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Posts from the ‘political correctness’ Category

17
Jun
Václav Havel (Chris Niedenthal/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Václav Havel’s 1978 warning to the West

I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).

This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more »

3
Jun
George Orwell at the BBC

Let the meaning choose the word: Orwell on political language

It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more »

5
May
Toffs Toughs 1937 - border

Je Recuse! Privilege’s curse & why you should stop reading this blog (probably)

I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more »

2
May
Shiny_stop_sign wide

Nothing Buttery: a Reductionism Rant

Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more »

16
Feb

A plague on both their houses? Carl Trueman’s polemic Republocrat

I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).

Mercutio strikes again?

In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.

I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)

Whose side is he on?

The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.

But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.

So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.

The problems at both ends

Because he is no partisan, he is able to spot ironies and blind spots, and doesn’t pull punches in exposing them. Here is one fascinating example:

The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)

This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.

Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).

It’s secularism – but not as we have it

One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)

Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)

This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.

It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect

Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):

  • Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
  • Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
  • What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
  • The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
  • The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)

In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:

Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)

Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…

American in focus, but British in relevance

I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).

And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says

we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)

21
Oct

The gauntlet laid by Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

Keller at DG 2006 by Sola Lumina Captura

So having been motivated by the biblical appeal to action in Keller’s Generous Justice (see previous post), what’s the difference? It would hardly be right to leave us as armchair activists with an impetus to think but not act.

The political tightrope

Speaking as a transatlantic observer, it seems to me that one of the acute problems for American Christians when talking about matters political or social is that hearers are constantly trying to identify tell-tale signs of partisan politics. These quickly become a weapon to justify ignoring a case or to add it to your name-checks of supporters. And meanwhile the importance of the issues at stake gets lost.

Keller does not give hostages to fortune. There’s no way that either Republicans or Democrats can claim him as their own – which is entirely as it should be – he finds biblical grounds for challenges and affirmations to both.

Take, for example, the rather fundamental discussion of what justice is:

But underneath all the name calling are sharp differences of opinion about what justice actually is. Democrats think of it in more collective terms. They believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination. Republicans think of justice more individualistically. They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due who have risked much and worked hard to keep what they earn.

… The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on. So we just use it as a bludgeon.  We self-righteously imply that those on the other side know they are simply being unjust. But they don’t. (p150)

Or then there is this discussion of families trapped poverty:

Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault. It is due to a failure of moral character and the breakdown of the family. Liberals, however, see it as a failure of the government system to stem systemic racism and to change unjust social structures. But nobody says that it is the children’s fault they were born where they were. Those children are in poverty largely because they were not born into a family like mine. My three sons, just by being born where they were, have a far better chance to have a flourishing, happy life in society. There is an inequitable distribution of goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice. (p92)

But as mentioned in the last post, it is gospel grace that transforms social attitudes, and thus it supersedes political creeds or loyalties. Here are 3 striking quotations which show how this happens…

In Christ we receive grace, unmerited favour. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice. (p49)
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating towards the materially poor. (p102)
I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up. (p107)

And he goes on to illustrate precisely how this works with an extended quotation from a sermon by nineteenth century pastor and Keller hero Murray M’Cheyne. (p107 ff)

There should be no poor among you…

As can then be appreciated, how to help bring about justice for the marginalised and trapped is going to be very complex. After all, the ideologies of left and right have evolved over decades of thought and experience – and complexity simply begets more complexity. But Keller’s point is that the Bible’s analysis of poverty and injustice is far from simplistic – it’s much more nuanced than many give it credit for. Drawing on commentators like Chris Wright, for example, (and especially his excellent commentary on Deuteronomy), Keller explains how the Bible understands both poverty’s causes and appropriate responses. A key passage is Deuteronomy 15 (one which i was challenged to revisit with further study) as well as a number of others, which together offer 4 provisions for those trapped in poverty (p26 ff):

  • Release from debts
  • Provision for gleaning (i.e. leaving some food by not harvesting the edge of fields): ‘gleaning was not … what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence’ (p26)
  • Tithing for the poor every third year.
  • The Year of Jubilee

Thus…

If we combine the requirements of radical generosity with the regulations on profit-taking and property use, we are not surprised that God could say, ‘there should be no poor among you.’ This does not mean that people would not continue to fall into poverty. But if Israel as an entire society had kept God’s laws perfectly with all their hearts, there would have been no permanent, long-term poverty. (p28)

But the bible is not naïve about how poverty arises. And Keller’s analysis is all the more striking because he approaches it all from a theological background more commonly associated with the Christian right.

The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on these texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors. (p38)

So what to do…

This book gave me one of those lightbulb moments at the point where he ingeniously imagined a Good Samaritan follow-up.

Imagine a sequel to the Good Samaritan parable. The months go by and every time he makes his trip from Jerusalem  to Jericho he finds another man in the road, beaten and robbed. Finally the Samaritan says, ‘How do we stop the violence?’

The answer to that question would be some kind of social reform – instituting a new social arrangement that stops the flow of victims because of a change of social conditions. (p126)

And thus, every problem is part of a wider context – what he calls a ‘matrix of causes’ (p33). Which is why it needs a matrix of responses. He articulates 3 levels of support – relief, development and reform. Here he draws on the famous theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper and his distinction between the institutional and organic church (the latter being the impact of individual Christians going about their business in the world).

I believe Kuyper is generally right. We have spoken of different ‘levels’ of ministry to the poor – relief, development and reform. As we have said, churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighbourhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelising. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the ‘organic’ church should be doing development and social reform. (p145)

The book does give examples of transformational work happening through churches and individuals. And as an avid devotee of The Wire (having devoured all 5 seasons in with equal measures of horror and rapt amazement!), I was hugely encouraged to hear of the work of New Song Urban Ministries in Sandtown Baltimore (started up by his friend Mark Gornik). Here all these levels are being worked out.

But, that’s definitely quite enough for now! Read the book – he says it all much more fluently and coherently. His case is cogent and hard to dismiss.

Finally, for those who think our only responsibility is to help fellow believers, there’s this resounding battle cry. Ignore it your peril:

However, the Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: ‘Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.’ Helping ‘all people’ is not optional, it is a command. (p61)

5
May

11th Hour aid for floating voters: Steve Turner’s Left Right

In a crisis, I find that Steve Turner can usually be relied upon to come up with something useful or constructive. And in this week full of talk of the spectres of hung parliaments and tactical voting, this poem seemed just the ticket. Hope it helps if you’re stuck…

LEFT RIGHT by Steve Turner

Left right Left right
Left right Left right

I was getting worried
Couldn’t sleep at night
‘Cos I didn’t quite know
If I was left or right
So feel my leanings
Test my views
Check my reactions
to the Ten o’Clock News

Should I buy the Mirror
Or should I buy the Sun
The Times Literary
Or the Guardian
Will I be a fascist
If I use the police
Or will I be a commie
If I march for peace?
Who is it I follow
If I’m down on pron
Begin a Foetus Lib
For the not yet born?

So feel my leanings
Test my views
Check my reactions
to the Ten o’Clock News
Am I middle class
Or am I alright
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Get me tested
Am I left or right?

Send me all the questions
Mail me all the forms
Fix me up a blood test
Tell me all the rules
I’ve got to know now
Put my mind at rest
Am I of the right
Or am I communist?
Please make me something
I’ve been nothing too long
I need to find out
If I’m left or wrong.

Watch my language
Hear my views
Check my reactions
To the Six o’Clock News
Am I working class
And am I alright
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Get me tested
Am I left or right?

4
May

The Mace: Losing it is NOT the end of the world!

The mace (left) is the symbol of the Sovereign’s power – and in Parliament, it represents her delegated authority. When the Commons is in session, it sits on the table just in front of the Government and Opposition despatch boxes. Without its presence, parliamentary activity is invalid and even illegal. For any Government in this country will always only be (while the monarchy remains) His or Her Majesty’s Government.

But these are of course just constitutional niceties. As everyone knows, power (real and moral) lies in the hands of elected representatives. The presence of the mace could therefore symbolise the power delegated by voters in a way, which means that the government of the day has a mandate legislate and govern. And I do actually believe that politicians can make a difference for good or ill, and that they are not universally on the make or entirely self-serving (despite what has happened in the last, so-called ‘Rotten Parliament‘).

Yet we mustn’t be naïve or unrealistic. Who knows exactly what the situation will be come Friday. Hung Parliament most likely – though there are still so many undecideds in the marginals that there could possibly be a slim Tory majority. Who knows? Whatever happens, the situation will be different from how it has been for the last 5 years.

But it has been depressing to see how vitriolic and vindictive many have been, whether about a Tory return to power or about the record of Labour’s last 13 years… and I’m actually talking about Christians here (in their tweets, blogs and conversations). I certainly have my views on that, and they are reasonably strong. But I just wonder what the sense of desperation by some on all sides says about us.

It reminded me of some of the things Tim Keller wrote in his superb Counterfeit Gods about the idolatry of political power – and it is worth quoting at length (bearing in mind that he is obviously talking about the US situation).

One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on  the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!”

This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admin how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.
Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election [i.e. 2008 election which Obama won], my  eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?

Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizaes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of soemthing that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:

The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior.

This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.

(Counterfeit Gods, pp98-101)

Now I’m by no means qualified to assess whether or not the philosophical precis given in the quotation from Wolters are valid – but the key point surely still stands up. And we would all do well to remember this on Friday morning…

26
Jan

Avatar hoo-haa – a sledgehammer to crack Pandora’s box

When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).

Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!

  • The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
  • Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.

But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:

  • ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
    • crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
    • military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
    • determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
    • feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
  • derivative plot
  • ham-fisted moralising.

In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point

  • Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
  • Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!

Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.

So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).

And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…

6
May

Defending the indefensible? A private school education!

There’s been a lot of talk about this. Far too much, I’d say. So it is no longer really news at all – but guess what everybody: David Cameron and London’s new mayor Boris Johnson went to a private school (HT to Cranmer for the awesome pic of City Hall below). In fact, they went to ETON. And then, they both went to Oxford University. Which means that they are both by definition, de facto, de iure, de novo (and presumably also de niro and de rigueur) TOFFS. And never trust a toff. With anything. Ever.

A Toff’s Perspective

Now for the sake of transparency, I feel the need to be quite open (in fact, in the present climate, one might even say that ‘admit’ is the only appropriate term here) about this. I don’t normally indulge in getting all autobiographical on this blog (well, not that much) but it can’t be denied: I went to a posh prep school, I went to Eton, and I went to Oxford as an undergraduate; what’s more (thus nailing coffins finally and fully) I actually went to a vicar factory in Cambridge. How about that? Toff, toff, toff!

Now to give myself my due, I like to think that since then, I have followed anything but the standard career path for toffs. I know that a few years back it was fairly much standard operating procedure for a large proportion of OE’s to get ordained in the Church of England (once known, but hardly any longer, as the Tory party at prayer); but it is certainly not the case anymore. I went to an OE year-reunion the other day (with some degree of fear and trepidation, I should add), and I’m pretty sure that I was the only vicar present. But still, I got ordained and spent a number of very happy years in a church in Sheffield (see various posts); then a few years teaching in a Ugandan-founded theological college in Kampala, in Uganda, and now for the last few years at All Souls. I suppose the latter is a bit posh because it does mean we get to live in Marylebone – but the All Souls congregation is more a reflection of the crazy diversity of the whole of London than of its Marylebone location.

So – what’s the point of saying all this? Well because I simply want to ask, “what’s the point of saying all this?” Is it really relevant where someone went to school? Wasn’t it ironic that during Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrats were led by Paddy Ashdown and the Tories by William Hague – meaning that the only party led by a state school product was the Conservatives (and Hague took over from fellow-comprehensive product, John Major). I would suggest that what is going on is another, even subtler form of Bulverism (see post on 13th April). Surely what matters far more in a leader is their character, integrity, creativity, intelligence and inter-personal skills. Whether Boris or Cameron have these is simply another question.

Some may say that there is still the old-school-tie at work in appointments etc – and this is no doubt true. But isn’t life always like this – everyone tends to trust those they’ve known for a long time (loyalty, track records etc) – isn’t that how Teams Blair and Brown have worked for the last decade? Please note – I’m not condoning an oppressive jobs-for-the-boys culture – but it seems that a private education is a red rag to certain bulls.

An Historical Perspective

But i think there are some points to make which might give it some perspective. Having done quite a bit of teaching in recent years about how western thinking has shifted over the last 1000 years, it has struck me that one of the key factors has been the fact that different ‘classes’ or ‘society groupings’ have all had their go at power. Gross over-simplifications these, but hopefully you’ll get the idea:

  • PRE-MODERNMONARCHY & ARISTOCRACY: From before the Middle Ages, it was very much the Monarch at the head of the feudal pyramid. This got challenged at various points – eg Magna Carta – where a number of barons felt the need to curtail the king’s power. But this was hardly the outbreak of democracy that it is sometimes presented as. Sure it was sowing some seeds – but the bottom line across Europe was the the king and aristocracy (ie the landowners) held all the political cards.
  • EARLY MODERN – THE MIDDLE CLASSES: the old order (ancien régime) crumbled for a myriad of reasons – the growth in trade and thus wealth, the dissemination of learning beyond the monastery walls (through printing etc), the growth in nationalism and anti-clericalism etc etc. Far too complex to outline here – but the European middle classes had arrived. The culmination after years of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment was of course Revolution – in America and France. And the middle classes wanted their own bite of the cherry. For despite the idealism of these revolutions, and perhaps partly in response to the extremes of violence, they never succeeded in spreading the ideals of liberty beyond the bourgeoisie. Hence the force of Marx & Engels…
  • LATE MODERN – THE WORKERS: the French Revolution wasn’t the only revolution to leave many victims sprawled in its wake. The Industrial Revolution made the middle classes richer – but the working classes far worse off. The horrors were touched on by the likes of Dickens and later Karl Marx. Why should the workers do all this for no gain? Why indeed. What was clearly needed was to take 1789 further – and of course that is precisely what Lenin/Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot all did. Let the people govern the people.

Well, now everyone has actually had a go. And everyone has messed up BIG TIME at some point. No wonder postmodernists have despaired of political change altogether. It is no accident that some of the key French postmodernist thinkers started out (more or less) as Marxists but soon abandoned the faith (eg Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard). Who can be trusted with power? Every group is bound to oppress another at some point (aristos oppressing the workers, middle class executing the aristos and exploiting the workers; workers oppressing the aristos and bourgeois etc etc). No wonder some have opted out altogether today. Why get involved?

Now, I’m not advocating that. But surely on the basis of this contemporary logic, one could actually reject anyone because of their background (be it, posh, middle class or street)? Which is of course pointless and even ridiculous.

A Christian Perspective

But what of a Christian perspective on all this? A few random thoughts.

  • Any sense of superiority over others is completely out of order for the Christian. The Cross forces us to face God on a level playing field. So racism and classism is not on. To be sure, there are definitely REAL class and race concerns in the British church, as there are in British society at large. We should never be naive or complacent about this. And we should do all we can to root them out – corporately and individually. We should never allow our heritage or pedigree to be a source of superior pride – after all, that’s precisely what the apostle Paul rejected in Philippians 3 (and his pedigree had the added bonus of having profound theological significance).
  • But we must also beware its opposite: what you might call inverted classism or inverted snobbery – and I fear that this is what is going on today. Which is why the renowned Selena, Countess of Huntingdon would say after her conversion through the 18th Century preacher George Whitefield, that she was “saved by the letter ‘M'” – because 1 Corinthians 1:26, where Paul says Brothers, hink of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. In other words, Paul doesn’t say ‘not ANY’ but ‘not MANY’
  • On a wider note, therefore, none of us is a slave of our past – whatever it might contain (albeit, addictions, criminal records, mistakes, education, opportunities, privilege). Isn’t that one of the great wonders of the gospel? There is always hope for change. What’s more, whatever one’s political hue, how can anyone be held responsible for decisions taken by their parents?
  • As Jesus said, From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48). I suppose you could say that this was the origin of noblesse oblige!?! But I am not suggesting that to have a private education necessarily makes one more or less privileged spiritually – in some ways it can innoculate poeple against thinking they will ever need the gospel. But still, whatever we are given, we are all responsible to God to use it for his glory – education or not.
  • Finally, it is sadly necessary to add that how one educates one’s own children can become a divisive issue in churches – with the result that cliques can grow up around those who educate their children privately, through state schools or through home schooling. It may start with simple pragmatics and logistics (eg differences in half term or holiday dates) – but we should work to overcome these divisions.

So there – end of spleen vent. I should end by saying that – No – they don’t still wear top hats at Eton – though the school uniform is, bizarrely enough, the result of the school still being in morning for a dead monarch, several centuries on.

1
Sep

smoking warnings – and the missing moral vacuum.

There was news this week that cigarette packets (from October 2008) will have to carry shocking pictures on top of their current glaring warnings to alert people to smoking’s risks. Apparently Canada and Brazil have already started doing this (and in Canada, 15% people have been deterred from a cigarette by these sort of images). Some of the UK ones really are very gruesome indeed – and these are not the worst:

This is the short sharp shock philosophy of public health – but still, we know that the hardiest of smokers will get inured to them quickly enough. Of course these images will invite criticism and satire. Rather like the last time the UK warnings were ratcheted up in 2003, when these spoof warnings on cigarette packets were produced (right).

But I suspect that all this reflects what you might call a cultural amnesia about the future (if i can put it like that). Many of us live in denial about the consequences of our actions, and do what we can to avoid thinking about inevitabilities and causes/effects (eg the prevalence of anti-aging potions & lotions). Now i speak as someone who has enjoyed the odd drag every now and then and so know it from first hand experience. We choose to ignore future realities for the sake of immediate gratification – the credit card culture, of buy now, pay later.

So my hunch is that anything which shakes us out of our willful ignorance or culpable amnesia is no bad thing. It’s just that i can’t help seeing the principle applied elsewhere. Of course, this will draw accusations of busybodiness, nanny state, noseyness etc And it is certainly profoundly politically incorrect to mention such things. But how about the areas no politician would DARE speak of and yet have just as significant and devastating an effect on society as smoking (since one of the reasons, surely, for the smoking ban having been so politically expedient is the fact that lung cancer and related diseases cost the NHS millions).

  • tears1.jpgWhat about the extra-marital affairs that lead to separations and divorce? Can you imagine a photograph of miserable children and spouse being displayed on the mirror in the hotel room every time it is reserved for the proverbial naughty weekend? Politicians are having to face up to the fact that family breakdown simply IS a key ingredient in the lethal social cocktails that lead to youth gang culture. And then take the profound impact on the economy (if you have to bring that up), not to mention the housing crisis in southern England (in large part caused by the need to house broken families etc). Now of course, marriages break up for a host of reasons, and I’m certainly not wanting to get on my high horse about it. I simply wish people considered the cruel consequences of their instant gratifications a little bit more.

  • Or take malicious gossip (of course, this is hardly the realm of legislation but think of its devastating effects). Careers are ruined, families wrecked, communities riven. If people had some inkling of what would happen if such and such was said, don’t you think they’d think again? So how about the mandated appearance of holographic images of those being gossiped about?

  • Or take this devastating account that i read in the paper this week, written by a father and husband who beat up his wife one fateful evening and found his whole life implode. “I have wrecked my marriage, lost a woman I once loved, lost my children, and lost my standing in the community”. If only he’d had a little messenger on his shoulder whispering what would result from his actions. He doesn’t defend what he did, nor can he – he merely rues the day, and to reading his article, my heart goes out to him.

But then of course isn’t that precisely one of the things that the Bible does so effectively? For biblical ethics is supremely an issue of seeking to live in the best way, because the alternatives have such terrible consequences. The Bible assumes that the universe is wired up in such a way as to mean that all actions always have consequences – which is surely our experience of reality. For there really is no such thing as a moral vacuum, whether it be on the macro, social or individual levels.

21
Apr

a worthy concern for our sensibilities – British Airways removes Branson

It’s not every day that multinational corporations really do go the second mile in showing genuine concern for their customers’ psychological welfare. I have always assumed (call me a cynic) that there is some hidden agenda or ugly commercial motive behind any public action. But British Airways appear to have bucked the trend. They genuinely endeavour to take great care over what movies get shown in-flight, and, what’s more, over editing what they do show.

A BA spokesman confirmed that changes had been made to Casino Royale. “All films are screened… we want to ensure they contain no material that might upset our customers.

Marvelous – all well and good. And i must say that, great fan though I am of Casino Royale Read more »

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