Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book Review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

I freely confess that as the years count up since I left university, my favour for working through the details of science has somewhat diminished. This has been replaced by a far greater interest in the history of science and the lives of those who have been instrumental to the progress of our collective understanding of how the world and the cosmos functions. When The Age of Wonder was released a few years ago to many rave reviews, it was not long before it found its way onto my reading list. However, it was not until Christmas 2012 that I received it as a gift. Indeed, this is the last of the books I received for Christmas which I have read. As is my habit, for a particularly long book such as this (it runs for 490 pages plus appendices) I read it rather slowly. In fact, I think I started reading this towards the end of March.

So what’s it all about? In short, it’s a history of science from the late 18th century up to the mid 19th century. But it is so much more than that. Holmes has pieced together a brilliant narrative, held together with some fascinating links. The main link is the person of Joseph Banks, whose story dominates the first chapter, but who keeps cropping up at the start of the subsequent chapters, as Holmes recounts the stories of Mungo Park, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday. There are many other characters that Holmes deals with, including those who pioneered manned balloon flights, though I think he has expanded that chapter into a whole new book subsequent to his writing The Age of Wonder.

Subtitled ‘How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science’ the book does have a distinct feel to it, for including a good discussion on the link between the arts and the sciences. This is most keenly felt in his chapter entitled ‘Dr Frankenstein and the Soul’ where the talk is a real mix of science and the lives of the romantic poets. He finishes with an epilogue in which he advocates the removal of any supposed barriers between science and other fields such as religion, art and ethics – a stance I wholeheartedly agree with.

The narrative style that Holmes chooses is executed with aplomb. I have to say the book was a pleasure to read, perfectly paced and with something interesting on just about every page. For most of the book I just wanted to keep reading, hoping it wouldn’t end; and for a long time it didn’t. It was only when we got the deaths of William Herschel and Joseph Banks that it seemed right that the book draw to a close, which it did shortly afterwards. As a piece of writing, the quality was superb. The Age of Wonder has jumped into my all-time list of best science books, and possibly the best of any books.

So who would I recommend this to? Well, just about anyone; it’s excellent. An utter joy to behold and one I may well return to. I certainly won’t be donating it to a charity shop. So you’ll have to go out and get your own copy.

Honesty and the Online Persona

After last week’s very personal piece, most of the comments I received were not on the blog. Instead, most comments came back to me via Twitter, many on direct messages, so that they can only (in theory!) be seen between me and the other party.

Two of these intrigued me greatly. One was from someone who occasionally corresponds via social media, but who I first met in real life. The second is someone who I have only ever corresponded with via social media but who I have not met face-to-face.

The first of these responses stated that they there slightly surprised and wouldn’t have guessed that what I wrote was what I thought, given what they knew of me from our earlier interactions, both online and face-to-face. The latter, however, said that it came as no surprise and that it reminded them much of a post I wrote a couple of years ago on love and marriage, especially in terms of the tone of self-deprecation used.

This renewed my thinking about the honesty of the digital life. Does the image we project into the virtual world differ significantly from the rest of our lives? To think about this instantly calls into question what it means to be honest. To take an example, you will note that I don’t really talk about my work here. I certainly don’t disclose the name of my employer, my colleagues or the location of my office. That’s because I try to keep work separate from the rest of my life. I may tweet from time to time that it’s been a busy time at work, but not much beyond that. Yet between Monday to Friday, that’s where I am for the majority of my waking hours. Does this separation of different parts of my life mean that I lack honesty?

I would contend that it doesn’t. You may disagree; if so, feel free to do so in the comments. Honesty, to me, does not mean blurting out every thought. There are some things that it really isn’t helpful to say and there are some that we have to take to the grave with us. There can be kindness in silence, though it does create a dilemma if someone asks you to explain something when you know that to do so fully and frankly could be very hurtful to them. What would you do in that situation? Would you speak the brutal truth, or dodge around the issue? I’ve tried both approaches in the past and I wouldn’t say either have worked well. To use a recent analogy, was it necessary for news editors to show the graphic detail behind the Woolwich murder? I regret having seen the early broadcasts which were unedited; I think the news could have been reported adequately without seeing the bloodstained hands or the body in the road. So it is, I feel, about full disclosure of our lives. There is good reason not to include everything but this does not in any way inhibit my opinion about someone’s honesty.

I wrote a little about anonymity some time ago though I confess I did employ the term ‘anonymity’ on occasions when ‘pseudonymity’ (is that a real word?) might be more appropriate. If my English is not quite tip-top, I hope that’s clear enough. After all, it will not have escaped your notice that this blog is pseudonymous, though my identity is hardly a closely guarded secret. Just as most know that the Church Sofa is called Andy and that Cranmer is a failed Conservative politician called Adrian, I think most of you know my real name. I only choose not to put it on here because of the work issue alluded to above. Also, the pseudonym I use, Sipech, is far more unusual than my actual name (I am also fairly consistent in using the mouse avatar – see here for more info); so, using it consistently across platforms, my digital footprint is easier to trace. It’s not quite unique, I know there are a few other web users who use it, including the annoying Twitter user who took @sipech before I joined; I would have liked to have a shorter handle than @TheAlethiophile. I couldn’t even have @Alethiophile as that was pinched by someone called Tom who barely uses the account, which irks me somewhat.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I witnessed a little spat on Twitter (the most useful and productive form of discussion, I’m sure you’ll agree) between Cranmer and Mehdi Hasan where Mehdi criticised Cranmer for not blogging in his own name and for referring to himself in the 3rd person. While the latter annoys me, it still strikes me as odd that a pseudonym could be offensive. Surely the value of what someone writes is to be found in what they write, not necessarily in knowing the name of the writer. If not, you run the risk of falling foul of the argument from authority.

I may choose to edit what I put online, whether it be because it is too personal, it concerns work (including issues of confidentiality and insider trading) or if it may be offensive to some people. So if you think I’m an inoffensive little mouse, then know this: my tongue is well-bitten at times. Indeed, one of the reasons I prefer online interactions is the non-immediacy of them. If I take 2 minutes to think about what I might reply to someone in 140 characters, that’s acceptable on line. But in a face to face conversation, such a protracted silence is bound to be uncomfortable for both parties. Even then, I have a backspace key and can edit before I hit ‘publish’. That doesn’t mean I don’t regret anything I publish online; I still make mistakes, but fewer than I otherwise might. The tongue can be very vicious and I can be prone to a sharp response, particularly given a heated discussion. If the tongue is an organ of fire, then online interactions (or indeed, old fashioned letter writing) provide a little protection which can go a long way to preventing harm and hurt.

So those are my thoughts, what are yours?

  • Would you rather someone be brutally honest with you or would you prefer they conceal some truths out of kindness?
  • Is a pseudonym, nomatter how consistently used, an obstacle to believing what someone says, or even from forming a kind of friendship with them?
  • Does your online persona match your offline personality? If not, which is closer to the ‘real’ you.

Book Review: Theology of Money by Philip Goodchild

I picked this up in a sale from SCM Press, the title appealing to me mainly because I am a christian who works in finance. So I bought it on the basis of the title alone. I had never heard of the author nor had the book been recommended to me. In hindsight, I think I approached it with a fairly fixed expectation, based on the title. What I thought I would be reading would be an exposition of the idea of wealth, property, exchange and society within a biblical context, drawing out principles and then trying to apply those to either fitting around modern economics or proposing a fundamental shift in the very basis of the latter. In other words, I was expecting a fair bit of theology and have that applied practically to money.

If that’s the sort of book you want to read, then Theology of Money will be a great disappointment to you. In truth, there is not much theology in it; it is mostly a treatise on economics with a spattering of vague references to theology which might well be just enough to deter non-christian economists from it, if the title hadn’t already done so.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Goodchild has adopted the style of Adam Smith (who seems to be mentioned more than any other economist) in looking at the very nature of money. It’s not about macroeconomic policy, but something far more fundamental than that. One could characterise the bulk of the book as being an answer to the question, ‘what is money?’ In style, it reads less as a book for the educated layman, more a thesis for the expert. It is a very tightly argued piece, with the analysis coming very thick and fast. This tended to prompt one of two reactions in me: I ether read it quite slowly, going over each paragraph a couple of times, or else I glossed over slightly, reading a page and at the end of it being none the wiser what the point was that was being made.

So what of the argument that is made? Well, Goodchild’s main premise is that money as we currently know it fulfils a variety of different roles that need necessarily be measured by the same unit. For example, money is the promise of things in the future. i.e. if I have some savings, then this is the promise of a deposit on my own home. Yet it also has the function of being the measure of past transactions, as in accountancy, the field of finance in which I work. I could critique his particular take on accountancy, as it doesn’t really give a true and fair view of the profession, describing it as a ‘reasonable fiction’ citing the example of debtor on one’s balance sheet as being a made-up quantity, as the debtor has not paid. Yet no mention is made of the accruals principle.

An interesting thing to note about the book is that it was published in 2007, a year before the crash that triggered the global financial crisis. So how we might think about money and credit has had a sea change since Goodchild wrote this. At several points then, I saw him to be somewhat prophetic in his assessments. For example, “On the one hand, bankers are placed in a position of power in relation to other classes, since they appropriate their property through interest. On the other hand, bankers remain susceptible to the fortunes of other classes, since a default on a loan may lead to a loss of reserves and a contraction of credit.” Yet just as one might think he was really onto something, little more than a page later, he carries on, “Misfortune can lead to significant losses; yet such losses may be controlled and limited by an effective money management strategy and automated stop orders. Since the risks can be limited in this way, it is possible to take out highly leveraged positions with limited risks.”

In his final proposal, he suggests that credit needs to be evaluated by a separate kind of bank, though he then goes on to describe the operations of this bank as being the same as a normal bank, only that it must be highly profitable and it must do so by engaging heavily in speculation on the markets. Given what we know now, I wonder if Goodchild would stand by this or if he would opt to have a radical revision.

I struggle to think of those to whom I might recommend it. Perhaps those who are heavily involved in finance and would like to read a different take from that of Smith, Marx or Keynes (interestingly neither Friedman nor Hayek are referenced, the closest to these extremists he comes is Niall Ferguson).  While I could not agree with some of his assessments or proposals, it is a book that, if taken seriously, makes you think. For that alone, it is worth reading, but I won’t be rushing to urge anyone to push it to the top of their reading lists.

Confession of a misanthropic christian

Lost in a crowd

When I was thinking through what I might want to put up on the blog this week, I had several ideas in my head. I was able to come up with a few and I asked around as to what people might like to read. I hope this doesn’t disappoint, though I cannot help but fear that it will. I was not able to write a step-by-step argument, so what I ended up doing was writing snippets of thoughts and then I tried to edit it together. If it lacks coherence, I think that is symptomatic of where my head is at the moment. I am very grateful to Tanya Marlow who took the time to read a draft of this and offer helpful feedback with great grace, as I had some grave concerns about putting this on the web, knowing who may read it, where there is potential to be misunderstood in the most offensive of ways.

The very short story is that I’m not a fan of people.

But to really get to understand what I mean I need to explain what I mean about the term “people”. Since the overall tone is rather negative, I shall say from the outset that this does not mean I despise each and every person I know. To talk of “people” I think of an amalgam, yet to do so is fundamentally dehumanising. I think of a collection of faces on bodies, either sat/stood on the train or who walk down the street, but I cannot hear what they are saying. The only way I can guess what they are thinking is by looking at their facial expressions, which is, more often than not, blank. Without being able to know how they think, they lose their individuality and become one great mass to me.

When it comes to individual people, I get myself in all sorts of a muddle. The more I get to know someone, the more they get pushed down one of two roads: one road is that where most people go, where I find them interminably dull. They have no interest in things that I consider to be fascinating and are obsessed with things I find incredibly mundane. The other road is more sparsely populated. This is the group of people who share similar interests to me, even if we don’t agree. To this latter group, the idea of having a discussion on theology, politics, science, cricket or philosophy (i.e. things I like) doesn’t prompt them to roll their eyes or change the subject to DIY, mortgages, celebrities, cars and insurance (things I find unbearably vapid). You might interpret this as a lack of empathy on my part; indeed, I have wondered whether I may be slightly sociopathic, which is more than a little worrying. But then, does the fact that I am concerned about that negate the very possibility?

In practicality, I put up with the small talk and occasionally encourage someone along by asking what I think might be a question I think might be pertinent. Whether this is graciousness on my by indulging them or whether this is demonstrative of my being two-faced, I will let you decide.

To get to know an individual is to pull them out of the crowd and to glimpse something of their personality. To do that makes it far easier to have a meaningful discussion on a given topic. The downside to knowing someone well is that the better you know them the greater the chance is that you will discover something you don’t like. Here, I don’t mean their physical mannerisms, necessarily; more like their particular way of approaching certain things. An example might be the ex-housemate who once decided to throw a dinner party for her friends at zero notice and locked me out of the kitchen after a particularly long day. We had gotten on fine until then, but the blazing row that ensued soured that relationship permanently. For another example, you might read my account of a little cabin fever I had on a recent mountaineering trip.

Turning this round, those that know me well will be able to tell you what a capricious beast I can be at times. If you’ve not experienced that side of me, then you really don’t know me that well. Those that do find themselves on the receiving end don’t stick around for long and I have lost a great many friends over the years because of it. Yet I know I am not alone in being capable of such monstrous behaviour. I have witnessed it in others, whether being the recipient or witnessing one friend hurt another.

For the sake of preserving an optimistic view of the other person, it is then a great temptation to push then away before you discover their less favourable attributes. Perversely, it is just this pushing away, often without explanation, that is the harm I inflict on others. If I were to be overly kind to myself, I might describe this approach as unorthodox, though others might call it twisted. This may have something to do with a desire to avoid conflict; rather than have an argument I may fear or say something to someone that may hurt them, I walk away in silence.  

It may well be that the difficulty that I have with people stems from my desire to understand as much as I can. The sheer irrationality of people confounds me constantly. Yet at the same time as it is incredibly frustrating, it’s also fascinating. As a mathematician, there are fewer things in life more fun that a puzzle, but there is nothing more exasperating as a puzzle you can’t solve. Not everyone has this driving force in them; this is probably why university was the best 4 years of my life because you are surrounded with similar-minded people. But as the years since then have marched on, those I have damaged and those who have damaged me have grown apart, so wherever I go I am the perennial outsider.  

In the workplace, such inquisitive people are harder to find. If the colleagues I’ve had in the years since university have harboured interests in the most fundamental matters of the universe and humanity, then they’ve kept it well hidden. But working in finance, as I do, I tend to work mostly with capitalists and other right-wingers, with whom I disagree on a lot of matters. If you’re reading this the chances are you ‘met’ me via some kind of social media. There, you can have a profile or some sort of statement of interests that allows others to determine if you are of interest before they even speak to you. This allows for a much more circumspect approach when it comes to inter-personal relationships.

It is, I suppose, a large part of the reason behind why I live in isolation. As I finish the first draft of this on a Sunday night, I haven’t left the flat for 36 hours and haven’t physically spoken to another human being since the guy at the supermarket checkout on Friday night. This is the hermit-like existence I have. The lifestyles of other people baffle me. Though herein lies the bizarre paradox: as much as I don’t understand sociable lifestyles, they are utterly intriguing. I wouldn’t like to live those lifestyles as they seem terribly draining, but they have a curious draw about them and I can’t help but wonder what goes through the heads of those who find these ways of life in any way enjoyable or peaceful.

So, having admitted to my anti-social tendencies, the question then arises about my christianity. The trouble is that churches are people. They’re not buildings, not traditions, not a set of beliefs, they are collection of human beings; a rag tag bunch, brought together under some kind of unifying theme, creed or passion. How can such a misanthropic person be part of a church?

There’s a call for us to love (agape) one another. Yet for someone who is perpetually perplexed by people’s peculiarities, it is problematic to be capable of loving people that you don’t comprehend. My energies are spent on trying to observe behaviour, make a guess as to what might be motivating them, predicting how future behaviour might occur and then comparing a not insignificant gap between my expectations and their later reactions to certain situations.

To exhibit love (compassion) for someone is to want the best for them. In order to do this effectively, though, one has to gain an understanding of that person’s needs. In the past I’ve had tried the “do to others as you would have them do to you” approach. This, it turns out, is not always the best approach, particularly if you are an unusual individual, as I seem to be. Sometimes I just prefer to be left alone, but when I leave others to their own devices this can come across as cold and uncaring. I hope that what I’ve said above will help convince you that that is not the case. I try to be compassionate, but I just necessarily get it right most of the time. When people are going through stressful situations, I may offer some practical help but otherwise take a step back.

To try to get out of this bout navel gazing, one might consider the rest of the church, and how a misanthrope may be part of this strange family? If anything, this should be the slightly easier step, given how the church is made up of all sorts of people. Yet within this “all sorts” might be other misanthropes, who view me with as much suspicion and distrust as I view them; it might include those who take my isolationism as a sort of snooty aloofness. Either way, being a misanthrope is not exactly appealing and it’s not easy for the rest of the church. If you have any practical suggestions, then do please let me know.

While I affirm that the church should be a refuge for all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, then for me to be a part of such a church not only requires patience from others, but it requires a greater level of flexibility on my part. The church wouldn’t be the church if we excluded the screwballs, the screw-ups and the losers.

A question Tanya asked of me was, “You touch on churches being places where lots of different people come together all with different needs – how do you see your role in that?” I’m not sure I can really answer that. I guess I’m still searching, but since other people’s well-being is at stake, I’m less keen on ‘giving it a go’ or ‘trying my hand’ – however you want to phrase it. I’ll happily endanger my own life and well-being, but not someone else’s. I suppose that’s a sort of compassion, if a terribly cowardly one.

I hope that has made some kind of sense. I’ve left this quite open-ended. Tanya asked me “how do you want people to respond? What’s the take-home?” I think that really depends on where you stand. If you’ve been patient enough to read through to this end, then I thank you. If you have misanthropic tendencies, then I hope this is an encouragement to you that you’re not alone, nomatter how often you might think otherwise. If you know someone that may be described by what I’ve written, then I hope it’s given you some valuable insight.

Book Review: Jesus by Marcus Borg

Having read with great interest N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God I was keen to look at a similar sort of style of modern academic writing on Jesus but from a different perspective. Wright is known to be no fan of the Jesus Seminar, though I am aware that he has quite a lot of respect for Marcus Borg. So it seemed reasonable that I might start with Borg. I may follow up with some J.D. Crossan (to whom Borg’s volume is dedicated, along with Sarah Crossan) at a later date.

I have earlier written some thoughts based on what I think is his false premise of a dichotomy of two methods of biblical interpretation, so I would encourage you read that post for a more detailed critique of some aspects of this book. He also employs the argument from authority fallacy on a number of occasions, usually when he lacks any credible reason or evidence for holding the views that he does. Again, I have written separately about that here.

Having tied himself up with his methodological straightjacket, it might seem that there is very little that Borg could say about the historical figure of Jesus. Thankfully, he actually disregards much of his own stated approach and does actually engage with some of what the gospels say. His study then becomes more akin to an interpretation of Aesop’s fables. He is not interested in whether or not there is any historical basis but is more keen on what he calls the “more than literal” meaning.

Early in the book, Borg reveals himself as an adoptionist, a position I have thought about for some time, but have ultimately rejected. Borg’s argument is that if Jesus were to be thought of as in any divine before Easter, then you must regard him as Superman, which Borg sees as docetist. But in rejected one heresy, he seems to have embraced another.

He also advocates panentheism (not to be mistaken for a similar, but distinct, idea of pantheism). That is, God is ‘present’ in everything in creation. However, in stating this position, he makes no attempt to answer what I consider to be one of the strongest arguments against it from a christian point of view; that of how to address the question of evil with a panentheistic paradigm. If any of you know writers who address this issue, please do let me know.

In regards to his actual portrayal of Jesus, though it is arguable as to how complete it is, given his take on the historicity of the gospels, what he does have is certainly interesting, thought-provoking and worth taking note of. His overriding theme is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic. To this, he seems to owe a debt of gratitude to the recently departed Geza Vermes, whose work on re-establishing Jesus’ Jewish identity helped undo many years of latent anti-semitism in the church. However, Borg does take care to define what he means by mystic, so as to avoid the wrath of Karl Barth’s dismissal of mysticism as, to paraphrase, “[misty theology leading to schism]”. Rather, Borg argues for what might almost pass a charismatic interpretation of mysticism, whereby Jesus derived his understanding of God more from a personal relationship than from any scriptural basis. Though whilst Trinitarians might see this as stemming from Jesus’ homoousios with God, Borg’s adoptionist stance forbids him from doing similarly.

He makes an excellent point about prophecy that I wish more christians would pay attention to, in that prophecy is not about fortune telling but is about making a sober assessment of the way things are now. As such, it is anachronistic to say that the likes of Isaiah predicted Jesus, but rather that Jesus acted in such a way as to reflect Isaiah. Though again, one notes that Borg readily accepts that Jesus was perceived as a prophet in his time, but when it comes to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which follows immediately in the synoptic accounts), Borg sees this as a later addition and does not relate to the pre-Easter Jesus.

While I have questioned his dismissive approach to the historicity of the gospels, much of what he says about the implications of our discipleship is well worth listening to. But I could not let the review pass without discussing his view on the crucifixion, the resurrection and theology surrounding both. While he acknowledges the historicity of the crucifixion, he openly opposes the idea of it as any kind of penal substitution. Instead he favours the christus victor idea. For my own part, I think this either/or is a false dichotomy and that both/and is a far more helpful way to consider the implications of the crucifixion. In so doing, he makes an interesting statement whereby he tries to frame Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as supporting Borg’s view that God’s grace needs no sacrifice. In other words, he tries to hijack Bonhoeffer as a supporter of ‘cheap grace’ – the very idea that The Cost of Discipleship was most firmly opposed to.  As for the resurrection, while not denying it completely, Borg is rather dismissive of the need to treat the resurrection as historical. It is then interesting to see what Borg makes of 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse on the resurrection in the bible. He ignores most of it, only using an English translation of soma pneumatikon as “spiritual body” to mean something that is not physical. For an in-depth study on this topic, I would refer Borg and any of his readers to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whether you agree with Borg or disagree with him, you have to admit that he’s a good communicator. The book is well written though (and I did mention this to the publishers) the American spelling and grammar mistakes were left in, even though he has a different publisher in the US. There are a few times when he comes across as slightly patronising, but he has made a good effort to make himself understandable to the general reader. This is a book for those who ask the question “Who is this Jesus, anyway?” Some of Borg’s answers I find enlightening, some I think miss the mark. Borg’s is a voice to take note of, though I would add, as a word of caution, not in isolation.

“Many Scholars” and the argument from authority

Having reflected on some of the methodology that Marcus Borg outlines at the start of his book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a revolutionary’ I wanted to use another aspect of the book to explore something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: the argument from authority.

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with the basic outline of the argument from authority, but if not you can read a good primer here. There is another manifestation of it which Rational Wiki omits, but which I see from time to time. It is the appeal to “many scholars” or “most scholars” when you wish to convince your readers that you are not a crackpot and have the support of the majority of well-educated men & women.

In reading through Borg’s book, he employs it multiple times when he wishes to push forward an unorthodox idea. An example of this would be his advocacy of the Q hypothesis in the authorship of the synoptic gospels. One of the most insidious things about this argument is that the terms ‘many’ and ‘most’ are used interchangeably. At times, Borg does acknowledge the existence of an alternative point of view, but not always. I wouldn’t mind so much if he actually gave some references, but in citing these many scholars, he fails to name any. Given the nature of the views he espouses, I would suspect that he has in mind his fellow members of the now-defunct Jesus Seminar (pun intented) but one can’t be certain, given the lack of citation.

It brings to mind the motto of the Royal Institution, “Nullus in verba” roughly meaning “nothing on the word of another” or “take nobody’s word for it.” If we were to apply the same of critical thinking that Borg endorses us to, then we must be sceptical about his claim to have the support of many other experts in the field. If they are so numerous, why not name them? In some places in the book, he does provide references, making the inconsistency all the more suspicious. 

Further thoughts

All this does bring to mind some other thoughts I had a while back concerning the argument from authority, its limitations and misuses. In its purest form, it is a logical fallacy, though I would encourage you to look out for times when it may be misapplied.

Whenever I watch the news, I usually notice how ‘expert opinions’ are valued. If there’s a story about the economy, why not have someone who’s job title is “chief economist” take part in an interview? If there’s been a dramatic incident, who better to talk to than an eyewitness? There is good sense in opting for the best informed view, as one might reasonably expect their view to be more reliable than those of the average man or woman plucked off the street. Here, the argument from authority can get a bit blurry. Are we meant to take their word as authoritative or merely informative?

At the same time, applying nullus in verba in all walks of life is not a practical option. It’s an argument I sometimes have with those who take a Dawkinsian view of faith and claim that they don’t use it, though it’s an argument I have grown weary of having over and over again. Let me give an example to illustrate.

One of the first things I do in the mornings is check to see if my train is on time. If I read that there are cancellations or delays I act on trust that the information is more or less correct. I may skip breakfast or otherwise not take as much time as I normally do in getting out of the front door. What I don’t have is the luxury of doing is conductive any great enquiry as to whether the trains are delayed or by how much. I just act on the best information I have. That’s what it means to act on faith. You don’t necessarily settle for not knowing, but you do act on what evidence you do have, even if it’s not complete or conclusive.

Book Review: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

This was my second reading of Jamaica Inn. Regular readers may be under the impression that my reading is more extensive than intensive, but I have been known to revisit some books more than once and when it comes to having something to read on a wet and miserable day then this is one of the best choices you can make.

The story introduces us to Mary Yellan, a young woman in her early twenties who, having grown up on a farm working with just her mother, has her world collapse when her mother dies. Mary is forced to move to Cornwall to take up residence at Jamaica Inn, where her aunt Patience is the wife of the landlord, Joss Merlyn. Written with an atmospheric gloom, the novel’s opening is somewhat reminiscent of Dracula, only here the monsters are less fantastical. The company Mary’s uncle keeps are to few people’s liking. The inn is notorious as the home of some nefarious activities, the extent of which are revealed as the novel progresses. Mary’s courage to stand up to her uncle threaten to be her undoing, though she has some help in the form of her uncle’s brother, Jem the horse thief and also of a local vicar, who for some unknown reason is an albino. As the story unfolds, one of the key themes that emerges is that of trust. In spite of the adversarial relationship between Mary and Joss, he comes to trust Mary with some of his secrets, though his tongue is loosened by drink.

The second reading was, I must confess, not quite as good as the first. I think some of the problem stems from du Maurier’s portrayal of Mary, as I kept having to remind myself that she was in her twenties. So often, her speech and mannerisms come across as that of someone a good five years younger. The tremendous gothic atmosphere that du Maurier opens with is not sustained throughout the novel, though it does come back in flashes at moments of high tension, of which there are several. There is some very dark sexual innuendo in the book, which makes for some uncomfortable reading, but is not overt.

The character of Joss is almost comic in just how horrid he is. There are few redeeming features about him and he seems to be the embodiment of everything vile that any man can ever be. The more interesting characters then, are Jem Merlyn and the vicar of Alternun. Du Maurier brings great tension to her writing, though this is not always sustained. One can see how her style of writing appealed to Alfred Hitchcock, who directed The Birds, based on a short story by du Maurier.

In spite of some of the book’s weaknesses, I would not hesitate to recommend it. It’s a hugely entertaining story from a master storyteller.

An analysis of the local elections – West Sussex & Crawley

Last Thursday saw local council elections in much of England & Wales. Much has been said and written already by way of interpreting the results on a national scale. Here, I shall focus mainly on the county in which in I live, West Sussex. I hope some other bloggers will do similar analyses for their own counties. I shall look at how the 2013 election compared to when the seats last came up for election in 2009. I shall make a few comments on the performance of each notable party before looking at one parliamentary area in closer detail.

Sources and methodology

All data was drawn from the website of West Sussex County Council on Friday the 3rd of May, with the analysis being conducted over the course of the bank holiday weekend that followed. As the information was not in a friendly format for analysis, I have had to type every number into a spreadsheet (which is available if you leave a comment and include your email address – you will see room for this on the comment box, though your email address will not be made public unless you either wish it to or you put in the wrong box). Because of this, I cannot rule out the possibility of transcription error though I have made every effort to be accurate. For the sake of direct comparison I have not made comparisons for any by-elections that took place since 2009. Anyone who wishes to do so is welcome, though I doubt they will have much of an effect on the analysis.

Since one may easily look at the number of councillors at a glance, my aim here to focus on the share of the vote of each party. I will look at the turnout in each ward as well as the share of the total votes of each party and how this share has changed between 2009 and 2013. A summary of the results may be found below:

Election 1

Please note that I have not corrected for rounding errors in the percentages.

Conservatives are still the dominant force in West Sussex. Though they lost some councillors they retained overall control of the council. It has been noted by such political commentators as Nick Robinson of the BBC and John Snow of Channel 4, as well as various political correspondents for national newspapers, that parties in government often do badly in the local elections mid-way through a Parliament. This was no exception. As a share of the vote, the Conservatives lost over 10%. It seems as though most of this went to UKIP, with some traditional Labour voters returning, having voted Conservative as a protest last time round.  

Labour had a terrible time in 2009. This represents partial reparation of the damage done to them then, but with a modest 5.4% gain of the share of the vote, they don’t look likely to challenge the Conservatives any time soon. They did, however make significant gains on the Liberal Democrats, with an almost equal share of the votes, even though they are now only the 4th party in the county, thanks to the huge gains made by UKIP.

Liberal Democrats performed awfully. They had been the second party, but have now been passed by UKIP and have Labour snapping at their heels. It seems unlikely that many Lib Dem voters switched the Conservatives. Some may have gone to Labour and some to UKIP. Both seem to me to be protest votes, dissatisfied with the Lib Dems collaboration with the Conservatives in the coalition, though being unable to stand up to the most evil of the plans devised by David Cameron and his cabinet.

UKIP did very well. They won some councillors, though due to the first past the post system (something some readers will note I am not in favour of) they won a disproportionately few numbers of seats compared to their share of the vote. Much has been said about where their vote came from. Ideologically, since they sit roughly half way between the Conservatives and the BNP, it seems reasonable to assume that some votes from those who voted for those other right-wing parties. But they also seem to have gained voted from the Lib Dems, whose voters tend to have little in common with the traditional UKIP voter. But this was a time for breaking tradition. It remains the case that UKIP control no councils and have no MPs. While they had a very good election this time round, only time and future elections will tell if they are a reasonable force to be reckoned with or if this was a reactionary flash in the pan.

Greens remain a minority party, even though they do have 1 MP in the sister county of East Sussex. They made modest gains in the share of the vote but do not look likely to have a large say in the County Council any time in the foreseeable future. I would imagine that their modest gain in the share of the vote came from former Lib Dem voters, though it is difficult to be certain of this.

BNP had their vote almost obliterated. Gaining just 57 votes in the whole county, the far right extremists fielded just 1 candidate, compared to the 22 they had in 2009. Their vote seems to have transferred to UKIP. Though they were a minority here, they are no almost non-existent, which in my opinion is no bad thing.

Probably the most interesting thing about this election was that in every single ward, without exception, turnout was down on 2009. Sometimes turnout is dependent on the weather, with a rainy day discouraging people from voting. But the 2nd of May was a wonderful warm, sunny spring day. When I went to vote at about 19:40 in the early evening, the sun was hanging low in the sky and there was a pleasantly warm breeze about. So one might have had good reason to expect a high turnout. Though I admit I have done no research on, nor do I recall, what the weather was like on the day of the 2009 vote. To me then, the most striking conclusion about the county-wide vote is that the last 3 years of coalition government has put people off. Those that have voted for the Conservatives remain largely loyal, but those floating voters who favoured them last time round have tried to send a message to the party’s leadership by voting for UKIP. Their coalition partners have come off far worse, almost falling to 4th place. This is not traditional Labour country and though they gained some share, are unlikely to wrest control from the Tories any time soon.

So West Sussex remains a blue, uninteresting county. My father puts it quite aptly. “You could put a blue ribbon on a pig and it would get elected.” Indeed, given some of the MPs who have their safe seats here, one might argue that their snouts remain well and truly in the trough. But there is one area of West Sussex which is slightly more interesting, and it is to that which we turn to next.

Crawley – the only interesting seat in West Sussex

Crawley has become something of a bellwether seat. In 2010 it was won by the Conservatives, overturning the smallest majority in Parliament of 37, having been held by Labour since they won it in 1997. Prior to that, it had been Conservative seat since its creation in 1983. Before then, it was part of a combined constituency of Horsham & Crawley.

If we look solely at the local election votes that took place in Crawley, then we get a slightly different picture from the rest of the county.

Election 2

Here, the Conservatives lost the overall vote, with a bigger swing away from them and towards Labour. The Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out within the town, with UKIP coming a solid third.

How local election results translate into Westminster elections is never certain, but if the direction and size of the swings are reflected in the 2015 general election then the Conservatives have much to worry about. Having not won a general election outright since 1992, Crawley is a seat they need to keep if they have any hopes of winning a majority in the House of Commons. In 2010, the Conservatives won 44.8% of the Crawley vote, with Labour coming in second with 33.3%. If the swings above were to be reproduced, then that would result in the Conservative winning just 31.1% and Labour taking the seat with 40.7% of the vote.

Even if we were to temper the swing, by making it only 60% as strong (i.e. 13.6% x 60% = 8.2%) then Labour look likely as though they would still win, albeit with a tiny majority, as they did in 2005.

Whichever way you look at it, the Conservative MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, should be looking over his shoulder. He and his party will have a tough time keeping Crawley Conservative in 2015. They will have to bring back the disaffected voters by appealing to those who abandoned them for UKIP, whilst at the same time trying to maintain their loyal base and win over some floating voters who have favoured Labour. But if they try to be all things to all people, they may pull themselves apart. Labour’s policy of having no policies in advance of the general election has been copied straight from David Cameron. The gains made by the Conservatives in 2010 were more a default reaction against Labour than for anything the Tories actually stood for. Labour seem to be playing the same kind of waiting game, hoping for a win by default, though it’s a potentially risky strategy, as it didn’t even work for Cameron.

When it comes to 2015, Crawley will be a seat to watch. Ed Miliband visited the town prior to the local elections. I expect him to be back in 2 years’ time, as I expect the leaders of the other main parties also.

Biblical literalism and liberalism

Having started to read Marcus Borg’s ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’ I began to write a review as I normally do. The trouble was, I got quite frustrated because it was getting rather long when I was only a quarter of the way through the book. Yet it was more that I wanted to respond to Borg than to merely review the book. So here, and hopefully in another post, I hope to explore some of the thoughts that have been triggered by his provocative writing. 

In this post, I want to look at Borg’s dichotomy of ways of reading the bible, the gospels in particular. Borg presents us with 2 ways of reading, the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, though he instantly notes that the ‘earlier paradigm’ is not at all earlier. It is essentially a fundamentalist viewpoint, or at least as Borg portrays it. In such a view, the bible is not a library of books, it is a single book, inerrant and which trumps any and all facts and truth, even if the evidence for these goes against a prima facie reading; biblical literalism, if you will.

Set against this is Borg’s own view, which he considers more enlightened. This view focuses solely on the metaphorical meaning of the gospels. In this view, you can take or leave whatever aspects of the gospels you please. If the wedding at Cana doesn’t suit you, just dismiss its historicity, call it a metaphor and then look at the consequences and meaning of an event that never happened.

What annoys me is the gross caricature of each and that I know many who could not be described as either. It is fair to say that I have come across a few who I would say are metaphor-phobic. Taking 2 Tim 3:16 to apply to the 66 books of the bible, they do subscribe to both sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy, a combination which leads to such viewpoints as young earth creationism, affirmation of the virgin birth as a core tenet of faith, belief in the rapture and a worrying interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though I would not go so far to say that belief in any one of these necessarily entails belief in any of the others.

As well as such metaphor-phobes I have also met some metaphor-philes, albeit fewer in number. Having looked at the more conservative end of the scale with some alarm, they are quick to run away as far away as possible. In this mindset, everything in the bible is a metaphor. Not only is the poetry of Genesis 1 recognised for what it is, but Abraham becomes a figure of legend, Moses becomes mythical and David is turned into an amalgamation of a variety of rulers. But again, my approach is that scepticism about one does not logically cast additional doubt on any of the others.

I don’t think it would do an injustice to Borg to characterise his view as that of a metaphor-phile. In his approach to Jesus he wishes to distinguish between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Jesus of faith’. The latter is referred to in reference to the metaphor-phobic worldview, where the Jesus of faith was born of a virgin, performed miracles of various kinds, spoke with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, was crucified and resurrected. To the metaphpor-phile, this view must be countered, so in order to assert their ‘Jesus of history’, such aspects of the gospels must, a priori, be rejected.

While the concept of ‘fully God, fully man’ seems to be superficially acknowledged by Borg, he claims that to accept the possibility that Jesus performed miracles is to be docetic. After all, he argues, how can one claim Jesus is ‘fully man’ if he can turn water into wine? With large sections of the gospels thus expunged, the ‘Jesus of history’ that we are left with is a teacher of aphorisms who gained a following which became a church which then invented a narrative around which the teachings of this mystic itinerant preacher were weaved.

Crucial to Borg’s methodology, which seems to be almost identical to that of the Jesus Seminar, the group to which Borg belonged and contributed during much of the time that the Seminar met. This methodology maintains an assumption that the early church misunderstood Jesus. Then, if any features of the gospels are found to coincide with early church history they are dismissed as later additions to the gospels. Of what remains, there must be multiple attestation. There’s a catch, however. Any material in Matthew or Luke which is also attested by Mark is assumed to have been copied from Mark and so cannot count as having been multiply attested. The material which is common to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark, is assumed to have come from a single source, known as Q. The Q hypothesis is quite a good one, but it is one which I admit I am agnostic about. With such a set of assumptions, one wonders if anything could pass the multiple attestation test. Thankfully, Borg doesn’t actually stick to his own criteria, so his book (the review of which I hope to finish and post shortly) is not without merit.

Anyway, that’s enough of an outline for now. This is a place for the crystallisation of thoughts and I shall attempt to get them down on pen & paper (as I usually write my posts thus, before typing up, editing and proofreading).

Borg’s characterisation of the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, which I refer to as ‘metaphor-phobic’ and metaphor-philic’ is not one that I can agree with. To my way of thinking, to adopt a critical attitude does not mean a wholesale rejection of anything that may be hard to believe. In some ways, the rejection of gospel as history is itself an uncritical point of view, as it is as easy and lazy a way of thinking as the fundamentalism which such a view seeks to oppose.

Every claim must be assessed on its merits, the evidence supporting or countering it and the reasonableness of the consequences that follow. When considering the bible as history, we don’t have all the evidence we might like. To some, this means none of it can be accepted. To my way of thinking, we have to deal with the evidence we have. This means that our beliefs are provisional and uncertain but not unreasonable. Assurance is not the same as certainty. Doubt is not the same as disbelief. Holding assurance in one hand and doubt in the other is how I maintain balance.

An example – the virgin birth

By way of illustration, I will expand a little on claim in the gospels mentioned above and which I have touched on before without being too explicit. I do not affirm that the virgin birth as a core tenet of my faith. Neither, though, do I deny it outright. It is a topic about which I am agnostic, but which I do not think is of vital importance. Let me explain why.

To start with, there is the well known incident of the Septuagint mistranslating ‘young woman’ as ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 – with a possible supposition that this was an addition Matthew and Luke made to their accounts. To me, though, the question has to be ‘who was the eyewitness?’

It seems most likely to me that the Christmas narrative was not a fanciful work of fiction added to the oral history of Jesus’ life, but was rather a product of the same oral history. But it must have originated from someone who was there and remembered it, but who was also part of the early christian community. The person who best fits this description is Mary herself. Have a read of Luke 1 and ask yourself through whose eyes we are predominantly looking.

Jesus’ later ministry had many witnesses, most notably the disciples. They could correct each other’s recollections, a point well made by Kenneth Bailey in his seminal paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. The fact that there were fewer witnesses to the events of the nativity means that we must regard them as more questionable as the later gospels. When I did some reading on this a little while ago, it was interesting that FF Bruce, Craig Blomberg and Richard Bauckham all overlooked the nativity. Bruce and Blomberg are both more conservative in their approach than I am, and even they are wary of attesting the virgin birth. For me, there are just too many unanswered questions to be able to affirm it. Moreover, I don’t believe the evidence exists that could settle the question one way or another.

The next question then seems to be, ‘what might we miss out on if we no longer affirm the virgin birth?’ i.e. is there any hole in our theology which would warp the gospel? I’ve thought this through and cannot find any. To me, why the nativity is important because of the theology of incarnation, Jesus being wholly God and wholly man at the same time, hard though that is to comprehend. The scientist in me cannot help but wonder what a DNA test on Jesus would have revealed. Just as I affirm that God created the universe but am not a creationist, so I find no significant issue with regarding Jesus’ divinity without boldly stating that he was born of a virgin. The ‘how’ is less important. In this respect, I do side somewhat with Borg. To me, the core aspects of the gospel are unaffected: the proclamation of God as king, the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the atonement for sins through the sacrifice of the crucifixion and the victory over death as the vindication of all the above through the resurrection. It is these things and their ramifications that I would rather spend time thinking about and discussing.

Conclusion

The Jesus of the faith that I hold to with a light grip is the Jesus of my best, though flawed, understanding of history. To be a christian is not to be the holder of all knowledge and understanding, but to be a disciple, grasping at the coattails of those of who have gone before us whilst treading out our own path. But to portray this as a solo activity is misleading. To be a christian is entails being part of a community in the form of church, though I shall spare you from my further thoughts on ecclesiology. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let me know if you agree or disagree.