While I was in the States at the end of last month, I had an afternoon to kill in Philadelphia. So the completely obvious thing to do was record another Q conversation. This time I sat down to chat with Ruth Naomi Floyd, whom I’d met at the European Leadership Conference in Hungary a few years ago. It’s available on iTunes podcasts, or if you prefer a direct feed, here on Jellycast.
I have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.
There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more
It’s been a germ of an idea for ages, but at last it’s finally come about. Q now has a podcast. Hurrah. I can just sense the infectious excitement simply oozing throughout cyberspace. But there are loads of fascinating people out there: hearing how a few live out their lives and passions ought to be fun. Doncha think?
Well, whatever you feel about the prospect of Q podcasts in general, the inaugural episode in particular is definitely exciting because last week, I had the chance to record a conversation with the very talented and thought-provoking Dutch filmmaker, Jaap van Heusden. Here is the link on iTunes (or if you don’t have that, direct through Jellycast) Read more
This is important. Bishop Zac Niringiye used to be my sort-of boss for the 4 years we worked in Uganda. He was the secretary of the trustees of the college I taught in and had actually been someone I consulted about life there before we moved in 2004. His advice to me was simple then. “Don’t try to be a Ugandan, Mark. You’re not. You’re a Brit.” Superb – of course cultural sensitivity is essential – but it is only works if it is accompanied by authenticity and integrity. Zac is a strong character with strong passions and a good mind (he was a Langham scholar, doing his theology PhD in Scotland). He’s not always easy! But he’s someone with real integrity and gospel concern. Read more
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
The book that has occupied my thoughts for much of the summer is that almost hidden gem of the OT, the Book of Ruth. It was the focus of this year’s All Souls week away, and so my talks are issued as a free podcast. What blew me away is that of all the books in the OT, it is perhaps the most unrelentingly positive and inspiring. This is despite the fact that its dark historical and literary context was the Book of Judges, and that the suffering and vulnerability of 2 of the protagonists, Naomi and Ruth, were very real. Read more
It was one of the most disturbing but iconic photographs of the Vietnam War. Long before the virtual world made such things even conceivable, it was an image that quickly went viral, via newspapers and magazines. Perceptions of the conflict were never quite the same again.
The news from Norway has defied words. Senseless, mindless, pointless; it is cruel, irrational evil. And supposedly in the name of Christ. Sickening.
I always resist to tweet or post about every event or topical twist and turn. I’m just not that kind of blogger, I guess. Read more
Tales from Spandau didn’t quite match the expectations I had of it from various reviews. I felt that what it set out to do could have been dealt with in perhaps half the space. Nevertheless, it is grimly fascinating to read of the Cold War shenanigans that went on account of the 7 Nazi War criminals imprisoned at Spandau. Read more
The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.
People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
I admit it. I’m a total sucker for historical fiction – and absolutely adore all the books of C J Sansom. I’ve reviewed a few from the Matthew Shardlake series before (e.g. Revelation, Dark Fire and Dissolution) so i eagerly opened my copy of the 5th in the series: Heartstone. I only hope that there are more…
What makes them such page-turners? Well for a start, they have the pace of a good detective mystery. Shardlake is a superb creation. Amateur sleuth and stubborn, hunchbacked London barrister, he takes on the sorts of injustices from which the ‘great and good’ walk by on the other side… or even perpetrate. He’s a valiant-for-truth and a protector of the weak, in large part because he is one of society’s marginalised himself despite his mind. We’re frequently reminded that ‘hunchbacks bring bad luck’. Is there a subtle allusion to the Tudor propaganda against Richard III here as the hunchback, I wonder? (To see what I’m getting at, check out Josephine Tey’s masterly Daughter of Time.) Sansom’s sublime skill, however, (as I’ve noted before) is his ability to weave genuine plot-twists and cliff-hangers into the meandering events of genuine Tudor history. For not only is Sansom a trained lawyer, he is also a PhD historian. When combined with story-telling abilities, this is a potent combination.
In Heartstone, we’re in the last few years on Henry VIII’s reign, following on a few years after previous books (which, incidentally, all get nods by Shardlake on p296). He’s engaged in his 3rd campaign against France (as disastrous and pointless as the previous ones), but is now married to Catherine Parr, an old friend of Shardlake. The queen engages the lawyer on what (inevitably) proves to be a rather dangerous case. I will not plot-spoil at all – it’s too good a read to do that! But despite coming in at just over 600 pages, I’ll simply say that this is a rich and gripping book. More than that, there were aspects of Tudor life about which I previously knew nothing, and yet get meticulously researched and vividly brought to life:
- the sweat and heat of the old iron foundries in Hampshire and Sussex
- the recruitment and training of the famed English military archers – and the impact on a whole society of a country threatened with French invasion
- the protocols, snobberies and excitements of a Tudor stag hunt
- the brutal life on board the warships like the great Mary Rose
The biggest eye-opener, however, was the ancient Court of Wards, created by Henry to raise revenue by overseeing the sale of orphans’ wardships. It was appallingly abused and notoriously corrupt – as Sansom notes in his afterword, its abolition was one of the great achievements of Cromwell’s Parliament. While Shardlake normally works in the Court of Requests (which was a forum to protect land rights for the vulnerable), he gets dragged into this murky world at the Queen’s behest. And these 3 big themes come through the book – all of which seemed very contemporary.
- The power of leaders to drag their country to war: a frequent refrain is the cost of the king’s wars with France – both in terms of taxes but more importantly, in terms of lives. It is chilling to see, especially when the campaigns seem so futile and whimsical – an elderly cleric near the end of the book reflects on just war theory and concludes this French campaign certainly wasn’t that. Does this all sound familiar? Not quite the same, I realise, but Iraq anyone? My hunch is that the various post-invasion enquiries were going on in London while Sansom was writing this.
- The destructive grip of ambition: as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that ascending the power ladder in Tudor England takes ruthless dedication and single-mindedness. Several characters are determined to rise at all costs. And several of the crimes encountered by Shardlake illustrate the point perfectly, with the victims of others’ ambitions are left reeling or dying. But they are not the only victims. The ambitious men themselves suffer awful consequences. As one character says ‘Ambition, sir, I believe it a curse.’ (p281) Two characters are told that they ‘deserved it’, after all that they’d done. Therein lies a wordplay that forms the book’s title. A heartstone was in one sense a goodluck charm. It was a bone from a stag killed at a hunt – and was presented to the first person to bring it down (presumably itself a wordplay on heart’s bone or hart’s bone (the old name for a deer)). As well as bringing the owner (who’d wear it on a necklace), it was meant to have healing properties. But 2 or 3 different people are described in the book as having hearts like stone. And as Shardlake bitterly observes to a great adversary near the end of the book, the king takes advantage of henchmen around him, because they are ‘men without even hearts to turn to stone‘ (p547). And the power of ambition is something that never goes out of date, does it?
- The extreme vulnerability of children, especially daughters: this is probably the key thread of the book, however – as one might expect when the subject is the Court of Wards. There are 3 parallel stories of children that Shardlake struggles to protect. And this is what makes this, the 5th in the series, one of the most poignant. We see children consigned to Bedlam, stolen as military booty and mascots from invaded lands, sold when orphaned to so-called protectors. It is truly horrendous – but one has little doubt about the credibility of such plot-lines. No doubt things were far worse. And in order to survive, such children find themselves having to act parts (as several in the book have to) – they are trapped and institutionalised, to the extent that even when they can physically walk way, they are chained psychologically. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the horrors of those abused as children by parish priests – which again bring such issues horribly up to date. (To see an impassioned articulation of the decades long damage, see this plea on Irish TV).
History should teach us – but rarely does. However, it’s amazing to find so much depth, provocation and research in a novel, and a whodunnit to boot. I’ve one, tiny stylistic quibble I’d not noticed before – I sometimes wished he’d let the dialogue speak for itself, without having to explain the significance of what everyone says immediately in the narrative. But that’s not a big deal. These are all wonderful books.
One undercurrent I’ve not touched on (but it’s something that this book has in common with its predecessors) is Shardlake’s struggle to sustain a theistic worldview. He is full of anguished doubt as he battles injustice after bloody injustice – as well as seeing firsthand the horrors caused by wielders of power. Belief in God or providence or fate has been dissipated. One or two characters half-heartedly try to resurrect his faith – including Queen Catherine Parr herself. And it is left to a decrepit parish priest (who harks back to the old pre-reformed ways) to attempt, amidst his beer cups, to attempt a defence. He even manages to point to precisely where I’d point when seeking to grapple with the goodness of God in a suffering world – the cross of Christ. As Seckford says, because of the Cross ‘I think Christ suffers with us.‘ (p601) But Shardlake dismisses this with a simple ‘What is the good of that, Reverend Seckford?’
If only he saw. But I certainly don’t begrudge him his questions – for none of this is easy nor lightly dismissed. This is a brutal world – and the Tudor world far more brutal than ours, perhaps. One is only glad that there are people around like Shardlake – and hope that there were those of conscience and integrity even in those dark Tudor times to stand for truth, justice and the downtrodden – as in fact Jesus himself did. It’ll be fascinating to see how Shardlake manages if he reappears in young Edward VI’s reign and even Mary I’s – for religion will be even more a burning issue. I fear that the events of those years will in many ways make faith even harder him. But I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
- Good tips on preparing to preach from Piper via Kendall.
- Tim Keller has some really helpful pointers for a healthy devotional life. (HT SimplePastor)
- Some interesting takes on the recent Labour leadership hustings held by Christian Socialist Movement – from Ekklesia, New Statesman, and Church Times. (HT Stephen Beer)
- The question is: how long can you last through this winner of the 197x worst worship song)? (HT Janet O’B)
- Read an excerpt from Don Carson’s new book, The God Who Is There
- Do legislators on either side of the Atlantic ever actually read the bills they vote on? One might well wonder after reading this…
- Nick Robinson offers a very interesting article about trust in politics in the new coalition government.
- How a $45 investment in some old photographic negatives could reap $200 million…
- How to transform a tiny flat into an eco-wonder with 24 rooms!
- Spot the deliberate (?) mistake (right)…
- Wonder Woman is not what she once was – a sign of more egalitarian times perhaps
- The Twittering Classes of London. I guess this means I’m almost living in the storm’s eye…
- Why German World Cup victory was guaranteed… apparently…
- Oh to work in an office like one of these…
- Do fonts/typefaces matter?
- Some more great errata from the New York Times…
- For those involved in being creative, check this out…
- Hmm… workmen paint street lines around dead badger because it was someone else’s job to remove dead carcasses…
- Bet you don’t know what this is (click to find out)…
Yesterday, I left Hungary having had a great time at the ELF in Eger. So encouraging – and quite apart from the excitements of seeing folk on our network again and being involved in teaching, I was able to have some very encouraging conversations with folks from Austria, Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria in particular. Things are really developing fast in some of those places for our work.
But am now in the Czech Republic for a few days, to do a weekend for the International Church of Prague. Had a couple of hours this morning to wander around with Simon, one of my hosts. So good to be back here. Prague is one of my favourite places on earth. Simon has been here for 18 months or so and had not yet had the chance to visit the Museum of Communism and so off we went this morning. It’s quite small – essentially a converted flat in the centre of town – but as well as tracing the history of the country during the 20th century, it manages to convey something of the atmosphere of fear and oppression. Unusually, one is allowed to take photos, so I took a few.
In one room was a looped video narrating the story of communism and in particular the protests against it. Both of us were blown away by a song that accompanied footage of police beating up peaceful protesters in Wenceslas Square in 1989 (during the months leading up to the regime’s fall). When we got home, Simon discovered that it was written by one Karel Kryl, who had lived in exile for much of the time, but wrote string of folk songs about his homeland. Very sadly, he died only a few years after the Velvet Revolution.
The song is simply called THANKS – and is full of profoundly Christian imagery – and speaks of the extraordinary ability of people standing up for truth and justice to endure suffering and even to find redemption through it.
Karel Kryl – Thanks
Lyrics – translation taken from this fan site
God created, created a branch
So as I could make wreaths
Thanks, Thanks for the pain
That teaches me to question
Thanks, Thanks for the failure
That teaches me to work harder
So that I could bring a gift
Despite my weakness
Thanks, thanks, thanks Thanks
Thanks for the weakness
That teaches me to be humble
To be humble with joy
To be humble without any bondage
Thanks, Thanks for tears
That teach me to be sensitive
To be sensitive for those who suffer
Who suffer and cry out for mercy
Thanks, thanks, thanks
Thanks for the desire for beauty
That gives me something to long for
Thanks for the fact
That love combats spite
For the sweetness
Sweetness of falling asleep
Thanks for the feeling of tiredness
For blazing of fire
For rushing of rivers
Thanks for the thirst
That was revealed by my weakness
Thanks for the torment
That inspires good deeds.
For the fact
That I love
Although my heart is constricted by anxiety
Lamb, Thank you
You did not die in vain.
Thanks, thanks, thanks
Very powerful – not least because of the images juxtaposed with it in the museum.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering, as we left the museum, what would have happened had the Cold War ended very differently? What if it had been the West that collapsed? What would a Museum of Capitalism then have looked like?
While I definitely prefer to live in a democratic and capitalist society (no surprises there), and think there are certain aspects of it that are clearly better than communism, it is by no stretch of the imagination perfect – not least because it is equally constructed on the flimsy, flawed foundations of modernity. I fear there would easily be enough material to prove capitalist complicity in iniquity…