Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. Read more
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
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
I’d been vaguely aware of these from a while back, but had never looked carefully at them. It wasn’t until they were used as running gags in last week’s New Yorker money edition that I sat up and noticed. Dan Tague has created a series of prints in 2008 of dollar bills folded in such a way as to reveal all kinds of subversions of American capitalism and western materialism. There is something rather delicious about making a dollar spell out ‘American Idol’ or an American revolution battle cry, or the best advice of the contemporary conspiracy theorist.
Ingenious Read more
There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem. Read more
One of the most moving films of recent years has been Into the Wild (dir by Sean Penn). Here are some clips backing the version of Jerry Hannan‘s song Society, sung by Eddie Vedder (who did the whole soundtrack). The song has a bewitching melancholy – but also carries a prophetic voice about the absurdities of western materialism. The film is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young graduate who turned his back on it all, by fleeing into the wonders and brutalities of the Alaskan wilderness.
The film’s agony is that McCandless thought he could be free from a materialistic society by escaping society altogether – only to discover (too late, tragically) that what he desperately needed was not the absence of society, but the reality of a truly redeemed society.
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.
For those who’ve not discovered her stuff, my sis-in-law, Miriam Jones‘ latest album (Fire-Lives) is a treat and a great way in to her music. Have listened to it loads in the last couple of weeks but it now comes out on general release this week – she and Jez and the guys have done a fabulous job on producing an intense, multi-layered and fascinating anthology. This album sampler hints at its joys…
But the single, Wondrous Mysterious (now available from iTunes), is one she gave last year as a ‘Christmas card’. I’ve loved it from the get-go – it’s a superb antidote to the grimly commercialised, schmaltzy, trimmings-laden but emasculated Christmas that we get bombarded with from around August 23rd.
I turned on the tv and it suddenly was Christmas and I hollered at the advert that they wouldn’t get my money and I could not believe they honestly were trying to take my heart for Christmas. The airwaves jammed with snowmen and with santa claus and angels, and I do believe in angels, but not the kind that do not scare you and I prayed some kind of holy fear would find its way to me this Christmas.
‘Cause my heart is dying to prepare for something wondrous, and mysterious, but this world is ringing in my ears and it’s thunderous and delirious.
I walked into town and it was red and gold and sparkling and while I waited for my watch I hovered round the shiny shops, oh you who have no money come and buy, and fill your hearts full up this Christmas. Steering down the sidewalk I could hear a conversation ‘bout a boy who had a head they’d like to push under a faucet and I wondered are we saving up all our loving hearts for Christmas.
Part way through December I pulled out the wooden figures from their boxes and I placed them and I looked into their faces, wondering what they all were looking at…
The lyrics are evocative and concise, full of suggestion. But my standout that I particularly love is line about not believing in ‘the kind of angels that do not scare you‘. A hole in one methinks…
While working on something else, I was glancing through some old notes I’d taken on various books, and retrieved this brilliantly incisive description of the way the western culture of capitalism makes us conform, in Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo (recently updated for its 10th Anniversary).
This was written in 1999, but we appear not to have moved on that much…
The Kinko’s, Starbucks and Blockbusters buy their uniform of khakis and white or blue shirts at the Gap; the ‘Hi! Welcome to Gap!’ greeting cheer is fuelled by Starbucks double espressos; the resumes that got them the jobs were designed at Kinko’s on friendly Macs, in 12-point Helvetica on Microsoft Word. The troops show up for work smelling of CK One (except at Starbucks, where colognes and perfumes are thought to compete with the ‘romance of coffee’ aroma), their faces freshly scrubbed with Body Shop Blue Corn Mask, before leaving apartments furnished with Ikea self-assembled bookcases and coffee tables.
Naomi Klein, No Logo, p131
The irony, it seems to me, is that it results in a uniformity every bit as powerful as that which communism attempted to impose… with one essential, but subtle, distinction. We actually choose this conformity under the illusion that we are autonomous.
So yet again (a theme I return to repeatedly on Q), Communism and Capitalism are merely different manifestations of the same dehumanising, modernist worldview.
Every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. And recently, I’ve found this happen more and more with contemporary Chinese artists. Q regulars may remember the powerful impact of Xu Bing’s work with his meaningless words. Well here’s another…
As this picture above illustrates, Chinese classical art is world-renowned for its stunning landscape painting (especially for the ways that the natural world is evoked by the slightest of brushstrokes).
But check this out.
Here are a few variations on the theme by the remarkable artist, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang. At first sight, they seem to follow closely the path and styles of the old masters. But look closer – and you see that all is not as it first seems – for a start, they’re actually produced on an inkjet printer. Then he’s presented an incredibly powerful subversion of the style, as a way of exposing the way that aggressive capitalism and environmental exploitation have destroyed so much of the uniquely beautiful Chinese landscape.
No wonder that they have been appropriated by the China Environment Protection Foundation. No idea who or what they’re like, but i sure hope they’re able to stop at least some of the insanity.
Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang
I knew nothing previously about Antal Szerb (a Hungarian who was a brilliant literature professor, but who tragically ended up beaten to death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945) nor the book and only picked it up on the off-chance during a random bookshop browse – and what a find! It was a great holiday read – and if you’re after something light but not vacuous, refreshingly escapist but in a far from irrelevant way – this is it.
Having been unknown to English readers until as recently as 2007 (first published in Hungarian in 1942), Oliver VII is a beautifully written and perfectly paced novel, wonderfully capturing the atmosphere of middle europe with its interwar ancien regimes now dimly and distantly lost.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of Sandoval, a painter, as he takes the role of bit-part player and fixer in the political chaos of his country. The focus of his (and our) attention is the young, eponymous king of a fictitious central European country (Alturia). He feels constrained by the unreality and sycophancy of his world, as well as the obvious fact his country is facing such a major economic crisis (whose only solution appears to come in the form of a foreign venture capitalist who wants to buy the country! all very contemporary…) – so plots a coup d’etat against himself and disappears to Venice where he ends up with a bunch of conmen. The farce culminates in his impersonating himself in a con followed by his restoration to his throne. It’s all absurd – but that’s really half the point and all of the fun.
It’s a great antidote to the more aggressive and cynical writing around these days – a charming but very unexpected cocktail of:
- the world of old European monarchies on whose behalf Tintin might have gone in search for missing jewels or investigated coups d’etat
- the ‘long-con’ world of Micky Stone’s Hustle gang – Count St Germain is a perhaps a prototype for Albert (Robert Vaughn) Stroller!?
- a gentle political satire – nothing like as biting as Orwell or Private Eye of course – but not completely divorced from their work either.
There is some seriousness to it all (though never in a heavy-handed way) – running themes like the nature of reality and how we know who we are, behind the masks we wear and the roles we carry. But its delight is derived from its gentle whimsy. It would make a wonderful play… now there’s a thought. Perhaps one a rainy afternoon when I’ve nothing else to do, I might just have a stab at a script…
A final note about Len Rix’s translation – it wonderful evokes Oliver’s world and while of course I’ve no idea what it was like in the original Hungarian, it flowed and felt thoroughly authentic. The joy of a good translation is that it’s invisible – you never for a moment consider it is one. And that was certainly the case here.
Another cracker from Strange Maps – this time a map that is as fascinating as it is controversial. It will certainly wind people up with its simplistic imagery – but if it challenges people to think outside the box and see what’s really going on, then no bad thing. Made by some academics at the Global And World Cities research group, it’s a graphical attempt to capture the various intercontinental and international relationships that exist today. The problem is that it could be read to imply the importance (or even ‘value’) of a place relative to the size of its blob. So comments on the original post complain that it is pretty Anglo-centric (with New York & London getting the biggest blobs, apparently the only 2 panregional centres).
I’m not sure that this is quite the point though. As I see it, this is more to do with cultural relationships and the degrees to which places are (or are not) parochial in their outlook. As one who’s a born and bred Londoner and who has returned to live and work here, I have to say that it certainly fits with the multi-cultural nature of the place. It’s a cliché but you really are as likely to hear another language on the pavements as you are English. Anywhere in the city. The only thing I would add is that London has just as deep a relationship with the Indian subcontinent and the Far East as it does with the Middle East. You can certainly see that in the cross-section of London that is All Souls (70+ nationalities).
As one comment I think rightly suggests, perhaps this is more to do with where the world’s money is. But then of course, money is what makes the global capitalist world go round… And, for better or worse, London’s influence still stands as a hangover from its past as the pre-eminent colonial capital.
At All Souls last night, we had the latest in our occasional series of “Christians Facing Issues” – the topic this time was the Credit Crunch. It was a brilliant evening, having been devised by Tim Plyming, our workplace minister and BBC insider. He managed to get Hugh Pym and Justin Urquhart-Stewart from the Beeb to come and give us the inside info and economic background to it all – which was quite a coup. And then we had interviews with two people who had been personally affected by it all (one by redundancy, another through failed businesses). Pulling it all together, Hugh then gave 2 shorter talks (on Romans 1 & then Ephesians 1)bringing a biblical perspective to it all.
3 short films were shown during the course of the service and they are now available for all to see:
Here Tim interviews Justin U-S
Then Jane Barrett took the camera around the city and did a couple of vox pops:
- For some reason, long-lasting celebrities get referred to as national treasures; well Dale Ralph Davis is a kingdom treasure – not because he is a celebrity in any grim sense of the word, but because he brilliantly communicates the Old Testament in his preaching. Here is the transcript of a fantastic recent lecture, which answers the question ‘Why is the Old Testament shut out of the church?‘ (HT Paul Carter).
- This lecture seems to be the first in an annual series held at RTS, called The John Reed Miller Lectures. Previous series are on iTunes U and can be subscribed to by clicking the link (previous speakers include Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson). So hopefully Ralph Davis’ will be there soon.
- Jonathan Dodson on ReSurgence validly observes that too many Christian songs are worse than soppy love songs not worthy of God’s love.
- 10 reasons why one pastor doesn’t like most Christians. The tone’s a bit harsh, but there’s something in much of it.
- Amazing new resource: ALL of Jonathan Edwards writings searchable online.
- Romeo Dallaire commanded the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda in 1994 – his is a truly chilling story. (HT to David Kim)
- I’ve really got into the design site Visual Culture – it consistently has fascinating stuff on it. Check out these provocative ads from a French NGO called Stop the Cycle of Pain. Compelling and powerful.
- Bankers are bonkers – official. Here is the evidence. A care worker wanted to increase her £200 overdraft by £50 to give her some spending money for Christmas, and ended up with an overdraft of £84,480,090, while being charged only £5 a month! No wonder there’s a credit crunch.
- Old news now, but in case you missed it, see the British Prime Minister claim to have saved the world.
- This is a work of genius – it shows that BOTH candidates for the US presidency were nothing if not consistent during the debates:
- Tag Gallery is a very cool way of searching for images and photos.
- The Godfather Photo Album – here are a few excerpts. The 1st looks gruseome until you see how they did it in the 2nd!
- It is human nature that we are never satisfied:
At our fortnightly prayer gathering last night, the boss, Hugh Palmer, gave some really helpful headlines from 1 Timothy, to help us put these troubled times into some sort of perspective. So for those who weren’t there, here are those headlines…
He started with a summary from somewhere of the cultural characteristics of the last decade or so, where we have been obsessed with the following:
- Freedom of choice – we are presented with a huge array of choice, but we not only take that for granted, we assume it is our right.
- Tolerance of choice – if life is just a matter of choice then we have no excuse not to tolerate the choices that other people make.
- Hard work for choice – people sweat and strive to earn to enjoy the choices that their rights have enabled them to be free to make.
As the credit crisis kicks in to the street, with job losses, inflation and general recession, we will find that we have less freedom because there is less work. So how to put this into perspective:
17. Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1Timothy 6:17-19)
In the light of these verses we should aspire to and pray for 4 things (and they all begin with ‘Co’!):
- Confession (v17): we must recognise the idolatry of wealth and repent of our wealth-obsession. After all this crisis was proof, if ever it were needed, that ‘wealth is so uncertain’.
- Contentment (v17): Can we really trust God to be good and our provider God? Well because of Jesus, we can. We need to learn to trust that he really is enough…
- Compassion (v18): a credit crunch is no excuse to stop being generous (even if the financial value of gifts goes down). We still need to be generous in good deeds and time, as well as our resources.
- Confidence (v19): we should have a perspective that changes how we view everything. And that is found only through the one who came to bring us treasure that is not earthbound or primarily material.