Elpee! Elpee! Elpee!

First, I am sorry it has taken so long to recover (if we have recovered!) from moving house; nevertheless the title above is not a whoop of celebration but clue to a concealed theme in this poem:

Elpee! Elpee! Elpee! the starlings cry
wheeling home in evening sky,
the folding flock outspread and high
seems beautiful and black.

Beauty yes, and black below,
but could we fly, then we would know
the colours that the sky can throw
on wings that throw them back.

And could we see with starling’s eye
the beauty of the fading sky
fall on each feather, wing and eye,
then would we learn, and would we sing,
Elpee! Elpee! Elpee!
and would we wheel and would we wing
the cosmic dance, the wheeling ring,
of birth and death and everything,
nor know the reason why?

A distant longing draws the flock
from city roof-tops where the clock
chimes evening hours.
A strong force binding mate to mate,
which narrows wider gaps;
a wary, weaker sense prevents,
when bird flies close to bird,
the flock’s collapse.

Each fluttering bird a wheeling heart –
a fundamental part – in one great family,
Elpee! Elpee! Elpee!

Sadly I can explain none of this today as I am sat at a fading computer far from home unable to recharge it. I will just say this, it is a picture which is better seen from another direction entirely: eddies in the stream (to follow).

The Debate Of The Gaps

Can science explain faith? Perhaps, but ‘explaining’ must not be misinterpreted as ‘explaining away’. In the debate between science and religion the debaters are often separated into those discussing how we exist and those discussing why. Sometimes the religious argument is described as plugging holes that science has not yet explained – a retreating ‘God of the gaps’, but this is reversible. There are gaps on both sides. We can too easily treat the discussion as ‘either/or’.

There is a move away from the ‘God of the gaps’ to an equally erroneous ‘science of the gaps’ such as the apparent counter to Big Bang Creation theology by multiverse theories which avoid a single creation moment by postulating an infinite supply of them; or the infinite-finite source of Hartle-Hawking space which does the same by making the creation moment unattainable. It is easy to point out that neither answer the ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ question, but nor does religion. Both skate round an unknown centre.

There is neither a God of the gaps nor a science of the gaps. They are two views of the same whole.

Even if we could remove the need for God it would not necessarily remove our desire for Him. Lovers do not need each other, they want each other. Richard Leonard touches on this in ‘What Are We Doing on Earth for Christ’s Sake?’, describing a friend struggling with some religious work or duty suddenly feeling the peace of knowing God did not need him but simply loved him. If he died or did not finish, someone else could do it. Although God loved him doing it He did not need him.

Removing the need does not remove the love or the lover.

The Resurrection

Many years ago I heard of a man who found his faith from reading the Book of Numbers – you might think this unlikely. So did I, until one day I was given an insight into what might have caused his epiphany.

Numbers is a bureaucrat’s delight: census results, rules, instructions and lists of squabbles, infringements and penalties. Plus a few slipped in joke-over-a-pint-extras like Balaam and his talking ass. But in all this it conveys a sense of individuals, families and groups doing the best they can and often getting it wrong. It lists who went where and who did what. There is something very ordinary about it, and a sense that they were, like me, making their own personal journey. Not always getting it right – not even Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

In a similar way I came to understand the resurrection through an account in which the event itself is hardly mentioned. Mark, who among other things was Peter’s interpreter in Rome, wrote an action packed account of Jesus’ ministry and execution about thirty years after it happened, but with very little about the resurrection.

According to Paul, Jesus’ resurrection and later appearances were witnessed by over 500 people. Quite a few were named. Most were still living when Mark wrote his gospel, and still living when John’s writings were put together at the close of the century. Long before John’s account the number of children, grand-children, friends and acquaintances of first-hand witnesses would have been in the thousands, assuming only moderate family sizes and sharing the news. Where are the ones saying, ‘ My grandfather/boss/mother etc. was there and it didn’t happen?’

There were some. Matthew’s account of the ascension says some doubted, but nevertheless the consensus confirming it was overwhelming. In spite of that, knowledge of Jesus’ earlier life and ministry would have been limited outside Palestine. Mark’s account, written in the mid-first century, was addressed to Christians in Rome who, however convinced they were by the resurrection, would have known little of what lead up to it.

Its opening words read like a title: The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Some manuscripts, including two of the most respected, end at the eighth verse of chapter sixteen with the empty tomb. This is usually regarded as its last verse. Others have marginal comments pointing out that earlier Greek copies ended there, and some indicate the extra text as spurious. Verses from other manuscripts with extra endings are included in most bibles. They read differently to the rest of Mark and seem to be later additions. In any event these extra endings, even the so-called ‘longer ending’, are very short.

It is unlikely the Gospel was let unfinished, or that an ending was lost before it was copied (the end of a scroll is harder to come adrift than that of a book). The author appears to have stopped here deliberately, feeling no need to add something already well known to his readers. The extra endings are almost certainly later additions, not by the author and not in his style, and do not fit with his stated intention in his title of presenting an account of the beginning.

People in Rome, like those in the Book of Numbers, were much like you and me but something, perhaps the large number of astonished eye-witnesses, convinced them. For me Mark’s Gospel, filling that desire for more background and yet needing no further evidence of the resurrection is strong evidence in itself.