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 And it has not gone out of date at all.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
Well, the US presidential election is in its final month at last. Will any of us sleep safely in our beds again?
History has been full of people who have hedged their bets and emulated the venerable Vicar of Bray. And in smaller ways, politicians are doing it all the time. Saying things that don’t actually say too many things in case they be accused of actually saying things they don’t want to be heard actually to be saying. Read more
The presenting issue behind the article was the hysteria whipped up against Obama’s healthcare proposals in the US – something which those of us with ‘socialised’, crypto-communist medicine in the UK find hard to understand. I do realise that many on the US right are no fools, that the British NHS is far from perfect, and that there may well be many good grounds for the position(s) they took. But that’s not my point here. My main concern is how politics (left and right) throughout the West now (has to) operates. This was the object of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker investigation a couple of weeks ago, The Lie Factory. Read more
Mary Eberstadt has a wonderful turn of phrase and an impish wit, which are used to devastating effect in her 2010 book The Loser Letters. She boldly takes on the mantle of C S Lewis’ Screwtape, but instead of infiltrating the murky world of Wormwood’s diabolical apprenticeship, she joins the New Atheists in their quest to crush theism. So she writes 10 open letters, in the persona of A.F.Christian (i.e. ‘a former Christian’), to some of the leading lights of the movement like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. With great relish she writes to advise ‘The Brights’ (atheists) on how better to defeat ‘The Dulls’ (Christians), and above all to undermine belief in ‘The Loser’ (God). At times, the result is laugh-out-loud funny. Read more
This is an update of a talk I gave nearly 15 years ago to some students back in Sheffield. My aim was to help them avoid the classic polar mistakes of either avoiding the intellectual challenges of university or being swamped by them altogether. There are all kinds of other joys, opportunities and challenges when people first go to uni, and so intellectual development is only one aspect of what needs thinking about. But I fear it is often overlooked altogether.
Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto - as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family. Read more
So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. Read more
Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…
I didn’t quite know what to expect having picked this book up in the States last year. I think I assumed it would be something on the lines of a Victorian version of Hustle or the fascinating novel Dizzy City by my old friend Nicholas Griffin (who is certainly NOT to be confused with his odious BNP namesake). You know, a fun, historical romp through true stories of New York hucksters and con-artists.
But it wasn’t quite that at all. In fact, the more I read of this enjoyable, well-written but sometimes awkwardly structured, book, the more I realised it had serious intent. In fact it was sad but unfortunately recognisable in its portrayal of Christianity.
For the focus is of a series of anonymously written articles in the pioneering penny-newspapers of 1835. This became known as The Great Moon Hoax. In time, it became clear that they were the work of English émigré, Richard Adams Locke. But they gripped the whole of New York and were later serialised in many other cities’ papers. He described in great detail the apparent findings of the famous astronomer English Sir John Herschel from his Cape Town Observatory: an entire civilisation of flying man bats and other fantastical creatures living on the moon. People discussed at great length whether or not it could possibly be true. The city was divided.
One thing that few people realised, however, even after Locke came clean, was that he was not seeking to create a hoax – but to write a satire. He was satirising the extraordinary lengths to which some theologians would go in an effort to bend and influence scientific discoveries to their worldview.
So The Sun and The Moon is, in fact, a book about widespread reactions against the Christian gospel and contains a cast of many names well known to those familiar with the period: Edgar Allan Poe, P T Barnum, the Herschel family, even the father of James Gordon Bennett (whom I’d previously only encountered as a mild expletive!). Integrating science and theology is of course a noble and even essential enterprise. But the lengths to which people would go does no credit to either science or theology. Here is one example that especially got under Locke’s skin, taken from a book called Celestial Scenery.
In his letter Locke addressed only a single point from Celestial Scenery, which he believed would be sufficient to illustrate “the serious trespasses of Dr Dick’s theological school of philosophy upon the paramount jurisdiction of physical science”. Thomas Dick had long insisted – the face of substantial evidence to the contrary – that there could be no volcanoes on the moon. Volcanoes, like earthquakes and hurricanes, were evidence of God’s displeasure, and God could be displeased only with sinners; because the lunarians existed in a state of innocence, their landscape would not be blemished with such agents of physical destruction. “Is not this pretty stuff to pass for philosophy,” asked Locke, “and to be presented to our youth as a rule of judgement in determining questions of fact?”
The real world of nature, he pointed out, contains an astonishing multiplicity of functions, and it was the height of arrogance – not to mention pitiable scientific reasoning – to reserve to oneself the right to define certain of them, arbitrarily, as the products of ‘goodness’ or ‘sin’.
The fang of the viper, the claws of the tiger, the tail of the spider, the sing of the wasp, and the beak and talons of the eagle, are as ‘very good’ for their respective purposes, as the milky foundations of the mammalia, or the curious chrysalis of the butterfly… (Moon & Sun, p278)
Unfortunately, by such extreme lengths, the cause of apologetic integration was severely discredited. It demonstrates the need to be very careful about what reductionist assumptions we bring to bear on the discussions. For is it really the case that volcanoes can only be understood as a sign of judgement? Or that lunarians are necessarily innocent? Etc etc etc.
Another of the subplots of the book, sadly, is the inconsistencies of Christians during the Second Great Awakening. Barnum was a fascinating figure, the inventor of the ‘humbug’ which he saw not as a con, but as an entertainment.
As P T Barnum explained in his book on the subject, a humbug “consists in putting on glittering appearances – outside show – novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Superficially, at least, Barnum’s humbug is similar to Edgar Allen Poe’s diddle, as each is a form of hoax. The diddle, however, is carefully designed to preclude any awareness that it has taken place: the grocery story owner does not realize he has been tricked out of his whiskey, or the camp-meeting attendee out of his bridge toll. A humbug, on the other hand, noisily calls attention to itself; it also allows for the possibility of doubt, and requires consent from those who participate in it. The humbug might well turn out to be authentic (many of Barnum’s attractions were just what they were advertised as being), but whether it is true or false, the customers must depart believing they have gotten their money’s worth. A promoter who fails to provide his customers what Barnum called a “full equivalent for their money” will be denounced as a swindler and a fraud, while one who delivers a proper humbug will find his customers coming again and again – the first time because they believe his attraction is authentic, the second time because they are not sure, and the third time to figure out how the trick has been pulled off. The entertainment lies in the nature of the attraction (although as Barnum pointed out, a certain amount of ‘glitter’ is essential) than in the implicit competition between patron and promoter, each one seeking to outwit the other in a game of deception. (p263)
But one of his key influences was the small-town Christianity of his childhood, one which he resolutely rejected in adulthood. And he had many of his ideas from the cons pulled off by Christians – in contrast to whom, he liked to think, he had seized the moral high ground. This is a simple illustration of this:
Barnum loved to tell the story of a grocer who doubled as the deacon at the town’s church. One morning, before breakfast, he called down to his clerk:
“John, have you watered the rum?”
“And sanded the sugar?”
“And dusted the pepper?”
“And chicoried the coffee?”
“Then come up to prayers.” (p103)
I enjoyed the book as it brought to life the streets of early Victorian New York in a remarkable way. But I was also challenged afresh: for the acute need for both rigour in our apologetic and integrity in our living. And there, but for the grace, go I…
I think if I were not a Christian, I’d be an existentialist of some description. It’s not just the attraction of sitting and chilling in French cafés, sipping espressos and smoking Gitanes, putting the world to rights. It’s just that I see little alternative – it is the only logical, honest conclusion to draw.
I remember having to read Albert Camus’ L’Etranger for French A Level at school – and being pretty nonplussed by it – but not totally put off either. It is a truly fascinating book. Bizarrely enough, I only came back to it and took it more seriously after hearing the The Cure’s 1978 classic ‘Killing an Arab‘. Those who didn’t know it’s inspiration were scandalised – the title itself is pretty provocative. But that’s completely to miss the point. It is a spare, harsh but brilliant evocation of the book’s Algerian setting. And I’ve found the book disturbingly beguiling since.
So it was with considerable interest that I read Rob Moll’s brief testimony in last month’s Christianity Today, intriguingly entitled on Saved by an Atheist. Read the whole thing. But here are a few gems:
Christians gave Albert Camus good reasons not to believe. He gave me a reason to return to faith.
In discussing Camus’ novel, The Plague, and the scene where the protagonist Rieux discovers he is in as much difficulty as everyone else. He too has ‘the plague’.
It was this scene that struck me most forcefully. Camus was right, I knew, and I too, had plague. I was sick and in need of a Physician. Camus’ willingness to accept the truth that human beings are fallen allowed me to do the same. Camus held a mirror to my face – in a way that no pastor, preacher, or professor had – and I knew I needed salvation.
Then in discussing why people turn to atheism, there is this pointed observation:
Most of my wandering friends, like me, seem to have returned to Christ. But I’ve found that a surprising number who had fully accepted the faith have now left it. Each tended to have had some experience in which Christian leaders acted as hypocritical, power-hungry, judgemental, or arrogant elites. For some, the church’s inability to shepherd during a painful period led directly to rejecting God. “If God isn’t there when I need him”, they say, “I don’t need him.”.
So he ends with this crucial advice:
But before we begin dueling on blogs and arming ourselves with television talking points, let’s learn to see atheists not as deniers of God, but as wrestlers with him. And let’s remember that their deepest arguments against belief are the people they’re arguing with.
A fair point indeed.
This is quite simply the strangest, most provocative, beguiling and fascinating book I’ve read in a long time. In fact, EVER. SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives does exactly what it claims. It’s about death – and what happens after death. In just 100 pages, we’re offered 40 versions – parallel universes, parallel narratives, parallel afterlives. It has the wit and deep ingenuity of a Douglas Adams (every now and then, I was reminded of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe), a relentless logic and above all a fearless creativity. It is certainly not derivative (even if the odd one of these tales evokes some sort of precedent) and crams an extraordinary diversity into a very small space. A bit like the Tardis I suppose. It’s captured the imagination of countless people – and perhaps inevitably, when Stephen Fry twittered approvingly, amazon sales went through the roof (and as a direct result, Radio 4′s Today programme did a piece on it).
David Eagleman is an American neuroscientist who studied literature as an undergraduate. A powerful and unusual combination – I guess that makes him a scientist who is as articulate with words as he is with equations (which you don’t find very often in my limited experience). He crashes up against the walls of human creativity and imagination – and that’s one of the most fascinating things about. Because in the end, it seems that one of his principle reasons for cynicism about orthodox convictions about eternity is that it is impossible to imagine.
Anyway, read it! I thoroughly recommend it if you’re after something short but mind-bogglingly mind-bending.
If you want a bit more of an in-depth reflection, then check out the article I’ve just written for Damaris:
We are always quick to make categorical statements. And it is always frustrating to be forced to realise how provisional our knowledge is – despite the everyday idioms that suggest otherwise. How often do we speak of the “foreseeable future”, for example? The future NEVER is! Not for finite and flawed human beings at least. That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating, though.
Incidentally, just count the number of categorical statements made even in this short post to see how irresistible they are…