Monthly Archives: November 2010

Book review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

It seemed about time that to read this gothic classic. It didn’t seem right to read it during the summer, given it’s dark nature, so I waited for cold, dark and rainy November before reading it.

Like so many classics, I could have given you a reasonable appraisal of the plot before I’d even read it. However, vampire folklore has become so convoluted in recent years with the pop culture of Buffy, Twilight and True Blood that it could be hard to discern the wheat from the chaff. However, I hoped to come to this with as open a mind as possible. The book is divided into two very distinct parts. The opening third of the book is set in Transylvania, and gives the account of Jonathan Harker’s time as a guest in Castle Dracula. This section reads almost like a short story, with the rest of the book being tagged on the end to make it into a novel.

The style of writing is that of a composition of letters, journals, telegrams and memoranda from various characters, although Stoker has spent little effort in distinguishing the individual voices from their writings. i.e. all the characters write with the same mannerisms. This makes the book feel like an early literary equivalent of “found footage” films such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, and I think that they do owe some debt to Stoker for this style.

This first third is an absolute masterpiece and the zenith of gothic fiction. The remainder, where the action moves to England, is still good, but doesn’t quite live up to the blistering opening. There are a number of new characters suddenly introduced into the plot, though the author only expands on a few of these, with 2 characters in particular, having a very similar role in the book, though with little to distinguish between them. The flow of the book is very good for the most part, though Stoker’s keen interest in hypnotism led him to use it as a plot device in some places, which left me feeling a bit cheated, considering how contrived it felt.

But that shouldn’t detract from a classic book. While it has been copied and derived from since, none have come close to Stoker’s original. I would highly recommend this to anyone considering reading it.

Reading List

I know I’m always banging on about it, so I thought I might as compile what’s on my reading list. This is no particular order. If you have any suggestions for other things I may like, please feel free to suggest them. Just note that with the length of this list (where I’ve probably missed off a fair few), I may not get around to reading it any new suggestions any time soon.

Boffinology: The Real Stories Behind Our Greatest Scientific Discoveries
Cycles of Time – Roger Penrose
13 Things That Don’t Make Sense – Michael Brooks
Bad Science – Ben Goldacre
The Age of Wonder – Richard Holmes
Gaia – James Lovelock
The Shape of Inner Space – Shing-Tung Yau
The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
Three Roads to Quantum Gravity – Lee Smolin
Shadows of the Mind – Roger Penrose
From Physicist to Priest – John Polkinghorne
The Logic of Scientific Discovery – Karl Popper
The Numerati – Stephen Baker
Particle Metaphysics – Brigitte Falkenburg
Drawing the Map of Life – Victor McElheny
Life’s Solution – Simon Conway Morris
The Greatest Show on Earth – Richard Dawkins
The Principles of Quantum Mechanics – Paul Dirac

Letters and Papers from Prison – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language – David Crystal
No Perfect People Allowed – John Burke
The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians – Thomas O’Loughlin
The Problem of Pain – C.S. Lewis
Creation – Alister McGrath
Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Charles Foster
Blind Spots in the Bible – Adrian Plass
The Crucified God – Jurgen Moltmann
On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision – William Lane Craig
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig
Surprised by Hope – Tom Wright
Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth – Alister McGrath
God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science – James Hannam
Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright
The Reason for God – Timothy Keller
The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
Personal Religion, Public Faith? – Dallas Willard
The Year of Living Biblically – A.J. Jacobs
A Place for Truth – Peter Singer
Crisis and Recovery – Rowan Williams
Christian Theology: An Introduction – Alister McGrath
Practical Theology in Action – Paul Ballard
Jesus and Nonviolence – Walter Wink
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
The Challenge of Jesus – Tom Wright
The Puzzle of Ethics – Peter Vardy
SCM Study Guide to Christian Ethics – Neil Messer
The Pietist Theologians – Carter Lindberg
The Reformation Theologians – Carter Lindberg
The First Christian Theologians – G.R. Evans
The Medieval Theologians – G.R. Evans
The Modern Theologians – David Ford
A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
Godless Morality – Richard Holloway
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God – Jonathan Edwards
Man, the Dwelling Place of God – A.W. Tozer
The Knowledge of the Holy – A.W. Tozer
Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis
Miracles – C.S. Lewis
The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis
Incarnation – Alister McGrath
Redemption – Alister McGrath
Resurrection – Alister McGrath
Jesus and the Victory of God – Tom Wright
Early Christian Thinkers – Paul Foster
Constructing Jesus – Dale Allison
The Varieties of Christian Experience – William James
Post-charismatic – Robin McAlpine
The God Who is There – Francis Schaeffer
Confessions – Augustine
Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
Biblical Games – Steven Brams
Finding Darwin’s God – Kenneth Miller
God is Great, God is Good – Chad Meister
Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? – James Dunn
Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? – David Wenham
The God I Don’t Understand – Christopher Wright
Reason, Faith and Revolution – Terry Eagleton
Jesus for President – Shane Claiborne
Cafe Theology – Michael Lloyd
Just Do Something – Kevin DeYoung
A Scientific Theology – Alister McGrath
Faith Like Potatoes – Val Waldeck
My Utmost for His Highest – Oswald Chambers
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists – Dan Barker
Biblical Nonsense – Jason Long
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? – F.F. Bruce

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Rabbit, Run – John Updike
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Outsider – Albert Camus
The Shadow of the Galilean – Gerd Theissen
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi
Kokoro – Natsume Soseki
Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – David Mitchell
The Complete Jeeves Omnibus – P.G. Wodehouse
The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu
Grace Williams Says It Loud – Emma Henderson
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
The Forsyte Saga – John Galsworthy

Plato and a Platypus – Thomas Cathcart
The Borgias and their Enemies – Christopher Hibbert
Confessions of a GP – Benjamin Daniels
Captive State – George Monbiot
The Spirit Level – Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living – Mark Boyle
A Brief History of the Crusades – Geoffrey Hindley
Talking to the Enemy – Scott Atran
Churchill’s Empire – Richard Toye
The Defence of the Realm – Christopher Andrew
The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember – Nicholas Carr
Cityboy – Geraint Anderson
Aristotle and an Aardvark – Thomas Cathcart
The Bomb – Howard Zinn
Ethics – Piers Benn
A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor
MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 – Keith Jeffery
New Larousse Gastronomique – Hamlyn
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – Christopher Hibbert
No Logo – Naomi Klein

The nature and origin of morality – Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.

As discussed in the introduction to this mini series, this part is a bit of a ground-clearing exercise to help overcome some objections that we may otherwise struggle with later on. So my intention is to state the cases here and thereafter refer back to them, thus speeding along later progress at the expense of a little turgidity now. As always, these are only my own views and I acknowledge that I may be mistaken in some aspects of my writing, and I welcome debate on any points I raise or points which any reader may think I have unreasonably omitted.

May I also add as aside that where I have linked to various other websites, this is only to give you a door to investigate some other matters. Some of them contain views that I disagree with, so please do not infer that by linking to them is in any way to associate my opinions with those contained in these websites.

What right have I, as a christian, to speak of morality? Do I speak for God? Most certainly not; I can speak for no other than myself. Do I speak for all christians? No; that is too broad a body of people and views for any one person to speak on their behalf. I speak only for myself, but cannot ignore the weight on my shoulders from these other two and how my relation to them may be viewed by an outside observer.

It would not be denied by any knowledgeable and honest person that there have been some terrible atrocities committed in the name of christianity. The ones that quickly jump to mind are the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the sectarian violence in Northern Island. There is a second category of dreadfulness whereby immense hypocrisy in moral matters has been shown by those who have claimed to be christians. Here, we think of the corruption of the Borgias during the late 15th and early 16th centuries and of the sexual abuse of children by catholic priests. So how are these acts to be reconciled with the notion of christian love for God and for other people?

After the start of writing of this piece, there was an interesting debate published in the online edition of the Observer, which is well-worth reading. The question posed is whether or not religion is a force for good in the world. It has five participants in it, though I could only claim to have heard of two of them (the Labour MP, Jon Cruddas and the philosopher, AC Grayling). The standfirst of the article states that is in response to a challenge that Christopher Hitchens made to Tony Blair to enter into a debate. I have not yet read this challenge, but am familiar with some of the views of Hitchens, having read  God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. However, it is not Hitchens’ views I want to concentrate on here; it is those of AC Grayling. Now Grayling is a far more measured and reasonable debater than Hitchens; Grayling’s use of rhetoric is far more limited, though their views are broadly similar.

The idea that religion is fundamentally bad is not without basis, it’s just that I believe that basis is in error. Given the specific examples I gave above, it would be easy to think religion is a force for evil in the world, but that view is somewhat simplistic. I will now expand on that. In much of what I have read in christian/atheist debates (though not all) there a few apparent fundamental flaws in the understanding of the critics of religion. Firstly, there is the idea that religion can be discussed as though it were one thing. The wide varieties of religious beliefs, cultures and practices throughout history show such diversity that to discuss ‘religion’ as a single thing is overly simplistic and begins on completely the wrong foot. No meaningful conclusions can be met as these discussions are based on a fallacy. It is a little like trying to come to firm conclusions on ‘sport’ when there are so many different sports, and the number of aspects shared by all are so few and tenuous that there is very little substance to work with. So when ‘sport’ is discussed, those speaking and listening may have a few fixed examples in mind (e.g. Football, cricket and rugby). And the same happens with discussions on ‘religion’ where those discussing the matters will often have three Abrahaimic faiths in mind. Any more focussing tends to be split between critics of Islam and critics of Christianity; in this respect Judaism seems to be spared. Sometimes aspects one or all three of these are taken as indicative of being true of ‘religion’ as a whole, which given what we have said above results in a lot of straw man arguments. Another of the large errors in discussions of these matters is the failure to distinguish between the institutional churches and the nature of the particular faith being discussed. To give an example, I often read articles where the author has conflated catholicism and/or anglicanism with christianity, when in fact it is far better to consider the faith as separate from the institution which advocates it.

In the examples stated near the start of this piece, most of the atrocities that have occurred have been undertaken as corporate action of the institutional churches. Of course, the discrete detail has been committed by individuals, but usually at the behest of a larger, man-made organisation. Here, we have our key point: the institutional churches are man-made constructs, not God-made. Now the catholic church has often focussed on one verse as the justification for its existence, namely when Jesus stated to Peter:

“You are Peter [which means Rock], and on this rock I will build my church.”

Now Peter was certainly one of the major figures in the early church, however the dogma of apostolic succession is not biblically-based and was a political invention which has become far more of a hinderence than a help to progressive thought. I could give many other examples of false teaching on the part of the catholic church, but I do not have the time for this and will detract from the main point which is this: the catholic church is not a mouthpiece for christianity; it is a misdirected anachronism that is a theological equivalent of a vampire, undead and preying on the vulnerability of others, failing to recognise the importance of the Reformation which was the death knell of catholicism as a part of the christian communion.

With that said, what did we get as a replacement? Another institutional church: the anglican church. The example of anglican church lends weight to the idea that history repeats itself. The catholic church had become intent on power, control and political influence. These are not the hallmarks of the vision that was laid out by Jesus and expanded upon by Peter and Paul in the first century A.D. Yet these are also the hallmarks that anglicanism has grown into over the years. We only need to look at the last few weeks’ press to see what the public face of the anglican church is. One thing it certainly is not, is as a proclaimer of the gospel of redemption through the resurrection.

When I refer to the ‘church’ in general without adding any adjective before it, my meaning is this: the collection of all of those who believe that Jesus died and was resurrected as a substitute for us in order to mend the separation between mankind and God, and who aim to live according to the two great commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” That does not mean that a local church should be without structure. Indeed, quite a lot of attention is paid by Paul in his letters on how the local churches should conduct themselves along with guidelines on how to operate, which were mostly common-sense.

A church is a collection of believers, complete with all their flaws and foibles. Having such a rag-tag bunch of diverse people pulled together in a common cause requires a level of organisation. One of the main reasons for this, and something Paul writes quite a lot about, is the risk of false teaching. If the church were a total free for all, then anything could be taught regardless of its truth. Instead, we should be lovers of truth (Greek: alethiophiles!) and that requires some guidelines.

So then, what we come down to is this question: What is a christian? To me, a christian is a work in progress. Nobody is perfect and we are all on a learning curve, working our way towards an understanding of God.

The question of hypocrisy arises when there is a perception of the christian as the person who thinks they hold the moral high ground, or who claims to have a firm grasp on the highest truth or to understand the mind of God perfectly. I have met very few christians who genuinely believe that this is something they have attained, but I have met many more who can give that impression by the things they say in public, while keeping their humility private.

I hope that in whatever I write, I am clear in stating that I do not claim to have all the answers and that it is my belief that anyone who claims to do so is badly mistaken and heading down the wrong path.

An old acquaintance at university (I shan’t say ‘friend,’ we couldn’t stand each other!) had a keyring which said “Christians aren’t perfect. They just you to be.” While he, an atheist, kept this keyring as a statement of irony, pointing out the hypocrisy of many christians and institutional churches, I think it’s not too far off the mark.

Once we recognise that christians aren’t perfect and are in fact a long way from it, it becomes easier to understand why it is that christians can do terrible things to fellow human beings. It is our human nature playing itself out. But we cannot ignore the fact that corporate injustices are fundamentally different from individual hypocrisy. The latter is more than the sum of its parts. So why is this? To be honest, I don’t know and cannot say for certain; but it seems to me to lie in the idea of “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I cannot find anywhere in the New Testament advocacy for the church to be a political organisation. So as soon as political power is given to an institutional church, it is a seed of corruption. Those fallible individuals who given power are then not often subject to enough scrutiny, as they would be under a democracy. As has been seen in some churches in history, the idea of infallibility merely causes trouble. It is essentially a matter of corporate pride, where people convince themselves that what they are doing is right and are beyond question. But as we know, “pride comes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

In short, it is a problem of sin. Now there can be misunderstandings around the word ‘sin’ or ‘sinner’ which are often used by christians and are badly communicated to non-christians which leads to these misunderstandings, particularly in relation to causality. What comes first is the term ‘sinner’ meaning someone who is in a state separation from God. Here, I find Rob Bell’s way of phrasing things quite helpful. When confronted with those who think that the early chapters of Genesis are accurate historical accounts, with all the terribly unhelpful connotations, divisions and disagreements that that causes, it is better to understand the Fall, not necessarily as something that happened, but rather something that happens. This is summarised by Paul when he says in Romans

“for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

So we born as ‘sinners’ and as a consequence of what we are, we fulfil that nature by doing acts (‘sins’) which reflect our nature. So when christians refer to people as ‘sinners’ it is actually an axiomatic definition, albeit etic, rather than a judgement on the person’s character, and no offence is meant, nor should any be inferred from it.

It is not a case that we are born pure and by wrongful acts we are made into sinners. We are born as sinners and our actions reflect our true nature. But the sinful nature and the nature of God are diametrically opposed. Now there is much written about what happens to a person when they exercise their free will and decide to become a christian, which I don’t have time to cover here. The most concise summary of it comes from Romans 12, when Paul says we are

“transformed by the renewal of your minds.”

Being concise, it is open to misinterpretation, and this doesn’t mean christians are brainwashed or have their personalities erased. Rather, it is renovation work on our very nature. This is where a better communicator than I is needed, for it requires a little talk on spiritual matters, which is certainly something that is non-intuitive. These two natures are in competition with one another, and because a christian is not the finished article, nomatter what level of maturity they have, their remains something of the sinful nature within them, which exhibits itself from time to time. This is when we see christians sin and fall down. Because of the nature of this battle which is going on unseen, when the sinful does break through, it can be like a volcano which has been plugged for some time, resulting in far more wanton destruction than we see in non-christians who trickle, to stretch the analogy a little.

What can we say in conclusion of this part then? It is indeed true that christians have, do and will continue to commit acts which are classed by a broad school of thought as immoral. The institutional churches are not a good reflection of the true vision of the church; they are corrupt entities, where the sinful nature of mankind has been allowed to take over, despite the veneer of christianity.

So then, is there such a thing as a ‘true christianity’ or are we at risk of the ‘No true Scotsman‘ fallacy? Well, given my (probably inadequate) definition above, I think there is. But it isn’t helpful to think of a christian as a person who lives by a fixed set of rules. Anyone who thinks of christianity as merely a list of ‘dos’ don’ts’ has got the wrong end of the stick. There is a core truth, but christianity is about freedom and relationship. So in my view, there is such a thing as ‘true christianity’, but our understanding of it is incomplete, and some aspects can be more easily understood by their negation than by positive definition. Where humans err, the examples of these violations of morality is highly noticeable. Since we are in pursuit of righteousness, but recognising that we are a long way short of it, it is possible to have a look at the nature and origins of morality with a clear conscience. Acts of hypocrisy are where we have strayed off the path and are not the rule we live by. Only if christianity were inherently immoral would it render our task impossible, but the evidence which suggests this is not conclusive and when understood in its proper context, merely points to the fallibility of human nature.

Book Review: Knowing God by J.I. Packer

I had a few people mention this as a highly influential book on many well-known christians whose own writings I have read and liked. So I thought it would be worthwhile getting this book and having a read. I have to note that this is an extremely rich book, full of some much deeper theology than I was expecting of it. It is extremely well-research and referenced, clearly the product of a knowledgeable and passionate mind.

The one main criticism I would have was of an opportunity missed in the 2005 updated edition; specifically that of the language used. The style of writing is not as accessible as it might otherwise have been. Some of the phraseology is archaic and not straightforward to the lay reader. This is further used by the Bible quotations which are mostly from very old translations, not in the modern vernacular. For this reason, a modern reader who isn’t familiar with this way of putting things (which I think would still have seemed a little antiquated when it was first published in the 1970s) could be easily put off.

Putting that small criticism aside and focussing on the substance of the book, it is clear to see why it is so highly esteemed. The huge range of references means that the vast majority of what the author has proposed is backed up with evidence. The real difference in this book that sets it apart is the unflinching look at ALL aspects of God’s nature. Too often, the idea of God showing jealousy, judgement and wrath is dodged, ignored or glossed over by many a christian writer.

In terms of the scope of the book, the author has been very thorough. He has not left out any significant areas of God’s character. I think this is a book I will come back to again and again. I haven’t yet used the study questions at the back, but have had a flick through them, and they appear to provide good food for thought. It’s not a short book and if you follow up all the references it will take several weeks to work your way through, but it will be well worth it.

The nature and origin of morality – Part 0: Introductory comments

I have to start this with a warning: this is merely an exploration of my incomplete thinking, not a thoroughly researched exegesis. So I will ask now that if you are reading this and can suggest further reading that I might undertake, please suggest them in the comments, and I shall add it to my reading list. That said, my reading list is very very long at the moment and I may not get a chance to read them very soon. In relation to Part 5, I have already got my sights set on Talking to the Enemy.

Morality is a subject on which I often interject with a few thoughts during a conversation or argument. One of the places these arguments frequently take place is my old haunt of Cif Belief between christians and atheists. It is worth noting that the number of atheists on this discussion forum far outweigh the number of christians. That said, the number of reasonable participants who want to take part in a constructive and thoughtful way are about equal on both sides. There is also our resident Buddhist, who is very well educated and acts as a good voice of reason in the face of some very vitriolic trolling. It is because of my disillusionment in people’s ability to listen that I have tended to post on this site less than I used to.

The particular impetus for this train of thought, however came from a different thread on Cif. A philosophy student (who has most probably done research on the matter than I) made a comment that morality developed as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure the survival of the species.

Below is a copy of the typed conversation. Any annotations I have made will be in square brackets [ ].

Interesting debate actually.

“The evolution of moral behaviour distinguishes humanity from the animal kingdom (though I agree, it’s not the only distinction).” [this quote was from another user, called Peter, who is referred to later]

This is very unlikely to be true. As discussed the other day, much of “moral” behaviour itself probably has evolutionary causes stemming from biological harm, like incest. The example you give is a good one, the “filthiness” of pigs. I wonder if this “morality” itself doesnt stem from biology, namely that eating raw pork does you harm whereas raw beef doesnt. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this is where the disdain for pigs originally came from.

Is it not a truism that “morality” will face largely the same evolutionary pressures as biology? A morality which encouraged constant internal group fighting, murder, incest and rape would be at a major disadvantage to those groups whose morality encouraged harmonious living.

Talk of morality separated from biology and evolution strikes me as a typically absurd consequence of the Cartesian mindset. [This last sentence is the bit I disagreed with and prompted me to post the following reply.]

I have to disagree with you here, Jay. Using the same logic, it would be like saying you can’t talk about what’s on television without talking about electromagnetism.

Though you could not be watching tv without someone having built a tv with a good knowledge of the models we use to understand electromagnetism, you can nonetheless discuss Question Time, Newsnight, X Factor or Eastenders.

Evolutionary theory is a fantastic way in which we understand biology, but it stretches the credulity of the sciences when you start to apply those principles to areas beyond which the evidence points, in this case morality.

Not really, no. Peter [the same Peter as above] has claimed a dividing line between animals and humans based on our morality. Thats what i disagreed with. Firstly, we are animals. Secondly, we face evolutionary processes just as animals do. Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolution and biology.

The analogy falls down because electromagnetism, the medium, has no effect or link to the content whatsoever. This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there’s a causal relationship here.

I understand your point (I think), JayReilly. My disagreement is on this statement:

“Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolutiion and biology.”

Where is the evidence to support this idea?

Morality is not something tangible. You can’t pick it up and count it, there is no empirical method of measurement, it doesn’t fossilise and it leaves no physical trace of itself. Consequently, it falls outside of the scope of the natural sciences. So your statement:

“This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there’s a causal relationship here.”

is unevidenced speculation.

As I was typing quite fast, I didn’t have time to lay down all my thoughts on the matter, so this little series is an attempt at doing that. When I began to write it, I thought of going straight for the heart of the matter, but kept coming across some stumbling blocks where I felt I needed to clarify things, and where I also wanted to explore one particular issue that I have often struggled with, and after a recent conversation at a church housegroup, reminded me of the issue. So the plan (at the moment) is to proceed as follows:

Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.
– I felt this needed to be added at the start as a discussion to clear away a few common objections that would otherwise hinder any progress.

Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?
– One argument I often hear from christians is that morality can only derived from God, thus implicitly stating that christians have a monopoly on morality. Here we discuss that proposition.

Part 3: Can we rule God out?
– A common counter-argument to that used in part 2 is that appealing to God is an invalid argument that cannot be used and that alternative means have to be used. So this part will discuss whether or not that dismissal is premature.

Part 4: Moral law preceding statutory law.
– This will attempt to look at the links between moral law and the development of statutory laws, and how the former precedes the latter.

Part 5: The christian difference.
– Here we’ll look at some thorny issues where christians tend to differ from the rest of society, and I hope to examine the more fundamental reasons for these differences, including a discussion on moral relativism.

Part 6: Genesis 22 and the problem of Abraham.
– If murder is immoral, then why was Abraham willing to kill his own son? What ramifications does it have for how we understand religiously motivated fundamentalists and their link to acts of terrorism.

It seems unwise of me to begin by trying to define morality. Though it is a concept which is easily understood, trying to pin it down in a few words is distinctly difficult task and one which would most likely come back and bite me later on. To coin a phrase, it is like trying nail jelly to a wall. It is elusive but nonetheless real.

Due to my own limited knowledge of attitudes to morality outside of proponents of the abrahaimic faiths and of atheism, I shall not be undertaking an holistic viewpoint and admit mea culpa from the outset on my own ignorance.

It is probably worth stating at this point that I do not consider morality and ethics to be the same thing, or even siblings. My own view is that morality is the teacher of ethics. That is, ethics is the practice and real world ‘living out’ of the values that are derived from the more fundamental subject of morality. I know this is a view that is accepted by all, but as with anything I write, you are welcome to disagree and to point me towards an alternative view.

If you’ve been bothered to read this far, I hope you find this enjoyable and thought-provoking. I would like to add ‘informative’ to that list, though that is probably a little too optimistic to be reasonably hoped for.

Book Review: The Christian Vision of God by Alister McGrath

I picked this book almost at random from a bookshop. While it was clear that it was the last in a series of books, no other parts of that series was on sale at the time. So I review this on a stand alone basis.

It’s a very unusual book in terms of its presentation. The author has used various classic pieces of art to illustrate the subject of each chapter, which results in a high ratio of pictures to text. The pages are almost square as well, giving an unfamiliar feeling to the book. It is also very short and can be read through in less than two hours. That said, the book’s brevity does not mean that it is lacking in substance. It’s best to think of it as a concise summary of theological thought. Each chapter could be expanded into a book by itself, but rather than dissect the nature of God here, we are presented with only the conclusions.

I’ve read it a few times now and it’s one to regularly dip into, hence the title of this review. I will be looking to read through the rest of the series in due course; even though this was the final book it’s a little gem that has left me wanting to read more in the same series. It’s a highly accessible book and one that I would highly recommend to someone who is either a christian wanting a nice reminder of the basic tenets of belief in a new, refreshing way or for someone who is interested in finding out what christians believe, in clear way, free from archaic and circular definitions and arguments.

Book review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This was one of those ‘classics’ that I had just never got round to reading before. The notion of the story is one that has seeped into the public consciousness over the last 50 years, to the extent that many who haven’t read the book could give you a quick appraisal of the story. But in such instances, it is easy for Chinese whispers to miss key elements of a story. So I felt it was important to read it for myself.

The style of the book is quite straightforward which makes it very easy to read and I got through the book in a single weekend. There is nothing in the way it written that instantly makes it stand out as brilliant; the characters, though not flat, aren’t exactly full of depth. There are not many great quotes or aphorisms. The real power of the story is the idea of the narrative, which is what the author has spent the most time giving flesh to.

It is a stark warning against right wing totalitarianism, where free thought is forbidden. Yet it is not a 1984 clone. There is less of a fantastical tone about it, the curtailments of freedoms were very creeping, hence being all the more believable and frightening for it. There is one flaw in it, however. Whilst it is essentially an advertisement for books and for free thought, the only books mentioned are those that are generally considered great. It might have been rather different if the remnants of the intelligentsia had been trying to memorise Mills & Boon, Jeffrey Archer or Stephanie Meyer. That minor oversight could be applied to the book itself, as it undoubtedly a classic. The author states that the story almost wrote itself, and that is evident in the book, as it has the feel of a story that had to be told, rather than anything contrived.

A must read for all who value free thought.