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Posts from the ‘globalisation’ Category


Yang Yongliang’s Artificial Wonderland

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


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 22 (July 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure


Avatar hoo-haa – a sledgehammer to crack Pandora’s box

When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).

Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!

  • The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
  • Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.

But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:

  • ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
    • crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
    • military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
    • determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
    • feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
  • derivative plot
  • ham-fisted moralising.

In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point

  • Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
  • Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!

Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.

So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).

And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…


Flickering Pixels and Message Shaping Media

A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in the EA’s Digimission day with such online luminaries as Jonny Baker & Maggi Dawn – quite a fun event all round organised by the indomitable Krish Kandiah. And as if to prove how technologically on the ball it all was, we had a talk live-streamed from Phoenix Arizona by Shane Hipps (left). He is an engaging and fascinating guy – with a background in advertising (offering what he now regards as a counterfeit gospel of life-fulfilment through owning Porsches, amongst other things). He’s now a Mennonite pastor and a sought-after figure in so-called emergent circles. Copies of his book Flickering Pixels were available on the day and I was able to get one to read in advance. Click here to read the book’s opening paragraphs.

And I have to say it was a very enjoyable read indeed. I thoroughly recommend it. Clearly Marshall McLuhan is a massive influence, and indeed, he spoke of his debt to to him during his streamed address, as is (perhaps to a lesser extent) Neil Postman. The crucial insight of these scholars was to recognise that the medium of a message is by no means a neutral phenomenon. Everything from the invention of writing (as Plato had Socrates point out in his Phaedrus, with his Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamus: oh those were the days, with the snail-paced plod through Plato’s impenetrable text for A Level – arrgrghgh) to printing, telegraph and wifi both affects the message AND the society that embraces that medium. McLuhan put it very provocatively:

The context or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb (p25).

The Impact of Media

I found particularly helpful Hipps’ 4-fold articulation of the impact of any new medium (pp32-38):

  1. A new medium stretches, extends or amplifies some human capacity (e.g. a tennis racquet extends the ability of a hand, binoculars extend the ability of the eye, the phone the voice and ears etc)
  2. A new medium makes older technologies irrelevant or obsolete (or perhaps occasionally, to be fair, it might change how we view or use an older technology – e.g. cars didn’t render horses obsolete entirely)
  3. Every medium retrieves some experience or medium from the past (e.g. one example he gives is the surveillance camera, which is designed to protect in a way that evokes the medieval city wall)
  4. Every medium, when pushed to an extreme, will reverse in on itself, revealing unintended consequences (e.g. to takes the surveillance camera, it can actually restrict the freedom of those within the city wall).

It is this last dimension that Hipps is anxious to warn us about. We must wake up. Hipps offered in his talk, and expands in the book, 3 disturbing paradoxes of the reality of online experience, nicely summarised in 3 oxymorons (or perhaps that should be oxymora?!):

  1. We have become Tribes of Individuals
  2. We have Empathy with people online, but it is mediated, Empathy At A Distance
  3. We have the possibility of Intimate Anonymity – so that we do and share with people online things we would never open up to in real time/space.

Emergent Communities

Now one of the key yearnings of the emergent movement, it seems to me, is a striving after community – true community, life-embracing, sanctifying and gospel authentic(ating) community. And Hipps goes on to articulate some of his experiences of how media have disrupted or even broken that (e.g. through people answering mobile phones during a conversation, sharing photos with Facebook friends before closest real friends, using emails with LOTS OF SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS to have an argument with someone instead of just talking with them). This is very valuable stuff. And I was very struck and challenged by the Mennonite Commitments for the Times of Disagreement, which Hipps quotes in full (pp127-129). I’d not come across it before, and it is one of those things that deserves far wider readership. For as Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is quoted as saying:

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. (p129)

So far so good. It is not hard to see why the internet is a far from ideal medium for building community life – and yet one of its most touted virtues is that it extends and creates community life (e.g. by so-called social networking) in exciting new ways. This is a word of warning that must be heeded – and its negative impact on genuine community engagement is one of its most serious consequences, a case of the medium reversing in on itself. But that doesn’t mean it should be avoided altogether. Of course Hipps is by no means saying that. It’s just that sometimes he sounds as if he might be.

I sometimes felt that towards the end, his was a case of babies and bathwater. It’s a partly question of what the web is for – and it is surely for a zillion things. That complex diversity is precisely the core of its phenomenal success, surely? It won’t inevitably destroy community, just impact it in new ways (some of which will certainly make it harder), not least because community-building is not the only thing it does (e.g. information distribution, democratic levelling, commerce, academic engagement, publishing, fun etc etc). He helpfully quotes McLuhan again, at the end of the book

There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. (p182)

It’s just a question (again, as he says at the end) of learning how to use it rather than be used by it. Where this book does that, I think it is simply excellent. But every now and then, there are just a few too many sweeping judgments or less than careful generalisations. One example is his clever juxtaposition of an image of printed text and a photo of the serried ranks of pews in a church, with his comment, ‘after the printing press, church seating started to mirror the page of a book’ (p47 – see right – I hope this is not a copyright infringement – will remove it if so).

Well yes – it may be the case that one followed the other but there are plenty of examples in history where serried ranks of seats are found in pre-printing buildings – e.g. the chapels of medieval monasteries. It wasn’t an inevitable consequence of printing – it’s what’s called in the trade the post hoc propter hoc fallacy (familiar to all West Wing fans), which is short hand for the type of thinking that goes “because X comes after Y, X must have been caused by Y”.

Literacy Evils?

In particular, the impact of printing comes under particular fire – almost at times as the root of all evil and Public Enemy No 1 in the quest for authentic community life (I’m overstating this – but only just, I fear!).

Our entire educational system is based on the mastery of reading and writing. As long as these educational objectives remain, individualism will continue to be woven into every fiber of our beings. (p123)

Individualism is clearly one of the great flaws of western culture. But what is this saying, precisely? He’s, I’m sure, not advocating abandoning literacy programmes – after all, without them, people wouldn’t be able to understand his book. And if printing was such a problem, why publish a book in the first place? It’s interesting, for example, that the Mennonite Commitments for the Times of Disagreement mentioned above is a document distributed in print and online. Without literacy, its impact would be profoundly limited and localised. Of course, print media can and does reverse in on itself. But I suspect the advantages of not being literate are FAR outweighed by the disadvantages. I’ve said before on this blog more than once that our job so often is actually to teach people to read well: to read their culture, their influences, their music, their movies, the Bible!

Which is of course a challenge. Especially because of this phenomenon unique to our age, which Hipps articulates with great insight: the impact of the culture of technology on the generation gap.

This shift marks the first time in the history of the world that parents have limited access to the world of teens and children. Go back five hundred years to the dawn of the print age and the situation was reversed. Printing empowered adults. It led to a more pronounced elevation of adults over children It shrouded the adult world in mystery, leaving children on the outside straining to look in. A child wanting to access adult information was required to learn a complex code – phonetic literacy – which could take decades to master. (p134)

If teaching this generation to read seems a mountain to climb, then imagine how hard it must have been for those who sought to spread literacy in the post-medieval world, or in cultures which had no writing system whatsoever. And this is particularly crucial for a revealed religion, as Christianity has always claimed to be. From its earliest days, it has been shaped by texts, printed or not. Just because one culture finds some texts easier to handle than others is no reason to leave out the latter. He rightly observes (p49) that medieval people found Paul’s letters hard to penetrate but coped better with the gospels (partly because they could be communicated through image and drama). That seems to be happening again in our culture. But we don’t neglect Paul just because he’s harder.

My fear is that this is what some so-called emergents are doing though – and it’s not just for Paul but the whole bible. We must, must, must heed the warnings against (often arrogant and intensely individualistic) modernist hermeneutical certainties which Hipps rightly outlines (p58). But that doesn’t mean abandoning our diligence in reading well (with, for instance, what is sometimes called critical realism). And anyway, isn’t it ironic how, despite all its images and multimedia, how just plain wordy the web is?!

Changing the message?

The point in saying all this is that one of the book’s thrusts is that ‘our methods and our message must both evolve’ (p153, his italics). He accepts this ‘will sound odd’ but claims it is a consistent biblical practice.

But it is one thing to say that every generation grasps one aspect or another of the gospel, often in reaction to the previous generation’s blindspots (and the same goes for different cultures as they interact with each other) – and one of the joys of diverse communities (like All Souls, for one) is that we are constantly chafing against these differences as we engage together with the gospel. We always have more to learn, often from the least likely or expected.

It is quite another to suggest that the need is to change our message or that

Jesus is pointing us to a God who keeps communicating an ever-evolving message. That is why the Spirit is given. (p157)

It isn’t as simple as that. For there will be little to stop a church from losing its orthodox moorings altogether – isn’t that something which Paul for one warned his friend Timothy and us about in 1 Timothy 1:12-16? Note that I’m not saying we never change – far from it. We must always be changing, growing, developing. The Christian life is about the change business. That includes how we go about our ministry and communication – and we may even adjust our message (sometimes radically) because we understand something better or more clearly. But we don’t change the message! As Paul says in that passage, the Holy Spirit is actually given as much to help us guard the message as to grow in our understanding of it. I can already hear my emergent friends groan at me saying all this, but I don’t see how we can avoid this one…

This ended up much longer than expected! Apologies. But this book really challenged and stimulated me. Please do read it – it’s hugely insightful and helpful. But as so often with books like this, I found the cultural analysis profoundly helpful but was far from convinced by its prescriptions.


Compassion fatigue alert: Steve Turner’s TELEVISION NEWS

He’s a great poet – but hasn’t produced much recently. (Hint hint, Steve) This is a gem – nestled in one of his great children’s collections.

by Steve Turner

While we take burgers, cokes and fries
The TV tells of hate and lies
Shows death beneath bright foreign skies
Can someone pass the salt?

The ground is parched, the river dies
The Red Cross camp has no supplies
The cold night air is cut with cries
Which ice-cream have you bought?

With bones stuck out like blunted knives
And bellies swollen twice the size
The people cling to fading lives
Who’s washing up tonight?

We see their pain in bulging eyes
And faces gaunt and thick with flies
The camera zooms as someone dies
What’s on the other side?

From The Day I Fell Down The Toilet (Lion, 1996) p67


All Souls rolls out the red carpet for Celebrity Culture

One of the admin team actually had a spare red carpet up his sleeve (thanks, Dave) – and so this was put to good use and then wheeled out this Sunday for the latest in our Christians facing Issues series. Here is a paparazzo pic of the fab Dimity, (one of the team who slaved away to get things ready), getting into the celeb mood…

Because this time, the topic of concern was Celebrity Culture. Planned months ago, it couldn’t have been held at more appropriate time, coming at the end of the week in which Michael Jackson’s funeral took place. Regardless of how aware or consciously influenced by celebrity culture we are, it is a fact that the world of celebrities is part of the very oxygen we breathe. So there were many things today that got people thinking…

dimity red carpet

And being the BBC’s next door neighbour means that we see celebrities walking past our front door on an almost daily basis, putting us in a peculiarly good place for addressing it.

Tim & the gang came up with a brilliant and thought-provoking time:

Colin Paterson is Entertainment Reporter for the BBC and a church member. His two worlds couldn’t be more divided – epitomised by last Tuesday, when he went from Leicester Sq covering the Harry Porter premiere, and then rushing to get to his All Souls fellowship group immediately after.

He made this fantastic short film about the history of celebrity – having had special access to film in the British Museum (and so name-checking everyone from Rameses II, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra to the stars of today)…

There were two other films – vox pops from ASLP and Oxford St – will put those up when they become available.


Annie Leonard’s The Story Of Stuff: a powerful consumerism critique

I know very little about Annie Leonard but she made this video about our rampant consumerism and it is a trenchant must-see. It first came out in 2007 – and is more relevant than ever. A very simple format: it’s essentially a 20 min animation/lecture about the nature of the global systems we thoughtlessly exploit and the realities of our dwindling global resources. I found the quotes from post-2 World War economists particularly chilling.

Here’s the first bit. Click on the banner (right) to get to the website and see the rest.


Global Panregions: London a regional world city?

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.


Getting our heads round the credit crunch at All Souls

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:


Everything Bad is Good For You

Have recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s 2004 book on pop culture: Everything Bad is Good For You. A fascinating read – and certainly helps to explain the prevailing resurgence in TV programming (and makes me feel a bit better about my West Wing (et al) obsessions – after all it’s always good to understand one’s own hang ups a little better). Like a lot of such books, its case could probably have been presented in half the space. But there you go.

The main thesis is that pop culture (in particular movies, tv series, computer games, internet etc), far from the bain of all bookworms and luddites is actually beneficial. It stimulates the mind in unexpected but constructive ways and even prepares people for the complexities of modern life! Well how about that! Here are a few quotes:

The impact of computer games

To non-players, games bear a superficial resemblance to music videos: flashy graphics; the layered mix of image, music, and text; the occasional burst of speed, particularly during the pre-rendered opening sequences. But what you actually do in playing a game – the way your mind has to work – is radically different. It’s not about tolerating or aestheticizing chaos; it’s about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order. (p62)

Then check this out:

The game scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the ‘probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink’ cycle:

1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.
Put another way: when gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method. (p44-45)

On what ACTUALLY happens if you are addicted to computer games:

Another recent study looked at three distinct groups of white-collar professionals: hard-core gamers, occasional gamers, and non-gamers. The results contradict nearly all the received ideas about the impact of games: the gaming population turned out to be consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively. They also showed no evidence of reduced attention spans compared with non-gamers.

The impact of TV

On the complexities and in-jokes of modern series like The Simpsons:

According to one fan site that has exhaustively chronicled these matters, the average Simpsons episode includes around eight gags that explicitly refer to movies: a plotline, a snipped of dialogue, a visual pun on a famous cinematic sequences (Seinfeld featured a number of episodes that mirrored movie plots, including Midnight Cowboy and JFK). The Halloween episodes have historically been the most baroque in their cinematic allusions, with the all-time champ being an episode from the 1995 season, integrating material from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Godzilla, Ghostbusters, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Pagemaster, Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator and Terminator 2, Alien III, Tron, Beyond the Mind’s Eye, The Black Hole, Poltergeist, Howard the Duck, and The Shining.

The film parodies and cultural sampling of The Simpsons usually get filed away as textbook postmodernism: media riffing on other media… But I think it’s more instructive to see both these devices as sharing a key attribute: they are comic devices that reward further scrutiny. The show gets funnier the more you study it – precisely because the jokes point outside the immediate context of the episode, and because the creators refuse to supply flashing arrows to translate the gags for the uninitiated. (86)

On why the famed TV debate between Nixon & Kennedy might not have been set such a bad precedent after all:

So what we’re getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia – it’s crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential president, information we had no access to until television came along and gave us that tight focus…

That’s not to imply that all political debate should be reduced to talk-show banter; there’s still plenty of room for position papers and formal speeches. But we shouldn’t underestimate the information conveyed by the close-ups of the unscripted television appearance. That first Nixon-Kennedy debate has long been cited as the founding moment of the triumph of image over substance – among all those TV viewers who thought Nixon’s sweating and five-o’clock shadow made him look shifty and untrustworthy in the end. Perhaps all those voters who thought he had won after they heard the debate on the radio or read the transcript in the papers simply didn’t have access to the range of emotional information conveyed by television. Nixon lost on TV because he didn’t look like someone you would want as president, and where emotional IQ is concerned, looks don’t always deceive. (102-103)

In the 70s the mandate of TV producers was to provide Least Objectionable Programming (LOP – in order to maximise ratings) – mainly because you would only see a programme once and not again. But with the advent of DVDs and the web, the chance to rewatch programmes has multiplied. Now the aim is to produce Most Repeatable Programming (MPR) Neil Postman was reacting rightly to the shallow and pathetic of 70s TV. But things are different. Programmes like The West Wing, Lost, 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, are light years away from 70s stuff – which is why they are so addictive, and more significantly, rewatchable:

The MRP model cultivates nuance and depth; it welcomes ‘tricks’ like backward episodes and dense allusions to Hollywood movies. Writing only a few years after Klein’s [LOP] speech, Neil Postman announced that two of television’s golden rules were: ‘Though shalt have no prerequisites’ (meaning that no previous knowledge should be required for viewers to understand a program) and ‘Thou shalt induce no perplexity.’ Postman had it right at the time, if you ignored the developing narrative techniques of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. But twenty years later, many of the most popular shows in television regularly flaunt those principles. (162)

The impact of the Internet

Steve Jobs on why the Internet is better than TV

Almost all forms of online activity sustained are participatory in nature: writing e-mails, sending IMs, creating photo logs, posting two-page analyses of last night’s Apprentice episode. Steve Jobs likes to describe the difference between television and the Web as the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. The networked computer makes you lean in, focus, engage, while television encourages you to zone out. (Though not as much as it used to, of course.) This is the familiar interactivity-is-good-for-you argument, and it’s proof that the conventional wisdom is every now and then, actually wise. (118)

On how the internet actually reverses a decades-long cultural trend:

Television and automobile society locked people up in their living rooms, away from the clash and vitality of public space, but the Net has reversed that long-term trend. After a half-century of technological isolation, we’re finally learning new ways to connect. (124)

Perhaps, the book overstates its case a bit. But it was definitely stimulating and thought-provoking. Which is all one really wants in a book. Especially if it is going to keep me away from watching the West Wing extras disk in my TWW boxed set.


Q’s AFRICA week: 2. How NOT to write about Africa

I’ve joined up to (RED)Wire – Bono & Co’s weekly music ‘magazine’ which gives you great music in aid of HIV/AIDS work in Africa – and I THOROUGHLY recommend that you do too. Fantastic stuff.

In the 2nd edition (the one which included U2’s I Believe In Father Christmas), is found this brilliant short. That hugely compelling Beninois actor Djimon Hounsou reads excerpts from a brilliantly satirical article written by a Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, for Granta Magazine. The background music is provided by another Kenyan Ayub Ogada, whom I’ve loved for ages. Some of his stuff was used for the film The Constant Gardener. 

All in all a powerful combination. So here it is:

Now read the original essay at Granta. It’s biting satire at its very best. Clichés are bad enough in literature – but when they simply re-enforce patronising stereotypes, they are dangerous. I find this acutely challenging and am all too conscious of falling foul of not a few clichés that he exposes.


Matthew Parris on form again – What Africa really needs

Picked up by a number of blogs, Matthew Parris has written a brilliantly provocative piece in today’s Times: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. He has wonderfully resisted the western secular agenda that lies behind so many development agencies, despite being an avowed atheist, with its barely disguised disdain for what is fundamental to African culture and life. But Parris knows what Africa is like – he was brought up in what is now Malawi, and has returned many times. And more importantly, he has seen what Christians actually do, and what impact it actually has

But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

The fascinating thing in all this is that Parris refers to the Christian God and not any other (especially not the Muslim god). As someone who has reservations about the value of a lot of development work in Africa, i have to say that this article has made a hugely important contribution. If only people would take it seriously.

Read the whole article – and some of the comments are great too. Here are 3:

It seems to me that Christianity inspires its adherents to build hospitals, schools, orphanages and clean water projects in a way that other religions do not. At the same time you hear so little of Christian suicide bombers walking into crowded Muslim weddings and blowing themselves up. Brice Baker, Waterford, USA

As an African I have to say well done Mr Parris. I may not agree 100% with all you’ve said, but I can detect this is coming from the heart and you do care about what happens to Africa. Ben U, Benin City, Nigeria

As an African, I applaud your ‘out of the box’ thinking, which is very much at variance with a neo- Marxist orthodoxy that seeks 2 blame colonialism and the West for Africa’s problems. Naturally, expect 2 be maligned by left-leaning intellects that fetishize the “Noble Savage”. A book next? Baraka, Washington, DC, USA


godless and penniless at christmas

HT to Brie Barton – from the New York Times. Very sad but perhaps all too real for many. Click to see enlarged.


I believed in Father Christmas… But I believe in the Israelite.

Well, it was inevitable I comment on this track, which U2 put out to launch (RED)Wire [back in 2008].

But it is stunningly beautiful and manages totally to avoid Christmas kitsch. In fact, it goes a lot further and actually communicates some surprises. Read more »


Some credit crunch virtual graffiti

I was in Canary Wharf (the heart of London capitalism) on Tuesday meeting up with a couple of guys from Church and couldn’t help a wry smile at the fact that the tube station was plastered in adverts for Citibank. So I’m afraid I have since indulged in a little virtual graffiti. At least you can’t get prosecuted for the virtual kind…



Confidence in a Credit Crisis

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.

Water, water everywhere … nor any drop to drink

We had our annual World Needs Sunday last Sunday (21st Sept) – one of our 2 annual gift days at All Souls when we ask for lots of money so that we can give it ALL away! And each year the organizing team take a theme – this year it was WATER. I was oblivious to so many of the global realities (despite having lived in E. Africa) until I had to do some research in preparation for my sermon on Sunday night. It is truly terrifying. Here are a few (taken from UNDP, WaterAid, UN Water etc):

  • 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation = almost 40% of world population.
  • 1.8 million children die annually from diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation = 5,000 per day.
  • African & Asian Women and girls walk an average of 6 km per day to collect water weighing up to 20 kg.
  • 40 billion working hours are spent carrying water each year in sub-Saharan Africa = a year’s labour for the entire French workforce.
  • £15 per head is all it costs for WaterAid to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.
  • For every £1 invested in sanitation, £9 is returned in increased productivity and
    a reduced burden of healthcare.

The UNDP Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is just one route to making a difference.

  • 1.2 billion people gained access to sanitation between 1990 and 2004.
  • 1.8 billion people will still need sanitation even if the 2015 MDGs sanitation goal to halve the proportion of people without sanitation is reached.
  • Cost of meeting both the water and sanitation MDGs targets every year until 2015 is US$11.3 billion.
  • Cost of meeting the sanitation MDGs target every year until 2015: US$9.5 billion. If the same investment was sustained, it could achieve basic sanitation for the ENTIRE WORLD within 20 years.

Now you think that’s a lot of money – until you read this. It’s inexcusable, don’t you think?

  • US$9.5 billion a year is only 1% of annual world military expenditure
  • US$9.5 billion a year is roughly 33% of annual world bottled water expenditure
  • For more check out these Water Aid and Tearfund stats pages.

One illustration of the seriousness of the current crisis couldn’t have been more graphic. In the morning, Gordon Molyneux from SIM was speaking. And he showed this terrifying map of how 95% of Lake Chad has simply disappeared in the last few 40 years.

In the evening sermon, I tried to give a bit of a biblical overview of the importance of water – both physical and spiritual. I confess I indulged myself and play a U2 song – except this was actually no indulgence, because Bono’s astounding WAVE of SORROW fitted precisely to the theme. I’ve posted about it before – and click there for a link to see Bono talking about why he wrote it.


Incidentally, Bono & Jeffrey Sachs are blogging here from the Millennium Development Goals summit for the Financial Times (HT: U2 Sermons).


TYPHOON – a new spy-novel that pulls no punches

Every now and then a book comes my way which gets under my skin – and I instantly feel a blog coming on. I love historical novels on the whole, and of course, they are in vogue – not only do they transport, but they can (should?) also educate. But from the novelist’s point of view, they provide great opportunities for invention and speculation since the periods they choose to inhabit are the preserve of only an educated few. Who’s to know where fact ends and fiction begins?

But to take very recent history, especially very public recent history, and then weave a credible narrative through it, takes some doing. Cumming has already proved his worth in this respect in previous novels. But this book, set first in 1997 handover-Hong Kong and then in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ratchets up his ambitions. And the results couldn’t be more topical. This is no private or obscure corner of history – it’s a matter of wide public record and even more widespread concern.

Of course, such ambitions could merely lead to a worthy but barely gripping journalistic account. But Cummming is a master of narrative suspense and intrigue. This is truly a page-turner and therefore deserves wide readership. The characters are finely drawn and credible – the relationships and tensions acutely (even excruciatingly) observed: in particular, the triangle between MI6 protagonist Joe, CIA agent Miles and the profoundly sympathetic but tragic Isabella. But we’re also taken on a whirlwind tour of Western expats in China muddling through with contradictory agendas and the seemier corners of Chinese lowlife, populated by wheeler dealers, thugs and (a very few) idealists, each drawn with skillful economy. As ever, however, in common with all great espionage writing, trust is the holy grail – and as ever in such circles it is in short supply.

But this is no airport pot-boiler – far from it. It offers an intelligent entry-point into complex affairs which rarely (if ever) make the headlines, let alone foreign affairs columns.

TYPHOON poses vital questions:

  • Since 9/11, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has obviously been at the forefront of international politics and diplomacy. But to what extent are groups like Al Qaeda the products of ill-informed, short-termist and ultimately doomed policies of covert American action? TYPHOON traces a similar trajectory – of how separatist Islamic terrorists in China wreak havoc funded by the western operatives.
  • Issues of Chinese human rights abuses abound today – especially because of the Olympics. But to what extent is raising the subject mere hypocrisy? Especially if the British and American do so?
  • What actually IS the role of the British secret service in a post-imperial world, especially when the CIA dwarfs its ‘cousins’ in resources, manpower and reach?
  • Isn’t ALL foreign policy and undercover action only really about OIL FIELDS in the end?

A chilling scene in a brilliant recent film sticks in my mind. In Syriana (George Clooney et al), a small team of frankly inept and profoundly ignorant, meddling CIA agents meets in a cocooned, air-conditioned office in Langley to plot the future of the Middle East – with absolutely disastrous consequences. TYPHOON describes a not dissimilar meeting, in Washington DC. When will we ever learn?

But don’t be put off by such intellectualizing! This is a cracking read – and in a work of fiction, that in the end is the acid test. To be stimulated by such vital questions on top of that is just a fantastic bonus.


ELF08 – the wariness of a post-communist mindset

During the plenary on the last night, one of the Hungarian delegates was interviewed (I think his name was Tom, but can’t be 100% sure – I’m very sorry if you’re reading this, ‘Tom’ – if you are, perhaps you can put me straight!!). He has been coming to the ELF for 5 years, but had been very discouraged by the consistently low turnout of fellow-Hungarians in previous years – until 2008, that is. This year we had a bumper crop, so at last the word really seems to be getting out. Part of the interview focused on why Hungarians had not signed up before, despite the fact that the ELF is now always held on home turf. His responses were fascinating:

  • One hurdle for Hungarians was the name itself – being called the European Leadership Forum made it sound like something far too big, remote and removed, not something that could connect locally. People have experienced first-hand what it is like for a nation to be swallowed up by a system that dwarfs them – so they are understandably nervous of anything that smacks of that. This is a real shame because the ELF, in contrast to many pan-European events, is acutely conscious of the need to serve the local, catering for cultural specifics despite the wide diversity. Once people cross that perception barrier, they discover the forum’s genius – that it really is about sharing international (and even global) resources locally. My guess is that this is a fear that many of us can relate to, though – especially amongst the more naturally Eurosceptic Brits. But it all just shows that when something big has the heart of serving and not controlling the local, it can be brilliant.**
  • The other point Tom made was very helpful. The ELF is incredibly well-run. An army of American volunteers pay for themselves to come and then work their socks off to ensure everything runs like clockwork. Fiendishly complex logistics are involved to make sure that the vast number of lectures and seminars are all coordinated, resourced and recorded (NB click on the ELF Resources button on the right for an archive of previous material). Unsurprisingly, a highly-organised administrative system is absolutely necessary. But this is highly intimidating to those who have experienced years of centralized state control systems in the former Communist bloc. They are immediately suspicious and wary – so much so that even the details required in the booking process can be enough to put them off. Again, once they come and experience the nature of the forum, it is immediately obvious why these are all necessary. But isn’t interesting how sometimes the very hallmark of an event that makes it work so well can become the stumbling block for people being able to appreciate it. There’s a sermon in there somewhere…

Tom was clear that he was not making a criticism of the ELF as such – it merely illustrates yet again how fraught working in cultures with very different historical inheritances can be. Hats off to him for being willing to be so open and clear – especially because it helped us all from the Western side of Europe to understand something of what they have to battle with.


** Incidentally, there was a classic moment earlier on in the week, on the day after the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. Stefan (a Swedish leader on the ELF steering group) was giving out the notices and had the privileged opportunity to announce the Eurovision results (which most will have missed as a result of living in our conference bubble). Unfortunately he didn’t have time to read out the whole list (so he claimed), but he did have time to announce the rank of the country with most ELF delegates present. There had been 25 entries in this year’s Eurovision finals. Because the UK had the highest numbers of ELF delegates, Stefan proudly announced that the UK had come 25th. AWESOME. Cheers and whoops of joy spread through this pan-European gathering, to congratulate the UK on this incomparable achievement. Oh, how we all swelled with pride.


ELF08 – the marks of Christian community: some Colossians gems from Lindsay Brown

My heart slightly sank when I noticed that Lindsay Brown’s morning expositions were going to be on Colossians. This was certainly not because Lindsay was doing it (!) but because I have been teaching through Colossians on the Bible Teachers’ Network and I was anxious about people getting Colossians overload. Instead, it has been very helpful for us all and complemented well. Over the course of the week, he has come out with some great lines and gems, as he has picked truths out from the text.

In particular, I’ve been struck by the points he has been making about how we form Christian community, and especially the differences these communities can (and should) make for members and non-members alike. This is so vital for a European individualistic culture which barely values society beyond its utilitarian personal advantages. And Colossians has MUCH to say to challenge this. Here are a number of illustrations and remarks from Lindsay’s 4 talks:

In Zimbabwe, during the bloody civil war on racial grounds during the 70s, that troubled country seemed as divided and traumatized as it is now. And race was the heart of the problem. And the University of Harare (or Salisbury as it then was) was as riven as the rest of the country – particularly vividly illustrated by standard operating procedure in the uni canteen. Whites on one side, blacks on the other. Except, that is, for the Christians. They were an integrated group – and deliberately sat together on tables right in the middle of the dining hall. During the first course, the white Christians got up and fetched the food and then served it to their black brothers and sisters; then for pudding, the blacks the same, serving their white brothers and sisters. And the effect on the rest of the university, without a single word of explanation or proclamation, was scandalously but marvelously electrifying. For it was clear to all that they were ONE body, united and mutually serving.

John Stott: We are to be morally distinct but not socially segregated… We should avoid “rabbit-hole Christianity”. We pop out of our holes into the world, but as soon we encounter something evil or corrupting, we rush back into our holes.

When things got really bad in Burundi around the time of the genocide in the early 90s, Tutsis were of course fleeing for their lives. The Chancellor of Bujumbura University made this extraordinary remark, despite the fact that he did not profess to be Christian. He announced: ‘Our culture is disintegrating. There are 3 groups of people on this campus: Hutus, Tutsis and Christians. They are the only ones who look beyond our differences and make a difference.

Meanwhile, in Rwanda, all the leaders and graduates of the national Christian student movement were killed – with only one exception. Only one staffworker was left. Lindsay was there a year later and as well as the appalling shock and agony of what had happened, the obvious question was why had they been picked on specifically. It transpired that the week before the genocide broke out (but when the storm clouds were gathering) Hutus & Tutsis met publicly on campus together, holding hands and singing songs together – “we are one in Christ, one in the Spirit”. And for that they died.

Another key theme has been the need to cultivate an attitude of constant thankfulness. Not least because this challenges our independent-mindedness. Hence this challenging line from the great Schaeffer:

Francis Schaeffer: The first sign of backsliding is lack of thankfulness (cf Col 3:15)

But the most important thing is how all-embracing our discipleship should be (I guess that is one of the ELF’s constants). There were various illustrations of this:

Lindsay remarked to the 25-yr old son of a key European Christian leader that it was interesting how few sons of great leaders became leaders themselves. The response was very helpful indeed: ‘Why should they? Leadership is a gift of God – and not everyone has that gift. As long as they are trusting in Christ, they are complete in Christ, and as long as they are exercising whatever their gifts have for him, that is ok.” Spot on.

Sir Fred Catherwood (former VP of the European Parliament): To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.

But with so many people at the forum from the former Eastern Bloc / Communist countries, the challenges of living in a corrupt society are daily reality. But even if we don’t all find ourselves facing that directly, we all increasingly find ourselves surrounded by hostility. So how do we handle this? Well, here are some helpful principles for those seeking to make their stand in all walks of public life (whether commercial, political or artistic). These are loosely based on the life and witness of the prophet Daniel in Babylon:

  • Set clear ethical standards from the start
  • Develop a support group (of people who understand the challenges of your workplace or context) – John Wesley: The bible knows nothing of solitary discipleship
  • Consider the cost of compromise (so you know what you lose if you do)
  • Be prepared for sacrifice – the Lord doesn’t often deliver immediately – and sometimes the sacrifices last until the day we breathe our last. Our call is to fidelity.