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
Again as part of our Uncover apologetics series, I looked at the issue of God and suffering on Sunday (my previous in the series was on the historicity of the gospels). For many, this really is the big one today. Belief in the divine seems palpably absurd in a suffering, chaotic, apparently uncontrollable world of forces, reactions and atoms. Read more
A small group of us is currently reading through Paul E Miller’s The Praying Life this year, just taking a chapter or so a week. Was really challenged by this observation on Psalm 23. Miller makes the simply point that:
Our modern, secular world has removed the Shepherd from Psalm 23. Look what happens to the psalm when you remove the Good Shepherd and everything he does: Read more
As part of a new series to prepare for/coincide with UNCOVER happening at All Souls over this year, I did a talk on Sunday evening on the question of the historicity of the gospels. It’s a contentious issue, full of mantraps and perilousness, not least because of the short length of time available to address it. But I had a stab, and aimed to touch on what I sense are the key issues, in the hope that the serious inquirer or thinker will follow whichever (or all) of them is important to them. Read more
Iain Banks (known as Iain M Banks when he’s writing science fiction) had the most extraordinarily fertile imagination. It was one of the reasons his books have been so loved and respected. His last SF book before he died of cancer in June at only 59 was The Hydrogen Sonata, in his Culture series. I’d not read any of his books before but was very struck by the way people talked about him over the summer, and so decided to make amends. Well, I certainly dived into the deep end.
I can’t remember who told me about these, but they’re fab. The Open University Religious Studies is obviously plugging its wares – but fair enough. The results are wonderful and very useable in all kinds of places I suspect – wryly humoured animation with the added bonus is the wonderfully-suited satirical voice of David Mitchell. Read more
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.
I hated this book. I can’t even remember who suggested it or exactly why (it must have been something to do with the work I’m doing on our culture of suspicion and alienation) – but that’s probably just as well! Michel Houellebecq’s ATOMISED came out in France in 1999, and then in English translation in 2000: and caused uproar, scorn and derision, as well as some literary plaudits and admirers. 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.
I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact. Read more
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
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
Having been dreaming, scheming and working on this little project for months with a couple of friends (the illustrious Tim Plyming and the multi-talented radio producer John Sugar), it is with great excitement that we can now announce the release of this new 30 minute radio-documentary style programme: Read more
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
- Martin Bashir is interviewed about his interview of Rob Bell. I was particularly struck by his perception of what C S Lewis called chronological snobbery in contemporary theological debates – whereby those over a certain age (ie 30!) are dismissed out of hand.
- Ian Paul has offered a really helpful response to the BBC1 series Bible’s Buried Secrets
- A wonderful example of doing good to all – let’s hope it works in all senses… Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins.
- And while we’re thinking about him, here’s a nice if brief interview with Francis Collins – quite old now (originally from 2007), but I’ve only just seen it.
- At the other end of of the spectrum, here is a list of the 25 most influential atheists (though quite how you measure influence is anyone’s guess)
- In case you missed it, here is the extraordinary testimony of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated government minister: Read more
Came across this fascinating morsel in a short New Yorker article by David Remnick from the run up to the recent Mikhail Khordorkovsky trial in Moscow. This fallen oligarch, it seems, has taken on the mantle of the dissenter from the Soviet era – not least because he is being pursued by former KGB agents and sent to the gulag. And so some unexpected comparisons have been made with those who genuinely work dissenters. And an archetypal example was Josef Brodsky. The article makes for some pretty chilling reading
In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:
JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.
The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”
Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad.
What struck me most about this is the sheer incompatibility and even clash of their worldviews. The judge who can only see things in institutional or societal terms – ie to be a poet you must be taught or commissioned by the state etc; against this young Jewish poet sees that we are far more than biological machines (see previous post).