Posted by: owizblog | November 8, 2015

Bathos: Remembrance and Responsibility; Sermon, UCB, 8 November 2015

Micah 4:1-5

Luke 3:1-17

I’m not one for beginning a sermon with a definition, but here’s one:




  1. (especially in a literary work) an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.

Bathos. It’s a great deal to do with how our Gospel passage this morning works, and it’s everything to do with the relationship between it and the reading we heard from the prophet Micah, just before it.

If you ask Google, it will turn up lots of examples of bathos – the sudden plunge from the realm of the soaring heart, the crystalline truth, the pure insight, to – well, to ordinary stuff. And there’s a bit of bathos right there, in what I just said. Here’s a wonderful example, which I’ve loved for years, andwhich challenges the one word in the definition here that I’d disagree with – “an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial…” from the masterly, and very scholarly, darts commentator Sid Waddell, who knew exactly what he was doing as he summed up the outcome of a World Darts Championship:

“When he was 33, Alexander of Macedon cried salt tears, because there were no more worlds to conquer. Eric Bristow is only 27…”

And here’s another example, so beautifully crafted that it’s hard to believe that it’s unintentional – and then, by turns, impossible to believe that it’s anything else…

“It must have been an awful sight,

To witness in the dusky moonlight,

While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,

Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,

I must now conclude my lay

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,

That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.”

What William McGonagle does, at the very end, is particularly masterly, because he generates his bathos by crashing down from the very slightly clunky empyrean of the supernatural Storm-Fiend and its uncontainable wrath to a sort of proverb distilled out of a potted summary of what the eventual report would say about the disaster. The bridge wasn’t built strongly enough.

There is here an inescapable truth, that makes ridiculous our human attempts to clothe it in language that exalts it.

So… A twenty-seven year old man has been followed, by thousands of fanatics, to his disciplined and skilful triumph at the culmination of the top competition in a sporting activity that means, when you measure it against the life of the world, essentially nothing.  But he did it. And Sid Waddell is the bard who sings the epic of this event as no-one else can – because he understands bathos.

And McGonagle, whether out of a sort of sublime incompetence – and that, itself, is a bathetic expression – or some profound insight articulated as only he could speak it, strips through all the emotion and portentousness which surrounds a disaster which took seventy-nine lives, and reduces it to the mundane truth: the bridge wasn’t built strongly enough, and we shouldn’t build structures like that. Which is exactly what, albeit with much more detail and explanation, the Tay Bridge Disaster Inquiry said. But the Report of the Inquiry isn’t a poem, whereas McGonagle’s epic, mysteriously, is.

So bathos is more than the definition suggests. It is something to do with the relationship between truth, and the ways in which we insist of speaking about things, some of which can mask the truth. Darts is darts, not world history – and Sid Waddell knows it, and so do we. The Tay Bridge was badly built, and people died  – and McGonagle knows it, and so do we.

Bathos strips away the words, and presents us with something plain, flat, real, and, somehow, true. It has the beauty of honesty.

And here’s another example of bathos.

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’

‘What should we do then?’

‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’

“The world as you know it is coming to an end…” we might say,

“Everything will change. Everyone will be tested to the limit. Everyone will be shown up for what they really are

“So what shall we do?”


I’ll be honest, I’m really not terribly fond of the variants on this famous propaganda poster that are everywhere to be found sprinkled through our culture.

They just demonstrate that you can quickly overwork a literary device like bathos.

But in its original setting, as a global conflict began to unfold for the second time in a quarter of a century, the simple, stark message

“Keep Calm and Carry On” actually shows the power of bathos as a tool for digging down to the real truth of a situation. And it exactly mirrors the situation that John the Baptist generates by his preaching, in our reading today. He simply articulates the sense of crisis, of a world slipping from control which his hearers all seem to share. What he says finds a resonance. People are already fearful, but John’s preaching creates an opportunity.  It puts the question “What can I do?” and allows them to ask it. And that allows John to say “Possibly not a great deal – but not nothing.”

‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’

In a situation like this, with everything in flux and chaos, and the world as you knew it falling apart – you keep calm, and carry on. You do what you can, and in particular, you do what you should. And that might not feel like much, in fact it might seem like nothing at all, set against the vast scale of the forces that are transforming the world around you – but it isn’t nothing. And it could turn out to be everything…

And that’s exactly the message that the Ministry of Information wanted to communicate in its famous poster, and in many others, equally famous, as the unimaginable began to unfold across the world in another global conflict.

And that was propaganda. But it worked, because it connected two thoughts. “What can you do?” said with a resigned, even despairing, shrug, and “What else can you do – but carry on the best way you can?”

On the vast scale, things are apt to paralyse the mind. In a world gone mad, we feel fear and anxiety and horror, and we have no idea how things are going to go, or what will happen next.

And we could hardly deny that our world feels like that, yet again. We all, I think, felt that we were being thrown into a new, unimaginable world as we watched the Twin Towers fall in New York on the eleventh of September 2001. Everything had changed. We felt tiny and powerless, not simply – as we were clearly meant to – in the face of the physical destructive force that brought down two stupendous embodiments of our Western world befoe our eyes, but in the face of the forces of reaction and reaction-to-reaction that we somehow sensed were being unleashed in that action. The religious fanaticism, the religio-political radicalism that had emerged over the preceding decades had now touched the West at the heart of its power, and I think many of us were as frightened by what that had unleashed in the West as by the obscene force that had perpetrated the act.

And then we had Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the Syrian uprising turning to civil war, and the unfolding chaos across that region, the destruction of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, and Libya’s descent into chaos, and now the near-destruction of Al-Qaeda, but at the hands of IS, and the horror we have learned in barely two years to connect with those two letters of the alphabet.

And mixed in there is a jumble of other words – refugee, crisis, radicalization, Russia, NATO…

And we wonder where we are, and what comes next… And we ask what we should do…

And John the Baptist speaks to us, too. Do what’s set in front of you. Do what you can, in the way you know you should. Respond, not to your own amateurish grasp of global affairs or geopolitics, your partial knowledge of how middle-eastern religious movements work. Do what you know God wants you to do. Keep calm, and carry on

Because that’s all you can do. And that’s enough.

And we are perhaps blessed, in Bute, because we are about to get a situation, our own very small, local situation, in which it’s perfectly clear what God wants us to do. And make no mistake, it is perfectly clear what God wants us to do

We are about to receive into our community fifteen families of human beings who have had to flee their homes because of the way the world is. They are coming to us. It’s going to happen. Human beings in need will come among us. Is anyone at all in any doubt about what Jesus would tell us to do? Is anyone in any doubt at all about what God is telling us to do?

And if we come across people who do question that – do we really need to look further than the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Someone asks Jesus “Who is my neighbour?” And Jesus told the crowd about the man who should have seen a Jew, a man of a different religion, a man he was supposed to be suspicious of, and saw, instead, just a human being in need. A man who should have had in his mind questions of history, and politics, and international relations, and instead asked only “What does this person need?” A man who came across a situation in the road in front of him, and said “This is my problem, because I’m here and so is he, and he needs help, and I can provide it.” The clever lawyer asked “Who is my neighbour?” in order to establish who isn’t his problem. Jesus tells the parable, then asks “Who was neighbour to the man…?” Who saw his need, and met it?

And can anybody be in any doubt that Jesus’ question is God’s question, too?

And, when you think of it, isn’t the Good Samaritan the epitome of “Keep Calm, and Carry On”?

Because what else can you do?

But there’s more to be said than that. We are called to Keep Calm and Carry On, because by doing what God expects of us in a world gone mad, we witness to the really big thing, in the incredibly small things. We witness to the Kingdom of God in the way we live the smallest things day by day.

Bathos, you see, can be stood on its head.

If bathos is “an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous” then the heart of the Christian faith is that the trivial or ridiculous can turn the world upside down, can get swords beaten into ploughshares, can point to the coming of the Kingdom that is not of this world, by living its life here and now, in faithfulness.

“For consider your call, brothers and sisters;” says Paul. “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are….”

So keep calm, and carry on. Do what God sets in front of you, in the way God wants it done. Because to do that in faith is to point beyond the world as it is, and to point to the world as it should be and shall be.

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