Nous -'knack' in scouse? Nous: Greek 'mind' some use? Nous: we -French- oui? Oooh. Life -don't talk to me about life: me with this pain down the diodes in my left side ... Here's not-nearly-random-enough loggings of what feeds my promiscuous curiosity. Your pay-off is some useful[?] links and provocative thoughts but also more insight than you may care on my thought-processes.

24 October 2014

A hereby-open letter to the ombudsman re TTIP

In a recent email from SumofUs we learn:
The European Ombudsman -- the place where European citizens can lodge complaints about EU politics -- has opened a formal investigation into TTIP and its lack of transparency following pressure from civil society. We have only 7 days left to write to the Ombudsman and let her know how we feel about our rights being negotiated away in a secret trade deal.
Here's my hastily constructed email -do use it as a template yourself.
Dear Ombudsman,
I have to say that I remain very concerned about the TTIP negotiations despite cautious reassurances from my MP drawing on government documents. The reassurances, on closer examination have often turned out to be misleading or illusory: it is no answer, for example, to cite the paucity of successful legal actions by corporations on governments when what is at issue is the legitimacy of doing so and when there are in fact some not only successful actions using similar treaty clauses but ones which have clearly been to the detriment of civil society in those places.
While I understand the need a sensitive handling of negotiations in trade related deals, this should not extend to the actual bringing of the fruits of the negotiations into the force of law and practice. That part of the process needs to be fully open and subject to rigorous democratic scrutiny since it has implications for the powers of government and the balance of power between democratic institutions and corporate interests. The very real fear is that the latter may be about to gain considerable traction at the expense of civil society and to the detriment of the less powerful and relatively poor.
What we need is some kind of guide to what is potentially agreed and something to give confidence that it will not further erode democratic accountability and have the effect of sweeping away hard-won protections for labour, environment, safety and animal welfare. Many of us are very concerned that these valued rights and protections are endangered by the content and process of the TTIP negotiations. If there is nothing to fear then at the very least there needs to be a clear and robust confidence-building explanation to all the peoples of the EU which allows us to make an informed decisions about whether we do, in fact, wish to accept the TTIP treaty.

19 October 2014

Girls: don't let boys off the hook about porn

While I deplore that women have had photos of themselves in compromising situations or vast undress distributed freely without their consent, I am really, on reflection, a bit concerned about this:
I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.Jennifer Lawrence on nude photo hacking: 'It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting' - People - News - The Independent:
What I find  disturbing is the apparent acceptance that her boyfriend would consume porn when away from her, and that somehow this is to be expected and not censured to some degree.

First of all I'm disturbed because it buys into a view of male sexuality which is both demeaning and also potentially dangerous. Demeaning because it implies that men are not able to say no to porn. Newsflash: men are able to say no and to avoid it, on the whole. Honestly, it's true. Part of the problem may be that men have been given a free pass on this.

There is research indicating that a number of men are ruining their  ability to respond well sexually because they are rewiring their responses via porn in ways that are not conducive to good relations with potential partners. If that is so (and it makes sense as well as being indicated in research), then women who are partners should be discouraging their boyfriends, lovers, partners, husbands from porn not accepting it. Personally, I can't really see how it isn't a kind of mental-affective adultery, and all the worse because it's not even in a relational and affectionate context. And it seems to me that Ms Lawrence's response is recognising that: she'd rather he looked at her image than some other woman's).

I think that this is an important point: it looks to me (and I have to admit that I have no real insider insight on this) like it is contributing to the objectifying women by making such objectification virtually inevitable.

And that is why it is dangerous: it seems to me that the use of porn is helping to construct a set of attitudes that make it more likely that women are going to be viewed as mainly bodies to be penetrated than as friends or colleagues.

Men can and do learn continence of gaze and thought.  When we are motivated by beliefs and affections that emphasise respect, faithfulness and mutuality between people of all genders, men are able to grow into gentlemen in the best sense. I have deliberately chosen a slightly old fashioned term there because I think that we have been underrating the virtues at the heart of being a gentleman: consideration of others, a spirit of service and of self-restraint for the greater and common good. These are virtues that sit ill with the consumption of porn when it is understood in its wider context.

So I appeal to Ms Lawrence and others; don't let the men get away with it, don't collude in the myth of unavoidable lust. It demeans men to pretend that we cannot control our urges -though God knows, so many men collude in their own demeaning. It doesn't have to be so..

15 October 2014

Theological Worlds: obsessio and epiphania

I hadn't come across the book Theological Worlds (Paul Jones) and have added it to my list to look at some time. Thanks to Richard Beck for highlighting it on his rather useful blog. In this case it was this that got my attention:

...obsessio is the Question of your existence, theologically speaking. What's the location of brokenness in the world or in your life?

The epiphania, by contrast, is the experience (or hope) of an Answer to the obsessio: Experimental Theology: Search Term Friday: Theological Worlds
I think the interest for me lies in its resonance with my own experience and as a result a sense that this is theology for spiritual directors and accompaniers.

In my own experience and observation of what I see in others, it seems to me that the obsessio that we have is different one to another. Some people are all about guilt and dealing with it. They often gravitate to theologies where guilt is explicitly  in focus. Arguably western Catholicism and classical Evangelicalism are likely destinations for the 'guilt obsessio'. It's not my obsessio, and although I am some variety of Evangelical, it has tended to leave me cold. For me the obsessio has been meaning of life; facing down the despair of a god-absent universe. To be sure sin finds a place within that, but it's not my starting place.

In the case of the guilt-haunted, the epiphania is about amazing grace and the great Transaction. For the meaning-hungry, the epiphania is about the God who is there and calls us in Christ.

Obviously, I'll have to read the book to see whether I'm correctly guessing the kind of thing that is meant. But even if I've misconstrued the basic idea, it seems to me that what I've just described has resonance. I'm starting to wonder what the other obsessios might be. Search for Truth? Knowing what is Good? Finding harmony? Some of this begins to seem like it might fit with the enneagram which identifies or at least tries to help a person to identify a core prone-ness to sin and its flip-side a core value set.

If any readers have any further insight or knowledge about these things, do comment or be in touch in other ways.

26 September 2014

Is it legal to bomb ISIL? Really?

One of the things said about the deployment of USA, GB and others' military  hardware in Iraq is that, having been invited to do so by the Iraqi government, it is legal to do so. Presumably we are talking 'legal' according to the United Nations charter. And it is true that the charter grants member states the right to self-defence and to call on help in self-defence. Ostensibly then, yes, it's legal.

But, as I said to someone yesterday, I'm not sure that it is "fully legal". By that is my suspicion that the means and circumstances count against what is actually being proposed. See paragraph 3 of Article 2:
All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.Charter of the United Nations: Chapter I: Purposes and Principles
Now, I think that this is meant to be consonant with ideas of just war in that just war theory talks about 'jus in bello', that is that the means employed in the circumstances should be likely to resolve the matter with the minimum loss of life, minimum damage etc.

It seems to me that this is an international dispute even though we are talking about non-state actors. I can't see how, once other nations are called in it can fail to be an international dispute: some of the actors are Syrian, and there are Turkish, Saudi, and gulf state interests involved. But the more important thing is not endangering international peace, security and justice. Given the likelihood that going about things in the manner proposed and given the likely next developments (see here) there is very much a danger to security, peace and justice internationally (which also makes it an international concern).

The probability that the repeat of civilian "collateral" deaths and maimings such as we have seen in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq will take place in this campaign. This injustice will further inflame those already frustrated and angry with the West's involvement in the middle east who are likely to seek to carry out violent acts in the wider world and so international security and peace will be further strained and imperilled. In short, the course of action proposed (as it is at this point -I expect it will be approved, sadly) contradicts a fundamental article of the UN, and so cannot be said to be fully legal.

I'm not a lawyer, but I think there is some doubt about the proposal on legal grounds, surely.

23 September 2014

EVEL Conservative plan holed

This morning on the news John Redwood MP was sounding very reasonable in explaining how simple EVEL (English Votes on English Laws) was and by implication what a good idea it is: why get into lots of constitutional wrangling?

Part of the problem is, as he let slip, is that in the present electoral map, that would mean a Conservative majority in England. He didn't say it in so many words, but by pointing out that it was the Labour MPs from the rest of the UK that diluted the Conservative vote on English matters, he belied his statement that this was not a party political matter.

And there we have the problem. By creating, in effect, a part-time English parliament in Westminster, there would be an entrenchment of a particular party. Some of us in some regions of England are, in effect, relying on the non-Conservative vote from other bits of GB to help sustain 'our' case. The first-past the post system of voting can mean that Conservatives in England could ride roughshod over the rest even while not enjoying a majority of actual votes. And since most of the Conservative MPs would be from Southerly parts of England, there would grow a tension between the south and the north along the issue of fair representation. One of the ways to address that would be to recognise that an England of regions with properly devolved powers, would be fairer and more sustainable.

EVEL could only be a temporary measure, but I fear that if we grant it, the Establishment would resist further reform with the consequent unrest and growing inequality it would engender.

In my view we need a proper constitutional consultation to settle this. EVEL is not a long-term solution.

28 August 2014

Dollhouse ideology

I've been watching the television series Dollhouse recently. I had been wondering whether to watch it because the pictures from the series advertising it tend to be of eye-candy and hint at violence: I have a bit of an allergic reaction to such presentations as they often go with superficial: maxing out the exciting visual and emotional impact but having little to say (except: "give us money"). However, I think that it is actually more interesting than the eye-candy image gives me to infer. Kudos to Joss Whedon for producing something a bit more intelligent and raising some interesting issues about being human: what makes us  'us'. Its premise is a bit like an updated and reworked Joe 90.

In Episode 6 they intercut a series of vox pops from a news programme about the urban legend of the Dollhouse. One of them has an interviewee saying something like "... if they could do something like this, it's the end of the human race". I found myself being annoyed with this. Why? Because it cleverly hides the fact that in the situation being portrayed, where in the scenario projected by the interviewee (some kind of university lecturer) human beings are enslaved by being made into a sort of robots. The doomsday scenario misses the fact that in such a world there would be a whole class of people who would not be subject to such control: those rich and powerful enough to maintain the system because they would want its services. In other words, this little comment on such a world elides the humans who control it and in doing so, hides from view the real problem.

Just like real life.  This is a little mirror on the West: the haves' string pulling and circumvention and the exploitation of the rest is being covered up: attention is redirected (often very successfully) so that 'we' rarely if ever become aware of where power lies and how it is being further accumulated. This musing comes hard on the heels of reading a recent piece in the Guardian by Owen Jones making a closely related set of points. So Dollhouse, interestingly, gets close to making such a point but then ends up, apparently (at least at this point) colluding with the concealment of privilege.

PS. After having seen the whole of the 2 series ... in fact towards the end of the series we get to understand that the scenario I come to in response to the university lecturer's vox pop is precisely the case: the rich get to reap the rewards whilst preying on the rest of the population. Just thought I should mention that for the sake of letting it be known that Joss Whedon  and/or Eliza Dushku did seem to have that perspective in view in realising the series. Kudos that they got it past Fox! But, hey, it took them two seasons to rumble it! -At least I assume the hasty-feeling ending at end of season 2 was because it got cancelled. I gather that the original idea was for a 5-year story arc.

13 August 2014

Why I am very concerned about fracking ...

Of course we can see the argument for getting away from being supplied by potentially hostile and/or unstable countries. However there are major -and I mean major- problems with the whole enterprise.
Most importantly it doesn't help address our need (indeed duty) to decarbonise our economy. So unless it were accompanied by a very rigorous set of mechanisms to make sure that our exploitation of these fossil carbons did not contribute to increasing the net amount of carbon and other greenhouse gasses, we should not even be considering this. This is one of the things driving a fairly furious response from members of the public and unless this is taken seriously we could have Twyford Down style protesting going on and given recent revelations about policing such things, a potential for even more bitter civil liberties issues arising. Will the costs of handling civil discurbancc also be including in the licenses? I suspect they won't; and that will mean effectively a hidden taxpayer subsidy. Better surely not to create that situation in the first place.

Secondly are the fairly major concerns about more immediate enviromental impacts. The fears about earth quakes would appear to be well founded at the moment. As do concerns about contamination of water tables and the effects on crops (I note the recent case in East Yorkshire). Again, failure to take such concerns seriously is likely to risk civil discurbance and raises the question of who will pay for policing, court cases, etc.

Thirdly, it's hard to work out why the energy security issues cannot better be met by pursuing even more rigourously the non-carbon paths already beginning to be explored and which show considerable and accelerating promise. Given this alternative strategy shows every chance of furthering several good outcomes (decarbonising, local jobs, regional jobs, potential for Britain to rejoin global leadership in related areas of tech ...).

Add that for many of us there is a big suspicion that the present government are too fond of  doing things that work well for informally influential friends and moneyed interests but are not necessarily helpful to the welfare of the wider population and for which our grandchildren will curse us heartily, and you have a recipe for a much less happy nation and huge costs in the short to medium term and stacking up exponentially as climate change accelerates.

See some further views here.
You might also 'enjoy' this news piece:

08 August 2014

Labelling, language and ethics

A recent twitter exchange reminded me that I have often been in discussions or even arguments where 'labelling' is thrown out at some point. It is often thrown out when one party feels that nuances are being lost or sometimes when someone is attempting to play a variety of victimhood trump card. The tweet that started me off re-musing about this was this:
Twitter / Notifications: Are all labels as attempts to describe another essentially acts of judgement? Label free speech?
To which I replied:
Of course: but 'judgment' understood as 'attempted discernment' vs 'prejudce'; some = self-take
And then also:
Meaning what by 'label'? Where does noun end & label begin? Speech acts by def are ltd gestures
What I was trying to gesture at with these necessarily brief responses (hey, they're tweets!) is that labels are, viewed from one angle, a way of referring to someone else. They are nouns. Sometimes they are nouns which those who are referred to are comfortable with or even choose for themselves. Sometimes, however, they are nouns that the refered-to dislike and would prefer not to be used. I sense that often 'labelling' is used to refer to this latter kind of noun-use. This is because nouns don't only have dispassionate meanings but also have emotional connotations which are part of their use-meaning and if the connotations are disparaging then they cannot be used equally by all parties to the dialogue equally: the use of a disparaging term will constantly be alienating and tension-building to at least one party.

The problem with the term 'labelling' is that it can get used as a catch-all term to try to disallow an(y) attempt to briefly characterise something that someone would rather not talk about at all even when there is no real negative connotation.

The solutions to the snarl ups, I think, are to find mutually acceptable terms where there is a genuine issue about a term and to remain aware that labels are 'limited gestures' and to be prepared to learn more fully and sympathetically about their referents.

Finding mutually acceptable terms is important. The solution here is not to disallow using any term at all: clearly if something is to be talked about, ways of refering need to be agreed. All language is about a communal agreement in order to carry meaning from mind to mind; it is mind reading by mediation and the mediation has to be a communally agreed instrument (vs Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's story). In fact languages are constantly in the process of being agreed, misagreed and disagreed, and it is in that dynamic linguistic-communal dialogue that accusations such as 'labelling' themselves make sense. They are a bid to steer the terms of the rhetoric.

Mutually acceptable terms is a way to recognise the bona fides of the parties in the discussion. To insist on using a disparaging term against objections is, in effect, to communicate contempt for the other. But note that the alternative is not to cease to give a label for that would mean ceasing to talk about the matter. No, the alternative to a disparaging label is to find a noun which is able to serve as a helpful token in conversation towards mutually-satisfactory ends.

The other dimension I mentioned above is to recognise the limitedness of labels. Actually, this is to recognise the limitedness of language and that 'labels' are actually a particular kind of noun (signifier, if you will). In short, what I mean by this is that I cannot convey to you the fulness of what is in my mind when I speak or write. Language is like using a two-dimensional artefact to try to convey a four-dimensional reality. It is 'lossy'.

To use language we have to choose a focus from the total of the (already limited) reality we are aware of and we have to find verbal gestures to help someone else find our focus. We then (in actual fact simultaneously) have to choose further dimensions of related bits of reality (usually our attitudes and reasons for interest are involved) to incorporate into the verbal gesturing. We do this drawing on the presumption of shared information in order to achieve the compression necessary to make a message. In effect we are hoping each time that from the limited information we can convey, the other mind will be able to reconstruct enough of our intentions for a part of our mind to be read through the medium of our speech act.

So it's no surprise that labels do not convey fully the reality of what is referred to. And since we are also inevitably conveying something of our attitudes, it is no surprise that in any community-crossing conversations, we may have to recognise that attitudes or beliefs encoded in our own usual use of the term may have to be challenged and re-negotiated for the purposes of civil and civilising conversation. Clearly this implies that the the problem is not the label itself, it is our unwillingness to be challenged and to accommodate others' views. In that we are at the edge of attitudinal matters to do with stereotyping, contempt, self-justification etc.

In the light of what I've just written, the "act of judgement" issue in the original tweet can be understood more clearly. Any use of language involves us in judging what to focus on, what is relevant, what attitudes to 'it' we convey, where lines of demarcation are to be drawn etc etc. We cannot speak without such judgements, or as I put it in response, "discernment". The question is what attitudes are being conveyed (and that includes both sent and received)? And it is the attitudes that are really in view. The problem is that the labels can themselves become the rhetorical point at issue rather than the attitudes. The easiest way around this is to try to remove the label by agreeing terms: either not to use a particular term or to mutually accept a term on the understanding that it is being used in a certain way.

Of course, part of the problem is that we hear linguistic usages in a sense through the ears of the communities we know. So the individual conversation also has to take account of the wider social context. So, while you and I might agree to use a term in a relatively neutral fashion for the sake of advancing our understanding, we also have to conduct the conversation knowing that others may hear it differently. And so, for the sake of taking the fruits of our better understanding (I would hope that might be the outcome) to our wider communities, we may be best to agree to use terms (labels) which would be best received by our respective communities and yet also have the best chance to convey to them the better understandings we arrive at and also to foster those communities in a wider inter-communal conversation.

So, in the conversation that began this reflection, I was eschewing the terms "conservative" and "liberal" in (popular) ecclesiological contexts. I was doing so as an attempt to agree different terms for conversation because I feel that these terms do not help me to think about the issues. They sound Political to me and that jars: I may be 'conservative' in terms of accepting a reasonably orthodox interpretation of Christian faith, but I tend to think that doing so implicates me in taking a far from conservative view of social matters. On the other hand "liberal" may better describe many of my attitudes to social issues, but not how I view doctrine, scripture, the relationship between God and world etc etc. So I tend to use the terms "orthodox" and "open" to try to signal that what I think is a linkage in the wider world between "conservative" faith and "Conservative" politics and between "liberal" politics and "liberal" faith is not in operation here.

I judge it is harder to change the terms in the wider world (for a variety of reasons) so it is easier to change my own self desgination and then to try to have the conversations about why I would want to do that. To me that is better than to have a sense or even the experience of being written off because of the label or of being unwittingly co-opted also because of the label. (It's embarrassing or anxiety-provoking to find oneself wanting to challenge someone who assumed that you shared some viewpoint of theirs).

I guess, with reference to the original tweet as presented above, that I do not think that "judgement" is necessarily negative or disparaging. It is possible to label positively and to judge in favour. It is not the act of judging that is the problem in reality. it is judging to the detriment of others, to do so unfairly on the basis of a characteristic that is not inherently negative and to refuse to revisit the issue of the fairness of the judgement. We need to focus on the attitudes not the act of judgement.

05 August 2014

The Spiritual Discipline of viewing from the margins -why do it?

It is actually pretty shocking to read the results of research into human prejudices based on looks. I can't now recall which USAmerican comedy series had an episode where one of the characters who has been blind to how his good looks have (exageratedly) tended to give him a free pass and a bye in all sorts of situations, gets a glimpse of how the other moiety lives. It should be required viewing!
Here's a synopsis of some results: If You Look Like This, Your Pay Check Will Be Higher Than Average - Business Insider And basically it's telling us that "Numerous studies have shown looks can impact career advancement. Some say physical appearance matters even more to employers than a cover letter.   Researchers have found that facial structure, hair color, and weight all can affect our paychecks.We can't help our genes, but some of them may be helping us more than others."

It probably starts really early in life. I seem to recall from primary school that those who had physical characteristics that were regarded as pleasant or desirable (and here I mostly mean in non-sexual terms since I think that 8 year-olds are not so tuned in to that dimension of attractiveness) tended to get preferential treatment from peers. And those of us with characteristics considered less desirable (red hair, very thin, plump, too fair, too brown, freckles ... to pick some that I recall) tended to be passed over.

The Biblical stories up to and around I Samuel 16 are reminders that physical appearances and prowess can be overrated and cause us to miss the real worth of what people who appear unprepossessing have to offer.

However, I find myself wondering beyond the almost truistic status of this observation to think about how we can and should do something about it. Clearly in some HR policies about recruitment, we get some sense of how this might be: eliminating things that give obvious clues about race, sexual, marital, religious status and the like. Ruling out certain kinds of questions in interview. And some of this can look and feel heavy-handed until you realise how deeply seated our prejudices often are and how easily and naturally we go into (self-) justification of them.

This brings me to the importance of what I've called in the title of a new "spiritual discipline". That is to say "new" to the classical lists of spiritual disciplines, though in fact it is probably a spiritual perspective that calls on several spiritual disciplines in the classical sense.

I would hope that I wouldn't need to rehearse the reasons why a Christian would take it reasonably for granted that we should have a care for those who are disadvantaged, down on their luck or otherwise disheartened. The main dispute between Christians is about the best means to address this. However, I would suggest that as we are not immune from self-justifying memes, tropes and distortions of thinking, we need to make sure that we have means to persistently address such distortions.

I think that the insight that we understand our social world best if we make sure that we view it from the underside; from the perspective of those who are not thriving in it. I think that this is an attitude that grows out of consideration for the disadvantaged and marginalised. It takes seriously loving our neighbour as ourselves by 'putting ourselves in their shoes' and so contributing to avoiding patronising and superficial responses which in effect do not respect them and therefore are not loving. And if there is any truth to the thought that we respond best when we understand well, then we should be making sure that our understanding is well-informed by the perspective of those who have to see our human social world from a perspective of hurt, exclusion and/or inaccessibility.

We tend to judge -as that research indicates- by the trappings of success. This means that we tend, unless checked, to perpetuate the conditions that continue to favour the already successful or those who have characteristics we associate with it or that we just 'like'.

So to offset this, to become more neighbour-loving and to change and be formed in the likeness of Christ, we will do well to find disciplines to embody and enact seeing from the underside.

I hope I'll be able to post soon about what such disciplines are and how they might play with other more commonly recognised spiritual disciplines.

Dog, Book, and Scandal by Bard Heads:

At the Edinburgh Fringe, I've just been to see Bard Heads: Dog, Book, and Scandal:  The write up drew me in, I think because I'm a bit of a sucker for alternative timelines and counterfactuals and this kind of 'what happened next?' story beguiles that same bit of mind. It said this:
"In Dog, Book and Scandal, Friar Laurence faces criticism over star-crossed lovers’ fiasco. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, Bard Heads catches up with Friar Laurence one year on from the tragedy. Written and performed by Richard Curnow"
Well, I enjoyed the performance. The actor (for 'tis a monologue in three main voices) comes over in the main character as a humane and likeable soul: a winsome performance. The other two characters are a bit cartooney but really they are the foil for the main character so that is not necessarily a fault. Some echoes and quotes from Romeo and Juliet form part of the text. The Shakespearean Tudor, however, doesn't fill the time and much of it is in a reasonably contemporary English (though at one or two points I wondered whether a more 'classic'-sounding phrase than "man up" might have have been found). However, to have attempted the whole thing in a Tudor-English style would almost certainly have been a mistake.

The play explores (spoiler alert!) how Friar Laurence is coping a year on in exile in Mantua where he's settled down into a useful existence as an apothecary's assistant (and helped prosper the business it seems). Richard Curnow, the actor, plays the apothecary for the purposes of setting up a dialogue with the friar; the apothecary being the voice of cynical godlessness (and also of a right to choose to die) poking and prodding the doubting, would-be-humanistic theist who is the friar. Perhaps there is a whiff of the pantomime villain about this character, but then, some of Shakespeare's characters have this at times and so I don't rate it a defect, necessarily. At the end of the play the friar has conceded to cynicism but has also bounced back somewhat from it. Faith has been tested to destruction but a resurrection of sorts also takes place - a more ambiguous faith but perhaps more hopeful.

I did feel it a shame that the meaning of faith was more fully explored: we get a tantalising glimpse of a move from a dogmatic faith which tries to act up to certainty towards a faith that is more about trust -though trust in what is where the ambiguity stays. Perhaps it needs to in order not to engender or collude with further versions of dogmatic faith?

I enjoyed the use of lines of the prayer "God be in my head..." to give a sense of a depth of faith to the friar that is not cartoonish but rather can be seen to be wide-ranging in the friar's piety, giving a sense of a real spirituality.

The other character produced for the play is that of Juliet's nurse. Again, she's a bit of a cartoon complete with rustic accent (which seemed to have linguistic features from the west country and the north east of England, though perhaps this was some move towards original pronunciation?). The nurse serves to situate the friar back into the Verona scene by being a representative voice of those who appreciate the friar and do not blame him for his part in the matter of the death of two star-crossed lovers. The nurse also serves (as a gossipy character) to give some of the narrative background.

I loved the dog of the title whom we never meet in person but the fact that it is called 'Jesus' gives a few little wry puns with a smidgeon of significance within the play -and it's nice that this is not overdone; just sitting there discreetly.

Altogether, I definite "go and see" if you're in Edinburgh at a little before 3pm on August 5, 7, 9, 12, 14, or 16.

21 July 2014

Andy Goldsworthy and The Spirit of God who broods over the Deep

Over the last 10 years or so, I've been finding myself returning in reflection time and time again to Genesis 1 and 2. I have also beeen something of an admirer of the work of Andy Goldsworthy. So, for me it was good to come across this blog post which brings together both.

 God's power and activity in the world is this creative, ordering, nourishing force that swims against the tides of entropy, death, decay and disorder. Experimental Theology: Hebel, Grace and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy: Part 3, The Spirit of God:
  I was pleased to see this because it reminded me of an unfinished project of mine.  A year or so back I began writing a meditation on a very similar theme which I recorded the beggining of: For me the scriptural linkage was with Genesis 1 and the seed for this can be seen here:

Also a start at reflection visually.

So I've started wondering whether it's not about time I returned to that project.

17 July 2014

This is someone's story: the BIAPT conference

Lovely to be in Edinburgh in the sun and at the fine Pollock Halls complex for the annual BIAPT conference. The theme this year is story and narrative. We have a real storyteller telling -so far- traditional stories. And I think that this is a good idea -not to just have academic conversations about story but to be exposed to it.

Interestingly, Mark Cartledge's keynote address on the first afternoon has given us the 'go to' story for the conference so far: "Shane's story". It's an Alpha distributed testimony which is a good example of its genre and people keep using it as a common point of reference. Clearly it has raised questions about selection of narrative threads, power, whose interests are being served by the editing and distribution and indeed commercialisation, coaching and priming.

One of the things that I've found myself commenting on several times so far is the connection between telling our stories and the ministry of spiritual direction. I think this is mostly about the fact that I keep noticing how in telling our story in spiritual direction, we are often integrating new experiences into our narrative or finding /noticing experiences hitherto unintegrated that now gain traction or saliency in the light of our development and so need to find a place in our story. I guess this is analogous to the idea of narrative repair.

Kirsteen Kim spoke about the story of Korean Christianity strating with the the 2007 incident of the kidnapping of a mission team from Korea by the Afghani Taliban and then going behind that story. This was helpful in seeing a story unfold of a nation and its relationship to Christian faith -but I wondered how far it was really helping us to consider story in practical theology and how far it was simply being appropriated as history. Certainly we could begin to unpack the story and identify where other stories and perhaps even counter-stories might lie but I felt we needed to have some more guidance into how to 'take' this as practical theology. None of this is to take away from the actual contribution which was well presented and interesting. I'm merely reflecting (perhaps my own ignorance) that it didn't help me to move forward in understanding story in practical theology.

 Alison Millbank gave a very thought provoking talk about virtue and story as they inform or might inform church and school life. The title was "Ethics of Elfand' -drawing on a GK Chesterton essay of that title but which wrestles with the immanence of transcendent virtues (if I've both understood aright and expressed it in a helpful way). It was a wide ranging talk with many interesting things in it relating to church communities and church (largely) primary schools in relation to a notion of the common good. There seemed to be a paradox in the talk: I thought I heard her to be saying, in effect, that the common good is well-enough understood in the kind of way that Chesterton exposes in his essay because it is something of (my terms) a participation common grace of understanding of good lives -and yet later we are considering how the ends (teloi) of things (needed to define virtues in Aristotelian thinking) can only be understood in traditioned ways. I suspect that the paradox is resolved by recognising that the details of living are affected by teloi even if we can recognise in a more general way what common good might be: our understandings from particular traditions of what human beings are 'for' may nuance or even partly contradict some general understandings. But I'll need to think about that more.

One of the things that I found myself considering has been how little we have heard 'from the front' about narratology and the insights it and related areas of study might have to bring us into how stories 'work'. So I have felt that there has been a bit of a sense of sharing of ignorance where our thinking about story and narrative has not deepened although, I would suspect, a number of people have been able to make further connections between stories and to view theology through story. The shame, though, is that for practical theologians, there has been perhaps too little examination of the way that story is both tool of reflection and object for it.  Interestingly perhaps, for me, the most helpful (in the sense of insightful) aspect of the conference in respect of understanding story has probably been the last session with the storyteller Angela Halvorsen Bogo where she explored the ways that text and story work because they are performance and not simply text and the way that biblical texts contain fossils (this is my way of expressing it not hers) of the fact that they began as storytelling performances.

30 June 2014

Chuggers and ruggers: Good News appears bad news

I've been think a bit lately about being approached in the streets beacause while it doesn't happen to me a great deal, it could. You see, in the streets round where I work, there are often chuggers (charity muggers) and recently Mormons and JW's. Now the reason I don't get approached is that I take evasive action quite a lot. I'm aware of taking trajectories as I walk to put me in a position to be less likely to be approached and avoiding making eye contact. When I am addressed directly, I tend to say things like "I'm not interested" or "I'm in a hurry" (which is true when I say it) or "no thanks".

What I'm mostly reflecting on, though, is why I don't want to engage. An article from a few years back identified one aspect:

Some people though not as many as you might think consider "chuggers" to be an infringement on their right to walk down the street without being accosted. They believe chuggers or face-to-face street fundraisers, in plain English guilt-trip people into giving, while denying donors the opportunity to give to the charities they want to at a time of their choosing.

All these "asks" have the potential to make the donor feel a bit guilty if they choose not to give. But, as any fundraiser will tell you, if you don't ask, you don't get: people rarely give spontaneously to charity.

Certainly part of my inner reaction is to the guilt-trip implied: I find myself composing possible justifications, "I already give 10% of my earnings to charities ...". I think that self-justificatory response (never actually said except once when someone came to my door) tells me that I'm feeling that they are making a moral claim on me which I feel that I would be judged negatively -and wrongly- on (and of course I'm projecting that: they may not be judging me at all). That's somewhere in the vicinity of guilt. If the article is right and lots of people don't actually feel that way, then clearly that' mostly my problem. On the other hand though, the article describes by implication a number of avoiding or deflecting tactics that are clearly in common enough use to make me think that a reasonable number of us don't want to engage. In fact some of the discussion leads me to think that a number of people are quite anxious or defensive in brushing off approaches.

I think that the defensiveness could often be about guilt arousal or at least feeling implied judgement. By that latter term I mean that we are being put into the position of appearign to refuse to help sad soulful kittens, or more seriously, hungry or abused children or whatever the charity is concerned with. That is damaging to our self-image if we consider ourselves averagely or better-than-averagely empathic and concerned about relieving suufering.

I found another well expressed couple of paragraphs on the discomfort of avoiding chuuging:

Whilst I am generally in favour of the concept of charity and I understand charities need to promote/advertise in order to raise revenue, I have to say I have found this aggressive on the street promotion quite intimidating and annoying. I wouldn't have minded perhaps if it was just a one-off event or even a couple of days but it has been more like two weeks solid now that they've been there. And I can't get away from it as at the moment I have to go into town three days a week for hospital appointments. So three days a week I have to walk down these streets and be faced with up to five people in a row trying to accost me as I walk by - if the first one doesn't stop you, the next one (5 metres further on) will be calling out to you, and then the next etc etc etc.

It's reaching the point where I dread walking down those streets. I hate being accosted and I hate having to give them an excuse why I can't/don't want to stop - and some of them are very persistent and even when you say, "Sorry, I can't stop," they carry on cajoling, saying, "Just for one minute..." etc. I already make monthly donations to charities that I choose to support and I kind of resent being made to feel uncomfortable on a nearly daily basis by charity workers hassling me! I can imagine it must be even more annoying for people who work in the area and have to go out on those streets every day to buy lunch etc! I dislike anyone (market researchers, people trying to sell me things etc) hassling me on the street but when it's for a charity, it somehow makes you feel guilty for rebuffing their approach!

Pasted from <> (see some of the responses to the article at the end of this post)

I note the words of response: "intimidating"; "annoying"; "accost"; "dread"; "having to give an excuse"; "cajoling"; "resent"; "uncomfortable"; "hassling". Here the additional thing seems to be about the inconvenience of it. This underlies my own 'busy' responses: I've actually often gone out for particular purposes, I usually have limited time (often I'm going to an appointment or catchin a bus) and not just sauntering around looking for something to do.  I think the writer is right about the guilty feeling when it's a charity and I can imagine for some people that on top of inconvenience might give rise to the insulting and offensive responses implied in the Guardian article.

It's not quite the same with ruggers (I just made that up: religious muggers). I note in that last quoted section, that the more general statment which applies to market researchers and sales-pitchers (they don't mention religious propagators but I imagine the same sort of reaction) are disliked for "hassling". I notice that my own inner response to market researchers is less anxious and evokes less self-justification inwardly. Perhaps because I don't see their appraoch as making any claims on me.

So, what about ruggers? I have to admit I've been one in the past. We might argue that it's not asking money from anyone but rather offering a great gift but that's not really how it comes over. In reality most people frame an approach from a rugger in the ame sorts of ways: at beat they might be seen as a market-researcher and quite often, judging from the reactions, ruggers are seen more like chuggers. I think I'd have to argue that on the whole approaching people in this way is not embodying "good news" and because of the largely negative framing of it is in fact counter-productive.

I have a further concern in this respect. If a religious group in a university was doing this, what should be done, if anything? Well, it seems to me that there'd be a right to promote one's views and indeed ones events. On the other hand most policies on harrassment and bullying say, in effect, that there's a prima facie case to answer if someone feels tat they have been harrassed or bullied. Looking back at the reactions I've discovered in the articles quoted above and in my own sel-reflection, I'd say that there is a high risk that if someone wanted to object and claim harrssment, the kinds of words used above would make it seem very likely that they might be judged to have a point. I suspect that the reason that universities have 'no proselytisation' rules and restrictions on leafletting is driven largely by the sometimes fierce dislike of many people to being approached by strangers with an agenda. It's not directly or only a religious matter, it's a matter of neighbourliness
-and that implies a theological evaluation rooted in doing to others as you'd have them do to you ...

Some other responses from <>

I don't want to have to look a person in the eye and justify my skintness, I don't want to have to lie about why I cant stop and speak
 It is invasive for people who live and work in the area to be stopped every day when they're just trying to go for lunch or whatever.
I hate being hassled in the street and think it should be outlawed, it's basically intimidation and bullying yet as long as they have a little badge on saying they have a license to be on the street they are allowed to do it.
 i tried to carry on walking but he blocked my path. i said i was in a rush but he said it wouldn't take long. i let him talk and when he'd finished his spiel i said i couldn't afford to have another direct debit going out of my account. he said 'not even for £2 a month?' i said no, and reminded him he'd actually been asking for more than that. then he looked down at my shopping bags judgingly and said to me 'having a nice shopping spree?' i was livid! i simply said that not that i had to justify myself to him, but i was shopping for the first time in over a year and was only doing so because i was pregnant and none of my clothes fitted anymore. with that i walked off.

19 June 2014

Social media killing off quiet reflection?

It's possible that I'm about to disagree with Justin Welby -though mostly it's a disagreement with the Torygraph's headline (Social media killing off quiet reflection, says Justin Welby ) and soundbite reporting a recent speech of his.

 “Instant reaction has replaced reflective comment.

“That is a reality that you deal with in politics and it demands a new reality of ways in which we accept one another, love each other, pray for each other.

“The best answer to a complex issue … is not always given in 140 characters.

Basically, it looks to me like the Torygraph headline writer is seeking to build and feed something of a moral panic about twitter by co-opting 'the church' into a 'modern life /social media is rubbish (things were better in the old days)' trope.  The effect of that kind of contextualising is to psychologically elide Justin's caveat phrase 'not always given in ...'

My response to this kind of trope is to recall that we human beings have always (I suspect ever since we have been able to have conversations) struggled with immediate reactions, over-simplification on the one hand and on the other hand trying to encourage more considered and generous responses. From one point of view, Twitter is just a further medium for this age-old bifurcation of response. Now, admittedly, the brevity does make it easy to offend -but then in many an animated conversation we are reacting quickly and offense is easily given and taken (and sometimes apologies and explanations are given -which can happen in tweeted exchanges too). Nor are printed media proof against cavalier dismissals and gross oversimplifications. What Twitter can do positively is to give the possibility of an extended dialogue of short interventions in which people could, over time, explore more thoroughly some issue. I've been part of many a conversation verbally and even on newsgroups (remember them?) where instant brief reactions have given way to longer discussions -sometimes thoughtful and sometimes intemperate: both of which can happen on Twitter.

it is true that 140 characters make nuance difficult (in one tweet at least), but we should observe what actually happens when twitter is used for discussions or arguments involving more depth and breadth of topic: people give hyperlinks to blog posts, articles etc and briefly state why they think it is important/helpful etc. Tweets then come to act as a kind of newspaper headline drawing attention to the content they head up.

So we should be wary of essentialising Twitter as if it is only 140 characters and that we have only come up with one usage for it. It is, in fact, part of an evolving media ecology. Part of the evolution is in the way it references, contains and is contained by other media. Another part of the ongoing development is of the social dance of developing mores and conventions: what counts as polite and rude and so forth.

At base we have human beings trying to communicate for a variety of reasons with a range of imagined and actual audiences. Human beings who are very adept in the aggregate at making communication work well enough within the constraints of bandwidth, signal noise and contextual meanings. One tweet does not a conversation end; we should not judge the medium by static standards but rather take it in as a dynamic of human communication and observe how people actually overcome the constraints -such as the brevity of 140 characters in the face of the desire to communicate a whole lot more.

in fact, what I think is most important about that bit of +Justin's speech is the call for generosity -charity- of interpretation given that widespread messaging is possible. In effect, is this not a call for us to see past the possible elisions and misunderstandings of short messages and to engage with open-heartedness with the possibility that there is a whole hinterland of understanding and perspective by human beings who are, in many ways, very like ourselves. Can we not exercise generosity by asking for further information and seeing through the exchange to an end in greater mutual understanding? That too is possible via Twitter.

Is this not the age-old challenge of communication?

17 June 2014

Angels unawake: Dreaming in Different Cultures

I'm not alone in noticing, vaguely, that the Bible has a not insignificant amount of revelation by dream going on. Nor am I alone, I imagine, in thinking how utterly unlikely that seems to occur in my experience. And now, for the first time really, I've found something that feels like it might get somewhere closer to making spiritual experience in dreams seem more plausible. It's here: To Dream in Different Cultures  and the interesting question it poses is this:

the intriguing question is whether different sleep cultures encourage different patterns of spiritual and supernatural experience. That half-aware, drowsy state is a time when dreams commingle with awareness. People are more likely to have experiences of the impossible then. They hear their mother, many miles distant, speaking their name, or they see angels standing by the window, and then they look again and they are gone.
it kind of chimed with my more recent experiences of being between sleep and wakeful. And, come to think of it, such experiences as I can recall from childhood. More recently, I've found that I might be reading before sleep and my tiredness is such that I start to fall asleep at the book or screen. But, the strange thing is to find that somehow my slide into sleep has become a slide into reading a dream book almost identical superficially to the one I am reading, yet, when I wake after a few moments (minutes?) I realise, was saying something entirely different from what the author of the book in front of me wrote and had printed. I have vague recollections of some interesting ideas for plots or takes on my recent life being the subject matter of these dream paragraphs.

As a child, I recall a few times of dreaming in that time between being asleep and waking for the day; one time so vivedly did I dream of a cap-gun under my pillow, that I was a little bewildered to find on waking properly, that the toy was not there after all.

So, to consider a time when 'dreams conmingle with awareness' now becomes  imaginable to me because I recognise the experience -I think.

But this doesn't necessarily help with such things being revelatory or spiritually significant: my cap gun seems not particularly so, for example much though it reveals something of my desires at the age of about 6 years old. And yet, if we do wish to claim that in some way the processes of reading scripture, giving attention to God, reflecting on our inner and outer lives, sharing our lives and being immersed in rituals does genuinely give us insight into God's communication with us, then these hemi-conscious states are not ruled out from being part of the mix. Indeed, since they seem to be plausibly times/places where our desires can be manifested in some way in a visionary sort of way, it seems plausible to me that they could re-present to us some of the processing our mind-brains may have been doing in relation to our spirituality.
At the very least.
And if God does, perhaps, sometimes, somehow get involved more unmediatedly in the business of mind-changes (with all the implications that would have for having some physical effects on neuro-electro-chemistry even if via a top-down causality mind-to-brain), then perhaps sometimes these visionary moments may sometimes be God-touched.

25 May 2014

Fairtrade failing to deliver benefits ?

've been hearing rumours lately of serious questions about the benefits of FT: that it might not be benefitting people as much as the normal market. Well, it could well be that what I've been hearing was the harbinger of this report -picked up by the Observer here: Fairtrade accused of failing to deliver benefits to African farmworkers.

The summary in one sentence:

Sales of Fairtrade-certified products from Uganda and Ethiopia are not benefiting poor farmworkers as profits fail to trickle down to much of the workforce, says a groundbreaking study.
It does make concerning reading for those of us who have long supported the idea of Fair Trade. However, don't just read the first two thirds or so of the article which lay out the basic findings. You need to read the last part of the article to learn that there may be factors that put it in a different, less alarming, light. As the reports authors themselves suggest, for example:

"One possibility is that Fairtrade producer organisations are always
established in significantly poorer, more marginalised areas where an
accumulation of disadvantages means smallholder farmers are unable to
pay even the paltry wages offered by smallholders in other areas without
Fairtrade producer organisations,
And then a comment from the FT foundation:

When comparisons are based more on like-for-like situations, such as the
study's own analysis of Ugandan coffee in small scale coffee production
set-ups, it finds key areas where workers in areas with
Fairtrade-certified farmer organisations in fact had better conditions
compared with those in non-certified, such as free meals, overtime
payments and loans and wage advances for workers. 
All of which seems to indicate a more complex situation and more research and certainly doesn't mean we should give up FT buying just yet.

13 May 2014

Before we agress the telesales caller ...

"Our fight is not against flesh and blood ..."

I often find myself thinking that when brushing off a telesales call. I try not to do so angrily, but I try not to engage them too much -I'm usually trying to do something else when I take the call and part of me doesn't want to give them false hope. And sometimes I'm working hard to keep a lid on my irritation.
Now, when I pick up the phone and realise it is a salesperson, I picture the caller sitting in a cubicle with my first duty manager glaring aggressively over their shoulder. I know they are probably only doing it for the money and that they would rather be visiting their sister and her new baby, or studying for a Masters degree in systems engineering. But they feel they have no choice – they need the job.

So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own.How to empathise with a telesales caller | Roman Krznaric
I've got to say that they often don't help 'themselves'  by the scripts they have to follow (I assume). For example, I  presume that by asking after how I am, they are supposed to be creating empathy. But the fact is, the only people I've  never met before who ask after my health are people who are trying to fast-track a sense of empathy in order to try to sell me something. So I find that I get irritated because I've been asked something manipulatively. I'd rather they actually didn't go in for the spurious attempt to create rapport but simply said a bit more directly what they are about.

But I'm still left with that irritation. How to deal with that? I don't want to be irritated, but I also don't want to spend time being sold to when I really don't want to buy whatever it is. Perhaps, taking a leaf out of Mr Krznaric's book, I should immerse rather than push away. Perhaps I should ask them how they are and keep asking further questions until some kind of genuine connection is reached and I am no longer their mark and they are no longer my psychological mugger. Do I have the courage? Maybe. My big issue may actually turn out to be feeling that i have the time.

11 May 2014

Institutions get inside you

A piece of research that seems to confirm that having institutions does indeed achieve one of the aims of having them in the first place: they create systems that supervene loyalties and judgements based mainly on in-group loyalties. This gives them the possiblity of, in effect, pushing out 'love your neighbour' to out-group people.

with supportive government services, food security and institutions that
meet their basic needs were very likely to follow impartial rules about
how to give out money. By contrast, those without effective, reliable
institutions showed favoritism toward members of their local community. Strong institutions reduce in-group favoritism -- ScienceDaily:

But then we should note, too, how this isn't something merely external. I first became aware of this explicitly when I started working at Northumbria University and became acquainted with the way that their policy relating to equality and diversity actually had far-reaching effects in that it required that people actually become vigilant about the effects of discrimination, harassment and so forth. Since we spend more time at work than almost anywhere, then the attitudes are brought into our habit-range. So no surprise that one of the conclusions should be this:

In a world with well-functioning institutions, this gets inside of people and actually affects their basic motivations, even when they're in a situation when no one is watching, 
This lends some credence to the possibility that institutions (indeed corporisations) are providentially part of God's pedagogy of the human race. Though of course we need also to recognise the fallenness that shows up in a pedagogy of sin as well as of good-neighbourliness.

Rice growing and cultural differences

In a PhD thesis, it is being proposed that the co-operativeness demanded by rice growing has generated a distinct cultural psychology to that found among wheat-growing societies.

Talhelm and his co-authors at universities in China and Michigan propose that the methods of cooperative rice farming -- common to southern China for generations -- make the culture in that region interdependent, while people in the wheat-growing north are more individualistic, a reflection of the independent form of farming practiced there over hundreds of years.

"The data suggests that legacies of farming are continuing to affect people in the modern world," Talhelm said. "It has resulted in two distinct cultural psychologies that mirror the differences between East Asia and the West." 'Rice theory' explains north-south China cultural differences -- ScienceDaily:

To me this seems very plausible and could take its place alongside the effects of the tech-complex of move-able-type printing on rag-paper as generating quite important cultural mindscapes.

What I'm left looking for with this, is how this particular difference is handed down when societies move beyond such a large demographic investment in the agricultural bases. In other words, what mechanisms are there that continue to propagate the different mindsets in populations where rice-growing or wheat-growing are not big practical factors in people's lives?

Is it that the mindset is further embedded in other institutions which take over the propagation of attituteds? If so, what institutions might they be?

10 May 2014

The New Covenant by Robert Emery

 For a number of years I've experimented from time to time with narrative sermons. For me, usually, this has involved telling a Bible incident as a more extended story. Usually I've found this easier to tell as a first-person narrative and I've tended to either take the part of a central character (eg Simeon in Luke's birth and infancy story) or to pick or make up a bystanding character. What this has enabled me to do is to use what I have learnt about the circumstances, culture, habits, mores and economics of the time to add depth and colour to the telling. It also enables me to teach about such things obliquely as part of driving the story forward.

So I was intrigued by Robert Emery's book when it was offered for review. At this point I've not read it all; just the first part, but already I can see that Mr Emery has done essentially the same sort of thing that I have done in my narrative sermons. It's been good for me to see how this technique reads when it's not been me that has created the story, and I've enjoyed it. I have found that social and cultural details that have figured as part of the story have 'come alive' more than if they are simply stated in a more textbook fashion. It also gives a chance to reflect on the biblical characters and what were the personal drivers and perspectives and struggles they might have had. It has to be said that as a means of conveying such information, it has a lot to commend it and it is preferable in terms of memorability and engagement to simple textbook tellings.

of course their are downsides in the form of potential pitfalls. The reader (or in my case listener) is at the mercy of the knowledge of the narrator and the ability to make imaginative connections and to understand the implications of cultural artefacts, ways of living etc in terms of the effects on human actors. So the possibility of slipping in anachronisms is very real and sometimes a crucual issue.

The other main potential downside is maintaining the balance between story, character and background. And in the temple tour narrative I think Emery only just manages not to get totally lost in the background at the expense of story and character. This pitfall is that the first-person narrative can simply become a lecture where the character speaking becomes a mere proxy for the author and so the character can end up giving what is effectively a textbook lecture on something (eg the architecture and furnishings and rituals of the temple) without it actually being part of the story or helping us to gain sympathy or insight into the characters. As I say, I think Emery just about manages to stay on the right side of the line in these respects, but the fact that I noticed the danger was a bit distracting. What I don't know is whether i noticed because this approach is familiar to me or whether it was because for most readers, the amount of detail being conveyed by the characters in 'conversation' was quite heavy.

It is hard to properly weave lots of such detail into narrative form in an engaging way, and consistently over a whole story arc. I'm looking forward to learning more from Emery's book both about the way of life of the times as he has discovered it and also about the relaying of insight into the times, people and events through this approach to narrative.

The New Covenant, a book by Robert Emery  #SpeakeasyNewCovenant

Although I'm not in the USA, I'm happy to meet with the guidelines for such reviews required in the USA: I received a copy of this book from Speakeasy for review. I'm not required to write a positive review.

20 April 2014

More than a conjuring trick with bones

In the film The Princess Bride,  confronted with a dead Westley (the hero) and told that he is dead, Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) says in a delicious NY accent "Look who knows so much about dead ...  it so happens your friend is only *mostly* dead. And mostly dead is a little bit *alive*" and then goes on to administer a restorative which resuscitates Westley so he can go on to finish the plot. I mention it because a lot of us think about resurrection as if it is a kind of resuscitation. A zombie Jesus only mostly dead somehow revived but fundamentally still restricted to the normal laws of time and space, decay and entropy.

Well, it's not like that with Jesus on Holy Saturday /Easter Eve: he's dead, really dead. Dead as the proverbial doornail. Not mostly dead; truly dead. Brain activity: zero. He's gone, passed away, flower food, he is an ex-messiah. More: his soul doesn't go marching on, there's no ghost hanging around fretting about his life's work being unfinished and agonising over his friends' and relatives' grief.

He's as dead as, well,

we are dead when we die. That's it. The end. Finished. Kaput. The long sleep: no awareness because there's nothing to be aware: we're gone; no longer exist, so no wake up call. Oblivion.

And Jesus has to be as dead as that else there's no help for us.

If Jesus does not truly die, then our dying remains the last word.

Jesus has to enter into our death: where there is nothing beyond. Just absence, nonexistence, uncontinuance.

Well, not quite. For, as it is getting popular to say that someone who has died lives on in our memory; that as long as we remember them, they live in us. In some ways that's the democratised version of especially skilled or favoured people wishing to live on in their accomplishments. "I want to achieve immortality through my art". Well, I agree with Woody Allen "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality through not dying."

The problem with 'living on' in someone's remembrance is that 'I' don't really live on. Again as Woody Allen put it "Someone once asked me if my dream was to live on in the hearts of people, and I said I would prefer to live on in my apartment."

Living on in someone's memory seems not to involve me enjoying the world, relationships or, well, life. Some other 'I' gets to do that while borrowing some of what they know of me to interpret their experience*.

So, while living on in remembrance may console the bereaved, it doesn't help us to live on in our apartments**.

And in any case, those who remember themselves die and with them whatever is left of us in their memory.

But there is one who remembers eternally. In fact, to say 'remembers eternally' may not be so different to saying 'knows always', or even foreknew. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God "not of the dead but of the living; for to him all of them are alive" . And that's the point. The remembrance/knowing by the Everliving, the Creator, is who we are. God ever-livingly and ever-lovingly re-members us. Our knowing and remembering each other is a shadow of that fullest knowing-remembrance. While something truly does live on in human remembrances, we truly live on in God's knowing-remembrance for that remembrance is the Source of all living and in loving us, the source and ground and upholding of our being 'us'. In God's remembrance/knowing and creativity 'we' truly are us. God is our continuity of existence.

So, when Jesus enters into our kind of death, becomes one with our finality, the only hope beyond that is that God is the God of the living, not the dead; that God really does know-remember him. The Resurrection is no 'conjuring trick with bones', it is not a resuscitation. God re-members Jesus***. it is a paradigm of New Creation: the New takes up and transfigures the former; creation is caught up into re-creation. Jesus is remembered into Life: the seed of the new creation is planted in the soil of the old order of sin and death. in the words of the liturgy: Jesus 'reveals the resurrection'.

Death is not, after all, the last word. The Last Word is the last word, just as he was the First.


This post is a re-working of my Easter sermon into a written form and with some further reflection.It's a preliminary set of thoughts heading towards the *** note below. There is a need also to think further about the primacy of Jesus' resurrection.

*I realise that there's a lot more to explore about what 'I' might be. But I don't think elaborating on that discussion doesn't seem to me to take away from my basic pint here. And while I remain indebted to Douglas Hofstadter's exploration, even his 'expansion' of human consciousness doesn't address this fundamental loss of I-ness.

**Putting me in mind of "in my Father's house there are many apartments, and i go to prepare a place for you."

***The relationship of Father and Spirit with the Son is remembered by them. The Resurrection grows out of Trinitarian perichoresis. I would like to explore this further it due course.

12 April 2014

'Big Society –just continuing God's work' Is cameron right?

Speaking last night at his Easter reception in Downing Street, the Prime Minister reportedly said he was simply doing God’s work when he launched the “Big Society” initiative of volunteering and civic responsibility.

“Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago,” Mr Cameron said. “I just want to see more of it.”David Cameron: 'Jesus invented the Big Society – I'm just continuing God's work' - UK Politics - UK - The Independent
When I read this I felt that Cameron was both right and wrong: I warmed to his sense that we should be involved in the Mission Dei as defined by Jesus -the idea that God is up to something and that our task is to learn to be a part of it.

What the quote reminds me, though, is how easy it is to get something of our understanding of what God might be up to wrong enough to bring it into disrepute. in this case we need to think a bit about it to see where the difficulty lies.

There are two areas to check out, I think. One is characterising Jesus' teaching -or some significant aspect of it- as equivalent to 'The Big Society'. So, we are asked to identify the Conservatives' slogan with Jesus teaching in some way. Now this is being done without specifics. So first we have a vaguely defined political slogan which seems to be about people helping each other and supporting one another and we are being invited to link that up with, presumably, Jesus' teaching about loving one another. So far so good and in some ways fair enough. However, I would want us to notice that the very vagueness of the two ideas being brought together should be treated with caution. The Big Society sounds fine in headline terms but what dose it mean in context and in practice. On the other hand, Jesus' teaching also contains encouragements to forgive enemies, do good to the 'unworthy' and leave families (I know that needs nuancing but it should be there if only to undomesticate Jesus' teaching in this context) -which I don't see represented very strongly in Conservative visions of society -quite the reverse.

The second thing is more concerning, though. and it relates to the way that 'Big Society' or Jesus' message is framed within a 'bigger' narrative. In this case, it is a return to framing that has worked for Conservatives for quite a while: to claim Christian credentials on the basis of agreeing with the idea that individuals should be nice to one another; a privatised morality where the state is not allowed to encroach or extrapolate. In this version of gospel, I may give a homeless person money, a bed, a meal -whatever, but I should not look at the social and economic forces that might have brought about a situation where someone might find themselves in such a position. And I should not expect to address those forces through law, tax or education (for these are the forces that create Wealth).

Let's just remember, by way of context, that iIn Jesus' time, there was no prospect of government responding to need  such as that: the Roman state was set up to mine  wealth from the provinces and to reduce populations to slave or serf-like conditions so as to provide labour for the the better off and the only hope for the destitute was private charity.

I would argue, in a relatively democratic society where we recognise that there can be such a thing as systematic generation of inequalities (Roman society didn't quite manage to make that recognition), that the proper way to take forward Jesus' concern for the marginalised is to address the systematic causes and effects of unjust inequalities by collective action and use of collective resources. Besides, the record of 'wealth-extraction' systems such as the Roman State and neoliberal capitalism is lousy in respect of addressing compassionate priorities which are meant to be to the fore in 'Big Society' visions.

Remember, we ended up with things like public sewage systems, public roads etc because private enterprise can't do them properly (and in the only models where it can, private companies are fulfilling governmental contracts and can't apparently make a profit without state safeguards and injections of subsidy).

Philanthropy was tried and found wanting -take a look at Victorian Britain. It was found that to address need at the level required took more than charity, it took collective action by government committed to common-good. The Big Society should not be an alibi for trying to leave the common good up to the diminishing capabilities of the good-hearted. The truly Big Society would be bigger than private-enterprise part-time philanthropy; it would be big enough to start to address the scale of need and the systemic nature of it (which is actually also going to be the 'cheapest' way to do it in the end).

So the problem with DC's Big Society is that it is actually a way to avoid Jesus' priorities: remembering the poor, reintegrating the marginal, healing the sick in mind or body. This is because it is actually giving an alibi to making the lives of many vulnerable people miserable because they fall outside the capacity private-enterprise charity to pick up what the collective was just about able to do. Hoping that somehow an army of volunteers can be found among the overworked and a flood of money from the overmortgaged seems a recipe for disaster. Literally -because the costs of leaving the needs unaddressed or being addressed patronisingly by non-professionals are likely to be revolutionary or worse. To model our response on the best that could be managed within in the limits of an oligarchistic (even kleptocratic) empire when we have democratic government and a fuller understanding of things, is frankly a sleight of hand to preserve privilege.

This is a moment to remember that trickle-down economics has never really worked.

And, we are talking about the Jesus who said 'Woe to you who are rich now ...' and 'Blessed are the poor ...' aren't we?

The truly big society should help us to do things together that we can't do (so well) isolatedly and to do so in a way that helps promote a fair contribution from those most able to give it. It should be able to allow us to recognise that all, by virtue of being God's image and loved by God, have an equal right to develop their capacities, talents and abilities and to use them to support themselves and contribute to the common good which nourished and continues to support them. It should recognise that sometimes we must act to redistribute opportunity to prevent its oligopolisation by the privileged and that very often the carrier of opportunity is wealth.

So, yes, the big society is carrying forward God's work, but so is seeking to address the systemic evils which keep the poor poor and degrade the environment. Using the former to evade the latter is undermining God's work, I think, by making a narrower good a substitute for a wider good.

11 April 2014

Getting away from a salesforce approach to evangelism

 For much of the last 15 or 20 years, people like John Drane (but not only him -even I have noted it on this very blog: here, here and, for example, here ) have been saying that in the mission of calling disciples to Christ, the western church has been suffering from a credibility gap at the level of spirituality: for many spiritual seekers, Christians don't seem spiritual enough -there's no mysical dimension apparent. It seems that the RC church has now decided that this is probably correct.

 If the Church does not offer instruction in the spiritual life, believers will not give up their desire for it. Often they will seek it in a non-Christian setting, looking to New Age teachers or Far Eastern religions.
In fact, that quote talks about believers, but I suspect that the thrust of what is being said is that it applies to seekers too. Part of the issue, of course, is that it is Christians ourselves who need to be sensed to have a 'mystical' inner life  in order that seekers might infer that at the heart of our faith is a real encounter with a transcendent other.

Part of the report is also about (re)connecting this dimension of mission with the monastic dimension of church life, noting that such communities are resources for mission in this field.

We hope, too, that
monasteries in the West may regain their historical status as cultural
centers, places of pilgrimage and spiritual direction. Eastern
Christians are well equipped to help the West recover its heritage in
this regard.
It does all point, also, to encouraging and enabling ordinary Christians to value and develop this dimension of faith. I fear that many Evangelical churches, by making a primary goal of evangelism, are actually ending up forming a sales force rather than well-rounded people who have an attractive spirituality which would draw seekers 'naturally'. I note that there is actually little exhortation to share faith in the NT -mostly it happens because Christians' spirituality evokes curiosity and admiration (and the flip side: discomfort and anger by those invested in counter-gospel ways of life).

The problem is that there is a cultural resistance to sales and marketting at a personal level and that the framing, in effect, of the gospel as a product is inimical to the real message. We need to be taking a more oblique path in mission: forming communities of generous and lively spirituality who will be a 'hermeneutic of the gospel' (I think that phrase is owed to Lesslie Newbiggin)

Mysticism, Monasticism, and the New Evangelization | Catholic World Report - Global Church news and views:

05 April 2014

The Fall of Oxytocin the so-called 'love hormone'

After reading stuff that eulogises oxytocin as the creator of empathy and interpersonal love and so the chemical equivalent of 'all you need is love'. The simplistic equation of something that chemically promotes good feelings towards others with moral behaviour was always due to hit the buffers of human realities. And so ... ta da ...
Oxytocin, 'love hormone,' promotes group lying, according to researchers -- ScienceDaily: oxytocin caused participants to lie more to benefit their groups, and to do so more quickly and without expectation of reciprocal dishonesty from their group.
Now, I have to admit I was disposed to see this coming and had even thought it would probably be at this level: something that promotes group solidarity does not necessarily promote inter-group solidarity and could even help solidify a group in rivalry or enmity to another. In other words the 'dark' side is to create the possibility of an out-group which could be an enemy. And so, it would seem, it is.

The disposition to see this coming comes from an appreciation of one way to think about 'total depravity' which can be understood to be saying that there is no dimension of human being that is untouchable by sin -or that there is no human faculty that is automatically free from sin: if there's a way to do wrong; someone somewhere will find it. This is not, of course, the same as saying that everyone is fully 'evil'.

So even the 'love hormone' is capable of being corrupted and become a tool for wrongdoing. Human solidarity is good, but vulnerable to misdirection. A clear understanding of corporisations, the 'Powers', reminds us of that.

Learning war no more

 It used to be the case that the psychological studies seemed to indicate that video games didn't cause violence. I guess that they were mainly showing that there was not a direct causal link. But I had always thought that it wouldn't be a direct link, rather it would be creating dispositions and habits of thought -a 'mentality' as I expressed it, more likely to result in violent attitudes and in turn attitudes would be more likely to foster behaviours. The obverse side to that would be that by funding our imaginations so heavily with responses of violence and aggression, we are failing to develop a repertoire of reactions and attitudes that could lead to non-violent outcomes, defusing tension, reconciliation etc.

So, yet more research has been added to the more recent discoveries in research that indeed the intuition I (and others) had is broadly correct. So:

Children who repeatedly play violent video games are learning thought patterns that will stick with them and influence behaviors as they grow older, according to a new study. The effect is the same regardless of age, gender or culture. The lead researcher says it is really no different than learning math or to play the piano.

Life lessons: Children learn aggressive ways of thinking and behaving from violent video games, study finds -- ScienceDaily:
 Of course, we now have a problem: the earlier directly causal research now inhabits a broad public perception of the matter so there's a culturally significant attitude that we don't have to worry about violence in computer games or on television because it doesn't cause violence and it might even be cathartic. So we have a challenge to reverse that now that we know better: we have to try to get the attitude changed to one of 'garbage in, garbage out: violence in gaming trains us in violent reactions and attitudes'.

Then, what we've got to do is find ways to develop games that are engaging, 'fun' and credible but which 'train' us in conflict resolution and fund imaginations for non-violent reacting. I wonder if anyone is trying to do that?

04 April 2014

Theology From Exile Volume II: The Year of Matthew

 I decided to take a look at this book for a handful of reasons: one is that I preach in churches that use RCL; another is that this book seemed to promise commentary on the RCL readings in a way that would bring out the Empire-resistance themes. I was also intrigued by the suggestion in the blurb that insights also from creation spirituality were part of the commentary.

Now, of course, the difficulty of reviewing a book like this within 30 days of receiving it*, is that it is a commentary on the weekly readings, so it's not a regular 'read-straight-through' sort of book since it's meant to be consulted on a a week by week or at least 'as needed' basis and each set of commentary pondered on the way to writing and performing a sermon. This makes it quite hard to read in the same way as a novel or standard book with a unitary argument, thesis or theme. And what is really needed is to 'road test' the volume over several months actual usage in informing the preparation for preaching. So what I'm doing here is having read the readings and commentary for about 3 months' worth of Sunday readings, to give an impression of the kind of commentary being offered. It's a little harder to comment directly on how well the material worked as stimulus for preaching.

The first thing to say is that I think I will continue to refer to the commentary pieces in this volume as a prepare for preaching. This is because the comments I have read do seem to me to have the kinds of insights that could provide the seed of a sermon. There is a useful reference to the kinds of insights that come from the work of people like John Dominic Crossan on the economic and political effects of the Roman Empire on Judea, Galilee and the rest which can yield interesting possibilities in understanding the gospels and epistles. Also an attentiveness to the environmental dimensions of it all are potentially useful to someone like me who is keen to help people to value justice, peace and the integrity of creation in discipleship and therefore in preaching.

What, I guess, I find less helpful is the way that the volume picks up the sometimes strident enemising of more traditional approaches to scripture and theology. Partly this is because I'm not fully 'with the program' that the author is signed up for: I'm not committedly materialist in my philosophical presuppositions, I do tend to think that the Jesus Seminar approach to the texts is unnecessarily skeptical and somewhat belligerent. I sometimes think that creation spirituality is more New Age than orthodox Christian. (That said I think that CS does alert us to distortions of orthodoxy and challenges us to reconsider the tradition and the way that we translate it for contemporary life). So in using the volume, I will not be automatically taking on board all of the perspectives but I do expect that some of the insights will be productive for me and that in wrestling with the things I'm less convinced by or even sense I disagree with, I will be challenged to develop my own thinking and appreciation of the texts more fully and carefully.

I do find myself, as I read, sometimes musing over a certain irony. There is a new orthodoxy espoused which reads the Bible as a manifesto for political resistance and change of a particular sort (I happen to agree with the thrust of this), but I do find it odd that while undermining these writings as Scripture, they are yet being used as in some way authoritative or at least as validating resistance to Empire. This feels a little parasitic on the tradition and I can't really see any reason for retaining it except to access the more general religiosity of north American society compared with Britain and Europe. I'm not sure that holding on to the tradition seems as useful politically in GB and EU and that the kind of orthodox radical approach of people like Jim Wallis or Shane Claiborne is more likely to feel authentic.

*Disclosure of Material Connection: This was a condition of getting a review copy; I received this book free from the  publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255 -even though I am British, residing in Britain.
Theology From Exile Volume II: The Year of Matthew eBook: Sea Raven: Kindle Store