100 word ‘Thought for the month’

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to write “about 100 words” for the church newsletter. Below is what was sent and today published as a ‘Thought for the month’. For context, the name of our church is Ichthus.

The term Ichthus is a shortened form of a bold declaration: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, Saviour. Three terms that denote the same person but which carry different connotations. Yet Jesus did not go about introducing himself with these titles. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah came part way into Jesus’ ministry and wasn’t obvious, for it had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. So when we introduce Jesus to others, should we immediately tell them of the conclusions of christian thought or invite them to become disciples and walk a path alongside us? 

Book Review: Hegel – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

In a few of the books I’ve read recently, most notably Das Kapital and Theology of Hope, the figure of Hegel has loomed large. Yet it any discussion on him always comes across as esoteric and rather impenetrable for this reader, untrained in philosophy. Without diving straight into his works, it seemed more appropriate to read about him, with a book designed for a beginner. So what could be more appropriate than a Very Short Introduction?

We begin with a look at Hegel’s life. One instantly gets confirmation of a likely suspicion: Hegel’s work is heavily shaped by (both in agreement with and as a reaction to) Kant’s philosophy. Having not read Kant or much about his thought, this would seem to be an instant hamstring. Perhaps I should come back to Kant later. The other figure that Kant wishes to highlight is Friedrich Schiller, whose own critiques of Kant may be thought of as mirroring Hegel’s, but that the history of philosophy has looked on Schiller unfavourably, with Hegel emerging as the more memorable of the two.

Singer’s look at Hegel’s own thought begins with The Philosophy of History. The key point I picked up from it was that Hegel viewed history as a progression towards a state of liberty. It is hinted at, though not stated explicitly, that Hegel viewed his own contemporary German state as the culmination of that progress. Singer looks at a few civilisations through Hegel’s eyes, to show us how he reached this view.

The question then arises as to what is meant by liberty. To do this, we get a précis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Singer is quick to point out that this is not a matter of right as in ‘right and wrong’; i.e. a study of ethics. But rather it concerns rights, a matter of political philosophy. Hegel reacted against the idea of liberty as the ability to do what one pleases, viewing this not as the greatest height of humanity, but as an immature dream. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Friedrich Hayek would have been wise to heed these words. Indeed, the discussion quickly moves to one of economics, where, having referenced him earlier, one cannot but think of Karl Marx.

Moving onto the motion of community, Singer takes us on a tour of Hegel’s view of planned and unplanned ways of living. At this point, I admit I got a bit lost in Singer’s explanation, so goodness knows how hopeless I’d be at trying to get a grasp on the source material of Hegel’s writings on the subject!

Halfway through the book, Singer unleashes on us the following: “It is time to confess: I have been cheating. My account of Hegel’s philosophy so far has carefully omitted of mention of something that Hegel himself refers to repeatedly and regards as crucial: the idea of Geist.” Thus we see that what has been spoken of so far has only partially dealt with the works those chapters purport to. So it is that we then have to look at Hegel’s Phenomenology, starting with whether Geist is better translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. Singer takes the view that ‘spirit’ sounds too religious and, notwithstanding Hegel’s Lutheran tendencies, is too misleading, preferring ‘mind’ instead.

Without having studied Hegel, I think Singer did a pretty good job here. It hasn’t made me an expert, but I think I got the gist of it (pun intended).

Finally, and almost reluctantly, we get onto Logic and Hegel’s work on dialectics (not to be mistaken for dianetics!). For it is here that I first got a bit lost at the start of Das Kapital. Beginning from a classical view of dialectics as going to and fro with ideas, Singer tells us that Hegel’s view is much more systematised, starting with a thesis, countered with an antithesis before finally the two come together in the form a synthesis, which then in turn becomes the next starting point. i.e. the next thesis.

Throughout the second half of the book, with particular reference to the notions of Geist and dialectics, Singer refers us back to the first part, showing the reader more explicitly what was hinted at before, or showing us that a particular example (e.g. the mind recognising another mind that is not itself, as a means of recognising that it is a mind) fits the models that are explored in the latter part.

The afterword of the book gives the reader a taste of where to go next, by looking at Hegel’s legacy. Singer’s view is that the more conservative take on Hegel’s work (which emphasises his later writings) died a death in a cul-de-sac, while the more radical take (exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx) flourished, understanding Hegel’s later work as a failure to follow through with his earlier ideas, seeking to rework them. An offshoot of this that grabbed my idea was David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus which I haven’t read yet, but which I know was a work against which Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was partly a response. A thesis and antithesis, if you will.

Overall, I think Singer met the brief very well. It may be some time before I come to read any of Hegel’s own works, but I think if he comes up again in my other reading, I have here something of a handle to hold onto to help me understand what more modern thinkers are saying about him and his work. So if you have started in the same position as me (see first paragraph) then I would definitely recommend this little book to you as a useful overview.

How would you like your church? Rare or well done

I wanted to pick up and expand a little on a point I made in last week’s post on the breaking of bread. In it, I said

This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way.

This may have been open to misinterpretation, so a little more clarity may be needed. When I say that things such as robes, procession, chanting, etc are unnecessary, I mean precisely that: unnecessary. I am not saying that they are inherently wrong. My point is that they are things which, though maybe originally intended to help, can end up getting in the way. Whether one includes or excludes these things is merely a matter of taste. My only disagreement is when people insist that to have them (or to not have them) is the “proper” way to do things. i.e. that to have them (or to exclude them) is a necessity.

Let’s pick up on the word ‘raw’ for a moment. It serves us quite well by way of analogy. Beef carpaccio is raw. I’ve had it a few times and quite like it. Others I know can’t stand it. They might prefer a steak that is well done, with a peppercorn sauce on top . We can both equally claim to like beef, but we just like it done differently. The problem arises when one or other makes a claim that ours is how beef should be done. i.e. to denigrate the authenticity of the other. To me, peppercorn sauce obscures and spoils the flavour of good beef; to others, it enhances the flavour.

We each can get entrenched in our ways, but it’s good to occasionally try things from another’s point of view. To use a different, but still culinary, analogy, I can’t stand tea. But once a year, I try a cup, to see if my tastes have changed. So far, they haven’t, but as it doesn’t make me physically ill, there’s no harm in trying something different once in a while.

Last year, I offered to take part in a tradition swap, where I would swap my nonconformism for a more traditionalist expression of christianity. There were no takers. I was rather disappointed by this, as it seemed that plenty were keen for me to temporarily give up my ways and see the virtue in theirs, but they were not willing to give up their ways and see the virtue in mine (seemingly, because of a kind of snobbery that looks down evangelicalism as a lesser form of christianity).

Christianity is a great and varied thing, with many different expressions. When we get used to one, there’s a risk we closet ourselves away and think of the paraphernalia that is built up in our expression as being somehow important. Then, when we see that others don’t do X or Y that we do, there’s a temptation to think that they are in some way lacking. I’m not suggesting we should all abandon our own churches and try a different one each week. Rather, just once in a while, maybe we should put down something we are holding on to in order to test if it necessary. Then, maybe, with a spare hand, pick up something else from another expression of christianity and see if it is helpful.

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

This has been by quite some margin the most anticipated book of the year. All over the English-speaking world, people have been busily re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation for the release of its follow-up. This particular reader chose not to. I maintained a strong memory of the impression that To Kill A Mockingbird made on me when I read it as part of my English Literature GCSE. I didn’t want to alter that memory, flawed as it may be, but I have been timing my reading carefully so that I would be able to read the sequel as soon as it was released. You may recall I wrote about my hopes and fears about the novel.

So it was that on the day of its publication, Tuesday the 14th of July 2015, that I set off during my lunchbreak to Foyles to pick up a copy. So what did I find?

*spoiler alert – I will be giving some details of the storyline in this review*

Set some 20 years after Mockingbird, we get a reintroduction to some of the characters. The book’s focus is on Jean Louise, who most readers will remember went by her nickname, Scout. But here, she’s a grown woman, so references to Scout are few and far between. There are some flashbacks to her childhood with her brother Jem, but very few of these link directly to the summer of Tom Robinson. The case is referred to, though not by name. In this recollection, the defendant was said to have had one arm. I don’t recall Tom having one arm in Mockingbird, so maybe one of you can enlighten me on this point.

The first 100 pages or so are setting us up, introducing the characters, but very little else. That might be a bit unfair, because Lee is good at making her characters have independent voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue form, and there are times when Lee drops the narrative aid of “said Jean Louise” or “said Atticus” for some time. If this were a lesser writer, sometimes you have to turn back a page or two to work out who is speaking. Not so in this case. The voices are so distinctive that with just a sentence or two, you know whose voice is speaking. And even as I read in my head, without overdoing the phonetic spellings, I still ended up with an array of American accents in my inner monologue.

Then comes the sucker punch. Jean discovers some literature in Atticus’ possession which are of a decidedly racist nature. Jean Louise is then torn. To her, Atticus had been the model of all that was virtuous and just. Yet here, and in a public meeting he was spotted at, he was seen sharing a platform with those who viewed one race as superior to another. To whom can Jean Louise turn?

Towards the end of the book, there is a practical issue that has caused some problems. That is, on the books with the orange covers, the bottom of some of the pages haven’t printed properly. There are several paragraphs missing. So I still cannot tell you for sure how the book ends. I have a very good idea, but some of the details are missing.

What I can tell you is that it has really pissed some people off. While Mockingbird was seen as a triumph of liberal social attitudes over racism, there is more of a compromise here. If you can’t beat them, learn to live with them. In some ways this is even more liberal, as Atticus refuses to make an enemy out of racists. Instead, he is adamant that they must be given a platform and not have their views censored simply because some might disagree with them.

Some reviewers have chosen to see this is as Atticus becoming a racist. It’s not quite that simple.

What the book shares with Mockingbird is that it is a book about growing up. Only now this is something more of a grown-up kind of ‘growing up’. The thing is, Jean Louise idolised Atticus somewhat (as have many readers – or viewers of the film of Mockingbird) and at some point we must learn that our idols will let us down. Atticus knew it was coming, as did others, but Jean Louise didn’t. He was her rock, her point of steadfast faithfulness and upright morality whom she could lean on. Now that source of stability was rocking and she suffers a crisis of identity.

I don’t know about other readers, but I could readily identify with the theme of disappointment in one’s parents. I recently sat at endured something of a rant that my father that could only ever be described as homophobic. I disagree with him vehemently on the issue, although he doesn’t know this. I simply bite my tongue. There are times I’ve wanted to scream in his face and tell him how vile I find his hatred. In this book, Jean Louise does my shouting for me.

Just as To Kill A Mockingbird stayed with people for a long time, so will Go Set A Watchman, but for very different reasons.

The subversive act of breaking bread

Last night (Wednesday), a group of about 25 people gathered in a large room in a house in the London borough of Lewisham. We engaged in speech and acts that represent a challenge to the way the world works. It was symbolic, it was simple and yet it carried in it a breath of quiet power that brought some to tears.

What sort of underground meeting was this? This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way. We were merely a small community of people, drifting in at the end of the day to gather together.

There was some general friendliness, catching up on the events of the week, before the person who had called us together on this crisp evening at the start of autumn spoke to us from the book of Acts about a time of refreshing. There was some sung worship and a time of open prayer, where anyone may speak. One person sung in tongues and an interpretation was asked for. After a minute or so, an interpretation was sung back.

We then moved to what our church (and many others) refer to as breaking bread. Some call it mass, others Eucharist, still others communion and some call it the Lord’s Table. Each has their merits and connotations. In a small, private gathering such as this, some things are easier than in a bigger, public meeting. There was an encouragement that if people so wished, they could pray prayers of confession. Why this is a good thing, I don’t want to go into here. Maybe another time. Sometimes people will do so, sometimes they won’t.

Whatever prayers were said and what people asked forgiveness for shall, of course, remain private. But one by one people went to the table in the middle of the room and prayed their prayers of confession and asked for forgiveness. Then they took the bread and the grape juice, the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, and partook of them.

Breaking bread is an act of obedience and could well be said to be one of christianity’s oldest practices. Every act of obedience is also an act of rebellion; it just depends on which you focus. For to obey God in breaking bread is to rebel against the world. Some may see the rejection of religion as a rebellion against (a non-existent) God, but while that is shouted, it echoes a quiet whisper of obedience to the world of the way things are, to the zeitgeist of passive indifference to the cross.

On the mountain where Moses encountered the burning bush, God asked Moses to remove his footwear for God’s presence there, at that time, made it a holy place. In that room last night, the spirit of God moved amongst the gathered saints and that place, at that time, became a holy place.

To speak of holy things is an act of rebellion against an unholy world.

To break bread in communion, in remembrance of a crucified Messiah subverts the hero narrative that our culture longs for and preaches to us every day.

We closed with a song of declaration, “I believe in Jesus“. This statement of belief is not only a positive affirmation, but it flies in the face of received wisdom, of “common” sense, of the assumed way of being that pervades every strand of our society.

As we left that place, some 2 hours later, we breathed in and out, our act of rebellion done behind closed doors. But as we continue to breath the spirit of God, we can go about spreading not only the message of defiance, but the positive message of joy and hope that Jesus brings.

Book Review: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

It’s sometimes good to pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about, just to try to get an early handle on it and immerse yourself in its world. This was my thinking when, having spotted a bookshop attached to an art gallery in Whitechapel, London, I spotted this Very Short Introduction (VSI). My only prior exposure to art theory was during a conversation with an art student when we were both at sixth form college. Here, she claimed that art was whatever an artist said was art. She followed up by saying that an artist was anyone who considered themselves to be one. Being keen on logic and wanting to bust her bubble via a reductio ad absurdum, I stated that I was an artist and that my poking her in the shoulder was a piece of art. It was done in jest, but for me it was a perfectly justified reaction against art theory as she portrayed it to me.

Onto the book. Freeland chooses, as seems fitting, to illustrate her work through example. Now the body of art in the world is far too great for any single work to do justice to, so Freeland is forced to limit her choice to just a few works. One of these in particular is given prominence as the lens through which she views the subject: Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. It is through this, and other works like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark in formaldehyde) that Freeland explores the question of aesthetics. Are these things beautiful? Freeland gives a brief survey of the philosophy of aesthetics, with a particular emphasis on the ideas of Kant. Her conclusion is that “Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.”

From here, we get a whistle-stop tour of various different kinds of art, all the way along questioning what it is that makes it art. What are the common themes and what are the differences. In particular, the idea of intent seems to be paramount. This is illustrated through looking at some of the pop art works of Andy Warhol. What made his version Brillo Boxes art while the commercially available equivalent isn’t?

When it comes to looking at a variety of cultures, Freeland asks the reader to face some uncomfortable questions. What for one culture is an expression of their identity may be taken as a quaint form of “tribal art” for another culture. This has given rise to an industry of such art that may have originated in particular cultural or religious expression, but later has become little more than a commercialised fulfilment of an imperialist fetish.

This naturally leads on to issues of money and how capitalism corrupts the art world. Fighting against this is the idea of public art; that which should be available for all the public to experience in whatever form the art takes, typically visual. There’s a brief history of the changing natures of museums here which was cut short for it to fit into this volume, but could easily have been expanded into a much larger chapter, as the treatment is all too brief.

One of the themes that has long permeated art, but which is particularly highlighted in modern art is the act of subversion and how art becomes a tool of that subversion. This is a subject Freeland examines through a few lenses, but in particular that of feminism. There are other lenses that have could have been used more extensively, but I think that in using the feminist angle, she was angling for an approach that would appeal to as wide a liberal audience (for that is who she seems to be writing for) as she could hope for. So it was a little ironic that in what should have been the most controversial chapter, she chose potentially the safest option.

So what does it all mean?

Here, we move to what I thought seemed to be the heart of the subject: how do we interpret art? It seems that any artist must have some idea of what it is that they want to convey and the viewer of the art is intended to receive a message. But unlike the written word, visual art (for in Freeland’s world, literature doesn’t really seem to count as art) can have “fuzzy edges”. What we then get is a rundown of various theories as to how the message is conveyed. If a viewer understands one thing, is it “right”? Is meaning generated in the mind of the viewer or can the artist turn around and tell them they’ve no right to interpret their art in that manner?

Towards the end of the book, we come right up to modernity, with an examination of the digital revolution and how art can be made available for all. It is worth questioning the future of the art galleries given that a click of a few buttons, we can see versions of the great works of visual art on our computer screens.

There was a satisfying moment I had whilst reading it one lunchtime as the book mentioned the very art gallery in Whitechapel where I bought the book.

I’ve come away from the book with the beginnings of an education. I think that’s the best that one could reasonably hope for. The book could have been a lot different if different examples were cited, as the world is full of art of a wide variety. I’m not sure I’ll take up art more seriously in the near future, but if you’re vaguely interested then I would certainly recommend this work to you. As I’ve tried to hint at in this review, there are lots of questions, so it’s certainly a book to make you think; and that can hardly be a bad thing.

How capitalists profit from the refugee crisis

Over the last few months, the scale of the unfolding humanitarian crisis coming out of Syria . In the backwaters of the news we have had a steady, but muted patter, of stories of rickety boats sinking, with dozens of people losing their lives in the process. After the publication of one photo, some of the more apathetic sections of society have been jolted into action and are now doing headless chicken impressions asking “[what can we do]” or asking for others to “[just do something]”. Such reactions are natural, as may be observed (by analogy) in someone waking up from a deep sleep by an unpleasant action, such as water being poured on their head.

What we end up doing is going to buy supplies to give out. In this act of purchasing, we are contributing to the revenues of the shops (mostly supermarkets) who provide those products. While they will have paid a wholesale price, they still take a gross profit. Their business model is such that they end up with their overheads are fixed, not variable, so that the additional gross profit flows down to their operating profit pretty much unscathed.

With this extra profit, it is likely that the share price increases (or it mitigates a fall, if there are other, bigger, factors at play) and so those who already own shares in the company have their wealth increased (or their losses ameliorated).

It sucks that that’s the way the world that has been constructed before we ever had a chance to have our say in it. It’s a rigged game, designed to favour the rich, to further enrich them. What is personally frustrating is that the spread of investments in a pension fund mean it is quite possible that I have an indirect investment in those who gain from such a human tragedy. If you have a pension, you may too.

Yet can it be right to then turn around and refuse to help others because some might profit it? I’m not sure it is, so I pick what may not be the lesser of two evils, but the less visceral of two evils.