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.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Talking to God

There’s a lot that I could blog on this week, from family matters to healthcare policies, but I want to continue the theme that was picked up last week: that of language. One of the fun things of struggling with another language (and I never do more than struggle) is that, like looking in a mirror, you see familiar things very differently.

Anyway, let’s begin with some grammar. For those of you that don’t know French, French verbs take a tu form for family, children and close friends and a much more respect-laden vous form for everybody else, particularly those who are above you socially. Vous is also used when you are addressing more than one person. Most tourists tend to use the vous form in France because it’s less likely to give offence. English residents and others living in France apparently go through nervous agonies knowing when to shift from the vous to tu form. (I’m told that there are similar patterns in German, Spanish and other European languages: it is called the T-V distinction and you can read all about it on Wikipedia.)

Now God doesn’t play a major part in French culture. Voltaire and others had good go at ejecting him around the time of the French Revolution and he never really seems to have made much of a comeback. You get the impression that, in popular French Catholicism, the ‘Blessed Virgin’ and the ‘Saints’ tend to occupy what we might call the spiritual ecological niche that Father, Son and Holy Spirit fills in Protestantism. Certainly all the evidence is that if God is at all considered in the French mindset he is as a very remote and distant character. So with that all in mind, it comes as something of a surprise when, reading a French Bible you see that God is addressed in the intimate tu form.

On and off this week I have been trying to find out through the Internet and a French teacher friend something of the origins of this peculiarity. What transpires is that the Protestants seem from fairly early days to have used tu to address God while the Catholics didn’t. This caused some animosity and heightened the religious divide between them. The Protestants were held to be overly familiar; they seem to have retaliated by saying that the Catholic use of vous could mean that they believed that God was not one. Given that Bible reading was not actually approved of in Catholicism until 45 years ago, the debate was probably quite academic. However at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) papal approval was given firstly, to reading the Bible and secondly, to using the informal manner of address. So things are changing: nevertheless, some French Catholics have never adjusted and still resolutely use the vous form of God. After all, the argument goes, isn’t it inconsistent to address the Virgin Mary as vous but to address her Boss (so to speak) as tu?

This leads back to the fact that we used to have a similar problem in English with thee, thou and thine. Thee took the place of the French tu and was used for close friends and social equals and inferiors. You/ye and yours were reserved for those of higher social status. (There is a very good Wikipedia article on it). Apparently it had largely fallen out of use by around 1650 in southern Britain so all those historical novels set in the Civil War with them thee-ing and thou-ing are probably incorrect. As an aside, it has persisted in North English dialect until the present. Growing up in Lancashire it was very common to often hear people addressed as thee: as in “I’ll get thee a cuppa’ tea” and “where has tha' been?” Being totally lacking in linguistic skill (grammar of any sort was starting to die out in the 1960s) I only now realise that it was restricted to use between friends and in the singular form only. The curious irony is, of course, that many people assume that the use by the Authorised Version (KJV) Bible of thee and thou is to indicate a respectful distance between us and God. That was not the meaning: far from it.

In fact, the issues here are not entirely linguistic; it’s the old dilemma of familiarity and respect. Because neither Hebrew nor Greek uses this T-V distinction we don’t have a pattern to go from. In this respect English Bible translators have much less of a problem: they don’t have to choose. I suppose using the tu form in prayer is something one would learn. How suitable you would feel it was, would probably depend on how you felt you stood in respect to God. If you see God as your Heavenly Father then the family tu form would no doubt seem utterly sensible. But if you see him as Lord then I presume vous would seem more appropriate.

A final comment here. In the Lamb among The Stars the Assembly worlds speak the artificial Communal. In case anyone asks I have no real answer as to whether that language would have preserved the T-V distinction. The issues of familiarity and respect, of God being Father, Friend and Lord are, this side of glory, not easily resolved.

Have a good week


Friday, 7 August 2009

On the future of English

One thing was very striking in France this year, the fact that almost everybody we met was able to communicate in some way in some form of English. Don't misunderstand me, we used French with the French and for the most part got along very well, but every so often we needed some help and at this point they would take pity on us or overcome national pride and come up with a helpful statement in some form of English that would clarify matters. The Germans and Belgians also seem to have access to a similar, rudimentary but functional form of English. (What about the Dutch you say? In my experience the Dutch almost without exception speak English very well: sadly, the true Dutchman/Dutch woman often reveals their origin by speaking amore formal and more correct English than we lazy speakers ever would.)

This is the phenomenon that has been called Globish (pronounced globe-ish), a word which I will avoid because it seems to be a patented term with a particular philosophy behind it. ‘Global Basic English’ may be a better term. But whatever you call that there is no doubt that the phenomenon of English-Lite it is here and is increasingly widely used as a functional lingua franca across the world. It is able to deal brutally with tenses so that past, present and future simply become ‘I go to town yesterday’, ‘I go to town today’, ‘I go to town tomorrow’. Plurals are created simply by adding an S to anything. You identify the subject of a sentence by simply saying ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘they’. Sentences are kept short. Vocabulary is reduced; some people say to as little as 1,500 words. Adjectives can be put before or after the noun and are very limited: ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘cheap’, ‘expensive’, ‘many’, ‘few’. Word order is astonishingly flexible. Anything remotely clever or subtle like puns, humour, sarcasm, irony, nuances or ambiguous words is avoided.

On the whole I welcome this. Ever since Latin stopped being the language that every civilised gentleman and lady used we have been waiting for something like this. It's not quite the end of the curse of Babel but it’s better than mutual incomprehension.

Some people however object to this on the grounds that it is the triumph of American and English culture over the rest of the world. I am not so sure: the whole point about Global Basic English or whatever we call it is that it does not replace the native language. It is hardly going to be the main language of any culture. It is not easy to be romantic in it for a start and it is hardly suitable as a language of politics: for that you need a language in which it is far easier to mislead people than in stark, plain GBE. One of the key proponents of Globish is French and he sees it as being the salvation of the French language; I can see his point.

Two observations. First, if the rise of Global Basic English is at all threatening, it is threatening to native speakers of English. On the one hand, it is we who are most inclined to be misunderstood by our use of complexities and nuances that others eschew. On the other, there will be a danger that High English will be corrupted by the presence of its debased English-lite offspring. One teacher grumbled to me this year that he felt some of his native English speakers were incapable of using past, present and future tenses correctly. And this was at A level! And of course the fact that you can universally be understood with a subset of your native language is not exactly going to encourage us to master French, German or Spanish, let alone the really difficult languages of East Asia.

The second observation, which does have a spiritual significance, is that in some respects we have been here before. Scholars point out that classical Greek which was venerated by every civilised man because of its flexibility and great literary tradition, gave rise to a vulgar offshoot, Koine Greek. Koine Greek (which eventually acquired a much greater subtlety than Global Basic English has at the moment) became the language of tradesmen and the marketplace anywhere where the Greeks had once ruled; which was pretty much most of the Mediterranean and well over as far as Mesopotamia. It seems to have coexisted with classical Greek.

The really interesting thing is that it in this Koine Greek that the New Testament is written and which appears to have been the language of much of the early church. That is something you need to remember when you hear people defend the Authorised Version (KJV) on the grounds of its beauty of language. Equally it is worth remembering when you come across preachers who deliberately aimed for a polished preaching style with a high use of English. (The Arabic church has suffered greatly from preachers who feel that they must communicate in high classical Arabic; Welsh speaking friends tell me that their church has also suffered at the hands of men who aspire to flowery literary elegance.) Those of us who are writers and who aim for a measure of literary competence and even that hard-to-define thing called style need to remember that a debased language seems to have been good enough for God. When it comes to preaching, it seems that style and elegance are added extras. In the beginning was the Word…

Friday, 31 July 2009

Burglary and France

I suppose if you read the last few blogs you had this vision of me writing them from a cool, damp Swansea. Well, I have to disillusion you. We have been on holiday and in fact I wrote the last three blogs together in the first week of July and had them remotely posted in our absence. I did however manage to check on my blogs reasonably regularly courtesy of my iPhone and a very dodgy and extremely expensive GPRS network. So I hope no one was terribly miffed when it took 48 hours for the answer to be posted.

You see the thing is you can hardly announce on the Internet that you’re going away on holiday for the next two weeks. All someone needs to know is where you live (and that probably isn’t too hard to find) and Mr or Mrs Badperson can break in and help themselves. Actually, you’d find it quite difficult with us as we have a very efficient burglar alarm and one or two neighbours who seem to know exactly what we are doing, even when we aren’t doing it.

We haven’t had a burglary for over ten years. What happened the only time we have been burgled is quite revealing about Swansea and doesn’t really reflect much credit on Swansea, its burglars or police. In addition to taking one or two valuable things, such as my wife’s engagement ring, the thieves helped themselves to a large part of my CD collection but apparently failed to notice that all the CDs were classical ones. I alerted the only two second-hand shops in Swansea that might conceivably take classical CDs (as you may have gathered, it’s not that sort of the town) and gave them my phone number in case some unlikely character decided to try and offload some improbable music. (You can imagine the dialogue. ‘Yeah well, I guess I’ve kinda got bored wiv late ‘em late Beethoven quartets. I know all the tunes.’ )

Rather to my surprise, a few days later, I did actually get a phone call: a couple of girls who obviously didn’t know Bach from Borodin had tried to sell a bag full at one shop and were heading to the next one. With the extraordinary glee that comes from the realisation that your own intelligence and righteousness is about to achieve a glorious victory over someone else’s stupidity and wickedness I called the police. They moved with uncommon swiftness and met the girls at the shop. Here however the achievement of the constabulary grinds to a miserable halt. The cops took the CDs off the girls on the grounds that they felt they might be stolen property, but let the girls themselves go because they couldn’t prove that they were stolen. (Me? I’d have asked them to whistle the opening bars of Beethoven Five but then I’m mean like that.) When, a day or so later, I went down to the police station I was asked to prove that the CDs were mine. At this point, I showed them that a number of them actually had my name and address on sticky labels on the back (I had lent them out to friends). Faced with this rather unwelcome but peculiarly compelling piece of evidence that they were genuinely stolen, the police then decided to search the girl’s accommodation. But by now the master burglar who had been running the show had moved on along with the loot. I was told that the girls were involved in drugs, that it wasn’t them that had done the burglary anyway and while I could press charges of them being accessories and receivers of stolen goods, the nasty man behind them would probably beat them up. So, I shrugged, committed it to divine justice, took my CDs and went home. The insurance kindly coughed up for all the other missing bits but they got their own back (they always do) by increasing premiums and insisting that we had a burglar alarm installed: which has on occasions been more trouble than it’s worth.

Anyway I digress. France was wonderful. We drove right the way down to the southeast corner, the Cote D’Azur, just above Nice. For the first week we stayed at the new centre A Rocha France have at Les Courmettes because I wanted to see how suitable it was for doing geology. We had intended to drive around the Mediterranean a way before coming back up the Massif Central but instead we found a nice warm freshwater lake with a good campsite and stayed put instead, enjoying sunshine, heat and good food. When we came back to Swansea it had been (guess what) raining pretty solidly for two weeks. As it is now. And probably will be tomorrow.

I consider myself pretty incorruptible. If someone offered me a life in the French countryside for a single night’s act of quality and competent burglary you’ll be pleased to know that I’d say no.
But slowly.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Mind the Gap

I have been reading through the 10 Commandments and the social legislation that follows in Exodus 20 over the last few days and happened to glance at the notes in my NLT Study Bible. The writer made the very interesting point that although many of the legal elements have parallels in other documents of the ancient near East, the cause and effect linkage between faith and ethics found here seems to be unique. In other words although there were religious practices elsewhere and legal rules aplenty, it seems that very few people connected the two. Yet in Judaism to be a believer in Yahweh was to live out his religious code. To some people this may come as something of a blinding novelty: after all isn’t religion all about ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that’? Well apparently it wasn’t common then.

The interesting thing is it is becoming increasingly uncommon now. We are seeing – increasingly I fear – a split between ethics and faith. In other words we are coming to a point where belief is totally separate from actions. So we have all sorts of people engaged in all sorts of unpleasantness and immorality (and please remember that immorality is not just to do with sex) who are quite happy to call themselves Christian.

I was reminded of a classic example of this in my recent reading up on the Napoleonic Wars where towards the end the Duke of Wellington plays a major part. A few years ago I read a very fine biography of the great soldier (and not so great politician) called ‘Wellington: The Iron Duke’ by
Richard Holmes. Here, as far as I remember, on one page Holmes details the Dukes voracious sexual appetite: it was of such an extent that one suspects his genes are now widely disseminated throughout Europe. Then a few pages later he discusses his religious beliefs with a degree of care and concludes that he was a generally orthodox run-of-the-mill Anglican. The really striking thing is that there is not a single sentence to suggest that the biographer saw any contradiction between Wellington’s faith and his actions. For Holmes, religion is in one compartment; behaviour in another. Interestingly enough this is surely sloppy history. Even if a late 20th century author sees no contradiction in a promiscuous and openly adulterous man having a Christian faith, then surely the Duke himself and his contemporaries would have been aware of the tension.

Of course you don’t have to look into biographies to see such sentiments. Many religious people parade their spirituality and do not feel obliged to justify or excuse the evident immorality of their actions; whether sexual, financial or behavioural. We can easily be tempted to go along with this current mood. For instance I quite often get annoyed with my students, laugh at rude jokes or say things that I later think ‘Doh! I really shouldn’t have said that.’ Yet I don’t think in four years of teaching I have ever had anyone say ‘Chris isn’t that inconsistent with your Christian beliefs?’ But they all want to know whether I believe in the Big Bang. Maybe I should point out my own inconsistencies?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Self-help is no help

I don’t know how many of you picked up the following news item but it is a worthy subject of reflection. As reported on the BBC site, it was that Canadian psychologists have come to the conclusion that self-help mantras actually make you feel worse. “Those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. They said phrases such as ‘I am a lovable person’ only helped people with high self-esteem.”

Now of course this is just one piece of research and it should be surrounded by endless qualifications (see the NHS comments). Nevertheless I found it extremely interesting. This sort of thing is pretty widespread (see your local bookshop) and indeed sanctified-to-some-degree versions widely occur in modern Christianity.

The fact is I have always been suspicious of this form of self-help. Curiously enough it is not, I think, that it poses theological problems; it is rather that it flies in the face of science. It has always seemed to me to be the mental version of trying to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe that facts stay facts whatever we say about them. I suppose the extreme example here is the dismissal of the reality of illness by Christian Science (which, of course, famously is neither Christian nor science). Surely we have all had times when if we had tried to say to ourselves ‘I am a lovable person’, the honest response would have been ‘No, I am not!’

It’s a pity really. I honestly wish the world’s ills could be cured by simple mantras, regularly applied. I would cautiously suggest instead that the traditional Christian approach is better. Here two elements seem vital. The first is the honest (and, no doubt, painful) evaluation of the flawed beings that we really are and the second is the recognition that God, in Jesus Christ, loves us. (By the way, the latter is a vitally different thing from ‘finding us lovable’.) These two elements must be applied together or we get into trouble. God deliver us from ‘wretched sinner’ preaching unless it comes with the antidote of abundant grace. We must only make wounds where we also administer healing: and there cautiously. Such a two-pronged message has a double virtue: on the one hand it allows us to make an honest diagnosis of who we are and on the other it offers us a source of help that is outside of ourselves. Instead of sinking in a bog of internal self-denigration, we are able to stand on the rock of abundant external grace.

I wish indeed it was otherwise. But it isn’t. While psychologists may not agree with the Christian solution they seem ready to agree that the alternative doesn’t work.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Oxford and Cambridge and dealing with regrets

Last week I had the privilege (and I mean it) of being one of six staff taking 40 students from Gorseinon College to Oxford and Cambridge for their open days. It was something of a four-day epic and I’m still slightly recovering from it: you can never relax with even well-behaved students and temperatures hit 30o+.

For me the trip aroused ghosts. I don’t often talk about my past and any future biographer (dream on!) may well be delighted by the factual crumbs I here present. Due to some obscurity in our local education rules I went to secondary school at the age of 10 and was thus a year younger than almost everybody else. The school I went to (Hutton Grammar School) was well over an hour’s journey away and I used to leave the house at seven in the morning and get back after five. I did very badly in the first few years and managed to find myself on Headmaster’s Report for poor performance. In hindsight, I was simply exposed to too much, too early. It is symptomatic of what Hutton was that no one spotted the problem. (Mind you it did have two good biology teachers and an excellent geographer to whom I owe considerable and lasting debts. The RE teacher, by contrast, was a sadistic liberal brute whose violent temper was such that everybody was very scared of him.)

Anyway, by Sixth Form I had begun to master my problems and was showing academic promise. When my A level results came out they were extremely good but by then it was all too late and I ended up at Sheffield. I now realise that this had (with some minor exceptions in the staff) a truly lousy Geology Department. Indeed when, a number of years later, I came to lecture on Geology in Beirut I found there were some very fundamental elements of the subject that were a profound novelty to me. Here ends the history lesson.

Anyway you can imagine that, last week, I often found myself often wondering ‘What if?’. What if that warm August day in 1971 when I went in for my results, some discerning teacher had said ‘Hey why not come back for a third year and try for Oxford or Cambridge?’? One of the problems of being a fantasy writer – perhaps it is a just punishment for aspiring to write in such a genre – is that we can create our own alternative life scenarios all too easily. We ask, all too often, ‘what if?’ and imagine the alternatives.

Now that, dear friends, is one of my own ‘what-might-have-been’ or ‘road-not-taken’ moments. It is a somewhat peculiar (and intellectually snobbish) one but I suspect most of us have something similar. The job we could’ve taken; the guy or girl we should have asked out for a date; the tough decision we flunked. And so on….

I suspect there are a lot of things that could be said about this and I would be grateful for sane and spiritual comments. Let me list some observations of my own.
  • We rarely, if ever, know that the road not taken would have been the better road. I might not have enjoyed Oxford or Cambridge or I might have become even more intellectually arrogant than I am… (apparently blog writing is a sign of intellectual arrogance) and so on.
  • We cannot live our lives looking backwards: you can never drive a car successfully if you constantly peer in the rear-view mirror. The issues I have are not what I might have done in 1971 but what I will do in July 2009.
  • Regret is a poisonous diet. It can sour all that we were, all that we are and all will be. A disappointment is unfortunate; but to have it wreck the rest of our lives is to turn a disappointment into a disaster.
  • This sort of view (like greed, which it resembles) is insatiable: life could always have been better. After all I did go to university and eventually got a PhD! Isn’t that enough?
  • A specifically Christian perspective is that we are told that this world is not all that there is. It is at best a brief preparation for eternity. Everything ultimately is to be judged in the light of eternity. That is what really counts.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Buildings and bad ideas

A friend of mine from the United States who reads this blog sent me this web address . It’s basically about the problems of the Anglican Church in the UK and how some churches are considering putting advertising placards on their steeples in order to pay for the incredibly expensive upkeep of their buildings. I sympathise. What is quite interesting in Wales is that although there are a vast number of disused chapels, most of the new churches (and there are a few) are avoiding them and using schools or old cinemas for worship. The upkeep of historically important buildings is difficult enough but it is even worse when you have to abide by well meant legislation for the preservation of ancient buildings which prohibits you doing common sense things like ripping out pews or removing the organ.

As I was thinking about this I was reminded of a book idea that I almost certainly will never write called Ten Bad Ideas in the History of Christianity. Let me list some of these and you can use your intellect to guess the where and when of them.
  1. ‘ Say, I have this great idea, instead of meeting in homes, why don’t we make special buildings for our fellowship meetings? I do know, we could call them “churches”.’
  2. ‘My Lord Emperor, have you considered making Christianity the state religion? That way religion would support the state and the state would support the religion. A great idea: can't fail. ’
  3. ‘Your Highness, we were wondering if as Pope, you have ever considered getting a lot of men together, giving them a few swords, blessing them and then having them sail over to the Holy Land and take it back from the infidel. You could call the whole thing well, a crusade.’
  4. ‘Your Highness, we are sure that, as supreme Pontiff of the church, you find the widespread presence of heresy and dissent distressing. One novel suggestion we have for ensuring the smooth running of the ecclesiastical world is to have a special body of people authorised to establish good practice throughout Christendom, by force if necessary. You could call it The Inquisition.’
  5. ‘Galileo? You need to sort him out: you don’t want these science people getting ahead of themselves. Make him recant.’
  6. ‘Witches? Bad news all round. Hard to deal with. I know! We could try burning them.’
  7. ‘Given that so many people don’t seem to want to believe in Christianity anymore perhaps we can try pushing the argument from design. After all you can’t reason your way out of that can you?’
  8. ‘Ah Bishop. There’s some chap speaking in favour of this thing called Evolution down in Oxford. I don’t suppose you’d like to go and oppose him would you? Make it plain who holds the intellectual high ground. A bit of ridicule - a spot of humiliation - that sort of thing.  That ought to sort that lot out. ’
  9. ‘ Archbishop, Number 10 here. The Prime Minister would be awfully grateful if you could call the present conflict a “holy war”. Wondered if you could point out how diabolic the enemy is and promise our boys that they are doing God’s will. You know the sort of thing.’
  10. I can’t think of a tenth but I’m sure you can.
Well, have a good week, and try to spot the bad ideas before you carry them out, not afterwards.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Lives in shadow and sunlight

I am currently reading a book on the Napoleonic Wars called War of Wars by Robert Harvey. (No, I am not writing a book on the time; it’s just that it’s an appalling gap in my own knowledge I would like to remedy.) It’s an easy read although I was a bit alarmed to find from the Amazon reviews that there are a number of minor historical errors.

Anyway yesterday I came across mention of Charles Middleton, 1st Baron Barham (October 14, 1726 – June 17, 1813) a British naval officer and politician. ‘Who?’ you say, and frankly I don’t blame you: you’d have to be a specialist in the period to know him. The point is that Barham was head of the British Admiralty during the Napoleonic Wars, by which point he was in his late 70s. Essentially what we would call a ‘desk warrior’, Barham made sure that the ships and sailors were supplied with everything necessary to fight Napoleon. In an age of corruption, he was incorruptible and at a time of sloth, he was energetic. He was, by all accounts, the model of the perfect civil servant. It was his wise decisions and prudent planning that made sure that Nelson was able to resoundingly defeat the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. You will not be surprised to know that Barham was a very committed Evangelical and one of the early proponents of the abolition of the slave trade. In fact, it may even have been Barham who suggested to Wilberforce that he take up the antislavery cause. We Protestants do not have patron saints. If we did, Baron Barham would be an excellent one for civil servants and those whose lives involve sitting in offices, ticking off items on lists and balancing books. Perhaps there is a stained glass window of him somewhere.

Anyway as I was thinking of the good baron, news came in of Michael Jackson’s death. As one of the few people on the planet unable to hum a single bar of anything MJ ever sang I am reluctant to comment on his worth. I would cautiously suggest (there is a certain irony in my tone at this point) though that despite what many commentators have been saying, the loss to music is not quite on the same scale as if Beethoven had fallen off a cliff at the age of five. Nevertheless I found myself sticking up for the man a couple of occasions today when it was sneeringly suggested that he was a paedophile: the court found that he was not guilty. From what I understand (and I did once watch a documentary on him), Jacko seemed to be a tragic figure, a mixed up child whose development into a man was frozen by the glare of the spotlight. If ever we wanted evidence of the cost of fame, his all too short life surely provides it.

Anyway, I thought the two figures contrasted rather nicely. Barham, office bound, overlooked, labouring on dryly and steadily into an enormously profitable old age, and Jackson, the global celebrity, burnt out in the light of publicity at barely half Barham’s age. I know which I’d choose to be.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Things I don’t like about Britain

In last week’s blog I accentuated the positive and praised our noble isle; it is now time for me to be negative. However I find myself with a real problem. This morning in Iran, the supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Britain of being particularly ‘evil’. (For some reason the United States of America escaped his wrath: perhaps under Obama you are no longer the Great Satan.) After a great deal of soul-searching I have decided to take the risk of providing the Ayatollah further proof of his case. (Actually your Grace/Highness/Ayatollahness, I really don’t mind you quoting me in your next rhetorical blast before ten thousand students: it wouldn’t half do wonders for the book sales.)

Anyway here goes:
  • The way that, although the British do political correctness as well as anybody else we still, deep down, believe that we are number one nation. The result is a degree of smugness and barely suppressed superiority. This leads to many other problems:
    • Our astonishing reluctance to learn any other language.
    • The general assumption that the only way to do things is our way and the sooner that the French, Chinese or Indians actually catch up with us the better they will be.
    • A quietly patronising view towards such people as Americans and frankly everybody else. We don’t like to publicly call them inferior but well……
  • A viewpoint that tends to think that cutting and hurtful sarcasm is the ultimate pinnacle of humour.
  • An attitude which greets any and every occurrence of patriotism, morality or self-sacrifice with a sneer.
  • The way we take our landscape and culture for granted and are only slightly and momentarily upset when they get trashed.
  • The appalling and overpriced British railway system.
  • The increasing prevalence of drunken behaviour. I suspect we always did have a considerable number of drunks but what seems to be abnormal is the astonishingly early hour of the day in which drunkenness can now occur and the fact that people now seem to be proud to be paralytic. By the way, a drunk in a British train is a horror squared.
  • The increasingly prevalent view that anyone who is in any way religious must be slightly damaged in the area of intelligence.
  • A ridiculous mawkish tendency to burst into tears when it comes to fluffy animals and dead princesses. It is not actually the emotion here that is to be blamed but the inconsistency. We don’t bat an eyelid about creating a shopping complex that wipes out an entire family of badgers because we have destroyed their habitat, but we get terribly upset when someone runs one over. And as for the dead princesses, well we probably hounded them to their grave.
  • The weather. I object to a continuous nine months of cold grey cloud and rain interspersed with brief moments of sunlight.
  • The utterly inconsistent British view of sex. The powers that be lament our appalling rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion while our popular media insist that the only way to have fun is to be horizontal with someone else.
  • The prevalence of the belief that someone who sits in an office doing nothing more than moving bits of paper around enriching one part of the world at the expense of another is somehow vastly superior to a man or woman who actually makes things for sale.
  • The ridiculous and frankly catastrophic view that you buy a house (or preferably several houses) as an investment. On this basis house prices going up is a good thing because it increases your investment; the fact that it harms society by creating a vast body of people who cannot ever afford to buy houses is conveniently overlooked.
  • The dreadful price of things in this country. This is largely due to the previous two ills. Because we have legitimised greed as honourable and because house prices are so expensive we all need to make as much money as we can. The only way of doing that is by such things as charging three pounds/ five dollars for a cup of coffee that tastes like mud.
  • I have a personal aversion to various products from United Kingdom that I think the world would be much better without: these include Benny Hill, Big Brother, most football stars and Jeremy Clarkson. The only saving grace of all of them is that they have contributed to the gross national product.
  • A view of history which attempts to explain many of the fine things about British culture (see last week for examples) as being somehow due to ‘Britishness’ (err, isn’t this racism?), rather than our nation’s long traditions of Christian ethics.

Well if you live somewhere other than in Britain in Britain and a stranger with a suitcase knocks on your door this week don’t be surprised. It’s me seeking political asylum. But as a concluding aside: why is it so much easier to say negative things about your country than positive ones?

Friday, 12 June 2009

What I like about Britain

Much to everybody’s surprise the Prime Minister appears to have got off the hook despite pretty appalling European election results. The reality is that his party is in such trouble that no one particularly wants to take over given that they have to hold a general election within ten months or so.

Anyway by way of a change I thought I would run two-parter on a) What I like about Britain and b) What I don’t. Feel free to join in. What I like, in no particular order, are the following aspects of Britain.
  • No matter where you live in the UK you don’t really need air conditioning.
  • The fact that we are in hopeless confusion about what we called: Great Britain/British Isles/United Kingdom and whether we are British/English/Welsh/Scottish or whatever the Northern Irish call themselves.
  • We use a language which has a remarkable property of allowing sentences be comprehensible even when the words are put in all the wrong places.
  • We haven’t had a proper massacre on British soil for probably 400 years. (Some idea of how rare a proper massacre is can be seen when you look at the events of 16 August 1819 when cavalry with drawn sabres charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 which had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. The result was that 15 people were killed and the event became known to posterity as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. I've known Lebanese family disputes with a higher death toll.)
  • Except when drunk (see next week) there is a tradition of agreeing to differ and a refusal to adopt a belligerent position. Typical English phrases include ‘I can see where you are coming from…’ and ‘Well, I suppose that’s a fair point but I would like to point out that…’
  • You have to work hard to get frostbite. (Although if you wear a swimming costume on a British beach on the average summer day something very similar seems to occur.)
  • There are no wild animals and our one poisonous snake species manages to kill two people a century or thereabouts.
  • To be an underachiever is absolutely normal. Indeed there is something wrong with your ambition if you do not want to be an underachiever. We are truly excellent at mediocrity.
  • BBC radio, BBC on the Internet and the BBC World Service. Not however the BBC television service.
  • The fact that we are now vaguely repentant and apologetic about having tried to conquer large parts of the world. We certainly have no idea of making another attempt.
  • The idea of the English pub in which over several hours people slowly drink a brown moderately alcoholic drink and politely discuss what’s wrong with the world. (Note that I said the idea: the reality is now often very different but that’s for next week.)
  • The fact that no one ever visits Britain and says (as they do in Belgium and Finland), ‘Say, did anybody famous ever come from here?’
  • The fact that the monarch is not a political appointee.
  • A national church which dogmatically holds only one belief: that it is wrong to hold dogmatic beliefs.
  • The fact that British police are generally unlikely to shoot you and when they do they are fearfully apologetic.
  • The way that we persistently and rather endearingly hold onto the belief (against all the evidence) that we really are good at some things such as comedy, car making, playing football and acting as a good moral influence on the United States and/or France.
  • We have some jolly fine museums mostly filled with splendid bits that we looted from all over the world when we were top dog.
  • The way we rejoice in our defeats (Dunkirk) and rarely get jingoistic about our triumphs.
  • Our penchant for finding the real world so distasteful that we must seek refuge in fantasy.
  • A widespread refusal to complain as in ‘Mustn’t grumble, must we?’ (This of course has the unfortunate repercussion that all manner of substandard things can persist in Britain because no one does protest about them. Just try the railways.)
  • Being nice to animals. (I was in the British Museum last weekend where there are some splendid Assyrian wall panels; listening to the bystanders it was clear that no one objected to the scenes of torture and humiliation of human beings but everyone was outraged at the scenes of lions being killed.)
  • We lead the world in fine funerals. Few people want to live as a Brit but most aspire to die like one.
  • The widespread view (unfortunately not held by newspaper proprietors from Australia) that it is unsporting to interfere with the press.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Leadership and morality

As I have no idea of how many of you are UK residents I need to fill in a little bit of the background to the current political situation over here. These are dark days. Gordon Brown’s government, beleaguered and astonishingly unpopular, is clearly in its last days. I am not aware that he has publicly been compared to a zombie but he has certainly been recently called a dead man walking. The government is beset by defections, allegations and recriminations; the ship of state is now so deep in the water that it cannot surely stay afloat long. Indeed, by the time you read this blog Brown may have resigned. For three weeks we have had day after day of revelations on how ministers and others have sought to bend or break various rules in order to maximise their income. A vast majority of the country now firmly believes that most, if not all, of our politicians are actually corrupt.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilt on our leaders and I do not want to say any more about them in particular. What I want to comment on is the interesting effect on public morality that this succession of mini scandals has had. I haven't exactly heard anybody say ’Well, if they can do it so can I’ but I've heard things are pretty close to it. There has been an almost audible slackening of the nation's ethical standards; a collective sigh of relief that tax dodging, expenses fiddling and sharp property deals are actually no longer serious offences. If national morality was a needle on a gauge then we have had it flicker and sink ever lower. The date cannot be far away when the accused turns to the judge and says ‘Your honour, in my defence, I was only doing what my MP has been doing for years.’ I am not personally terribly surprised at these revelations (I lived in Lebanon for eight years where almost all politicians were seriously corrupt) but I do not find them uplifting. One had hoped for better things in a country famed for its decency and democracy.

Let me make three observations. The first is that this shows the utter importance of leadership. It may sound blindingly obvious – and perhaps it is – but leadership is important in setting the moral tone of the country. I am not sure how much we learn from example, but I do know that we set our standards from it. We are a species that suffers from herd behaviour. As the leaders, so the followers; as the shepherds, so the sheep. If those who lead a nation are at best greedy and at worst corrupt, then you are unlikely to find better behaviour amongst the population.

The second is this. Having said that leadership is critical, it is one of the great strengths of Protestantism or biblical Christianity that it creates an individual morality and in so doing provides something of a defence against corruption from above. My understanding of the Protestant view of humanity is that every single one of us stands as individuals before a knowing God. I'm not terribly enthused by the old phrase that used to be embroidered on wall-hangings, ‘Thou God, seest me’, but it's undeniable that to have individuals perceiving themselves as personally accountable before God has had an astonishingly benevolent effect on society. Protestantism proves to be a great and potent bulwark against widespread corruption. There is a fascinating organisation called Transparency International which provides lists of the least and most corrupt countries. On the table of perceived corruption the least corrupt countries are overwhelmingly the Protestant states of northern Europe and their former overseas colonies. One of the biggest challenges facing atheism is how, in the absence of a supervising deity, you are going to prevent antisocial behaviour. It seems that if we remove God we must replace him with the CCTV and trial by press.

The third reflection is that this, above all, needs to be a truth that we take on as individuals. Human nature being what it is we are all tempted to be corrupt in some shape or form. Corruption is subtle, insidious and progressive. It starts small but soon grows. We need to resolve personally to make sure that we stop the rot as quickly as possible. And if we are in leadership we need to take more care, not less, to be honest.

Have a good week


Friday, 29 May 2009

Dealing with the media

Here’s a question for you about two females who have been in the news this week. The first is the so-called Messel Lemur, a stunningly well preserved early primate about 48 million years old found in the oil shale of Messel, Germany. The second is Susan Boyle, the 48-year-old unknown Scots singer sometimes described as ‘chubby’ or ‘dowdy’, who created something of a national and international sensation in the Britain’s Got Talent television program. What links the two? There are of course any number of uncharitable answers to this involving perhaps the number ‘48’, ‘preservation’, ‘hair’ and ‘being female’. The real answer is that both raise interesting questions to do with the media.

Let us consider first, the older of our two females. Three things are noteworthy. First of all, the Lemur (or proto-Lemur) was immediately proclaimed to be a ‘Missing Link’ and our great, great grandmother umpteen times removed. Whether or not this is the case is not my point here; the fact is it that it was an inevitable but clever piece of marketing. As a lemur, pure and simple, no one would care. I can’t resist using the British slang expression “no one would give a monkey’s”. (Please don’t look up the origin of this: although the expression itself is reasonably harmless, its origin is unspeakably rude.) However, rebrand it as ‘a missing link’ and the press will be banging on the door.

The second smart trick was to give the creature (technically Darwinius masillae) the cosy little name ‘Ida’. My suspicion is that this is a tradition that goes back to 1974 when ‘Lucy’, more prosaically known as Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in Ethiopia and has been a big hit ever since. So that was another nice marketing touch. A third is more subtle. In a rather curious (and possibly unprecedented) way, no sooner had news of Ida been announced in the scientific press when it was revealed that the BBC would be showing a programme on her the following day narrated by no less than the Blessed Monarch of Natural History, David Attenborough. This strikes me as very curious. The normal pattern in science (and I remind you I do know a little of what I am talking about here), is to publish the data and then wait for speculation, comment and criticism. In theory, once the dust has settled there will be something like a scientific consensus and this the point at which the press ought to be involved. Given the lead time to produce a TV programme suggests that the scientific team had been working closely with the BBC right from the start. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong in what has been done: it’s just that this smacks of the press and science being a little too closely linked. That’s a worrying trend.

With Susan Boyle – who went from utter unknown to international star within days – things are very interesting and I refer you to the Wikipedia section on her entry entitled ‘Social Analysis’. With nothing else to talk about apart from the biggest political scandal for several hundred years (that was irony) the popular press has been building up Ms Boyle to an astonishing degree. Yet those that live by the press can also die by it and this week Ms Boyle has made the headlines of the wrong sort for lashing out at people with a pretty foul-mouthed tirade. The papers are beginning to turn on her.

The fact of the matter is that the media has a ravenous and insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation and we need to keep them at a distance. There is an ancient* Russian proverb which says ‘However cold you are, it is not a good idea to share your bed with wolves.’

*If you cannot find it in the standard dictionary of Russian Aphorisms don’t worry: I’ve just invented it.

Friday, 22 May 2009

On pigs and servants

In last week’s blog I was lamenting the fact that I had had my geology classes halved in number and doubled in size. In the intervening week I have to say there has been very little apparent progress in college but I have had three very able first-year students say they want to switch to geology next year so I live in hope that public pressure will force something of a climb down.

One factor that may have an effect is the imminent European elections. How so? Well it is generally expected that the ruling Labour Party will be massively damaged in these elections and be forced to throw out some sops to ordinary people (as opposed to bankers and the like) to avoid being cast into the outer darkness in the General Election that must occur within the next twelve months. So the hope is that they will find some money from somewhere and rescue education. Well, we live in hope!

Matters have been made much more intense by the spectacular series of revelations about MPs’ expenses. For those outside the United Kingdom let me remind you that the House of Commons, which is effectively the country’s governing body, is composed of some 646 members of parliament elected by constituencies. MPs get paid a decent salary (by most people’s standard) and a very generous pension (by almost anybody’s standard). It had always been taken for granted that they were entitled to expenses, often centred around having a property in London; after all an MP from South Wales can hardly be expected to catch the train up and back everyday. These expenses figures were secret but have been leaked over the last fortnight in the right-wing newspaper The Daily Telegraph. They have revealed a range of things:

  • Many MPs have been pushing the expense system to the absolute limit: so for instance we find that entire homes and flats have been furnished at the public’s expense. Some of the claims have been either outrageous or banal: glittery toilet seats, jellied eels, moat cleaning, a floating ‘duck island’ for a pond, hair straighteners. While much of this is legal, it is either dubious or petty.
  • A number of MPs have been exposed as creatively manipulating the system to make quite a tidy little profit. One ‘nice little earner’ has been what is now called flipping; a technique whereby a Member of Parliament switches his or her second home between several houses, which has the effect of allowing the maximisation of taxpayer-funded allowances. Other tricks have been buying rundown property, getting the State to refurbish it and then selling it at a personal profit before buying another one and so on.
  • Some MPs have clearly been engaged in fraud and are being interviewed by the police and the tax office.
As the quip goes: ‘we were prepared for swine flu; we were unprepared for a plague of pigs.’

In the resulting flurry of righteousness, recrimination and resignations, MPs have been quick to come up with excuses. These include such things as ‘accounting clearly isn’t my strong suit’, ‘I seem to have made a mistake’, ‘ I apologise for my unforgivable oversight’ and so on. The public have shown an astonishing appetite for these revelations, and still the scandal rolls on. The prurient desire to look into lives of those who rule us is almost universal and this scandal has allowed it with a vengeance. The fact that we are in a massive economic downturn has also exacerbated matters; had the country been booming I think we would have been much more forgiving.

Anyway the point of this blog is not to say what everybody else is saying but to say something else. The most obvious Christian comment is that given that modern British society has become separated from any creed or ethical basis this sort of thing is hardly surprising. I have no doubt that such scams were present in the past: but were they ever so endemic and were they ever quite so wide ranging? In some cultures – those of you who know my background will guess where I am referring to – it is expected that the politicians are corrupt and will defraud the nation. We had hoped otherwise here.

A more subtle point is that it is now evident we have lost the servant ethos that goes with Christianity. MPs are ‘elected to serve’ a particular constituency. Not, you note, to rule. With the death of the servant ethos what has emerged is an astonishing arrogance; a wilful belief that as a Member of Parliament you have a right to plunder the system. Now, one of the most striking features of the Christian faith is its outrageous and irrational celebration of service. There seems little question even in the eyes of those who are sceptical about the authenticity of much in the gospels that this goes back to Jesus of Nazareth. (See for example Mark 10:45: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”) Sadly, in the present scandal we are beginning to have sketched out what politics looks like when men and women rule rather than serve. We do not like what we see.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Failed hopes and faith

Let me begin by a little bit of background. Around 10 years ago Wales was granted some degree of independence within the complex geographical unit that is the United Kingdom. Its governing body, the Assembly (which seems to increasingly bear less and less resemblance to the benign and competent Assembly of my novels), has both jurisdiction and funding control over a few limited areas. One of those areas is education. Recently, partly due to pressures caused by the recession and partly due to what seems to be incompetence, they have managed to cut funding to many schools and colleges that provide education for our 16- to 18-year-olds. One of those badly affected is my college, where we have something like a £400,000 shortfall.

I hasten to add that our academic record is exemplary, but these days being good doesn't seem to be enough. (Actually, it seems that you are better off being a poor performer because the trend is to throw money at failures rather than successes.) Well this week we were told that there would have to be major cuts and various drastic measures including increasing class size and reduced course options. I have been moderately badly hit by this. From teaching almost nothing but geology I will now have to diversify into geography and a wider area of environmental studies. And, on current numbers, I will have class sizes of around 24. Now of course all this may change (prayers are welcome) but the mood has been pretty glum in college and I have to say I have felt pretty discouraged. Had it been financially feasible I might have been tempted to hand in my resignation this week on the grounds that educational standards are likely to be compromised. But it wasn’t feasible. I consoled myself with the thought that I once ran an academic department that survived a direct hit from a tank shell, an assassination and an invasion. So I will try to grin and bear it.

Anyway, what I have found interesting is that a number of people who are more badly affected than me are less fed up about it. Some of them are not, as far as I know, Christians or believers in God. This raises an issue that I have noticed before: Christians can get upset and worked up over things that other people are largely unaffected by. In fact it may even be – I have no figures to prove it –that there are slightly higher numbers of depressives in Christianity than outside. What’s going on here? How does this square with our songs of joy and our talk of victory?

A full answer would require a book and a lot of time. I suspect though that a major factor is that we very easily fall into a gulf between the world as we believe it ought to be and the world as it actually is. Let me explain what I mean. Imagine you are an atheist of a Dawkinisian hue: how do you view the world? I suspect you would see it is as an imperfect place full of temporary ad hoc solutions due to working of that interminably slow, blind and extraordinarily clumsy giant Evolution. On such a view the failure of an educational policy, the triumph of bad over good, the destruction of something – or someone – worthwhile is just one of those things that happens in a messy meaningless and godless world. ‘Things are a mess!’ we protest, but our Evolutionist simply responds: ‘What right have you to expect anything otherwise?’ As Shakespeare has Macbeth say: ‘life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’

The Christian, however, takes a different view. For one thing, we have higher hopes; we believe that good should triumph, that evil should be punished and that in every way things ought to get better. I am not here being rude about atheists (although if you ask me nicely I will be) but I do believe that we Christians dream higher dreams. So our expectations are higher. We would, though, go even further. We believe in a God who has not only created the universe but also supervises it. On this basis we have feel certain that when some dirty deed is done, God as the cosmic referee will blow the whistle and cry ‘foul!’

On this basis you can see that we expect life’s little tales to have happy endings. And, all too frequently, they don't.  If you understand this you can see why perhaps we more easily get depressed when unrequited nastiness occurs or unjudged stupidity triumphs.

There are two answers to the conundrum we find ourselves in. The first is to lower our expectations – and that I am reluctant to encourage; I feel we must always aim high and hope for the best. The second is to remind ourselves that we do not here see the full picture. As the old image goes, what we see is merely the back of the great tapestry and here there are many random and tangled threads. We have not yet seen the real end of the story.

I am not of course defending depression; if you are suffering from it I wish you a speedy recovery. But if it is the depression caused by the gap between high idealistic hopes and a dismaying reality then you deserve every sympathy. Far better to dream and be frustrated than not dream at all.

Have a good week!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Talking about time

For various reasons time has been at the forefront of my thoughts quite a lot this week. One reason is that I have finished my teaching of AS students; those totally ignorant fresh-faced kids I first met in September are now slightly less ignorant and about to face their first exam on Tuesday. My, how time passes! Secondly, I have been looking through boxes of old photographic slides to try and find some images suitable for a talk. It has been slightly disconcerting to see images I had long forgotten, and very disconcerting to find, on the other end of the slide viewer, a youthful me staring back across the gulf of years. Thirdly, I got the recent Geological Society of London annual bulletin and read obituaries of people including one who I knew pretty well. I struggle with how someone who once existed in a most solidly flesh and blood fashion is now no longer with us.

Time and its passage disconcerts us for several reasons. Firstly, it is of course an ‘intimation of mortality’, a reminder that our tenure of this world is utterly temporary. Second, it is also something of a reminder of the futility of so much that human life is centred on. As I read the obituaries of some of those whose names were unknown to me, I realised that many of them had once had only the briefest and most ephemeral moments of glory. Some had been advisers to long-forgotten governments, others fashionable exponents of now discredited geological ideas, and still others finders of now exhausted oilfields. Time drains the value of most achievements.

Yet the third disconcerting aspect of time is perhaps the most subtle. It is simply this: we do not in any shape or form understand what ‘time’ is. We measure something that we call time; we are aware that time passes (but what exactly does that mean?). Yet we cannot hold time, reverse time or store, buy or sell it. Time remains an utterly alien and unfathomable substance. It is presumed to have started with the Big Bang but even that remains an uncertainty. In every sense, time remains the most remote and elusive of concepts.

And here Christian friends, I draw to your attention the fact that time is an interesting point to consider if you ever find yourself up against a wall in an argument about God. You know the sort of thing; that confident sneer ‘Where is your God? Show me him and I will believe in him. Go on! Prove his existence’. You may at this point choose to refer to time. There are innumerable questions that can be raised. What is time? Can the existence of time be demonstrated? When did time begin? In time we have a commodity whose existence everybody accepts yet which cannot be proved in the laboratory. Time demonstrates the inadequacy of the human mind. It does not to my way of thinking prove the existence of God. It is however suggestive that we ought to be very wary about confidently asserting that only those things that we can touch, see, measure and understand have a reality.

Have a good week. I hope to write again in another seven days time; whatever that really means.


Friday, 1 May 2009

New Labour and a warning to evangelicals

At the start, let me say that this blog is not really about British politics; it is about something else far deeper. I actually wonder if it doesn’t touch on something of fundamental and rather worrying importance for the evangelical church. But let’s start with the politics.

One thing that has become apparent in Britain over the last week or so – although it has been looming for some time – is that what has long been called ‘New Labour’ is finished. The financial debacle, the massive rises in unemployment and various other scandals have so doomed the present administration that wherever you look on the storm-tossed ship that is the Labour government you can see people desperately running around looking for seaworthy lifeboats. Indeed so catastrophic is the pending electoral disaster that most of them seem reconciled never to play a part in politics again. A generation in the wilderness looms.

The background is worth repeating. As the Wikipedia article helpfully puts it, the traditional Labour Party ‘was in favour of socialist policies such as public ownership of key industries, government intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, increased rights for workers and trade unions and a belief in the welfare state as well as publicly funded healthcare and education’. After 20 years in which good old-fashioned Labour was so out of sympathy with the contemporary world that it was unelectable, Tony Blair and his colleagues (one is tempted these days to use word cronies) created a rebranded and updated version of the Labour Party: New Labour.

New Labour was a subtle creation. On the one hand it claimed complete continuity with the past. Traditional supporters were reassured that it was still Labour: at party conferences, the followers of Blair sung the same old songs, cheered the same slogans and assented to many of the old aspirations. Despite considerable misgivings, long-term Labour supporters were reassured that all that they had held dear was still present. Yet on the other hand New Labour now presented a friendlier face to the public. It was smoother, sleeker, more contemporary and, above all, more acceptable. Much of the old confrontational language about class struggle and social justice was no longer heard: the party was utterly remarketed. The floating voter was charmed and under the chameleon-like Tony, New Labour achieved a massive 179-seat majority in the 1997 general election . It has retained power until the present.

Yet now, as the wheels spectacularly spin off the wagon of the New Labour enterprise, the old Labour supporters are saying that they knew all along that this would happen. All their misgivings as to whether New Labour was actually Labour in any real sense have returned with a triumphant vengeance. It certainly now seems that, beneath all the words and new slogans, whatever the Blairite project was, it wasn’t really Labour at all. It was a charade, the survivors of old Labour say, and the fact that it has come to such a sticky end is utterly predictable.

Well, I have my reservations about both Old and New Labour and Old and New Conservatism too. In fact, I am increasingly thinking that the roots of our national problems lie too deep for politics to change. Nevertheless I think the account of New Labour – so clearly now in its final chapter – is worth us evangelicals thinking about.

Why? The answer is this. Those of us who are contemporary evangelicals claim that we are part of a great and honourable lineage going back through the Victorians as far as the Puritan reformers. We count men such as Bunyan, Wesley, Whitfield, Spurgeon and Lord Shaftesbury as our spiritual ancestors. We sing the same songs (well a few of them, at least). We pronounce the same mantras. We read the same Bible. We have the same creeds and we hate the same sins.

Yet just occasionally when I read some of the older literature, listen to some of the older songs or read biographies about some of those who we are proud to call our forefathers, I look around the contemporary evangelical scene and I do not find their like. Particularly in the areas of godly living and zeal for witness I find something of a mismatch between them and us. Is it possible, I wonder darkly, that while we wear their clothes and use their names, we are not indeed either them or of their party? When I point out such differences of language, outlook and emphasis I am speedily reassured that these are but minor changes of externals done in order for us to relate to a new clientele. The chorus of soothing voices says ‘Relax! Nothing fundamental has changed! The New Evangelicalism is just the Old Evangelicalism reclothed.’

And as I wonder whether that is indeed so I look at the tattered and beaten remnants of New Labour. And somehow, I am strangely afraid.