Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Eastern Promises

Very good and absorbing film, but I'm not sure I've got anything particular to say about it. Cronenberg really captures something about London though. Three and a half out of five.

Flickr feed for my photos

I've started to put more photos onto my Flickr account than I will publish on the blog - for example this one! It's possible to subscribe to the Flickr account via an RSS feed, which means that when they get posted to Flickr (at least once a month) you'll get sent them all in the usual way. Just thought some people might be interested in that...


I have come to sing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I really shouldn't drink tea after mid-afternoon. I had a cup about 6.45 last night and it was one of the reasons why I only got about four hours sleep last night!! I feel like I'm inching towards a finishing line and can't wait to flop over. I'll probably watch several episodes of Lost tonight...


Paradox: that about which I was extremely worried is now even more worrying - but I am at peace in my soul. (My wife is really very wise....)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Graven image

As in this image should be graven into my brain.
(More genius from ASBO Jesus)

Learning Church this morning

I did manage to record the talk, but I'm not sure I want to post it as I was very dissatisfied with the outcome. There were many positive aspects, and I think it's set the framework for the coming weeks, but it made me realise that some of the things I am arguing for need to be much more fully explained and supported. There's still time for that but it does make me think I'd be better off keeping the reception of that talk to those who were there. As and when the perspective is more fully baked, I'll write it up on the blog.

UPDATE: nothing like a walk with Ollie on the beach to clarify things. The problem is that I wasn't careful enough this morning to distinguish between 'evangelicalism' - in the sense I want to criticise - and the green area on my chart. I want to, at one and the same time, affirm the essential nature of the green area, and criticise some aspects of it that have a centrifugal tendency and want to separate themselves off from the main Body. In other words, I need a different term, either for the green area itself or for what I am wanting to critique. Perhaps it would be best of all to abandon 'evangelicalism' completely as it may be too nebulous a term for practical use (which would rather undermine the title of the series as a whole! but that might be the right thing). How about keeping 'Scripture' or 'the Scripturalists' or 'the Scriptural perspective' for the green area - because then the role of the green area is clear; and then using 'Modern Protestantism' for what I'm wanting to criticise? I have a feeling I've used that phrase before...

Actually I can keep the title - I just need to be clear that evangelicalism as such is not what I'm arguing with, and I need to be disciplined in using that term "Modern Protestantism" for what I AM arguing with!


A heart strangely warmed.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Guitars in worship

bls has launched a C.H.O.C.T.A.W. manifesto, for the avoidance of crap worship. This is something I have a lot of sympathy with - and yet I am presently being accused of precisely that because I am encouraging - nay, I am insisting - on the use of the guitar in our principal communion service. Click 'full post' for a preview of an article in our upcoming parish magazine which explains why. See also this post (via *Christopher) for another point of view, and the comments there for yet more!

There are few things that are more likely to cause disagreement amongst Christians than questions to do with the use of music in worship. Consider this cartoon - as the saying goes - music is too important to be left to the musicians (grin). However, putting on a more serious hat, I would like to say something about the use of the guitar for some songs in the 11am communion service, as this has been causing pain to some members of the congregation. This may take a little time as it touches on very central elements of the faith.

It may be argued that it is never appropriate to use a guitar in the context of a church worship service. This I see as a very weak argument, for a rapid survey of church history will demonstrate that stringed instruments have a much deeper and stronger relationship with Jewish and Christian worship than has, for example, the organ. There are enough Scriptural references for people to be familiar with (try the last few psalms for a starting place) but consider this passage:

"It happened on Sunday after Christmas - the last Sunday they played in Longpuddle church gallery, as it turned out, thought they didn't know it then. As you may know, sir, the players formed a very good band - almost as good as the Mellstock parish players that were led by the Dewys, and that's saying a great deal. There was Nicholas Puddingcome, the leader, with the first fiddle; there was Timothy Thomas, the bass-viol man; John Biles, the tenor fiddler; Dan'l Hornhead, with the serpent; Robert Dowdle, with the clarionet; and Mr Nicks, with the oboe - all sound and powerful musicians, and strong-winded men - they that blowed. For that reason they were very much in demand Christmas week for little reels and dancing parties; for they could turn a jig or a hornpipe out of hand as well as ever they could turn out a psalm, and perhaps better, not to speak irreverent. In short, one half-hour they could be playing a Christmas carol in the squire's hall to the ladies and gentlemen, and drinking tay and coffee with 'em as modest as saints; and the next, at the Tinker's Arms, blazing away like wild horses with the 'Dashing White Sergeant' to nine couple of dancers or more, and swallowing rum-and-cider hot as flame."

The particular form of worship used within a church changes over time - it always has done and always will. The particular style of music used here in West Mersea for the 11am was principally shaped by the Victorians, who were responsible for introducing robed choirs (imported from 17th century Italy). The question of principle is whether that style of music is necessarily the right one to adopt today, bearing in mind the purposes that music is used for. There is some unanimity on that score: some months ago the Worship Committee agreed that "the role of music is to support, enhance, enable and - occasionally - to express the worship of the congregation". The issue is therefore whether the use of the guitar is something which enables a congregation to worship; but that itself begs the more fundamental question: what is the congregation at the 11am service?

One of the principal changes that has come about in the last few years here at St Peter's and St Paul's is the development of the 9:30 congregation. The liturgy at the 9:30 was specifically designed to be simpler and more accessible to the newcomer, and the music more modern. When the service was launched there was no clarity about whether it would succeed or not, or whether there would be much of a demand for it or not. Manifestly there was both a desire for such a service and it has been tremendously successful. Yet the consequence is that the overall balance of the church's life has altered - and that has to affect the 11am service.

The 11am service is the principal Holy Communion offered in this church. It is the place where Christians who are separated through the week can gather and break bread together - as Christians have done since the very beginning. Whilst I am very happy that some of our services can be seen as 'niche' services, whereby those who desire particular forms of worship can have those desires met, I believe it would destroy our unity in the faith if the 11am service became a 'niche' service in that way. The purpose of the 11am is to be the 'big tent' whereby as many Christians as possible can come together for the breaking of the bread. That will inevitably mean that no one group within the church will be completely content with what is offered, whether that be "traditionalists" who dislike the guitar, "9:30ers" who don't like choral anthems, or the Rector who mourns the absence of incense. Yet this is no bad thing - we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves and if we are only prepared to worship with those who are just like us then we have failed to recognise the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11.29 - and it has the consequences that Paul describes in that passage).

As a consequence of these two things - a change in the balance of our overall church congregation, and the necessity for the 11am service to be a spiritual home for as many brothers and sisters as we can achieve - we have begun to explore different ways of doing the 11am service, so that it more accurately reflects the nature of the whole congregation, not just the existing 11am attenders. There is no point in having a principal communion service if the nature of that service is such as to actively exclude large swathes of the church body. This is still a work-in-progress, and is tied up with the re-ordering of the sanctuary. It will take quite a few more months before we are in a position to see where the 11am service will be, although those who attended the recent '9:15 Morning Praise with Holy Communion' will have a good idea of how I would like to see the 11am service develop.

There are undoubtedly times when, as we have explored a different way to do the 11am, we have tried something new and it hasn't worked. That is my fault as I am the one pushing the exploration, sometimes over the objections of the musicians! Yet I don't believe that God is opposed to exploration and failure - there would be nothing worth redeeming if that was the case. Whatever the birth-pains associated with the introduction of the guitar into the 11am service I do see it as absolutely essential to the long term spiritual health of the church that we embrace the guitar - and the flute and the piano and the violin - and the choir and the soloist and the organ - that, in short, we embrace each other at the 11am service. This is our common meal, where the church family says grace and shares with each other. There will always be jostling and elbow-jabs but that is what makes us who we are: a Christian community, learning what it means to love one another as our Lord loves us.



Thursday, October 25, 2007

Do not be afraid (October Synchroblog)

Better late than never - click full post for text.

A late synchroblog this month - and I'm deliberately writing it before reading any of the others just to ensure that I have a little something to say!

Our eldest has been invited to a Halloween party at his school, and my wife wondered what I made of it, ie should we let him go? I have little patience with the idea that allowing a child to attend a contemporary Halloween party is bad for their soul, but that could do with a little bit of unpacking just to make sure I'm not misunderstood. I believe that it is perfectly possible for children to enter into grave spiritual harm from exposure to the wider culture. Most of the products and mindsets advertised in between the cartoons, for example, damage the souls of children, which is why most of the TV which may children watch - and it's highly restricted in the first place - is advertising free. I would even be open to the idea that there are elements of Halloween consumer rituals that can be specifically damaging, primarily through frightening an unwary child. Yet it seems to me that if the child of a Christian is damaged in that way then something has already gone wrong with their upbringing (or, more likely, something goes wrong with the response to the scare). What is going on at Halloween is spiritual warfare, ie the ghosties and ghoulies are released for a time (and half a time....) This is something that needs to be taught to children, ie how they are to cope with spiritual attack. (Sidetrack: one of the best things about Harry Potter is the invention of the Dementors - I'm sure that has been very helpful to parents of children who succumb to fears and depressions, and there is of course something very profound about the Expecto Patronum which dispels the fear....) To my mind there are really two key teachings that must be shared with children from the earliest age: that no demon can withstand the power of Christ, and that we carry the light of Christ within us. If a child is taught such things in a serious and considered way then I see no issue in their attending a Halloween party.

This teaching of spiritual warfare needn't be excessively detailed - that can wait for greater age - but to teach a child that the spiritual realm is real, that imagination is important in life, and that they have the capacity to move within it for good or ill - this seems pretty sane and sensible to me. Of course, the rationalist in me says 'why don't you just teach them that it's all nonsense?' - and I wouldn't do that because it isn't all nonsense. The imaginative realm, the spiritual side of our life - this underlies everything else, and is more REAL than anything else. So using Halloween to talk about the spiritual life, and what steps need to be taken to preserve oneself in that realm - this seems perfectly proper.

Yet what is assumed here is that the parents are themselves able to engage in spiritual warfare - that they are themselves not emasculated by the presence of the darker side of life. I would argue that the incapacity to engage in spiritual struggle is a fairly clear indication of spiritual poverty, and that there seems to be a correlation between those who veer away from Halloween (or Harry Potter) and a shallow theological perspective. In other words, I think we as Christians are called to a much deeper and darker intimacy with the Lord than is sustainable in much contemporary Christian discussion. What I mean by this is that it's not possible to develop any spiritual strength without literally and metaphorically getting our hands dirty, without going outside the places of safety. So often the reaction against Halloween or Harry Potter or anything else seems a replay of the Pharisaical purity laws, and a retreat into a Christian ghetto, that place of pure leaven uncontaminated by any bread, that gnostic, witless and disembodied corner of fearfulness. We are called to go outwards into the world, bearing the light, so that those who are in the darkness can be drawn to the light and thereby redeemed. If we can't do that in the context of a Halloween party, how on earth will we be able to do that in the face of the ecological holocaust now coming down upon us?


What a way to go.
Which I watched last night - probably a longer rather than shorter review will be posted here tonight.

Monday, October 22, 2007

From Stephen Fry to Thomas Merton

Most of you probably already know this, but Stephen Fry now has a blog, and it's very good. (And if you're wondering how come I'm managing to read lots of blogs today it's because the meeting I had scheduled for 10am in Colchester got cancelled so I have a bonus couple of hours to navel gaze;-)

In the midst of a really interesting essay (he calls them "blessays") Fry writes this:

The entire interaction works better if there’s a little understanding on each side. You might be the fortieth person that day to approach your sleb. They might have just heard that their favourite aunt has been diagnosed with cancer. On the other hand, the famous person should remember that it takes courage to approach a stranger, especially one you’ve only seen on TV or at the movies. They could so easily squash you. Many newly made slebs fall down especially in the area of compliments. It’s perhaps a very English thing to find it hard to accept kind words about oneself. If anyone praised me in my early days as a comedy performer I would say, “Oh, nonsense. Shut up. No really, I was dreadful.” I remember going through this red-faced shuffle in the presence of the mighty John Cleese who upbraided me the moment we were alone.
‘You genuinely think you’re being polite and modest, don’t you?’
‘Well, you know …’
‘Don’t you see that when someone hears their compliments contradicted they naturally assume that you must think them a fool? Suppose you went up to a pianist after a recital and told him how much you had enjoyed his performance and he replied, “rubbish, I was awful!” You would go away thinking you were a poor judge of musicianship and that he thought you an idiot.’
‘Yes, but I can’t agree with someone if they praise me, that would sound so cocky. And anyway, suppose I do think I was awful?’ (which most of the time performers do think of themselves, of course.)
‘It’s so simple. You just say thank you. You just thank them. How hard is that?’
You must think me the completest kind of arse to have needed to be told how to take a compliment, but it was an important lesson that I (clearly) never forgot. So bound up with not wanting to look smug and pleased with ourselves are we that we forget how mortifying it is to have compliments thrown back in one’s face.

Now this reminded me of something I read by Thomas Merton a week or so ago, which I wanted to record (it was in the 'Celebrating the Saints' volume that we use at Evening Prayer):

A humble man is not disturbed by praise. Since he is no longer concerned with himself, and since he knows where the good that is in him comes from, he does not refuse praise, because it belongs to the God he loves, and in receiving it he keeps nothing for himself but gives it all, with great joy, to his God.

…The humble man receives praise the way a clean window takes the light of the sun. The truer and more intense the light is, the less you see of the glass…There is danger that men in monasteries will go to such elaborate lengths to be humble, with the humility they have learned from a book, that they will make true humility impossible.

How can you be humble if you are always paying attention to yourself? True humility excludes self-consciousness, but false humility intensifies our awareness of ourselves to such a point that we are crippled, and can no longer make any movement or perform any action without putting to work a whole complex mechanism of apologies and formulas of self-accusation.

I suppose the word being looked for here is grace.

Fr Christopher Jamison has an excellent analysis of humility in 'Finding Sanctuary' which I continue to ponder.

Of course an analysis of fame that I find most interesting is Robert Pirsig's. But perhaps another time on that.


The perfect tonic for Anglican communion worries. Found via Bishop Alan.

More worried

I try not to say anything too often about the Anglican Communion controversies, but I've just read a letter from Rowan that I find really strange. I had thought I could understand - and sympathise - with his approach, but this one is staggering. It'll take me some time to digest. It's the abandonment of provincial authority which is mind-bending - he appears to be inviting dioceses to reject archi-episcopal authority. It's as if he is expecting a) the broader communion to reject TEC; b) TEC to split; and c) some TEC dioceses to 'abandon the sinking ship'.

If that IS what he's arguing for then for the first time I might find myself really disagreeing with the ABC, something I never thought I'd say. It'll take me some time to be convinced of that though.

The text of the letter is here.
Some analysis at Fr Jake and 'The Blog' (via MP).
I'd be keen to know what *Christopher or James Alison make of it all.

One other thing I've been pondering (partly as a spin off from the Learning Church talks - which I think I will do a write up of here, to compensate for the recording failure): the TEC struggle is often presented as being between the biblically conservative and the socially liberal. When thought of like that I'm quite clear that the 'biblically conservative' are no such thing and whatever else I might think about these issues I would not be standing with them. Yet there seems to me to be a large number of 'middle voices' (this is one) who don't fit into either category. I take the line of episcopal authority very seriously - which is why I think the episcopi vagranti are much greater offences against orthodoxy than Gene Robinson. Assuming that he is, of course, and I'm not persuaded of that by any means. Actually that sounds mealy-mouthed. I recognise him as a Bishop, validly elected and consecrated, and I think it's a good thing on the whole. I just think that there are lots of other issues and noises going on here which confuse the issue and TEC has this reliable habit of shooting itself in the foot and telling the rest of the world 'go f___ yourself' which is rather unattractive in a Christian body however understandable it is in terms of US history and culture.

I just wonder what the 'blowback' of all this is going to be in England. Clearly the Scottish Episcopal church will stick with TEC, and it won't be the only one. I had been expecting the "biblical conservatives" to split off - but if Rowan's strategy is what this letter indicates then he will be strengthening that faction - which is frankly a distinct minority in the CofE - and antagonising (inviting to leave?) a rather larger cohort of moderately progressive clergy and congregations. In other words, it seems to me that if the "biblical conservatives" were the ones to leave then the status quo was essentially tenable. There would be turbulence, but in ten, fifteen years time the CofE would be recognisably the same. The only difference would be that the closeted gay bishops would be publicly accepted gay bishops. This way round though.... a phrase about nails and coffins comes to mind, especially when taken in conjunction with the women bishops issue.

I'm just worried, much more worried than I have been for a while.

UPDATE: I found this quite comforting as a summary of Rowan's letter:
It seems to me that Rowan Williams is implying the following:

- 'Windsor bishops-and-dioceses' should not contemplate realignment with 'other provinces' because to do so would not 'improve' their stature in terms of Anglican unity and identity.
- 'Windsor priests' should not contemplate realignment with 'other provinces' because to abandon sacramental [union] with their 'Windsor Bishop and Diocese' would threaten their stature in terms of Anglican unity and identity.

Is Peak Oil finally going mainstream?

Front page of the Guardian today. (At least, front page of the website!)


I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God's got a sick sense of humour
And when I die
I expect to find him laughing

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Will faith be found in Israel? So: link "justification by faith" with this story of the persistent old woman....

he he he he :o)

The most aggressively inarticulate generation

Woke up way too early to do anything except catch up on some blog-reading, and found this video here, via AKMA:

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Supreme: The Return (Alan Moore)

Didn't engage me as much as the previous one. Good fun though. And I am undoubtedly not worthy to pass comment on someone as awesomely gifted as Moore is.

In other words, if you haven't read Watchmen yet, you're not living in the contemporary world. Make sure you read it before the film version comes out....

Revolt in 2100 (Heinlein)

Interesting but not great; one long story and two short stories, all in the same 'world'. Grist to the mill of a long Heinlein post though, especially his ideas about justice.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Mark Noll)

One of the (few) advantages to being ill and lying in bed all day is the chance to finish off some reading, starting with this book, which I would warmly recommend to anyone interested in evangelical theology. Lots of insights; very well written and - rather obviously if you're familiar with the author - impeccably researched; and yet, I can't help but believe that Noll has constructed a cast-iron case for the terminal decline of evangelical thought. He tries to open out some room for hope at the end, but his penultimate conclusion is pretty damning:

"The scandal of the evangelical mind seems to be that no mind arises from evangelicalism. Evangelicals who believe that God desires to be worshiped with thought as well as activity may well remain evangelicals, but they will find intellectual depth - a way of praising God through the mind - in ideas developed by confessional or mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, or perhaps even the Eastern Orthodox. That conclusion may be the only responsible one to reach after considering the history sketched in this book. Even if it leaves evangelical intellectuals trapped in personal dissonance and the evangelical tradition doomed to intellectual superficiality (or worse), the recent past seems to point in no other direction."

His actual conclusion is that as evangelical thought is Christian thought it may be resurrected. I'm not convinced of that. To my mind evangelicalism is much too heavily implicated in the Modernist project to survive the post-Modern shift, let alone what comes afterward. There are some essential things about evangelical Christianity - but it is in Christianity that they will be preserved, not in evangelicalism.

BTW - saw this today, very interesting.


Managed to give the first Learning Church session this morning, but unfortunately the batteries failed on my voice recorder, so no way to put the talk up here. I'll make sure I've got some new ones in for next week...

Friday, October 19, 2007


Eucharistic theology
created with
You scored as Orthodox

You are Orthodox, worshiping the mystery of the Holy Trinity in the great liturgy whereby Jesus is present through the Spirit in a real yet mysterious way, a meal that is also a sacrifice.













HT Doug. I'm surprised Zwingli scores that highly though.


Wot I've succumbed to. Hopefully it'll get through the system as quickly as it has the other members of the family who've had it in the past week, so I'll be OK for Learning Church tomorrow. Meanwhile, as no TBTM this morning, here's one from a few days ago.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


A handful more on flickr.

Supreme: The Story of the Year (Alan Moore)

This was really interesting, especially having Red Son so recently. I suspect that I missed rather a lot on the first reading, so I'll get back to it before long.


After several months of suspension - because after watching the episode 'two for the road' I realised I hadn't enjoyed it and needed a break - I finished watching Series 2 of Lost last night. Fascinating religious allegories in it. Series 3 is being delivered very soon. So please no spoilers in the comments :-)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

300 (Zack Snyder movie)

This was really good - a faithful rendition of the graphic novel which managed to capture some of Miller's visual style (as did Sin City) and pay homage to Spartan virtues. So: four out of five.

However, having enjoyed it and been stimulated by it, I have to say that I'm glad I don't live in Sparta. I think that our culture doesn't honour the martial virtues (something I'm probably going to preach on for Remembrance Sunday), and clearly Sparta was the opposite of that, but I think that the martial virtues have a point beyond themselves, ie they are there to form a safe space within which other - higher - virtues can manifest. I find it intriguing that it was the mistreatment/ different treatment of the hunchback which led to the downfall. Not sure what could have been done otherwise, but I think a community within which all have a place is stronger than one which denies the existence of the weak. Sparta as an element in Greece, perhaps, rather than the epitome.


Ad fontes.

Monday, October 15, 2007


No need to run
and hide
it's a wonderful wonderful life

My Mate

Did rather well on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The German version.


I keep having this advertising ditty going through my head: "tense, nervous, headache". I think it was an advert for aspirin but it reflects my mood at the moment.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Gandalf, Gunpowder and Neil Gaiman's cats

A follow up to 'The Holiness of Stuart Staniford'.

Last week Zachary Nowak paid me the compliment of responding to my article 'The Holiness of Stuart Staniford'. Nowak has written some very good articles about Peak Oil and the right way to respond to it (see here, here and here) and I should say up front that I would not class him as a 'doomer' in the sense I was referring to in my holiness article (or in this one). However, it might be worth pursuing the debate a bit further - and that will take me on a little detour, via Neil Gaiman, Gandalf and Oliver Cromwell....

What often seems to be at issue when considering a 'doomer' perspective is what it is reasonable to believe. Zachary writes 'I simply would like to make the point that we realists (Oh fine, "we doomers") think what we do because of our logical analysis of the facts...' and he contrasts this with 'the sentiment hope', reinforcing the contrast with an erudite quotation from Thucydides. On this analysis, those who subscribe to hope are akin to the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who practices believing six impossible things before breakfast. I would submit that hovering behind Zachary's perspective is a modernist understanding of knowledge (see this interview), whereby there are 'hard facts' which are intelligible separate from our own emotional reactions to that knowledge; and then there are 'sentiments' and emotions which aren't quite up to scratch epistemologically and are really not suitable attitudes for a grown man to hold (sexism deliberate). From my point of view - which, depending on where you're looking from can either be classified as pre- or post- modern - knowledge can't be separated from our emotional engagement with the world, and hope is a virtue. Explaining that is the burden of this essay. But before going further I would want to emphasise the point which Zachary explicitly downplayed - my remark that I share in a 'juvenile wish to see big explosions' and, more strongly, 'a deeply rooted hatred for the present order and a wish to see it destroyed'. I do have those feelings in me, and they are not trivial. I also have a horror of human suffering (it's a part of what drives the hatred) so when I contemplate possible futures I can become greatly dispirited. What these arguments are really about, for me, is precisely an analysis of those parts of my nature and perspective - so whenever I talk about a 'doomer', or a 'doomer perspective' it should be understood that I am talking about an aspect of myself - I'm not wanting to set somebody else up for target practice. I find much of the argumentation proffered by 'doomers' convincing (in particular, I'm persuaded that we are most likely to experience an abrupt crash due to above-ground factors) - yet what gnaws away at me is also a sense that the doomer perspective hasn't captured the whole truth - and that what the doomer perspective has missed is of tremendous and vital import.

So: on with what I want to say today.

It seems to me that in Peak Oil circles there are often two sorts of repeating arguments. The first we might call 'anti-cornucopian' - this is all about persuading people that Peak Oil is real, that it is serious, that it stands up to intellectual scrutiny in a way that the CERA-style analysis just doesn't. The second we might call 'anti-doomer' - this is an in-house argument and, whilst it seems superficially the same as the first, ie it draws on much of the same material, it tends to get much more emotionally heated. I think we can put these attitudes on a spectrum, and we can label three hypothetical positions on that spectrum A, B and C:


With regard to Peak Oil, A says 'there is no problem' and effectively does not see the same things as B and C; B says 'there is a problem that's likely to take these sorts of shapes'; C says 'there is a problem and it will take this pattern'. And there are of course a vast number of different positions on the spectrum possible.

What I want to draw out is that, in argument with A, B and C would make exactly the same arguments - they would draw on the same analysis, the same geological investigations, the same historically observed data. There is, in short, a great deal of common ground between B and C; they would, it seems to me, precisely share what Zachary describes as a 'logical analysis of the facts'. Yet there is nothing to stop B and C having an intense argument about what will happen in the future - and from my point of view this describes many of the arguments in the comment threads at the Oil Drum (a bit fewer than there used to be and, I should confess, I don't tend to read the comment threads that often these days so this might be completely out of date. I'm sure people will know what I'm describing though.)

At this point it would be worth unpacking my definition: "The doomer perspective seems most characterised by an insistence that the future must take a particular shape, one constrained by the laws of physics and envisioning a necessary decline in human population as the inevitable corollary of the decline in available energy", particularly what I mean by 'constrained by the laws of physics'. The way in which our society has developed over the last several centuries means that the phrase 'the laws of physics' has become something of a totem in popular culture - it matches up to a distinctly Newtonian conception of science which is mechanistic and deterministic, and is heedless of the developments within physics itself over the last century or so. That's what I was getting at, and this is what I think is most problematic in the doomer mentality, the idea that there is no room for free-will and human action to affect the future, and that there is nothing we can do to change the eventual outcome. This is what seems to me to lie behind the different perspectives between B and C - there is a different metaphysical assumption being made by the two parties. One has a deterministic framework; the other sees the future as open and malleable. It's the insistence that our present predicament has only one possible outcome which, for me, defines the doomer perspective - and this is a metaphysical stance, not a scientific one (you could call it a religious standpoint, only one that would not be particularly holy in the Stuart Staniford sense I described before). What is at stake is whether the complex whole which is human life on this planet can adequately be described in a deterministic framework. This is not something which is open to a factual resolution - it's metaphysics not physics - and I'm sure that this is why the debates are interminable, not least because people don't tend to be aware that the conflict IS metaphysical.

Now - that's a debate which I would find it fascinating to pursue, and I'd love to be involved in it, yet it might seem abstract and academic (in the bad senses of those words). I would argue, however, that there is something tremendously important at stake, and to explain this I want to talk about Neil Gaiman's cats - specifically the cats in his story "A dream of a thousand cats". Wikipedia has quite a good little summary: "This is a curious story concerning an inspirational cat with a vision of an alternate reality where cats are huge and humans merely their playthings, tiny servants which groom their bodies and which the cats can kill at their pleasure. She preaches her vision to motley assortments of wild cats around the world, hoping that if she can make enough believe in and dream of this reality, the world will change to conform to their dreams. Although seemingly a complete diversion from the basic story of the Sandman, it in fact illustrates one of the core themes of the series: the idea that reality is shaped in the most literal sense by the dreams, beliefs, and expectations of humans (and, in this case, of other animals as well)."

I'm wholly persuaded that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" so long as 'poetry' is understood in the broadest sense as 'those who tell the stories of the culture', in the way that Homer told the story of Greek civilisation. Gaiman's genius is to give a contemporary demonstration of, and argument for, this truth. What is at issue between the B and C of my spectrum above is, I believe, the shape of the future we can create. There isn't an argument about the 'logical analysis of the facts' - because the facts are not the fundamental matters in dispute. What is in dispute is the vision of the future (which is by definition not an observed fact) and what drives the heat in the argument is, I believe, the sense that if the doomer perspective becomes dominant then that in itself will make the doom more likely. In other words, what is at stake here is the song being sung by the community - the song which, rather like Aslan at the beginning of the Narnia sequence, calls a world into being.

Which brings me (at last) to what I want to say about hope - because I think it is the establishment and maintenance of hope which will allow for a better future to be created. In other words, hope is not primarily a sentiment, a feeling generated within oneself - hope is, instead, a virtue, a practice, a habit which can be cultivated and strengthened. Rather than being 'just a teleological hook to which to tie the end of one's powerdown wishcasting', hope is the essential quality of character that might make the difference between a successful powerdown and civilizational collapse. Seeing hope as a sentiment - and therefore something which can be discarded without cost - is to accept the modernist framework of knowledge and needs to be defended, not just assumed. In the Christian tradition (and in others, this isn't a partisan point) virtues are precisely those powers of character which enable a flourishing community life. They are undoubtedly tied up with the emotions, specifically with the regulation of our emotional reactions to phenomena, but - as Damasio and Nussbaum amongst others have argued - that doesn't diminish their cognitive import one iota.

There are many stories which are used to teach the virtue of hope - one of the most widely known is The Shawshank Redemption - but the one I'd like to touch on is The Lord of the Rings which has an extremely accurate depiction of the virtues, what they are and how they are cultivated and expressed. Of the very few substantial changes made for the film trilogy, only one seemed the product of a crass sensibility. Towards the end of the story, after the great battle outside Minas Tirith (the one where the Riders of Rohan come charging down the hill into the flank of the Orc army, just before the Oliphaunts get involved in the battle) the remaining members of the Fellowship are taking counsel together to determine what to do next. In the book, Gandalf is - as he is consistently - the voice of virtue. He is the one who recommends that the army of men goes to confront Sauron at the gates of Mordor, determined to do as much as possible to help Frodo's journey to Mt Doom. In the film, however, Gandalf is the voice of despair - totally out of character! - and it is Aragorn who is given Gandalf's words to say. However, whoever says it, the point being made is about the importance of acting with hope, even when all seems lost. Holding on to a hope, however slim, gives rise to a different course of action in the present. Gandalf is remarkably sanguine about what is in prospect - almost certain death - yet it is in acting virtuously, and doing what can be done at each moment in time, that their greatness lies. Gandalf says (in the book):
"His Eye is now straining towards us, blind almost to all else that is moving. So we must keep it. Therein lies all our hope. This, then, is my counsel. We have not the Ring. In wisdom or great folly it has been sent away to be destroyed, lest it destroy us. Without it we cannot by force defeat his force. But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be... We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless - as we surely shall, if we sit here - and know as we die that no new age shall be."

Which brings me to gunpowder. I would disagree with Oliver Cromwell on all sorts of matters (grin) but there is a phrase attributed to him which I have always loved: "Trust in God, and keep your gunpowder dry". In other words - trust in God, but make all necessary provisions and precautions as your judgement of the situation demands. This is describing hope in the way that I understand it - not as a resistance to a painful acquaintance with the facts, but hope properly born on the far side of realism, after all the facts are intimately known, when questions of character and determination come to the fore. To sum up, I would say that position A above (let's call it the cornucopian) says: "there is no enemy, I need no gunpowder"; position C above (the doomer) says "the enemy is coming! light the gunpowder!"; position B - which is where I think we must pursue our future - says "I have my gunpowder primed - and I am quite ready NOT to use it".


It's one of those mornings...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007



I'm thinking of putting a book together.
A photo album.
To be called 'one mile of beach'.
It will have various different chapters, of photos and a little writing:
Bradwell power station dominates the sky.

Dystopian movies

An interesting Top 50 list discovered here. The idea is that you embolden the ones you have seen, so here goes:

1. Metropolis (1927)
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
3. Brazil (1985)
4. Wings of Desire (1987)
5. Blade Runner (1982)
6. Children of Men (2006)
7. The Matrix (1999)
8. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
9. Minority Report (2002)
10. Delicatessen (1991)
11. Sleeper (1973)
12. The Trial (1962)
13. Alphaville (1965)
14. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
15. Serenity (2005)
16. Pleasantville (1998)
17. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
18. Battle Royale (2000)
19. RoboCop (1987)
20. Akira (1988)
21. The City of Lost Children (1995)
22. Planet of the Apes (1968)
23. V for Vendetta (2005)
24. Metropolis (2001)
25. Gattaca (1997)
26. Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
27. On The Beach (1959)
28. Mad Max (1979)
29. Total Recall (1990)
30. Dark City (1998)
31. War Of the Worlds (1953)
32. District 13 (2004)
33. They Live (1988)
34. THX 1138 (1971)
35. Escape from New York (1981)
36. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
37. Silent Running (1972)
38. Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
39. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
40. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
41. Soylent Green (1973)
42. I Robot (2004)
43. Logan's Run (1976)
44. Strange Days (1995)
45. Idiocracy (2006)
46. Death Race 2000 (1975)
47. Rollerball (1975)
48. Starship Troopers (1997)
49. One Point O (2004)
50. Equilibrium (2002)


For my beloved

(HT Ruth Gledhill)


It's all quiet on the Eastern Front
An eye for the main chance I'll have a punt
My home my car my girl and me
We raise a glass by the cold North Sea...