Thursday, 12 May 2011

Tongues of Men and Angels

"If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal..."

Yes, it's the Corinthians! And no, we're not at an English wedding, you can put away your fascinator. It's just that I'm reading Paul's letters for a new project, which for once means I'm part of a broader trend. The advantage of living in Paris is that you can spot the hottest new looks before they catch on in the rest of Europe. Spring/Summer 2011 is apparently all about wedge heels and Christianity. Sarkozy himself, that great crusader for secularism, shows it off nicely in this photo of him congratulating some Christian ladies in headscarves on their religious heritage.
("But I thought he was against headscarves," I hear you say, fiddling with your wedge heels. Do keep up, please. Headscarves are only bad when they're Muslim headscarves.)

So, the Corinthians. I was reading the King James version, eagerly scanning the pages for the best bit - because the passage about love is, after all, very, very beautiful. There's a reason why it's a wedding classic.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I couldn't find it.
I went back to the beginning and read the letter again, more slowly this time, and realised why I had missed it: in the King James version, the Greek word for love is translated as charity. As in: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity..."

This made me sit up because two days ago, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail about charity, lack of. She'd been attending a European Union event where people with long, important titles were congratulating each other on inventing free travel, human rights, correctly shaped bananas and, yes, charity. That was on the day the Guardian reported that 61 migrants had been left to die of thirst and hunger on a boat in the Mediterranean. 

My friend failed to specify what tongue those charitable EU souls were speaking in. In any case, their self-congratulation chimed nicely with this recent quote from Sarkozy, who was clearly speaking in the tongue of a politician seeking reelection:
"Christianity has given (France)...a magnificent heritage of civilisation," he declared during his springtime visit to Puy-en-Velay, where he met the nuns in the photo, adding that it's "always dangerous to amputate your memory."

Sarkozy is a busy man, flitting between nuns and summits with Italy over reinstating EU border controls to keep out those huddled boat people. So I thought I'd to my bit to prevent the amputation of our memory with this slightly adjusted passage from the King James bible, as a reminder to myself and all those men, angels, presidents and English wedding guests out there:

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself.
Charity turneth not away North African immigrants at the border, nor seeketh to abolish free travel, nor trumpeteth its hard-core immigration policy to win votes from the far right.


  1. The same passage (in its King James version, rather than your refreshing reworking) constitutes the climax in Tim Parks's "Teach Us To Sit Still". It's strongly recommended - for fans of well-wrought prose, clear thinking... and that remarkable passage from Corinthians.

    1. Interesting, I've been meaning to read his book - thank you for recommending it.