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Archive for January, 2011

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January 31, 2011

31-1-11 … and *seventhly*…

31-1-11 …and *seventhly*…

This: a remark reportedly overheard on a tour of Oxford Colleges in the Summer holidays: two resident dons, deep in conversation as they passed by the tour-party in a courtyard:-
‘…and, mm, ninthly…’

“Myth # 6 – I’ve done too many bad things for God to accept me.
God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son to die a cruel death for the sins of the world. That means that He died for OUR sins – past, present and future. That means ALL of them. That is a promise from God Himself and God can’t go back on a promise, because He cannot lie. God is not surprised by our sin. He knew we would do the things we do. Jesus was a friend of sinners during His time on earth. They are who He came to save. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus paid a heavy price to allow you a relation -ship with a holy God. But we have to personally accept the free gift of salvation. ”

“Myth # 7 “Christians think they are better than others.”
In reality, real Christians realize that the only difference between them and the next person is that they are forgiven. That’s the big difference between someone who is a real Christian and someone who is not – simply forgiveness. I know that as a Christian I will still sin – do things that offend God – but I know that those sins have been paid for by what Jesus did on the cross. All I need to do is confess those things to God (agree with God that something is wrong) and they are forgiven. I can live in the light of forgiveness and not guilt. That’s GOOD NEWS. That doesn’t make me better than anyone else, just forgiven. Some might think that I can now do anything I want, but why would I want to hurt someone who has done so much for me.”

The last of the Myths.
#6 is a retread of #4.
#7 is a cosmetic gesture of humility in contrast with the assertions of the previous myths.
Are Christians as a whole more gifted with wisdom, compassion, altruism or even agreement amongst themselves than any other random sample of the population? Does the profession of faith guarantee better behaviour? Clearly great and heroic aid and advocacy are undertaken in the name of Christ, which serve to mitigate the organised abuse of power and privilege and sanctimonious mean-mindedness purportedly sanctioned, sometimes as ‘obligation’ under authority of The Word.
Certainly the Christian believes that s/he has struck the necessary bargain and as a result has the unique opportunity to converse with the one true God and assurance that all his/her sins are therefore forgiven – those confessed and those committed in weak human ignorance. The entire premise of this leaflet is that unless you accept the User Agreement no amount of conscious effort to be a merely ‘good person’ will suffice. The non-contract holder can never be good enough and is in fact electing to be banished from salvation for thus causing infinite offence to God. The Service User agrees to do his/her best with the assurance that right or wrong, infinite forgiveness is assured because s/he is more than merely good.
Does this suggest that the Christian is better than the infidel? Hmm, yep… certainly looks like it. The Christian author of the leaflet has already stated that on his own terms he’s kicked away any mitigating ‘excuses’ I might offer on Judgement Day because I’m not struck by the irrefutable logic of his argument. Note the use of the lower-case pronoun in that sentence.
One very good reason for not labelling my faith – and by strictly rational terms I do entertain certain ‘magical’ metaphysical thought, maybe closer to philosophical aesthetics than Bible-bound faith – is that to declare oneself Christian is to inherit a range of inhumane and plain daft conviction held by others claiming to act in the name of God, by Christ’s grace. Hmm, well, yes, Christian possibly, but not like those Christians.

The leaflet goes on: “Now there are other myths that I could go on about and I imagine that you are surprised that I read your mind so well, but all people think basically alike.”

OK, you tell me. How well did you read my mind? I can only judge by the quality of the answers if my thought-process is so transparent.
The Myths – in this context, widely-held misapprehensions – comprise a FAQ, not an exercise in uncanny perceptiveness since ‘all people think basically alike’. Good, then we can all agree. The inspiration may be divine but the arguments presented are clearly man-made.

At this point, I took a break and pulled a crossword book from the shelf – one of several left around the place. Inside the back cover, not an obvious place to look, I discovered that this is the book I had in hospital last year, distinctive because in spidery handwriting I’d listed 27 possible inclusions in a Gospel Set I’d considered putting together with my guitar-buddy, the author of the leaflet.
Out of sentimental affection for the certainties of my Sunday School faith and out of interest in working up fresh and fetching arrangements for faith-communities and as a collection of religious folk-music for non-affiliates, I’d listed pieces I knew my friend would enjoy, playing to his musical strengths and personal vocation.
They include Ancient And Modern hits like Crimond, Immortal Invisible, How Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds, Love Divine All Loves Excelling; Old Time gospel-tent rousers I Will Fly Away, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, Down To The River To Pray (I have a special affection for Doc Watson’s version), Wade In The Water and – ‘my’ song in the circs – Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold Me Down; and contemporary takes like The Byrds’ Turn Turn Turn, Johnny C’s When The Man Comes Around, Judy Sill’s Jesus Was A Cross-Maker, Edwin Hawkins’ Oh Happy Day and Willie Nelson’s My Body’s Just A Suitcase For My Soul.
I’ve done a medley of Randy Newman’s God’s Song and He Gives Us All His Love segueing into the Depeche Mode/ Johnny Cash Personal Jesus in the past without any twinge of conscience before God but I’d refrained from doing it at my friend’s acoustic club in case sensibilities would be – needlessly – offended.
Now I’ve read through the leaflet I feel less inclined to appear to endorse that ministry.
Was the chance (should I say ‘chance’?) discovery of The Gospel Set God’s way of reminding me that He is still there? A reminder that I was inclined to be inclusive? His prompt to pursue the project regardless?
I guess it all depends what you mean by…

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28-1-11 Myth understanding

28-1-11  Myth understanding

Back again at the Myths. Again this is more accurately a Reply than an Answer. Again there’s a peculiar inclusion in the list that begins the Reply.

“Myth # 5 – Christianity is just a crutch for people who can’t cope with life.
Reply: Everyone needs help to get through life. What do you use? Money? alcohol? education? sex? will power? a social scheme? They are all crutches which will sooner or later let us down.  You don’t have to look too far to find someone who ruined their lives because they used these things as a crutch. But Jesus promises us His power which will never let us down. Just because we accept Jesus into our lives many years after we are born does not mean that it isn’t something which is supposed to be a natural part of us. God gives a choice to each individual person, one at a time – to those who want to accept it and to make it part of their lives. He doesn’t force us. It is not just something from the outside which props us up, but a power from within that helps us be who we were created to be. We receive this power by making a conscious decision in our adult life to accept it. This decision finally completes us. People seem to think that if we weren’t born with it, then we don’t need it. God gives us a choice as to whether to take Him into our lives or not. He didn’t create us to be his robots. By the way, over the last 25 years, I have used the so – called “crutch” of Christianity to help people find freedom from all the other crutches in this world. They have been ever so grateful. Maybe you will too someday.”

My name is Graham and I have lifelong education-habit.
Blame my environment. Before I started school I was using books, dabbling with sounding the alphabet, handwriting and reading a few words. To my immature mind, this was just a recreational flirtation with education, on a par with mastering colouring-in. Encyclopoediae were left around casually, within the reach of small children, and I confess I used them pretty indiscriminately.  Children’s Bibles were a familiar feature of the landscape. From an early age I was actively encouraged to use dictionaries and young thrill-seeker that I was I got a significant hit off ingesting new vocabulary (I still believe that the range of your vocabulary represents the pixel-resolution of your thought – see also Orwell’s ‘newspeak’).
In time I might have grown out of this curiosity but at 5 I had no choice but to take controlled doses of education in a Nursery School. Soon I was chanting times-tables and reading Janet And John books. See John read. See Janet run. Run, Janet. See John run too. I got really excited about the substructure of verbs, adjectives, adverbs, varieties of nouns – that language itself was a mesh of metaphor: how to read the map that described the territory.
Teachers encouraged me to derive inordinate satisfaction from learning, forging a Pavlovian response to the reward of 10/10 in classroom tests. I didn’t know they had an agenda – to lead me to Godless scepticism – I just liked that hit of pleasure from a marked paper with a stick-on gold star and a handwritten ‘well done’ or – bliss – ‘Excellent’.
By the time I’d reached the crucial teenage exams, by common and mutual consent I was a poor academic, reading around the set topics and diving into tangents and connections rather than settling to learn the required inventory of tickworthy facts; a hedonistic book-user, so buzzing with ideas that a one-hour exam wasn’t enough time for me to scribble them all down. The intelligent thing would’ve been to buckle down, learn the rules of the game and apply them. Many of my brighter friends had prepared answers to a selection of likely exam questions, played by the rules of the game and produced healthy grades. I was just a little book-junkie, reading Baudelaire and Rilke, e.e.cummings and Don Marquis for fun when I should’ve been mugging up on pantheism in the nature-poetry of Wordsworth; interested in the balance of need and drives in the psychology of the Macbeths rather than memorising lines and building an inventory of significant plot-points with close reference to the set text; addicted to covering acres of sugar-paper with mixes of powder-paint, with special dispensation to hang out in the Art Room at lunchtimes, where incidentally I discovered why Hieronymous Bosch was more ‘authentic’ than the stunning Dali and became beguiled by Odilon Redon’s lithographs, Vermeer’s mysterious lucid interiors and Breughel’s allegories.
Education hasn’t let me down; I guess you could say I let my education down. I dabbled, where others were more hardcore, mainlining erudition, getting into habits of systematic study. I can make lots of inroads into a range of knowledge but talking to specialists I realise that my tracks run along ridges with dizzying abysses of ignorance to either side. There’s always more to learn; the impulse to curiosity hasn’t let me down and it’s not driven by a belief that at some point I’ll know it all. As I’ve mentioned, when I say to my friend the author – or at least the purveyor – of The Myths, that I can’t claim to know the mind of God, that if God is this ‘infinite person’ he refers to, His thought is of a different order to ours, he labels this not due humility but intellectual arrogance.
I’m surprised to find education listed as a ‘crutch’ which will sooner or later let me down. I’m not surprised to find it listed here as anathema to faith. Repeatedly I feel as if this series of arguments is designed to drag me by the ear back to Sunday School and abandon critical faculties which have served me well in spotting and disarming nonsense rhetoric in news reports and other superstition.
I note here that although God doesn’t ‘force’ us to believe,  the penalties for not believing are ‘dire’. The claims made here for His sustaining and transformative powers are echoed by converts to all religions and none.
In everyday conversations with friends and acquaintances troubled by doubts and conflicts in difficult episodes I draw on techniques borrowed from Cognitive Behavioural practice (I have reservations about labelling this ‘therapy’ – CBT) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP -ditto some reservations about the ‘Programming’). I’m encouraged when I hear phrases like ‘I’d never thought about it like that’, meaning that I’ve properly understood and paraphrased the situation, re-framing the possible response to it, taking into account the individual’s experience and core beliefs. Does the fresh angle make sense to them, however obvious the solution may appear to me with the benefit of third-party detachment? I take care not to call this my ‘objective’ viewpoint; my view of the ‘human’ dimension isn’t a clinical analysis but must necessarily be mediated by my own experience.
Very often people feel uneasy because they feel the pressure to put right situations beyond their direct control or to fit roles imposed on them by others. On occasions these can include a sense of their own flawed and ‘sinful’ nature, a consistent failure to behave ‘perfectly’, exactly the unrealistic expectations suggested as appropriate by the ministry outlined in The Myths. Like advertising, the Myths raise anxieties, a sense of unsatisfactoriness, to promote the product as a solution.
I’m reminded of Ambrose Bierce: “Pray, v.: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.” See also: “Faith, n: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”
I’m also struck by the rhetorical device of refuting arguments that the questioner poses entirely in order to knock them down. Actually I know that many feel better able to face the world with a faith-explanation. If this leads them to aspire to do better and to engage in society with altruism and compassion I’m not overly concerned with the verifiable Truth of the proposition. To paraphrase this Myth, the device can be a ‘belief’ in crystals, dream-catchers, Nature spirits, various interpretations of ‘ancient wisdom’. I’m not personally persuaded though I’m interested to know what’s meant by the common accompanying phrase ‘It works for me’.
On that premise, I note the pejorative phrasing of faith as ‘just (merely) a crutch’. This is a token gesture at playing the dismissive Devil’s Advocate, easy to argue against because it’s so reductive; you don’t have to take a faith-stand to acknowledge that the adoption of a faith is far more complex than that.
Just as you can embed value-judgement in the superficially synonymous choice of dog, hound, mutt, cur, ‘best friend’, canine or specific variety – ‘bulldog’, ‘rotweiller’, poodle’ – to indicate a species, ‘crutch’ implies a heavily-loaded emotional value, a device only for the halt and lame.

Essentially this series of loaded and manipulative pitches requires you to have faith in the author. He will say that he’s merely acting as the earthly voice of God, but in practice it’s the interpreter’s voice you must attend to uncritically. Again, I wonder whether he accepts that the Myths are manipulative, partisan and not entirely honest – sincere, no doubt, but not scrupulous – or whether he doesn’t see why questions about them are appropriate, or doesn’t care. Whatever the case, am I encouraged to believe that he is a reliable interpreter of greater more complex truths?
New readers will have to begin at the beginning of this month’s notes-to-self if I say here that although I’m mulling over queries raised by this suite of ‘myths’, the credibility of the author to speak with any authority other than on his product-knowledge of a particular faith-franchise is staked on his ability to present a persuasive picture of a reality beyond the mundane, rather than to carry off a job of mundane rhetorical persuasion.
As a first-time reader I would assume that these myths were intended to provoke questions and to elicit more comprehensive and comprehensible responses. Experience tells me that in fact the arguments are as take-it-or-leave it as they appear here.

As William Booth encouraged rousing, cheerful music in the Salvation Army  – ‘Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?’ – my impression of Alpha and its adherents, from anecdotal accounts of unpersuaded attendees and from the vids I was encouraged to watch, is that it takes leads from advertising and marketing: why should the Devil have all the best sales-pitches? Hey, if this presentation works for holiday time-share ‘seminars’, why not use the same schtick to sell perpetual leases in the Eternal Sunshine resort?

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January 28, 2011

26-1-11 Bankers

26-1-11

Remember where were you when the US banks detonated the toxic debt bombs under the foundations of the World Trade structures? No, me either. It was a silent detonation that set off a chain of self-destructing financial instruments farmed out to sleeper-cells around the globe. Made the amateur efforts of September 11th look like joy-riders knocking over bollards on the ring-road. The reverberations are blowing holes in High Streets across the UK to this day, leaving the unemployed and repossessed high and dry, to, uh, sink or swim.
The men responsible were of course hunted down, like those sponsors of international terrorism in their enclaves in, e.g. Boston, Mass. Sorry, my mistake, that was Osama bin Laden. Yep, there was going to be a crusade… sorry, I mis-spoke myself… a surgical strike to get ‘the bad guys’ and bring’em back dead or alive from their hideouts in the Torabora caves.
Still looking.
They found the bankers, though, tried very hard to make them say sorry, bailed out the shattered structure they’d presided over and allowed them to collect six-figure bonuses to stop them selling their expertise to foreign powers. That showed’em.
So… I’m getting to know my new neighbourhood: the pharmacy, the local barber, the bank.
Mine’s the one with the horse rampant, rearing up to say ‘suck on this, taxpayers!’. They also run those TV ads where terribly cute button-eyed characters with curiously phallic noses live in a lovely lovely world to the sound of sopranos singing ethereal coloratura like Enya on helium, made even more comfortable by the bank’s handy plastic cards and its special eagerness to help on ‘the journey’. Auntie Julie Walters tells me so.
Meanwhile, in a freezing wind on the neighbourhood street I go to the ATM for cash to give the hairdresser and notice the loading-screen with a picture of one of the simpering personnikins inviting me to top up my mobile in 1,2,3 steps – ‘It’s That Easy!’
Well, I’ve used the local supermarket and WH Smith so far, but golly, time to learn to use this helpful facility there at my fingertips, 1,2,3. Easy as that.
I insert my card, Step 1. No sign of Step 2: select Top Up Phone. Cancel.
Try the card again. Again, the usual cash and pin services display. I try ‘PIN services’ in case it’s hiding there. Nothing doing. Cancel.
I go into the bank to try the machine there.
Same familiar screen. Cancel.
I’m worrying a little now in case all this activity shows up as suspicious, so I ask at the counter and a very friendly woman comes around to help me.
I try again as she does that new etiquette of looking away as I feed my number in. The same screen.
‘Hmm. That shouldn’t happen.’
Ah,good, so it’s not just me.
‘Try again.’
I try again and again she turns away and turns back and looks at the same screen.
‘I’m only visiting from my own branch and it always works there. I’ll get…’ er, call him Bill… ‘Bill, who looks after the machines in this branch.’
Ah, an ATM wrangler, now we’re getting somewhere. She goes back behind the plate-glass and confers with Bill. Bill comes out and asks me to try again. Same screen.
‘Hang on, I’ll try with my card… there we are!’
He-ey! Top-up shows up!
‘Try again.’ I try again. Familiar mundane services screen.
Bill goes back behind the plate-glass and disappears into a back office. He reappears and peers at a monitor behind the counter as I lean against the reassuring bulk of the outside ATM’s cash reservoir and several other customers file past to use the interior one. He scribbles on a piece of paper and disappears again into the interior.
Bill reappears and apologises. He has another call on his time but if I’d care to take a seat around the corner, another colleague will deal with it.
I take a seat and read as few pages of ‘Just My Type: A book about fonts’ by Simon Garfield – a shrewd late Xmas pres from my bro, who’s struck just my geek-level with this one. I’m reading about readability vs. legibility as I wait. More to say about this when I’ve finished.
The Colleague comes and sits beside me. Call her, oh… Mandy.
‘They say…’ Uh-huh, the antennae go up when a sentence begins ‘they say’. They rarely have good news.
‘They say that you can’t use a business debit card to do top-ups.’
Mmm, yes?
‘Because it’s a company card, there may be several cards issued and anyone might use them without authorisation.’
Er, wouldn’t that be one of the convenient uses for a business card? Wouldn’t the company accountant see who’d used the card and how?
‘Well, they say that because it’s a business card you can’t use it for top-ups’
I’m hearing the start of a little circular discussion familiar from previous dealings with banking problems.
But I’m a sole trader, there’s only one card.
‘Well they say that as it’s a business card they don’t let you use it for top-ups’
But if anyone is in a position to confirm that only one card was issued, it’s… uh, the bank.
‘Well, that’s what they say. They say…’
OK, so there’s no particular reason why I can’t use my individual card which will be recorded as unique. It’s just company policy.
‘That’s what they told me. you know, I can’t do anything about it.’
Could I use my credit card?
‘No, it has to be a debit card.’
OK, so I now know not to try to use the bank’s simple 1,2,3 steps to top up my phone. After all, the screen only says ‘It’s As Easy As That’, it doesn’t say how easy that is. That’s how easy it is, it’s simply impossible.
Twenty minutes or so to discover this.
On the way home I stop off at the local One-Stop convenience store. The blooming scoundrels don’t ask questions. I could be member of my own sales force trying to defraud myself out of £10; phone-card in and out, debit card in and out and I’m free and clear and on the lam, phone topped up and receipt in hand in less than two minutes.
Good job the bank employees weren’t with me on the journey home.

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January 24, 2011

24-1-11 Akismet, har-di-har!

24-1-11

Why did I hesitate so long before activating spam-guzzling plug-in Akismet? Last I looked it reported 137 junk mails diverted and 23 sent straight to the spam naughty-corner here at Bloggingham Towers to be picked off at leisure.

I get some space to myself and still have the opportunity to see examples of blogspam and jetsam caught in the filters. Akismet team, salut maintenant mes amis!

“If you be deficient in speak for this forum or any other net page U shoould tote up it to multifarious network directory. If you see angelic directory you shoul visit my site.”

I think I to understand such entreaty almost a little. I’m very tempted by the angelic directory; no more hanging around awaiting random epiphanies and annunciations and such, just click that link and chat to cherubim and seraphim on-line now! Actually it may have been an ethereal reader who spake thus:-

“What is the feature of this? I really do not understand you. But as I said earlier human beings are complex animals, they do things that are not always accurate . Well maybe I have a rotten day , I should go and do some training, maybe that assists to find some good sensation”

This really is true. I do do things that are not always accurate and I am a complex animal. How did that Beach Boys number go? I’m picking up good sensations, I’m getting some education…

“This is truly a fantastic interpret for me, Have to declare you happen to be 1st from the top-quality bloggers I e’er met.Thanx 4 mailing this didactic article.”

Easy, fellah. I don’t happen to be 1st from the top quality bloggers. It don’t come easy. You have to learn, like, grammar and that to do truly fantastic interprets like I done.

“Substantially, the post is really the freshest on this notable topic. I fit in with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to your upcoming updates. I want to say thanks will not just be adequate, for the great clarity in your documentation. I will right away grab your rss feed to stay informed of any updates. Gratifying work and much success in your business dealings!”

One at a time guys, this could turn a chap’s head. I didn’t Approve this one because, well, who wants to brag that readers of these nocturnal e-missives are thirsty – thirsty! – for one’s upcoming updates. I think he must’ve been passing the time drinking a lot of prune juice to produce such gushing output. Grab my rss, indeed. What cheek.

“What a good written information! This is very worthed to read and also easy to understand. I will look for more such blog post! Hey, do you have linked.id or twitter? I recommend it on social bookmarking sites just like as dig! However, thanks for this article.”

It is ever my aim to be both worthed to read and easy to understand. And no, I do not tweet nor twitter. I do not dig it, Sam-I-Am.

“Surprising time in here; I forget to do my other activity because of your wonderful site. It doesn’t matter with me, because it is worthed and I will learn new knowledge, hope progressively I can meet with your speech. Linguists and educationalists (in my school) had conflicted and debated in several subject, I got the correction when I read the full article here. The positive effects of debatable discussion in my school are great brain for future time (for me and for my friends).”

See? confirmation that I am worthed to read, dispensing new knowledge like billy-oh. Those linguists and educationalists – they let them into your school? – know diddly, take it from me. Just keep reading my debatable discussion and you and your friends may be assured of great brain in future time. Not now – I can hardly muster adequate brain myself at present – but in future time. Trusssst in meee, jusst in meee…

This is about a third of this eager student’s valediction. Less less is much more, I find…

Lastly for the moment, proof that my readers are not merely international but interplanetary, this tourist gives notice that the Mother Ship will get relayed highlights…

“I would just like to let ufo know how much I learn from your website Bookmarked book ! be back fast for some more good articles!”

Be back fast soon for more good articles!

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January 18, 2011

15-1-11 Meditation

15-1-11

This meditation came to mind a couple of days ago and even in the throes of relocation I remembered the book – God Of A Hundred Names, ed. Greene&Gollancz – and the shelf where I’d set aside the stack of poetic metaphysics ready for transit. This opening passage struck me when I first read it 25 years ago and it’s lodged…

“Say to thyself, Marcus, at dawn; today I shall run up against the busybody, the ungrateful, the overbearing, the deceitful, the envious, the self-centred. All this has fallen to their lot because they are ignorant of good and evil. But I, understanding the nature of the Good, that it is fair, and of Evil, that it is ugly, and the nature of the evil-doer himself, that he is my kin – as sharing, not indeed the same blood and seed, but intelligence and a spark of the Divine – can neither be damaged by any of them (for no-one can involve me in what is disgraceful) nor can I be angry with my kinsman nor estranged from him. For we have been born for cooperation, as have hands, feet, eyelids and the rows of upper and lower teeth. Therefore to thwart one another is unnatural; and we do thwart one another when we show resentment and dislike.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Stoic

Christmas and New Year already definitely feel like last year; it was New Year’s Eve 2009(!) when awoke in post-op Intensive Care I thought ‘hello, here I am’ and therefore knew I was, and realised as I thought it that I’d arrived at this conclusion by Cartesian deduction. Thank you, René; I don’t know if I actually smiled at this helpful diagnostic but I felt like it.
This time last year I was in a new world, comfortably anaesthetised, ticking audibly like a pantomime crocodile, a row of waxy-brittle sutures up my chest, on watch for odd body sensations and unable to judge whether they were related to the condition, the aftermath of the surgery, the medication or the wear and tear of age exposed by the resultant fragility, dammit (or in German, da mit).
I spent a lot of time in the recovery ward thanking anyone within earshot who had any part in any routine procedure, including the cleaning staff. I should say ‘ anyone within conversational range’, unlike some other patients – patients! – who bypassed the attention-button by the bed and shouted ‘Nurse… nurse… nurse!’ until someone turned up at the bedside – one in particular who’d greet the nurse with “I’ve been calling for five minutes!’. I took to keeping time myself and found that I sometimes had to listen to him for as long as two minutes, though it began to feel much longer.
I was advised on diet, exercise, the effect of anticoagulants – look out for spontaneous nosebleeds and bruising, use an electric razor, more dietary restrictions. A range of food I’d thought irreproachably good for the heart turns out to be bad for Warfarin – green leafy veg, chick peas, cranberry, grapefruit, wheat bran and oats, avocado and even olive oil (which in any case, the heart-health advice man told me, turns to a Bad Oil when heated in cooking). Mature and blue cheeses are of course in any case not good in quantity but, oh man, I watch Wallace and Gromit adventures with a sigh; cheese runs ice-cream a close second in my yummy treats stakes.
These days I’ve regained confidence in the proper razor and no longer fear Kill Bill spouts of claret if I break the skin, though biting my tongue can cause hours of seepage, particularly embarrassing when I look in the mirror and discover traces of overflow at the corners of my mouth, like a very low budget Nosferatu.
The first electric’s foils developed little threadbare spaces for the buzzy blades to poke through within a couple of months, just enough to leave a pimply effect of little nicks which didn’t seep but didn’t heal easily either, and the spares proved more expensive to replace than the cost of a new razor. Both took an age to clear the stubble in those circular motions that feel like you’re colouring-in with a big crayon; neither gave that freshly de-fuzzed sensation that soap and blade can in a few decisive sweeps.
A year ago I had a very acute sense of being ‘in’ a body that had proved prone to all manner of unpredictable mechanical failure and when I was able to ask for the catheter to be removed    – a very queasy moment despite a deft tug by the nurse – and get about slowly but independently, I felt like I was cradling the newly installed prosthetic valve and aortic lining as if they were made of thermometer glass.
This careful plod was made more interesting by the occasional loss of balance when the ward floor felt as if it was the deck of a Channel Ferry.
This illusion of riding the swell became a regular feature for a few months, unpredictable but a routine ‘one of those’ and it reached a peak last Autumn when I had bouts that felt exactly like the vertigo of dropping from the peak of a steep roller-coaster even though I was seated. Closing my eyes to shut out the room slowly skewing around me, I’d chance a glance and find I was sitting ‘upright’ at about 30 degrees.
I was advised in those first few weeks to place a hand on my chest if I sneezed or coughed in case I sprang open like a rack of lamb. Gentle exercise was recommended so long as the arms didn’t rise above shoulder-level.
As ever, I wondered about that sense of a continuous mind’s-I, the sense of a ‘me’ that persisted in all these changes, and I reminded myself that at some point in an unspecified future the experience would be an episode I’d look back on. Happily, here ‘I’ am, ticking along.

This reflection on the persistent I-dentity was prompted by the rediscovery of a copy of Norman Lindsay’s ‘The Magic Pudding’ given to me by a neighbour on my 6th birthday, now missing its cover but intact with its rattling rhymes, bad manners and bouts of fisticuffs – quite unsuitable for small children in that awf-ly polite era, which may account for my lasting affection for it. The Magic Pudding, Albert, encourages its keepers to dig in and take slices. It’s self-replenishing and provides any flavour you wish for; truly the cake you can eat and have, and thus a tempting target for Puddin’ Thieves, hence the necessity for robust defence by Bill Barnacle, sailor (ret’d), and his doughty companion Sam Sawnoff, penguin.
As the truculent Puddin’ says, impatient with the well-bred hero Bunyip Bluegum, koala, who considers Albert’s demand that a slice be cut for him ‘very polite’:-
“Politeness be sugared, politeness be hanged,
Politeness be jumbled and tumbled and banged
It’s simply a matter of putting on pace,
Politeness has nothing to do with the case.”
I also keep the copies of the Winnie-The-Pooh books I inherited from my mother and inscribed ‘From Uncle Andrew, 1937’ – her 6th birthday – and I still admire the writing, but The Magic Pudding retains its subversive thrill.

The cardiac health advice is that while oily fish is Good, seafood is Bad for cholesterol levels, so – bah! – I have to be wary of king-prawn Chinese dishes, which can also be too salty for my own good. Being top of the food-chain is of course no guarantee that The Prawn can’t get you back at the best of times. The Slightly-Off Prawn Diet can be a dramatic appetite-suppressant if you have a couple of days to spare while it works through.
Now I have to be wary of my appetite for Chinese cuisine, so… raise a glass of mineral-water to The Chung Ying on Chester Rd., who do a range of treats-in-moderation I can order with only slight impact on my conscience and also, I’ve discovered, the non plus ultra of chips, crisp on the outside, light inside and in little baggy-portions that preserve me from the Friday night indulgence of generous chip-shop scoops and the attendant temptation to top them up with chicken kebab-meat which I tell myself is the ‘healthy’ option until I’ve finished and feel as if I’ve taken a broadside amidship and swallowed a quantity of the Briny.
The Puddin’ again:-
‘Onions, bunions, corns and crabs,
Whiskers, wheels and hansom cabs
Beef and bottles, beer and bones
Give him a feed and end his groans.’

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January 13, 2011

11-1-11 Goodness

11-1-11 Snark Country

If you want to hunt Snark, the manual states that you need thimbles and hope, and The Bellman teaches us ‘if I say it three times it is true’. In this work, Carroll is telling us that he has first written it, The Bellman spake thus and we have repeated it in our hearts, thus satisfying the Rule Of Three and its truth-conditions.
What do we mean by Truth? It is also written in The Complete Works that Humpty-Dumpty tells us: when I use a word it means what I want it to mean, no more, no less.
Need I state that this is as true as the statement ‘This statement is untrue’?
To save time, I shall state the obvious, that I am facetiously playing with words. I’ve been quoting the Myths verbatim to ensure fair play rather than paraphrasing selectively to my advantage, so I can vouch that the following statement, though hard to believe, is not made up:-

“Myth #4 – I’m a good person, I’ll go to heaven when I die.
Reply: The Bible states that no one is good enough to get to heaven by his own good deeds and this is the book by which all of us will be judged.  Remember that when we lie, lust, cheat or gossip we have offended an infinite being (God) infinitely. How could we ever put those things right? It’s impossible. We need a sacrifice which is of infinite value to pay for those offences. We can’t do that ourselves. We are helpless. We need an infinite person to do this for us and this comes in the form of a saviour  – someone to save us from being condemned by God someday when we die. I would say that most of the people whom I talk with do not understand this concept. They spend their lives trying to pay God  back for their sins or trying to forget about Him altogether. They both have dire consequences. Hell is a horrible place to spend eternity. Why not have forgiveness the way that God wants you to have it?”

In a radio panel game years – gasp! decades! – ago Ian Wallace told an anecdote about his daughter when she was very young. Her pet hamster died and she wanted to give it a proper burial in a shoe-box coffin and a grave was gravely dug in the garden and she conducted her own Service, which ended ‘In the name of The Father, and in The Son, and in the hole he goes.”
If that child had been run over by a bus on the morrow, clearly she was bound for hell. She had heard The Word and made up her own interpretation. (For scholars in succeeding millenia, I should make it clear that however many times you encounter the phrase we do not actually believe in the Omnipresent Omnibus Of Fate).
On her Judgement Day, would we expect God to behave like a jobsworth returns-counter clerk, listening to her excuses and demanding proof of purchase, claiming that there was nothing He could do for her as she was aware of company policy as stated in the Terms And Conditions?
In passing and simply because it occurs to me, one of my favourite indie comic artists, Ed Pinsent – employed by the Diocese of Southwark last I heard – did a comic-strip memoir about mishearing The Lord’s Prayer as a child and going in dread for a while of The Eagle, so terrible a creature that he had to ask God to deliver him from it. See also: yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death I shall fear no Eagle.
To save you making this point too, I do know that it is written ‘suffer little children to come unto me’, so I trust that God will make due allowance and use both Skill and Judgement. As a child, I was unfamiliar with the use of ‘suffer’ to mean ‘allow’, so I imagined in a comma after it and believed that it was part of the deal that you earned your place at His feet by suffering. Even now, I’m not so sure that this wasn’t a spark of theological precocity.
I once interviewed Rabbi Lionel Blue for a newspaper article, ostensibly to introduce a public-speaking tour. We spoke on the phone for about an hour and it was I who reluctantly ended the conversation in deference to what I imagined must have been his busy schedule. He’d been unfailingly patient and happy to follow the conversation wherever it led. I was more than happy to listen to his witty, kind and articulate replies and uniquely I submitted as much of the recorded interview as possible verbatim and uninterrupted (I had it returned with the editorial instruction to ‘break it up with questions’, which felt like a waste of column inches and as if I’d somehow made the rabbi into my ventriloquist’s dummy).
He said that when he was given his first synagogue he spent the first months in accord with his training, teaching people How To Be Good. He noticed though that when people came to him for advice, what they really wanted to know was How To Be Happy. It was that which prompted him to begin to teach with jokes, because when the congregation laughed they were for that moment less disposed to anger and envy, more disposed to see alternatives to despair ‘… and so we arrived at truths by another route.’
I asked him what it meant to be ‘good’ and he said he really wasn’t the one to make that judgement but for example when he walked about the London streets he constantly saw the homeless and hopeless. At this remove I have to paraphrase but the content made immediate and lasting sense: “I never give them money because you don’t know whether you may be giving them the means to harm themselves further, so I never go out without a packet of sandwiches to give someone, but more important, while they eat or share the sandwiches I give them my time. There’s no better way to become invisible in a busy street than to be conspicuously poor and distraught, so your attention is important. Sometimes they’re so angry and lonely that they just want to shout at you. Well, that’s OK, if they want to shout at somebody it may as well be me.’
I don’t know what prompts me routinely to give Big Issue sellers outside the supermarket a pound-coin – less than the cover-price but I don’t take an Issue. I do quite often buy sandwiches to hand over on the way out, and that’s a direct result of Rabbi Blue’s suggestion.
Sadly he too is hell-bound according to the neo-Pharisaical rules.
In my experience there are certain people – of various faiths and none – who have an air of goodness about them as others have an air of authority. They seem gifted at virtue, and I use that in the archaic sense of ‘vertu’; they run true and authentic, as at one time you could describe a sword’s craftsmanship as having vertu, as close to Platonic perfection as could be fashioned in life. I find it hard to believe that an infinite being – sorry, ‘person’ – would turn them back at the celestial Ellis Island because their passport wasn’t correctly stamped. This person must also be infinite in wisdom and justice but apparently infinite offence wins the Judgement Day. It’s of course awfully embarrassing to get someone’s name wrong but usually not sufficient to condemn you to eternal rendition to a kharmic Abu Ghraib.
I notice that as the propositions in The Myths become less verifiable, particularly those pertaining to that bourne from which no traveller returns, they become more detailed. I fall into that category that doesn’t understand the concept.
If I read ‘Hull is a horrible place to spend eternity’ I have an idea of what you mean. Not that I’ve spent enough time in Hull to form an opinion, but I imagine that an eternity confined within its civic boundaries might become a bit dispiriting after a couple of centuries.
At one time you could confidently point to the centre of the Earth as the location of Hell. It would be dark and hot and it was the sphere most distant from the concentric Heavens above. With our altered cosmology Hell is more conceptual and exists as a state of separation from God.
I understand – that is, someone told me – that the successful graduates to Glory are granted a kind of spiritual amnesia, absolution from the love and compassion that might otherwise distress them at the thought of loved ones and otherwise good humans suffering eternal punishment, while they turned to enjoy infinite reward without end. So in effect they become less good than they were in life.
The deal is stacked.
If you say the sky is blue, particularly in this climate, then your description isn’t always accurate but it’s understood. *How* it’s understood is quite a complex cognitive procedure but even a two-year-old can readily grasp its sense.
Gravity, it’s said, isn’t just a good idea, it’s The Law. You can’t decide to opt out because of ideological differences or conscientious objection (That Gravity! Look at all the damage it causes!) or on the Bugs Bunny defence ‘I never studied Law’.
How do we find ourselves then having to place faith, like a stake on a bet, in the various and changing interpretations of a book? How come, after, oh gosh, at least 7000 years since the Earth was formed, are there range-wars between faith groups about the nature and the very existence of God and His intentions? Long before Newton formulated his Laws, Samson was doing empirical experiments with gravity and kinetic forces. He didn’t need to name the principles at work, it was… kinda obvious that gravity works. Einstein famously observed that God does not play dice, but he seems quite keen on hide-and-seek.
The deal is stacked in another way. If the penalty for not believing is so dire, can you take the Pascale Amendment and adopt faith because if it’s true you’ll be rewarded and if not, no harm done? What judgement will be made if God sees that although you made all the right moves and said the right things, really, deep down, you were hoping just to get off lightly?
What if, in the final analysis, you’ve made it your vocation to go about describing God’s nature so unconvincingly that you give weight to the case for non-belief as often as you score a hit? I gather that my friend’s church monitors stats like any pyramid sales franchise – see the Myth reference to market-growth in competing territories – and there’s pressure to recruit.
As local rep you’ll point to those you’ve persuaded to walk like you, talk like you: Ooh it’s True. You’ll dismiss those you leave in your wake for whom you’ve confirmed arguments that make faith in this version of God unsustainable. Will your excuse – our excuses are futile, after all – be that you meant well, you’re a good person; you told ‘em and told ‘em and so it’s they who have no excuse.
There’s nothing in the rules to say that God’s response might not be: better that you led your life in quiet steadfast faith than make Me an improbable God. You did the work of The Deceiver *p-tui!* Dawkins by other means. You talk but you don’t listen. You confuse having ready replies with giving relevant answers.
By the rules you’re denied the response ‘but I sincerely intended to do good.’ God apparently isn’t the kind of father who’ll say oh I know, you poor funny little creature, and that’s the best I ever expected of you. My love is infinite. Welcome Home.
Apparently He’s as likely to send you to His Guantanamo facility run by the partner organisation Satan Solutions Inc., for eternal interrogation about who you’re really working for.
I should repeat here that I was educated to believe in exactly these terms. My favourite hymn was Immortal Invisible and I remember gazing into bright Summer skies, uplifted by that dizzying oxymoron ‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee’. I floated along on the Crimond setting of Psalm 23, singing it like an extended mantra; the words had become as ingrained as the order of the alphabet. The melody is less used these days but when I hear it, it’s a Proustian recreation of that sense of the sublime that even the dutiful plod of Anglicans in song couldn’t obscure.
I ran an internal director’s commentary of prayer, reporting in to HQ that I was trying to make sense of my human predicaments and arrive at humane, rational solutions. I still feel that some kind of thanks are due for *Wow, Me, Here, Now!*, moments when presented with a sunset sky, a mountain vista, a bright full-arc rainbow – all things bright and beautiful – or virtuoso human skill. I’m quite happy to say “Thank You God!” in philosophically mixed company and even non-believers understand what I mean.
This is a learned reflex, like flicking the indicators while driving. Even on deserted streets I find myself indicating that I’m pulling in to park. Rationally it makes no sense but it’s a reflex I see no pressing need to switch off.
Similarly in those moments of the overwhelming inchoate sense of ‘connection’ I see no pressing reason to switch off the prayer-reflex as an expression of pleasure in the sheer improbability of a ‘me’ here to experience ‘that’. I have to say that this occurs more often ‘out there’ than within the magnificent confines of a cathedral or in the pages of a book.
I once sent my friend a link to a short YouTube vid of Alan Watts, which I took as a simple articulation of the makeshift nature of language in describing the world ‘out there’. It’s more to do with linguistics than theology. I’ve tried to retrieve his reply but it must have been one of those lost in the upgrade to Mac OSX, which ‘no longer supports the Classic environment’, curse you, Apple. It was brief: ‘I see that he sees wonder and beauty in Nature but… no-one to share it with. Waste of time.’ I was surprised most by the apparent challenge to his faith which he rose to, where I’d simply seen interesting observation and if anything a counter-argument to the wisdom of scientific methodology. There are no dire threats or dark consequences about not believing his proposition that language obliges us to divide experience into manageable bits that often obscure the bigger pattern. Again, potential support for the author’s case that we – not only Science – can’t explain a lot of ontological phenomenology.
The main objection seemed to be that We have the monopoly on the Truth so there is no wisdom in any competing franchise’s perspective.
I’ve not singled out the author of the Myths, because he’s only acting as the local representative of the organisation. He says in the tract that he’s led many men (he specifies ‘men’) to God, though in our conversations I’ve found it difficult to convince him that I’m actually agreeing with him in many ways even if I paraphrase or come at it from another angle. Where I hoped to pull alongside and explore avenues to understand ‘what he means by…’, anything short of his absolute and undoubtedly sincere conviction, expressed in any other than the approved vocabulary, is ‘making it up for yourself/you think you can Save yourself’.
He’s perfectly happy to chuckle when I apply exactly these critical faculties to, say, my impatience with the magpie promiscuity of New Age nick-nackery, offended when I ask for clarification of his statements. It is written; I have no excuse to question and in his eyes he has removed my excuses for uncertainty on The Day Of Judgement.
I’ve said that I could have a full semantic conversion today, join the club and say exactly the right things in the approved manner, but that would rather defeat the object.
He says ‘There is no middle ground or fence to sit on while you are deciding. NOT to decide is to decide AGAINST.’ (his emphasis)
I say: to question a specious argument is not to say that it might not conceal a truth. If your arguments would make a useful resource for a school debating team to study the uses and identification of rhetoric, devices to spot and ‘out’ in the other team’s proposition, then I’m less convinced that this is a simple case of an objective truth expressed poorly.
Again it must be said that even on a humanist level I see the value in communities of goodwill gathering to aspire to ‘do better’, even if you could describe it as ‘merely’ collective NLP. Again, there are friends who will say this is an apology for a superfluous metaphysic and others who will call it fence-sitting rejection.
Another three Myths left, but, y’know… what the… erm, ruddy heck, eh?  I’m left with the problemmatic etiquette of how to say to someone I like a lot and admire in many ways: you’ve managed to argue me out of even attempting the discussion. Can we just tune up and play?

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January 11, 2011

6-1-11 Signs and Science

6-1-11

[The dates on these entries lag behind their appearance because there’s always ‘…and another thing…’, sometimes worth adding, sometimes to be put aside as an avenue for later. Despite the way these recent ones have bulked up there are odd paragraphs that became time-consuming skirmishes between brevity and clarity, paras taken out to make room for the revisions so that it doesn’t read too much like a tiresome tirade (no guarantees there). A sense of humour is not helpful either because to find humour in an idea is too close to making fun of the person who relies on it.

Writing out a fraction of the notes and queries that have actually cost me sleep – ‘how do I say this to… [author]’, who in response is quite comfortable about stopping the dialogue dead with the ‘so you’re just making it up for yourself’ clause, has proved quite cathartic.

It took me a long time in my teens to really lose the picture-book Old Bearded Bloke In The Clouds God and graduate to saying ‘of course we don’t believe that God is an OBBITC’ and longer again to realise that the male third-person pronoun was actually an unhelpful convention. Language gets in the way – the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao – and to de-gender God leaves only ‘It’. That pronoun-shift alone amounts to heresy in some quarters: God the protean verb rather than the proper noun.

Parts of these entries are like typing to myself in my teens. I wouldn’t have got it then. There’s one more of the 7 Myths after this that deserves a response but good heavens, Life is at the door asking if I can come out to play…]

“Myth # 3 – I am scientifically minded, so you will have to prove that God exists.

Reply: That is exactly why God sent His son, Jesus. Jesus was God in the flesh. People saw Him, talked with Him and saw how He lived. God HAS shown Himself to us. But what did we do to Him?… we killed Him…what did we do with the evidence that was written down in the Bible?…we think it’s a bunch of lies… because we are really such nice people deep down inside? But, at least now we know what God wants from us and we won’t  have an excuse on Judgment Day. Jesus actually showed us the Truth, because He was God’s Son. Jesus proved that He was God’s Son by coming back to life. Could a dead man change lives like Jesus has?”

I do admit to a preference for rational, structured debate and an admiration for those with the mathematical aptitude to sustain focussed convergent thought. ‘Learning modes’ aren’t a recent education theory though the phrase has gained currency in the past couple of decades as one of our many ‘issues to recognise and address’ in the classroom.

The number 10 is a pure abstract but we know precisely what it means and how it works in percentages, decimal fractions and powers of ten, so unless there are exceptional conditions you should be able to pass it on by description and/or demonstration. If you want to make a child understand the number of ways number can be used to make 10, some will ‘just get it’; others may need to finger-count to see and feel the number; some will respond to musical beats or simple songs. Some gifted children launch lickety-split into equations, so intent on discovering the value of x that their paperwork is a scrawl, others may be drawn in, literally I guess, by the neatness of a well set-out equation on the page, developing their number-forms and strict columns as a form of calligraphy.

You pass it on knowing that unless a child grows into an especially talented mathematician interested in ‘special conditions’ s/he need never question that 10x10x10 and 10×100 will amount to the same result. You can teach the number 10 and its properties in many ways, because we can readily agree what we’re talking about. You don’t need someone on hand to refer to a manual and interpret whether ten tens make a hundred in this case.

Others’ talents are always slightly magical and enviable. I don’t have a ‘number mind’ though on occasions when I’ve had to do a lot of  working calculations I’ve found that it’s like school French: a bit of immersion in it works dormant muscles and pretty soon I can achieve ‘conversational maths’. What begins as a chore becomes a pleasurable burst of left-brain activity. I imagine that working with number at the highest level must feel like writing and ‘hearing’ scores, though maybe the mind with that mathematical aptitude might regard this as merely a metaphorical side-issue.  Note in this context I’m careful not to covet those skills.

This was one of the more interesting of the Commandments to study because of its fine but fuzzy ethical line between Envy, which could be the fuel for aspiration and the motivation to study and improve, and Covetousness: the sense that you can’t be bothered to do the work, you just want what someone else has, often not the skill or object itself but just the attention or status it attracts. Fortunately for me, I never had to worry about coveting my neighbour’s servants, nor his ox nor his ass because we didn’t know anyone who had them. (I notice that this is now translated ‘his donkey’ because of the shift in meaning from the lowliest beast of burden to *fnur!* ‘botty’. What we gain in propriety we lose in meaning).

My friend the Law Professor can construct elegant conceptual houses of cards you could reliably place in a wind-tunnel. They’re held together by the force of congruence; pick a card, any card, and you can see how it fits and supports the structure.

I’d love a day-ticket to that theme-park of a mind. I know my place and quietly congratulate myself for following his de-jargoned dot-to-dot descriptions of the issues and his trial approaches to bringing order to ambiguity. Our Venn diagram overlaps slightly in a common interest in language-representation and how it works; what we write and say, and how, and what it means.

A mathematician once told me that he could spend a happy evening trying to work out whether a particular value should be inside or out of a set of brackets and seeing how the calculation diverged in either case and the properties of the reciprocal relation ‘across the top of the triangle’ between the two results. In linguistics, especially as applied to formulating Law, similar nitpicky semantic attention to word order can crucially affect meaning. Times this by 10 when framing international laws and probably another 10 if the territory is the internet, an idea more sprawling than the sum of its nodes..

I like to arm-wrestle with Telegraph crossword-compilers, professional obscurantists who take wicked pleasure in exploiting assumptions we make about words and the sense they carry in everyday conversation. Approached correctly, the solution when it comes to you often comes with a ‘Doh!’ – obvious really, it was all laid out for you.

Some people like more hard-core logic puzzles, while this year I had to look at the – doh!obvious! – solution to a Christmas cracker Q.: “If Jim and Anne are 5 and Helen is twice that, it follows that her twin, Samantha, is…?” (Answer at the end in case it’s not, er, obvious).

In this ongoing discussion of faith it seems only fair to acknowledge that intelligence comes in many forms and it’s sensible to take account of your aptitudes and their limits. I don’t look for ‘proof’ in the sense that mathematicians use it – no Pythagoras has emerged to describe The Trinity – simply an inner consistency in the proposition that people who believe that God speaks directly to them are able to do so because they use His proper name, gender pronoun and capitalisation. To use other names or suggest that God might be so unimaginably greater than their vision that names might not be more than grammatic convenience is apparently to court damnation. How do we know this? Because it is written. Apparently.

It’s been said that Poetry resides in all that gets lost in translation. You can get the sense of a song-lyric in translation but in the process you realise how much of the meaning takes for granted the culture and customs of the native language and the time in which it was written.

Dickens wrote contemporary urban fiction in parallel with Mayhew’s accounts of The London Poor and Clarence Rook’s survey of Victorian gang-culture, Hooligan Nights. We now read Christmas Carol, with its visions of the workhouse and the meagre dog-eat-dog existence of the London slums, as colourful costume-drama couched in charming, to our ears ‘ornate’ English. We can still invoke Scrooge and Cratchett as character-types but the immediacy is lost 150 years on. It’s as impossible to unimagine the technological developments of the intervening century and inhabit the gas-lit steam-technology world of Victorian Britain as it is to decide to be illiterate for a day. You can’t uninstall the character recognition software – an analogy I couldn’t have used in general conversation thirty years ago, which now makes a ready metaphor.

Some mobile phones pack more computing power than than NASA’s Houston Control. Market-driven popular familiarity with the pc and a design imperative to make the interface more ‘intuitive’ has created both a mirror and a model of how our brain works. The tailored fit is so comfortable that you have to occasionally step back and remember that as much as our brain and the mind it generates may be ‘like’ a computer – and in some respects a very slow low-spec model – ‘we’ are not.

I find it hard to think back beyond the early stirrings of the domestic computer, when I delivered illustrations exclusively hand-drawn on art-board to the train-station to be collected by courier and taken to editorial addresses in London to arrive … oh, rather less than 8 hours after dispatch.

The phones we used plugged into the wall; brick-sized walkie-talkie mobile phones were rare and novel status-symbols. When it became clear that the fax machine was becoming part of the furniture I remember that thrill of receiving bitmappy design-roughs. Gosh, we were so 20th Century! I still occasionally forget that we’re now well into that province of The Future, the 21st Century. The last century was probably the most densely documented in history but even in my own memory I struggle to remember what it felt like to be there, not knowing how much the everyday customs and assumptions would change.

Can you interpret the recorded Word without reference to our remoteness from the time and location of the mission? This would be a given in any other study of historical texts and in very particular those contemporary non-partisan fragments of records which are cited to support the reliability of the Gospels.

It’s a matter of historical conjecture whether references to the Jewish history and tradition of the promised Messiah, the mighty rectifier, were embedded in the Gospels to reassure first-century reformist Christo-Judaic converts that the message hadn’t been diluted to facilitate His late adoption by the pagan imperial Romans, who’d executed the troublesome anarchist Jew as an administrative chore in a distant province. It’s an article of faith that the signs foretold in The Old were fulfilled in The New.

Parables about farming and fishing and miracles still have mythic power, as do Greek myths and Shakespeare (though you’re not obliged to believe that Apollo actually ran a futile race with a tortoise nor that Bottom the Weaver actually suffered temporary genetic modification), but they don’t mean the same to us as they did to the listeners at the time. In fact it seems clear from the fragments of the Christ-inspired Gnostic Gospels that proliferated in the decades before the approved versions were written that there was surprising diversity in interpretations of the teachings among those who claim to have heard them first-hand.

I don’t think of the Bible as a buncha lies but its meaning must necessarily be interpreted, and is, even by the literalists, so I look for interpretation that takes into account otherwise uncontentious observations about the effects of historical changes in culture and language.

The small print in the anti-coveting Commandment was once read as sanction to keep slaves – so long as you didn’t covet your neighbour’s slaves. Philanthropic Christians led the movement for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century because they’d altered their understanding of scripture. Were they radically wrong, flying in the face of The Word, or were their forbears actually more faithful and thus worthy of heaven or exploiting the authority The Word to their advantage? If  you decided to keep a couple of slaves, who could deny that you had that right, enshrined not in some obscure verses of the Epistles but right there in the Commandments?

Jesus did a brilliant job of reducing the message to two positives that between them covered all the Shalt Nots. Language again generates ambiguity but for me the ambiguity of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ encompasses ‘as much as yourself’ and ‘as not-separate from you’, Tat Tvam Asi -Thou Art That – difficult, counterintuitive but profoundly true. And who is my neighbour? Again, Jesus doesn’t dictate Terms And Conditions or draft a municipal by-law, He appeals to the heart and the imagination and asks you to recognise what at some level you already know.

That last sentence will just be hippy crap to those who recognise that the Real World demonstrably runs on wealth, status and ownership.

[more Myth]“…By the way, science cannot prove the existence of things like love, compassion and mercy. Does that mean that they do not exist? There are some things that numbers cannot measure, but yet we make use of those things every day. What I find is that people who take this line of thinking would not become a Christian even if Jesus stood right in front of them. God does not want just your mind, but also your heart and will. This seems to illustrate that there is more to man than just his mind and logic. We are all looking for something more.”

I’d like to see the results of these experimental programmes that have been conducted to prove the existence of love, compassion and mercy. I think there might be some difficulty finding those researches. I don’t think that scientists are by definition less capable of love and compassion or indeed that other very human capacity, a sense of humour, than adherents to faith groups.

Einstein said that everything that can be measured doesn’t necessarily matter and everything that matters can’t be measured.

Carl Sagan talked about the sum of human knowledge being like a balloon whose increasing volume is proportionate to an increasing surface-area of ignorance; ever more tangents to explore. Science is pretty vigilant about its limits.

There are sociological and psychological surveys investigating common factors in the experience and behaviours associated with the subjective feeling of love or the impulse to altruism. The experiments may produce data about behaviour; the sensations themselves though are notoriously challenging to trap with words even by gifted poets. This isn’t to argue that science is the better description. The attempt to ‘put it in words’ is another of those characteristically human impulses, which often demonstrates how wretchedly inadequate language is as a system of representation when you need it most.

A problem with this footnote to the Myth is that although grammar treats ‘love’ as a noun, a thing, as if ‘it’ can be studied, emotions more closely resemble verbs. You might as meaningfully ask: what does it mean to love someone enough? Enough for what? What unit of measurement could you apply?

Similarly, how do you quantify faith? The profession of faith is no guarantee of enlightened virtue even amongst those who make faith their profession. Just as there is bad slapdash science, there’s bad cosmetic faith.

The scientific approach – looking for verifiable, demonstrable, repeatable results – seems to work.

I peer at the computer monitor through mass-produced reading lenses, watching letterforms appear ‘as if by magic’ . At the top of the screen there’s a clock that keeps better time than the pocket-watch I keep blue-tacked to the wall (I prefer the analogue picture of the time to the digital readout) and it concurs with time-signals broadcast via the radio. This standardisation of time is a relatively recent invention, a direct result of the need for a consistent measure to regulate the steam-powered travel made possible by 19th century engineers. I’m warmer than I might be because of industrially-assembled double-glazing units in the windows and on this overcast day I see more clearly by the electric light-bulbs.

All of these are a tiny fraction of the everyday products of scientific, ordered thought, inference and deduction that are so familiar that we tend to forget that at one point they were only an itch on an inventor’s chin. The very useful thing about this kind of step-by-step reasoning and experiment is that if the initial findings are sound, the results can be developed, refined and extended. If they’re not, you can retrace the processes to see where the logic broke down.

Regarding the limits of scientific ‘proof’, you might be for example fairly confident of reliable data in the study of luthiery – instrument construction is a distinct form of empirical research. You may take several angles on the science rather than the art of playing the instrument. Results will become more speculative as you enter the palpable effect of ‘feeling’ in the performance as player or as audience and even seasoned players might find it difficult to describe why the ‘feel’ of one instrument is ‘instinctively’ right for them; it’s quite possible to measure precise physiological responses in the listener but yes… the point is made, science is probably not a good measure of the profound subjective emotional responses which we struggle to articulate.

In contrast, two thousand years of, let’s call it, evolution in theology produces such memorable arguments as that given to us by my grammar school RI teacher (it was Religious Instruction then).

We’d been learning about the power of prayer and why it was selfish and impertinent to pray, say, for a new bicycle but good to direct our prayer toward others close and far from us and to give thanks to God. He was there to listen to our problems.There was general agreement: don’t confuse God with Santa.

‘God,’ he told us, ‘always answers our prayers.’ There was a barely audible collective intake of breath before he added ‘…Sometimes He says ‘No’’. At this point the response was clearly that ‘tuh!’ reserved for teachers’ bad jokes. On reflection, this practised rhetorical flourish and pause-for-effect relied on his faith that the initial proposition sounded preposterous and that no-one in the room really believed that prayer was much more reliable than sending a wish-list to Santa. Sometimes we get what we wish, sometimes we don’t. Our prayers are answered, QED.

The answer to the Myth is in the question and the mistake is to attempt fisticuffs between faith and science to prove that faith is the mightier. The existence or otherwise of God doesn’t help the calculations on the one side, but I wonder why there isn’t more widespread enthusiasm in the faith communities for God’s invitation to take a real close-up look at the elegance, depth and complexity of His Creation, sketched out in Genesis.

Hardcore rationalists will recoil at this apparent ruse to sneak metaphysics in by the back door; the faithful can keep God in the picture but may be moved to ire by my enthusiasm for a body of knowledge that suggests that the things that you’re li’ble to derive from The Bible ain’t necessarily so.

Unfortunately there’s no single instance the writer of the Myths can cite of a living skeptic’s reaction to Jesus standing right in front of them so I don’t understand the ‘finding’. True, if certain politicians and celebs were right in front of me I might well think ‘I still don’t believe in you,’ but that’s another kind of belief.

(A: Samantha = 15: 5 points per syllable. For me, a ‘doh!’, for some of my friends, I suspect, a ‘well, du-urh!’)


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January 9, 2011

5-1-11 Fair Play

5-1-11

This one’s quite a brief response – hurrah! – to:-

‘Myth # 2 – Jesus was just a good man.

Reply: One of your own great authors, C.S. Lewis made a statement that sheds some light on the answer to this one. He stated, ” anyone who said the things that Jesus said, such as, “I am the Son of God, I can forgive sins,” was surely a mad man or really who he said he was. He could not have been just a good man and made up such deceptive lies as this. I believe that He was who He said he was. Is it possible that this might be the truth? Where would you go to find out? Most of the books that are in the library are written by people who try and refute God’s existence, but have you ever wanted to hear both sides of the story? Please read on….’

I was invited to an Alpha Course my friend runs and had a look at some on-line vids in preparation. They were enough for me to decline the offer rather than sit in and ask the questions which are apparently encouraged. Even at first viewing there were, uh… a few.

This argument was conspicuous as a variety of : The Moon is made of green cheese> This is either (a)true or (b)untrue> obviously it is (a)untrue so we can eliminate it> …which leaves us with only one conclusion.This is a philosophical forced-card trick.

By the same token, the tutors either (a) know that they’ve sidestepped a difficult question or (b) don’t. In either case is their authority to interpret the text enhanced?

The choice isn’t ‘bad, mad or true’ – there’s also ‘fired by conviction’, which I deliberately don’t label ‘delusion’.

I’m beginning to get interested in the dialogue between Galileo and The Vatican, which demanded the suppression of calculations dislodging the Earth from the centre of the universe by divine ordination. You can test your faith in the (-bad + -mad) = +True equation.

Were the Vatican representatives bad? Did they just decide on a cruel whim to gang up on that geeky Galileo kid? Unlikely, because they were certainly the highest authority on the Word Of God, a ruling intellectual elite, a select group not least because they were literate and kept libraries of research findings: biblical exegesis at the highest level. Their authority derived from their direct descent from the Patriarch St. Peter, the rock on which the church was built (note re. translations; Peter wasn’t a common first century Galilean Jewish name but a solemn pun on ‘pierre”- rock). No one was better able to proclaim the authority of the Gospels to refute the man-made theory.

Therefore, they must have been right. The Earth is at the centre of the universe and God demonstrates His power by making the planets jig back and forward in the skies as only God could. Bingozingo! 400 years of scientific orthodoxy refuted at a stroke by the sheer power of reason.

The Copernican model emerged from a sustained reliance on the ‘scientific mind’, the cumulative unexpected force of a body of evidence, and revealed instead an elegance and pattern more satisfying in its simplicity, more aesthetically in accord with a God-like intelligence, than the ‘proof’ of militant teleology.

Another related Alpha point here: Would Jesus have pursued a pretence to the point of dying for His belief/ deception? Sadly we are all too familiar with those so fired by religious conviction that they’re prepared to die and kill, actively anticipating martyrdom and a fast-track to paradise.

Hundreds of thousands have died ‘for King and Country’, though it’s worth noting how the role of Kings and Lords no longer suggests Divine Right or the natural order of ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. The worldwide interest in the British royalty is as a cast of übercelebrities and a living anachronism, with curious etiquettes and elaborate pageantry. The Queen’s role as titular head of the Anglican Church very rarely features.

Jesus was clearly charismatic and his democratic mission answered a need among the Jewish communities he inhabited to reclaim God from the Pharisees and their strict regard for the written Law.

The casting-out of the hawkers in the temple was a geurrilla raid on the commercial wing of an authoritarian corporate Judhaism – my bias here: the Jesus who appealed to me when I was confirmed was informed by that radical political current in the 60’s which presented him, as I think Malcolm Muggeridge wrote ‘as the socialist member for Galilee East’.

How much hangs on an article of grammar. When Jesus says he is the Son Of God, might it have carried the sense of ‘I am a Son Of God?’ He seems very keen to place God in us rather than in the books of the Law and their keepers. Maybe the declaration was meant to provoke the Spartacus effect – ‘I’m The Son Of God’  ‘I’m The Son Of God’  ‘I’m The Son Of God’.

Finally, does the phrase ’Most of the books that are in the library are written by people who try and refute God’s existence’ ring true? Most of the books I find in libraries, charity shops and booksellers aren’t remotely concerned with the topic. Many medium-sized shops spare a bookshelf for Religion, subdivided: Christianity, Other Religions and the catch-all Mind, Body & Spirit.

In Myth #3 we get to the deep suspicion directed at scientific enquiry by this strand of by-The-Book religion. Pitchforks and firebrands ready? We’re heading for the gates of  The Professor’s Laboratory…

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January 5, 2011

4-1-11 Myths pt. 1

4-1-11

We learned Bible stories at school, at Sunday School and from picture book Children’s Bibles at home as we learned Grimms and Anderson stories.

Even as a child I was disturbed by Isaac’s willing obedience to his Dad Abraham, bent on infanticide at the behest of God. My picture Bible showed a low-angle view of the bound child on a bed of kindling on top of a stone cairn, his Dad poised with a sacrificial dagger, ready to eviscerate his child. He wore a look of alarm, not at the prospect of murder but because it was the moment when God had spoken to him to say – aha! – it was just a test of faith. I was confused because right up to that moment you’d think that such vile instructions must have sounded like The Devil’s bidding. You’d expect Abraham to get more credit for telling The Serpent where to get off.

In the story of Job the trials became so relentless that a small blasphemous voice in me said ’oh come on… enough’. You knew that Job came out of all this very well and especially beloved for bearing with such adversity but it was as uncomfortable as watching a cat playing with a live mouse.

Samson was an all-action tale of heroic smiting and mayhem with thousands of Philistines dead by the end. There was no stopping Samson and the story ended with a spectacular suicide-demolition, hundreds dead.

Even in the children’s version, with Samson’s incidental amorous dalliances bowdlerised except for the devious Delilah, my Sunday School prize-winner’s brain ticked off 5/10 violated Commandments, but we knew he was the elect of God and we were on his side as we were with the heroes of Fleetway Commando Library comics or Captain Hurricane in The Valiant, laying waste to the sausage-eating squarehead Hun in his ‘ragin’ furies’.

Similarly we envied tales of the Crusaders in their chain-mail and St. George Cross shields and tabards, nobly defending the faithful against the godless heathen, and sang together The Song Of Liberty to an Elgar tune – ‘God is drawing His sword/ We are fighting for The Lord/ Sing then, brother sing, giving everything/ We shall never bow the knee!’.

We were that first post-war generation who knew that God was on our side because we’d won.

At 14 I stumbled – or was guided to? – a short popular History Of Philosophy in a second-hand book-shop. I had only a vague idea that philosophy was about dreaming up interesting thoughts and it sounded brainy. Looking through the Contents I at least recognised the Three Big Greek names Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the unknowns had interesting names – Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant.

I started reading it on the 14 bus from Broad Marsh to Wilford and took myself to bed early to read more in peace. By the end I probably couldn’t have passed a test on the various philosophical projects but it was the first time I’d thought about holding up ideas and turning them around to look at them from different angles. There were ways to present an idea, ways to assess its validity before you went on to make the case for its truth. I realised that I’d been taught what to believe but no-one had mentioned how to think about ideas.

There was a lot I didn’t understand about Bible stories but then I was a kid. I had faith that I’d grow to understand them better.

I liked to overhear adult conversations and was excited by wit; the way that an adult could create laughter around the table with a single well-chosen word or a deft turn of phrase. The jokes pinged off the top of my skull and I longed to be old enough to be part of those conversations.

Reading Children’s Encyclopaedias, I knew and recognised diagrams of The Atom and the school classroom model made from wire ellipses and coloured wooden beads. I had to wait until secondary school until we were told about the actual dimensions represented by the diagram: if you placed an orange on the centre-spot of Wembley Stadium to represent the nucleus, the electrons would be the size of peas zipping around the grandstands and the street beyond. Although my maths was never good enough to get me through Science A-levels I liked to hang out in the Science lab at lunchtime, where sixth-formers did experiments with chemicals and oscilloscopes and discussed the conditions in which an atom might be considered a wave more than a particle and might even flip-flop in and out of existence.

I had enough trouble trying to get my head around light waves?/ particles? taking eight minutes at 186000 miles per second to reach us from the sun, let alone what a single light year was like, and the idea that hundreds and tens of thousands of them separated stars and galaxies defeated my every attempt to imagine it. For the student mathematicians such imagination was an arty, poetic preoccupation; the calculations had been done on this basic unit of interstellar distance so you could just use it to make further calculations.

I’d anticipated that the scripture picture-book simplifications would similarly give way to a broader view at higher resolution. Instead I felt more like I was moving towards a billboard poster whose big bright picture broke down into coloured screen-dots the closer I approached it. The information in the faith-proposition generated multiple conflicting certainties among the faithful, theories about what The Bible meant and what it implied for our everyday conduct.

This is from the tract that made me think about it in those familiar terms again:-

‘I am sure that you have a few objections to the Christian faith. Everyone does until they begin to study about it in depth and read what it is really about in the Bible. Let me present a few excuses that people usually give for not becoming a follower of Jesus and I will also give a simple answer to each one which I personally discovered from investigating it myself. These are the excuses I made:

Myth #1 – The Bible is full of contradictions.

Reply: The simple question that I ask people who say this is, “Could you name  3 contradictions?  Actually, in the 19 years that I have lived in the UK, I have not had 1 person who ever could come up with some concrete contradiction. The fact of the matter is, hardly anyone has ever read the Bible let alone could think of any contradictions. Who would ever reject such an important book in history never having read it? I have always found this puzzling. If a person were to just take the time to read the short Gospel of John …I wonder if you have ever done that’

Excuses? Note the faith in the overwhelming power of the arguments. If you don’t get it, you’re just not doing the work.

We were taught that The Bible wasn’t really one book but a compendium of history, poetry, legend and guidance. There was no imperative that it should be read as one coherent text.

The quick response to ‘Myth #1’ is: Google ‘Bible contradictions’. A quick glance indicates that contradiction-spotting is a geeky nit-picky atheist’s hobby and even I could see that some of the contradictions were more semantic than substantive. However, there are enough puzzling instances apart from the overall difficulty of reconciling the litany of suffering and punishment with the will of a Loving Father.

Copernicus worked for years collating records of planetary movements to try to resolve the apparent oddities required to sustain the Earth-centred Ptolemaic model and found himself drawn to the shocking counterintuitive conclusion that the Sun was the fixed point in our sky. He kept his findings quiet because he knew he would be in trouble with The Vatican for challenging the Biblical endorsement of the geocentric universe and predictably he was warned to suppress this heresy. Scripture taken this literally contradicts observation, the practical application of God-given intelligence. You don’t have to jettison God on this account, just adjust your insistence on literal interpretation. Myth, it’s said, is truth told without fact. Powerful storytelling has its place.

This riposte to the ‘myth’ of inconsistency presents the Bible as the work of One Author by many hands. For an example of this view taken to an extreme, see http://www.skepdic.com/bibcode.html

What might one expect if the One Author theory held true? You could then dismiss the counter-argument that the truth of the work was compromised by its multiple translations because the clarity of the message would grow more refined at each editorial round by The Author. Is this so? Do we find growing consensus amongst His witnesses?

In a recent radio interview Alice Cooper (Vince Furnier) was asked if he believed in the literal truth of the Bible. Absolutely. That the universe was created in 7 days? Sure… though a day to God might be 5 billion years to us.

I think of this now as The Furnier Defence: the Bible is literally true so long as you don’t read it too literally. He also threw in the addendum:… and if God had wanted to do it all in an instant, He could’ve.

In philosophical terms this is unfalsifiable, the polar opposite of irrefutable: how could you possibly demonstrate the truth or otherwise of such a statement?

Note also the challenge at the end of this section to read and really absorb the meaning of this important book. I must assume that the author is fully conversant with the Qu’ran, the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching at least, or the challenge is self-disarming.

The conclusion to this section goes:-

‘ Interestingly enough, Europe is one of the few places in the world where Christianity is NOT growing….could the whole world be wrong and Europe be right? Do you want to take that chance by not investigating ALL the truth? By the way, did you know that there is more proof for the reliability of the Bible than any other ancient manuscript? Check it out……’

A very interesting question and open to a number of interpretations. This sounds like a marketing problem: some resistance in the European territory. European thought has historically shaped the Christian tradition. It’s impossible to disentangle the religion from the European cultural heritage. If faith has faltered here is there some evidence that Europeans as a group are any the less altruistic or more morally bankrupt overall than the population of any other continent? In the late 60’s there was a huge popular uptake of the affectations of Indian ‘blissful’ spirituality. The shorthand distinction between Western and Eastern thought became commonplace though the beliefs had been displaced and decontextualised. Christ in European tradition is Caucasian and blond with a well-groomed beard and representations in devotional art very frequently depicted Biblical incidents with characters dressed in conventional contemporary costume and domestic settings. I don’t know what Christanity offers in traditionally non-Christian cultures – maybe a chance to escape local orthodoxies.

The argument here seems to be ‘but everyone else is doing it’. I don’t go hunting for porn-sites on the internet but I gather that a significant persentage of web-traffic is devoted to it – certainly a lot of the spam that turns up in my In-box invites me to investigate Girls! Girls! Girls! Barenaked ladies! Free!

Am I missing something? Could all these subscribers be wrong? There are lots of  activities I don’t feel any pressure to investigate because they’re popular. I’m reminded of that graffito ‘Eat Shit – 50 billion flies can’t be wrong.’ Apologies to readers who’d prefer some asterisks in there: you’d have known what I meant.

I’m also intrigued by the phrase ‘there is more proof for the reliability of the Bible than any other ancient manuscript‘. Presumably this means objective, scholarly academic corroboration and I’m consistently struck by the tendency to take the results of careful and peer-reviewed research as conclusive proof when it fits the theology and to treat it as bogus arrogance when it presents difficulties, as if The Scientists are out to gang up on religion.

And ‘reliability’…? In what regard and in what capacity? The question doesn’t necessarily refute the statement but – see the Church’s historical insistence on the Earth-centerd universe – I’d like to know what constitutes ‘reliability’ in this sentence.

In conversation with this good guy whom I like – I have to reinforce this point – I’ve noticed that when I try to describe how I try to make sense of the historical, global God-impulse I get no answer but instead an ad hominem deflection of the question: ‘…so you’re just making it up’. I’m told that there are compelling reasons to believe but when I apply reason I’m told that if you had to reason your way to faith, how would simple folk attain grace? Tuh!… me and my excuses.

There are another six of these ‘Myths’ in the booklet, answered by one who is in daily dialogue with That The Greater Than Which There Is No Other. I’m consistent that especially in the matter of faith it would be pointless, possibly even sinful, to pretend to go along with the propositions translated from these divine conversations as The One Truth. I’ll aim to work my way through these ‘Myths’, since they’ve certainly provoked more attention to the questions in the past few months than I’d normally give them, though the exercise has been more depressing than enlightening.

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January 1, 2011

1-1-11 Ghosthunters

1-1-11

…Not yet ten hours into the new decade that will take a couple of years to settle into becoming The Teenies. This year I shall take momentary pleasure from writing 9-10-11 and 13-12-11 on the class whiteboard and like a rare alignment of planets, the Remembrance Day one-minute silence will fall on the 11th hour of 11-11-11.

Last night we launched a couple of paper flying lanterns with memories of the past year written on them and were rewarded with the sight of ours joining a growing number of glowing balloons following the prevailing wind. I gripe about the growth of Greeting Card and Merchandising festivals, notably the import of the American Hallowe’en and its cargo-cult of barely understood trick-or-treat customs. I don’t know when the flying lantern made its first appearance in the High St. shops; until someone declares their carcasses minor acts of eco-vandalism, like the toy helium balloons launched in charity balloon-races, I shall look forward to sending next year’s lantern to its Valhalla.

Thanks here to Sue Jones for remaining a kind, funny and (almost) painlessly acute critic and commentator. I’ll spend a little more time on that invitation to adopt a particular form of church doctrine (other interpretations and customs are available) here rather than in follow-up comments.

I agree – who could be ‘against’ communities of goodwill and co-operation?

In conversations with Muslim women who’ve adopted the everyday traditional ‘modest’ clothing I’ve altered my view that it represents a subservience to masculine authority and I can see how it might represent a visible ‘not in my name’ response to some of the tacky values and behaviour presented as women’s ‘liberation’. Similarly, church membership can be a collective rejection of the operative reality that general wellbeing will be sustained by stimulating the economy: in currency we trust.

So if belief in a personal God who speaks to us promotes altruism and secure well-being, where’s the problem? Some do it with affirmations or pantheist neo-paganism, some may wear crystals to achieve the same result even if I can’t help thinking of Dumbo clutching The Magic Feather until he’s forced to realise that he can fly without it.

On a human, humane, humanist (the faithful would say ‘merely’ humanist) level, who really cares what might lead someone to recognise our mutual involvement in a collective human society? It’s a useful thought exercise to imagine how we might explain our behaviour to some curious and detached third-party who knows the facts (not least the fact that human beings are historically and notoriously weak and wobbly creatures). It’s as well to realise that although we’re at the top of the food-chain on this little planet we shouldn’t develop a sense of entitlement.

I’ll return to the ‘myths’ about the Christian faith as described by my friend in his tract. He, I should say, is active in his community, talented and serene, apart from his driving sense of obligation to gather church attenders, to ‘lead them to God’.

To begin elsewhere, this holiday season was often in the four-channel past a chance to see out-of-the-way TV, thrown into the schedules to bulk out the afternoon and late-night viewing. Now with oodles of channels and Sky-plus recording and viewing-at-leisure it’s astounding to find that sometimes there’s still nothing worth watching.

This is also the season of preparations for visitors and visits and of odd half-hours of flicking through TV filler like those celeb-magazines in the doctor’s waiting-room. The content is unremarkable, leaving you free to look at the format. Given that trade fairs are dedicated to the licensing of TV formats you note the characteristic features that will be intrinsic to any foreign-territory adoption.

So… a hiatus in Christmas frivolling found me doing the inventory on ‘Ghosthunters’ : a ‘reality’ hybrid of Scooby Doo and Blair Witch.

The episode kicks off with a consultation between the director of a psychical research unit and a client describing the unexplained phenomena occurring at the location-of-the-week. This is all very earnest stuff, intriguing but just another day at the office for the research team. A small fleet of black vans loaded with surveillance tech sets off, filmed from kerb-level.

In this episode a touring Titanic exhibit had unsettled night staff with the familiar sense of ‘presences’ and anomalous cold spots and noises. An initial recce by the team is accompanied by a commentary in which the phrases ‘some people believe that…’/ ‘there is a theory that…’ feature routinely. No-one is actually claiming that this therefore represents a fact other than that someone’s speculated on possible constructions, maybe the scriptwriters. There is a theory, for instance, that ‘psychic entities draw energy from their vicinity, causing the atmosphere to cool.’ I leave the reader to sort out what any of this might actually mean. The best I can say is that it’s grammatically sound, constructed from appropriate semantic place-markers.

The team deploy assorted vid, sound and heat-detection recording devices to capture any unusual phenomena for later study, and patrol the exhibition space using the irresistably spooky night-vision cameras which render everyone in shot pallid and hollow-eyed. They discover a cold-spot about four feet high using the more homely method of putting their hand into it and taking it out again with ‘can you feel that?/ yes I can’ corroboration.

The big moment comes when two of the researchers, seated on the floor to await developments, first sense a presence in an adjoining room and discover by shouting that it’s not another member of the team. The camera records one of them getting up and going to look and then returning to report that there’s no-one there. Pretty convincing I’m sure you’ll agree.

Then, as they both decide to move on, one of them appears to slip and fall on his seat again, reporting that he’s felt a firm but not hostile hand on his shoulder pressing him back down.

Later, in the segment where the team are shown reviewing the data (this features an example of the head-of-research rejecting an unusual heat-sensor reading as probably mundane, establishing his objective-skeptical credentials) they revisit the phantom-hand incident and repeat the description of the firm-but-not-hostile pressure in case you missed it before the ad-break. They also introduce a sound-recording which ‘sounds like’ someone is saying ‘Ple-ease sta-ay’. We note that this interpretation comes before they play the hissy sound-clip that might not otherwise sound like more than a pneumatic wheeze. There is some speculation about what the entity might mean by this – already it’s assumed that something is trying to say something.

In the finale, a review of the evidence with the organiser of the exhibit presents the phenomena with a further repetition of the restraining-hand sensation in case latecomers to the programme might confuse the shot with someone merely stumbling in an attempt to get upright. The client declares this startling and the team recommend that they do further research when the exhibit moves to another location.

By the time the credits roll the possibly inexplicable remains resolutely inconclusive, but this is hardly the point. The Haunted House narrative arc has been successfully concluded in time for the sponsor’s message.

Consciously watching the unfolding of the format and the semiology of the visual signifiers seems a quite reasonable application of scepticism here. Ghostly experiences seem to have been a part of human self-consciousness for as long as we developed it. Similar phenomenology has been stimulated by the application of strong electromagnetic fields to the brain (Greenfield) and vivid deja vu created with intra-cranial electrodes (Penfield). Such research doesn’t explain the effects ‘away’ but at least suggests that metaphysical interventions aren’t a necessary factor.

Before I return to the substance of the faith-tract I want to say that if a degree of analytical process is appropriate and healthy when applied to UFO’s, conspiracy narratives and fairies, sales-pitches and news broadcasts, it’s reasonable to examine the claims and truth-conditions of statements about the ‘truth’ of faith-statements.

M’colleague Sue is probably prudently wary of attracting the attention of the faithful fired by the example of the wrathful smiting and afflicting Yahweh of the Old Testament rather than the reflective and allusive teaching of Jesus ben Joseph. Those are poor advertisements for the transforming power of faith and give me no incentive to follow their example.

“Do not think of knocking out another’s brain because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago” – Horace Mann.