13 February 2012

Bideford council and the 2 views of secularism

This was originally posted on my Wordpress site.

I have written before about what I believe to be the proper meaning of secularism. Last week, a ruling was made by the High Court about Bideford Council to the effect that prayers would no longer be allowed as an item on the agenda at the start of their meetings. The complaint had been brought about by the National Secular Society (NSS) under a claim that a former council member had been forced to partake in prayers.

The High Court eventually ruled on an issue that was not brought up by NSS. So far as the case went that had originally been brought, the NSS lost. The former councilor’s human rights had not been breached as had been claimed. The judgment hung on the fact that prayers were not explicitly allowed by an earlier Act of Parliament. They were therefore not considered to be part of the Council's official business and so the judge ruled against the council.

By extending the logic used in the ruling, if the serving of tea and biscuits at these meetings was not explicitly allowed then they too ought to be banned from council meetings. As has been pointed out by others, the ruling is not as landmark a case as the NSS would like it to be, as the scope is extremely limited.

What it has done is stir up a renewed interest in the role of state and religion which often seems to confuse people endlessly. This, I believe, is that while there is are loads of people who couldn't give a toss either way, as well as many reasonable moderates, the loudest voices are those with an agenda to push. In this case, we have the NSS on one hand and we have conservative christians (such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey) on the other.

My own view is that moderate secularism comes about as a consequence of the Golden Rule. Bideford Council never forced or coerced anyone into participating in prayers. Had they done so, I would not have been in support of their defence. If we are to do to others as we would have them to do us, then we should never impose our beliefs or specific "religious" practices on anyone.

The fallacy that has been used by those who supported the NSS’s case can be demonstrated as follows: Let's say we have 4 individuals, all with different beliefs.

1. Prays to Jahweh
2. Pray to Allah
3. Prays to the Flying Spaghetti Monster
4. Prays to no one.

By misrepresenting the Bideford case as a compulsion to make someone pray to an entity they did not believe in, the NSS portrayed it as person 4 being forced to comply with person 1's beliefs. This did not actually occur, but if it had then there would be very minor human rights issue (how often have the NSS campaigned against human trafficking?). So while the moderate secularist would advocate that no one party can impose their views on another, the NSS seek as a default that person 4 be allowed to impose their views on all others. This is done by grouping together 1,2 & 3 as being "religious" and then seeking a non-religious alternative as being the view that ought to be predominant.

In other words, the ultimate aim is to create an out of sight, out of mind political culture. As an aside, it is interesting to note that while it may be reasonable to state that we live in secular culture, the same cannot be said of our political system. One phrase I often hear used to describe Britain is a liberal, secular democracy. Of these 3 words, I don't think any of them accurately describe our politics. We presently have a Conservative-led government which is demonstrating that it values the pound more than the person, thus dispelling the myth that government is liberal. The head of state, the queen, is unelected and is also outside of the jurisdiction of some laws (for example, she cannot be sued), which shows that the idea of democracy is a joke. Then, to top it all off, the queen is also the head of a national state religion, which puts pay to the idea of the state being secular.


I don’t buy into the rhetoric that says that christians in this country are being persecuted. If so, then you might as well say that a fruit fly buzzing past year is a persecution. It does a disservice to those (and here I am thinking of the Sudan and Nigeria) where people have been murdered for being christians. The particular case in Bideford is really of limited importance. What is important is that the extreme and intolerant voices be exposed for the folly that they put forth, and to actively push to change our politics to become more liberal, secular and democratic, so as to be a fair reflection of the society it purports to serve.

10 February 2012

Past experience with Job Seekers’ Allowance

This is a duplication of a post originally hosted on my Wordpress site, where I think the fomatting is a little clearer
Source: US National Archives and Records Administration
In a previous post I made about my job situation, I made a reference to assuming that I would not receive job seekers’ allowance (JSA). This was based on my experience of this 6 years ago, after I graduated from university.

Having had all but one of my applications to study for a PhD ignored (the other being rejected by the university I was already studying at), I tried to apply for a few jobs but these were all met with rejections. I think the reason was that I had not been properly prepared for “competency based interviews” which were all the rage then. Every question began “name a time when....” and you were expected to give an example applicable to a workplace environment when all I had experience of was academia. It was only through repeated trial and error that I eventually got a job offer.

However, by the time that happened, I had already graduated. So, being unemployed, I did what any 22 year old would do, I went to stay with my parents for a week or two. The trouble with that is that they live in a dead-end town with no decent transport links. There are no jobs within the town and if you get a job elsewhere you have to have a car. For a town with a population of 35,000 to not have a train station is scandalous. The nearest mainline stations are a 45 minute bus journey away.

I soon made my way up to my sister’s house where I was able to use her high speed internet to start filling in online application forms and sending emails all day long. It was while I was here that I tried to see about signing on for JSA. When I phoned, I was told I had to go to a local office to sign on. The difficulty with this was that my sister lived in a tiny village many miles from any large town. So I could not sign on while I remained here. Instead, I had to go back to my parents and sign on at the office in the town where they lived. My task was then to apply for jobs and to come back every fortnight, at a pre-arranged time to catch up on what actions I had taken. Knowing that it was pointless staying with my parents, I then went and moved in briefly with my other sister, who lives in a city which has good transport links. This presented a few new difficulties, as she had a baby and a toddler at the time, and I could not get over the feeling that I was a hindrence to them and a drain on their resources.

One of my interviews clashed with one of my appointments at the job centre. I informed them that I would not be able to attend but was happy to make the appointment the next day. The Job Centre weren’t having any of this. They took a very “rules is rules” approach and said I *had* to attend. The interview was 60 miles away from the centre where I originally signed on, and would take a couple of hours to traverse London in order to make the appointment. I suggested that I sign on at the centre nearest to where my interview was, which seemed to be the most logical solution.

They um’d and ah’d about this for a while before eventually agreeing, though it had to go through some form with a special name that made it sound like a generic mobile phone model. It was a Form XP27F or something like that. So I ended up going to an interview in a town I had never set foot in before, only to then go to the job centre there to sign on. It was very noticeable that I was the only person there in a suit! After further interviews, I did eventually get this particular job.

As soon as I received a formal offer, I informed the job centre to say that I would no longer be claiming JSA and could they please remove me from their books. In response, they told me that I shoul keep claiming up to the point I actually started my job, which was a couple of weeks’ away, but I didn’t think this was morally right, given that I was no longer seeking; I had found a job. They agreed, but thought I was an idiot for sticking to my principles.

In all this time though, I had not actually been paid. When I signed on, they told me that it would take a few weeks for the payments to start coming through, so it didn’t really bother me that much. Having just finished being a student, I was pretty skint. I’d had to move house and buy loads of stuff that I had not previously needed. The JSA would have come in very handy. In order to pay for a deposit and for my rail fares to get around the country I was borrowing money and relying on the hospitality of members of my family. After our first day of induction in the office, we had to travel up to the midlands to attend a conference for all the graduate starters in the firm. Even though we could claim this on expenses, I still had to borrow the money for the train fare to get there in the first place. To this day, I can’t remember if I have actually paid back all of what I owed.

Once I started to get paid, I forgot about the JSA for a while, as I was more concerned with the emergency tax code they put me on, which meant that more was being deducted from my salary than was actually due to the Treasury. It was only after I had been working for 2-3 months that I received a letter from the department of work and pensions “enquiring” as to why I was claiming JSA when I was currently in full time employment; in short, I was being investigated for benefit fraud. I sent them back a very strongly worded letter which laid out in a matter-of-fact way much of what I have written above. In response, they dropped the investigation and sent me a cheque for the full amount of JSA that I had been owed. This arrived just a couple of weeks before Christmas, which was also the time my tax code was corrected and I got a massive rebate from HMRC.

So in the end, it worked out OK, and I was able to get nice presents for all the family (I hope they like them!). So what does this experience mean for the future? Well, given the manner in which I am losing my job, I will be claiming JSA, provided I have not managed to obtain a job offer before that. However, I retain scant hope of it being paid in a timely manner and will not be relying on it at all.

An attempt at embedding an audioboo

I'm trying to experiment with getting audioboo to work. I've recorded myself doing a most theatrical and over the top reading of a short passage from Revelation which is quite fun to quote out of context.

If it works, or if it doesn't, please let me know.

First attempt at Audioboo. a little quote from Revelation (mp3)

8 February 2012

Singles in the church

This is a replication of a post on my Wordpress site.

Following on from Batty Towers’ excellent couple of posts [first post & follow up] about being single in the church, I thought I’d try and write down some of my thoughts on the matter. I wrote about something similar before, though I have purposely not re-read that post, as this is meant to reflect my thinking at the present time. Bear in mind, that my experience covers a number of different churches that I have been to over the last 10 years or so, so anyone from my present local church should not necessarily take it that everything I say concerns my present situation, unless otherwise stated.

In my experience, the overriding ethos regarding singles in the church is that they are a problem to be solved. Questions are posed like, “what shall we do with the singles in the church?” or “how do we try and incorporate singles into the church?”

The commonest way to solve the problem is to make sure there aren’t any. In other words, try and marry them off to someone. Then they can be a family unit and fit in, just like everyone else. I have left several such Stepford churches with some haste. The flip side to this is to simply exclude singles from many aspects of church life. While I have never come across a church that has been seen to do this explicitly, this does happen implicitly a lot.

The methods by which this is mainly achieved are by making everything “family focused” so that there is nothing on offer for those who are not part of a family. The other one is to time things so that non-family people can’t attend. As a working professional, my availability is very limited. Being unable to be everywhere at once is one of the reasons I choose to maintain an online presence. The majority of my day is spent at work or commuting to and from work. So making weekday meetings is a major hassle. To some, the idea of “it’s only 2 hours a week” doesn’t really chime with me, as that can be 50% of the spare time I have between Monday and Friday. Or having meetings as early as 7:30pm rules out people like me, as I’d have to take a half day holiday in order to make it on time.

One point Batty Towers made in her first post was that there is sometimes an assumption that single people have more time than others. In fact, the opposite is true. A problem shared is a problem halved, but if you live by yourself, there is no one else to rely on. If I don’t cook, I don’t eat; no one does it for me. I can’t “take turns” or anything like that. For me, the little spare time I have is a precious resource, so I have to use it carefully. The idea of casually being asked in church “do you want to come over for lunch?” is the worst example of this. If you had wanted me to come round to lunch, then why didn’t you ask me several days ago? Taking any kind of time out from a weekend needs careful planning, or else the household chores will just never be done. By all means, asking someone round for a meal is a friendly act, but by giving no advanced notice it’s inconsiderate.

I’m not saying here that churches should bend over backwards to help single people out. Quite the opposite, in fact. What they ought to be doing is allowing the time and space for single people to serve the church. By being overly family-oriented there is a risk that a significant set of resources and skills are being missed. As Batty Towers brought out, the church is a place to *be* family, not just a place *of* families.

However, I would differ in some respects. For example, I would never use the word lonely to describe my circumstances. I am content as I am. I commented on this to mypastor on Sunday when he inviting me for a session on "relationships" being run by friends of the church. There's a session for the singles on a Friday and one for the families (particularly aimed at parents) on the Saturday. I did, however, wryly point out that putting a meeting on a weekday evening will mean I'll probably have to take a half day annual leave to make it on time. I have not, at this time, decided whether or not to go. I think the pastor was quite keen for me to go, as I make up quite a high proportion of 20something single male demographic in the church!

With all that said, one cannot but look at the calendar and see the forthcoming tide of consumerist tat that is Valentine's Day. While I would very much like to have gone to a Jurgen Moltmann lecture entitled "From Physics to Theology - a Personal Story" I think the evening will spent at home alone, with a glass of port and a DVD of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

6 February 2012

Book Review: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey

I first became aware of Bailey’s work when I picked up on a few references to his influential paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and The Synoptic Gospels. As suggested by a reading of this paper, and from the title of the book being reviewed, the key strength to Bailey’s work is putting things in their cultural context. Many modern, western, adherents to and critics of christianity (myself included) tend to read the bible in the light of their own cultural conditioning. Bailey spent many years living and working in the Middle East and as such is a rarity amongst western scholars to have such depth and breadth of understanding of the modern and ancient world in which Jesus lived.

This book is then a collection of essays where Bailey attempts to draw meaning out of them that would have made sense to those living through the events at the time they were occurring as well as the first readers (intended audience and slightly beyond) of the gospels. There is not really a running narrative, so each of the essays can be read in isolation if you want to. They are grouped together by theme. So for example, the early section is devoted to the nativity narratives of Luke & Matthew. There are also sections on the Lord’s Prayer, the miracles of Jesus and of his parables.

I found it a fascinating book and every essay contained something that I found deeply thought-provoking or where the author simply points something out that I had never noticed before; sometimes chiding myself for not having noticed sooner. In what he writes, there is a presupposition that the gospels are historically accurate. For my part, I retain a sceptical approach particularly with respect to the nativity narrative. After all, there was none included in the earliest gospel: Mark, which, if we are to accept the testimony of Papias (as quoted by Eusebius) that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, who clearly wasn’t around at the time of nativity. So where did the narratives come from? It is unlikely that either the authors of Matthew and Luke’s gospels were present at the birth, so it does leave an unanswered question; one which does cast something of a shadow over the historical reliability of the Christmas story.

Key to his analysis is to look at the rhetorical structure of the language, which he does by a clever use of indentation, showing where passages have a parallelism to them, but where the climax of the text is found in the centre of the passage, rather than at the end. It showed me ways of reading passages that I had never considered before, and such fresh insight is as welcome as it is challenging. Though it is a work of immense scholarship, Bailey’s writing style is very down to earth and highly accessible.

Some of the essays on the parables seem to be summaries of his work elsewhere as there are frequent footnotes effectively saying “[for more detail, see Poet & Peasant]” so if you have read that book then don’t be surprised if this covers much of the same ground.

That said, this is one of the best theology books I’ve ever read and I anticipate coming back to it many times over. I cannot recommend it highly enough to you.

3 February 2012

The language of Jesus

This post is a re-post from my Wordpress platform. You can read it in a slightly different format here.

Of late, I have been slowly working my way through Kenneth Bailey’s work ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which I so far am enjoying almost as much as I find it challenging. I have a lot of respect for Bailey & his work, but something in the introduction has been nagging at me, as it seems to contradict another biblical scholar for whom I have a lot of respect: Tom Wright. The question concerns what language Jesus spoke and therefore what is the ‘original’ language of the gospels. Bailey summaries thus:

“We are obliged to consider four stages through which our canonical Gospels have passed. These are:

1.The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic
2.The Aramaic eyewitness testimony to that life and teaching
3.The translation of that testimony into Greek
4.The selection, arrangement and editing of the Greek texts into the Gospels”

So here Bailey seems to be assuming that all of the content of the gospels we have are translations from the Aramaic.

Wright presents a subtly different picture in the preface to his New Testament For Everyone (NTFE) where he writes:

“Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels are written in Greek. Greek was everybody’s second language at the time, a bit like English in many parts of our world today.”

At a talk I was at when he expanded on this recently he gave an example of a young boy who approached him in the streets of Jerusalem to try to sell him something. The boy tried several languages before finding out that Wright was English.

Simply because most of us who have English as our first language don’t have a second language, it is presumptuous and condescending to assume that others are monolingual.

One place in the gospels this be highlighted (though I failed entirely to notice until it was pointed out to me) is when Jesus is conversation with Pontius Pilate. In what language was the conversation conducted? Aramaic, Greek or did they have a translator present?

Of course, one may reasonably ask who was the eyewitness present who preserved the conversation for later use by the gospel writers, but I’ll leave that for you to consider.

One potential problem this leaves for the modern day reader is what happens if you try to reconstruct the Aramaic from the Greek. I am informed, though I lack the expertise to check, that some words used in the Greek have no Aramaic equivalent, or that if there is an appropriate match, that it would be more likely that a different Greek word may be used. How much this changes the theology, I don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting point.

There is an intriguing hint of the possibility of the existence of a new lost Aramaic gospel. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he quotes an earlier writer name Papias, whose works now are only known to survive in fragments, usually quoted by others. The following is taken from Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. In one passage, he makes this intriguing statement:

“Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement [sunetaxato] in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialecto], but each person [heskastos] interpreted [hermeneusen] them as best he could.”

This is the translation used in Bauckham’s work. This raises the possibility that Matthew’s Greek gospel is a translation from an earlier version composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic. I ought to add that another view in this is that ‘hebraidi dialecto’ means ‘in a Hebrew style’ rather than strictly referring to the language of composition. I don’t know enough to be able to have a strong opinion on this, so I will let you consider which is more likely.

Aramaic was the language of the ‘common’ people that Jesus would have interacted with most days. Not only that, but in his use of parables he displays a very down-to-earth approach. His use of metaphor is always done in terms that would have been readily interpreted to the first century audience in that geographical area. This is something has a great eye for, having lived and worked in the Middle East for several decades.

At this juncture, I probably ought to point out that later in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ Bailey does correct himself a little, though it is more of a sidenote to the effect that Jesus probably could speak Greek as well as Aramaic.

If we accept that Jesus primarily used Aramaic, rather than Greek or Hebrew, what then? Well, my word limit is up for this post, so I’ll carry this on later.

1 February 2012

Thoughts on forthcoming unemployment

Last week, I was formally told that I would be losing my job. I'm not formally being made redundant, but think of that way as a shorthand. It's slightly more complicated than that, but I don't want to bore you with the details. I also don't want to breach confidentiality.

This is just a collection of some of the thoughts that have swilling around my head and heart over the last few days. It is unlikely to have structure or order to it, so I hope this comes across as being comprehensible, if not convincingly coherent.

I was given an invite to a one-on-one meeting with my line manager where I was given 30 minutes’ notice. 5 minutes after the invite was sent, I was forwarded an email which basically stated my job description with the epilogue “[these roles are now to be performed by another company within the group.]”

This meeting confirmed what I had long been given reason to suppose. Yet in spite of this, it still came as a kick to the stomach. I completely lost all appetite and though I didn’t time it, I don’t think I ate anything for over 24 hours. The fact of my forthcoming unemployment helped to sharpen up a lot of things in my mind, yet there were still a myriad of thoughts floating around that were unformed and which I failed to crystallise into words for several hours. After I got home, I spent the evening pacing up and down my flat trying to enunciate to myself what the implications were and what my plan of action would be.

First up, I knew I would need to go back on the job hunt, which, though I looked around gently a year ago, I have not had to do for just over two years now. In order to do that, I’d need to update my CV. The thing with this is that I always try and have a “master” copy of my CV which goes over the 2 page maximum. Then I can tailor it down depending on the requirements of the job I am applying for. It is easier to take things out that are less important (but which one can still bring up in an interview) than it is to add them in.

I am not yet at the section where I am panicking about being unemployed. I reviewed my finances (which I always keep in good order) and could tell at a glance that, assuming I don’t receive any jobseekers’ allowance, I could live for about 4 months. Straight away, I started paying more attention to the price labels on the food in the supermarket and questioning whether every penny I spent was a justifiable expense. I know most people live like that anyway, but it is a consequence of my working in finance for several years that my sense of proportion has become warped so that only sums over £2 really register on my radar.

I was allowed to take a day off, which I spent at home, not really doing much. I tried to distract myself with housework and did a little work on my CV. But most of the time all I had in my head were materialistic concerns. There were a number of things I had wanted to buy this year; a new tv, because my current one won’t work after the digital switchover in April; a new bookcase, because I have too many books; I wanted to go on holiday, as it’s nearly 2 years since I last had a break. It doesn’t look like any of that will happen now.

One of the words that was floating around my head was ‘emasculation’. To clarify, I do not feel that having a job makes me any more of a man than I otherwise would be, but the lack of a job takes away a feeling of usefulness. When it comes to jobhunting, I have to put on a thicker skin than the one I normally wear. I don’t take rejection very well, and so every application I send is done with an immense amount of trepidation and of fear that someone will take a look at my CV and think to themselves “this person is not good enough for us.”

The stress of this kicked off a migraine at the weekend, which wiped me out for pretty much a day. I don’t get them very often, but it’s usually only at times of high emotional stress. Thinking ahead, I was trying to anticipate all the inane questions I’d get from recruitment consultants about what sort of role, company, salary, location, etc. that I would be after. This is a process I really despise. When looking for jobs, I broadly subscribe to the idea that beggars can’t be choosers. Yet recruiters try and pin you down to one particular type of role or one industry. In the past, I did look at banking with an open mind, though I decided against it. My understanding is that one of the roles I interviewed for was subject to redundancy procedures a few months later.

I don’t know where I’ll end up; I’m willing to move, though I am extremely reluctant to go to London. If I could find something within 15-20 miles of where I am now, that would be great. But if I get the opportunity to move to the north again, then I would consider it very seriously.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, or lack thereof.