Shipwreck by John Christopher Wade

Shipwreck by John Christopher Wade

Religion usually involves a culture and specific behaviours and practices. It also may encompass morals, texts, worldviews etc, as they relate to supernatural/spiritual aspects of a religion. There are many religions. They have sacred histories and narratives, which aim to give meaning to life – and to all life at that. Our concern here is not with religion per se, but the sense and meaning, which it affords our lives – or not.

We are usually inducted into a religion, when young. Whether we retain our beliefs or not depends on many things, including ourselves and our experiences of the world. 

JCW is a long-time neighbour of JL. They are on neighbourly terms, although their relationship has had its ups and downs. The ups have involved children growing up and becoming adults; joshing of various sorts; and attempting to be witty at each other’s expense. The downs have involved strong disagreements on a broad range of topics; disrespect and verbal abuse. It has always had a serious side, however, including discussions of religion. ‘Shipwreck’ followed an invitation to JCW to contribute to the Blogsite. Our current relationship seems to be on the up. Maybe it’s an ill-Shipwreck etc etc.

The poem describes the loss of religious faith; but it is much more than that. It encapsulates brilliantly, the history, value and shortcomings of religion. It is also very personal, while expressing the loss of religion as a narrative. As well as identifying the meaning, which religion can have for some and its loss, it also hints at an alternative source of meaning. The poem deserves careful reading. JL recommends it to you strongly.

JL, as Christian Atheist, who gave religion a good try round about the age of 18; but failed to make it work for him, is very impressed by the poem and has read it many times. He would be surprised, if there is not further meaning to be derived from ‘Shipwreck’. He smells a poetry critique in the wind.

As usual, feedback is welcome, along with other religion-related contributions.

Shipwreck

I

A titanic golden “Ark of the Covenant” surges, pitches and rolls

Across the surface of my sleep,

Piled on deck, the works of man, pyramids, temples, cathedrals,

Synagogues, mosques and minarets steep,

The hold was stuffed with symbols, icons, relics and sacred texts,

All manner of holy treasure they keep,

And commandments, prayers, incense and intercessions, so tell me,

Why on earth do children still weep?

II

Once upon a time, an innocent child asked, why unconditional

Love, be administered only by men?

First denial, then lesson from callous prophet, ancient and modern,

Warning of sheep that stray from the pen,

But a hand drew back a curtain, revealing all too human intent,

Ecclesiastical schemes, were laid bare then,

Now the Ark bore down upon us, meaning to correct or obliterate,

Our little tribe of men.

III

Storm clouds gathered, venomous lightning and rain lashed down,

Over our island of disgrace,

Like archangel Michael, fallen from grace. Branded trouble-makers,

But not to our face,

Trailing clouds of glory, filled with righteous anger, the mighty Ark

Meant to drown, this heretical race,

Our isle grew cold, fear gripped our hearts, alone awaited our fate,

Who dares question, ordained embrace?

IV

Marooned on island strand, the juggernaut hit our sandcastle square,

Yet, no grain of truth moved, or suffered a blow,

Rocks of reason tore a hole in faith, and let compassion flood in,

That religious intolerance, cannot show,

Thus, holed below the waterline, the infallible Ark sank, bow first,

Dragged down by the undertow,

All hands were lost. God and his lying, dogmatic, hypocritical crew,

Drowned in the murky waters below.

V

A new day dawns bright,

Rain falls, sun shines,

Birds sing in the trees,

We see a rainbow’s arc,

Because of the rain and the refraction of light.

Mankind blossoms and bears fruit,

Cling to one another,

Love one another,

Always!

End

John Christopher Wade

JL My original idea was to write a critique of JCW’s poem. After all, I studied modern languages, which included poetry and I am a critique by nature. If it moves, I will critique it. I hoped the critique would engage us both in some on-going way.

However, I do not read much poetry. My poetry book collection is at best modest. It comprises:

The Faber Book of Modern Verse published in 1965.

Paul Durcan – ‘Daddy, Daddy’.

Gerald Parks (a friend) – ‘Lumen Poesie 1982-1988 (published 1992 in Italian).

Geliebte Verse – German Lyrical Poetry from 1900 to 1950 (awarded as a school prize for German in 1954).

Ted Hughes – ‘Birthday Letters’.

The War Poets – an Anthology.

E.E. Cummings – Selected Poems 1923-1958.

Dylan Thomas – ‘Under Milk Wood’.

Robert Vas Dias (a friend) ‘Entailing Happiness’ (published 2010).

T.S. Eliot – Collected Poems 1909-1935.

T.S.Eliot – ‘Four Quartets’

Seamus Heaney – ‘Beowolf’.

So, instead of a critique, I decided to write an appreciation, although I am hopeful that in the longer term, the appreciation might form the basis of a critique……..Here goes……

  1. I like the grand opening image of the pitching Ark of the Covenant. I am not a fan of (especially mock) heroics; but this one takes my fancy and gives proper credit to religion’s panoply.
  2. At the same time, all this religious power is pitched against an innocent child’s question. One senses the tension of the struggle to come.
  3. The tension is then developed in a more personal manner – ‘only by men’ against a ‘little tribe of men’, although I have to say that the contrast is not entirely clear (but see later).
  4. The personal effects of the clash between the Ark and the little tribe are then described in graphic terms, lending the personal latter some of drama of the former.
  5. Part 4 sees the height of the struggle, again encapsulated in a dramatic image the Ark holed by a sandcastle. The description here is very direct and emotionally strong and powerful.
  6. Part 5 describes the new dawn – the victory of the innocent child, the little tribe of men and the sandcastle, of course. Idealistic? A bit over the top? Maybe; but that would be on the way to a critique and that is for another day. However, the aim of the critique is now much clearer. It needs to relate the content to the structure and both to the effectiveness of the poem……..bit of a challenge, one might say……..

JCW I reckon, you are right on the money, in your assessment of the poem. 
1. Of course, you are right to see the ark reference, as alluding to the sacred symbols of scriptural faith, the rainbow likewise. Reason sinks the former, and physics explains the latter. I meant to hit them, where it hurts. 
In my mind’s eye, I had imagined looking up the road to St J Church, from our home, down below in C Rd. This road, soon morphed into a cold, storm lashed ocean, on the horizon of which, rolled that monstrous Ark (with that spire and masonry) bearing down upon us.

JL ‘Reason sinks faith,’ I like it. Well said. I think that reason in fact sank my faith, although I am not sure that I had much faith per se and to start with; but see later. When I was about 18 or so (still in the sixth form anyway). I decided that I should give religion/faith a better chance than heretofore. I started saying my prayers every night before going to sleep, a habit I had given up much earlier in my life. Not sure when, maybe 14/15. or performed the rite only sporadically. Prayed to be good or at least better, asked how to help others, maybe turn the other cheek etc. Anyway, I perceived no change in my life. I am not sure that I actually tried harder to be good. I know I never knowingly turned the other cheek. Not my style. Certainly, operationalising any faith I may have had was definitely part of the problem. Praying was always just repeating some mantra – like the Lord’s Prayer, which I still reflect on, hoping to make better sense of it. 

I had another go the other day. Here’s the result. 

Our Father, [actually, I could not even remember the start. I thought it must be Dear/Our God or somesuch. Further, ‘father’ I did not understand so much to be fatherly, more as a man with a white beard. 

Which art in heaven, [I had no notion of heaven other than ‘up in the sky’ and where the good went after death. The opposite of hell.] 

Hallowed be Thy name. [I thought this meant something like the name should be respected. Apparently, it means ’holy/special’ and refers to God. The contrast is with God as a father.] 

Thy kingdom come. [to earth, being different from earth as we know it..] 

Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. [earth would become the same as heaven, both ruled by God’s will]. 

Give us our daily bread, [let us be fed.] 

Forgive us our trespasses, [if and when we do wrong.] 

Deliver us from evil. [help us be good] 

For Thine is the power, the something  and the glory. [God is omnipotent] 

For ever and ever, [infinitely] 

Amen. [Agreed} 

Here’s the complete and correct version. It turns out that, I didn’t do to badly. 

Our Father who art inheaven, 

hallowed be thy name. 

Thy kingdom come. 

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. 

Give us this day our daily bread, 

and forgive us our trespasses, 

as we forgive those who trespass against us, 

and lead us not into temptation, 

but deliver us from evil. 

For thine is the kingdom, 

and the power, 

and the glory, 

forever. 

The key point here is that any understanding I had was implicit, rather than explicit. That remains true to-day. Hence, my failure to give a very persuasive reading/account of it. Since I could not articulate the concepts in a very coherent way, it is hardly surprising that I failed to operationalise them. 


2. Yes, indeed. The cynical way that religions segregate children from their own parents, in order to ‘persuade’ them to accept without question the faith leaders’ authority, in all matters moral and spiritual. 
We had no idea of their segregating our children, of female from male, in order to more properly explain, the ‘special’ role that women fulfil. Until our daughter told us about these segregated lessons. ‘Once upon a time an innocent child asked, why unconditional love be administered only by men?’
They were told that, men have the authority to teach, ie lead. But specifically, not women. Women have a ‘special’ nurturing role, but not one that includes leadership, over men.
K and I questioned the vicar about this, which caused the rupture between the church and ourselves. Their answer to us was that, this teaching was based on the apostle, Paul. (Fundamentalist christians often prefer Paul, almost before the teachings of Jesus. He is very strong on what women  can and can’t do. ‘First denial, then lesson from callous prophet, ancient and modern, warning of sheep that stray from the pen’.

JL I vaguely remember there being separate boys/girls Sunday school classes, when I was around 6/7 or so; but nobody seemed to think anything of it. I really have no memories thereof. After that, I remember there being no segregation. This would not exclude the notions of men as leaders and women as nurturers. The choirs were mixed sex. The vicar was male. In passing, my wife D was brought up as a Mormon and her father was a ward bishop……..The family were all true believers. D fell out with them and the church on the inferior position of woman. I think that she may have been excommunicated in the end. Marrying me did not help. Of course. 


 JWC ‘Our little tribe of men’ – is of course, our family. (JL Thanks! I missed that first time around).
Essentially, St J Church used to be a middle of the road, C of E. Very tolerant and non judgemental. The church warden at the time was a keen evangelical who saw to it that the next vicar was also an avowed evangelical. The congregation were not told, or consulted over the change. The effect being, that as people realised what was happening to their parish church, they left – quietly, to join other parishes. Even I, had noticed a somewhat American flavour to the way things were being done. At one point even Franklin Graham, son of Billy, came to preach a sermon. He is as you may know, a noted evangelical, connected to among other things, Liberty University, that house of horrors that espouses, the right to life (anti abortion) the ‘re-education’ of gay people, to straight, and the right to bear arms. Or at least as Jerry Falwell Jr demonstrated to his students, by showing them the revolver, he packs in his back pocket.

JL I have to say that I quite like their enthusiasm and their jolly music; but am not keen on their literalness and flat earth mentality. A strange appointment for the C of E and the social area and mores, I would have thought. Curious that the church warden should have had such influence. Appointments are usually more top down……The more I think about it the odder the appointment seems. However, be that as it may. The interest is in your religious development. 


JWC 3. The poem is trying to describe in dramatic terms, what it felt like, to be ‘sent to Coventry’ isolated and excoriated by the faith leadership and indeed our church-going friends. This included, devastingly for our children, all their friends from school and church. Which pretty much meant, everyone. Very traumatic for them, I know. Hence, the drama and passion.

JL How old were the children at this time? Early teens, I imagine. Losing friends into the bargain must have been terrible. I must say that I am a bit surprised that friendship did not win through over ritual belief and custom at least in some cases. Drama and passion indeed. 


JWC The hand drawing back the curtain, ‘But a hand drew back a curtain, revealing all too human intent, ecclesiastical schemes were laid bare then,’ was a subconscious image, (dreamt, I think) describing the dawning of understanding which led me eventually, to first becoming, agnostic then finally to becoming an atheist. A journey which is still ongoing for some in the family. We are all certainly very anti-religious now.

JL So….you let the light in, then? I followed the agnostic to atheist path too. Further, I think religions have a function and a sell-by date. Christianity, in brief, is a slave religion. Very handy at the time of the Romans (at least to start with); but counterproductive since (except for the state putting it to use….)…….Surprising you lasted so long……..what did it give you I wonder? What was the basis of your faith to start with? Enough to induct your children, apparently. Our children were never baptised and only attended church, when other social conditions required it, for example, being a cub or a girl guide. 

 What was the basis of your faith to start with? 

JCW: The prime reason, was bereavement!  We (my older brother, younger sister and I) lost our parents very early. I was 13 when Dad died, and 16 when Mum died. So, we wanted to believe that somewhere, somehow, our parents continued to watch over us. And that we could be a family – still. 

JL Sounds like more than a good enough reason. I had no comparable experiences of death and bereavement. I only remember one surviving grandparent, whose funeral I attended. I had affection for her; but it was not and she was not parental….. 

JWC We were not a conventionally religious family – not C of E church going anyway. However, Dad and Mum were spiritualists. Also as a result of a bereavement they had suffered. They lost their first born son, aged 7, during the war. He had been killed crossing the road from school, by an army dispatch rider. However, they didn’t encourage us to be believers, or followers of a particular faith. They were good socialists. They knew John Freeman (pre BBC days) and worked to get him elected, MP for Watford. 

JL A very interesting combination, not one met every day, I think. Nothing comparable in my family, either politically or religiously.  

JWC I (like you) enjoyed the theatre of church, whenever we encountered church going. (Weddings, visits to relations etc.) When at 16, I was fostered to live with an aunt in Halifax, I sought out various churches, to see if I could establish ‘contact’ with my parents. Priests earnestly prayed with me, but I’m afraid to say without, convincing me that, this was the answer I sought….yet! 

JL I like the idea of church as a theatre. Suits rather well. At least you took the initiative and gave it a serious go. I might (over)interpret that as a sort of test……..interesting that it did not seem to work. I wonder why….let’s see later, when it did work. 

JWC That, happened many years later, when I was 27 years old, living in Sydney, Australia. (I had a wonderful flat on MacMahons Point, with an incredible view of the Sydney harbour bridge). One day walking in the neighbourhood, I heard beautiful singing coming from a nearby church. I investigated. The sermon (evangelical, I now suppose) seemed to be saying that traditional church teaching was too ‘lax and wishy-washy’. Their message was, ‘Take the bible literally, it is the truth, the way and the light’. Certainty! This was water, to a thirsty man. I had become a church going believer. 

I had been saved!  I could meet my parents again!  I didn’t have to search anymore! 

JL Quite an experience then. But how was the experience felt? Did you meet your parents – fleeting glimpses, bits and bobs of memory, imaginations etc. Or perhaps the conviction that you would meet up in heaven or somesuch? Maybe just an inner stillness? 

JWC I returned to the UK in 1972. Still really a C of E ‘wishy-washy’ type at heart, I began to get very uneasy with fundamentalist teachings, that claimed scriptural dominance, from hard line prophets, over a personal moral conscience. But this awareness took a long, long time to trickle into my brain cells. This is a much truncated account, but you get the idea. I don’t possess your astringency John. 

JL  No but you seem more emotionally mature and with a wider religious experience. I do not deny my astringency. Indeed, I rather revel in it; but beware the aridity component. 

Enough to induct your children, apparently. 

JCW Yes, to my shame, I now fully realise. I have apologised to them – and continue to do so. K always told me I was stupid for being so obsessed with the church. To her credit, she never got involved and wasn’t happy that both Ca and Cl were so keen too. From primary school, to their convent school, most of their friends were from church. After school clubs (when they weren’t working hard at their exams) were church youth clubs. Hence, when the walls came crashing down, after we dared to question why, are children were being ‘sexually segregated’ for bible study? (Boys for leadership, girls for special service.) The subsequent ostracism fell most heavily on Ca and Cl. Even Ca’s university experience was marred by feelings of guilt and outrage, by turn. At one point there was an attempt to extract Cl from our home, to get her away from her parents’ bad influence. Very tough times. 

JL. This sounds terrible – who tried to ‘extract’ your children? Isn’t that against the law…….One thing that I will claim for D and I is some form of consistency. D was born into a Mormon family. Her father was even a ward bishop, as I said earlier.  She rebelled against it (women are also treated very much as inferiors in the Mormon church) and left the church altogether. She may even have been excommunicated; but I am not sure of that. Probably not as she lived in London, so her ‘transgressions’, including marrying me were not so obvious. Her sister, espousing the same views as D, however, was excommunicated. To give the father credit, he took all this in his stride and his strong family values prevailed over his church ones…….. He andI got on well together, both having, in their own way, the interests of his daughter and my wife, at heart.

D and I married in church in L for my family; but not in my local church (St A) – a step too far for me. We married in Soho in the chapel of a home for ‘fallen women’………We had another social ceremony in the US with D’s family. Honours all round, then? Our children were never baptised, never went to Sunday school or church, unless required for belonging to the guides or cubs/scouts. We discussed with them whether or not to ‘swear allegiance’ to God as well as to the Queen; but left the decision to them and supported them either way. 

JWC ‘Rocks of reason tore a hole in faith, and let compassion flood in, that religious intolerance cannot show.’

JL Not sure how this follows; but it has a ring to it. Where did the compassion come from – ‘the  healing power of life  and the renewal of  hope (see below). 

JCW Yes, dead right! Also, in questioning biblical scripture, the whole principle of the ‘acceptance/certainty, equation’ of faith had foundered. The evangelical church sees scripture as absolute. Indeed this can be said of other denominations too. Questions are quite literally, intolerable. As far as we were concerned, the shackles were broken, fraudulent priests and religious fundamentalism had been challenged and had been exposed. Our nightmare had started to lift. 

JL This raises the whole question of belief versus knowledge; but that’s for another day……..Also, my position that religions have a function and a sell-by date – see earlier.

The last, stanza speaks of the healing power of life  and the renewal of  hope. Something we can all take heart from. 

JCW Yes, I hope so. 

JL Indeed. How well has it turned out? The meaning of your life is otherwise grounded? 

JCW Well, in our case, our little tribe has indeed been blossoming and bearing fruit! Long may it continue. I also consider our friendship, as part of this late blossoming, don’t you?  

JL Of course….; but the issue of the meaning of our current lives has not gone away and must be for another day. I think that we have given the current round a good go and can let any yeast rise in its own time. Thanks for the engagement! Here’s to the next one……. 

                                 

                                                    ’Shipwreck’


A titanic golden “Ark of the Covenant” surges, pitches and rolls  

                         Across the surface of my sleep,  

Piled on deck, the works of man, pyramids, temples, cathedrals  

                          Synagogues, mosques and minarets steep,  

The hold was stuffed with symbols, icons, relics and sacred texts,  

                          All manner of holy treasure they keep,  

And commandments, prayers, incense and intercessions, so tell me  

                          Why on earth do children still weep?  

                                                       II 
Once upon a time an innocent child asked, why unconditional  

                            Love be administered only by men?  

First denial, then lesson from callous prophet, ancient and modern,  

                           Warning of sheep that stray from the pen,  

But a hand drew back a curtain, revealing all too human intent,  

                            Their ecclesiastical schemes laid bare then,  

Now the Ark bore down upon us, meaning to correct or obliterate  

                            Our little tribe of men.  

                                                        III 
Storm clouds gathered, venomous lightning and rain lashed down  

                             Over our island of disgrace,  

Like archangel Michael, fallen from grace. 

                                  Branded trouble-makers, But not to our face,  

Trailing clouds of glory, filled with righteous anger, the mighty Ark,  

                                  Meant to drown this heretical race,  

Our isle grew cold, fear gripped our hearts, alone awaited our fate,  

                                  Who dares question ordained embrace?  

                                                           IV 
Marooned on island strand, the juggernaut hit our sandcastle square,  

                                  Yet, no grain of truth moved, or suffered a blow,  

Rocks of reason tore a hole in faith, and let compassion flood in,  

                                  That religious fundamentalism cannot show,  

Thus, holed below the waterline, the infallible Ark sank, bow first, 

                                   Dragged down by the undertow,  

All hands were lost. God and his lying, dogmatic, hypocritical crew, 

 Drowned in the murky waters below.  

                                                              V 
                                           A new day dawns bright,  

                                           Rain falls, sun shines,  

                                           Birds sing in the trees,  

                                           We see a rainbow’s arc, 
                          Because of the rain and the refraction of light.  

                                   Mankind blossoms and bears fruit, 

                                            Cling to one another, 
                                             Love one another,  

                                                      Always!  

                                                          End 

John Christopher Wade

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