Polemics, virginity & Giles Fraser

Much has been showing up in my news feeds lately about the Rev Giles Fraser’s Christmas Eve editorial in the Guardian. Provocatively titled, ‘The story of the virgin birth runs against the grain of Christianity,’ this article’s subtitle is actually quite sound: ‘Far too much rests on notions of Mary’s purity. That focus affects our attitudes towards sex and purity.’

For those not familiar with Fraser, he is a priest in the Church of England who made waves for openly denouncing the way St Paul’s Cathedral handled the Occupy protests in 2011, eventually resigning over the conflict. I believe he is now a vicar in South London as well as a columnist for the Guardian. He is known for his theological liberalism and political liberalism (two vastly different things) and his penchant for very un-English (if very typically academic) ‘straight talk’ and headlines that were clickbait before the term ‘clickbait’ was coined.

As I am starting to write [NB it was finished later] this blog post on the feast of Thomas Becket, it seems appropriate to consider another of England’s ‘turbulent priests’ and what the UK makes of him. The Guardian and its largely middle class, largely secular readership no doubt find him a curiosity: sassy, political, critical of the institution to which he stubbornly belongs. The Church of England is incapable of holding just one opinion about any issue or any body — a point which should be celebrated about it, if its own narrative of pluralism is to be believed. Which pluralism, theoretically, should be able to accommodate views at least as liberal as Fraser’s. That it doesn’t goes to show how complicated a task it is to sustain anything like a ‘broad church’.

But I don’t really want to talk about church politics here. What I want to talk about first is what Fraser says about ‘purity’, that is, that Christianity ‘abolishes’ it. A number of other bloggers and theologians have written countering this statement, arguing that if Jesus apparently thought that he had come to ‘fulfil the law’ rather than abolish it, then certainly the notion of purity — as Jesus’ contemporary Jewish leaders thought of it — wasn’t abolished.  One can point to the way that Jesus treated women, slaves, and Gentile people and still find, if one wishes to find it, a ‘preferential option for the Jews’ in his work and life.  Therefore, the argument goes, if Jesus did not abolish the law (the purity laws) then he could not have abolished the notion of purity. That is going too far.

One of my favourite writers is a psychologist and theologian called Richard Beck. His book Unclean is a thoughtful piece on disgust psychology and how it influences and is influenced by Christian believing.  Put simply, Beck writes about how so much of societal discrimination, hatred, and exclusion rests on revulsion, abhorrence, or disgust: those gut feelings that people get when they are faced by something unpleasantly different.*  The purity laws were one way of theologically encoding and dealing with this disgust, placing over top of the disgust psychology a narrative about holiness and purification.  We should not fault nor necessarily doubt this narrative for its social-psycholigcal, or even spiritual, power.  But we do have to admit that Jesus seemed to operate in a significantly different way: his zeal for ‘holiness’ turned narratives of purity on their head. No longer is purity something meant to be protected from the contagion of impurity; purity is a contagious gift given by the Spirit of Christ. Disgust has no more sway in the face of such a blessed, gentle, communicative purity.

Returning to Fraser: what he gets right is that Christians seem to have mostly missed this liberating notion of contagious purity, instead building new temples to safeguard a notion of purity that is incommensurate with Christian notions of grace.  And often, because powerful groups of people are so good at finding scapegoats, the safeguarding of this purity has been projected onto less-powerful people and to their most vulnerable aspects – their sexuality.  I think of narratives about holy virgins being those closest to God, of shaming children born ‘illegitimate’, of the whole concept of virginity and societal double-standards used to enforce it. It is a concept about policing and safeguarding a notion of purity that has no place in Christianity, if Jesus’ contagious purity is to be taken seriously.

I do not think Fraser is right to try to eject the concept of the virgin birth of Christ completely from Christianity, nor that his reading of Celsus is correct.  But I agree with him that it matters not one whit whether or not Mary was what our society calls ‘a virgin’ when God’s Spirit, to use the American English phrase , ‘got her pregnant’. ** Artistic and literary depictions of this event, of the ‘Holy Spirit coming on her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her’  must always resort to imagination and metaphor – because, let’s face it, the idea is weird. It might even stir up some disgust or humour or both in us.***  That disgust, and the intentional move the Christian makes towards believing in the miracle it hides, is the beginning of the switch from purity-to-be-safeguarded to contagious purity.

Fraser ends his article as he started: with a dash of polemic, even theatrics:

Mary…a spirited young woman from Galilee, pregnant and unmarried, she sung about how God would pull down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who your parents are. Early Christians answered the likes of Celsus in the wrong way. When they charged Jesus with being illegitimate, they should simply have replied: “So what if he was?”

The last time I checked, Mary wasn’t married to God. And so, if we humans persist in clinging to tired, patriarchal, oppressive concepts of illegitimacy, we must admit: Jesus was illegitimate. He was born to an unwed woman. Mary’s ‘unsuitability’ in the eyes of the world’s myth-makers to give birth to Christ, to bring God among us, is precisely the point.   Perhaps you, like me, maintain a scientifically less-than-plausible belief that Jesus Christ may have resulted not from sex between two first-century Jewish people, but that somehow, inexplicably, God was involved. Even those who believe this have to admit that Jesus was, in fact illegitimate. And that, like everything else in the tangle of new reality that Christ inaugurated, is extremely good news.


* This is sadly very evident in how many discussions about the ‘rightness or wrongness’ of same-sex marriage boil down to aversions to anal sex, whether or not these aversions are admitted or not, and as if this was the only form of sex that a couple of the same sex would choose to engage in.

** Though she does seem to think she’s ‘never been with a man’, if the conversation in Luke chapter 1 is to be believed.  And the story goes on to make a point about her betrothed, Joseph, not having sex with her before the baby was born, in order to scupper rumours about him being the father of the child.

*** Don’t even get me on the subject of jokes involving the word ‘come’ in that bible quote above.


Books of 2015

I read a lot of books for my studies; some of them are fantastically interesting, others are complete drudgery. But by some significant miracle I also find the strength to read books just because I want to!  Here, in no particular order, are the books which I have read just because I wanted to this year. I will update the list if any more squeak in before Friday.


1. Hild – Nicola Griffith

This book should be the next book you read. A novelisation of the early years of the woman who would become St Hilda of Whitby, it is amazing, amazing, amazing.  I hear rumours that it is the first in a trilogy and cannot wait for the other two books.



2. Drysalter – Michael Symmons Roberts

Nourishing, beautiful poems. My two officemates and I would have poetry breaks to read from this book, and from:


3. Corpus – Michael Symmons Roberts

not that kind

4. Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham

Unapologetic. I liked it, and went to see Dunham in conversation with Caitlin Moran at the Southbank Centre, which was a very good time.

a lot like eve

5.  A Lot Like Eve – Joanna Jepson

Facial reconstructive surgery – would Jesus get it? Jepson’s very public controversies over beauty, vocation, and abortion related with generosity and grace. Some quietly profound reflections on the body-shaming that goes on in conservative Christian circles.


6.  Ammonite – Nicola Griffith

An anthropologist on another planet finds her identity compromised – in a good way.


7. The Humbler Creation – Pamela Hansford Johnson

A vicar has an affair of the mind in mid-twentieth century west London before it was posh London. Parish life never seemed so full of despair. The worst thing about this book was that I saw myself in one of the most horrible characters in the book. Ugh.


8. Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin

People been tellin’ me to read Earthsea for ages so finally I did. It was enjoyable.  Mythical origin stories without some of LOTR’s drudgery.  Too much binary gender essentialism for my liking. Good thoughts on identity, addiction, and facing death.

vicar woman

9 .The Vicar Woman – Emma Rendel

The problem with so many graphic novels is this: they are too short. This is a fable about a small island haunted by past violences and the new vicar who tries to find out what has happened and help the community heal – but how much can she do against angry secrets? This graphic novel stopped far too abruptly; I felt I must be missing half the story.

room for love

10. Room for Love – Ilya

This was a fairly well-acclaimed graphic novel which I found pretty underwhelming, to be honest. It was gritty and interesting but hardly anything unheard of. I wanted it to be much better than it was. The art was good, though, if done in a slightly gray-heavy palette.

broken homes

11. Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch

To relate the actual plot of this novel would sound ludicrous unless you’ve read the three preceding it in Ben Aaronovitch’s series about The Folly, aka the Magic Stuff division of the London Metropolitan Police. Suffice it to say, this book takes us – shock! – south of the River to some goings-on in a barely-fictionalised council estate in Elephant and Castle. I did not expect the twist at the end because I am an idiot, and it ripped my heart out.


12. Foxglove Summer – Ben Aaronovitch

I finished ‘Broken Homes’ on the plane back from Italy and was sitting next to my partner, going, ‘No! No! No! No!’ At which point I realised I had a leftover book token, and went straight from Stanstead to Liverpool Street to Brick Lane Bookshop to buy the next in the series, ‘Foxglove Summer’, which I then read within 72 hours. It was that good. There were: carnivorous angry unicorns, potential changelings, a whole lot of river goddess sex, and a Faerie Queen or two.


13. Joseph Andrews – Henry Fielding

Found the Penguin first edition in a secondhand bookshop in Trastevere, Rome. I now wish I had read ‘Pamela’ before to understand all the in-jokes.

early earth

14. An Encyclopaedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg

This was by far my favourite graphic novel of the year. I may have cried. It was beautiful and quite sad.

death holy orders

15. Death in Holy Orders – P. D. James

So I have been developing a theory this year about monasteries, convents, priories, abbeys, etc. – any places run by those who have taken vows in Christian religious orders. They have a disproportionately high number of murder mysteries to (a) the amount of time they might spend reading novels and (b) the amount of time you’d imagine monks and nuns to want to read about grisly murders. But as I get to know more monks and nuns, I think that the demands of living in community would definitely require one to acquire outlets for one’s rage against other community members!

Anyways, between the two or three such places I visited or lived in this year, there was Much P. D. James to be had. ‘Death in Holy Orders’ rang eerily familiar as it was set in a fictional, Norfolk theological college. I definitely did not cheer at the death of the archdeacon.

murder room

16. The Murder Room – P. D. James

Tiny Highgate museum. Perfect murder? Sorry – Dagliesh on the case.

lighthouse james

17. The Lighthouse – P. D. James

Back into the murder-filled English countryside for this one. I became increasingly anxious about Dalgliesh’s and also Kate’s romantic entanglements.

private patient

18. The Private Patient – P. D. James

This was a bit more ‘cozy mystery’ which was annoying as I think it was the last one James ever wrote. But hey, she could really write ‘em.  It’s funny the things you notice when you read several mysteries by the same author in a short space of time: the ways that similar descriptions of people, or things, or events, crop up here and there in different books.

tiny stations

19. Tiny Stations – Dixe Wills

Dixe pays attention to the littlest, most strange, most overlooked things, and in this book, traveled around British Railways to those little-visited railway request stops, gathering historical, literary and philosophical clippings and a healthy dash of chaos on the way.


20. Poems of Protest: William Morris

Poetry and also essays in favour of socialism! The people’s poetry! Inspiring, optimistic, secular hymns.


21. The Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber

One of the reviews I read for this book prior to reading it said something like, ‘I did not so much read this book as let it swallow me whole.’ This was basically my experience. I picked it up from the library not knowing it was about a person going into space to another planet with a relatively recent human settlement to fill the post of ‘Minister to the Indigenous Population – Christian’. Things don’t go as planned. The story was was beautiful, painful, and as much about the protagonists’s marriage and the apocalyptic tensions brewing back on Earth as what happened on the planet Oasis and its devout ‘alien’ beings.


22. Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick De Witt

This book was set in a dreamy landscape that was half English country town, half mittel-European castle and estate. It was dramatic and intimate and at times grotesque, but mostly funny and really quite poignant.


23. Bitch Planet, Vol 1 – Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro

Not so far in the future, women are forced into premodern states of subservience. Those who earn the charge ‘noncompliant’ are shipped to another planet which serves as a correctional facility. It’s also known as Bitch Planet. There are back stories galore, an evil conspiracy, obligatory shower scenes, kickass women all over, a Hunger-Games-esque sports tournament to be trained for, and hopefully in future volumes there will be some prison breaks.

beware pity

24. Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

I have been wanting to read Zweig ever since I saw ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’  – apparently his stories were a source of significant inspiration to Anderson in the making of that film. This book is like being in an emotional Austrian tumble dryer, but that doesn’t stop it from conveying some very deep things about how people, in order to avoid giving offence, sometimes really treat each other like shit.

painted drum

25. The Painted Drum – Louise Erdrich

Where has Louise Erdrich been all my life?


26. Jacklight – Louise Erdrich

No, really, where??

(The Painted Drum was a novel about a woman in small town America encountering her Native American ancestry through an artefact; it was dark and lovely. Jacklight was a poetry collection; less dark, still great.)


27. Berlin – Rory MacLean

My friend Leah likes to give me books she knows I’ll like that she finds me in charity shops. This was one of them. MacLean writes about Berlin through the eyes of people: some fictional, some real, each with her or his own contribution to the fantastic history of this relatively young city.  I spent a large part of November and December 2015 wishing I were in Berlin, and this book didn’t help.


29. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

Two friends recommended this book to me. As I was in the throes of research work, I promptly forgot both recommendations, and picked it up randomly — so I thought — at the end of the year. Now I know why they recommended it. 20 years post global flu pandemic, a Shakespeare company travels around the shores of Lake Michigan performing to the settlements of survivors. Some survivors are violent. Some are not. ‘Survival is insufficient.’


30. Carmilla – J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Via a comment on The Toast I was directed towards the web series ‘Carmilla’, which takes this novella as its inspiration and then goes very far away from the original plot, but it still awesome. So I thought I should read the original. It was just as sorry-not-sorry about its homoerotic subtext (barely subtext, actually, just text) as the web series.


31. Poldark – Winston Graham

Because it was on telly earlier in the year, and I couldn’t wait for the new episodes to show up. I had to know what happened to sexy, sexy Ross who kept making bad, bad life choices. Answer: all the drama. I only finished the first book in the series.

death in venice

32. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann

Read this mostly in Berlin whilst on the U-Bahn and sitting in the Tiergarten. Felt duly, Germanly, hopeless.

daguther smoke

33. Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor

My friend Lorna gave me this book, saying, ‘You’ll love the setting, but you might not be wowed by the plot. Also the protagonist has blue hair!’ She was right.


34. The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling

Rowling tried to write a Thomas Hardy novel, and, as one of my uni professors liked to summarise Thomas Hardy, it was basically, ‘Life sucks and then you die.’ I thought that Rowling’s critique of English village life, still completely stratified along class lines, was chilling. But I thought that the TV adaptation was a better story, if it at times did feel a bit like a grimmer, more English version of the film Chocolat. 


35. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman

In his foreword Gaiman disparages short story collections as vanity publications. This collection did feel a bit like that: Gaiman collecting together lots of bits and publishing it for the Gaiman fandom. But as a member of that fandom, I did not at all mind this collection’s disorganisation, and I imagine that was precisely the point.

loves work

36. Love’s Work – Gillian Rose

My friend Orion had been urging me to read Gillian Rose for some time, and this memoir-cum-philosophical treatise wrecked me. There are few books under 150 pages which make me feel incredibly uneducated because of their breadth and social/philosophical depth; even fewer that do this and also make me need to hole up with a gin afterwards to recover from the heart-wrenching reality of what they talk about.


37. Heresies – Orlando Ricardo Menes

In his poems Menes fuses African and Caribbean folklore with Roman Catholic saints’ folklore. This in itself isn’t particularly heretical, though the vitriol with which he writes may be. He’s a lover of well-chosen, precise words, but not quite as perceptive in his irreverence as he thinks he is.


…So which books should I have read this year, huh? Your turn to recommend them. I may even remember your recommendations.

Odes and antiphons and neither

Oh, Antiphons!

I have liked the Advent ‘O Antiphons’ for longer than I have known what an antiphon is, for longer than I have been in the habit of using them in prayer or hearing them sung. I can’t remember where I stumbled across them — my liturgy-starved unconscious was reaching out towards them for some time, certainly — but when I did, I jumped on that Antiphon Train like it was the Polar Express.

Being no liturgical historian, I am not going to attempt to give you a potted history of the Antiphons here. For those who aren’t familiar with them, the antiphons are special, sentence-long prayers, often sung to plainchant. The are a sort of ‘bookend’ before and after the prayer/singing of the Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke.  Traditionally, there is a special antiphon for each of the seven days before Christmas Eve. (Original Latin in italics with translations below:)

17 December – O Sapientia (Oh Wisdom)
18 December – O Adonaï (Oh God/Lord – a traditional Hebrew way of rendering the not-to-be-spoken name of God: ‘YHWH’)
19 December – O Radix Jesse (Oh Root of Jesse)
20 December – O Clavis David (Oh Key of David)
21 December – O Oriens (Oh Dayspring / eastern star)
22 December – O Rex Gentium (Oh King of the Peoples/Nations)
23 December – O Emmanuel (Oh God is With Us)


When it gets to the 17th of December each year, I think, Now, the antiphon-time is here! Christmas can start now. The weeks before this in Advent for me are always a busy time, full of pleasant festive things but also lots of less-than-pleasat feelings — that is the nature of adulthood, I guess. But, as I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere, Advent is a suitable time for all those Complicated Life Things; it’s a welcoming of the dark uncertainty before the dawn, the start of the Christian New Year, with a heavy emphasis on the tension between hope and doubt.   As I move through Advent, scribbling my own thoughts and poems in journals, the 17th seems to shout: one week to go, and this week is a special week. Often my daily poems take their inspiration from a phrase in the day’s antiphon.

The idea of ‘theopoetics’ is that, in reaching beyond, behind and around words for meaning, poetry is able to convey something real and true and beautiful, and that what it conveys is also the aim of solid theology: theos-logos, God-speak. Crucially, this poetry includes but is not limited to authorised prayers or forms of liturgy, hymn/song lyrics or scriptural texts.

It is in the pursuit of a genuine theopoetics that I write, both with and without explicitly religious themes. For me, this brings together Christian traditions and poetic traditions; to be true to both, it is my responsibility to learn about both, explore both, subvert and pay homage to both.  The antiphons are a perfect example of this process.


Though the composers of the original antiphons in Latin might not have thought of their prayers in terms of the poetic form of an ‘ode’ (either its Ancient Greek or Enlightenment Era Northern European form), the fact is that the antiphons are prayers in praise of and directly addressed to Godself. The praise and direct address is the working definition of an ode. I learnt about more contemporary odes from Pablo Neruda, who is famous for his odes, for using a form which had gone somewhat out of fashion in his day and composing many more odes to ordinary, mundane things than to his muses, his lovers, or his country.

Having the ‘O(h)’ at the beginning helps, though it’s not essential for the poetic form.  Not only is O an easy vowel-sound to sing, whether one is singing plainchant or not, it turns singers and listeners immediately towards the object of the ‘O’. This turning of attention is a central aim of prayer.

Because of the slightly archaic ‘O’, odes can be hard to do well. A stopping and calling to attention is provoked by the first sound of the poem; it sets up expectations that many ode-poems find hard to fulfil. The ‘O’ makes a statement about the vast importance of what follows it.  By using the O Antiphons as my inspiration, I hope that some of their odic goodness resonates with what I write, whether or not I use the ode form itself.


I’ve written about the poetics: now on to the theology! The antiphons, coming as they do in the week just before Christmas, are in anticipation and celebration of the birth of Christ, the God-human, in the messy midst of a suffering, pig-headed, gorgeously weird corner of the known universe. The titles the antiphons employ are titles for Christ, though most of them, in a narrow sense, aren’t really exclusively ‘Christian’.  Not every church — I would guess not even a majority of churches in the world — would be comfortable with a person regularly addressing public prayers to ‘O Eastern Star’ or ‘O Wisdom’.  The preferment of certain ways of speaking to and about God, especially with reference to masculine terms or names — Lord, King, Jesse’s son, son of David — is a sad and shameful reality of much Christian worship.  And yet here, in these ancient prayers, the words used to speak to and about Christ are not just words of man-centric genealogy and governance; they are as intimate as ‘God with Us’, as cosmic and female as ‘Wisdom’, as mysteriously Hebraic as ‘Adonaï’.  Much of contemporary Christological language (that is, the words we use to identify and talk about Jesus Christ) is shown to be dreadfully anaemic and really quite unorthodoxly patriarchal.

But still: we address Christ. That is to say, we address the Trinitarian God. It’s an incredibly presumptuous act, but one we do daily despite this presumption, because God has encouraged us to do it. ‘Draw near with faith’, goes the line in a communion liturgy. To draw near something is to move oneself in that thing’s direction. As a Christian, I believe that God is always already moving in my direction, in creation’s direction: drawing near.

I wrote on my theological college’s Advent Blog about  ‘O Oriens’ specifically, and what it has meant for me this Advent. It has been interesting for me this year to realise that I’ve been writing Advent poems for five years now. I look back and see what each years’ meditations on the same themes say about me and about what was happening in the world — what it seemed God was doing in the world and in me — when they were written. I realise that this is the point of the Christian year and of the recycling of old prayers and sayings (that is, liturgy). They allow us forgetful humans to anchor ourselves in sacred patterns, which we need, but  not to be solely defined by those patterns. If you’ll permit me to extend the metaphor: thus anchored, we are free to float and live creatively, because our anchor always reminds us that it is God whom we are addressing. Not ourselves or our desires or our role models or our enemies or our competitors or our demons, but God.  And not a distant God, but one who was  fucking insane enough to get born and get killed in an unfriendly world.

And so

God’s fucking insanity is wiser than human wisdom. (That’s the Unofficial Erin Translation of 1 Corinthians 1:25, unlikely to ever be on shelves at your nearest Cis- and Hetero-nomative Family Wellspring of Life and Providence Bookstore.*) And because most of the world’s best poets have danced one the edges of sanity, I think that a theopoetics that is content to dance with Christian theological and poetic traditions does so on a pretty well-worn dancefloor. I’m not very graceful or very expert but I’m also trying not to be falsely humble. So watch out, and join in, because Advent/Christmas is the time for people everywhere to remind ourselves to get our theopoetic groove on.


* Not an actual bookstore name that I know of. Heavens preserve us from Christian bookstores, amirite?


Featured image: Uni ND blog



Today begins the third week of Advent, when the church talks a lot about John the Baptizer – ‘the messenger’. To celebrate, here are some of my favourite songs about messengers.

1.  The Darkness – ‘Messenger’.

2. Turisas – ‘The Messenger’

3.  Now I was not really sure which version of ‘Wicked Messenger’ to post. As much as I love the Dylan version, I dearly love both Patti Smith’s and Black Keys’ versions, too.

4.  Oh, the 1970s! How can you not love Jean-Luc Ponty’s ‘Cosmic Messenger’? Here, I will put the whole album up for your enjoyment.

5. Johnny Marr’s ‘The Messenger’ from the album of the same name, both because the song is good but also because the video is gorgeously graphic-novel-y.

6. Coldplay: stealing lyrics from Christian hymns before Mumford & Sons got around to it.

7. M.I.A.’s  THE MESSAGE.  I like to think of M.I.A. as a kind of contemporary John the Baptizer.

8. Let’s go out on a chill note, shall we? Xavier Rudd, ‘Messages’.