Sunday, 18 March 2012

Britney, Booze and the Bible III - Don't You Know That You're Toxic?

I have a crippling fear of twigs.

That's not actually true. For reasons that will soon become apparent, I'm not going to tell you what I actually have a crippling fear of. For the sake of this story, it's twigs. Twigs freak the hey out of me. I don't want to see them, I don't want to touch them, I don't even want to hear the word "twig". I especially don't want you to poke one in my face. Sometimes I wonder why no one else in the world is bothered by twigs. How is it that I, alone out of the whole human race, have been burdened with the knowledge of how terrifyingly, contaminatingly repulsive these things are? How does the rest of the world spin blithely on, oblivious to the twiggy terrors slowly accumulating all around them? How do they accept the presence of twigs in their lives with such seeming equanimity, for all the world behaving as if these things aren't actually toxic, deadly, and bent on our execution?

Sometimes, in my fear-crazed loneliness, when my dreams have been filled with the eldritch tappings of wood on glass, and the darkness outside the window seems to be poised, waiting for me to blink so it can send its clutching oaken fingers smashing through the pane and into my face, in those chill moments I seek solace in a close friend and try to share the truth with them. To confess my phobia and hear words of understanding, agreement and encouragement. And I've found that when I do so, no matter how close the friend, no matter how kind, no matter how understanding, loving, empathetic and loyal they may be, it always ends the same way:

With them poking a bloody twig in my face.

Fun fact: if you tell someone you have a weird phobia, their first instinct is to test it. And when they discover that you are, indeed, mortally afraid of whatever weird thing you are mortally afraid of, their second instinct is to keep poking it in your face so they can laugh at your ridiculous over-reaction. Their third instinct is to tell all your friends, so that everyone can share in the hilarity of poking you in the face. And it will never cease to be funny to them.

So this is why I'm talking about twigs, and not my actual phobias. (I realise that some of you probably know my actual phobias, and are right now contemplating how funny it would be to write them in a comment. I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN. I don't care if you comment anonymously. I'll find you and I'll make you eat your keyboard. Without ketchup.)

At least I'm not terrified of chairs, like poor Britney.

Anyway, you might be wondering what a fear of twigs has to do with Britney, booze and the Bible, for yes, that is where we are today. This is Britney, Booze and the Bible Part Three, no less. In part one we looked at some of the negative things the Bible has to say about booze. If you are new to this series, part one had the most nudity, incest and murder, and is probably therefore the most fun to read. Part two looked at some of the positive things the Bible says about booze, which was generally a little less colourful, though there were some slightly raunchy bits. What, you ask, is there left to discuss in part three? Well, let me answer that with a question. Imagine for a moment that you've just moved into an amazing enchanted castle. There are talking candlesticks, dancing tea-cups - a culinary cabaret, in fact, that is prepared and served with flair - and you are allowed to go anywhere, do anything - the whole place is at your disposal. There are friendly singing wardrobes full of sumptuous ball gowns (or nice tweed suits, if ball gowns are not your thing), and you can basically live like a Princess. Or a Prince. There is only one teeny tiny restriction: The west wing is out of bounds.


Where do you want to go?

Let me ask you another. You are in paradise. This is not just a flying visit on some fortnight's tropical holiday - you've just been given paradise to live in. It's perfect - completely unspoilt by ugly 60s architecture, pylons, elevator music, Simon Cowell, death or disease. You don't have to work behind a desk all week for a stupid or mean boss, you have no predators, the lions and tigers are all friendly, food just grows on trees - even chocolate, and it's no longer bad for you - the climate is so good you don't even need to wear clothes, and it's all yours to do with as you will. You are in charge. Oh, and the love of your life is right there with you. No catches, no small print, no contractual obligations - except one. Everything in the whole world is yours, except for the fruit of one particular tree. Out of the billions of trees around, precisely one is forbidden.

Let it sink in... and now:

What do you want to eat?

Or back where we started: You're holding a twig. Your best friend has just told you he has a mortal fear of twigs. His face is about a twig's length away from you. He looks unsuspecting. What do you want to do?

Be honest. Who hasn't just mentally poked me in the face with a twig, grabbed the forbidden fruit off the tree and run into the west wing?

It's human nature, right?

Human nature... is broken.

What girl can resist the lure of a floating glowing magical rose?

If you are still with me, be warned: things are going to get ugly. The Bible has some controversial stuff to say about human nature. Way more controversial than all the tired rumblings about women bishops, gay marriage, Catholic condoms, evolution, and whether or not reading Harry Potter will turn your children into satanists. What the Bible says about the heart is so counter-cultural that there should be cries of outrage on the front page of every newspaper. I've never seen it on the front page of a newspaper. I've never seen it anywhere in any newspaper. This could be because I never actually read the newspaper. But I think it is because no one in their right mind would print it. So I present a challenge: if you run a newspaper, here's tomorrow's headline for you:

"Human heart is evil", says Bible.

Are you a human? Do you have a heart? The Bible says it's evil. Your heart, my heart, Britney's heart, Mother Theresa's heart... evil, evil, evil, evil.

If you are normal, your reaction to that is probably along the lines of "Tosh, what nonsense! Evil? My heart? Damn your eyes for your impudence, by jove!" The Bible's clearly wrong - our heart tells us that. Of course, if the Bible's right, that's exactly what our heart would tell us...

Anyhoo, to flesh out our front page story, here's a quick summary of the case for the prosecution, in the form of a rapid whizz through Bible history, from Genesis to Mark.

It's as if she knew that one day I'd want to write a blog post in which I
tenuously linked her with the whole Garden Of Eden serpent thing.

Adam and Eve we already covered with the whole forbidden-fruit-in-paradise question, so let's skip on a few generations. We probably remember the story of Noah's Ark from Sunday School, or from watching Evan Almighty, or from that song that goes "Two by two by two by two by two by two by two" etc*. Here's God's verdict on mankind shortly before the flood:

"The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually". (Genesis 6:5)

So God gets Noah to build an ark, the flood happens, there's a rainbow, and everything is spiffing and jolly again, right? Wrong. Here's God's verdict on mankind shortly after the flood:

“I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth." (Genesis 8:21)

Not "The problem is fixed, so I don't need to flood the world anymore." Man's heart hasn't changed. The thing that has changed is that God has made a promise. The human heart is still evil.

Moving on a few hundred years in Bible history, to God's chosen people, Israel. Have you ever found yourself cycling through Stamford Hill, and seen all the Hasidic Jews out a-walking? (If so, was there a little part of you that wanted to join them, dress up like them and start singing Fiddler On The Roof? No? Just me?) Well, have you ever wondered why they have tassels dangling from their clothes? Those things are called tzitzits, which is my new favourite word of all time. According to the Bible, they are there as a reminder:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after." (Numbers 15:37-39)

Every time they get dressed, every time they get a tassel caught in a revolving door or a toaster or the office photocopier, every time some idiot on a pink Brompton cycles past and starts singing "If I were a rich man", they are being reminded that following their heart is going to lead to what God rather emotively calls whoredom.

Brit's Tzitzits.
(By the way, don't try googling for "Britney tassels")

On another few generations, and we get to the prophet Jeremiah. Has the situation improved? No. Here's what Jeremiah had to say:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Not a terribly encouraging diagnosis, but let's keep going. Final stop - whizz forward to around 30AD, and here's what Jesus has to say:

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

If this isn't bleak enough, let me just add that, in Jewish culture, the heart wasn't just the warm squishy bit that houses our emotions. It was the seat of intelligence - the place from which we make decisions. Heart, mind, soul, our inner voice, our id, however you want to define it... according to the Bible, you can not trust it.

"I can't trust it? Really? You mean its advice to stand in the middle of
the road, in my underwear, in the rain, might not have been sound?"

When I first learnt this, I freaked out, and instantly tied myself in knots. You know that thing where someone says "Everything I say is a lie", and then your head explodes as you try to work out whether they are telling the truth or not?*** Like that. If my heart is deceitful above all things, then how can I ever make a decision? An abyss of uncertainty opened up beneath my feet. But the heart doesn't lie all the time. The Bible is also full of examples of people acting out a heart desire to do good things. In the course of writing this post, I read through about four hundred references to the heart in the Bible... in some cases, the heart inclines in the right direction. In some cases it inclines in the wrong direction. And in some cases God instructs his people to educate their hearts, to guard them, to steer them in the right direction. I think the Bible's teaching can be summarised like this: the heart is an unruly child - capable of good things, but if you leave it to its own devices, you will be in a pickle.

Can you see why I said this should be the mother of all controversies? Can you see the monumental collision between our culture and the Bible here? From the day we are born, we are being taught to follow our hearts... it is an all-pervasive message. Just for the fun of it, let me share a small selection of my favourite follow-your-heart things:

In pop music:

Roxette - Listen To Your Heart - I love love love this song.
Reba McEntire - The Heart Won't Lie - the queen of country music tells it like it isn't.
Britney - Heart - from the good ol' days when Britney wore more clothes and sang about innocent things like high-school romances and how people needed to hit her baby one more time, which, come to think of it, doesn't sound all that wise. Anyway, in this song she claims that her heart will always be her friend. The Bible, of course, claims that we're often at war with our hearts.
Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye - Stop, Look And Listen (To Your Heart) - funky rhythms, a nice key change, heretical lyrics - this song has it all.

There are millions more, of course.

In books:

Paulo Coelho - The Alchemist
Apparently Russell Crowe said this: "When I'm on the set with young actors and sometimes you meet people in life who you feel they are a little confused and they want to be re-centered, there are two books that I always recommend. One of them is Siddhartha, and the other is The Alchemist."
I don't really want to pick a fight with Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius (though I already picked a fight with Marcus Aurelius), but if you want to be re-centered, don't go to him for reading advice. The Alchemist is a gorgeous, gorgeous fable, and I really enjoyed it, but it's based on the premise that your heart is a truthful, wise thing that will lead you right if you just listen to it closely enough. Which is just guff, according to the Bible.

In children's songs:

Thumbelina - Follow Your Heart - "You are sure to do impossible things, if you follow your heart". Um, no, because impossible things are impossible to do, no matter how much bad advice you listen to...

But here's my absolute favourite, because I listened to it as a child, and I've only met (so far) one other person who has ever heard this... For some inexplicable reason, someone managed to crowbar this song into a version of Beatrix Potter's Tale Of The Flopsy Bunnies (If I got this embedding thing right then the YouTube clip should be queued up for the song. If not you'll need to skip ahead to 2:11... or just listen to the whole fabulous thing. We don't care, we don't care, we don't care a fig...)

Well, by now you are probably giving serious consideration to grabbing yourselves a twig and poking me in the face with it, so I won't bother listing all the movies that in some way base their premise on the innate goodness of the human heart. Instead, as an exercise to the reader, I challenge you to keep an eye out, the next time you watch something with the kids, to see how much of what is being fed to them is based on this assumption. If you don't agree with the Bible, of course, then this needn't trouble you, except to say that it doesn't leave much room for the argument that this country is basically Christian. Orthodox Christian belief and the message our culture teaches our kids are two fundamentally opposed things. Pick a side.

I don't know why I'm arguing that point, since I don't actually have any kids. Maybe because I've been up for twenty hours and I'm starting to hallucinate. So let's draw this to a close.

What does all this have to do with booze?
I used to drink, like many, to lose my inhibitions.

Anyone who has seen a horror movie will tell you that you do not open a mysterious looking door until you know for a fact that there is nothing nasty waiting to come out.

If the Bible is right about the human heart - and I believe it is - then there are some doors I think are best left closed.

The End.

*I met Joseph Horovitz** once. He seemed like a very lovely man. He said "Hi, I'm Joseph Horowitz." I said "Ah yes! Two by two by two by two by two by two by two!" Sadly we did not become the best of friends.

** An important and serious composer of many things, only one of which is Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, featuring the song that goes "Two by two by two by two by two by two by two..."

*** Captain Kirk frequently used this technique to destroy enemy robots. I was always a little sceptical. I do not believe this method would have stopped The Terminator.


  1. I see what you mean about googling Britney's tassels. Presumably you told us all not to do that knowing full well that we'd then want to do it, having corrupt hearts. How sneaky of you. Even I went and did it, and I am different from everybody else in that my heart is not evil. It says so in the Bible. "Except Mr R Nightingale", it says, in very very small print after an asterisk. I, too, have met Joseph Horovitz. That's probably because I was with you at the time. That was awesome, but not quite as awesome as chatting to Julia McKenzie. I'm sure her heart isn't evil either...ah, yes, there we go. Another asterisk. "And Julia McKenzie."

    1. You were indeed with me at the great meeting of the great Joseph Horovitz, yes. And the lovely Julia McKenzie. Good times. Of course, if her heart was entirely right, she'd have instantly recognised our true potential and offered to commission, produce and star in a whole string of our shows. As I recall, she just looked a bit scared of us and left rather quickly.

      As for your Bible, I think you have the same translation as a great many other people. I used to have it too. But if you check the Greek, or any reputable version, you'll find, I'm afraid, that the "except" is actually an "including"...

  2. PS Before I was allowed to publish that comment, I was asked to prove I was not a robot. (Seriously.) I considered asking myself to prove that I was lying, but decided that would just be silly. So I plumped for singing "I am Not a Robot" to the computer instead.

  3. You should have taken the opportunity to say you had a fear of cheese. Silly boy.