Column
Culture
4 min read

Death focuses our minds on what really matters

From ballet tales to royal soap opera, stories shed light on Lent's dark mortality.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

In the style of a Rembrandt painting Prince Harry embraces his father King Charles.
Midjourney.ai

The season of Lent – the 40 days of penitential fasting preceding the great feast of Easter – is unavoidably about death and dying. Christians try to die to sin; the season culminates with the brutal, if salvific, death of the Christ on the cross on Good Friday and it’s said that if we, as disciples, can’t die with him at Calvary, then we can’t truly know what it is to rise with him at Easter dawn. 

Those of us who attend an “ashing” service at church this Ash Wednesday, will have a cross traced on our foreheads by a priest, made from the ashes of the palm crosses from last year’s Palm Sunday, with the words: “Remember that dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.”  

Reprising folk goddess Joni Mitchell, we’re thus reminded that we are but stardust and these bodies that we lug about are all bound towards that destination. In short, we’re all going to die.  

So as signs of new spring life are appearing all around, the Christian Church starts to wallow in existential misery. To paraphrase the lugubrious Mona Lott (geddit?) from the wartime BBC comedy It’s that Man Again, it’s being so cheerful that keeps we Christians going. 

Against this, I’d like to mount a case that there really are reasons to be cheerful in Lent; that, if the words of the ancient Gregorian chant that “in the midst of life we are in death” are true, then the reverse is also true, that in the midst of death we’re living life. 

Dead, but alive again. Lost, but found. These are the qualities that ameliorate the dark mortality of Lent.

This thought comes to me partly because of the extraordinary reconciliation and peace that families often experience as they lose one of their loved number. And it comes partly having just watched a livestream of the Royal Ballet’s latest production of Manon. Our heroine dies in a New Orleans penal colony, having been exiled as a prostitute from bourgeois Paris, sustained at the end not by worldly wealth but only by the devotion of her lover. 

It’s quite a story – catch it if you can. It contains the key tenet of faith during Lent, that love conquers death. Having embraced our Lenten mortality, that’s the truth we endeavour to embrace at Easter. And that, for me, begins to put the love back into Lent, which is otherwise bleak and bitter, like the sour wine offered to the dying Christ. 

My case is that it takes our mortality to clock what’s really important. And we witness that human realisation all the time. I believe we’ve just seen it in Prince Harry’s transatlantic flight to visit the King on his cancer diagnosis. King Charles becomes simply a dad again when his son is presented with the reality and realisation of his mortality, that sooner or later he is going to die.  

As it turns out, that reality turns out to be infinitely more important than whether he got a smaller bedroom than his big brother when they were boys (copyright Spare, Bantam Press). 

It’s stories like these – from Manon to the soap opera of the modern royals – that put human mortality into bas relief, so that we can see it properly. But it’s particularly Harry’s mercy mission to his father that chimes, for me, with a gospel story, or parable as we call them. 

It’s not one that’s about kings or weddings – or even principally about death and dying. I’m thinking of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Plot synopsis: A landowner has two sons. The younger one asks to cash in his inheritance and travels away to a foreign land, where he spends all he has on a debauched lifestyle (cf. the Paris from which Manon “escapes”) and is reduced to tending pigs and coveting their swill. He returns humbled to the family estate, where his father welcomes him with a feast, much to the consternation of his brother. 

Sound familiar? Sure, Charles isn’t God, as we assume the forgiving father to be in the parable. Nor is Harry asking to return, humbled and repentant (though we don’t know that, do we?). Nor has he been reduced to a diet of pigswill, unless California and Netflix contracts count as that. 

Possibly more accurately cast is Prince William as the elder brother, who in the parable objects to his sibling’s welcome back, pointing out that he’s done all his father’s work without such reward. 

Here, for our Lenten purposes, the father’s reply is key: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” 

Dead, but alive again. Lost, but found. These are the qualities that ameliorate the dark mortality of Lent. For royals, commoners, the trafficked, the desperate and alone, it delivers the one thing that death can’t extinguish: Hope. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen