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Friday
Jun152012

Truth and Falsehoods

It must have happened while I was accidentally locked in the garage. I was in there for a good half hour, no phone, absolutely out of the loop and incommunicado. There were no books, no wi-fi, only the ceaseless, repetitive twiddling of my thumbs and the sound of my own whimpering which interested the neighbour's Doberman who could not free me, try as he might, by turning the locked doorknob with his teeth.

Locked in the garage - that would be the most plausible reason why I missed a significant world event. And the fact that I missed it was evident as I read the Cheerios box at breakfast. “All General Mills Cereals Are Made From 100 percent Whole Grain,” the box shouted, each word punctuated with a capital. And then: “7 of 10 Canadians Report Not Getting Enough Whole Grain.” Holy Shit to High God. That would be 22.7 million Canadians reporting they are not getting enough Whole Grain. Truthfully it's humbling to learn that so many Canadians a) know what Whole Grains are, b) feel, existentially in their heart that they aren't getting enough, and c) are reporting it.

More than 3 servings

When did they all report this? To whom? How? Because I completely missed this mass reporting event. Was it on the Long Form Census? Was it via those automated robocall surveys we've been hearing about? I simply must have been in the garage and missed the robocall because that is a load of people reporting one thing, all at once. I'm pretty sure, if I had been breathing and sober, that I would have heard about the widespread deficiency of Whole Grain and the mass reporting of it. But I didn't.

I took a gander at the fine print on the Cheerios package. Sure enough there is a little asterisk that points to miniscule text at the bottom of the box. We hauled out the magnifying glass to parse it: “69 percent reported that they ate less than three servings of whole grains on the previous day. (Source - Ipsos Reid Canada 2004).” So that was the qualifier. While I was in the garage 23 million others were confessing to the robo-caller that they'd had less than 3 servings of Whole Grain the day before. Of course this also meant that 10 million Canadians had more than three servings of Whole Grain the day before. Wow. I am still trying to digest all this.

With this data I scarfed down more than 3 servings of Whole Grain and, frankly, felt a bit uncomfortable as I then waddled to my studio/office and plonked in front of the computer. There was by now a swelling up of uneasiness with the statistical message that came with my Cheerios. It felt like everyone else had been taken up in something akin to The Rapture but I'd missed out. So I scanned the public domain for more on Whole Grain, on Ipsos Reid, on the Long Form Census and Robo-calls. Let me tell you that search was pretty tiring and my head was sore by the end of it.

I was reminded of anHarlequin 14x9 w/c essay by Princeton's Harry G Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy On Bullshit. “Why is there so much bullshit?” Frankfurt asks. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” He concludes the problem is epistemological. “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.”

Things were getting a bit depressing by now. And the day was still young. But then, opening my email I had an almost unbelievable stroke of good fortune that completely swung my bloated being into positive emotional territory. The email was from a Mr. Micahel Akunga, a public servant in Sierra Leone. He disclosed privately to me, and to me alone, that certain third parties in the United States and Canada owed him a lot of money. But that “they can not transfer the funds to any bank account outside America continent due to their new company policy [sic].”

Mr. Akunga wondered if I would kindly “assist in receiving the funds and forward to me.” He offered to pay me 12 percent of the not inconsiderable loot owed to him. I did the math and despite the time lag between us, we had a flurry of quite amicable emails to and fro and I was bursting with pride as I negotiated the fee to 15 percent and sent him all my personal banking information. I expect a very, very tidy sum, about $808,000.00 to be in my possession late next week. I know between now and then I'll have a hard time resisting the temptation to check my accounts. But once the transaction goes through it will be great to be able to count all those zeroes! I am feeling very good about this excellent mojo.

My labour belongs to me

So it has been one of those halcion days, historic in a way, where things are simply golden, and life, children, is grand, and rich and comely. Because I next stumbled on a website that explained how I need not pay income tax on the 800-large coming from Mr. Akunga. It seems (I did not know this) that income tax is voluntary and you don't have to pay it. This is because I am a natural person. I own myself. And by virtue of self-ownership, my labour belongs to me; therefore that which is the product of my labour belongs to me and me alone, and not the government. Indeed, if any other man owns my labour, then I am a slave. The logic here is shockingly simple. Income tax assumes that the government owns a part of my labour. But this is a violation of my natural personhood and therefore I need pay no tax.

Now, children, how cool is that?

We are gleaming by now though still a bit Whole Grained. And we'll sleep like a baby this night, after a day of such marvel. And then: the Crowning Glory! At the local health food outlet where I cycled this afternoon I discovered an amazing powder that I just mix with water before bed. It will purge the bloat and also melt away any accumulated stomach fat while I sleep! Apparently this miracle powder is also effective for the treatment of scurvy, Chagas Disease, hanta virus, Norovirus, Jabberwalk and post nasal drip.

I am so happy I could flap my arms and fly.

You think I'm bullshitting.

But what was that just sped past the twinkle in your eye with such alacrity?

(Top: The Heist 12 x 9 watercfolours)

 

 

Friday
Jun082012

A Friend Indeed

 

I was having trouble becoming a Facebook friend with Hosni Mubarak. And then just as I sorted that out an email arrived from Facebook inviting me to become friends with myself.

 

These developments have left me shaken.

 

Yes, the act of reaching out to Hosni Mubarak in Facebook friendship would be a sympathy thing, motivated by the assumption he needs, just now, all the friends he can muster. After all, the 84-year-old former Egyptian president is one week into a life sentence in a Cairo prison for complicity in the deaths of 850 people. Though he survived six assassination attempts in his lifetime, he is apparently depressed, bed-ridden and in need of oxygen, so it appears any new friendships, not to mention the life sentence itself, may be short-lived.


Emergency friend


You maybe noticed I'm new to Facebook and have been "friending up" recently. So it was a shock to learn that I'm not allowed to befriend everyone. You don't have the option of befriending Hosni Mubarak on Facebook, for example, you can only “Like” him. You'd think, given the gravity of his situation, it would be more comforting to him if we could be a friend, especially now in his hour of need, incarcerated, stripped of some $35-billion in assets and not breathing well: gurney-man walking. If this isn't a classic case of someone needing a friend I don't know what is. Facebook should make an allowance here, to provide emergency friending in such eventualities. Because to be called “Friend” seems so superior to being merely "Liked" since, let's face it, people are always more inclined to say nice things about you when you're gone.

 

Besides, it's really nothing to "Like" someone, especially on Facebook. In Hosni Mubarak's case, more than 5,000 people already "Like" his Facebook page. Which, when you think about it, given that he presided for almost 30 years over a country of 85 million people, isn't absolutely stunning evidence of his overwhelming popularity.

 

Is it just me, or do you too find that Facebook stretches the boundaries of the traditional meaning of friendship? What is a friend, really? And what vulnerabilities do we disclose when we befriend another? Facebook, in a way, reveals a level of impermanence that underpins all our human interactions. They are fun for awhile. But then they are gone. Incidentally, when Facebook learns that a member has died, it puts that person’s account in a memorialized state, like Lucian Freud.

 

The Way Home (12 x 9 w/c)So, being new to Facebook and full of wonder, I'm curious: what happens if, after I "Like" Hosni Mubarak, things go South between us? Maybe because he stood by while peaceful agitators for a more 'democratic' Egypt were killed in Tahrir Square, I can't forgive him. And if I can't forgive him, surely then I'd have to reconsider how much I really "Like" him.

 

Here's where the Facebook fantasy world clashes with the real world. Consider how much, or little, is being asked of us when we "Like" someone on Facebook. Facebook even gives me the option to "Unlike" Hosni Mubarak if I change my mind about him - there is no consequence of my hitting the "Unlike" button, other than the link between myself and Hosni Mubarak is digitally severed. Given that there was no real link between us to start with, nothing is lost. The consequences of loss are so vastly different on Facebook than in real life. Hosni Mubarak is not affected by the loss of my "Like" for him, nor am I. This is where Facebook reveals a deep flaw. If there is nothing to be gained by our liking of someone, then why bother? And if nothing is lost by the removal of our "Like" for them, then our like means nothing. What if, theoretically, this transitory relationship between me and Hosni Mubarak truly devolved and I came to hate him? I've looked but cannot find a "Hate" button on Facebook. It seems we can have all the Facebook friends who are prepared to put up with us, but we can have no official Facebook foes. 


More discerning


We can report though, that like a Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4, our little Facebook account has gone from zero to 60 friends in no time. True, the "friending-up" process feels a bit like glad-handing around the room at cocktail hour. But my Facebook friends are you.

 

And here is what happened: very recently as an experiment I sent a Facebook friend request to everyone in my email contacts. This included everyone I'd ever had vicarious email contact with, some 850 friend requests went out. Facebook immediately disciplined me for asking people who barely know me to be my friend, suggesting I need to be more discerning about who I hang out with. So if you are among those who received a friend request from me and are wondering who the hell I am, all I can say is – don't worry about it, I am Your Friend even if I cannot be Hosni Mubarak's friend.

 

But then another strange thing happened. In the midst of sorting out whether I could, should, or would "Like" Hosni Mubarak I received an email from Facebook reminding me that I should become a Friend with myself. I guess my own email address was tangled up among the 850 in my contacts list.

 

This really got me going. What does it mean to be one's own friend? Does it mean simply that, despite all one's failings you can still cut yourself some slack? That I should, after a realistic self-appraisal, conclude I am worth getting to know better? Dare I risk dislocating my shoulder with self-congratulatory pats on the back? Once I have progressed to being a friend to myself, should I - dare I contemplate it - get to know myself more intimately? No doubt there are some among us who have no friends but ourselves, and for all of us, but especially for them, I found there is a 5-step Program to help us all be our own best friends.

 

Finally, it turns out that with all this Facebooking frenzy, angst, learning and self-doubt, that I have been blessed with the discovery of some new friends I didn't know I had. Thanks are due to all of you who have so far taken up the invitation to be my friend. As I survey the fertile territory of my Friendships I feel all the rich concreteness of your human company, even without Hosni. I hope you feel the same way too.

 

UPDATE June 19 - Hosni Mubarak reportedly unwell: Hosni Mubarak's 'health crisis'

 

UPDATE  March 2017 - Mubarak released: Egyptian prosecutor orders release NYT

 

(Top Image: First Light 20 x 24 acrylic)

 

Tuesday
Jun052012

Stay Awesome Foeva

The plate number on my old Ford pick-up is BB7666 which is another way of saying Lucky Devil.

We feel our devilish luck most intensely when savouring a glorious sunset, when our chalice is full to the brim, or when life brings a feeling of plain happiness for no good reason. We want such moments to roll on and on like an extended trip to Coney Island. Other times, like the sniff of fart in a perfume factory, niggling ontological problems persist. George Borrow summed it nicely in his novel Lavengro (1851) where a young protagonist sits contemplatively with his Gypsy friend to take in the vista of the sunset:

"Life is sweet, brother."

"Do you think so?"

"Think so! - There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"

"I would wish to die - "

"You talk like a gorgio - which is the same as talking like a fool - were you a Rommany Chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed! - A Rommany Chal would wish to live for ever!"

"In sickness, Jasper?"

"There's the sun and stars, brother."

"In blindness, Jasper?"

"There's the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever.”

For ever

Let's scrutinize for ever. The notion of immortality has been treated in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Stoker's Dracula, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, etc. And there's been a spate of recent non-fiction on the topic: The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, by John Gray, Jonathan Weiner’s Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality and, lately, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave.

Gray and Weiner deal mostly with scientific preoccupation and promise, the cryogenicists and such who would preserve or resurrect our bodies, minds and souls, post mortem. Cave, reviewers say, is more sweeping, suggesting that civilizations have been under the sway of various "immortality narratives" and that these stories have driven cultures forward.

Party-pooper

But the idea of an immortal soul, imprisoned in the body, where incarnation is but a speedbump enroute to our ultimate destiny, isn't Platonism's finest moment. This is the party-pooper Plato, the life-hating and life-fearing Plato, the Plato who thinks in terms of postmortem rewards or punishments.

What if we, Lucky Devils, had no need for such post-terrestrial nonsense? What if the wind on the heath is enough? Of course we might then, like gypsy Jasper, wish to live for ever. But seriously, what if we removed the forever myth? What if we need nothing beyond the satisfaction, to be had right now, of feeling one’s earthly actuality indestructibly, definitively, appropriated in the Great Participation?

Vortex 12 x 9 w/c

The late Christopher Hitchens, declared atheist, devastating rebuttalist, would have dismissed such an invitation as delusion. He would say you must discard forever and dismantle the Great Participation, because you don't need a cruel, vengeful and unproven God to validate a non-existent afterlife. Examining his arguments though, we see that Hitchens' beef is mostly with organized religion. And his problem with God is little more than a complaint about entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Hitchens thought it absurd that anyone could be servile to a God who would design a universe only to watch it wind down. No one seemed to argue Hitchens on this point, unfortunately.

He's not here to defend himself but the counter to Hitchens would be: why delude yourself into believing that your understanding of entropy cannot be surpassed by a greater understanding of entropy? And that such an understanding can only be surpassed by an understanding capable of surpassing itself?

Personally, I've always felt the God idea was more interesting than the no-God idea. As others have said though, there are possibilities beyond 1) God exists or 2) God doesn't exist. There is also 3) God used to exist but doesn't any more or 4) God used to exist but has abandoned us; 8) God did exist and will again but doesn't at the moment (taking a divine sabbatical).

We see how inevitable it is that a chat which begins with forever, ends up elsewhere. We can't contemplate immortality without bringing in all the other accoutrements, including the deus ex machina.

If God is, and remains on duty, then I agree with Charles Hartshorne that God would likely take an interest in us as we are, in this business between birth and death, and probably not as some magically rendered heavenly thingy hanging around interminably post facto. I can feel the wind on the heath as he puts it this way: "Only in one sense do we serve God forever. Since He, having unsurpassable memory, cannot lose what he has once acquired, in acquiring us as we are on earth he acquires us forevermore. But we do not in the same sense acquire him forevermore."

And if God is not on sabbatical then surely that fact should be garnering our attention. So the pidgin prayer that offers praise - as if God can hear you, Lucky Devil - would seem to be worth mumbling whether we mean it nor not:

God, you our Fadda.
You stay inside da sky.
We like all da peopo know fo shua how you stay,
An dat you stay good an spesho,
An we like dem give you plenny respeck.
We like you come King fo everybody now.
We like everybody make jalike you like,
Ova hea inside da world,
Jalike da angel guys up inside da sky make jalike you like.
Give us da food we need fo today an everyday.
Hemo our shame, an let us go
Fo all da kine bad stuff we do to you,
Jalike us guys let da odda guys go awready,
An we no stay huhu wit dem
Fo all da kine bad stuff dey do to us.
No let us get chance fo do bad kine stuff,
But take us outa dea, so da Bad Guy no can hurt us.
Cuz you our King,

You get da real power,

An you stay awesome foeva.

Dass it!

 

(Top Image: Riptide 11 x 15 watercolours)

Monday
May282012

The Sauce Was Excellent

A Divided Condition (11 x 14 watercolours & India ink).

The hope is that the words and pigments complement each other sufficiently that the sum transcends the bits.

In this light, permit us to say a few words about A Divided Condition and to offer gratitude to all who support us in this doubly Bohemian life of starving brushman and blogista.

As the psychiatrist Carl Jung observed: “Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory qualities.” And so it’s only slightly worrisome that Jung then proceeds to discuss bicephalism and schizophrenia. Because the list of the famous (no comparisons here) who have both painted and written creatively includes Leonardo, William Blake, Michelangelo, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Van Gogh, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac etc etc.

There likely are others, you tell me. But the upshot is that this writing and painting thing is a far more pervasive affliction that we imagined.

Among our pals

Not all wrote simultaneously with their brushwork. Miller for example, would paint his way through writer’s block. And almost none wrote specifically about the painting process. But there can be little doubt all these artists were compelled to create in both words and pigments. For Van Gogh, his enthusiasm for words spilled into his art. In one letter he remarks, "Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing to me." Elsewhere he revealed his appreciation of writers and writing: "There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don't you think, it's as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint things?"

Marginalia

While the inspirational source for painting and for writing is the same, each practice requires a distinct process. Personally, the act of writing is usually more an engagement while making a painting is more a disengagement. This is not always so: sometimes the words just flow and they speak for themselves and sometimes we paint very consciously, where, hands willing, every stroke brings us closer to the intended conclusion. But generally the former process is at play and neither feels like work.

Now we mentioned Carl Jung and we confess there is marginalia in our copy of Jung's book The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. This is Volume 15 of the Collected Works from the Bollingen Series XX, Princeton. To some this will seem extremely nerdy but I read the entire 20 volumes of Jung's Collected Works after the set was gratefully received as a graduation gift from my parents some 35 years ago.

Situated behind consciousness

The Collected Works comprise several thousand pages and as far as I can tell, the only mark I left in any of the margins was in that Volume 15, where Jung conducts a rigorous psychoanalysis of the painter Pablo Picasso. My note is in green pencil and it says simply: "viz. therapeutic method" and highlights a paragraph where Jung, commenting in 1932 when Pablo was a shooting star, says that "his works show a growing tendency to withdraw from the empirical objects, and an increase in those elements which do not correspond to any outer experience but come from an 'inside' situated behind consciousness."

Earlier, Jung says: "The essence of a work of art is not to be found in the personal idiosyncrasies that creep into it – indeed, the more there are of them, the less it is a work of art." In other words, it’s always a good idea if the artist gets out of his own way. This is easier if one is engaged in poetic writing rather than narrative writing. And it is easier when one is engaged in abstract painting rather than hyper-realism. Which brings me to A Divided Condition which, although it appears to be random, was executed with an attitude of engagement and the result was precisely as intended. So I am happy with it, though you may conclude that I should stick to writing, or better still, total silence.

A two-headed trout

Today, I notice that when I take a pen in each hand and close my eyes I write mirror images of my signature. Normally I am left-handed, so I push a pen from left to right across the page. But with two pens, if I close my eyes, I write or draw mirror images, characters, sentences, letters or signatures from the centre out or from the margins to the centre in quite perfect symmetry.

It's a bit like a two-headed trout, where, magically, the halves conspire to make a transcendent greater whole. In this state it is as if the writer and the painter are harmoniously connected and at one. Skeptical? Take 2 minutes, 46 seconds to view this wonderful clip from La Vie de Bohème, 1992, by the Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Thursday
May242012

Kiss of Death

The Fire at St. Judes (11 x 14 w/c on Yupo) 

Why don't parents name their newborn sons Judas anymore?

 

Experts say the top names for baby boys in 2017 are Liam, Mason, Ethan and Noah.

 

Judas doesn't even make the Top 5000.

 

Why? Of course one could say it is self-evident that there's been a stain on that name since the moment Judas Iscariot laid a kiss of betrayal (now known as The Kiss of Peace) on the mug of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane a couple of thousand years ago. This led to Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion.

 

But is the slander against Judas justified? Should we, could we, rehab his reputation? Given his rep, if he were around today, no doubt the introductions would be awkward: 'Smithers meet Judas, he'll be watching your back tonight on the security detail.' Or 'Colleen, please help welcome Judas to the bank, he's our new custodian for the safety deposit boxes.' The issue is one of trust. Or mistrust. But hasn't enough time passed? Why should mere mention of a name conjure up such antipathy in the 21st Century? Should we continue to despise Judas, simply out of habit?

 

Appointed

Judas was reportedly handed 30 pieces of silver to lead authorities to the outlaw Jesus. Yet there are scholars and critics who say the story of Judas's 'betrayal' is a complete fabrication, fomented by those who conveniently wished, inter alia, to foster anti-Semitism. As the critic Frank Kermode said: "Jesus was shopped, if you like. Somebody handed him over (betrayed him) and Judas was appointed to take the blame."

 

All we can really know almost for sure is that the story ended, seemingly, very badly for both Jesus and Judas. Resurrection notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine how it could have been worse, especially for poor Judas who appears to have been condemned to hell for all eternity. His name is mud, right up there with Hitler, Pol Pot, Bin Laden and Paolo Gabriele.

 

Now it has been some years since we stood at the bus depot in Jerusalem that looks up toward Golgotha, or Skull Rock, the reputed place of crucifixion, and equally long since we strolled among the twisted trees in the olive grove of Gethsemane.

 

Likewise it has been a long time since I was was a student at Drama Centre, London, (Group 13) but a more recent crop of actors there (Group 48) performed The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. This dramatic piece, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, is said to be an “exploration of our own betrayals, our own personal lapses of belief, and who we need to look to for forgiveness.”

 

Blue Moon

We'd have been fearful, in the Drama Centre of the 1970s, to tackle anything so weighty. We thought we were singularly racy if we put up a stark version of Garcia Lorca's Yerma, though it was more than passingly entertaining when Pierce Brosnan trotted out to sing a solo voce Blue Moon along the lines of The Mavericks.

 

Consider the fact that Judas once was a kid too. Had a mother. And a dad (Simon). There's no reason to believe he was, as a child, traumatized by being placed backwards on the potty, or that he was insane, or that there were any abnormalities about him that would warrant being handed the thankless job of helping deliver the Son of God to a nasty outcome (High Priest and Romans not off the hook). I can imagine his anguish and torment with his decision, pressured over dinner by the boss to accede. He accomplished his task perfectly well and was consumed by guilt over it. But there was enough blame, as it were, to go around. It was, variously, the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate and the Emperor Gluteus Maximus of whatever his name was, who also stand implicated. We don't hear about their anquish.

 

Which is the thrust of the book Judas, Betrayer or Friend of Jesus, by former University of Manitoba religion professor William Klassen. He suggests poor Judas has received an exceedingly bad rap. Klassen argues that if it wasn't for Judas, Jesus wouldn't have been able to fulfill his high purpose. In this romantic view Judas isn't a betrayer of the itinerant Messiah. He is a courageous accomplice - the most true and trusted friend of all. And the act for which Judas's name has been made mud is not a betrayal but is a deliberate handing over of the God-man divinely orchestrated by the holy kiss – all perfectly necessary for the Christian story to unfold.

 

Possibly it's a stretch to expect our friend Judas to occupy a spot in the Top 50 baby names.

 

But Klassen might have a worthy argument: to continue the slander against Judas points to an unseemly need for a psychological and theological scapegoat, one who assuages collective angst over the one big crucifixion, indeed all crucifixions, but who is a scapegoat nevertheless.

 

(Reader Note: I recently updated this piece, which first appeared on this blog in 2012).