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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Jewish Girls Are Not The Only ‘Princesses’

My Facebook friends are all of a flutter about a ‘sermon’ delivered by novelist, Jeanette Winterson during the Manchester Literature Festival.

Winterson is a marvellously strong writer and packs a massive punch. But this time she’s hit way to hard for me.

Jeanette.Winterson.03She used her speech, co-commissioned by the MFL and Manchester Cathedral - and delivered AT the Cathedral  - to mouth the customary platitudes about empty materialism, the economic crisis and the need for society to re-think its values.

However during her speech,  The Manchester Sermon 2010: The Temptation of Jesus - she exposed first  her evangelical upbringing by using a snide anti-Jewish reference to ‘Jewish princesses’ and then revealed an inherently coarse nature by using the vulgar language of hate. This mark you, in a premier place of worship, even as she lectured congregants on the origins of the word ‘corruption’.

As I am now in Israel I was unable to attend this year’s festival and have read Winterson’s piece via the Web: (

But I have more news for her devotees. Much of her 'sermon’ was a lightly disguised reworking of a pre-Christmas article she wrote for The Times in December 2008 when she aligned the State of Israel with  the Taleban and al-Qaeda. I am no more impressed now than I was earlier that same year when I attended a MLF evening she addressed at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in Cheshire and found her arrogant and disdainful.

It must have been only a couple of months later that she wrote The Times article, saying inter alia:

“… We have created a society without values that believes in nothing. Reviving the god of the Philistines - Baal, the flesh-eater - human dignity has been eaten away by the relentless drive to make money at any cost and to spend money at any cost; especially money you don't have.

“So here we are, going shopping again at Christmas, millions out of a job, millions more utterly miserable and defeated by this experiment at life otherwise known as Nothing. We laugh at the primitive religious idea of human sacrifice - but whatever fancy words and theories you want to play with to describe this present spectacular collapse of global capitalism, it is human sacrifice on a scale undreamt of at the altars of idols.

“The Roman world at the time of Christ's birth would have been recognisable to us. The empire allowed religious expression of any kind - from the monotheism of the Jews to the temple prostitutes of the old gods. Religion was neither enforced nor persecuted, though zealotry that threatened the political status quo was ruthlessly cut down. Caesar, like most top-dog politicians and rulers, viewed himself as a god, but in spite of that, and despite the myriad religious colourings of the Roman world, the empire was secular in its pursuits and in its purpose. Money and power were its dominant values.

“Against that, of course, and standing out from all other religions, was the Jewish faith, which has always split into militancy and mysticism (Jesus repudiating militancy, an inconvenient fact quickly buried as Christianity developed).

“At the time of the birth of Christ, Jewish mysticism was hidden and self-protecting, while Jewish militancy was looking for a fight - just where was the longed-for Messiah who would overthrow the rulers from Rome? Mainstream Judaism – the Scribes and Pharisees - had reached an accommodation with its Roman rulers; the observation of ritual, but with no genuine spiritual content - because genuine spiritual content always challenges political expediency. That is pretty much the place occupied by all the polite religions now, and it seems better to us than the fanaticism of suicide bombers and gunmen. If we have to have religion at all, it had better be devoted to soup kitchens and good works.

“But this is to duck the central problem - the kingdom of this world, as the Bible puts it so beautifully, can be balanced only by the kingdom of God. This is not literal; it is symbolic. It is how the inner life checks the outward show. It is how conscience bridles impulse, it means recognising that there is much more to human life than to worship beneath the twin towers of money and power.

“The job of religion is to keep this in our sights. I don't care if it's all a construct. I don't need to believe in a sky-god or any god at all in the described sense. The word “mystery” is at the heart of all religions because we cannot be literal-minded about belief. The moment that belief becomes literal-minded it reduces itself to fundamentalist madness. Then, all hope of its balancing function is lost in the craziness of its own unbalanced mind.

“The different descriptions of the birth of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke should not turn the event into a contradiction nor into a mind-game for scholars to solve. The angel, the dreams, the shepherds, the three magi, all the elements that children knot together so happily in their nativity plays point to the inclusivity of the birth event, and the plain fact that nothing that is a mystery in the contemplative sense can have only one version.

“At the moment when the empty secularism of the crumbling Roman Empire found no answer in the paralysis of the existing religious attitude, the birth story is the longed-for miracle - not because a militant avenger has appeared, nor a divine avatar, but because a baby - new life - will ask us to understand everything differently. That's a story worth reading.

Sorry, folks. When Winterson spoke at the cathedral, she treated you to stale Christmas turkey - two-years old.  Indeed, much of the above I find distinctly unpalatable and unworthy of an educated woman writing for The Times.

I think hard-pressed Mancunians should be advised how their precious Council Tax is being used and that next year The Chief Rabbi should be invited to deliver the sermon.

After all, it’s part of his job – he’s good at it - and he’s not known to swear vilely in places of worship.



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