The Vatican Museum

I’ve never been religious, neither are my parents… in fact, I’m pretty certain that God has never featured in anything other than marriages and deaths. Therefore it was with a sense of some discomfort myself and Mr Alt decided to visit the Vatican Museums on one of their Friday night ‘open late’ events, as it would certainly have been uncomfortable to do so during daylight hours. As it transpires, the humidity was an issue, but after a while this was forgotten as debate sparked, and then raged.

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This museum is a celebration of two things: history and religion. If my understanding of the history is correct, it wasn’t just a good life and pious deeds that got you into the Eternal Kingdom, but your service to the Church. Some of that was manual, but an awful lot ended up as material contribution. The entire building is the exhibition of that accumulated ‘wealth’: probably billions of hours of work, care and appreciation from all over the Globe. In the most crass terms, this is a storage warehouse full to bursting with God’s gifts from those who worship his wonder. To see it all, you pay a not inconsiderable amount of money for the privilege.

The irony part of my brain last night was having a field day.

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There are areas in this Museum where you cannot go, because it is still a church, and you are expected to dress appropriately… except last night many people didn’t and were still allowed in. Presumably after a while it doesn’t matter and you just take the money regardless. The Sistene Chapel, it must be said, remains an impressive example of religious devotion, but you cannot take pictures. I’m sure the low light levels will preserve Michelangelo’s legacy but still, half a mind flits back to making people buy prints from the Gift shop. Most ironically of all there’s a Priest stop outside which (presumably) is meant for Catholics who wish to discuss the significance of this work in relation to God. Last night, it was disappointingly empty.

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Love of family and others are obviously familiar sensations: doing the same to a non-corporeal being has always been difficult to grasp. However, with respect to those for whom this is both important as well as a significant part of their lives, there’s an awful lot of jaw-dropping devotion to task on show. The amount of time and effort placed into gifts puts modern day efforts to shame. However, and this for me was crucial, all of this remains very much a product of the ages in which it was created. I can wonder at the artistry at work, but am fairly confident that those making the items were very much not a representation of their era’s reality. All of this has to be considered in judgement: art is beautiful and awe inspiring, but unless it truly mirrors the society it is created within, it is not the whole story.

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It was, all told, a very interesting experience. There was only one complaint, and that is that the Ladies toilets are some of the most shockingly awful I’ve had to deal with on any foreign holiday. If there was going to be a metaphor for how I fit into the Catholic Church’s grand plan, this might be it. Making your church more welcoming should really be the order of the day, and if you could start by improving the little things, the larger stuff will end up being far less stressful…

Wondrous Stories

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Question: Why is there a Bible in every hotel room?

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Considering the trouble this set of teachings continues to cause, you’d think commercial hotel chains would want nothing to do with it yet when I stayed in a Hotel over the summer there was a Bible, on the floor of our room. I asked for an annotated version a couple of years ago for a birthday present from my Methodist-practising mother in law, which caused some surprise from my husband. I’ve never embraced religion, but I’m not an idiot. This really is the most important book that has ever been published, for so many reasons, and if you think hard about it there’s everything inside. It is either a story book or a set of real-life diary entries. It is also the largest selling hardback/paperback on the planet.

The word ‘legacy’ gets thrown about a lot when it comes to major, life changing events such as the Olympic games but when the entire planet is focused on one place to celebrate sporting achievement (in all its forms) that can provide a perfect opportunity for the people hosting said event to capitalise. Making people think is a hard ask, after all: with all your personal issues from money woes to simply coping with the issues around you, why should you care about making the World a better place? As is becoming apparent in Brazil after 2016, what that country needs is not massive monuments to sporting excellence. The problems that existed prior to the Games have not been solved, far from it. Even after 2012 here, the UK has a lot of image and personality issues of its own to deal with.

Maybe the Bible could help everybody here.

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is, if you believe certain interpretations of the plot, is simply another in a series of his biblically-inspired narratives. Although Noah is quite obviously based in a version of God’s story-line, a movie like The Fountain may seem to have less influence but really… no, he’s still falling back on the Good Book as source. It is no surprise, when all is said and done, because the parable is by far and away the simplest source material for an author to borrow from successfully. It also holds the benefit of being a story everybody understands, which makes the telling somewhat fraught. If you are overt in your settings and themes (as was the case with the 2014 telling of the biblical flood) and then subvert the ‘original’ story with elements that an audience can’t grasp or feel is inappropriate… things can and will get messy.

Until the day comes when we are a religion-free planet (and that’s not going to be a while) every religious text is shadowing every writer, whether we like it or not. It isn’t a bad thing, however, when you consider why the Bible was written to begin with, or the Quran plus the countless other texts that have become the foundations of modern spiritualism. Even Scientology, which is inspired by the sci-fi teachings of L. Ron Hubbard falls under this umbrella: just because you created a religion in 1954 does not make it any more or less significant that that which was established back before the Roman Empire fell. The key to legacy is inspiration, and the basis of the Bible are stories to make human being do just that, be inspired.

In effect, a bunch of stories is just as effective as building an Olympic village.

Faith and belief are not concepts owned by spiritualism. Both of these underpin physical achievement, drive athletes to be the best they can be: understanding yourself, being able to push beyond what most ‘normal’ human beings are capable of producing… complex systems of mental and physical fitness, combined to a whole. The ability to inspire a nation to start exercising, even when many of them were afraid to do so, is an enduring legacy of 2012 I am a grateful part of. However, many things have worsened post London Olympics, that no amount of inspiration is likely to alter. It is the encroaching spectres of xenophobia and greed that are warned of in the Old Testament, but are rarely seen held up as reasons for change. All the modern world seems to want to do with the Bible is try and justify why diversity isn’t allowed, as if somehow this will make everything right and ‘good’ again.

That’s the problem when someone tries to use the Bible as a stick to beat people with: it may often be used as a rule book, but those days are long gone. The world has changed, even if the ignorant and narrow minded still remain in power. These are stories and teachings, not doctrines. That’s what happens when a branch of religion takes the Bible and starts subverting the point: they create a version of the original tales, for their own ends, and often at the expense of humanity itself. Parables allow people to help rationalise the difficulties in their own existence, and come to a greater understanding of themselves. The big omnipotent deity thing is largely irrelevant, except to those who wish to believe that the Universe is clearly only man’s work.

Sport is not just about winning and ‘beating’ people, just as religion is now about who is ‘right’. Both of those conditions are placed on these ideas by human beings, often because they lose and are wrong in the eyes of others. The problem is not your God of choice dispenses his/her teachings, but how we choose to be directed by them. 

If you wish to understand the World better, start with yourself.