Monthly Archives: June 2013

Hiatus

Silence

As I briefly stated on Twitter about a week ago I’m going to be going on a bit of a social media break. Not that I’m cutting myself off completely, but I’ll certainly be taking a step back. It would be inappropriate to go into all the details here (some of you I’ve discussed aspects with) but the short story is that I’m looking to move home. After 7 years of living in the same town, various circumstances have combined with a time in life when it’s best to move on. As moving home is one of the most stressful things a person can do, I need to try to make the rest of life as stress-free as possible. Although blogging isn’t all that stressful, it does take up the majority of the spare time I have. I need that time to pack things away, file some stuff and throw other stuff out.

It’s time for a new chapter, but before I can start it I need to finish off the current chapter and do a bit of editing. When reading, I’ve never been one for having a large group of characters, I deal better with smaller casts. So it is in life. To leave this county means that I will be leaving some people. Some, I freely admit, I will be glad to leave behind. Others I will miss. But I knew that when I left university that most of those I had known I would not see again. Yet even those I kept in touch with held a 10 year reunion last year which I only found out about after the event. I can’t say that didn’t hurt. The perennial outsider, I am now choosing to be a stranger in a new place.

I can’t promise that the blog will be empty. I am a fickle creature and may be lured out of my mousehole if I get a particular bee in my bonnet. However, if any of you would like to write a guest post, then do get in touch. If you leave a comment and include your email (in the email box, not the actual comment) then I can get back to you, or any tweets sent to me (@TheAlethiophile) between 9am and 11pm will send a text message to my phone. So even though I’m not logged in, I can still see what you’re saying.

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Book Review: The Outsider by Albert Camus

I forget when this book first came to my attention. I think it was some ago, but I couldn’t tell you if it was 2 or 4 years ago. While it sat on my wishlist for a good amount of time, I happened across it while I was buying some sweets in a WH Smith not long ago. I was surprised at how short it was, but it was also cheap, so I picked it up as an impulse buy along with some jelly babies and a bottle of milkshake.

It was in fact, just after I wrote about my misanthropic tendencies that I got around to reading it. It seemed like an appropriate follow-up as I would identify as a perennial outsider. Wherever I lived, it has always seemed to be on the wrong side of town. When the BBC released it’s new class calculator recently, it highlighted that I was the only person in my office who was “emergent service worker” (i.e. working class with a decent income). I digress.

[spoiler warning]

The book is told from the point of view of Mersault, the outsider of the title. The opening line gives the setting in that Mersault’s mother has just died. Yet his reaction to her death is not typical of a grieving son. He treats death in a very matter-of-fact manner, to the point of not seeming to care, which offends a lot of people. It certainly marks him out as different. The crux of the book, however, comes half way through the book with a second death; one that Mersault caused. The second half of the book then focuses on his trial. Yet the focus of the trial is less about whether he is guilty of a crime and more about whether he grieved over his mother’s death. What is at question is not whether he is guilty, but whether he is normal. Ultimately, the book gives us a third death to mull over, which leads to Camus’ bleak fatalism:

“…everybody knows that life isn’t worth living. And when it came down to it, I wasn’t unaware  of the fact that it doesn’t matter very much whether you die at thirty or at seventy since, in either case, other men and women will naturally go on living, for thousands of years even.”

[end spoiler warning]

I cannot say whether it was Camus’ writing or the way it was translated into English, but the inner monologue that narrates the story felt somewhat staccato, almost reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time. Yet there was at the same time more than a whiff of Kafka which lurked on the pages. Camus implicitly asks a lot of the reader in this short volume. So it is not without good reason that I agree with a comment on the front cover which stated that it was “One of those books that marks a reader’s life indelibly.”

So who might I recommend this to? Well, anyone who enjoys Kafka (if enjoy is really the right word) will probably find this up their street. For its bleakness, I might also suggest it would appeal to those who were not put off by Kokoro.

Why I love the EDL

I am not Tommy Robinson.

Yet I might well have been.

The self-styled leader of the English Defence League (EDL) and I were born in the same town, less than a year apart. Though I do not have memory of having known Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Lennon) it is quite possible that our paths crossed as children, playing in the same parks, going to same shops in the Arndale centre, being fascinated by the flamingo fountain there, and repulsed by the fishy smell of the market which adjoined the shopping centre.

Luton was, and still is, I understand, a town divided. For personal reasons, I promised never to set foot there again; a promise I have kept for 10 years now. But one could hardly fail to spot the wildly different characters of the estates of Bury Park and Marsh Farm, not least in the ethnicity of those you would meet there. It is here that one finds the roots of the EDL, but it is also where I find my roots. For that reason, I take special interest in this group, their activities and their coverage; I can’t help but think from time to time, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’  

One of the greatest weapons that is used in modern rhetoric is the demonization of The Other. Any person or group that does not match our demographic, our religious or political views, is visualised and spoken of as an enemy. The EDL employ this tactic when they talk of Islam. Yet at the same time, I also see generalisations made about the EDL which are equally as unhelpful. As long as we consider (and hence treat) them as The Other, then there will be little progress and much more antagonisation.

If we can slap a label on someone, it makes it all the easier to make generalisation based on that label; in effect, dehumanising them.

The EDL should not be treated as the bad guys, irrespective of what we think of their ideology. They are our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, cousins and neighbours. [According to a Nov 2011 Demos report, there is an 81:19 ratio of men:women in the EDL] Incidentally, the rest of that report is well worth reading, in order get a better understanding of the EDL than one might otherwise gain from following any news coverage they may get.

In order to break the cycle of alienation that is felt by those on the far right, we must not shun them and push them further to the fringes of society. The people at the mosque in York, who offered tea and biscuits and a game of football were the ones with the right idea.

I didn’t get a chance to listen to the interview with Robinson/Lennon that the BBC broadcast on the Today programme the other day. If the reports I have read are faithful, then the interview was not that brilliant, with not enough challenges being made and some coming away with the impression that the BBC had provided a platform for propaganda. One interesting point hit me with a great deal of irony. Apparently, Robinson/Lennon claimed that the writing of ‘EDL’ that was allegedly found at the site of the burnt down Islamic centre in Muswell Hill in no way indicated that the EDL could be faulted for the fire. Instead, he posed the question “[what if someone had written ‘David Cameron’? Would that make him at fault?]”. In essence, his argument is that the arson was not sanctioned by the EDL, but may instead have been perpetrated by someone who sees in the EDL an ideology similar to their own and who then ‘claims the name’ – much as we have seen some violent people carry out horrific and vile acts whilst acting in what they saw as the name of Islam.

The term ‘extremist’ is frequently used in conjunction with the EDL, not without good reason. Yet the root word ‘extreme’ can only really be used in conjunction with another word; extreme what?  Extreme ironing? Extreme violence? Extreme hatred? What about extreme love? Why can’t an extremist be someone who is self-emptying and compassionate in the extreme?

So why love the EDL?

Is it because of their ideology? Certainly not.

Is it because the people are inherently warm-hearted and likeable? To some maybe, though I find it tough.

I love the people of the EDL because I am a christian and am therefore compelled to. There is no act of violence, intolerance or hatred that one human being can do to another which is unforgiveable. The scandal of the gospel of grace is that no one is persona non grata, no one is beyond the pale. In thinking through the parable of the Good Samaritan, I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that today’s Samaritans might well include the EDL. They are the last people we might think of as helping others. But that’s the point that Jesus gave in answer to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’

How can this love be demonstrated?

This is not a manifesto; I hope you can come up with your own (and better ideas) than I can.

To me, the first step in demonstrating love has to be a change in the language used when talking to and about the EDL. There may be good reason why the label of “extremist” might fit, but I do not think it helps. To do so only alienates them further.

I am painfully aware that even in the rest of this post I have used the language of ‘us’ and ‘them’, though I have done so more clarity than anything else. It’s only if we can move away from this that we can really hope to heal the wounds of social discord that have led to this group feeling liking persecuted outsiders in their own community, before then inflicting that feeling on others.

There are many issues to be tackled and there is much more that can and should be done. I understand organisation like Hope Not Hate have been fairly prominent in simultaneously denouncing violence and being open to discussion with the EDL.

My belief is that the church (as a whole) should be open to welcome in members of the EDL, even though that may cause ructions in some communities. Unless the church is open to welcoming the ostracised, the frowned-upon and the intolerant, we would not be faithfully practising the gospel of grace. Grace is costly, that’s a point driven home by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Maybe now we need another of his ilk; a voice of love, humanism and grace.

Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

Friday fun: mocking the spam comments

Image courtesy of pandemia (Creative Commons)

Image courtesy of pandemia (Creative Commons)

Since moving to WordPress almost a year and a half ago, the number of spam comments has gone up markedly. Here, I’m just going to have a little fun with them, to show you the sort of things that get appear in the comments queue on a regular basis. I’ve also included a few others that people have sent me.

We begin with this tantalising morsel from a commenter called “payday loans”:

“psknhgldzm qdcokmgb eicgshw ntljtdegg”

Now, I’m not a fantastic linguist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a recognised language. If it’s a cypher, it’s one that’s flummoxed me!

 

Next up, one from “cougar dating site” which appeared on my analysis of the local elections.

“Hello! I just wish to offer you a huge thumbs up for the excellent info you have right here on this post. I’ll be returning to your blog for more soon.”

I’m so glad you liked it, though I wonder why statistics on local politics would prompt a dating site for young men and older women. Just for your info, I tend to draw the line at women who are 3-4 years older than me.

 

This one from “coach” on the same post as the previous one.

“Wow, this article is good, my sister is analyzing these kinds of things, so I am going to inform her.”

That’s very nice of you, but I worry for your sister.

 

A comment from ‘Nike NFL Jerseys’ is unlikely to be genuine. But this is what they had to say:

“I’m extremely inspired along with your writing abilities and also with the structure for your weblog. Is that this a paid topic or did you modify it your self? Either way stay up the nice high quality writing, it’s rare to peer a nice weblog like this one nowadays.”

While I do make an effort to write material that is interesting, informative and clear, I hope my English is a little better than that employed in your comment. Just for the record, however, I do not receive payment for any of my blog posts.

 

Ready for another one? Here you go!

“Quality articles or reviews is the main to invite the users to pay a visit the web site, that’s what this web page is providing.”

That is barely English! Besides, I don’t advocate charging people to visit websites.

 

And another one:

“yamaha jet boat parts might be something you want to look into. I know your web page is about yamaha jet boat parts but seriously. I have seen sites like yours branch out into other areas and its been to their benefit.”

Excuse me? When have I previously written about Yamaha jet boats? That’s really not my thing.

 

Had enough yet? If not, carry on reading:

“I enjoy what you guys are up too. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the excellent works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to blogroll.”

Guys? You mean there’s more than one of me???

 

Good Psychic Reading had this to say:

“I wish I could post like you. Your submit  An analysis of the local elections – West Sussex & Crawley | The Alethiophile has pushed me to get off my butt and get some word out to the world. You have boosted my confidence just by writing so well.”

Aim low and it’s hard to be disappointed.

 

A gloriously ironic comment from “heart problems”:

“Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam remarks? If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can recommend? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any support is very much appreciated.”

Yes, I do get a lot of spam comments. Like yours, for example.

 

This one was sent to me from someone else’s blog:

“What i do not realize is actually how you’re not really much more well-liked than you might be right now. You are so intelligent. You realize therefore considerably relating to this subject, produced me personally consider it from numerous varied angles. Its like men and women aren’t fascinated unless it’s one thing to accomplish with Lady gaga! Your own stuffs great. Always maintain it up!”

Any comment which brings a smile, however wry, must be a worthwhile contribution to any comments section, I’m sure you’ll agree.

 

Here’s one from http://www.hrconsultants.co.uk – apparently:

“well is say just Whenever you arrived at our site, the first you should know is you can buy the highest quality and most expensive ipad case, additionally your favorite apple ipad cases as well as ipad add-ons. You will find hundreds types of ipad situation”

Your erudition leaves me copiously flabbergasted.

 

Final one from Psychic Medium:

“icon might be something you want to look into. I know your niche site is about icon but seriously. I have seen sites like yours branch out into other areas and its been to their benefit.”

You’re psychic, right? I think you know what I think about this.

Book Review: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

I picked this up on the off chance, as I was browsing through the philosophy section of bookshop near my office one lunchtime. It’s not one that had been on my reading list, it was just a chance encounter. I have, however, been intending to catch up with some of Terry Eagleton’s writings, in particular his Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate which I have heard positive mumblings about.

Anyway, the title intrigued me, and having rather enjoyed E.P. Sanders’ Paul: A Very Short Introduction, I had a fair idea what kind of book I was getting. Indeed, my reading list is now getting rather full of the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series and have already bought about a further half a dozen which await me. From the outset, Eagleton acknowledges the potential difficulties in dealing with such a large subject; he also points out that he might not be the best placed person to answer it, given how he is not a professor of philosophy. However, this does not mean that he is poorly read or ignorant of a great many points of view, as any readers of this work will quickly come to realise.

Instead of trying to go through every major thinker over the last umpteen-thousand years and attempt to distil what they thought, what they got right or what they got wrong, Eagleton states that he is happy to take us on his journey with a light, sometimes frivolous touch. For a VSI, I think this was a very good approach to take, since to attempt to deal in total po-faced seriousness and with all due rigour necessary for a serious academic study would leave any author in great difficulty when trying to squeeze their summary down to 100 or so pages.

Light, though some of the tone may be, Eagleton doesn’t veer away from the darker thinkers, with his summary of the thought of Schopenhauer having the deepest impression on this particular reader. Covering, as he does, an approximate timeline from Aristotle to Julian Baggini, Eagleton does a remarkably good job. That said, those who are wanting to get a list of viewpoints will be a bit frustrated as Eagleton’s take is a bit more sophisticated than that. As a professor of English, his primary concern seems to be semantics. So most of the book is ostensibly a discussion of the word “meaning” and what they may or may not denote. It is within this discussion that he touches upon a variety of viewpoints, religious, non-religious and anti-religious.

This may frustrate some readers, particularly if you are looking for a thorough exposition of a wide variety of viewpoints; there just isn’t enough room for such a study. Rather, take it for what the series is: a very short introduction. There is a reasonable ‘further reading’ list at the back of the book, so you can explore some viewpoints in greater depth.

Eagleton presents things from his own point of view, at times, probably due to brevity, over-simplifying. For example, I noted that he speaks of ‘religion’ but he doesn’t express a particularly nuanced view, to the extent that some generalisations are a little misleading. In terms of what he set out to do, however, he has done an admirable job and I’d happily recommend this to someone who is gently looking at the question of the meaning of life, perhaps to take with them on holiday, to read whilst at the top of the mountain. On second thoughts, given some of the nihilism present therein, maybe taking it to such a peak may not be advised. Maybe read it somewhere where any temptation to follow through with the occasional bleak outlook will be lessened.

Thucydides and the Fourth Gospel

Herodot_und_Thukydides

Having now finished The Age of Wonder the next long book I have started is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. I’ve been reading it for the last week and am only just past the first 100 pages (out of ~600) so don’t expect the review any time soon. In his introduction, however, there’s a very interesting paragraph which I here quote:

“In this history I have made use of set of speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion was called for by each situation.”

The speeches that follow are quite long and reminded me somewhat of the discourses in the gospel of John (particularly chapters 14-17). Unlike the short anecdotes (pericopes, if you’re being technical) in the synoptic gospels, it seems less likely that the Fourth Gospel was the product of a generation or two of oral history.

I freely confess I’ve not read much critical literature on the origins of the Fourth Gospel, though I know the view that Richard Bauckham espoused in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that it was based on a single eyewitness account is somewhat controversial. The trouble I have with this point of view hinges on the length of some passages. They just seem too long for one individual to remember verbatim, considering that John’s gospel was seems to be one of the later written gospels, written at least 30 years after the events described, possibly up to 60. Some people have very good memories and could recite them, but the author of John’s gospel does not state that his intention is to make a fairhful record. Rather,

“these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Contrast this with Luke’s methodology:

“I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

Luke’s approach is far more similar to the early historians such as Thucydides or Herodotus. John, on the other, almost admits that his writing is a piece of propaganda. He doesn’t go so far to say that he has interpreted Jesus or put words in his mouth, as Thucydides seems to admit, but I cannot help but suspect that the longer sections of John’s gospel contain not only eyewitness testimony, but also words and sentences that have been put there because that what was the author thought, in their opinion, was called for by each situation.