March 26, 2009
Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a lecture on climate change. Not for the first time did he speak in strong language and with a seriously prophetic edge about the world’s most pressing crisis.
I was scanning the response this evening after a full day of meetings and immediately before I go to bed and then disappear on holiday for a few days in the early hours of tomorrow morning. What I note about some responses is the remarkably easy way his critics elide from one issue into another (unrelated) issue and do so with a straight face.
Take, for example, the following: The Archbishop of Canterbury critiques the issue of climate change and addresses the ethics involved. He is deemed by some to treat unjustly homosexuals in the Anglican Communion, being accused of ‘appeasement’ of those who call themselves ‘conservative’. Some ‘conservatives’ on sexual issues are also right-winger Americans who deny climate change. The fact that some people who agree with the Archbishop on one issue but disagree with him on another undermines his credibility in speaking powerfully about climate change. Then, for good measure, throw in the added charge that his call for attention to be paid to minorities lacks credibility because one particular minority feels victimised by the way he is handling a wider issue and you’ve hit the jackpot.
Isn’t the silliness of these links obvious? To delegitimise what he says about climate change on the grounds that he pays attention to some people on a completely different issue itself lacks credibility – whatever position (so to speak) you take on the sexual stuff.
I remember writing about my admiration for John Lennon. Unlike the Archbishop, he was a total hypocrite, but it didn’t stop him speaking out. Sadly, it also didn’t stop him writing nonsense like ‘Imagine no possessions’ on an expensive grand piano in an expensive New York apartment; but hypocrisy in one area does not necessarily negate the truth of what is said in another.
Perhaps we ought to grow up a bit and learn not to make easy associations where they don’t exist. (And, in case it matters, I equally deplore the funding antics of those conservatives who are playing a dirty game ‘in the name of the Lord’. Trouble is, however, I also deplore the antics of single-issue campaigners who can only see one issue in everything.)
Now, I need my few days break…
March 25, 2009
One of the best bits of living in London is the fact that you can never exhaust the place. In fact, you can never really ‘know’ it either. It is just too big and too interesting and too diverse.
We have a lot of people come to stay with us from all over the globe and showing them London usually involves the usual sites: Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, Big Ben, the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, etc. But it all becomes familiar – as do the places one usually goes to along the routes one knows to be best or most direct. So, sometimes it is good to get an alternative view and see some of the odd bits through someone else’s eyes – and here is a less-than-ten-minute alternative tour of London:
I particularly liked the model of the city showing all the projected new developments. It reminded me of Hitler and Albert Speer surveying the model of the new Berlin. It also reminded me of the only current equivalent of a national leader planning and building a new city: Astana in Kazakhstan. There is a huge model in Astana (the capital city) and, as evry official is keen to tell you, it was all the idea of the President, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
You can plan where the buildings will go, but you can’t plan or control the life a city creates.
I know this sounds a bit like a bad sermon with a terrible leap of logic, but… it also reminds me of Jesus teaching in stories and images. If you teach using propositions which require assent or dissent, you can control what is being understood (or, at least, you can think so); but if you tell a story or use an image, you tease the imagination of the hearer and risk them distorting it, missing the main point, re-telling it wrongly, etc. Jesus clearly thought you should just get good news out there and not worry too much what people did with it. I agree.
March 24, 2009
I have banged on in this blog a number of times about Nick Davies’s excellent book Flat Earth News in which he describes the death of journalism as we have known and loved it for centuries. His is not a lone voice crying in the developing wilderness. Several thousand jobs in local journalism have disappeared in the last twelve months alone – 1000 last week from the Daily Mail’s regional/local organs. The response to the outcry from journalists against the loss of their jobs and the death of their newspapers has mostly been some version of:’ What’s so special about journalists anyway? They just have to cope like the car workers, financiers and everybody else who is finding the world has changed, but not in their favour.’
In today’s Guardian Polly Toynbee hits the nail on the head when she exposes what is happening to notions of ‘local belonging’, of which for generations local newspapers have been vital agents. She writes: ‘The government talks piously of community engagement – and a newspaper with real journalism is the most vital local forum of all. Before the end of the year, every local paper will be into heavy loss: money unlikely to return in the good times. So how can they be saved, in print and online?’
She goes on at the end of her article to say: ‘Bring in the money available from awful ITV local news. Add in some BBC money: their local news is shamingly bad too, partly because the area covered is too wide. Then oblige local councils to stop wasting money on their own Pravda sheets, and to buy space in clearly defined zones in their local news trusts. It might need a small subvention from council tax, too. Roll all this into a local trust with an obligation to good reporting, fair rules and open access, and you could have independent local news across web, print, radio and television offering a genuine community service. It is on the table.’
She ventures a final appeal: ‘But this is an emergency. Battalions of journalists with local knowledge are being sacked and newspaper expertise lost. Does the government have the imagination and capacity to create an environment where small, locally run independent trusts could flourish?’
Local journalism has until relatively recently provided the main way in which local people could find out what was happening in the place where they live. Local newspapers would be filled with names and faces and the possibility that ‘you’ might be in the news. But these same newspapers have increasingly become ‘scandal rags’, playing the same games as the tabloids in the search for sales and revenue. Here in Croydon we sometimes wonder if the local newspaper can ever bring itself to celebrate anything here rather than knock it or pick out the dodgy stuff.
But the loss of the local newspaper also takes with it the loss of local accountability. Councils can be slagged off for their spending or inconsistencies, but rarely is the local council meeting fully reported and decisions analysed intelligently. So, the loss is more than jobs and paper; it is also a serious loss of accountability and informed opinion forming.
It will be argued that this role has been overtaken by online journalism. But this is not the case. Internet journalism is usually driven by motivated individuals who bring their own subjective ‘spin’ to their comment (which is what a blog is, surely) – there is no wider accountability involved and ‘information’ can be recorded as fact when there is no check on it and possibly no foundation to it.
Several years ago I heard a national newspaper editor confidently predict the end of newspapers as we know them. He claimed that within five years no newspaper would be paid for, but that newspapers would be free in paper format as they advertised the online content which would be supported by online advertising. He might be right. But it seems to me that we are now going through yet another revolution which could have unintended consequences: not just a shift in the way ‘news’ is brought ot those who wish to hear it, but the potential loss of a common sense of place or belonging or community or accountability.
I strongly warm to Polly Toynbee’s suggestion that local money is put into local news organs with local accountability run by local trusts set up to ensure good reporting of things that matter to a community. The money that currently goes into councils providing their propaganda to every household could go into local newspaper communication, thus encouraging local people to read it (the main source of such information) and demonstrating local commitment to it (subsidised through Council Tax).
The idea of the ‘local’ might have to be redefined and rediscovered in the next couple of years. It must not be lost.
March 23, 2009
I spent a couple of hours on the train this afternoon and it gave me time to catch up with what the newspapers are saying about Jade Goody. The kindness is evident in most of what I read – and the recognition that she wasn’t able to be anything other than ‘in your face’. You could never accuse her of being a hypocrite.
This reminded me of some lines in a Leonard Cohen poem from 1996 called Better. He writes:
better than poetry
is my poetry
that is beautiful and
dignified, but is
neither of these itself
There are people who shine a (not always welcome) light on the world and place question marks about what we think is ‘normal’. This is the task of the poet. But it is also what I think has happened and is happening through the Jade Goody phenomenon: her transparent imperfection and other people’s treatment of her exposes the snobbery and prejudice we would rather not admit to. Stephen Fry on Twitter called her something like ‘Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks’ and he was right: much of the judgment piled on her during her notoriety phases appears to have been rooted in a sneering looking down the nose at someone ‘not like us’.
Cohen recognises that most of us are imperfect at how we express our lives as well as our art, but it is still the same beauty to which we point.
I just wonder what the atheist commentators actually mean when they say ‘Jade is at peace’. Genuine question.
March 22, 2009
I guess lots of people have been waiting for the announcement of Jade Goody’s death before letting loose with their feelings. I am still staggered by the amount of vitriolic nastiness some people can pour out on blogs and in other media. I don’t know whether it comes from some sort of transferred self-loathing or some sort of bitterness about the world, but it is not pleasant to see.
The emphasis Jade put on her sons and her concern for their future made it all the more sad that her death came in the early hours of Mothering Sunday. Many will question the values (especially in relation to money) she expressed regarding her children, but nobody can deny the seriousness with which she took motherhood and the responsibilities it brings.
Jade Goody is surely an icon of our times. She was a poorly educated girl from South London who, when exposing her ignorances on global television, made a lot of people want to protect her from herself. She epitomised a culture that – in the infamous fantasy slogan of the National Lottery (‘It could be you!’) – promised instant wealth and fame without you having to do anything to earn it. It told the lie that the capricious finger of ‘God’ might choose you to have it all and have now. She was the face of a superficial culture of celebrity for its own sake, supported (and funded) by a public hungry for voyeuristic entertainment. It is clear that many commentators looked at Jade Goody in such a way as to betray a superior gratitude that they were not like her. Snobbery comes in many forms.
But, despite the publicity-seeking girl who cashed in on her fame, Jade Goody also demonstrated that people need to take responsibility for their life and stop blaming everyone else for their lack of success, progress or acquisition. She grabbed an opportunity, exploited it mercilessly and then had the guts to see her dying and death as part of her life and let the world in on the action.
I am not alone in wishing she had retreated sooner and learned the art of privacy. There is even something not quite right about a publicist, Max Clifford, asking for people to give the family privacy… while speaking to cameras and perpetuating the story with snippets of information from inside the dying girl’s home. But she chose not to and I respect that.
What Jade Goody has done is confront an escapist culture with the reality of human mortality. Whatever the magazines and films tell us, we shall all die. And our living to some extent is shaped by our approach to and understanding of our dying. Jade let the world in on a young woman who knew she was going to die being able to give a vocabulary to her family and friends (as well as the watching world) for a part of their life they might otherwise not know how to handle. Some of us (in pastoral work) are used to preparing people (and their families) for their death and to helping the bereaved express their feelings while looking afresh at their own life and meaning. Jade has made that conversation easier for a lot of people.
She wasn’t a plaster saint whose theology was thought through and carefully articulated; she was an ordinary woman who said it as it was and seemed incapable of dressing it up in ways others might find more acceptable.
Since learning of the terminal nature of her illness, Jade has read bits of the Bible (I don’t know which), been baptised, had her children baptised and then prepared her own funeral. I have no idea – and nor does anyone else – what she thought or understood about life and death and God and the meaning of life. I could not know what she thinks happens after death – she certainly came out with some weird folk-religion stuff about Jesus and stars. But, I think it is safe to say (as if it was any of our business, anyway) that she grasped the simple fact that a mortal human being needs to know she is loved infinitely and that the Lover will not let her or her children go. The only security left for her was that her death would not negate her life.
My final word on this is simply that the root of Christian faith is the confidence that death itself cannot separate us from the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. The narrative of this world says that violence, death and destruction have the final word and ultimate power: the cross and an empty tomb say appearances can be deceptive. God who creates, sustains, redeems and loves has the final word and that word is ‘resurrection’.
Now we pray for Jade Goody’s family as they endure their public bereavement.
March 21, 2009
For some reason I had never been to Chartwell, even though it is only a few miles from where I live. Chartwell is where Winston Churchill lived and wrote and painted and found refuge from the world. It is a beautiful house set in lovely parkland with gorgeous trees and wonderful views over the Kent countryside. If I use hyperbolic adjectives, it is only because it is a place that merits them.
Two things struck me today – both probably banal to most people, but I need to be reminded of them from time to time: (a) history seen with hindsight looks ordered and inevitable, but is usually a series of sometimes unintended consequences to well-meant decisions by people who were reacting to the pressures, demands and opportunities of the moment – how it might be different if someone had expressed a liking for Hitler’s paintings in his youth; (b) great men have feet of clay and need to be understood in all their complexity. That is why I have blogged in the past on Martin Niemoeller and others whose human frailty was all-too evident.
Churchill was lionised by people all over the world for his remarkable leadership during the war years. He was quickly dumped after the war, but I remember watching his funeral on telly when I was a child in 1965 and realising that someone great had passed. Yet this man was prone to depression, spent his life wanting the approval of his (dead at 46) father and the love of his mother, was hopeless with his personal finances despite having been Chancellor of the Exchequer and managed to lose jobs and his home with apparent ease.
I hadn’t realised that Chartwell was a wreck when he bought it and that it was brought from him by friends who gave it to the National Trust with the proviso that the Churchill’s could live there until the end of their lives. As you look around the site you find the wall that Churchill built, the paintings in his studio (some good and many not) and bits of manuscripts of his writings. This was a man who knew that despite the responsibility and power of government and global acclaim, he had to be earthed in a place where he could do physical work and get his hands dirty. His painting enabled him to cope with his depressions and observe the world in greater detail.
The statue near the lake is wonderful. By Oscar Nemon, it depicts Winston and his wife and manages to combine intimacy and distance. She is looking at him and her hand reaches across towards him whilst he looks out across Chartwell. Go from here back into the nearby town of Westerham and there is another statue of Churchill on the Green, but it looks suspiciously like the same statue with the wife missing. It is by Oscar Nemon and placed on a plinth donated by Tito in 1969. Here he looks isolated and alone… and incomplete.
March 20, 2009
Posted by nickbaines under rationalism
| Tags: atheist bus
, National Secular Society
|  Comments
The media have been running a range of variations on a single theme during the last couple of weeks. It is time it was realised that it is a non-story aimed at getting lots of publicity for a marginalised minority. Some people want to be ‘de-baptised’ and the media are lapping it up. Well, by ‘lapping it up’, what I really mean is that they have re-hashed a story put out by the BBC for which I did a half-hour interview resulting in a seven-second broadcast and there is even a marked similarity in the wording in several of the printed or online versions I have read. In other words, a single non-story is turned into a story by one media agent milking another – and so it goes on. Exactly what Nick Davies is questioning in his Flat Earth News.
The campaign, being promoted mischievously by the National Secular Society, is to put pressure on the Church of England to allow people to be ‘de-baptised’. You can read the details elsewhere, but there are several matters arising from this debate that need a more cogent airing. So, here goes.
1. If an atheist believes baptism is just a load of voodoo and that nothing happens, what is there to ‘de-do’ (if you see what I mean)?
2. One of the criticisms of the Church is that babies or children who are baptised without their consent are somehow being indoctrinated into something sinister and that this infringes their human rights. Apart from the obvious retort that we do lots of things to young children without their consent (like feeding them, dressing them, cutting their hair, making them go to school, telling them off, not letting them play on the motorway, etc), this betrays a pile of dodgy assumptions. For example, it assumes that life is neutral and children are born as blank sheets. Apparently, if you bring up a child in a family shaped by a ‘religious’ world view, you are damaging them psychologically; but if you bring them up in a ‘non-religious’ context, they will grow up free and able to make their own mind up about the meaning and purpose of their life.
What utter nonsense. The atheist assumes a worldview and brings up the child in a non-neutral context in which certain views of the world, meaning and morality are being represented – and into which the child is being indoctrinated. That is to say, the atheist’s world view is not neutral and, therefore, not inherently preferable to that of a theist. Both assume and construct world views and bring up their children within them; but neither is neutral.
So, the atheist does not simply protect the child from something ‘extra’ that is dangerous to an otherwise neutral way of seeing and being, but is shaping that child’s world view according to other assumptions about the way the world is and why it is that way. I fail to understand why people who claim to be ‘rationalists’ become so irrational that they cannot grasp this obvious fact.
3. I am hearing allegations that the EU is protecting the ‘evangelical noises getting louder and louder’ by its legislation and that this is a bad thing. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know (because I was marginally involved in it) that there was a long and protracted attempt by elements in the EU (France in particular) to remove from the putative European Constitution any reference to the Christian history of Europe. How stupidly irrational and illiberal is that?
As I have observed elsewhere, it is impossible to understand the history (and, therefore, the present – to say nothing of the future) of Europe without understanding its Christian history – for both good and ill. Germany – including Hitler, etc. – cannot be understood for one second without an appreciation of the Reformation. I could go on, but I begin to lose the will to type at this point…
So, we need to challenge the so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ – not on privileged religious grounds, but on grounds of intellectual and rational consistency. And theists need to be more confident in seeing off the arrogant assumptions of the campaigning atheists who betray a little more blind faith in their own assumptions than is healthy for their own internal consistency.
March 20, 2009
So, Liverpool have drawn Chelski again in the European Champions League and I am sure Chelsea are more worried about it than Liverpool. Should be interesting, anyway – especially in forcing my Chelsea-supporting clergy to carry on praying for me despite my obvious heresies and sins.
But the footie is a side show to other stuff going on. How about this for today’s ‘weird journalism’ prize? Today’s issue of The Church of England Newspaper has a whacking great headline on the front page of today’s issue that says: ‘Wycliffe Hall fails inspection report’. The second paragraph of the subsequent article says this: ‘The inspection team concluded that [the theological college is] fit for preparing candidates for ordained and licensed ministry.’
Now, I am quite broadminded, but this is just one more example of crass CEN ‘journalism’. I watched the shenanigans at Wycliffe Hall during the last couple of years with sadness, incredulity and diminishing confidence and my questions have not been allayed by the inspection report (which I have read in full). But, this sort of ridiculous reporting indicates that even if the college has come out better than expected, the ‘newspaper’ just looks silly. Wycliffe Hall did not fail its inspection; several areas were highlighted for further development and attention in order to bring it up to scratch.
Does the CEN have any purpose any more?
March 18, 2009
I never know whether to love or hate Sir Alan Sugar and the bunch of self-interested egomaniacs he has to endure during each series of The Apprentice. It’s fascinating telly, but I can’t get away from the thought that I wouldn’t want any of these aggressive, selfish nightmares working either for or with me in any context. Having met a couple of contestants in the flesh, I can see how the programme is edited for maximum ‘selfishness and conflict’ effect, but rarely does any contestant come out of it looking humane.
(In relation to the aggressive culture of the City of London in the last decade or two, someone asked yesterday: ‘What sort of people/characters thrived and succeeded in that sort of atmosphere and with those sorts of values?’ The follow-up question was: ‘And how many of these sorts of people would you want around you?’ Another question might have been: ‘Would you feel proud of your parenting skills if your child ended up like that?’)
But, the programme is so seductive, I’ll probably end up watching it out of a sense of voyeurism – or anthropological curiosity. After all, it is only entertainment for the masses, isn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about it today for two reasons: (a) it was reported in the press that one contestant has already dropped out – apparently he didn’t want to be away from his family for up to 12 weeks; he should be hired immediately for having a mature set of priorities; and (b) because I am preparing to co-speak (don’t ask…) at Spring Harvest at Minehead and the overall theme this year is ‘The Apprentice’. So, have a look at this picture:
I guess when most people picture in their minds the disciples of Jesus, they don’t come up with the odds and sods painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Somehow we have sanistised the disciples/apprentices of Jesus and made them into couth pale-skinned western scholars. Part of the problem is that as soon as we put them in a stained-glass window with a plate behind their head and call them ‘St’, we distance them from the real humanity we experience. Yet, as I tried to explain in my book Scandal of Grace (originally titled Jesus and People Like Us), the disciples were messy, inconsistent, often a bit thick and frequently in conflict with one another.
I like the picture because it depicts the disciples with character and humanises them. I still don’t see Sir Alan Sugar as Jesus (and you can quote me on that), but I guess his ‘contestants’ are as odd and annoyingly human as those of the Messiah. Interestingly, however, Jesus tried to get his friends to stop being ‘contestant’s and become ‘cooperators’.
March 17, 2009
There is a very good and enlightening interview with the author Philip Pullman in today’s Times. Noted for his ‘anger against God’ and his hatred of the Church, he says some revealing things and is always worth reading for the challenge he brings to the institution of the Church. At one point in the interview it says this: ‘He also despairs of the Church of England, believing it to be “tearing itself apart with the zealots in charge. He [Rowan Williams] is trying very hard to keep it together but I wonder whether it’s working. It seems to me the leader of the Church might think it’s worth saying: ‘I’m going to follow Jesus and anyone who wants to come with me can follow because this way leads to love and compassion and tolerance. If you don’t like it, stay here, but this is the way I’m going.’”’
The irony of this is that (a) this is precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury is doing and (b) Pullman’s fantasy is oddly silly. It is easy to say, ‘Just follow Jesus and everything will be alright and everyone will love each other’ – but, unfortunately, real relationships and conflicts and competing values are what make the reality of ‘love and compassion and tolerance’ so difficult. They cannot be disembodied. This is why it is silly to speak of ‘love’ as if it is soemthing easy to do – or of tolerance as if it were something that could be worked out outside a context of conflict and pain and cost.
He later goes on to make an astonishingly parochial statement: ‘We are living in a little bubble of time. It might not last much longer, but it is a bubble of time that is still warmed by background radiation from the Enlightenment. We are very fortunate to live in a time and place where you don’t get dismembered for having the wrong political convictions, and we should be thoroughly grateful for it every day of our lives.’ Really? Ten marks for anyone who can identify somewhere in the world where you can get yourself dismembered for holding the wrong political views. It happened in the atheistic USSR, Cambodia, etc and still happens in the Middle East (religious) and elsewhere.
Hasn’t anyone pointed out the uncomfortable truth that the Enlightenment arose out of the possibilities created by a Christian worldview? Or that the Enlightenment, for all its great and wonderful benefits, also brought with it immense problems (not least intolerance of anyone whose own intolerance is deemed intolerable…)?
The point about his advice to Rowan Williams is simply that following Jesus did not lead to peace and harmony, but to a cross. Christianity is not fundamentally about the creation of a cruel institution, but about God opting into the mess and cruelty of the world and confronting the dehumanising powers. It could well be argued that the Archbishop of Canterbury could just cut and run from the struggles of sticking with people who are struggling to know and do what is right. But to do so – in the name of following Jesus – would be to deny the Jesus of the gospels and succumb to the temptation in the desert to take the quick and pain-free way to glory.
The way of the cross and resurrection demands that we stick to the task, not giving up on people who differ.
I am a fan of Pullman and think he is a great writer. But, like Richard Dawkins, he seems to be hindered by his own grievances and an evangelistic zeal against God and the Church. Does he protest too much?
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