Friday, September 24, 2010

About the church magazine, and a bit more...

So. The Church magazine was dead on it's feet a few years ago, before a friend picked up the editorship and managed to take it off life-support. For very good reasons, he is now wanting to concentrate on other things, and I have said that I will - in the very short term, ie between now and Christmas - take over that job.

Yet I look at the magazine and I wonder... why? Why do we keep it going?

We need to have a channel to distribute information to the congregation. Yet we already have a weekly pew-sheet and an e-mail circulation list. The number of people who actually rely on the magazine is pretty small, if any.

It's not as if there is any prospect of it becoming a general interest magazine, which non-churchgoers would be happy to peruse (which happens in a different one of my parishes, and very successfully). I can see a way of working to build up the magazine with lots of interesting articles... but why? What would be the point? There is a general interest magazine/newspaper for the Island already, and actually I think it's pretty good. More than that, I think that as a culture we are drowning in words and we really don't need any more.

In addition, the job of being a magazine editor is pretty thankless, all things considered (and I've done it before, so I know what I'm talking about). If there was a proper budgeting of the enterprise - that is, one which included the cost of the labour involved to produce it - I have no doubt that it would be shown that the magazine runs at a significant loss.

So I wonder... why? What's the point? Why don't we just let the natural processes take their course and allow that particular expression of church communication to rest in peace?

And then I think: what's the difference between church magazines and church as such?

Synecdoche, New York

Surreal, tragic, absorbing, brilliant.

I want to know: is this a portrait of a man destroyed by the fear of death - and thus a warning? Or is this the expression of the film-maker's vision of life, in that it is Kaufman who has the tragic and self-destructive fear of death? If it is the former, then 5/5. If the latter then 4/5.

Highly recommended, for those who like films that aren't run of the mill.

In honour of this morning's Old Testament lesson

One day I would like to be able to sing this.
(And having posted it, I've just noticed the Bible Gateway 'Text of the Day' (look to the left)! Spooky...)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Roman Catholic Social Policy vs Sharia Law

I was shocked (shocked, I tell you, shocked!) by the Observer's comment "I would take sharia law over roman catholic social policy."

I find this unfathomable, and offer up this post so that people can have a natter about it, should they so desire. Here are a few thoughts to kick things off:

- I see catholic social theology as one of the glories of Christian thinking and practice. Whilst I have some minor disagreements with it (eg some aspects of sexual ethics - I disagree with Aquinas as to how to properly describe the telos of sexual behaviour) on the whole I find it a tremendously congenial place to stand;
- in contrast I see sharia law as profoundly iniquitous, not in theory (which I can understand) but in practice. To put it bluntly, the imposition of sharia law - not least if it threatened my daughters, eg their education - is something that I would have very few qualms about fighting...

Roughly speaking, it seems to me that if you have any desire for the full human flourishing for those who are not the dominant heterosexual males in a society, then the Catholic side of things has to be preferred.

Off you go :)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A few brief thoughts on Benedict's visit

Didn't get a chance to really share in it while it was happening, but followed at a distance and skimmed some of his speeches. I'm reasonably familiar with, and sympathetic to, his major themes. That being said, a few thoughts:

- Richard Dawkins has replaced Ian Paisley in his role as walk-on-nutter/rentaquote (see this);
- it was good to see Christians out in force, and we should do this much more often;
- I think the tide began to turn against secularism some time ago (in the academy, best part of 30 years ago) but often it takes a while for an event to crystallise understandings that have been brewing for a while. This visit may end up being seen, retrospectively, as the moment when 'the tide turned'. He hasn't got Gandalf's voice, but I was reminded of this

(See also this)

And that's all I have to say about that.
UPDATE: actually, reading this, I'm starting to think that his attitude is much more hostile than I realised. Hmmm.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My distinctive argument - I think...

(from my conversation with a publisher)

"With respect to the book proposal it seems to me that the major part of the conversation around ecological issues, both secular and theological, is structured around the dual questions of 'what must we do and why must we do it?' - with preserving the environment as the final end in view. I believe that is to spend too much time on symptomatic relief, and it does not address the more fundamental problem which is that we have turned away from God and forgotten what it means to live as a creature. Thus, for me, the solution to our predicament does not lie in any scheme which has as its final purpose the preservation of the environment. Rather, our foremost task is to learn again what it means to live as a human being, by following the example of the one who lived a fully human life (hence 'Let us be Human'). The most important contribution that the church can make is to name the powers that are destroying us, to identify all the ways in which our civilisation has become disordered and which prevent us becoming fully human. In other words, it is discipleship that is lacking, not a particular program for planetary preservation. This has what might seem a surprising conclusion, but one that I mean with all seriousness: the God-given way to 'save the planet' is by celebrating the eucharist, and allowing it to form us. If we repent and return to faithful living then the environmental problems will resolve themselves (“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” - 2 Chronicles 7.14). I'm not aware (yet!) of anyone else who makes this argument."

I'd be interested to know if someone else out there IS making this argument.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Film notes

Up in the Air: very enjoyable, moving, satisfyingly ambivalent ending 4.5/5
Slumdog Millionaire: wow! 5/5
Saw VI: I am a completist; I like the premise but not the execution (at least watching it at home meant I could fast forward certain sequences). 3/5

The ingredients of a mid-life crisis

On the one hand, several friends seem to be being liberated to pursue God in all sorts of exciting ways:
Joe down in Devon
Tess at Freeland
and another has just been appointed as Rector of this church in California.

That's my theological and ecclesiological envy covered. On the other hand, my secular envy points out that many of my unversity peers and friends are now fully established as partners/senior managers in major global firms and earning six figure salaries (and yes, I know about the green grass and I harbour no illusions.)

So I am at one and the same time envious of those with lots of money, and also of those with absolutely no money. This is not a post about consistency of thought.

I guess it's a sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction. Of not quite fitting in my seat. If only I could hear one way or another from a certain publisher.

Then again, perhaps it's just time I bought a Porsche.

NB please note that sleeplessness played a small part in the composition of this post. Wrestling with another blinking cold played more. So I'm a bit grumpy ;o(

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A line of thought

"God" is the label that we affix to what we believe to be most important.

For some, there is more than one God. Integrity is not possible in this context.

For some, there is no coherence in what is desired, merely a living moment to moment. There is no integrity possible here, in a more obvious manner.

For most, however, there is a desire for some sort of integrity, for the experience of a life knitted together and formed by the pursuit of a higher purpose.

It has to be a _higher_ purpose; our own wills and desires are not a sustainable diet and soon become jaded. In other words, in order to generate a life-long sense of vocation, personal growth, maturity in love etc etc there has to be something transcendent about what is pursued. Some sense that it has value independent of what any of us happen to think about it, even, perhaps essentially, that there needs to be some sort of internal struggle in order to attain or achieve what that value might be.

This is the spiritual path. This is learning to see the world truly. This is learning to desire one thing.

For some, that one thing may be completely secularly explainable - say, pursuing the agenda of Amnesty International whole-heartedly. Yet for any identifiable value I believe it fairly straightforward to generate situations where that identifiable value comes into conflict with other similar values.

It seems to me that it is only a religious tradition - specifically, it is only a religious tradition which has a place for the apophatic - that can generate the intellectual resources which enable the higher values to be pursued with integrity.

In other words, and succinctly, I do happen to believe that it is not possible to be "moral" (= pursue a path of personal integrity) without a properly formed belief in and worship of "God" (= transcendent source of value with intellectual tradition enabling the exploration of the same).

Sunday, September 12, 2010


So we have a new baby at the moment - and sleep is somewhat disturbed - particularly last Wednesday night when I woke up at about 2am and couldn't get back to sleep with brain buzzing about certain questions. So today - having gone to bed at about 7.30 last night and managed a good ten hours of sleep (w00t!) - and getting re-centred in worship this morning, and pondering the eternal truths like 'love your neighbour as yourself' - I'm starting to wonder "what planet was I on?" :)

(Not that I wouldn't still want to defend much of my thinking - just... the sane me is not well represented there!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Some links

Tolerance and tension: Christianity and Islam in Africa
What to do on 9/11
A reading of Blade Runner
No Script for Firefox

Blogging the Koran on 9/11

Sura 5, 'The Table'

27. Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah.: It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: "Be sure I will slay thee." "Surely," said the former, "(Allah) doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous.

28. "If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds.

29. "For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the companions of the fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong."

30. The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became (himself) one of the lost ones.

31. Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. "Woe is me!" said he; "Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?" then he became full of regrets-

32. On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.

33. The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;

34. Except for those who repent before they fall into your power: in that case, know that Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.


Found this passage because I was looking for something positive in the Koran - found an extract from verse 32 - and thought I'd post the whole passage to give context. Hmmm.

For what it's worth, I think that this is the appropriate behaviour for a church at this time.

A last thought on the koran burning

Whilst the liberal arguments against it are pap, it seems to be an action motivated in equal parts by fear and hate, tantamount to a declaration of war. Not a Godly act for a Christian pastor.

I keep thinking of a passage from Strauss & Howe's Fourth Turning - which I can't be bothered to look up for the exact quote right now - but the gist is that a principal sign of the shift into 'winter' is when people choose extreme rather than moderate reactions to a provocation, and the cycle escalates into open warfare. Oh dear.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A bit more on koran-burning

I want to round up some of the main arguments that have been employed on this question. It would be fair to say I feel ambivalent about it, but I'm still chewing it through (which is, of course, what a blog is for....)

Argument #1: it will endanger the troops (aid and succour the enemy)
On one level this is facile, in that, in a war, we assume that the enemy is trying to kill our soldiers already. It is not facile in that burning the koran will reinforce the ideology and remotivate their troops. So the good point here is not about fear but about pragmatism - you don't give the enemy a propaganda victory.

Argument #2: it will endanger other Christians around the world

This may be true, but if so, it actually says worse things about Islamic culture, ie that a symbolic protest such as this might lead to loss of life, because the values and cultural norms are so uncivilised in such countries. So to not burn the Koran for this reason alone is simply to succumb to intimidation.

Argument #3: it's rude and disrespectful
It undoubtedly is rude and disrespectful - it wouldn't be worth doing if it wasn't - but I'm not sure that 'rude and disrespectful' automatically make something wrong, it depends upon everything else.

Argument #4: it's symbolic violence
Yes it is; it is not a peaceable act, it is not something that will generate good will and foster further understanding. However, again, I'm not sure that there isn't (in principle) a place for symbolically violent behaviour. Whether such behaviour is defensible or not depends entirely on the wider context - is it simply bullying or spiritual abuse? Or is there a wider toppling of idolatries going on (leading to less abuse)?

Argument #5: We are told to love our enemies and this isn't loving (Jesus wouldn't do it)
If we take the feelings of the targeted audience as the end point of the process then "causing pain = not loving" follows. Jesus, however, often had a further end in view relating to the long term liberation of the people he engaged with. What this action does is totalise the argument. It's an action which follows once reasonable discourse has come to an end (or not been started). The real question is one that Byron asked, about whether a creative and attractive alternative is being shown. The action is defensible to the extent that creative possibilities are held out (which is something that doesn't seem to be the case here).

Argument #6: it's ugly and stupid and childish ('Ugh!')
This is an expression of our cultural norms, and whilst I tend to the view that the argument from disgust shouldn't be rejected on principle, I don't see what it adds here. In principle (I'm abstracting again) it could be the cultural norms which are the idols needing to be toppled, just as much as any Islamist nonsense.

Argument #7: how would you like it?
What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The difference is that the power of the act would be different, given that Christians don't see the New Testament (fundamentalists excepted) in the way that the Islamists see the Koran. Of course, what we do see as the Word of God was treated in just such a way - he was crucified - and therein lies some of the most important differences...

Argument #8: it's retaliation
As a motive, I would agree that this is wrong. I'd simply point out that burning books is not on a par with burning down buildings by flying planes into them.

That's my thinking so far; I haven't finished yet.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

In defence of burning the Koran

This one might be a bit controversial... (even Sarah Palin thinks that it's wrong!)

There is much fuss about the proposal by Pastor Terry Jones to burn some copies of the Koran on September 11th. He is, understandably, coming in for a very great deal of criticism. Book burning is, historically, just one step away from people burning. It has also been used to intimidate and suppress opposition to the ruling hierarchy, and is pretty much as anti-Enlightenment as it is possible to get. How then might it possibly be a defensible act? Here is my line of thought (and, if it needs to be said, Of Course I Could Be Wrong):

I think that it is a sin to be offended; does that also mean that it is wrong to give offence? After all, that is what is at stake here. There is no sense that the intellectual content of the Koran is at risk of being obliterated for all time due to this action. It's simply that it is extremely rude and "insensitive". Other things being equal, it would clearly not be right to cause such offence - but are other things equal? I think not.

Sometimes it isn't just defensible, it is actively right to give offence. After all, giving offence is simply refusing to share in the cultural nostrums of the time - it is to go against them, to break taboos. Sometimes this is mandatory.

Consider Jesus overturning the tables in the temple and grabbing a whip to drive out the traders and their cattle. This was undoubtedly a deeply offensive act - but it was also profoundly righteous, it was an act of prophetic drama concerned with demonstrating a religious truth. In effect, it was the toppling of an idol (the contemporary temple worship) in order to proclaim the higher truth (right worship of the living God).

In doing this, Jesus was drawing deeply on the main Scriptural tradition of prophecy. As Walter Brueggemann has so eloquently described, the first and foremost task of the prophet is to teach the people that things don't need to be the way that they are. In other words, the foundational work of the prophet is to liberate the consciousness of the oppressed - for the liberation of their bodies (the Exodus) inevitably follows. To do this requires toppling the idols of Egypt - challenging them and showing that they have no power.

I think that this is the right context in which to understand the burning of the Koran by Pastor Jones. Put at its most basic (and from a confessedly Christian point of view) it is not the case that the Koran is the Word of God - that description is only rightly applied, in the end, to Jesus. The reverence offered to the Koran by faithful Muslims is therefore (however benign in the vast majority of cases) a form of idolatry. Where such things are less benign are where this idolatry is used to buttress all sorts of other evils - such as the khawarij doctrines of thinkers like Qutb.

To burn the Koran in this context is therefore a symbolic act of tremendous power. It is to engage with the war against the militant Muslims at the level of ideas and propaganda, which is (I would argue) the most important level if this war is to be won. It might be argued that this is, in fact, a self-defeating act of propaganda - that it will alienate the moderate Muslim, and simply increase the dangers faced by our soldiers on the battlefront. I don't find such arguments convincing. This is not Abu Ghraib - which truly was an abomination - nor do I believe that it will make much difference to enemy soldiers who are already doing all that they can to kill Westerners wherever they may be found. Exposing the 'gods' of the enemy to ridicule is surely part of what it means to resist dhimmitude, after all, didn't we do the same to the Nazis in World War 2?
('Hitler... has only got one ball, the other... is in the Albert Hall')
In other words, burning a Koran seems to be an act which might share in both prophetic righteousness and be pragmatically right in the context of resistance to the khawarij.

It could, however, just be an example of intolerance and bigotry. How might it be discriminated from that? How might it be shown that it is not just a form of bullying?

This is, I believe, to articulate something which has not been properly expressed by any of our leaders so far, which is about how we are to conduct this war. If it is true that this war is fundamentally a spiritual one, conducted at the level of ideas (principalities and powers) then we cannot succeed unless we are true to our own highest beliefs and ideals. Which means that whilst the burning of a Koran might be symbolically acceptable to show that it is not the Word of God, we can only give substance to this by demonstrating adherence to the true Word of God and what he taught. In other words it is absolutely imperative that we safeguard the well-being of that which bears the true image of God, ie the human being. We cannot allow a protest against idolatry to develop into a pogrom against people. If the Holocaust and all that led up to it represents the darkest heart of Western Christianity (which I believe) then we must do everything to ensure that it is never repeated. This means a rigorous regard for the human rights (civil rights) of Muslims in terms of their personal safety, but also a staunch regard for their personal property - including their Korans. A symbolic burning of a Koran might be righteous - to mutilate the Koran that belongs to a person, which has been used in their worship, to which they have become sentimentally attached - this is something else. It would be as if Jesus didn't simply drive the traders out of the temple but that he gave each of them a bloody nose as well.

That's why I think it might be defensible to burn a Koran on the anniversary of September 11th - it is a repudiation and ridiculing of the deathly ideology that slaughtered 3000 people. Yet it will only be truly righteous if it is also accompanied by a commitment to respecting the human and civil rights of Muslims. In the end we can only win by pursuing our best, not by indulging our worst.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Last Exorcism

Came out of the cinema fuming - but have been having second thoughts about whether I was right to do so ever since. The first 85 minutes or so are undoubtedly excellent - suspenseful and character driven - and the first ten minutes are hilarious (favourite quote: "Lucifer was the choirmaster in Heaven" no comment ;). The last five minutes, though, threaten to undermine all the previous good work - or do they? Can't say more without spoilers, but I'm off to do a bit of research as to the director's intention. At least 4/5

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Is Church necessary?

I'm having a lot of conversations (some of them in real time physically ;-) on the topic of whether church is needed or not. I made a comment on this earlier post giving my bottom line, which is basically that one part of the community can't say to another 'I don't need you' (1 Corinthians) which is still my basic stance. Yet more needs to be said, and thought. Here are four interim thoughts.

1. What is church? The church is certainly not the building; nor is it the institution called 'The Church of England' (or any other denomination), although it is much less of a mistake to think that than to think that the church is some ethereal, intangible entity (see next point). To my mind, the church is where baptised disciples gather in the name of Christ to be renewed and fed; it is also what those disciples do once they have been renewed and fed. It is the tuning fork which allows people to play their instruments well - separately and together. It is where the rough edges are worn off the immature personality, where discipleship is put into effect, where we show just how serious a disciple we are prepared to be. It is where our saltiness is scrutinised; it is where the world is challenged; it is where the kingdom is born. This is not and cannot be a solitary endeavour. It is of necessity communal. It is not true that "l'enfer, c'est les autres"; on the contrary, heaven is the full recognition and love of other people.

2. The idea that we don't need other people - that they get in the way of our full realisation of ourselves, that they necessarily inhibit our self-expression, that they prevent us from becoming all that we can be because we're worth it - this is simply the contemporary expression of old-fashioned gnostic heresy. That which is bodily, and messy, and confused - this is what was taken up by the Word made Flesh. What he has not assumed he has not healed. If we accept the Incarnation then the Body of Christ has substance - and the first thousand years was settled on the idea that the substance was your flesh and blood neighbour, whilst the mystical Body was how you met Jesus in communion. Not the least amongst the pernicious consequences associated with Corpus Christi is the notion that "church" is abstract and subjectively discerned. This is the privatisation of faith - incorporeal and anti-incarnational - it is not Christianity. If you cannot learn to love your neighbour (and enemy) within a church, you will never learn to love them without it.

3. The idea that church is there to meet personal needs, and that if those needs aren't met it is alright to discard church, is just another manifestation of contemporary consumer culture. Having said that, there is a kernel of truth here which might sometimes be relevant. Calvin (I believe) said that so long as the gospel was rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered, there was no justification for leaving a church. That seems to me to be right. It also seems right to me that church should be where all the believers in a place are gathered together - and the reality of that is notable more by its absence than its presence. Discerning good motive from bad motive here is very knotty and problematic. The Spirit may well be calling out something new from the body of believers, and sometimes that something new is prevented from birth due to all sorts of more-or-less serious spiritual sickness on the part of the establishment. At what point can one say 'Here I stand I can do no other?' Part of the problem is that our culture has venerated the Lutheran stance to absurd levels - I am entitled to my opinion no matter how ignorant, incoherent and morally reprehensible it might be.

4. Thomas Merton writes in his 'Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude' that it is sometimes necessary for a person or a group of people to withdraw from the world and the church, not because of hatred for them (= you are blocking my self-actualisation etc) but out of love. If we take worldliness seriously, and our own complicities in sin seriously, then worldly idol-worship will inevitably contaminate the life of the church. It is then essential that there are people who represent the faith in stark purity and beauty, in contrast to the world - even if it is not the vocation of the church as a whole to be apart from the world. This is the eremitical vocation. Yet the hermit was someone accepted and endorsed by the wider community; this was necessary to ensure that the eremitic life was chosen for the right reasons, and not simply to avoid the hard spiritual labour of living alongside other people. I love the description of 'Unfettered ones' in Thomas Covenant. Truth be told, it's something I have a hankering to pursue myself - but I'll explore that another time.

Given that all existing churches are partial, and broken, and more or less deformed in myriad ways - is it wrong for someone to give up on a particular church (assuming that Calvin's criteria are met)? I do not know. Still much to think about on this one.


Funny (and good) review of the Star Trek reboot.
Syllabus and book list for those wanting to explore sf further; and some classic tropes.
Washington we have a problem
The myth of religious violence (I love Cavanaugh)
Christianity, the Enlightenment and Islam
What Britain could learn from Portugal's drug policy

Monday, September 06, 2010

Let the Right One In

Astonishingly good; possibly the best horror film I've ever watched - and calling it a 'horror' film misses most of what is good about it. Highly recommended. 5/5

Friday, September 03, 2010

A greenbeltish reflection

There seems to be a very large group of people for whom faith is a real and central part of their lives, but for whom the institutional church is a spirituality-killer - and for whom Greenbelt is their 'church'.

Thought one: you can't be a Christian on your own.
Thought two: you don't need an insitution to be a Christian.
Thought three: how long before Greenbelt itself becomes an institution that 'believers' need to break away from in order to be authentic to themselves.

There is more here to be discerned...

Men who stare at goats

I absolutely loved this, but I could well understand that being an indication of my own idiosyncrasies. Might have been a Coen brothers film. 4/5

Some WM church photos

Responding to a challenge. Wanting to do a theme of 'all the small things' but I'm not there yet.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Another new blog

Principally for archive purposes, I've started a new blog where I will keep a copy of my Courier articles, along with anything else (like book reviews) that get published. My latest (=2 week old) Courier article is now there as the top item. I'm floating the idea of a local currency.


Some atheism themed links:
Tim's been doing some research
Someone has critiqued Stephen Law vastly more pithily and authoritatively than I ever did
Stephen Hawking (apparently) disses God (though that needs to be read in the light of the previous link)
Finally, I discovered this site recently, and it is rather good.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010