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.