Monthly Archives: November 2012

Book Review: Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

Those of you with a keen eye on this blog will be aware that I have something of a love for the writings of Thomas Hardy. I’ve read the majority of his novels (though not all of them reviewed on this blog) but this was my first reading of his first published novel (he did write one before this, but it never saw the light of day – I’m still wishing the manuscript will be discovered one day). Prior to reading it, I was led to believe that it was quite un-Hardy-esque in every conceivable aspect. I took this to mean it was quite unlike his other writings in style, themes, use of language and of characterisation, etc.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not a wholly accurate description of Desperate Remedies at all. In fact, it’s really a rather good book with many features in it that readers of Hardy’s more famous works may well recognise.

The story revolves around the affairs of one Cytheria Graye, whose father dies at the start of the novel and who leaves no inheritance of any value. So her desperate remedy, encouraged by her protective brother, Owen, is to take up residence as a domestic assistant to a middle-aged spinster, Miss Aldclyffe (who seemed to have been somewhat inspired by Miss Haversham from Dickens’ Great Expectations). The opening of the book takes the reader down some tunnels, with sudden twists and turns in the plotline, though with such a tight focus, I will admit that something of the locational scale of Hardy’s later writing was missing.

Eventually, the story settles to a more rural pace and we find ourselves in a story of unrequieted love, foiled affairs and underhanded manipulation of the characters. Mid-way through the book, almost the whole cast of characters are thrown together in a tumultuous event, with the remainder of the book dealing with the fallout thereof. I hesitate to be more specific, lest I spoil the book for anyone. It is only in the resolution that Hardy really goes in a different direction than that which he took with his later novels. Yet one can clearly see early hints here of later writings such as Far From The Madding Crowd, Jude The Obscure and The Return of the Native.

The pace of the book is a little uneven, with turgid, aimless passages suddenly giving way to a flurry of prose of exciting events and vivid imagery. While it may be a little off the beaten track in terms of the Hardy canon, it is by no means the weakest of his writings and I’d encourage you to dive in.

Some potential measures to improve welfare & unemployment

As you are probably aware, I have been unemployed for the majority the last 6 months. This has given me, amongst other things, some time to watch the goings on at the party conferences in late September through to early October. As a left-wing christian, I fully support the idea that society should look after it’s more vulnerable members, whether they be children, the elderly, the jobless or the disabled. When I post views such as these on Twitter, I often get responses from trolls (or maybe genuine conservative apologists) who sometimes suggest I ought to come up with a perfect welfare system, fully costed, in 140 characters. So in this post, I plan to explore some ideas of how improvements could be made. I am not, by myself, a full government department which ought to be looking at these things, so any figures I use are reasoned estimates.

My first point to note is that job seekers’ allowance (JSA) is not enough to live on. It covers food costs and, when considered on a daily cost basis, utility bills. But it doesn’t cover all the cost of rent or travel to and from interviews. Also, costs of living vary around the country. So it is nonsensical to even ask for ‘a number’ that would suffice for JSA. I have seen no evidence of any costing behind the £71 per week that it currently is.

Instead, I would propose a reimbursement of living costs. That is, make claiming JSA more akin to claiming expenses from an employer. Lay down rules about what can and can’t be reasonably claimed and reimburse when evidence is presented for those claims. For example, for my rent I could present my lease contract, for my travel I could present train tickets and emails confirming dates and locations of interviews, for food I could present a till receipt from Asda.

The second point is about reducing unemployment. I have been to interviews and lost out to people who are moving from one job to another. All this time they are working, gaining experience and making themselves more attractive to potential employers. So it’s a virtuous circle for some, but a vicious circle for others. The longer I spend unemployed, the worse it looks on my CV and the less attractive I am to employers.

So I would I would propose an incentive to companies to encourage them to employ those who are currently unemployed. How would I do this? A tax break. At present, the expense of hiring someone and paying their salary reduces a company’s profits which lowers their tax bill a bit. i.e. if you hire someone on a salary of £30k and have a £5k recruitment fee, in that year you will get a tax benefit of £35k multiplied by the rate at which that company pays corporation tax (which depends on how big their profits are). I would propose that the amount that is tax deductible by increased if that person has been unemployed, the evidence for which would be a P45 from the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). So as an example, let’s say the multiplication factor is ‘W’. This would be effective for any recruitment costs and the first year’s salary. After that, no additional tax break could be claimed.

At present, for employing someone at a total cost of £35k, the company has a tax deductible amount of £35k. But if they employ someone who has been unemployed for a month, then their tax deductible amount would be W x £35k. The difference is of course, £(W-1) x 35k. If the company pays corporation tax at 24%, then they get an additional tax benefit of £(W-1) x35k x 24% = £(W-1) x 8.4k.

How would this be funded? It would be self-funding as the newly employed person would no longer be claiming JSA and would be paying income tax and national insurance. Assuming there are no complications in their tax affairs, a person on a salary of £30k would pay roughly £4,379 in income tax and £2,689 in national insurance. There would also be a contribution for the employer’s NIC of £3,107. This make a total contribution back to the treasury of £10,175. So by employing someone, even if they were unproductive, that’s what they would contribute. But if they’re no longer unemployed, they wouldn’t need to claim JSA. A year’s worth of that costs 52 x £71 = £3,692.

So let’s work out what W would be to break even.

(W-1) x 8,400 = 10,175 + 3,692
W – 1 = (13,867/8,400)
W = 2.651

So we could in fact give a tax break to companies by allowing a tax deductible amount that is exactly double the actual cost and the net cost to the treasury would be less than the revenues raised.

Of course, this is one example, with many other variations possible, such is the complexity of life. I’ve done some testing for other W figures based on other salaries and they tend to be about 2.3-2.8.

This is not an incentive to create employment, merely a way to encourage companies to take on those who are currently unemployed. It’s not a panacea, but I think it’s a small improvement on what we have now.

I hope I’ve shown that this is an idea worth pursuing. So those are some of my ideas. What measures do you think would help improve the benefits system and reduce unemployment? Please be constructive.

Fisking Rick Warren

As you will have seen, my recent review of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life was not favourable. Rather than simply leave the review as a stand-alone, I will here embark upon a more detailed review, as I did with Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great. Here, I will draw out just some of the points with which I deeply disagreed with the author and state why. Warning: contains sardonic humour!

P12: “I am excited because I know all the great things that are going to happen to you.”

I severely doubt if Rick Warren knows what is going to happen to his readers. If so, maybe he can tell me when I will next get a job, when I will have a truly great meal or what eureka moments of understanding I may have from my bible studies.

P12: “I want to challenge you to stick with this spiritual journey for the next 40 days, not missing a single daily reading.”

Challenge all you like. But when we make arbitrary rules to stick to, we set ourselves up for all sorts of failures: pride if we succeed, condescension if we succeed and see others fail, self-chastisement if we fail and unwarranted feeling of self-inadequacies if we fail and see others succeed.

P18: “If I handed you an invention you had never seen before, you wouldn’t know its purpose, and the invention itself wouldn’t be able to tell you either. Only the creator or the owner’s manual could reveal its purpose.”

I think most of us could have a pretty good go. Maybe you just haven’t tried enough.

P19: “For thousands of years, brilliant philosophers have discussed and speculated about the meaning of life. Philosophy is an important subject and has its uses, but when it comes down to determining the purpose of life, even the wisest philosophers are just guessing.”

Maybe so, but are you really so sure that you understand better than all philosophers? Might they not have had similar considerations to you and come to alternative conclusions?

P22: “God prescribed every single detail of your body. He deliberately chose your race, the color [sic] of your skin, your hair, and every other feature.”

Hmmm….that’s rather deterministic. I suspect a literalist interpretation to the poetry of the Psalms has been taken here. Not the smartest analysis.

P23: “God knew that [your parents] possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom “you” he had in mind.”

While I wouldn’t wholly disagree with this, it’s rather simplistic, but that’s typical of the approach of the book.

P24: “The more physicists, biologists and other scientists learn about the universe, the better we understand how it is uniquely suited for our existence, custom-made with the exact specifications that make human life possible.”

Dear Rick, allow me to introduce you to The Anthropic Principle.

P25: “If there was no God, we would all be “accidents,” the result of astronomical random chance in the universe….There would be no right or wrong and no hope beyond your brief years here on earth.”

While the relation of creational theology to ethics and morality is an interesting topic, this is a total non-sequitur. As others have well demonstrated, and as I have argued before, christianity does not have monopoly on morality. One can have a sense of right and wrong without believing in God. As for the use of the term “random” I refer you my thoughts on that here.

P31: “Hope is as essential to your life as air and water.”

Hope may be important, but this is rather a hyperbolic statement.

P32: “Paul almost single-handedly spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.”

He may have done quite a lot, but he had a lot of help. This downplays the important role played by many other disciples, some named in Acts, many more anonymous.

P34: “One day you will stand before God and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity.”

Having worked in audit for several years, I really hope that this will not be the method used by God in a final judgement. Nor an examination. I hope God will be much more thorough.

P37: “Your earthly body is just a temporary residence for your spirit.”

Wow! I thought this was a book on christianity, not dualism.

P38: “If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately. You could forget being good and ethical and you wouldn’t have to worry about any consequences of your actions. You could indulge yourself in total self-centredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions.”

This says more about what Warren would like to do but feels repressed from, than it does about the truth of christianity.

P42: “The Bible offers three metaphors that teach us God’s view of life: Life is a test, life is a trust and life is a temporary assignment.”

Ah yes, the old 3 point sermon which Jesus teaches us in Mark 17. Must. Never. Deviate.

P48: “Your identity is in eternity and your homeland is heaven.”

You might want to check the details of Paul’s Roman citizenship and how it informed his analogy of citizenship of heaven.

P58: “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ.”

So….anyone who isn’t a christian is living in a holographic projection?

P74: “When you are sleeping, God gazes at you with love, because you were his idea. He loves you as if you were the only person on earth.”

Where to begin with this one? Extreme anthropomorphisation and am really not sure about the “only person” bit. God’s covenant promises tend to be to ‘people’ as a whole rather than to individuals.

P79: “If you want to know how much you matter to God, look at Christ with his arms outstretched on the cross, saying, “I love you this much!””

Whenever I hear or read this old statement, I want to scream. The shape of the cross is not indicative of someone depicting size.

P101: “People often say, “I like to think of God as…,” and then they share their idea of the kind of God they would like to worship.”

This is a point I would agree with Warren on. Yet its appearance in this book is incredibly ironic as the view of God is so specific to Warren’s own view that it might be almost unrecognisable by a multitude of biblically astute christians across the world.

P107: “God is real, no matter how you feel.”

Supporting evidence? I think there may be one or two atheists and agnostics who might want to see some backup to that statement. Unfortunately, none is provided.

P123: “Life is all about love.”

Really? While love may be an important part of some people’s lives, I’m yet to be convinced by the “all” of the above statement.

P134: “If you know someone who is wavering spiritually right now, it is your responsibility to go after them and bring them back into the fellowship.”

Rick, I think you’ll find that’s the controlling methodology used by Scientology, not something to be advocated in christianity!

P167: “At Saddleback Church, every member signs a covenant that includes a promise to protect the unity of the fellowship. As a result, the church has never had a conflict that split the fellowship.”

You’re not convincing me this is a church instead of a cult. Besides, sometimes good comes from a church split. The whole New Frontiers network would never have begun if Terry Virgo had not had a bitter dispute with the leadership of St Luke’s church in Brighton.

P172: “The Bible says that all people, not just believers, possess part of the image of God; that is why murder and abortion are wrong.”

Of course! That one sentence finishes all debates on capital punishment and abortion. Why did no one realise this before?

P177: “God is far more interested in building your character than he is anything else.”

I think the evidence we have in the bible may indicate that there are other matters on God’s mind. c.f. Job.

P190: “You select a verse and reflect on it over and over in your mind.”

Warren’s guide for how to meditate is a great example of understanding scripture in its textual, historical, cultural and political context. Oh, wait…

P195: “Because God is sovereignly in control, accidents are just incidents in God’s good plan for you.”

Thus, the Epicurean problem is solved and theodicy is complete! Or maybe not…

P213: “At Saddleback Church we…developed [a programme] called Celebrate Recovery. It is a biblical, eight-step recovery process…”

The bible is well-known for its eight-step programmes, isn’t it?

P231: “The last thing many believers need today is to go to another Bible study.”

While I can see the point Warren was trying to make here, he doesn’t advocate a balance between study and practice. Pity.

P263: “Unfortunately, many leaders today start off as servants but end up as celebrities.”

Says the man whose book proudly announces on the cover that he is “One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

P265: “God is always more interested in why we do something than in what we do.”

An interesting idea worthy of discussion. What’s that? Oh, you just wanted it stated as plain fact without supporting evidence. I see…

P268: “…we have a group of CEOs and business owners who are trying to make as much as they can so they can give as much as they can…”

Not that old canard again! Remind us what the bible says about worldly riches and the love of money…

P282: “Your mission is so significant that Jesus repeated it five times, in five different ways, in five different books of the Bible.”

So if you read 5 different newspapers, each reporting an earthquake in California using different words, then that must mean there were 5 different earthquakes.

P286: “If you want Jesus to come back sooner, focus on fulfilling your mission, not figuring out prophecy.”

Firstly, not sure you’ve quite got the hang of the idea of prophecy. Secondly, I’m yet to be convinced that trying to work towards any goal is going to bring a second parousia; it doesn’t seem to fit in with the ‘thief in the night’ motif.

P290: “…unbelievers see pastors as professional salesmen, but see you as a “satisfied customer,” so they give you more credibility.”

Really? What survey was that research taken from? What was the methodology used? Or is it something that you just made up?

P294: “There are hundreds of great book on how to share the Good News. I can provide a list of books that have been helpful to me (see appendix 2).”

[Looks at appendix 2] Of the 8 books listed, 5 are written by Warren and another 1 is produced by his church. So when he says they “have been helpful to me” what he really means is that they “have been helpful to [my bank balance].”

P300: “People may refuse our love or reject our message but they are defenceless against our prayers.”

You do know that many people find being prayed for a form of passive-aggression? The idea of “defenceless” implies we are attacking them. Maybe not the best metaphor to use.

P307: “I strongly urge you to gather a small group of friends and form a Purpose-Driven Life Reading Group to review these chapters on a weekly basis.”

Indeed! Let’s scrap the bible and adopt The Purpose Driven Life as our new scripture. What could be better to ground people securely in God’s word?

Book Review: The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

As mentioned some time ago, this is one of my books of shame. I picked this up on the basis of numerous recommendations that mostly came from friends in non-denominational churches (which comprise most of my christian friends) though I had also heard and read strong criticisms from both liberal and conservative ends of the church spectrum.

The book is broken up into 40 small chapters which Warren asks the reader to read at the rate of one per day. The start of the book also contains a very cheesy ‘covenant’ between the reader and Warren (with a curiously presumptive line for “partner”). This is where the problems with the book begin. It’s that with God’s help, a covenant is made between the individual reader and the author. Forget anything about a covenant between God and his people as a collective, that doesn’t get a look in here, this is a new covenant that Warren instigates, which has very little mention of the blood of Jesus which most christians will be familiar with through communion services.

 The point at which I gave up before (OK, I actually threw the book across the room in anger) was at the end of ‘Day 7’ where Warren invites the reader to pray a ‘conversion prayer’. He writes some pithy lines and says that if you say these words then you are a christian. What this seems to imply is that it’s a book that is largely intended for non-christians, or at least for new christians. If so, then the lack of what one would generally consider ‘core theology’ of the gospel is grossly lacking. This is a book of applied theology where the theology is absent, leaving us with a vacuous self-help message dressed up in christian clothing.

The fact is, there is actually much which is commendable here. So it is not a case that I think Warren is trying to be misleading. It is the black-and-white certainty with which he pontificates that irritates me. I think it may be because I take a very different interpretation of the word “assurance” – no doubt coloured by the years I spent working as an auditor, where “assurance” simply means ‘pretty sure there’s nothing majorly wrong’ rather than ‘correct to the very last penny’. Warren presents us with his point of view (nothing wrong with that) but presents it as the only interpretation. Whilst various passages in the bible do warn against teaching a false gospel, I don’t think that means unity means conformity.

Whilst one might be impressed at ‘over 1,000 verses’ are cited, these are very often piecemeal and demonstrates this as more a work of proof-texting than of exegesis. It is as though Warren has written out his viewpoint and then gone in search of soundbites to back up his point of view, often stripping them of their context. It’s not helped when he refers the reader to a list of further resources he said he found helpful, only to find a further list of resources authored by Warren himself or otherwise produced by the church of which he is the founding pastor.

I will be going into more details about this, fisking some aspects of the book as I did with Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. For now, though, I struggle to think of anyone to whom I could recommend The Purpose Driven Life. There are much better introductions to christianity available or, if it is your thing, better self-help books available.

Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

On the evening of Friday 16th of November, Channel 4 aired the 2nd of a 2-part programme entitled “Fear and Faith” which was hosted by one of Britain’s foremost entertainers, Derren Brown. In the first part of the programme, Derren explored the placebo effect, giving various different groups of people a very well-crafted placebo to “cure” their different complaints, though the programme predominantly focused on those who had certain fears, such a woman who was trying to make a career in theatre but who was afraid of singing in public, a man who was so afraid of heights he had difficulty walking over a bridge which safely carried road traffic across it every day and a man who was very shy, fearing new social interactions, especially conflict.

In this 2nd part, Derren looked at the idea of “God” being the ultimate placebo. Rather than recount a blow-by-blow account of the programme, I’d recommend you try and find it online to watch again or wait for a repeat. What I found most interesting was the reactions on Twitter. I was following the #FearAndFaith hashtag and making a few posts myself (apologies to anyone who follows me and thought I was spamming).

The climax of the programme, which was being built up to, was trying to give an atheist a “conversion experience”. Much of the response on Twitter echoed the idea of @evertoniandy when they wrote:

Derren Brown was brilliant. Fascinatingly interesting. Turns out God is probably imaginary. Who knew? #fearandfaith #atheism

What is particularly interesting about this is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The programme didn’t really examine religious belief at all. It focused on the idea of an emotional experience. This is something Charles Foster looked at in his book, Wired For God. Yet the conclusions that were made by the viewers far outstretched what could reasonably be made from the evidence presented. There is an earnest desire among some atheists to disprove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own (lack of) belief.

Having spotted the sleight of hand that the programme creators were using, I posted the following message on Twitter:

#FearAndFaith Interesting to explore the emotional aspect of belief. Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?

This prompted as response from an account called Godless Spellchecker, a fairly relentless account (it averages 60 posts per day) which has around 16,000 followers.

@GSpellchecker
“@TheAlethiophile #FearAndFaith Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?” + They don’t make 10 second TV shows.

Because I was quoted rather than having a straight response, this prompted a flurry of other replies which I transcribe for you below:

@cheesymondo
@TheAlethiophile Taking all scientific reasons behind it.

@martarama
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile I’d have thought there wasn’t enough to put into such a tv show….

@DanielWalker319
@GSpellchecker @TheAlethiophile He already has. Fear and it helped us get laid.

@stuhowling
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile Haha brilliant. Another brilliant put down from GS

@glenn37smyth
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile LOL

@ogoffan
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile 10 seconds – must include an advert break then.

@JosianeGrignon
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile lol I just choked on my candy

While the Godless Spellchecker account may believe it made it a witty response, what it really did was betray an underlying problem with some modern critiques of religion. It presupposed, without evidence, that there cannot be a rational basis for faith. Indeed, the last decade or so, led by the New Atheists, has seen an increasing use of language whereby atheist is made synonymous with rationalist. Yet I have come across many atheists who could not reasonably be called rational, given their views on atheism are based very much on an emotional level, prejudiced and hateful of anything resembling what they perceive as ‘religious’. Equally, the increasingly tiresome canard of ‘science v religion’ betrays the fact that there are a great many scientists who hold “religious” beliefs and many “religious” people hold no objections to scientific ideas or the evidence or proof which uphold them.

Sticking to christianity, I know some people who believe for primarily emotional reasons, maybe based on an experience such as that which Derren attempted to recreate. Yet many I know, myself included, believe for much more rational reasons. For me, while the existence of God is vitally important, it’s not the most helpful way to approach a critical examination of christianity. Rather, the historical basis of christianity has to be the first thing examined. In other words, looking at the person of Jesus. For Islam, one would need to examine the life of Muhammad. On these subjects, there is much to be examined, evidence to be pored over and ideas to be discussed.

What is most concerning is the belief, in the teeth of the evidence opposing it, that there is no rational basis for belief. It demonstrates a very clear lack of education on matters relating to faith/belief/religion, however you want to word it. While some of this may be the result of poor religious education in the state system, I don’t think all responsibility can be taken away from the church. As christians, we have a duty to explain clearly what we believe. If people’s religious education is sourced from the naysayers then the view the public will get will be grossly skewed, a distortion of what christians believe. Hectoring the close-minded is not the answer; engaging with the open-minded is. The question then is, how to do this faithfully, rationally and with all due respect for those who hold different views from ours?

Book Review: Confessions of a GP by Benjamin Daniels

This was a bit of a break from my normal reading. I’m not a big one for “real life stories” but in the past I quite enjoyed A Paramedic’s Diary: Life and Death on the Streets by Stuart Gray. So it was a case of reading something that I wasn’t expecting to be particularly taxing, but still enjoyable.

It’s best described as a series of anecdotes. Each ‘chapter’ is minute, being only 3-5 pages long for the most part. So it’s a book that is very easy to pick up, read a little, and put down again; what I would describe as a coffee table book. You may have another phrase for it.

Benjamin Daniels is a pseudonym of a general practitioner (GP) working for the National Health Service (NHS). As such, this is very distinctly British in its setting, approach and tone. It may not translate that well, even to other English-speaking nations, though I would be fascinated to see what an American might make of it.

The book was a big seller in the e-book market, partly due to aggressive pricing, though as an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, I bought the paperback version. This brings me to my only complaint about the book: it wastes a lot of paper. There are so blank pages in between chapters and white space on the pages that in spite of it being 325 pages long, there is far less by way of text. For example, there is the equivalent of 5 blank pages just in the first 13.

Aside from that though, it is an excellent book which I would highly recommend. In stark contrast to A Paramedic’s Diary, this is told with no bitterness and only mild cynicism. The doctor’s passion for the NHS and backing for a service free at the point of need is clear throughout. He gives us an insight into all the things he wishes he’d been told during his medical training but which he has had to learn through experience. We also get a glimpse of the ethical dilemmas he faces, such as when he convinced that one of his patients is having affair, but can’t tell the patient’s spouse, another patient of his.

Though there are moments of extreme pathos, the book is lit up by the doctor’s sense of humour and the glasses through which he chooses to view the world. He’s willing to admit his mistakes, giving probably the best message that any patient reader ought to bear in mind when they next see their GP: doctors are humans too.

Book Review: Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

I picked this up because I do judge a book by its cover; or to be more specific, by its publisher. Of the christian books I own and have read, I tend to find the ones I like the best come from either SPCK Publishing or SCM Press. Christianity Rediscovered is part of the SCM Classics collection, a range which includes Letters & Papers from Prison, The Crucified God and The Early Church.

When I read the spiel on the back, however, something caught my eye: Vincent Donovan is a catholic. His catholic bias is evident, with references to Vatican II, the Council of Trent and of the sacraments as being functional rather than symbolic. However, he has a few comments which one would not expect from the typical papist.

For starters he states,

“…every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”

I would strongly deny this. If taken seriously, it would imply that unless you have spent time as a missionary (which would probably exclude most christians) then any amount of bible study, wider academic theology or experience learned through everyday life is useless. One might wonder if Donovan was familiar with any theologians, though he does quote Augustine, Tillich and Aquinas, none of whom were particularly noted for being missionaries.

He also says,

“I would like to invite the reader to go on that journey with me. But before commencing it, one would want to have the same open-mindedness toward it, with no convictions beyond the one that Christianity is something of value; no preconceived notions about God, salvation, Christ, the meaning of being a Christian, the church…or anything traditionally associated with Christianity.”

This is a particularly bizarre statement, as it would require that the reader hold a belief in the value of something completely unknown to them. However, the reasons do become clear, as I shall expand upon below.

Those criticisms aside, I want to move to the main substance of the book. This is a story, as much of the best of christian writings are. It’s the story of different cultures and how the gospel is above being defined within a culture, but also how it percolates through cultures. In this reading of it, there are 3 cultures at play: the Masai tribes of Tanzania, the American catholicism of the author and the English non-conformism of myself, the reader. The reader cannot but help be drawn in by Donovan’s writing, asking yourself the same questions that he asked. I could not say that I wholly agreed with his answers, though it would be even more wrong to say I rejected them.

Christianity Rediscovered was first published in 1978 and there are references to political situations which existed at the time which are no longer relevant; in particular, to the Cold War and to Apartheid. The portrait of missions that is presented is one that is completely alien to me. He talks of mission “compounds” where education and healthcare was provided first, before starting to introduce the gospel.

Of all the missions I have ever supported, this sounds like none of them. Instead, they are much more along the lines of the conclusions that Donovan eventually reaches. Whether this is because of any impact the book may have had is hard to say; I think it is more likely because the whole idea of missions that Donovan begins with is a very narrowly-focused, catholic idea.

With that in mind, the book is very much a diary of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he is discovering christianity for the first time, learning the principles that are well known to those who think in line with apostolic/reformed/nonconformist viewpoints. On the other hand, he’s trying to reconcile this to his catholicism and the unhelpful baggage that comes with that. He’s conscious that trying to teach a particular way of doing christianity is not the best method of being evangelical, but rather that communicating the gospel, so that it is understood, is then available to be either accepted or rejected (see my thoughts along these lines here).

In some ways it is quite a sad read, as Donovan gets close to some great ideas, yet refrains from these due to his catholic background. Nowhere is this more evident when he uses much of the same reasoning I did when discussing the nature of priesthood yet he fails to draw the logical conclusion and instead falls back on traditionalism.

At a little over 150 pages, it’s a short read, written in a simple, readable manner. It wouldn’t take long to get through if you just wanted to sit down on a wet afternoon and read a little about life in sunny east Africa, but I wouldn’t recommend it be read that way. Often without asking them explicitly, Donovan asks us questions about our churches (although I think his intention was more about American catholicism), how we approach mission and also fundamental questions about we understand the gospel. Questions we would do well to think long and hard about.

Reflections on a month off from blogging

Well, I’m back again. As you may have read, I decided to take a break from blogging for a month. This was not the only thing I was taking a break from, though I didn’t say so publically at the time. I was also taking a month off from my local church in order to decide whether I ought to stay there or whether it was time to move on. I eventually made the decision that after 4 years, it was time to move on and find another church, but I will say more on that in later posts.

With regards to taking a break from blogging, I began by trying to take a break from writing completely. My laptop was solely to be used for reviewing job specs and making tiny amendments to my CV. This was thwarted, though, by  the need to express in words some of the thoughts that were going through my head. I ended up writing a piece over 4,200 words on why I left my church. I actually wrote it in about a day, as the fact that I was not pressurising myself to publish it online within a certain timescale somehow freed up my thinking process. I am grateful to @pamjweb for proofreading it for me. After that, I did some editing to it and eventually slimmed it down to 3,200 words which I sent to my (former) pastor on the 30th of October.

It highlights one of the important lessons I’ve learned about writing this month: good writing needs good editing. As you may see in some of my posts, I can have a tendency to have diarrhoea of the keyboard. As such, I will endeavour to keep my posts shorter in the future in order to make them more readable. I am often so concerned with being misunderstood that I have expanded on points and tried to clarify the definitions I am using ad nauseam. Maybe I’ve been patronising you; if so, I apologise.

The other key thing I’ve worked out is the need for a blog to be written in as short a time as reasonable. I am not advocating rushing, but rather that its initial composition (prior to editing) needs to be done in as few ‘sittings’ as possible. I still have on my computer about half a dozen blog posts that I started writing over a year ago. Whenever I return to them, I lose my train of thought, write a few lines, wonder where it is going, press save and then put it away for another few weeks. It would be interesting if you can discern which of the posts I have published fall into that category.

I also set myself targets which were not healthy. I was trying to ensure that I would publish 2 or 3 times a week. But when an idea ran away and needed to be broken down into several parts I would rush things through just for the sake of having something for you to read, in the hope that you would not lose interest in the blog. Having something a digital ego, I do check my statistics from time to time (see the vanity counter on the left sidebar, if you’re viewing on this in desktop view). What I found is that the traffic barely changed. If I have interestingly-titled posts then I may experience a peak on one particular day, but on the whole it trundles along at a steady pace.

So I may go through more periods of silence whilst I ponder what to write. This may be followed up with flurries of posts. I hope this sporadic style of posting will not put you off. It seems to be the best way of being a clearer, honest writer.

This has a knock-on effect that I have had to come to terms with. I will never be a ‘current affairs blogger’. As exemplified with #CNMAC12, most of the blogs were written very shortly after the event; within a day or two. Other bloggers (I have no idea how they do it) manage to write lengthy, thought-through pieces on the same day as any given topic or event comes up. Being a ponderous sort of fellow, when I come to write such pieces, everything worth saying has already been said, so I let my voice echo off the walls of my flat.

In the meantime, if there’s anything you’d like me to write about, or if you would like to write some guest posts, please drop me a line either by commenting here or tweeting me @TheAlethiophile.

#CNMAC12 – The Good, The Great and The Could-Be-Improved-Upon

I’m writing this shortly after the Christian New Media Conference 2012 (#CNMAC12) which was an event held in central London on the 20th of October.

Since context is important, let me set the scene. The conference was focusing on “new media” – the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Pinterest, etc. The theme of the day was supposed to be “story” though this was something of a tentative theme, from what I saw.

There were a few seminars that everyone went to, which was in a very snazzy modern lecture theatre, kitted out for microphones and electronic presentations instead of blackboard & chalk (the latter of which, as a maths graduate, is still my preference).

There were a few sessions which were attended by everyone but most of the day was split into 5 “streams” entitled:

Theology – what it says on the tin
Jump-Start – for beginners/non-experts on new media
Deeper – For more experienced new media users to explore the issues of the day
Story – How do we tell our ‘story’ online?
Interact – Less of a seminar session, more of a helpdesk

I went to the first two Theology seminars, one Deeper seminar and one Jump-Start. I can’t comment on any of the others and will only give highlights of what I pulled out of those that I went to.

The day ended with a summary of the day that had been put together as the day as the day had gone on, focusing on wordles and some closing remarks from a selection of guest speakers, on which I’ll say a little more below.

Early thoughts

While I sat in the café before the start of the event, I scribbled down the following thoughts on a pad of paper:

“This is quite an intimidating atmosphere. After being misdirected as the location of the café, I ended up wandering around empty corridors in a building that felt far too new to be a proper seat of learning.

The kind of bustling atmosphere is one that makes very uneasy. I’ve tucked myself into a corner and put my white sugar mouse on my laptop to signify who I am. Even though there are people around who I recognise (@layanglicana is sat behind me, talking to someone from CAFOD) they are all in conversation, and it would be most impolite for me to interrupt.”

After this, I pootled off and found a seat in the lecture theatre; on the left hand side, fairly near the front.

The Good

The opening address by Sheridan Voysey cast the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman by the well in terms of crossing boundaries and telling our personal and cultural stories. The main point was that in our modern, wired world, there is an opportunity to cross boundaries, to listen to voices that you might not have had the opportunity to hear before and also to speak into places where you might not have previously had the chance.

The only thing that caused me to shake my head here was when he said “church tradition tells us her name was…” – regular readers will know what I think of using tradition as a source of authority. For those of you new to the blog, the answer is: not much! Aside from that, it was quite good. Sheridan was evidently a well-practised public speaker and got his message across very clearly.

After lunch, there were a few quickfire presentations.

One was on the #PrayForMuamba hashtag and how it resulted in The Sun printing the headline “God is in control” (shame it couldn’t have been a more respectable paper). There was nothing particularly earth-shattering here but the speaker @vahva was evidently nervous but held it together talking to a room of about 400 people.

The second was on online engagement with the book 50 Shades of Grey, which few people admitted to having read. Most interesting here was a dichotomy between the speaker, @vicky_walker, saying that if we condemn without engaging, we cut ourselves out of the conversation; while one of the organisers, @pmphillips, got retweeted quite a lot by saying “retweet if you won’t be reading 50 Shades?”

The last of these seemed a little off key with the rest of the conference but was very interesting nonetheless. It was from a chap whose ministry is in working with British christians of Pakistani origin. One interesting claim he made (though I would want some supporting evidence before propounding this myself) was that Pakistani Muslims were burning pages of the Koran and “planting” them outside churches, to invoke a riotous mob to destroy the church. He also claimed that those who were behind the recent videos mocking Muhammad which caused much violence in September were “undercover Muslims” masquerading as Coptic christians in order to stir up violence against the Copts.

All of these were OK, but there wasn’t much which was paradigm-shifting.

Following this, I headed off to hear @Batty_Towers’ talk about church websites, very pertinent since this is the subject of her PhD. As an aside, if she’s not asked to be a judge next year on the “best church website” category, there will be an outcry! The overall verdict, backed up with some neatly presented statistics, was that most church websites are bit crap. By highlighting this issue and implementing improvements, the hope is to get churches to pay more attention to what is increasingly a “porch” before someone gets to the church door. If the porch looks shabby, are you really likely to go inside? While it’s good that the research is there to provide some quantitative data, I don’t think anyone could be surprised by the findings.

The Great

The first Theology session I attended was hosted by Pete Philips and Catherine Wybourne (@pmphillips & @digitalnun). The idea throughout the day was called “depixelating God”

What we learn about God we learn ultimately through media; input through our senses.

Our online presence may well be one of the few (or the only) exposure people get to the idea of God or christianity. If so, is the view that we project out to others something that is close to the real thing or is it an idol? Any media is suited to its age, but not all last. Well-developed oral history is something rarely seen in modern western culture, but different media now exist to fulfil the same role. So it’s good to master the tools of communication in our age, but not to get tied to them. The message is more important than the means by which the message is transmitted.

It may have appealed simply because it’s a view I hold to and try to live out. This blog, for instance, incorporates theology, book reviews and some real life. For me, that whole package is an honest view. The only thing I omit is work (when I have a job) because a previous incarnation of this blog, which dated back to 2004, had to be shut down for legal reasons after a previous employer found it.

For me, the highlight of the day was @Byers_Andy‘s session entitled “Theology Online?” which was a good follow on from the opening session. Regular readers will know I regard myself as an ‘amateur theologian’ – I have no formal academic training, but I do my best to dig diligently. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing theology online?

For starters, online and offline have to interact and critique one another. Online theology has the advantage of being more ‘immediate’ – so if pertinent issues come up then it’s easier to write a short blog article than it is to write and publish a book. Of course, this needs to be tempered by a need for reflection; hitting the ‘publish’ or ‘send’ button can be done in haste.

The aim of theology ought to be the same as John the Baptist’s mission: to point to something greater than themselves and to then fade into the background. Having theology online allows it to be more interactive, which books rarely are.

However, online theology is inherently oversimplified and lacks the nuance that is sometimes needed. For example, it would be hard to do justice to the nuances of Barth’s Church Dogmatics in a single blog.  There is also a danger that it might be untested, though comment facilities do allow for a blog to be a testing ground.

Theology online runs the risk of being divorced from church (a very pertinent subject for me at the moment – keep following the blog over the next week for more on this). Theology has to be informed by church life as well as informing it. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Theology, online or offline, still needs to be approached with a mindset of fear & trembling, remembering about whom we are writing.

The final point was nice little soundbite: “Do we understand theology via the internet or do we understand the internet via theology?”

The Could-Be-Improved-Upon

Prior to the day, it had been advertised that there would be WiFi available so users could connect and make the whole day relatively interactive and “participant driven” (though I have reservation about the semantics of this phrase!). This turned out not to be entirely correct. Some people were given a username and password for the WiFi, but not everyone. I spent most of my time in the café trying to hack in to it, but couldn’t.

As the main auditorium was in a mobile blackspot, the WiFi was necessary in order to participate, but being unable to do so resulted in digital isolation. It was rather akin to being stuck in a soundproof glass box when you’re at a party. There’s a conversation going on around you, but you are not allowed a voice.

After the event, I was told by some that you had to request a password, yet nothing was said during the day, so how people came by this gnosis is beyond me. To improve next year, I would recommend more of a focus on making the communication good, rather than focusing on the means by which it is delivered.

On the whole, the day was very rushed. While @digitalnun advocated silence at the end of the day, it was a shame the message hadn’t been taken on when it was being planned. The coffee breaks didn’t afford enough time to actually have a cup of coffee and there was little time for proper conversations between sessions. So for being focused on social media, there wasn’t room for being properly social – there was less time available for people than there would have been had it been a speed dating event. There was an informal gathering at a pub at the end of the day, but by then many were tired or had to go home and I was a bit hacked off. So next year, I would recommend maybe cutting out one seminar and making more time for the “bits in between”.

One problem that a lot of people had was the lack of power points. With people running phones, laptops and tablets, there was quite a high energy use. But sockets were few and far between. My phone has a very short life, but my laptop is a bit better. So I fully charged both before I left. By the time I arrived, my phone was at about 60%, but I can charge my phone off my laptop, effectively using the laptop battery as a backup for the phone. But a lot of people ran out of power before the end of the day. Next time, I would recommend (depending on the venue), that a dedicated room be set up, possibly commandeering an IT suite, a dedicated room for recharging. Brining plenty of multipoint extensions, people could leave their devices in a secure, supervised room, for half an hour or an hour. Some sort of cloakroom-style ticketing may be needed, but I think it would be popular.

The one “jump-start” seminar I went to was a it disappointing, though I seem to have been in the minority in thinking this from what I saw of the reaction. It may be down to what people regard as “beginner” and “advanced” in social media. Although I’ve been on Facebook since it first came to the UK in 2005 (when it was restricted to just a few unis, before it was made public), it has morphed into a hideous beast that use far less now. So I still regard myself a relative amateur. After all, I still haven’t been able to get Disqus comments successfully installed on my blog and I haven’t the foggiest about generating or using QR codes. Anyway, the session was on “social success” but the aim seemed to be about generating web traffic to your ‘product’ and trying to get it seen by as many people as possible. I remain highly sceptical about such empirical measures of success when it comes to social media. Next time it might be helpful to lay down some more guidance over what counts as “beginner” or what counts as “advanced” as I just think I ended up in a session that wasn’t meant for folk like me!

As mentioned earlier, the final session was trying to tell the story of the day through wordles. This was a bit of a muddle as the technology kept failing which resulted in those awkward times when watching IT gurus fiddle with devices becomes a spectator sport. The audience got distracted at this point and the Twitter fall began to fill with references to some of cliquey in-joke about pickles. Trying to summarise the day was never going to be a rip-roaring success given the 5 different “streams” and the fact that no one could attend them all. For next time, I think this could be cut down to just a simple closing address, making more time elsewhere in the day for meeting and greeting.

For further reading:

As I’ve taken a bit of time before publishing this, there are others who have been rather quicker off the mark. So you can read some alternative views at the following:

Matt McChlery
Revd Claire (may need to search as the link I had didn’t go straight to the right post)
This is Christine
Jon’s Blog
wannabepriest
Reborn Media
Tech, Tweets and Theology
Opinionated Vicar
Hopeful Realism
This is my story, this is my song