Monthly Archives: April 2013

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

Growing up barely 20 miles south of Bletchley, I was entirely ignorant of the work done there until it really came to fame in the late 90s, shortly before I left home. Despite my mathematical education, cryptography was never very high up my list of interests. I dabbled a little bit in my mid-teens, coming up with some difficult codes, though no one could ever decipher them. As an example, I’ve included one at the end of the blog post. If you can crack it, drop the decoded message in a comment. I lost interest codes as I became more and more enthralled with theoretical physics and non-Euclidean geometry.

However, now that Bletchley has been turned into a tourist attraction, my parents paid a visit which is where they bought this book before gifting it to me as a Christmas present. It was unusual as it was not on my extensive wishlist of books, though it was much to my parents’ relief that I hadn’t previously read it. The only thing that made me hesitate slightly was the endorsements, coming as they did from the Daily Mail and A.N. Wilson.

The book is very well researched, with McKay referencing many original sources, although for most things referring to Alan Turing, he defers to Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing. In trying to give a coherent narrative of the affairs of the park, McKay was left with a bit of a quandary, but he manages to structure the book very well. He gives us an approximate timeline though some chapters focus on aspects of Bletchley life that spanned the war. The writing style could be described as entertaining, though he doesn’t really venture into sensationalism.

Among the most interesting passages are the darker rumours about the work at Bletchley, such as the idea that the bombing of Coventry was known about in advance but the population wasn’t evacuated in case this warned the Germans that the Enigma had been cracked. There was a similar rumour that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was known about, but that the intelligence wasn’t passed onto the Americans. McKay noticeably tiptoes round these areas, suggesting that they are credible theories, though there’s insufficient evidence to confirm or deny them. But they are not lingered over in the overall narrative.

If any criticism could be made, it is that McKay is slightly fawning at times, describing Churchill as “this near-mythic leader made flesh.” For a slightly more critical look at Churchill, I would highly recommend Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye. For those who were hoping for an explanation of how Enigma worked, this will be a disappointment as there is scant all detail with regards to the cryptography itself. At times, it comes close to being a collective hagiography, but it is nonetheless a hugely interesting book, simply written and not a bad way to spend a few sunny afternoons.


How to choose a book

The other day, a list came appeared in the news about books that teachers liked. It was commented by some that teachers seemed to stick fairly closely to the national curriculum. You will notice that I tend a read a lot, but I wasn’t always like this. During my time at university I read very little. I think I went through some Douglas Adams and wasted far too long on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I only really picked up my reading after I left university and started spending significant amounts of time on trains, commuting around the south-east of England.

So even though this blog contains reviews of over 100 books I’ve read in the last two and a half years, I don’t really consider myself well-read. In many ways I think I’m catching up on lost reading. Whenever I talk to others about books, people often seem flabbergasted by what I haven’t read. When this list of teachers’ favourite books was issued, I realised I had only read 29 of them in full (some are series, of which I have only read a few). This got me thinking; do I read what I want to read or do I read what I want to have read?

It’s quite an interesting thought. For the most part I read what I think will interest me, though when I scan down such lists as these I do catch myself thinking, “I really ought to read that”.  But this seems borne out of curiosity about what a book might be like rather than what I actually know of it. For example, before I read it, I was of the opinion, based on the high opinion of other people, that Midnight’s Children was one of the great works of 20th century fiction. When I eventually read it, however, I was very disappointed. For some time, I’ve been pondering reading Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall, though I’ve not yet bought it. Given how highly praised it has been, I just fear a terrible let-down.

Some time ago, I posted on this blog a list of books that were on my reading list. You can read it here. I’ve now added links for all those that I have subsequently read. I was thinking about making another such list, though some of the books would still be there. Some, even though I haven’t read them, will have dropped off. For example, I had two books by David Mitchell on there, but having been let down by Cloud Atlas I decided not to bother with the other one.

However, there are some problems with my reading, both that which I have done and that which I wish to do, which need addressing. Or at least I think it needs addressing. This is where I am tempted to read books in order to have read them. If you look through the list of books and authors, notice how many of them fall into the same ‘ethnic and social grouping’ (for want of a better phrase) as myself. How many are men? How many are white? How many are British? How many are middle class? It seems like a disproportionately high number. I think I choose my reading based on the subject matter, hoping that it will either entertain, inform or make me think afresh about something. Have I been subconsciously prejudiced?

Book Review: Walking Without God by Ben Whitney

Before beginning the review proper, I need to say a few words about how I came across this small volume.

One of the blogs I occasionally peruse is that of Simon Clare (who operates on Twitter as @FaithlessEye). A little while ago, he posted a review/critique of Thomas à Kempis. I have, for some time, been of the belief that it is a good thing to engage with those with whom you are naturally inclined to disagree. So I was impressed that an atheist would be reading quite an old treatise on christian faith; one, I hasten to add, that I have not read myself. I left a comment asking if there was anything he might recommend for me so that I could do a similar exercise, only from a different angle. Walking Without God was his recommendation.

Whitney begins by giving us an introduction to himself, as a former baptist preacher who has, for some reason, given up his faith, though he doesn’t go into the details of when and why. He simply states his case as he now sees it. The bulk of the book is made of 9 short essays, where he has picked a phrase or a verse from one of the Psalms and looks at what it might mean to think about the subject matter of each quote from a perspective that wants to engage with the idea of ‘spirituality’ but from a perspective without God.

In terms of atheist writing, this is about as far removed from, say, Christopher Hitchens, as one might hope to get. Whitney is almost relentlessly positive. Though he gives some critiques of traditional religion, particularly christianity, these are quite reasonable and never descends into the ranting rhetoric that so marred God is Not Great when I read it last year. One might not expect me to agree with everything that Whitney writes but I probably agreed with more than I disagreed with. He is almost relentlessly positive and espouses a worldview that does not set itself against any other, but rather one that can stand up in its own right. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone of faith or anyone of none.

Probably the aspect of the book that chimed with my own take on the Psalms is the sort of “theologically jingoistic” tone of some Psalms, where the author(s) seem to demonise their enemies. I get raised eyebrows when I mention the topic in christian circles. Rather than give a blow by account of each essay, I shall copy somewhat Whitney’s style, by picking some quotes and saying a little about them. Hopefully, this will give you a little flavour of the book, along with my own responses to a small sample of quotes. Though, whilst I acknowledge my choosing of the quotes may not seem wholly representative of Whitney’s book, I admit I cherry-picked them because I found them interesting points of engagement, I think it reflects that Whitney’s style, as he is not really attempting a full-blown study of the Psalms.

“Religion, including the Christian version of it, is about the ‘big questions’ in life; or it should be.”

I’m not wholly convinced about this. While I think christianity should ask the ‘big questions’ I am not sure that that is the point, nor should it be, of christianity. Rather, christianity is the story of the relationship between God and people. What then differentiates christianity from any other philosophy or religion is how the ‘big questions’ are then looked at in the light of this story. It’s asking the questions in particular context. Though the start of this sentence hints at a generalisation of christianity to religion (similar, in my opinion, to using potatoes to make generalised statements about food) Whitney does avoid this for most of the book, which only adds to his credibility.

“The gospel accounts were written later of course by those who now believed certain things about him so they are not to be trusted as any kind of impartial record.”

I would agree with to an extent. As I write my reviews partly as I’m reading, but partly after I finish, I must confess that this sentence is being written about 4 days after I finished the book. Already, I have moved on and am reading Marcus Borg’s book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’. He takes a very similar tack to Whitney here, but then, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, that may not come as a surprise. I will write more about this anon. But for now, I would merely say that to recognise that there is an angle does not mean that the gospels should be disregarded. Scepticism doesn’t mean throwing the historical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater. When it comes to gospel hermeneutics, I would side more with the critical realism of Tom Wright (as espoused in the first half of The New Testament and the People of God) than with Whitney, who seems to be more on the side of Bultmann’s demythologisation programme. I may be wrong about that, but it’s the impression I got.

“I suspect that Jesus has been turned into something he never intended to be and that many subsequent claims made about him are based on misunderstandings, such as taking things literally about his birth and death that were never intended to be seen in that way.”

The question of literalism is indeed a thorny one, as alluded to above. In order to any kind of sensible or coherent opinion, one must ask the question, ‘how did the particular anecdote (or pericope) arise?’ One considers the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, so it should not be surprising that that particular gospel omits a story of Jesus’ birth. Who then, was the source for Matthew & Luke? It seems most likely that the one person who remained with the disciples after the resurrection who was also present at Jesus’ birth was Mary. The difficulty faced then, when looking at the figure of Jesus, is trying to come up with a sensible and consistent set of criteria that would allow for the distinction between what was the written form of oral history and what were ‘editorial’ embellishments. Whitney doesn’t give any such details, so the reader is left slightly guessing at how Whitney thinks Jesus’ history has been distorted. It would also be worth exploring, in my view at least, precisely what Whitney thinks the original intention was behind the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

“Religious faith should be a means through which we grapple with and express our deepest emotions, not, as it sometimes seems, a way of repressing them into a set of rules and regulations.”

My response to this epitomises my view of the book. There is little here which I disagree with; I think it’s a very good statement. However, when it comes to saying “faith should” it just seems to be pointing slightly in the wrong direction. Expressions of the christian faith come in many shapes, sizes and colours. I hope readers of this blog get a fair impression of where I stand; what I accept, what I reject and what I am agnostic about. Amongst those that I disagree with are those who hold to something akin to a Pelagian point of view that christianity is about rules and regulations. This may come about by trying to get everyone in society to adhere to your moralistic rules or when routine becomes a ritual which must be observed with pious regularity, usually at the disdain of non-conformists such as myself. That said, I have long been suspicious of christians whose faith is primarily, if not wholly, based on emotions. So while our feelings may inform, colour or shape our beliefs (and indeed vice, versa), neither one should dictate the  other.

“In respectable Victorian Britain city businessmen stopped off at a child prostitute on their way back to their home in the suburbs where the family both stayed together and prayed together.”

This comment towards the end of the book stands out as most unusual when one considers the whole book. It is certainly a novel statement, made seemingly as a statement of fact, though with no evidence offered in its support. I include it here as it highlights the fact that Whitney doesn’t cite any references. I’d be interested as to what support he has for it.

“…Jesus also seems to have taught that the poor and the helpless were at the centre of what he called the ‘kingdom of God’. This is when we are closest to the historical Jesus, whatever the church has done with him since… It is an interesting phrase [and]…is one of the most common phrases in the New Testament and so must be at the heart of what religion is supposed to be about… The rule of God on earth, or ‘the right way of living’ in my understanding, is what matters.”

This reflects possibly a far more insightful view of the christian message than most I have heard either from any atheists or a great many christians. It brings to mind something Tom Wright once said, that the authors of the gospels would take exception to the apostles’ creed, as it jumps from Jesus’ birth straight to his death & resurrection when the gospels actually contain quite a bit about what he said and did in between. Thought I wouldn’t equate God’s rule on earth with ‘the right way of living’ this is a far better portrayal of christianity than the straw man of ‘magical sky pixie’ or similar such terms that get banded about on tiresome internet arguments. For that, I doff my cap to Mr Whitney.

Book Review: The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon

As I stated in my review of The Spirit Level, my intention was to read a counter-argument in order to get a more well-rounded view on the issues being discussed and thought through. As with that earlier review, I will also have to beware of my own potential bias, given my rather left-wing views. Having identified some flaws with detail of The Spirit Level, though whilst largely agreeing with the general drift, I approached this wondering if those same flaws would be picked up by Snowdon. Before purchasing the book, I didn’t do extensive research into the author’s background (neither did I do similarly with The Spirit Level), hoping, instead, that the evidence presented would be a sufficient basis upon which to build an informed opinion. Given the very premise of the book, I did not expect this to be in agreement with what Wilkinson & Pickett wrote, though I was interested in the approach taken, bearing in mind that it is probable that someone who sets out to write such a book has an existing prejudice against the values of fairness & equality which Wilkinson & Pickett are equally and oppositely biased towards.

Suspicions were first around before I even got to the first words of Snowdon. The foreword, written by someone called Patrick Basham from something called The Democracy Institute. This is a right-wing “think tank” that Basham founded and who appear to have been instrumental in getting this book written. The opening starts with praise for an earlier volume that Snowdon wrote in praise of the pro-smoking lobby. I have no hesitation in asserting that anyone who is in favour of smoking is seriously lacking in sound judgement. So the early impression of Snowdon and Basham was not positive. This was only the first paragraph. The rest of the foreword is a diatribe that seems to have been generated by some sort of ‘conservative clap-trap generator’.

Anyway, when Snowdon gets to writing, he doesn’t dive in straight away but looks at the methodology of the studies behind The Spirit Level. Key to the original book was the idea that economic growth had reached the limits of how it could benefit societies that were well-developed. In spite of the subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, the focus of the Spirit Level was not on all countries, but between economically developed studies. But Snowdon’s critique of the methodology results in him including some more countries than Wilkinson & Pickett used for their analyses. Interestingly, though, as a secondary measure in the original book, a comparison was made between different states of the USA. But Snowdon chooses to overlook this entirely and his book does nothing to attempt to discredit the evidence which came from this second set of data, relegating his ‘reason’ to an unconvincing footnote, inviting readers to visit a website which he set up.

He then progresses, chapter by chapter, to look at some of the specific studies carried out from The Spirit Level drew. Much of this is a fair enough critique, though as with the original, the conclusions reached are stated with greater affirmation than the evidence really justifies. So while Snowdon does a good job of casting doubt on some of the work done by Wilkinson & Pickett, he doesn’t get close to falsifying it. It is probably convincing for those who are already convinced, but it’s unlikely to win any converts.

Undermining his case is his misleading caricature of what The Spirit Level is all about. In several places, Snowdon tries to deceive his readers by supposing that Wilkinson & Pickett were proposing making societies more equal via tax-based wealth redistribution. In truth, they actually rule out progressive tax policies on the basis that they could be easily reversed by alternative governments. Snowdon even gives a partial quote which stated just this, but attempts to twist it to mean the opposite of what it does.

By about half way through, he clearly runs out of steam. His take on crime and imprisonment statistics is a mish-mash of non sequiturs with little coherence. Following this, he looks at infant mortality and spends 10 pages basically conceding the proposition put forward by Wilkinson & Pickett.

After this, Snowdon just goes to pieces. The last 60 or so pages contain little of any merit. Snowdon attempts to further mislead his reader by supposing that Wilkinson & Pickett’s primary aim was to put an end to economic growth, when in truth their idea was to recognise the limits of the good that economic growth may have and instead to focus on how to make societies more equitable. It might not be unfair to characterise Snowdon’s erratic rantings as those of a fundamentalist capitalist. He labours under the misapprehension that fairness and equality are the great evils that must be combated. While he attempts to placate his readers by stating forthright that he is not proposing greater inequality, everything else that he rambles on about belies this.

His final flourish is to look at the relation between correlation and causality. Though he is correct in stating that the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter, he doesn’t actually engage with the argument (even though it was a vulnerable point in The Spirit Level) than Wilkinson & Pickett give. Instead, his argument, if followed through, would actually undermine the bulk of the better researched chapters of Snowdon’s own response. It seems he want to cross his bridges and then burn them behind him. What had some promise for being a revealing critique, with some good points made, ends up as the mad ravings of someone who is economically illiterate.

Thatcher’s funeral: a plea for dignified & productive protest

This week, the death of Margaret Thatcher prompted a predictable cacophony of voices from different sides of the political spectrum, keen to make their voices heard over what she meant for the UK and for the world. While there was inevitable praise from her acolytes, there was also condemnation from her critics, the latter of whom I identify most strongly with.

In thinking of the recently departed, an issue that must be faced is that of separating the person from what they did. Can such a thing be done? How can you give dignity to the dead and respect to their family whilst simultaneously opposing their ideology? It’s not easy to get correct and indeed, in my opinion, some have overstepped the mark of decency. There were a small number of parties to celebrate her passing which have been in poor taste. They have demonised the person and missed the real target of her policies and actions.

It seems inevitable that some will protest by attempting to disrupt the funeral. I will not. My hope and plea is that those of us who stand on the left of the UK political spectrum will afford the family dignity and respect as they mourn the passing of an individual who was known and loved. We can take our revulsion for her policies and keep it silent for a while. It does no one any credit to mock the dead, an act which is most hurtful to the family concerned. What if it was your mother, your grandmother?

I will not sing, I will not dance. As a silent protest, I will wear red, the colour which symbolises those who opposed her in her political life. Specifically, given I will be at work, I will wear a red tie and red socks. But the true protest will be doing everything we can to unwind her legacy. She valued individualism, encouraging greed; we should put others ahead of ourselves and protect the most vulnerable. She sought to undermine society by denying its existence; we should seek to affirm it and make society better.

Putting my money where my mouth is

The 6th of April marked the start of a new tax year. At this time, there were a number of changes to the rates and bands in income tax and national insurance. Other changes to the social security system began on the 1st, with the government coming in for much criticism, in my opinion rightly so. One of the consequences that was much vaunted was Iain Duncan Smith declaring on radio 4 that he could live on £53 per week. I don’t think I could. During my time of being unemployed last year, I received £142 per fortnight. This was to cover all expenses: rent, council tax, food, utilities and travel to and from interviews. Some people told me that I ought to have been able to claim more, but this was flatly contradicted when I asked staff at the Job Centre Plus. Anyway, there was a public demand for Iain Duncan Smith to stay true to his word and demonstrate that he could live up to his claim. This was later dismissed by him as a “stunt”. Yet over 19 times as many people have signed that petition as voted for him at the last general election (at the time of writing, the figure stands at 438,210 compared to his election vote of 22,743). I wonder if his election was a stunt too.

It struck me that since he was being asked to put his money where his mouth was, it would only be right to be willing to do so myself. I ran some figures through the BBC budget calculator and worked out that in the 2013-14 tax year I will be about £179 better off. The thing is, though, I don’t think I should be better off. If I didn’t contribute to a defined contribution pension scheme or didn’t gift aid any donations then I would be a higher rate tax payer. As such, I know that means I am a hell of a lot better off than most people in this country.

The economy does have a problem with a large deficit and efforts should be made to reduce it. However, I disagree with the way the coalition government has gone about doing this. Instead of asking those who are most able to pay, the onus has been on those who have the fewest choices: the poor, the disabled and the unemployed. There is a paranoia among those on the political right that if you apply the sensible notion of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” then this will result in those who pay the highest marginal rate of tax choosing to leave the country, thereby denying the economy of their spending power and robbing the treasury of potential tax revenues. So those are paid excessively more than they need to live on have been given a tax break. But remember, even at the highest marginal rate (i.e. the rate you pay for every ‘extra’ £1 on your earnings), their effective rate (total income tax & national insurance paid divided by total gross income) is far lower. For example, though I am a higher rate tax payer, I only pay 42% (40% income tax and 2% NI) on the top few pounds of my earnings. My effective rate is 26.5%.

Yet I am unconvinced by scaremongering which suppose that the rich will flee the country to avoid taxes. Even if a small minority do, shame on them. By choosing to squeeze those with the least disposable income, the government has tried to fix the problem in the most inappropriate way. While it is a good thing in principle to encourage people into work, there have to be jobs for people to go to. Not only that, but they should be jobs that pay a decent wage. To use an analogy, imagine someone being asked to walk along a tightrope. What’s the best way to keep them safe? I would say it is to help them stay on the rope, not by removing chunks of the safety net. Yet the recent raft of reforms seems to be doing the latter

As my salary is above the national average (see link to the report from the Office for National Statistics above for details on the average being £26,500), I think I ought to be paying a greater proportion of my income in taxation. Yet I still get this £179 ‘bonus’ because of changes in the bands and rates. What should I do with this? Well, it would be hard to ‘donate’ it to the Treasury, so I am here, publicly, pledging to donate this to charity. On top of any other giving I may have, I promise I will set up a standing order for £20 per month (I rounded up) to a new charity I have not previously made a commitment to. What I need is your help.

Firstly, I need your help in choosing which registered charity to donate to. Ideally, I’d like it be one that helps those who are worse affected by the changes to social security that the government has brought in. I would appreciate your nominations from which I may then choose.

Secondly, without anyone else taking up this challenge, this will be a mere act of tokenism on my part. I would like this to become ‘A Thing’ amongst those of us who are socially minded, are paid more than it costs to live and who feel it wrong that they should benefit while those who are worse off suffer. So I would like to encourage you, even issue you a challenge, to undertake a similar commitment.

Looking back on Lent

Readers of the blog may not have noticed much different during the last couple of months, but those who follow me on Twitter or like the page on Facebook may have noticed that I decided to give up self promotion for Lent. Instead of using social media to push my own writings to those who ‘like’ or ‘follow’ me, I wanted to highlight the work of other bloggers, all of whom I regard as better quality writers than I, even if I don’t agree with everything they write.

My aim was to do 40 blogs in 40 days, only I managed to learn for the first time ever (at the age of 29) that contrary to what I had been told for years, that Lent doesn’t last for 40 days. While I didn’t manage to do one per day (my week in Scotland hindered that) I did want to make sure that I did all 40 by the end of Lent. Only when I thought Easter should have been a week away, I looked at the calendar and realised it was 2 weeks away. When I asked on Twitter why this was I was deluged with responses from those from a high church background telling me that for counting the days of Lent, Sunday isn’t regarded as a real day. The only time I’ve had more responses on Twitter in a short space of time was when I was retweeted by the BBC’s Conservative party spokesman, Nick Robinson. Anyway, you live and learn!

When I began, it was just after Valentine’s day and I had written a piece specially for it (you can read it here). I had tremendous joy in writing that and conceitedly thought it was rather good. So I began Lent by being hugely frustrated that potentially good work may be ignored. However, as I went on, I no longer started to twitch at the idea that I was throwing words down a hole. Rather, I was hoping that someone might pick up on a blog they had never come across before and might start reading. I know of two people who said that I had helped them find new works they had been unaware of, so I think it was worth it even if it were only for those two.

I think it would be a fair criticism to say that behind some of my self promotion is a desire to win approval from others. Though I mostly muse, with writing as a form of thinking, I do like to make you think at least as much as I have thought about what I write. Even if you don’t agree, I hope that some of you feel ‘nudged’ a little. Sometimes I may prod a little too hard in some directions. I try not to be needlessly offensive. If I think offense may be warranted, I try to bite my tongue, though I wouldn’t claim my judgement is anything but flawed in deciding when to speak out and when to stay silent. As I write this (it’s about 9:30pm on Tuesday the 2nd of April) I have been much angered and upset by the news. There has been the conviction of the Philpotts for the manslaughter of their children. There have been arguments over the government’s changes to social security which have begun to kick in and I saw an article on the news about Welsh farmers who have lost large parts of their flocks due to the harsh weather in March. I plan to write about tax and benefits soon, but I may well remain silent over the others, even though they move me greatly. Is that a bad choice? Are so many writing about the economy that the voices on the left are now just an incoherent cacophony rather than a united chorus?

With Lent now over, I have returned to self promotion. Please let me know if you think I do it too much. My aim is generally to post once on my Facebook page and three times on Twitter (once in the morning rush hour, once at lunchtime and once in the evening rush hour). I know I find those who promote more heavily than this to be irritating, especially those on twitter who retweet any recommendations they get. If that’s you, maybe you might consider your own motivations as I have tried.

Anyway, here’s the list of blogs I promoted. Only towards the end did I realise there was a gender imbalance, so I apologise that it does lean more towards male authorship than being egalitarian. I apologise if you think I overlooked you. Most of these blogs have their own blogrolls, so you could springboard your way to many more from these. I hope you have fun exploring them, though I do hope you come back and have a read here sometime. Let me know if you think I’ve erred, omitted anything or if there’s anything you’d like me to write about. I’m also happy to host any guest posts if you want to write.

Confessions of a Doubting Thomas
Pam’s Perambulation
Renaissance Mathematicus
Teenage Christian
Rogue Stardust
Rev’d Claire
Stranger in an Even Stranger Land (though this site is blocked on some servers for malicious links – nothing about the content. The author is a lovely bloke)
Running Life
God and Politics
Dyfed Wyn Roberts
Longing to be Holy
Half Way to Normal
eChurch Blog (though, having taken a break for Lent, Stuart has now joined the ranks of The Church Mouse & Rev’d Lesley as one to have ceased an immensely readable blog)
Broken Cameras
We Mixed Our Drinks
Simon Clare
Lucy Mills
Admiral Creedy
Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley
An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy
Dreaming Beneath the Spires
Diary of a Benefit Scrounger
Vicky Walker
James Prescott
Thorns and Gold (my personal favourite from this lot)
Thirsty Gargoyle
Recovering Agnostic
Lay Anglicana
Kurt Willems
Opinionated Vicar
Vicky Beeching
Finally Human
Part Time Priest
Sat n’ All That
Black Coffee Reflections
The Church Sofa
The Big Bible Project (a collaborative project, to which I contribute on the 10th of each month)

Book Review: Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is a name probably more familiar to you than to me. It’s a name I’ve seen written about an increasing amount over the last few years. Yet I have still never heard his name mentioned out loud, so I remain unsure how to pronounce his surname. I had not read anything of his previously, though after reading this, I will be endeavouring to read a little more. You may well have read some of his other work, so may approach this from a different angle.

This is not a theological tome by any means, the subtitle was what caught me: A theologian’s memoir. It seemed fascinating to me to get under the skin of someone who has spent their life studying theology to see what makes them tick, what influences they have had and to see how that has shaped their work. He opens by asking what it means for him to be Stanley Hauerwas.

To answer this question, he goes right back to his childhood in Texas, learning the bricklaying trade under his father’s supervision. What may surprise some readers, it certainly surprised me, was that at times Hauerwas opts to maintain authenticity by using the rather coarse language of the building trade. As matter of fact as it might have been, one cannot help but think that Hauerwas encourages the reader to see a little metaphor for his later career as a theologian. In learning the trade, Hauerwas had to work in a time and place when racism was rife. Yet he was working alongside those who were marginalised as an equal, which may well have helped inform his later views. Though the coarse language aside, some of the other turns of phrase made me feel a little uneasy given their racial overtones.

What he doesn’t set out to do is to give an itinerary of his life, though the places he visits do form an unobtrusive background. One of the major themes of the book is how Hauerwas dealt with the erratic behaviour of his first wife, all the while developing as an academic. Punctuated by reflective musings, Hannah’s Child is a marvellous account of the behind-the-scenes workings of an influential writer and speaker. His love for his son radiates through the book, as does some of the anguish of dealing with psychotic episodes. For much of the book, one may feel overwhelmed looking at the names of writers and other academics that Hauerwas came across and worked with, each having an influence on him in one way or another. One could quite happily put together a reading list to last a few years based on those mentioned.

I cannot recommend this enough to you, whether you are familiar with Hauerwas or, like me, a novice.  There is much to prompt one into thinking, not least about the question of what it means to be a christian. But it would not only be to christians that I would recommend this. To those who view religion with a critical eye, this may serve as a helpful insight to see how a theologian works and what it means to the individual.

Embracing the homeopathic Eucharist

In conversation with a friend recently, the talk drifted towards our favourite topics of science and faith. Over the years, I have grown wary of talking about the two at the same time, as you are bound to annoy everyone while simultaneously deterring anyone from listening to the whole argument. But this recent conversation has prompted me to break down this wall; I hope you will follow the line of thought and take in the whole point.

The conversation began with a discussion around the terms we use for the symbolic meal of bread and wine at church. Coming from an unmistakeably baptist upbringing, I have always favoured the term ‘communion’. My friend, a catholic, was always used to using ‘mass’. We settled on a compromise, opting for the transliteration ‘Eucharist’. Naturally, the conversation turned to questions of symbolism, remembrance and the tricky idea of transubstantiation.

My friend was gracious enough to recognise that there was no physical transformation. I expected him to begin espousing the virtues of an appeal to the Aristotelian idea of ‘accidents’. I began to prepare my standard responses, that it’s an out-of-date philosophy with no grounding in reality, with my neat follow-up of an appeal to scientific realism to round things off. But something went wrong. He didn’t mention Aristotle or use anything resembling what I had expected. Instead, he took the scientific front foot.

His argument was roughly as follows: the blood of Jesus flowed through his veins when he handled the cup from which they drank and his hands touched the bread which was eaten. His blood vessels were already weak, as exemplified by his sweating blood later in the garden of Gethsemane. So it is likely that some small element of his blood did leach through into the wine and a few of his skin cells came from his hands onto the bread. So the first ‘Last Supper’ did have a real element of drinking his blood and eating his flesh. Yet it was in such small quantities that one could not compare it to the accusations that came from later Roman historians of cannibalism.

So far, so reasonable. But what struck me was the inference. Where else have we heard about the power of something in such negligible quantities. Well, I’m sure the title gives it away. I was astounded that I was following a line of thought that was parallel to that of homeopathy. Might it be that what we have come to think of as modern pseudoscience might actually be a rediscovery of something far more profound and actually based in reality.

My years of scientific education wanted to scream out and decry this as nonsense, but something held me back. Perhaps, because it has been a good few years since I set foot in a lab or jotted my thoughts on a giant blackboard in an empty tutorial room, I began to wonder if there might be more to science than the traditional methods to which I had grown accustomed. And you know me, if there’s one thing I’m sceptical of, it’s tradition.

It’s an unfinished enquiry, but an enticing idea. There is much to be pondered, but for now I am persuaded that it might just be worth tentatively embracing the homeopathic Eucharist.