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
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.
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
The chaps at 10 of Those have taken the initiative to produce a number of shorter and cheaper, but decent quality, booklets, and the first of these are now out. There’s a brief introduction to the doctrine of The Cross by Andrew Sach and Steve Jeffery (well-qualified to write on this having worked on the mammoth but important He was pierced for our transgressions). But the other is a lovely new outing from Tim Keller (who’s come up here on Q a number of times): The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness – The Path To True Christian Joy. 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
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.
Richard Holmes’ magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having worked my way through it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society’s history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been completely fine by me, since that’s easily one of my favourite periods).
It is instead a window into the relationship between the sciences, the arts and the popular imagination at a very important moment for the culture of the modern world. Combined with Holmes’ easy and fluent writing style and gentle humour, this makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn’t put it down, eagerly anticipating the next ‘aha’ moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour in and out of their’s.
Giants of the Royal Society
The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting his sights on Tahiti (and thus pioneering the world of cultural anthropology), and ends in the 1830s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage.
Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes’ spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as their impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there’s a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron etc. But if there is one constant thread, it is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.
There are so many things one could pick out from the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:
It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)
That’s absolutely right – and this book is a brilliant way to do all of that.
The Challenge from the Heavens
Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge to old theistic ways of thinking – especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraordinary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people’s sense of place in the universe – the cosmos had always been a place of awe and wonder, but now it was far bigger and far older than anyone had before imagined.
So notice the shift from Coleridge’s more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley’s polemical take:
At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father’s eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: ‘I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – & he told me the names of the stars – and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world – and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them – & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc – my mind had been habituated to the Vast.’ (pp111-2)
I just love that final phrase: habituated to the Vast. Wonderful.
Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation… It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman… The works of His fingers have borne witness against him… Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth… Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)
But not everyone shared that view – or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:
For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the ‘argument by Design,’ there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of ‘natural’ religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)
Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible – which his why so many cosmologists and ‘hard’ scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.
The Wonder of Science
But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book’s most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science – the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God’s thoughts after him, if you like. I found myself frequently transported to the Oxford’s Christ Church meadow where spectators watching in astonishment at the first balloon flights, or to Herschel’s observatory, or to the audience of Faraday’s Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.
My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:
Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”’. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context – Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.
- First the ‘Newton syndrome’, the notion of ‘scientific genius’, in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
- Second, the existence of the ‘Eureka moment’, in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
- Third, the ‘Frankenstein nightmare’, in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)
Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes’ objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as ‘fundamentalist’, as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.
I think I’ll stop there for now – there are loads of other gems, which i might post separately and without too much verbiage. But I couldn’t have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book – inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:
The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)
Have you ever wondered about disappearing? I’m not talking about Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak (although that would certainly come in handy on occasion). No, I mean disappearing like Jason Bourne: forging plausible identities, making new starts, covering old traces, laying false trails. Hiding, essentially.
Now before you start worrying, panic not – I’m not considering it at all. Plenty of things to keep me where I am!
But in idle moments, when contemplating the surveillance state (in which CCTV cameras seem to breed inside London Underground stations and one’s every digital move is now plotted by faceless geek-watchers), I’ve wondered whether it is even possible anymore. How would one go about it, if one had to? Under the Orwellian regimes of 20th Century despots, it was hard enough – id cards, passpapers, regular security police checkpoints. Think The Great Escape; or Hans Fallada’s brilliant Alone in Berlin; or the world of Le Carré’s Smiley. But now? I suppose it must be, somehow. But boy, do you have to be clever to keep ahead of the game. And rich. Like the Gene Hackman character in Enemy of the State. Which is of course ludicrous fantasy… Isn’t it…?
Which is all by way of explaining why I was so gripped by this article in the US edition of Wired from before Christmas – writer Evan Ratliff Tried to Vanish: Here’s What Happened.
After weeks of preparations, Ratcliff decided (as an experiment) to disappear completely for a month in 2009, laying down the gauntlet (through Wired) for people to use legal means to track him down. Once they had, they were to ask him, “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?” in exchange for a financial reward.
For some, finding Evan Ratcliff became an obsession – the ultimate in reality gaming. Chatrooms, twitter hashtags and even a specially created Facebook App sprang up, as people all over the place compared research, shared sightings, and generally tried to outsmart each other. Through various means, people discovered Ratcliff’s passions (bizarrely enough, he’s an avid Fulham supporter), credit card details, and even his dietary requirements. The tiniest details played their part. As the article wryly observes, they discovered everything about him – except his current location. But they were never far behind. This Zeemaps group traces his every move – it’s fun to follow while reading the article.
It’s all pretty scary. And legal.
I was particularly interested in the impact it all had on him, though. There are some pretty poignant moments:
It’s surreal, in those moments when I stop to think about it. Scores of people have studied my picture, stared into those empty eyes in the hopes of relieving me of thousands of dollars. They have stood for hours, trying to pick out my face in a crowd. They’ve come to know me like we’ve been friends for years. It’s weirdly thrilling, in a narcissistic kind of way, but also occasionally terrifying.
But as he reflects on it later:
…I’d discovered how quickly the vision of total reinvention can dissolve into its lonely, mundane reality. Whatever reason you might have for discarding your old self and the people who went with it, you’ll need more than a made-up backstory and a belt full of cash to replace them.
For weeks after the hunt ended, I still paused when introducing myself and felt a twinge of panic when I handed over my credit card. The paranoid outlook of James Donald Gatz was hard to shake. Even now, my stomach lurches when I think back to the night I got caught. “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?”
The article is definitely worth reading in full. It simply proves how digitally interconnected, dependent, and even chained, we all are in the west – and that includes even the most luddite or technophobe.
No wonder Bin Laden decided to hide out in the mountains of Pakistan. That seems to be one of the few options left if you want to really disappear.
I’ve just come back from an extraordinary week’s travels. What a privilege. 3 days in Turkey and 4 days in Romania, in both places with a view to helping local church leaders develop preaching movements for their respective countries. I think i should blog about them separately because of their marked differences – there are only 3000 evangelicals/protestants in the whole of Turkey (nat. pop. = 70+ million) and roughly half a million in Romania (nat. pop. = 23 million). My entire time in Turkey was spent in Istanbul, which has to be one of the most beguiling and overwhelming cities on earth (and it’s crazily big – 20 million residents!) – i got trigger happy with my camera and so took 100s – I’ve added collages of Bosphorus views here (one from each side). And the folks i spent time with were inspirational. But the context for living as Christians in that part of the world is far from it.
Turkish Secularism Or Turkish Democracy?
Inevitably, a key element of our discussions in Turkey was the extent to which religious freedom that exists there. I am by no means an expert and so could only pick up a few things here and there in my short visit but the 20th Century background is key. After the 1st World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a new political reality was forged by Mustafa Kemal (dubbed Atatürk or Father of the Turks) when he sought to create a new secular Muslim state, influenced by enlightenment values. He was both a soldier (left, one side of his monument in Taksim Sq) and statesman (right, the other side). Ever since there has been an inevitable tension between secularism (defended by the military) and Islam (adhered to by the vast majority of Turks).
This was shrewdly summed up by one of the folks I spent time with this weekend, and is perhaps understood by way of contrast to what in Europe and North America we are used to. In the west, it is almost axiomatic that secularism and democracy go hand in hand, and western countries, to varying degrees, attempt to keep religion at arm’s length. That might be more acceptable to post-enlightenment protestants especially, but it is hardly going to wash with an Islam that has no concept of public/private or sacred/secular distinctions.
So in Turkey, if you want secularism, you are effectively opting for military rule; if you want democracy, you are opting to support a government that will increasingly ‘Islamify’ the nations institutions and culture.
But here’s the catch – if you’re Christian, you are caught in between both stools:
- The military regards you as subversive and not truly Turkish (even if you are Turkish) because they are seeking to sustain secularism.
- Then the Muslim powers-that-be oppose your very presence in what should be the global heart of Islam (the Ottoman Empire used to control the entire Middle East after all); the Turkish flag is emblazoned with the Crescent moon of Islam, and the Old Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, the Topkapı, houses amongst other things, the Sacred Trusts of Islam (like Mohammed’s sword, beard, cloak and a handwritten letter).
The Fate of Christians in Turkey
For generations, Christians in Turkey were almost by definition not Turks. There were thousands of Greeks and Armenians who were predominately orthodox. The Armenian genocide is a rightly matter of wide concern and horror even to this day. But far less well known has been the drip-drip of hostility, oppression and ostracism of Christians within Turkey. I cannot vouch for these stats at all, so don’t quote me – however, they fit more or less with what a number of people told me last weekend.
- In the early 1970s there were over 8500 Orthodox churches in regular use as places of worship in Turkey. Now there are only 500 or so – the rest were forcibly taken over by state authorities.
- In the second half of the 20th Century it was estimated that there were over 20,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. There are now barely more than 1000. I’ve no idea how it was done – but a range of intimidation tactics was certainly used to make sure people knew they were not wanted.
- I gather that if you are a Christian, certain professions like being a practising lawyer are barred to you.
- Whenever you buy a building, you have to indicate what use it will have (eg residence, business, school etc). It is impossible to do this for a church. In fact there is only one building in the whole of Turkey registered as a Protestant church. A number of Istanbul protestant churches therefore end up renting the chapels of western consulates for their services. Those that do use other buildings live on the edge.
- It is not possible to set up a seminary in Turkey because of restrictions. Being a pastor is not really recognised in law and so because they don’t really exist, they don’t need training! Anyone therefore wanting to do this is allowed to give them “instruction” (because ‘instruction’ doesn’t necessarily lead to anything) but they cannot give them “education” with its implication of recognised degrees and status. Muslim leaders have even offered their own training institutions to church leaders with the suggestion that they train Christian pastors and priests on their behalf! Can you imagine what would happen if Anglican colleges in the UK offered that to Regents’ Park Mosque!?
- Then of course, there has been the recent Malatya murders. One can’t help but wonder whether or not this only hit the headlines because one of the victims was German, and thus caused the Turkish government acute diplomatic embarrassment.
Facing the Future
Persecution is never far from the surface, either from the state or from the neighbourhood. One tiny example – it’s petty in one sense. You see the Turkish flag everywhere. But in a little church I visited last week, the street was festooned with Turkish flag bunting, presumably because in their midst was a little Christian community. The implication was clear: if you’re Christian, you can’t be Turkish, because Turks are Muslims. So what did the church do in response? Well, they bought a huge Turkish flag and they now hang it from their meeting place. Gloriously gracious but absolutely the right response. We might be Christian but we’re Turks too, it eloquently proclaims. And i think this is the interesting thing about what’s happening. For in contrast to previous centuries and decades, where Christians were effectively foreign or at least ethnically different, this is no longer the case. Turks are becoming Christians, in their ones or twos. And this is fantastic – but to some, it’s intolerable. So for the future of the Turkish church, these brothers and sisters are the greatest hope but also at greatest threat – because the phenomenon of Turkish Christians shouldn’t actually exist, if Turkish Muslims are to be believed. We must pray for them. Now, i repeat, i was only there for a few days – and I may have got some or much of this wrong. But there was no doubt, that in all my conversations with people, the issue of the stresses faced by Turkish Christians was a key subject.
Religious Tolerance because of Europe?
It seems to me that just as the secular west completely fails to understand what tolerance should be (see this blog, passim) so does Islam. I, as a creedal Christian, absolutely uphold the right of people to express their views and religion. I don’t have a problem with people building mosques in England (although the proposed super-mosque at the Olympics site is different and seems merely to me to be a power-play). But talk about double-standards! Freedom for Muslims to proselytize in the West does not bring Christian freedom even to exist and grow in the Muslim world. This was a point that Ed Husain in his book The Islamist makes as well.
And as i’ve been thinking about all this, there comes the timely post by Cranmer about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are apparently on the verge of extinction.
It all makes me wonder – I am by nature more Eurosceptic than not – but i do think that enlargement is a great thing for a number of reasons. The more countries that join, the more the absurd super-state ideals of some are rendered increasingly inoperable. And should Turkey ever be allowed to join, it would hopefully provide a powerful protection for the Christian minority there to grow and flourish. But that looks far off – there are far too many vested interests both in Europe and Turkey to make it desirable, despite the political, economic and justice advantages that it could bring. Europeans are terrified of the thought of 70 million Turks suddenly having freedom to live and work anywhere, and the Islamic groups in Turkey fear their influence being undermined.
Many English phrases carry a world on their shoulders.
There is perhaps nothing more annoying than the words “PLEASE HOLD – YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT TO US AND WILL BE ATTENDED TO SOON.”
- There is perhaps nothing more smug or priggish than the response “I TOLD YOU SO.”
- There is perhaps nothing more tragic than the words “TOO LATE.”
Now I certainly don’t want to come across all superior or smug. In fact, reading the obit of p*rn baron, Paul Raymond (sometimes described as the British Hugh Hefner), on BBC online, just made me incredibly sad: if only he’d listened to Ecclesiastes. For I feel that the Teacher would no doubt have said the last 2 of these phrases (but probably not the first). This is what the obit said:
Raymond, 82, the son of a Liverpool lorry driver, founded a huge pornographic empire which included magazines such as Mayfair and Men Only. He was once dubbed the King of Soho and in 1958 opened the only premises in the UK to stage live striptease shows. Raymond acquired property in London’s West End in the 1970s and was thought to be worth £650m when he died. Born Geoffrey Anthony Quinn in November 1925, Raymond left school at 15 to pursue a career in showbusiness and started with a mind-reading act on Clacton Pier. He soon discovered his real talent lay as a producer and went on to exploit not only the public’s fascination with sex and nudity, but also the gradual liberalisation of the 1950s, 60s and 70s…
But this is how it ended
…in later years competition to his porn empire from so-called “lads mags” stifled his fortunes. Raymond called himself a spiv and behaved like one, sporting fur coats, a Rolls Royce, a tiny moustache and a fake tan. But money did not buy him happiness. His marriage broke up acrimoniously after an affair with the model, Fiona Richmond. He was estranged from his son, and his daughter Debbie, who ran his empire for a time, died aged 36 from a drugs overdose in 1992. He ended his life a virtual recluse in a penthouse flat behind the Ritz Hotel.
What a tragic way to go. Not least because of the wisdom of what the Teacher said 3000 years ago (in Ecclesiastes 2). More even than Raymond could the Teacher say he’d been there, done that.
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
And his conclusion:
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
The Teacher did it all & he DID tell us so. But still people don’t believe him – they think it is still worth it, despite the wind-chasing misery of it all. (Check out Hugh Palmer’s great sermon on this passage from a recent Ecclesiastes series.)
However, as well as the venerable Teacher of old, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a more contemporary prophet, Steve Turner and his brilliant poem.
TONIGHT WE WILL FAKE LOVE
by Steve Turner
Tonight, we will
fake love together.
You my love possess
all the essential qualities
as listed by Playboy.
You will last me for
as long as two weeks
or until such a time
as your face & figure
go out of fashion.
I will hold you close
to my Hollywood-standard body,
the smell of which
has been approved
by my ten best friends
and a representative
I will prop my paperback
on the dressing table
& like programmed seals
we will perform
& like human beings
we will grow tired
of our artificially sweetened
diluted & ready to drink
Tonight, we will fake love.
Tonight we will be both
quick & silent, our time limited,
measured out in distances
(from Up To Date, 1993 edition, p20)
And for good measure, it is worth throwing in a U2 song as well. For in this song, Bono & Edge brilliantly point us beyond Hefner’s Playboy mansion (where a welcome is available only to the ‘right’, ‘attractive’, ‘lucky’ kind of people) and offer hints of the hope of the great mansion, (in which there are many rooms prepared in advance for those who are not the beautiful or ‘perfect’ people). No – this is a mansion of grace – open to all who are not worthy but who recognise their unworthiness. And to seek after that is in no sense a seeking after the wind. Now I’ve no idea about Paul Raymond’s last few years – but the wonder of this mansion of grace is that ‘even’ he would be welcome there…
If coke is a mystery / Michael Jackson…history
If beauty is truth / And surgery the fountain of youth
What am I to do / Have I got the gift to get me through
The gates of that mansion
If oj is more than a drink / And a big mac bigger than you think
If perfume is an obsession / And talk shows, confession
What have we got to lose / Another push and we’ll be through
The gates of that mansion
I never bought a lotto ticket / I never parked in anyones space
The banks feel like cathedrals / I guess casinos took their place
Love, come on down / Don’t wake her, she’ll come around
Chance is a kind of religion / Where you’re damned for plain hard luck
I never did see that movie / I never did read that book
Love, come on down / Let my numbers come around
Don’t know if I can hold on / Don’t know if I’m that strong
Don’t know if I can wait that long / ’til the colours come flashing
And the lights go on
Then will there be no time for sorrow / Then will there be no time for shame
And though I can’t say why / I know I’ve got to believe
We’ll go driving in that pool / It’s who you know that gets you through
The gates of the playboy mansion / But they don’t mention…the pain
Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
(from the too often overlooked 1993 album Pop)
This book has courted controversy in all quarters. It’s not hard to see why – read some of the different reviews linked here (which range from secular adulation to inevitable Islamist repudiation, via moderate Muslim dissatisfaction). The important thing is that it is a personal memoir by someone who escaped Islamist fanaticism by being drawn to the more individually ‘spiritual’ world of Sufism. He had been sucked in as an impressionable and rebellious teenager, only to see the error of his ways as acquaintances from Hizb ut-Tahrir were involved in the murder of a non-Muslim undergraduate.
As critics have therefore frequently noted (including this one from Hizb ut-Tahrir themselves), this makes for an inevitably partial and subjective account of developments from 15 years ago in London’s East End. It does not necessarily describe today’s realities. But that is to miss the point – not least because, while there may be various inaccuracies, this book helps one to understand the mental journey that leads people to descend into barbaric inhumanity. More than anything else I have read (which, frankly, is not very much at all), this has given insight and awareness to what has clearly been going on in significant quarters of Britain’s Muslim communities. It is about psyche and worldview, motivation and attitude. And as such, it has made me pause. Well, stopped me in my tracks, to be more precise. From 3 perspectives, really: as a human being; Briton; Christian.
reflections from a fellow Human Being
Ed Husain (picture courtesy of Penguin Press) seems like an approachable chap. And I’ve no doubt that writing this book took guts, since he more than many knew the sorts of reactions it would provoke (he has inevitably received death threats – which in itself seems to prove something about how little has perhaps changed since ‘his day’). But it is also Husain’s humanity that permeates the book. Human life matters – always. And it doesn’t matter whether that life is Muslim, Christian, Communist, prostitute, politician or terrorist. Life matters. Full stop. And that is what makes his frequent accounts of pervading attitudes within some extremist quarters so chilling. Even more chilling is when some of these quarters are heralded as moderate spokesmen for the British Muslim community and end up on Channel 4 news. The reluctance of some famous names to reject the fatwa on Salman Rushdie (however heinous his crime might have been) seems to be a case in point. If that’s moderate, well…
Of course, people are usually quick to point out that there are Christians who appear to speak in similar terms, even if jihad isn’t exactly part of their vocabulary. So what?! I would disagree with such positions as well! Despite having friends who are of a more dispensationalist predisposition, I find some of the pre-mill / Christian Zionist / Armageddon rhetoric very difficult to stomach as well. Surely we never win lives round to the truth by taking lives? It merely generates fear and a kowtowed resignation. Surely the truth stands unaided on its own two feet?
Husain describes how 9/11 exposed his own latent Islamist views, despite his own shifts in view:
Even though I had accepted Sufi Islam, and consciously tried to decontaminate my mind, there were still aspects of Islamist political strategies that I thought of as ‘normal’: an acceptance of terrorism, an unconscious belief that those who ‘opposed Islam’ were somehow less than human and thus expendable in the Islamist pursuit of political domination over palm and pine. (The Islamist, p202)
Scary also, are his findings on a return visit to the bookshop at East London Mosque in Whitechapel (a place that had played a role in his teenage years) in 2006.
At the bookshop, I bought an updated copy of Qutb’s Milestones, published not in Riyadh but in Birmingham, England, in early 2006. It contains lengthy articles in the appendices from leading Wahhabis, chapter headings such as ‘The Virtues of Killing a Non-Believer’, and ideas such as ‘Attacking the non-believers in their territories is a collective and individual duty.’ Just as I had done as a sixteen-year-old, hundreds of young Muslims are buying these books from Islamist mosques in Britain and imbibing the idea that killing non-believers is not only acceptable, but the duty of a good Muslim. I showed the passages to a Muslim friend that evening and we shook our heads in disgust. From such messages are suicide bombers born. (The Islamist, p280)
One of the most poignant paragraphs was his note about the timing of the London 7/7 bombings – how ironic that they occurred precisely the same time as the Gleneagles G8 summit in Scotland which was debating issues of African poverty, Third World Debt Relief and Fair Trade (at the instigation of the likes of Blair, Bono & Geldof).
The fact that hundreds of children die in Africa every day would be of no relevance for a committed Islamist. In the extremist mind, the plight of the tiny Palestinian nation is more important than the deaths of millions of black Africans. Who in the Arab world cares that some 6000 people die each day in Africa from AIDS? Let them die, they’re not Muslims, would be the unspoken line of argument. As an Islamist, it was only the suffering of Muslims that had moved me, that provoked a reaction. Now, human suffering mattered to me, regardless of religion. (The Islamist, p256-7)
Amen to that. Isn’t that one of the lessons of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan?
reflections of a fellow Briton
The 7/7 bombings went off in a sort of ring around where we now live – on the day before we returned to London from 4 years in Uganda. I’ll never forget, watching the news in Entebbe, thinking that we had to be mad to be returning to London – Kampala was a far safer place to live. Husain and his wife Faye were actually watching the same reports while working for the British Council and living in Saudi Arabia, just a few days before their return to Britain. Like many ex-pats, being abroad made them feel more British. When in England he felt more Muslim. And yet London is his birthplace and home. Now, such tensions between faith and nationality are not unique. But his experiences of the quality of life in Saudi for Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, is certainly chilling (and they chime with plenty of other accounts) and the grass in Britain was made to look far greener.
Husain has been accused by some of being a Labour stooge for Blairite multiculturalism – and he certainly makes no secret of his political affiliations – especially because to play a part in the democratic process is regarded with deep suspicion if not hostility by key Islamist elements. This is not to say that he gives British society a clean bill of health – with its culture of ASBOs, high abortion rates, addictions, city centre pub crawls and happy slappers. I don’t know anyone who thinks that these anything but grounds for real shame. But what is clear that many people in the Islamist movements are quite prepared to bite the hand that feeds them: they take advantage of Britain’s freedoms and safety nets when they want to preach their ‘concepts’ or need protection or consular support when languishing in Middle Eastern jails. They’re wanted men in Syria or Egypt but free to hold fort in this country. Husain is understandably astonished by this – whether outright banning will achieve anything, I’ve no idea – but he is certainly highly (and rightly) critical of political correct spinelessness and a plain old fear of standing up to things. For tolerance of ideas MUST have boundaries (as the PC brigade are only too quick to mention when it comes to orthodox Christianity – they just can’t bring themselves to do it for Islam as well).
One of the things that most struck me was that many of the places mentioned in the East End are familiar, especially because my wife trained as a nurse-midwife at the London Hospital. Meeting rooms at the hospital itself as well as houses and streets around (including one or two where Rachel actually lived) were places where rabbles were roused, and at some points, weapons were stashed. We drive past the East London mosque very regularly. So this is not some far off conflict – this is on the streets of my home town, by people who share the same passport as me. As a British non-Muslim, i’m only grateful that people like Husain are willing to speak his mind.
reflections from a Christian friend
But I suppose I should say something about all this from a Christian perspective. There is much to admire and respect in this book. I was impressed by Husain’s honesty, charm and humility. And I certainly wouldn’t expect an apologia for why he is not a Christian – that would be absurd. Still there were a few moments where I was frustrated by the grounds for his rejection of the gospel (those old chestnuts of difficulties in understanding the Trinity, and of the apostle Paul’s so-called invention of Christology). But there is no hostility or aggression to his arguments, and he admits a curiosity about Jesus having been born on Christmas Day as well as a respect for other ‘people of the book’. Such aggression belongs to the attitudes of the Wahhabist/Islamist world from which he has escaped.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help spot a number of uncomfortable parallels with extremes of Christianity. And that is surely something to learn from?
Activism without piety – it was when Husain began to appreciate his total lack of spiritual vitality that he realised that his entire lifestyle revolved around a political agenda (largely but unconsciously derived from Marxism and western enlightenment philosophy and not ‘pure’ Islamic state or caliphate at all – oh irony of ironies!!). And that agenda was power and domination. How easy it is for us all to slide into such an attitude – both of activism and power-hunger. How elements of the US Christian right appear to have missed something here perhaps. But would we be prepared to learn lessons from an ex-Islamist who has learned the error of his ways?
Faith without context – Husain’s shift was in part the result of the discovery of the importance of culture. We are shaped by our cultural and historical contexts so much – and this is especially the case with those who claim to be able to restore a ‘pure’ form of belief system. Particularly telling were his discoveries that the hijab/veil originated and still are found amongst Arab Christians – there is nothing intrinsically Islamic about them. He also discovered first hand the dangers of selling one’s soul to the thought of one or two charismatic leaders as if they themselves were not the products of their age. Likewise, it would be foolish for Christians to think that Luther or Calvin had it all sussed. As a Christian I would say they are only ever right insofar as they are faithful to the ancient faith in the scriptures.
Devotion without grace – and this is the clinching difference between us, in the end. For all Husain’s piety and impressive dedication to rid himself of pride, in the end my fear is that it is beyond him. It is Pharisaic works righteousness of a classic kind. What we need is not law-keeping, but grace. And in the end, that is what Jesus brings. That is the good news of the gospel!
This was posted back in September but I’ve only just come across an interesting observation from the distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard (who is of course not to be confused with the former Tory Leader). He’s assessing what went wrong in Iraq from a military and political perspective – and is consequently very critical of the US/UK approach. But it was this comment which really struck me, and is thus worth quoting in full:
President Bush and his neo-con supporters are in the habit of saying that since the desire for freedom burns brightly in every human breast, it is the duty of the United States to spread democratic freedom throughout the world. He sent his army (and ours) into Iraq in order to do this; with the results we see today. Two centuries ago the leaders of the French Revolution did very much the same thing, and unleashed a quarter of a century of war on Europe.
In fact, what is hard-wired into every human being is the need, not to be ‘free’, but to belong: belong to a group, whether it be a family, a juvenile gang, a football crowd, a tribe, or a fully-fledged nation. This is the instinct that has inspired humanity throughout its history and been the cause of most of its wars. Very few of us have either the inclination or the courage to separate ourselves, form our own judgments and battle against the crowd. Those who do so are regarded at best as odd-balls, at worst as traitors – not least in the United States.
The concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’, as the West understands them, are the result of a long process of social, economic and political development in our own part of the world. Even here they can flourish only within a framework of security provided by a historic community that commands our instinctive loyalty. If they are brought by foreign troops, wrapped in a foreign flag, they will be seen as the ideology of an alien tribe and resisted accordingly. In their well-meaning effort to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East, President Bush and Tony Blair may have let us in for an even longer war than that which was unleashed by the French Revolution, two centuries ago.
Scary – but he must be spot on, surely? This need to belong is of course a classic motivation in the so-called honour- or shame-cultures (of the Middle East and Asia) – but I suspect that it is also prevalent in the west in different ways. It is what lies behind recent debates in Christian circles about how people initially come to Christian faith – through first believing in the proclamation and then joining a Christian community or the other way around. At one level, it doesn’t really matter if there is an authentic Christian community where proclamation is taking place. But we constantly need to take this need for belonging into account if we are to understand how to reach and help. Authentic Christian community has never been more crucial or relevant – for ours is a fragmenting society (often, ironically, as the result of our pursuit of personal freedom and autonomy). People are lost not so much because they are free, but because they no longer know where to belong. Hence the headlong dash into the virtual/DIY/fabricated communities in cyberspace. But these will never satisfy – because as the Christian poet so eloquently articulated centuries ago, we’re simply not wired up like that. We need one another.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne (1572-1631)
As Donne explains, this makes the death of citizens caught up in Iraq my problem as much as it is their grieving relatives. We all belong to one another in a common humanity.
But there is a final irony in all this. The invasion of Iraq was a component of the strategies (so-called) of the War on Terror. In the light of western idealism about liberty, it was no surprise that the initial responses to the 9/11 attacks were grouped under the banner Operation Enduring Freedom. The irony is that enduring freedom is only ultimately attainable through belonging to an eternal community.