel is unashamedly mystical in nature and clearly allegorical in intent. It possibly derives from a Jewish version of the Mystery School texts then dominant among the inducted educated classes around the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt and beyond.

The essence of moral Christianity can be traced back to the Axial Age some 500 years before Jesus. The dying and resurrected Godman* aspect, together with the virgin birth, were echoes of tales told in most Middle-Eastern countries from the Axial Age onwards. Far from being original to Christianity, they would have been instantly familiar to intelligent citizens of many of the surrounding lands. You don’t have to rummage very far through the history of the times to find this myth embedded in dozens of traditions.

Even Easter is a Celtic, or Druidic, festival (Eastre) centred around the rebirth of nature in the Northern spring.

All is not lost though. The central story of Christianity is of immortality, not of one man, but of everyone. The import of the Jesus story is correct in its depiction of life itself, as I point out in my book, The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face?

My wish this Easter is that the Church of England would mature away from these simplistic stories that hardly anyone takes literally now — with the exception of a few American cults — and pronounce the real message behind the allegory.

Oddly enough, Rowan Williams might be very good at that. He has scholarship enough, and is acutely aware of the mysticism at the heart of the Church, having written books on Teresa of Avila and Dostoevsky.

In doing so, he would save his Church (our Church) and release it from the tainted hand of Rome which has built another empire on a feast of lies and confusions.

This Eastertide, truth and a State of Grace is not a lot to ask, surely?

* See the works of Freke and Gandy.

John Evans

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Mediated or Mediocrated?

A Review of Mediated: How the Media Shape Your World by Thomas de Zengotita.

This is a scintillating, exhilarating ride of a book. If you’re interested in blogging, or any aspect of the media, new or mainstream, you shouldn’t miss it. The author is an academic in New York with a PhD in anthropology. He began his career as a Method actor.

In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas — which was not included in the New Testament by the politicians of the Roman Empire for being too mystical — Jesus says, “Become a disciple of your own mind”. That was probably the last time anything so Buddhist appeared in official Christian literature.

Although Zengotita doesn’t use it, the saying applies very well to his book, providing the subtext beneath (as Shakespeare might have put it), “All the world’s a stage, and we are merely players”.

Zengotita begins in November 1963, when he was a student Method actor in New York. One day, a teacher entered the room and said, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” Then left.

The students took it for an exercise and started rolling their eyes, lifting their arms to heaven, keening and wailing and, presumably gnashing their teeth. As actors do. Thirty minutes later the teacher entered again. “The President just died.”

There was a stunned silence as the students realized it was really true. Then they started writhing on the floor and weeping and groaning all over again.

Zengotita draws the conclusion that this was new to our culture : extreme emotional reactions to the death of someone we didn’t know and had never met — except in the media.

He believes we have now reached the stage where we are totally immersed in media images which “mediate” all our reactions, feelings and belief systems. Instead of confronting reality directly, as Thomas’s Jesus urges us to do, we are just corks bobbing about on the choppy waters of mass media, which permeates us and drowns out our own perceptions.

This mediation has become all but total and has massive implications for the way we live. Marshall Mcluhan’s “The Medium is the Message” was only the half of it. How else would we tolerate the suffocating injunctions of “political correctness” were it not for the almost total power of the media to project it into the mass mind, and therefore our own.

Psychological contagions are every bit as destructive as pathogenic epidemics. In the 1930s, Fascism spread like wildfire around the world, leading to yet another world war. It was the counter-culture to another psychic contagion, Marxism, which all but became a religion : the Radiant Way. We had been warned.

Norman Mailer puts it well, “As Mcluhan presented us with the realization that modernism was coming to an end, so Zengotita has a great deal to say about the saturation of post-modernism in our existence today.”

The death of Princess Diana, with its worldwide Mexican wave of shock, was a typical example of this phenomenon in action. So was the very recent hubbub over the grisly end of the croc-baiter, Steve Irwin. These are not rational reactions. They show us as mediated characters, receiving our grief second-hand.

The world and life as a performance has become the norm. We are now used to seeing everything through the lenses of others. We’ve become part of a World Mind, instead of using our own. In the face of this, what can be done?

We can become a disciple of our own mind. Zengotita’s wonderful book makes a solid contribution to our belated understanding of this eerie phenomenon.

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The Man With No Head is Dead

I’ve just heard that Douglas Harding died last night. Anyone who follows the outer edge of spiritual philosophy — as I do — will know Douglas as The Man With No Head, after a famous book he wrote ages ago.

It’s a strange concept and takes a bit of work to get your head around, so to speak. But a moment’s insight indicates that everyone has a head except us. We appear to look out from one, but we can’t actually see it. We seem to be floating in a void slightly above a headless body.

That was the basis of Douglas’s thesis and teaching method over at

Even stranger to tell is that I got this news from Dave Winer’s site, Scripting News. In a million years I would never have guessed that he would be into the extended mind and headlessness. But you can never know with these Californian types. Even the intellectuals have the second sight down there it seems. It could be a whole new career for him when he finally retires from developing Web 2.0 stuff. Let’s hope so. Dave Winer without a head would be a real spectacle.

Our commiserations to all Douglas Harding’s supporters.

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Is Christmas Too Middle-Eastern?

Compared with my childhood, Christmas has almost disappeared from view.

In Britain, Birmingham City Council celebrates “Winterval” instead of the usual “Xmas”? That line is being followed up and down the country, egged on by laws emanating from central government. Is political correctness once again attacking the bedrock of our values and culture?

The answer is, yes, of course, because the PC agenda is basically Marxist and seeks to destroy every vestige of “bourgeois” existence. Western governments, particularly in Europe, are now dominated by Marxoid genuflectors whose every impulse is to root out the middle-classes and their way of life.

But is it more complex than that? Take this year as an example and using old-time language for better comparison :

In 2006 we’ve had a vicious war in the Holy Land, plus a Mahdi uprising in Mesopotamia. Sunni rebels have been fighting a bitter civil war against a dispersed Shia army in the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, with British and American troops caught in between. Meanwhile, in a resurgent Persia, a wild dictator is building a doomsday weapon to wipe an entire nation from the face of the earth. John Buchan or the Bible, take your pick.

Why then would we want to be reminded of the Middle East during Christmas?

And yet, remember those old-fashioned Christmas cards with the three wise men in their long robes and beards? Nowadays we see them as Osama bin Laden lookalikes. The timeless Biblical scenes of our youth, once so popular, remind us of the mujahideen rather than peaceful spirituality.

All over the Western world there’s a major retreat from Christianity. In America, probably the most ardently Christian nation on earth, you’ll only hear “happy holidays” these days, with scarcely a mention of Christmas.

Is it that we are shying away from the whole Middle East ethos? Has 9/11 changed the very nature of who we think we are? It may be that we no longer see the deserts south and east of the Med as benign. They never were, of course. But where does that flight from religious romanticism leave us?

Well, we could easily develop a Christianity without a Middle-Eastern favour, if only our Church leaders and others would recognize the problem.

Many of the early Gnostics, for example, like the Essenes and the Therapeutae, were “Christians” before the time of the historical Jesus — if he was a person rather than an archetype. Their ideas derived more from ancient Egypt and Greece than what we once called the Holy Land. It was the Roman Empire that stamped an ersatz “Christianity” on the rest of us to bolster its own power.

Rather than throw out the baby Jesus with the holy bathwater by adopting contrived festivities, like Winterval, a Christianized version of the Scandinavian Yuletide would be far more preferable, with European and American traditions overlaying a Gnostic, Christian spirituality.

Of course, the merry, Dickensian, English Christmas as imported by Prince Albert is the best of the lot. It’s a subtle blend of Celtic holly and mistletoe, with a big German fir tree, ample wine and ale, and boards groaning with non-vegetarian roasts and bakes. I’ll settle for that.

A very Merry Christmas — with a bit of Gnostic nostlagia thrown in — and a Happy New Year to all Syntagma readers.

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