Friday, 2 October 2009

Important anouncement

No, not a new book, but a move for the blog.

From now on, you can read my weekly offerings here, now on my website. If you have been following my blog, then please alter your favourites to the new url and thank you for reading it.


Friday, 25 September 2009

On bad and good art

I fear I'm going to make enemies with this blog but something has to be said. Last weekend we were on the edge of the Cotswolds for a family reunion and on the Sunday spent a couple of hours in the once picturesque but now rather tourist beset village of Broadway. There we found a shop devoted entirely to the works of the American artist Thomas Kinkade and we wandered around looking at the numerous prints and keeping our comments to ourselves. If by some fortune you do not know the work of this gentleman then here is a specimen.

And if you insist here's another.

Now that's probably all you need to know; his work is pretty much variations on a theme and instantly recognisable from ten paces. ‘Thomas who?’ I hear some of you say but what is interesting is this man is probably the world's bestselling living artist.  You may consult his website (I have no intention of giving you the URL) and you will find that he declares himself ‘Thomas Kinkade: The Painter of Light’. (The last bit by the way he has rather modestly trademarked; although as some wit has remarked, ‘The Painter of Lite’ is a better title.) Now normally I would pass over such things but Kinkade makes claims to be a Christian and certainly a little fish logo rests over his signature. Not only that but the Wikipedia article on him (which I have no reason to disbelieve) tells us that his paintings are much loved amongst American Evangelicals. I have a nasty feeling that they are probably popular amongst British Evangelicals too. 

Now here I want to be careful. After all, we all disagree on aesthetic matters: and it could be -I suppose - that my intense dislike of these works is due to a sort of cultural snobbery or a personal dislike of American popular art. Well I've searched hard and I don't think I'm guilty of either sin. Indeed, with respect to the latter I have to say that I have rather a soft spot for Norman Rockwell. I suppose too I want to be wary of what is no more than envy: Kinkade has certainly made a massive fortune through shrewd marketing: another wit calls him ‘the artist formally known as prints’. (By the way Kinkade attracts some extraordinary attacks: there are some spectacular and often hilarious parodies of his work on something I also recognise that the man clearly has (or had) talent; there are well, portions of his paintings that are done well.  And let's face it, in a world where dead sharks and unmade beds can be considered art it's surely no bad thing to see landscapes and homely scenes. Yet when every excuse is made I have to say that I find these paintings bad art generally and, in particular, bad Christian Art.

I have spent some time considering why I dislike these paintings. There are several reasons. I loathe the formulaic and lazy repetition of elements (the glowing skies, the sombre trees, the absence of people, the snow draped rocks and above all, those wretched houses with golden light blazing through the windows as if every stove had suddenly gone supernova). I am sickened by the nauseous distorted colours which seem to me to be the visual equivalent of chocolate sauce and syrup on ice cream. Yet I think my biggest dislike of these paintings is simply that they are not true to the world. It's not just that the water wheels he paints couldn't turn, that no house ever glows like that, or that it’s sometimes impossible to know whether it is dawn or midday. It's something more profound: these paintings are escapist in the worst sense of the word. In Kinkade's world, no shadow falls. And because no shadow falls there can be neither redemption nor authenticity. His paintings, as Christian Art at the very least, are lies both about us and about the world.

By way of contrast (and I hope I don't come over as an intellectual snob), I have been listening to Bach cantatas on the way to and from college. (The first 40 discs by the Japanese Christian Masaaki Suzuki have come out in a series of cheap box sets.) Anyway in Cantata 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Klagen  (‘Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing’) there is a wonderful aria with the following haunting couplet probably based on Revelation 2.10 and 1 Corinthians 9:24.
‘Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden,
Kampf und Kleinod sind vereint.’

Which being translated is “Cross and crown are joined together, struggle and treasure are united”. The great authority on Bach, Durr, suggests that Kleinod should really be translated as ‘prize medal’: so maybe that last line ought to read “contest and prize are united.” Well maybe the alliteration is a little bit cheesy but frankly, it all seems so much truer to life and ultimately, infinitely more encouraging than all of Kinkade’s paintings.

Friday, 18 September 2009

A warning to the incautious

I don't understand this blogging business; post something innocuous and you get lots of responses, say something outrageous and there is only silence. I thought for instance last week I would have lots of responses; instead Catherine took another position in her post (she made some fair points even if I don't agree with them all) and we got not a single response. Oh well.

Anyway, some people might lament the fact that I am not hard-hitting enough, that I do not thrash about and lash the targets of the age with barbed witticisms and withering critiques. (Memo to self: must read Richard Dawkins's new book – that should give me something to be venomous about.) There are several reasons why this is not a more acid blog and my belief in grace and forgiveness is only one of them.

One reason is something that has always lurked at the back of my mind but which has surfaced rather spectacularly in the UK; namely our extraordinary libel laws. I picked up a fascinating and disturbing case in a recent perusal of the New York Times website. The background is that a British science journalist of some repute, Simon Singh, wrote an article in The Guardian in which he said there was no evidence for some of the claims that the British Chiropractic Association makes about the health benefits of visiting a chiropractor. He specifically wrote, “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” That penultimate and incautious word bogus damned him and he is now being sued for libel by the BCA. He is in a desperate no-win situation. In order to successfully defend himself, he will have to come up with at least £25,000 and spend a couple of years battling the BCA; if he loses he will be hammered for the best part of quarter of a million.

The problem is that British libel laws are very biased. It is apparently very easy to bring a libel case against someone and astonishingly hard and costly to defend having made an allegedly libellous statement. The New York Times says that the average cost of defending a libel case in England and Wales is 140 times greater than it is in most of the rest of Europe. Not only that but English law favours the person who believes he or she says she has been defamed.

Now I know almost nothing about chiropractors. Until I did a bit of reading up on the subject I was not aware that there was something of a philosophy behind it and I am not qualified to say whether Singh is right or wrong. (Mind you, I have my suspicions.) The New York Times's point of view was that the UK was definitely not a place for discussion of difficult scientific issues and I have to concur. What is surely legitimate discussion is being suppressed by the fear of punitive litigation.

If pushed to give a Christian take on this, I think I would want to say three things. The first is that, as those who are dedicated to the truth, we must have some sort of commitment to supporting open discussion even if the outcome can sometimes be abusive and hateful. ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). Surely, one of the differences between Christian orthodoxy and fundamentalism is that orthodoxy is prepared to risk being criticised. That somewhat aberrant Puritan, Milton wrote in protest against censorship. (Mind you I wonder whether he would have persisted in his views had he seen what's on the Internet.) If this sort of legal situation persists we will have a culture of nothing but blandness and empty words. Perhaps this is the root of the legendary English politeness: not goodness of heart but the fear of being sued!

The second is that in the sovereignty of God (and the stupidity of men) such actions can actually be astonishingly self-defeating. Courtesy of this action I, and I'm sure many others, have gone from being neutrally ignorant on chiropractors to being better informed and distinctly more negative.

The third is the comforting thought that we know that the truth will ultimately triumph. Perhaps in this life but certainly in the next, the lie will perish. A verdict will be given that is more definitive (and certainly more unarguable) than given by any judge and jury. And if necessary we can wait until then.

So if you do turn to this blog and find a fiery condemnation of some movement or individual, can probably guess that I have left the UK’s shores and am living abroad. In the meantime I will watch out for words like ‘bogus’.

Have a good week.

Friday, 11 September 2009

What governs governments?

Something of the vacuum at the heart of the present British government has been exposed in two recent issues. The first, which has received global publicity, is the curious freeing of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the only convicted person linked to the Lockerbie bombing. Since this action – allegedly on compassionate grounds – took place, it has become widely assumed (and barely denied) that it was linked with a lucrative trade deal with Libya.

A second case, which I only learned about today, is an interesting piece of new legislation. This is the new Vetting and Barring Scheme, in which those who drive other people’s children to sporting events and the like (as well as those who host foreign children) will have to sign up to a registration scheme which will cost them around £60 (or $100) in order for them to be licensed. The motive is of course to deter paedophiles. Now, here of course I have to say – as all commentators on this must say – that I find paedophilia utterly abhorrent and I think that the protection of young people is absolutely vital.

However, there has been widespread criticism of the practicality, efficacy and morality of this. For one, it only picks up those people who have already had convictions or warnings for offences with young people (and vulnerable adults). It does nothing (nor can it do) to prevent such things happening. For another, it is likely to greatly reduce the number of volunteers that there are for such activities; already something of an issue in Britain. And finally, it is all worded so vaguely that it’s difficult to know exactly when a sporadic habit of taking someone’s kids to a football match becomes a regular and notifiable one. Deeper concerns lie in the way that the way that this new scheme will, in conjunction with the existing child protection legislation, result in nearly 12,000,000 people being checked in the UK for working with children; nearly one in four adults. (It is soon going to reach the point where if you haven’t applied for such a form, it will be assumed you have something to hide.) In this, somehow the traditional British legal maxim of innocent until proved guilty seems to have been pushed to one side.

What has driven this current spate of anti-paedophile legislation is public pressure after a small number of appalling and very high profile murders. This pressure has been sustained by the regular whipping up of popular sentiment by the press who delight, in an age of political correctness, in at last having someone, somewhere they can demonise. There is the intoxicating spirit of a witchhunt abroad. Don’t believe me? Apparently 200 case workers will collect information from police, professional bodies and employers, before ruling who is barred, and significantly, they will be allowed to bar people on what is called ‘soft intelligence.’ Heaven preserve us from ‘soft intelligence’; the allegation without a source, the smear without substantiation leading to a judgement that can never be challenged. How can you challenge something that has not formally been given? How can you overturn innuendo? You can imagine the conversation can’t you?  ‘I’m sorry: you’re barred from taking children to a sportsground.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you.’  In fact I daresay this blog will be taken down and put in my file to be used in evidence against me.

Actually, I don’t particularly want to argue the slender merits and considerable demerits of both actions here. What I want to note is that if the Al-Megrahi release was motivated by money, the new legislation is driven simply by popular demand. What is so fascinating and very alarming is that having over the last 30 years shed any moral reliance on the Christian ethic the ship of government is now effectively rudderless in the seas of this world. Without any firm basis of right and wrong the government simply responds to the pull of trade or the push of public opinion. When Bob Dylan sang in Slow Train Coming, ‘Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody’, we assumed that he was referring to us as individuals. He probably was: but states have to serve somebody too.

Have a good week.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Words, words, words

Well, our long summer break has finally drawn to a close. We are now in the ‘phoney war’ stage of meeting students, preparing notes and lesson plans but not actually teaching. That starts properly on Wednesday. It’s a curious moment: the relaunch of what is in most ways a fairly breathless sequence that runs on – head over heels – until May.

Anyway I’ve had some really good news in that, although I was due to teach Geography this autumn along with the perennial Geology and Environmental Studies, the demand for Geology is such that I am being taken off Geography. I’m very pleased about this, not because I don’t like Geography but because at ‘A’ level it is effectively a social science and involves a language that quite simply I neither possess nor understand. So when a Geology paper asks me about earthquakes I can waffle on for ages to students about how they should answer with reference to their tectonic cause and effect and all the various scientific factors: I fully understand the question. But when I come to a geography paper (and I don’t think I’m totally distorting a genuine question) and I read ‘Why do people’s perceptions of earthquake hazards vary?’ I am useless. Actually, I’m probably worse than useless because I would start explaining about plate tectonics and various geological phenomena when, no doubt, the answer is all to do with social, economic and demographic impacts. It’s a little bit like doing The Times crossword or something similar: you look at a clue and immediately think you know the answer, but of course the real answer is something utterly different. So that’s largely a question of a language code that I have failed to crack.

This year we have an added complication of an impending merger between Gorseinon College (where I teach, very academic) and Swansea College (not very academic). All being well things will work out but it’s not an obvious marriage: the hope is though that we will stay pretty much as we are with our generally excellent results undiminished. In the draft document I was given today there was any amount of nuanced statements that we are all trying to read something into. What exactly are they hinting at? Words again.

Another piece of news is that I have just received the cover proofs for a book that is coming out in February called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal by J. John with Chris Walley. This is a book-length treatment of the issues raised by the great parable of the Prodigal (and parables in general). It’s published by Hodder and I am living in hope that it does well. There is another linguistic nuance in the fact that the book is by ‘J John with Chris Walley’. This is evidently supposed to convey something different to J John and Chris Walley, but I am blowed if I know what. Words!

Finally, and probably of more relevance to most of you, is the fact that I have been working on a new fiction book. I wasn’t going to mention it at this stage but I had an e-mail yesterday from the nice lady at Hodder I have been working with, saying she was moving on. So I seized the moment and asked if she could recommend any literary agents and got the obvious response ‘well what sort of a book is it?’ So I spent last night tidying up the one existing chapter and doing a two-page summary. It’s very much a standalone work and it has no resemblance or linkage to the Lamb among the Stars. I don’t want to say too much more about it because it is based on an eminently copyable idea. What I can say is that I have aimed for popularity and have done all I can to make the first chapter as arresting and compelling as possible. Anyway that has now gone on to Hodder and who knows? In the meantime, if there are any literary agents out there who want a really good story then why not get in touch? And here again I will no doubt find myself carefully scrutinising any comment from Hodders or an agent; trying to decode the real meaning behind what is said.

These are just four instances which remind us that words mean more than their dictionary definition. They are curiously slippery and elusive things; so much depends on context, intonation and interpretation. There are lots of deep theological reasons for the Incarnation (‘the Word became flesh’) such as the fact that God had to become a member of the human race in order to legitimately pay the price for human sin. I can’t help but also wonder whether the very elusive nature of words means that sometimes they have to be supplemented with actions to make them unambiguous. In the life and death of Christ we see something louder and clearer than any verbal proclamation.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Preston and the decline of the West

I don't expect that many of my readers will know of Preston. It is a small town on the very northern limits of the industrial north west of Britain. If it is known at all, I suspect its chief fame lies as being something of a landmark on the journey north on the motorway: after Preston the ghastly and almost continuous urban sprawl of Central England is left behind and the Lake District fells begin to beckon. It is a town that I have known from school days so I reckon I've been acquainted with it for a rather staggering 45 years. We were there last weekend (my parents live nearby) and walking through I was struck by the contrast between the Victorian buildings and those created during the last half century.

I should explain that Preston was an important textile town in the 19th century (its motto is ‘Proud Preston’) and like so many of our northern cities acquired a civic architecture appropriate to its status as a global leader in industry. I'm afraid I've had to borrow some photographs off the web but this is the Harris Library and there are a number of other civic buildings of similar scale and quality.

Although Preston survived the Second World War without any major damage from bombing it lost a very fine town hall due to fire in 1947. But much remains: even some of the smaller Victorian chapels display a striking solidity.

Now what struck me in my stroll was how all this contrasted with what had been created during the near half century that I have known Preston. In my time I have seen the arrival of shopping arcades, out-of-town centres, car parks, bypasses and the odd sports ground or two. But there is nothing built to last. Indeed, the massive but now rather shabby concrete bus station built in my youth is now about to be torn down and replaced. This is all rather striking given that the last half century has been a time of almost unparalleled prosperity. Yet as I looked around I found myself wondering where all the wealth had gone. What have we done with the money? Where are the civic improvements that you might expect?

I do not believe Preston's experience is unique: quite simply we do not seem to build anything in the same way these days.  This of course raises the question ‘why?’ Why do we no longer build majestic buildings that we expect to last for at least a couple of centuries? Why are our buildings – with a few exceptions –temporary, ephemeral structures whose best claim to fame is cheapness and functionality? I suspect you would need to be both an architectural and a cultural historian to really pin down all the causes and I am neither.  But let me make some suggestions: I think there are several technical factors that have come together.
  • There are technological changes. Steel, concrete and glass produce a very different building style. We go for lightness and space rather than solidity and weight.
  • With the ever more rapid changes in technology there is no point in building for the future; we all know of old buildings where we cannot fit in insulation, double glazing, fibre-optic cable or even enough electrical power points. In a world where the future is imponderable, the answer is simple: don’t build for the future.
  • City centres are not the permanent features that we thought they might be. In Britain the Second World War was very salutary in this respect. The conventional bombing of Coventry and Dresden demonstrated that large-scale urban destruction was possible; the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that total urban destruction was possible.
  • With the rise of the motor car city centres began to lose their central importance. The peripheries became more important.
Yet there are also I think cultural and philosophical issues worthy of consideration. So for a start, we don’t do ‘civic’ architecture on this scale anymore because we don’t have their values.
  • The elevation of market forces means that cheapness is all. One of the sad maxims of earthquake damage is that educational buildings generally collapse quickly. The reason is that they are thrown up quickly by councils whose agenda runs no deeper than providing a service for voters. There are no votes – only increased costs – in building for centuries.The western world has become dominated by an ideology which centres everything around the private individual as consumer. With such a worldview why take the time to build major and imposing buildings for the community?  Instead we create what is effectively consumerist architecture: and here a building is surely like the packaging around an item; effectively disposable.
  • Yes, there has been a massive growth in wealth but it has been largely diverted back to private individuals and private wealth. We have consciously – or subconsciously – chosen cheap holidays and new cars over faster rail systems, expanded civic libraries and imposing town halls. You could almost say ‘If you want our monument look in our garages’.
  • We simply do not build for the future. Much is made of popular evangelicalism’s preoccupation with an imminent end. I actually wonder whether that is not to some extent an echo of secular culture’s failure to believe in a lasting future.  “Let us eat, shop and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The thing that is striking is that some of this short-term consumerist ethos has found their way into the church. In the Old Testament we see the Jewish people moving from the temporary tented Tabernacle to the solidly imposing Temple. In what we are and what we stand for we seem to prefer the alternative trend. There is something troublingly lightweight, flimsy and ephemeral about much of our worship and teaching and yes, our, buildings. In many ways I am troubled by the massive chapels of towns like Preston and of many Welsh urban areas. They are impractical and hard to maintain. Yet in their construction I see things that I find missing today: a confidence, a hope in the future, a desire to make a lasting statement about values. In a way that we do not, they had faith.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Issues of health care

There has been a certain bemusement in the UK recently over the sudden American preoccupation with the British National Health Service. I followed the debate with some interest: these are important issues. I also have some familiarity with the private system: when we were in Lebanon the system was totally private. The result was that at the entrance of the American University Hospital casualty department two sombre signs were posted . The first read something on the lines of ‘No guns allowed beyond this point!’; the second, ‘Medical Insurance Essential’. Immediately beyond the signs was an armed guard and a cashier’s office to ensure that both these entry criteria were met.

Anyway, I have to say that most Brits I know were pretty indignant about the NHS being trashed on US television by those opposed to Obama’s health care reform package. Passing over the ridiculous assertion that Professor Stephen Hawking would not have been kept alive by the British system, when that is exactly what it has done, our indignation was aroused on a couple of counts.

The first is that on the whole the British system works very well, and when it comes to accidents and emergencies, extremely well. We get the odd horror story but in general the system is really very good at what we call A and E. One of its big plus points is that when you do get ill or injured the only thing that matters is the medical process. If you hear someone in the UK say ‘I can't afford to get ill’, 99 times out of 100 what they mean is ‘I can't afford to take time off work’, ‘I’ve a wedding to attend’ or ‘It’s the big match coming up’. It is also very good for long-term care. As some of you know, our first grandson (now a thriving one-year-old) has a major hormonal deficiency that will require him to be on replacement steroids and to have regular health checks for the rest of his life. The total financial cost to him and his parents of this condition is zero. Well given that all three of them have enough to deal with anyway, there seems a degree of justice in the state shouldering some of the burden. I don't mind my tax money going to that.

The second point of indignation centred on our perception of the existing US health system. Not having much experience of this, I do not wish to comment too much but it is a generally accepted truism that whenever you go to the States you make sure you have good health insurance. There is much that Americans may legitimately take pride in but I have never heard any American boast of their health system.

There is also much muttering in the UK over the perception (note, I choose my words carefully) that the protest against health care reform was being funded by the vested interests of the healthcare industries. Maybe I'm getting unusually cynical, but I too tend to take the old policeman's rule that when faced with a crime, you ask ‘who benefits?’.

However the venerable NHS is not perfect. There are two problems, which relate to the general Christian theme of these blogs, to which I have no easy answer. The first one is that the NHS was created after the Second World War for a population that was still largely speaking, Christian. They felt that life was inevitably tough (the war and rationing had reminded them of that) and they had little expectation of making it much beyond the biblical 70 years. They had, if you like, limited expectations of a Health Service: it was not expected to reverse the Fall. (It should also be said that in those days there was not a lot the health service could do anyway; I have read somewhere that in the first years of the National Health Service, there were only 27 drugs available to doctors.) The problem now is that people expect to live to 90 or more, with all their organs working perfectly, their looks preserved and preferably sexually active, all at the state's expense. (I hate to think of the number of drugs now available to the NHS, or their cost.)

My second concern, and I know it is shared by many people, is the extent to which we should bail out those who have effectively brought upon themselves self-inflicted injuries. I knew someone who courtesy of illegal steroid use during weight training destroyed his knees and put him and his family at the mercy of the state forever. A very large number of injuries received in our excellent accident and emergency wards over the weekend come about as a result of excessive alcohol abuse. And do I need to mention sexually transmitted diseases in unhealthy life styles? I do wonder if we had a private medical system, as we do with car insurance, such people would lose their ‘no claims bonus’ or its equivalent. But a totally free system is inevitably open to abuse.

Anyway I have no easy answers; the eternal Christian dilemma of balancing generosity and justice, fairness and forgiveness, persist. But I would cautiously suggest that, in both the UK and the US, we really need to do some careful and compassionate thinking about the way ahead.