I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
This is one of my favourite short, and true, stories. It comes from the pen of the wondrous Douglas Adams, he of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. It needs little explanation or introduction. But it is the perfect illustration of all kinds of self-delusions and self-righteousness. Read more
C. S. Lewis was a great burster of pride’s balloons. His Screwtape Letters are a masterful model in how to do that. But he was only able to take aim with such accuracy that because he had come face to face with his own pride. And these two poems illustrate that perfectly. They take seriously the distorting effects of our own self-centredness, which warp our perception of reality and God, even when we pray. Read more
I sometimes wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far. People are too quick to reduce societies to guilt- or shame-cultures, on the convenient premise that both concepts are relative and subjective. Thus we can evolve beyond such antediluvian notions. However, while it’s true that in western Protestantism we spend a great deal of time facing up to the realities of guilt (and rightly so, where it is genuine rather than subjective or self-imagined), what of shame? We can’t hide behind not being a shame-culture. Read more
It’s easy to forget the psychobabble jargon that is now so part of everyday parlance had its origins in serious academic discourse. It’s pretty obvious when you stop to think about it, because all terms, metaphors and concepts must have their origins somewhere. It only takes a few decades or even years before what starts confined to the lecture room ends up on the street (whether the discipline be philosophy, theology, or psychology). What is scary is how many of the psychological assumptions that we take for granted today are built on such flimsy foundations. That is the main thrust of the first half of Glynn Harrison‘s important new book, The Big Ego Trip. Read more
Tom Wright wrote a bit of a blinder in the Guardian last week on the media’s apparent hypocrisy about hypocrisy – and he made some fair points. It certainly chimed with me at a number of levels, and I could certainly feel a post brewing. Jennie Pollock, however, gave a very thoughtful riposte on her blog, simply pointing out that church and media are not on a level playing field – the Church has an obligation to the Spirit to produce His fruit. She’s onto something there; I’m pretty sure she’s right to challenge Wright.
We’ve all had that frustration of suddenly realising the mot juste to clinch an argument … long after it has been lost and forgotten. ‘If only I’d thought of saying …’ or words to that effect. (And as Don Carson once pointed out, we never lose arguments during their mental rerun.) Well, this is essential what Chris Russell has done in his Ten Letters: to be delivered in the event of my death (DLT, 2012). Though I’m being harsh – to reduce this extraordinary book to argument-clinching zingers after the event is very unfair. These letters are more like deep pastoral meditations after encounters, events, conversations which subsequently required extended reflection and heart-searching
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
I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
It’s not every day that you find a newspaper column quoting Calvin, C S Lewis and G K Chesterton without odium or censure. But that is exactly what happened in a New York Times Op. Ed. on Monday. It’s even more surprising when you realise that its writer is a Jewish American social commentator, David Brooks. He is a thoughtful writer who seems genuinely concerned to understand what makes people tick, without prejudice or name-calling. Some will only know him for the fact that he was the one who wrote the piece on John Stott back in 2004 (which was arguably the principle catalyst for him becoming one of the 2005 Time 100). Read more
When a fellow-scientist brands Richard Dawkins naïve you sit up and notice. But that’s exactly what Emanuel Derman has done. I didn’t know anything about Derman before, but it seems that he has rather an intimidating CV: he is a theoretical physicist, economist AND successful businessman originally from South Africa. All of which gives him a rather unique angle on a topic to which I’ve frequently returned on Q: the nature of being human (e.g.see Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace or the Nothing Buttery Rant). Read more
Last month’s Wired UK Carried a host of mini-articles by various techie, business gurus and Apple groupies about the phenomenon that is Steve Jobs. One of the standouts though was Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, an account of his address at Stanford University in 2005. Read more
Most of the exhibition is bathed in unobtrusive but artful lighting. But then one is led down a dark passage into a pitch-black space, with minimal, if any, lighting. In fact there are a number of rooms like this in the exhibition. But two in particular blew us away. We were at the Tate Britain over the weekend – primarily to see the fabulous Watercolour exhibition (HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance). But we then popped upstairs to the Susan Hiller retrospective. Definitely a mixed bag – but the highlights made the entire Tate visit worthwhile.
Susan Hiller is an American artist who has been working in the UK for years. Her output is immensely diverse – from installations to collections to experiments with colour, video and sound. The two installations which stood out though were the rooms entitled WITNESS and THE J. STREET PROJECT. Read more
It was all so predictable. I suppose the only surprise is that it took 14 years to manifest itself. But it seems that the idyllic, picket-fence world of Disney’s ‘perfect’ town, Celebration, is just a facade, as reports on Saturday told of murder and suicide within this corporate utopia. Every detail of the town was planned, owned, controlled by Disney. They presumably hoped that they could purvey their own branded style of happiness. But they couldn’t control the activities and passions of their residents.
I remember first hearing of it years ago when I first read Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo – and she really went to town on this fabricated town, seeing it in many ways, rightly, as indicative of the most sinister but logical outcome of any multinational game-plan.
For the families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself (No Logo, p155)
But Mickey’s big ears are never sufficient to mask the human heart. No amount of white picket fences will restrain the antics of those living behind them. We all need something far greater than the ‘perfect’ environment in which to live if harmony and shalom are to be possible.
For, as Philip Yancey quotes in What’s So Amazing About Grace:
After reporting on such moments in church history, Paul Johnson concludes, ‘Attempts to perfect Christian societies in the world, whether conducted by popes or revolutionaries, have tended to degenerate into red terrors.’ This fact should give us pause as voices today call on us to break down the walls between church and state and restore morality to our society. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, ‘The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below.’ (Yancey p234)
So it seems that Celebration is a double whammy – a symbol both of Disney’s profound naiveté about people, and, at the same time, its disturbing ambitions to swallow people up in its corporate machine.
Fritz Kahn was a remarkable man – a scientist, gynaecologist, artist, polymath – and eventually a Jewish refugee to the USA from Nazi Germany. He produced a series of extraordinary images in which he portrayed the human body as a machine.
This is his most celebrated picture, Man as an Industrial Palace (from 1927). Its details are stunning in their intricacy and accuracy. This is a work of true genius. I just love it.
But I’m provoked by it too. For it illustrates, whether intentionally or not (and I don’t know enough about Kahn to say which), a prevailing modernist view that we are skinfulls of chemicals, preprogrammed to perform certain biological functions as the consequence of some overarching but closed evolutionary process. This fits with an enlightenment agenda which Os Guinness brilliantly summed up:
The goal of modernity is ‘to know everything in order to predict everything in order to control everything.’
But the reality is that there are so many things about us that don’t make sense or that don’t fit into our categories. Now, please note. This is not an anti-science rant. Science is a noble quest – seeking to understand and explain. At its best, it is able to perform wonders of healing, and restoration. But is it really simply a matter of time before we understand everything about ourselves? Or are there aspects of our humanity that just don’t fall into scientific categories? Is there not a ghost in the machine?
I suspect that this was something of what Churchill was getting at in a House of Commons speech in 1950:
Man in this moment of his history has emerged in greater supremacy over the forces of nature than has ever been dreamed of before. He has it in his power to solve quite easily the problems of natural power to solve quite easily the problems of natural existence. He has conquered the wild beasts, and he has conquered the insects and the microbes. There lies before him, if he wishes, a golden age of peace and progress. All is in his hand. He has only to conquer his last and worst enemy – himself.
Or as controversial but influential philosopher Martin Heidegger put it:
No age knows so much and so many things about man as does ours and yet no age knows less than ours of what man is.
Enter not the ‘God of the gaps’ but the God of the cosmos - the one ultimate cause and sustainer of every aspect of the universe. As Martin Luther King put it when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:
I refuse to believe the notion that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life… unable to respond to the eternal oughtness that forever confronts him.
This is what underpinned Luther King’s political philosophy – and in fact, being made in God’s image was the backbone of his conviction that we have equal value as human beings, regardless of race, social standing or any other division (as Tim Keller explores in his recent, excellent Generous Justice pp86ff).
But it’s pretty difficult to draw that. It’s also impossible to categorise that in a laboratory-friendly pigeon-hole.
Well, so much for these ramblings. They’re all an excuse to post this phenomenal, recent animation of Kahn’s image. It manages to bring the picture to life brilliantly and faithfully, with some fab sound effects. Enjoy!