Poor People Need Not Apply...

Well, its 2 weeks today since Sally and I visited the "Book of the Dead" exhibition in the British Museum. It was luxury to spend nearly 3 hours wandering around an exhibition without either of the boys getting bored. That's not to say that they don't enjoy history and museums... they do, but their patience has a limit.
I loved history when I was a child, not just Egyptian history, but I am sure that my love of history would have been deepened had "Horrible Histories" existed back then... They started showing them on BBC2 in the morning's recently and I kept getting sucked in... Their "Awful Egyptians" strand is particularly funny, including this musical introduction to the process of mummification.




It's not strictly accurate (eg. they didn't use scrolls inside coffins to write the book of the dead during the period of the pyramids, they carved/painted them of the walls of the tomb) but that's just me being pedantic...

Another "Awfull Egyptians" sketch that I couldn't find online is based on the fact that Egyptian funerary rites were an expensive business... and the Book of the Dead was part of that... Originally the prayers and spells known collectively as the Book of the Dead were only to be found on the walls of Royal tombs... after a brief time when they fell out of fashion totally they later became popular among the wealthy, first being painted on coffins and later on papyrus scrolls. The very wealthy would commission scrolls specifically for themselves... the merely moderately wealthy would simply buy mass produced versions and fill in the blank spaces left for the name of the purchaser.

Now remember... these spells and prayers are supposed to guarantee safe passage for the deceased from this world to the next... So whilst there was a certain democratisation of life after death down through the years, it was a democratisation proportionate to wealth... Poor people need not even think about the possibility of safe passage through to the next world... But just incase that then meant that the wealthy would actually have to do their own work in the next world, they generally packed some "shabti" figures, that were there to do any nasty manual labour required of them...

But why should the transition from this life to the next be any different from any of the transitions from one stage to another in this life? For me one of the most transformative factors in my life, enabling me to transcend my working class origins, was education, which, through the 11+, grammar school education and free university places, was wide open to ANY young person willing to apply him/herself. That brief window of opportunity is rapidly closing in Northern Ireland. The 11+ is not the gateway to advancement it once was, with poorer parents unwilling/unable to pay for the exam fees and the coaching that more well-off families take as a matter of course. I have no hard facts to back it up, but anecdotal observation would tend to suggest that the social mix at my old grammar school, now attended by my eldest son, is significantly less heterogeneous than it was in my day. Then moving on to university, the increased commoditisation of third level education and putting fees up will, undoubtedly disproportionately deter those from poorer background, whose parents and peers tend to see education as an "ivory-tower" endeveavour. And I don't care if the current ConDem proposals mean that effectively those going to university don't have to pay up front and will only pay back their debt at a time when their pay level rises to a higher level than at present (probably just when their own kids are wanting to go to university!), it is the thought of debt that will deter many. As a friend and colleague posted on facebook yesterday, why does the endebtedness of the country matter, yet burdening young people with debt doesn't? These are proposals coming from people who have never known what it is to want, and have enjoyed the best of education in private schools and top-flight universities. And before you think I am being party political about this, I was equally opposed to the initial introduction of fees introduced by a Labour Prime Minister who had never known what it is to want, having enjoyed the best of education in a private school and top-flight university. This all smacks of the priveleged pulling up the drawbridge and leaving the poor to struggle on. All they are good for is becoming plumbers and painters and decorators. For the rest there is the bread and circuses of the minimum wage and X-Factor (or "Horrible Histories" for the kiddies). Until they die...

Within the church we have sometimes fallen into the trap of preaching pie in the sky when we die. That this world is not what is important... But even there we have occasionally become "Egyptian" in our approach to the afterlife... sometimes blatantly so with the selling of indulgences that in many ways precipitated Luther's reformation, but also more subtly with the "brass plaque" mentality in many churches... memorialising former (wealthy) members in wooden pews and stained glass windows... not actually promising that this would get the deceased a fast-pass to paradise, but not disabusing the bereaved of that idea...

But as we come towards the celebration of the birth of Christ, we should remember that he promised a very different paradise from the Egyptian one(and yes I know that Paradise was a Baylonian/Persian concept rather than Egyptian one, but lets not be pedantic). The one alluded to in the Song of Mary that I blogged on earlier in the week... the one that is summed up in the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first... An upside down kingdom...

But also that that promise is not just about pie in the sky when you die... It is, as the angels reminded those social pariahs, the shepherds, about glory to God in highest heaven AND peace (justice, equality and prosperity) to God's people ON EARTH, Not life after death, but life that transcends death... Eternal life, which is not about the hereafter, but which begins here and now...

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