Monthly Archives: September 2015

How would you like your church? Rare or well done

I wanted to pick up and expand a little on a point I made in last week’s post on the breaking of bread. In it, I said

This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way.

This may have been open to misinterpretation, so a little more clarity may be needed. When I say that things such as robes, procession, chanting, etc are unnecessary, I mean precisely that: unnecessary. I am not saying that they are inherently wrong. My point is that they are things which, though maybe originally intended to help, can end up getting in the way. Whether one includes or excludes these things is merely a matter of taste. My only disagreement is when people insist that to have them (or to not have them) is the “proper” way to do things. i.e. that to have them (or to exclude them) is a necessity.

Let’s pick up on the word ‘raw’ for a moment. It serves us quite well by way of analogy. Beef carpaccio is raw. I’ve had it a few times and quite like it. Others I know can’t stand it. They might prefer a steak that is well done, with a peppercorn sauce on top . We can both equally claim to like beef, but we just like it done differently. The problem arises when one or other makes a claim that ours is how beef should be done. i.e. to denigrate the authenticity of the other. To me, peppercorn sauce obscures and spoils the flavour of good beef; to others, it enhances the flavour.

We each can get entrenched in our ways, but it’s good to occasionally try things from another’s point of view. To use a different, but still culinary, analogy, I can’t stand tea. But once a year, I try a cup, to see if my tastes have changed. So far, they haven’t, but as it doesn’t make me physically ill, there’s no harm in trying something different once in a while.

Last year, I offered to take part in a tradition swap, where I would swap my nonconformism for a more traditionalist expression of christianity. There were no takers. I was rather disappointed by this, as it seemed that plenty were keen for me to temporarily give up my ways and see the virtue in theirs, but they were not willing to give up their ways and see the virtue in mine (seemingly, because of a kind of snobbery that looks down evangelicalism as a lesser form of christianity).

Christianity is a great and varied thing, with many different expressions. When we get used to one, there’s a risk we closet ourselves away and think of the paraphernalia that is built up in our expression as being somehow important. Then, when we see that others don’t do X or Y that we do, there’s a temptation to think that they are in some way lacking. I’m not suggesting we should all abandon our own churches and try a different one each week. Rather, just once in a while, maybe we should put down something we are holding on to in order to test if it necessary. Then, maybe, with a spare hand, pick up something else from another expression of christianity and see if it is helpful.

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Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

This has been by quite some margin the most anticipated book of the year. All over the English-speaking world, people have been busily re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation for the release of its follow-up. This particular reader chose not to. I maintained a strong memory of the impression that To Kill A Mockingbird made on me when I read it as part of my English Literature GCSE. I didn’t want to alter that memory, flawed as it may be, but I have been timing my reading carefully so that I would be able to read the sequel as soon as it was released. You may recall I wrote about my hopes and fears about the novel.

So it was that on the day of its publication, Tuesday the 14th of July 2015, that I set off during my lunchbreak to Foyles to pick up a copy. So what did I find?

*spoiler alert – I will be giving some details of the storyline in this review*

Set some 20 years after Mockingbird, we get a reintroduction to some of the characters. The book’s focus is on Jean Louise, who most readers will remember went by her nickname, Scout. But here, she’s a grown woman, so references to Scout are few and far between. There are some flashbacks to her childhood with her brother Jem, but very few of these link directly to the summer of Tom Robinson. The case is referred to, though not by name. In this recollection, the defendant was said to have had one arm. I don’t recall Tom having one arm in Mockingbird, so maybe one of you can enlighten me on this point.

The first 100 pages or so are setting us up, introducing the characters, but very little else. That might be a bit unfair, because Lee is good at making her characters have independent voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue form, and there are times when Lee drops the narrative aid of “said Jean Louise” or “said Atticus” for some time. If this were a lesser writer, sometimes you have to turn back a page or two to work out who is speaking. Not so in this case. The voices are so distinctive that with just a sentence or two, you know whose voice is speaking. And even as I read in my head, without overdoing the phonetic spellings, I still ended up with an array of American accents in my inner monologue.

Then comes the sucker punch. Jean discovers some literature in Atticus’ possession which are of a decidedly racist nature. Jean Louise is then torn. To her, Atticus had been the model of all that was virtuous and just. Yet here, and in a public meeting he was spotted at, he was seen sharing a platform with those who viewed one race as superior to another. To whom can Jean Louise turn?

Towards the end of the book, there is a practical issue that has caused some problems. That is, on the books with the orange covers, the bottom of some of the pages haven’t printed properly. There are several paragraphs missing. So I still cannot tell you for sure how the book ends. I have a very good idea, but some of the details are missing.

What I can tell you is that it has really pissed some people off. While Mockingbird was seen as a triumph of liberal social attitudes over racism, there is more of a compromise here. If you can’t beat them, learn to live with them. In some ways this is even more liberal, as Atticus refuses to make an enemy out of racists. Instead, he is adamant that they must be given a platform and not have their views censored simply because some might disagree with them.

Some reviewers have chosen to see this is as Atticus becoming a racist. It’s not quite that simple.

What the book shares with Mockingbird is that it is a book about growing up. Only now this is something more of a grown-up kind of ‘growing up’. The thing is, Jean Louise idolised Atticus somewhat (as have many readers – or viewers of the film of Mockingbird) and at some point we must learn that our idols will let us down. Atticus knew it was coming, as did others, but Jean Louise didn’t. He was her rock, her point of steadfast faithfulness and upright morality whom she could lean on. Now that source of stability was rocking and she suffers a crisis of identity.

I don’t know about other readers, but I could readily identify with the theme of disappointment in one’s parents. I recently sat at endured something of a rant that my father that could only ever be described as homophobic. I disagree with him vehemently on the issue, although he doesn’t know this. I simply bite my tongue. There are times I’ve wanted to scream in his face and tell him how vile I find his hatred. In this book, Jean Louise does my shouting for me.

Just as To Kill A Mockingbird stayed with people for a long time, so will Go Set A Watchman, but for very different reasons.

The subversive act of breaking bread

Last night (Wednesday), a group of about 25 people gathered in a large room in a house in the London borough of Lewisham. We engaged in speech and acts that represent a challenge to the way the world works. It was symbolic, it was simple and yet it carried in it a breath of quiet power that brought some to tears.

What sort of underground meeting was this? This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way. We were merely a small community of people, drifting in at the end of the day to gather together.

There was some general friendliness, catching up on the events of the week, before the person who had called us together on this crisp evening at the start of autumn spoke to us from the book of Acts about a time of refreshing. There was some sung worship and a time of open prayer, where anyone may speak. One person sung in tongues and an interpretation was asked for. After a minute or so, an interpretation was sung back.

We then moved to what our church (and many others) refer to as breaking bread. Some call it mass, others Eucharist, still others communion and some call it the Lord’s Table. Each has their merits and connotations. In a small, private gathering such as this, some things are easier than in a bigger, public meeting. There was an encouragement that if people so wished, they could pray prayers of confession. Why this is a good thing, I don’t want to go into here. Maybe another time. Sometimes people will do so, sometimes they won’t.

Whatever prayers were said and what people asked forgiveness for shall, of course, remain private. But one by one people went to the table in the middle of the room and prayed their prayers of confession and asked for forgiveness. Then they took the bread and the grape juice, the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, and partook of them.

Breaking bread is an act of obedience and could well be said to be one of christianity’s oldest practices. Every act of obedience is also an act of rebellion; it just depends on which you focus. For to obey God in breaking bread is to rebel against the world. Some may see the rejection of religion as a rebellion against (a non-existent) God, but while that is shouted, it echoes a quiet whisper of obedience to the world of the way things are, to the zeitgeist of passive indifference to the cross.

On the mountain where Moses encountered the burning bush, God asked Moses to remove his footwear for God’s presence there, at that time, made it a holy place. In that room last night, the spirit of God moved amongst the gathered saints and that place, at that time, became a holy place.

To speak of holy things is an act of rebellion against an unholy world.

To break bread in communion, in remembrance of a crucified Messiah subverts the hero narrative that our culture longs for and preaches to us every day.

We closed with a song of declaration, “I believe in Jesus“. This statement of belief is not only a positive affirmation, but it flies in the face of received wisdom, of “common” sense, of the assumed way of being that pervades every strand of our society.

As we left that place, some 2 hours later, we breathed in and out, our act of rebellion done behind closed doors. But as we continue to breath the spirit of God, we can go about spreading not only the message of defiance, but the positive message of joy and hope that Jesus brings.

Book Review: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

It’s sometimes good to pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about, just to try to get an early handle on it and immerse yourself in its world. This was my thinking when, having spotted a bookshop attached to an art gallery in Whitechapel, London, I spotted this Very Short Introduction (VSI). My only prior exposure to art theory was during a conversation with an art student when we were both at sixth form college. Here, she claimed that art was whatever an artist said was art. She followed up by saying that an artist was anyone who considered themselves to be one. Being keen on logic and wanting to bust her bubble via a reductio ad absurdum, I stated that I was an artist and that my poking her in the shoulder was a piece of art. It was done in jest, but for me it was a perfectly justified reaction against art theory as she portrayed it to me.

Onto the book. Freeland chooses, as seems fitting, to illustrate her work through example. Now the body of art in the world is far too great for any single work to do justice to, so Freeland is forced to limit her choice to just a few works. One of these in particular is given prominence as the lens through which she views the subject: Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. It is through this, and other works like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark in formaldehyde) that Freeland explores the question of aesthetics. Are these things beautiful? Freeland gives a brief survey of the philosophy of aesthetics, with a particular emphasis on the ideas of Kant. Her conclusion is that “Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.”

From here, we get a whistle-stop tour of various different kinds of art, all the way along questioning what it is that makes it art. What are the common themes and what are the differences. In particular, the idea of intent seems to be paramount. This is illustrated through looking at some of the pop art works of Andy Warhol. What made his version Brillo Boxes art while the commercially available equivalent isn’t?

When it comes to looking at a variety of cultures, Freeland asks the reader to face some uncomfortable questions. What for one culture is an expression of their identity may be taken as a quaint form of “tribal art” for another culture. This has given rise to an industry of such art that may have originated in particular cultural or religious expression, but later has become little more than a commercialised fulfilment of an imperialist fetish.

This naturally leads on to issues of money and how capitalism corrupts the art world. Fighting against this is the idea of public art; that which should be available for all the public to experience in whatever form the art takes, typically visual. There’s a brief history of the changing natures of museums here which was cut short for it to fit into this volume, but could easily have been expanded into a much larger chapter, as the treatment is all too brief.

One of the themes that has long permeated art, but which is particularly highlighted in modern art is the act of subversion and how art becomes a tool of that subversion. This is a subject Freeland examines through a few lenses, but in particular that of feminism. There are other lenses that have could have been used more extensively, but I think that in using the feminist angle, she was angling for an approach that would appeal to as wide a liberal audience (for that is who she seems to be writing for) as she could hope for. So it was a little ironic that in what should have been the most controversial chapter, she chose potentially the safest option.

So what does it all mean?

Here, we move to what I thought seemed to be the heart of the subject: how do we interpret art? It seems that any artist must have some idea of what it is that they want to convey and the viewer of the art is intended to receive a message. But unlike the written word, visual art (for in Freeland’s world, literature doesn’t really seem to count as art) can have “fuzzy edges”. What we then get is a rundown of various theories as to how the message is conveyed. If a viewer understands one thing, is it “right”? Is meaning generated in the mind of the viewer or can the artist turn around and tell them they’ve no right to interpret their art in that manner?

Towards the end of the book, we come right up to modernity, with an examination of the digital revolution and how art can be made available for all. It is worth questioning the future of the art galleries given that a click of a few buttons, we can see versions of the great works of visual art on our computer screens.

There was a satisfying moment I had whilst reading it one lunchtime as the book mentioned the very art gallery in Whitechapel where I bought the book.

I’ve come away from the book with the beginnings of an education. I think that’s the best that one could reasonably hope for. The book could have been a lot different if different examples were cited, as the world is full of art of a wide variety. I’m not sure I’ll take up art more seriously in the near future, but if you’re vaguely interested then I would certainly recommend this work to you. As I’ve tried to hint at in this review, there are lots of questions, so it’s certainly a book to make you think; and that can hardly be a bad thing.

How capitalists profit from the refugee crisis

Over the last few months, the scale of the unfolding humanitarian crisis coming out of Syria . In the backwaters of the news we have had a steady, but muted patter, of stories of rickety boats sinking, with dozens of people losing their lives in the process. After the publication of one photo, some of the more apathetic sections of society have been jolted into action and are now doing headless chicken impressions asking “[what can we do]” or asking for others to “[just do something]”. Such reactions are natural, as may be observed (by analogy) in someone waking up from a deep sleep by an unpleasant action, such as water being poured on their head.

What we end up doing is going to buy supplies to give out. In this act of purchasing, we are contributing to the revenues of the shops (mostly supermarkets) who provide those products. While they will have paid a wholesale price, they still take a gross profit. Their business model is such that they end up with their overheads are fixed, not variable, so that the additional gross profit flows down to their operating profit pretty much unscathed.

With this extra profit, it is likely that the share price increases (or it mitigates a fall, if there are other, bigger, factors at play) and so those who already own shares in the company have their wealth increased (or their losses ameliorated).

It sucks that that’s the way the world that has been constructed before we ever had a chance to have our say in it. It’s a rigged game, designed to favour the rich, to further enrich them. What is personally frustrating is that the spread of investments in a pension fund mean it is quite possible that I have an indirect investment in those who gain from such a human tragedy. If you have a pension, you may too.

Yet can it be right to then turn around and refuse to help others because some might profit it? I’m not sure it is, so I pick what may not be the lesser of two evils, but the less visceral of two evils.

Book Review: The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau

This is another of the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ books that I’ve picked up on the off chance and had hidden away in my drawer at work for some time. After having moved office recently, I have been able to read at lunchtimes (previously I had one particularly obnoxious colleague who would talk all through lunchtime – often with his mouth full – and there was nowhere else to go) so this has been read in the middle of the working day.

Rousseau’s work is maybe not one that the majority of people have heard of. Amongst those who have an interest in political philosophy, though, it is regarded as something of a classic work.

So what is this social contract? Well, let me attempt to sketch an answer by contradiction. I recall a conversation I had with a fundamentalist libertarian where they argued that they had no duty to pay tax because they had not entered into any contractual arrangement for goods or services with the government. Their argument was that they should only pay for the precise goods and services which they have requested and have agreed a price with the supplier. As this individual did not have a contract which they had signed, they argued that they should be exempted from any obligation to society, including the paying of taxes.

While this was a ludicrous argument, based on a narrow view of contract law, applying to arenas of life where it does belong, it is interesting to consider what the best route is to take in countering it. One such answer is the idea of the social contract. This isn’t a paper contract that one signs, but is a tacit agreement between two sets of people, which we might broadly call the government the people, on how best to run a country.

I say “broadly call” because Rousseau brings in his own definitions, which are quite alien to a 21st century Englishman. For example, I would regard the term “sovereign” to denote a single person, the head of state. In our monarchy, that is the queen. In a republic, it would be the president. Yet for Rousseau the sovereign might not be a single person. A magistrate is not a low-level person who presides over a civil court. A prince is not a male member of the royal family.

What this leaves us with is a work that is rooted in a very different politics from that which we find ourselves in. If you wish to guide someone from A to B, it can be a little perplexing for someone who is starting from C; even more so when both A and C use the same terms but mean different things by them. As such, I cannot say that I fully understood the points he was driving at. Here and there, I found something to ‘hook into’ and find my bearings again, but it probably deserves to be read somewhat more slowly than the rate I rushed through it.

The book gets bogged down in some of the detail at times, such as how to conduct elections and the nature of dictatorship. On the latter point, Rousseau derives much of his understanding from the Roman Republic, which I was fortunate to be (by no design or specific purpose) reading Livy’s Early History of Rome at the same time. So while the historian of political thought may find Rousseau useful in tracing how modern western democracies view the nature of the relationships between citizens and their government, I cannot say that it has an enduring value in terms of the specifics of what Rousseau proposes.

If there is to be any application, it is in America where government is split into two arbitrary sides, entitled legislature and executive. In the UK, there is no such clear division, there is one government. Yet Rousseau contradicts himself on this particular point, as he states early on that to artificially separate the two functions (which are poorly defined) is not recommended yet he goes on later to talk about them as though they are two separate arms of government, but again with insufficient detail as to how someone is meant to discern between them.

The one major point where I disagreed with Rousseau is on the matter of taxation. This is something Rousseau sees as a burden on the people, but I couldn’t help but question whether the taxes he was subject to were the same as we have today. If you go back as far as the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, then taxes were raised to keep the aristocracy in luxury and to fund wars. Indeed, our modern income tax began to take its current form as a way to finance the wars against France in the decades after Rousseau was writing. It seems he had little concept of the mechanics of a welfare state. While his opinion differed from mine, his view also wasn’t the same as my conversation partner alluded to above.

So what do I make of it? It’s a bit frustrating, as it’s dying for a re-write. If we clear up the muddled terminology then we could clarify the priorities of government, its democratic mandate and how it is funded. As it stands, it is a testament to the old adage that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rousseau’s world seems quite alien to 21st century Britain.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Listen.

Billy Pilgrim is not your average character in a work of fiction.

This is one of those books that has eluded me for some time. Every time I’ve thought of getting round to reading it, something else has cropped up to take priority or I’ve developed a guilt complex over reading too many male authors. But this time, I was determined to get round to getting stuck into what is a relatively short work. If, like me, you like to know a tiny bit about a book before reading it, you will know that Slaughterhouse 5 is an anti-war book.

Upon reading the first chapter, I was rather wrong-footed. It is the first chapter and doesn’t come with a heading of ‘introduction’ or ‘foreword’ yet it is written wholly in the first person, who is evidently the author, talking about the book that is to follow. In it, he states that while the names have been changed, vignettes of the book remain true to his own experience. In particular focus is the fire bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. I had to wonder then if this really was a semi-biographical work or whether the introduction itself was a work of fiction, much like the introductions of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project.

I’ve deliberately kept myself in ignorance whilst reading the book and whilst writing this review as to Vonnegut’s own history, lest that shatter the impression I got from the book, for surely that impression and what truth it conveys is of primary importance, while the rest is background. I can leave that background until after this review is posted online.

Billy Pilgrim is our central character, around whom the entire narrative is devoted and around whom all the characters come and go like waves on a beach. He is what the author describes as being ‘dislocated in time’. He doesn’t have a vessel in which to travel back and forth, he just closes his eyes in one period and wakes up in another, entirely out of his control. It removes the sense of ‘now’ from the novel, as in all times he speaks in the present tense. At one time he is a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran and a man about to die. He is also a person who has been abducted by aliens (called Trafalmadorians) who sit outside of time.

The main thought that went through my head as I read was the similarity in style and aim to that of Catch 22; a book that I have long hated as it’s a fantastic idea but very poorly executed. Here, there isn’t anything quite as strong in the ideas department but while Heller is a decidedly mediocre writer with an over-inflated reputation, Konnegut is a much better writer.

The other thought was “where is Dresden?” Not in the geographical sense, but in the fact that the book only makes a few references to it and it is not until right at the end that Billy finds himself in that city during the firebombing, as a prisoner of war who survives, unlike the many thousands of civilians who were murdered in what was probably the worst war crime the United Kingdom ever committed, yet like later war crimes, such as the war against Iraq, the United Kingdom was never prosecuted.

The whole sideline of the aliens I found a little distracting. They were never properly fleshed out and just drifted in and out of the story, which would have progressed (if that is the right word for a book with a non-linear timeline) just fine without them. What we are left with is a book that seems to be intentionally fractured. There are moments of sharp cynicism interspersed with periods of mundaneness, but even these are interesting and well-written. Do I regret having put off reading it for so long? I can’t say it blew me away like Love In The Time Cholera did, but I’m certainly glad I did read it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not read it already.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention; the work ends with an onomatopoeic bird song: Poo-tee-weet.