Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on the highly pretentious sounding ‘dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry’. Don’t be put off (although in fairness, I have to say I was quietly pleased by the alliteration there) because the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve chatted with folks, the more I think there are some crucial things to discuss. This is certainly not the perfect analysis nor last word. But I hope it will at least present something of what troubles me these days. 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
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more
For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). 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
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.
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
Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it’s not (I’ve received no commissions… as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader. Read more
BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. Read more
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
It’s an ambiguous title. It can mean two very different things. Either I can’t stop myself (e.g.I have little self-control when it comes to resisting temptation, whatever that might be) or I can’t rescue myself (and I’m stuck). It seems to me that western culture is in denial about both. Control and autonomy are our post-Enlightenment mantras (in the name of personal freedom of course). And much to our frustration, neither are truly attainable. 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
It was slightly surreal – an invitation to a mere blogger, who occasionally and with the reckless confidence that comes only from profound ignorance, dabbles in the realm of science. I guess it was because of past raves about books like The Age of Wonder and God’s Philosophers that someone somewhere had the random idea of inviting me to the press opening of the Science Museum’s new James Watt Exhibition this morning. So I duly pitched up, enjoyed my complimentary coffee and croissant and circulated with the best of them. I listened with interest as the museum boss and then celeb-historian Adam Hart-Davis gave us their three-penny’orth. And then wandered around the new displays – just off to the left of the main Energy Hall on the ground floor – a full 24 hours before it opens to the public tomorrow.
And in the brief time that I could be there, it was great. So I guess if someone goes as the result of this little post, their punt was worth it. The centrepiece is the installation of Watt’s home workshop exactly as he left it when he died in 1819. The Science Museum had gained it, lock stock and barrel, in 1924 – and now it is cleverly set up so that one can walk into it and glimpse the place where this great engineering mind spent his days in retirement. It’s full of bric-a-brac gathered from a life of relentless enquiry and experiment – what Hart-Davis amusingly described as junk – and what fascinating junk it is (it includes the first ever circular saw apparently). The advantage of being a press opening is that we could go behind the glass and look around the exhibit (under watchful eyes of course). Check out one or two snaps I took. 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.
The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.
People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)
Someone made the mistake of asking me the other day what magazines I read. And it came as a bit of a shock to me when I tried to work out my list. I’ve always been a magazine junkie, I suppose – because at their best, they’re far more significant than mere advertising vehicles or glorified gossip columns.
So here’s my main list, in no particular order. I remember Tim Keller saying in a talk once (but can’t remember for the life of me which talk it was, so you’ll have to take my word for it) that he reads a careful selection of magazines simply because they are often the best indicators of the shifts and prevailing winds of popular opinion or insight. Well, that did it for me! I became a professional magazine consumer as a direct result. So you can blame him…
To get a taste of each magazine, click on its image.
Well, some would say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. And it probably is. But here are my justifications (!)
- Wired UK (monthly) – it’s not just a geek’s bible. It often has fascinating and well read, insightful articles about all kinds of technological and scientific advances. It is an education – but a highly enjoyable one (especially for geeks). The heights of human ingenuity are on display.
- The New Yorker (weekly) – ok, yes I know it’s high-brow and its articles are probably the longest on the planet. Each edition will have at least 3 or 4 10 page articles. But this is my biggest treat. It is perfect for long journeys – and it’s range of interests is incredible. One week you can be reading about an American art philanthropist, gun-running in the Sudan, the history of late night chat shows on US TV etc etc. The cartoons are fab too. What’s not to like?
- BBC History Magazine (monthly) – it partly reflects the centres of gravity of modern history teaching (eg there’s always something about the Tudors and the Nazis) which is a bit annoying. But the range of articles is usually good; there is always a fascinating section looking at the historical background of a big news item; and the book reviews are great. Oh and I always enter the crossword competition in the vain hope of winning a book. No such luck so far.
- Private Eye (fortnightly) – during his 5-minute interview on BBC Online, editor Ian Hislop explained that the purpose of satire was “to expose vice, folly and humbug“. Private Eye does that in spades – most of the time, it is not too scurrilous. Much of the time it is doing a great public service and I’m grateful for it. As well as hugely amused.
- Empire (monthly) – probably my longest subscription. I adore movies – and love to know how they were made etc. But I hardly get time to see them or even to watch DVDs these days. So at least I can read the reviews. Though my frustration with Empire is that it is becoming a bit too celeb-dazzled (or has it always been? can’t work it out).
- Christianity Today (monthly) – it’s always interesting to see Christianity from another cultural perspective – and this American mag (if you can get past the interminable adverts for Christian colleges and seminaries in the US) often provides that.
- Tate Etc (quarterly) – this comes automatically with being Tate Friends – and it is lavishly produced and a real treat. Very interesting for keeping up with developments in the art world. Often provocative but always informative and beautiful to look at.
Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking. How on earth does he have time? Doesn’t he have a day job? Should his employers not be informed?
Well, here are my explanations/further justifications:
- Reading stuff is part and parcel of my job – and being in touch with what’s going on is essential to it. So this is work.
- Although it is fair to say that this definitely combines business with pleasure.
- I have strange reading habits – I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick something up and read it for 5 minutes and then come back to it later. So if I’ve got a spare moment waiting for someone to turn up, I’ll read something. In fact, I’m sure I need to see someone about this – but I have a pathological need to be reading something all the time (even if it is about the calcium content of Corn Flakes).
- Most magazine articles are bite-sized anyway (apart from the New Yorker obviously) – and so designed to be read in short bursts. Perfect for loo-reading, then.
So there we have it.
Would be very interested to know if you have particular favourites. Or even if there are magazines you think I should add to the list!! :-)
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!
Rather a bumper list this time…
- A truly remarkable essay by former hostage Brian Keenan about the importance of hope for those 33 trapped miners in Chile. (HT Nancy H)
- Howard Jacobson reflects on the horror of 9/11 and the sense of feeling left behind and lost. (HT Nancy H)
- Barry Cooper writes warmly about a mutual friend of ours, Tony Jones – I took over the same job from Tony at St Ebbe’s the following year, and am in awe of his capacity for work (I managed only half of what he did!).
- Computer models show how wind could have caused the parting of the Red Sea for Moses! (HT Charles Sperling)
- ‘Cranmer’ detects a great ecclesiastical gag played by the pope at Westminster Abbey.
- There seem to have been a number of events and publications remembering the London Blitz of 1940. This is rather a good website about London’s West End at war, including a page about the night All Souls was bombed. Some of this was drawn from the little history I wrote last year.
Sacred/Secular (?) Treasure
Meanwhile there’s been a lot of comings and goings on the Sacred/Secular divide in the western world – so here’s a new little sub theme with are one or two extra related links on that front:
- Alistair ‘We don’t do God’ Campbell gives an interesting (albeit party-political) take on what he meant by it.
- A fascinating article and graphic comparing national prosperity and levels of religious faith (from NY Times – HT Drew Woolf)
- And while we’re on the subject, Time magazine asks if France has taken secularism too far…
- But interestingly, recent surveys suggest that church attendance in the UK is stabilising or increasing.
- If this doesn’t put you off going to sea, I don’t know what will.
- A whole new way to check on flight arrival times…
- Truly inspiring images from The Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photography Competition
- Amazing Robert Capa photos discovered from the Spanish Civil War.
- Astonishingly good quality colour photos from Imperial Russia in 1910 (HT John Goering)
- Lovely flowing redesign suggestion for the London Underground map (HT Information is Beautiful)
- I love these – I wish they were distributed daily in newsagents…
- This is an extraordinary journalistic sight – the mind boggles about seeing the banners of the Telegraph, Times, Grauniad, Mail, Sun, Mirror, Exchange and Mart, and the Racing Post all on one front page.
- Amazing coincidence that helped with the translation of the Rosetta Stone.
- Swish politician catches the giggles because of bureaucratic legalese.
- You have never seen time-lapse photography like this from Dan Eckert – the camera moves as well… (HT Kuriositas)
- 100 years ago, the only alternative to Google was this (HT 22 Words) – A cross-section of New York Public Library in 1911