Friday, 14 March 2008

Unholy alliances

Last weekend Alison and I went to see There Must be Blood, the Oscar-winning film dominated by Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a performance of such conviction that his character Daniel Plainview seems more real than some living people I know. I enjoyed it, although it’s somewhat depressing, and rather long. In being centred on California and focused on the very unhealthy interaction of oil with a bizarre charismatism it is rather too American for most Brits. But it made for interesting viewing and there is some interesting religious symbolism.

I mentioned a vaguely parallel instance in my classes a few weeks ago. To understand it, you need to be aware that any traveller in Britain knows that he or she is in Wales when they see place names such as Llandovery, Llandudno and Llanelli. A llan was a clearing in the woods and was traditionally named after a saint or holy person; so we get Llansteffan after St Stephen or Llandeilo after St Teilo. Now the history of the modern Middle East is often dated to the moment when, almost exactly a hundred years ago, William Knox D’Arcy found oil at Masjid-i-Sulaiman in Iran. He subsequently became the founder of what is now British Petroleum and achieved a dubious immortality near Swansea when in the 1920s BP was setting up a new refinery in the area; casting about for a name they created Llandarcy. The oil finder was thus beatified.

Now let me indulge in a segue to bring us into Passion week. One very much overlooked aspect of the whole sorry business of the last week is the nature of the opposition to Jesus. The Jewish writer Josephus helps by claiming that, at one Passover alone, the number of animal sacrifices offered at the Temple was 256,500. Let us assume that here, as elsewhere, he exaggerates and that in Jesus day the figure was a mere hundred thousand lambs. Using modern day values, let’s say each sacrifice cost $100 or £50. So it is quite probable that over three or four days transactions of the equivalent of many millions of dollars were conducted in Jerusalem. My feeling (and remember I have lived in this part of the world) is that this was a very ‘nice little earner’ for all concerned. During the Lebanese civil war the bitterest of enemies collaborated when it came to hashish growing and transportation; I am pretty certain the same applied here. There would have been a cut for the Roman leadership, a cut for the military and very healthy backhanders for priests and administrators. Is it any wonder when Jesus of Nazareth threatened to undermine the entire Temple system that the bitterest of enemies collaborated to destroy him? Money can bring out the worst in people; religious enthusiasm can do the same. But marry the two together and you have something spectacularly appalling.

Perhaps we should pray that God should keep us and our churches poor.

Have a good week,