25 March 2011

Book Review: The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright

At the outset, Wright declares that “Our target is to investigate the claim of the earliest Christians, that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” He then takes us under his wing and guides along a journey of scholarship of the highest order. Leaving no stone unturned, he first of all investigates the idea of resurrection, first of all being extremely precise about what he means by resurrection. We then review resurrection traditions in pre-christian paganism and of judaism, constantly asking the question “is it probable that the early christians adapted an earlier tradition to suit their own story, or did something really happen that was of major significance.” Towards the end of the first section, one can become bogged down in the detail. I think this section can be skipped over with little loss overall, but it is was necessary in order for Wright to be thorough in his work, so that any accusations of taking shortcuts or ignoring certain schools of thought would be unfounded.

Having finished his survey of Pagan and Jewish beliefs, he then moves on to look at the early Christian beliefs into resurrection, attempting to chart the writings in a roughly chronological order, thus analysing the writings of Paul before those of the gospel writers. The aim here is to contrast the views of this emerging religion with those of the old and ask what could have prompted the transformation. Then, having seen the changes, the inevitable question that must then be asked is this: what caused the change? Wright is not presumptive in his answer, as I can tell a great many christians would at this point be jumping up and down saying “I know the answer.” But Wright is far more considerate and gives due care and attention to his scholarship. This level of detail may frustrate some readers, as much of the early part of the book discusses resurrection in general, with very little mention of Jesus who only starts to come into the picture after about page 200; even then, much of the focus is really on the hope of a resurrection for all, rather than focussing on the resurrection of Jesus. So in that respect, those expecting a detailed analysis of Easter will have to get through several hundred pages of background before getting what they are looking for.

But it is certainly worth the effort of getting to, once his analysis of the gospel accounts finally begin at page 587. But once he gets under way with it, there seems to be no stopping him. Wright is in his element, giving well-considered, evidenced and thoughtful consideration to the claims and counter-claims that have surrounded Easter for many years. Here, as throughout the book, he uses footnotes to acknowledge and counteract the conclusions of many other theologians, whilst agreeing with some. Foremost in his crosshairs is Rudolph Bultmann. Because much of the groundwork had already been laid, the gospel accounts may appear to be a little short. But do not be deceived; these chapters are immensely rich and in order to take them in I have had to go over them in conjunction with several translations a few times, which takes a fair while to do.

Having finished his survey of beliefs and narratives, the question is then asked: So what? Even if you skip over the first 600 pages and jump straight to last section (though you will be missing out) what you will find is the work of an honest historian who, having looked at the best available evidence, concludes that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Not only is this a striking conclusion, but the consequences of it, as expounded in the theology of the earlier sections (most notably Wright's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15) demand careful consideration by everyone.

In his final flourish, Wright looks at the reasons for calling Jesus the Son of God and what this means both in terms of direct referent and its implications, though the latter part is the lead on to part 4 in his series which, at the time of writing this review, is currently due sometime in 2012.

This is certainly a ‘meaty’ book and though at times you may need a dictionary on hand, it is written in an accessible way and is an immense joy to work through. I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in resurrection theology and of the future hope (either in heaven or a new earth) for christians.

Book Review: Gaia by James Lovelock

It has to be noted, first of all that this book is now 30 years old. Much has changed since it was written and to that end the author has included a new preface which acknowledges this. He also acknowledges that there are some factual errors within the book but that he would rather the original text be preserved as it was originally written, rather than constantly be revised.

The starting question is this: how could we identify if there is life on another planet? In other words, what are the signatures that distinguish life from non-life? The answer is not that straightforward, though Lovelock, with some acknowledgement given to some other scientists, comes up with a working definition for what characterises that which is living. But what Lovelock then does is to apply these criteria to the whole of planet earth and comes to the startling conclusion that the earth (or at least the biosphere) is a living thing; not just that it contains living things, but rather that it is itself a living entity, which has then been dubbed Gaia, after the greek goddess of the earth.

From here, Lovelock then looks at various aspects of biology and chemistry on earth and seeks evidence for this claim. His central argument is that of homeostasis: that the earth is self-regulating in order to maintain the conditions needed for life.

The book is characterised by two different personalities, so to speak. On the one hand, there is a quite reasonable scientific discourse (mostly focused on chemistry) about the make up and balances within the atmosphere and oceans, while on the other hand there is an impassioned environmental polemic on what mankind has done to harm the planet. While I do disagree, per se, with having these two styles married together, the way it is done seems to take the edge off the level of scientific credulity that Lovelock might have otherwise been afforded. My impression of it was that the scientific overview of feedback systems was immensely interesting, but the overarching Gaia hypothesis was itself unnecessary. Though this book has been hugely influential, particularly within the environmental lobby (rightly, I believe) the weight of scientific evidence for the master narrative is small and yet to be convincing.

22 March 2011

Out of sight; out of mind – a parallel view of cigarette packets and aggressive secularism

There have been a few discussions recently concerning the future of cigarette packaging and it brought to mind my recent post on the nature of secularism. The current proposal, as I understand it, is to remove any particular branding from cigarettes and to not have them displayed in shops. The end-game, if you will allow me to jump, is to reduce the consumption of cigarettes. The idea is to make them as unappealing as possible. Now, from my own point of view, I still find it pretty hard to see why anyone would want to roll up fragments of a dried weed into a small tube of paper, stick in their mouth and set fire to one end of it. But, my own personal views on the matter aside, what I’m interested in is looking at the parallels between the government’s plan and what many Christians see as an aggressive secular agenda in society as a whole. I will also aim to point out the differences, so as to not appear scaremongering, unreasonable or to possess any other characteristic that could be considered characteristic of your average Daily Mail article. I shall attempt to lay this out in a slightly simplistic manner, though for reasons of my own clarity, rather than patronising of you, since you are almost certainly more intelligent than I am. As ever, if you think I have made any factual errors, or have misunderstood something, then please let me know; I don’t profess to be perfect!

Removal of packaging
In the smoking debate, you will need to know the name of the brand if you are to request it from a shop keeper. If you were to walk into a shop and have a browse around, then there should be no evidence of the existence of cigarettes in the shop, expect for maybe a surreptitious reach under the counter when someone else asks for them. If you see someone smoking on the street (because that’s pretty much the only public place you can do it now) then it should be something of a mystery as to where to obtain these magical fire sticks and what the difference is between one and the other.

In discussions about various religions, there is a parallel of debranding by referring to “religion” as though it is one thing, with the various different religions being merely variations on a theme. In other words it becomes acceptable to ignore the cultural, historical and revelatory nature of the origins of various beliefs and instead to speak of a post-Enlightenment master narrative whereby all religions can be considered to be some sort of mental illness. The aim of this type of discussion is to assume that all religions must, a priori, be false and to start the discussion from that point; if you start from the same position over and over again, you can kid yourself that that is the appropriate place to start from, regardless of the falsity of the proposition.

So in order for someone who is vaguely interested in one or more of the religions will, by societal conditioning, find it harder and harder to know where to start. If one religion is, on the surface presentation, essentially the same as another, then what is there to decide between them? One would have to try out various “brands” to find out what the substance is behind them. But this is a lot of effort for a speculative investment of one’s time and therefore likely to be offputting. So just at the aim with the smoking is to reduce demand for smoking, so discussions about religions as though they are part of a more or less homogenous continuum subverts the ‘real’ discussions, particularly those of comparative studies and serve the purpose of putting off people from investigating religions, thinking for themselves and coming up with their own independent conclusions on the validity of the claims of various systems of beliefs.

There are, however, differences. For one, the smoking reforms are coming from a governmental mandate, whereas as the secular agenda is far more subtle. In spite of various conservative Christians decrying an alleged anti-christian agenda within politics, I would find it extremely hard to imagine a set of circumstances whereby a similar law would be proposed, let alone passed, within the UK to “remove the packaging” from the various religions. Churches can still display crosses (whether empty or full), mosques will still be allowed to display crescent moons on top of them and synagogues will still be able to show the star of David. The closest thing to this sort of legislation being proposed anywhere that I can recall was about a year ago when Switzerland called for the banning of the building of minarets.

Removal from the shop display
In spite of this, the false perception of the homogeneity of religions still assumes that they are out there and in the public eye. At present, smoking paraphernalia is still displayed behind shop counters so that, providing you have the courage to ask for it, you can purchase the said goods. With the proposal to move cigarettes away from the shelves, we have another prong in the government attack on the demand of cigarette consumption. The idea behind it is “out of sight, out of mind.” So whilst smoking is still legal on the street and in the private home, this is a further curb at trying to push it as far out of the public mind as possible. In particular, a key demographic being targeted are the under 20s who may be considering taking up smoking as their expensive and carcinogenic habit of choice. The best way to reduce the demand for a product is to create a culture that is ignorant of its existence. While not going all the way to banning smoking, this is just one step further along that path. I don’t know if I’ll ever see smoking outlawed in this country during my lifetime, but I would be fooling only myself if I thought that this was the final measure taken by any government to reduce smoking via legislation rather than merely a health initiative.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with certain aggressive strands of secularism which want to drive the remaining aspects of religion out of public life. For example, the British Humanist Association has an active campaign against Thought For The Day, a 5 minute religious slot in Radio 4’s The Today Programme. Every now and then, you also hear whinges about the existence of Songs of Praise taking up prime broadcasting time. Most recently there is another campaign by the BHA to try and tell people what they should put on their census forms. The underhanded trick that they have used, though, is the one of the lack of branding mentioned above. It is all about being opposed to any religion by lumping them together and saying that you are not religious. Now I am a christian, but I rarely describe myself as religious. While this may go slightly against Paul (“the mysteries of our religion”) the main use of the term in the New Testament is as a negative connotation denoting those that are bound by rules and those that do the binding as a form of political power; e.g. the Pharisees. But Christianity is not founded on this. Any ‘rules’ per se emerge from the only 2 underlying principles of “love God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Anyone who thinks Christianity is a set of rules has not understood it (see Romans 7:6 - plus the surrounding context).

Anyway, minor rant aside, the aim of the BHA census campaign, along with a poll which they commissioned to look at a smaller sample but which they nonetheless profess to be more accurate (could it possibly be because the second poll agreed with their pre-formed conclusions, perhaps?), is to drive religion out of public life. Now while I have said before that there is a fine line between a lack of religious privilege (something Martin Luther was very keen on) and the removal of the face of various faiths from the public arena. The pettiness of the Today Programme campaign shows to what extent this attempt to remove religion has. I have yet to really make up my mind on the inclusion of bishops in the House of Lords. On the whole, I lean towards not having them there, but then I would not single them out as an object of prejudice in the manner of the BHA. If any change is to be made to the Lords it needs to be wholesale and non-discriminatory. There is also the matter of how important a role they actually play. In any televised proceedings, I have not seen any bishops present, let alone speak. And I think they have rather better things to do with their time.

Yet this does differ from the smoking reforms insofar as the attempt to marginalise different faiths (and Christianity in particular) is not government-led. It is led by small, vocal, sections of society who are intolerant of those whose opinions in certain matters differ from their own. While this country has a distinct and well-evidence christian heritage, in spite of what various revisionists may claim, this is a secular state. Different faiths co-exist almost entirely peaceably with one another and faith communities lead the drive in charity and volunteering. I am happy that we don’t have a supposed theocracy, where a fallible person is appointed as an unquestionable authority acting in loco deus. But what I do not agree with are attempts to make those who practice various religions/faiths/systems of belief into social pariahs. Though ideas of freedom of expression and democracy are not inherently biblical, I don’t think there can be many of us of a liberal persuasion that disagree that they are fundamentally good things. In order for the fair balance allowing religions and beliefs to operate freely within a secular framework, there has to be an absence of privilege and prejudice in relation to these matters. It is increasingly evident that organisations like the BHA and NSS are not really acting as balanced as they would like to think they are. In the name of removing religious privilege, they are instead acting as prejudicial bodies, pandering to the phobias of their constituent members – not unlike some churches!

So what shall I say then? It seems clear to me (and I hope I have been clear in my written communication to you) that there are parallels between the marginalisation of smokers and those of adherents to particular belief systems. The key difference is what is the subject of official legislation and what comes about from a less clear-cut, societal pressure, epitomised by certain scaremongers with their own agenda. But underneath this there is a difference of substance. I can imagine the scoffers thinking “Ah, but one is a carcinogenic menace to society that serves only to meet an irrational craving. And the other is smoking.” In reality, and here I speak only of Christianity, the difference is of life on the one hand and death on the other, and I’d rather walk down The Way of Life.

21 March 2011

Book Review: A Place For Truth ed. by Dallas Willard

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking and highly enlightening collection from some highly notable thinkers and authors. I won't go through all 15 chapters, but will highlight a few. These are all taken from lectures and discussions which have been presented at the Veritas Forums over the course of several years. They do seem to have been copied verbatim, which does mean that some slips of the tongue or mishearings have crept into the text, though this is a minor point that could be addressed by a second issue.

The start of the book is saturated with the idea of truth. In fact the word itself is used so many times, the reader can start to feel as though they are beaten over the head with it. However, the discussions do widen out and cover various topics such as, inter alia, science, morality, theodicy, ontology and philosophy.

The reason I chose this book was because of a few particular names that jumped out at me; my having been impressed by other works of theirs which I have read: Francis Collins, Alister McGrath and N.T. Wright. Now the contributions by these particular individuals is pretty much taken from their other works which I have already read. So for example, if you have read Francis Collins' The Language of God, then his chapter will contain little that is new to you. So the most novel chapters were those from whom I had not come across before.

There is a distinct Christian bias to the book, though there are some discussions which put across alternative views which help to add some amount of balance to the proceedings.

As with the nature of any composite work such as this, the contributions do vary in quality and style. There will be some that you agree with and some that you disagree with. The one disappointment I had was with the chapter by Hugh Ross, whose arguments appeared very weak and insubstantial, particularly given the high quality of thinking and delivery that was evident elsewhere. On a few occasions, there was also a bit of a bias towards the american education system, which distances a few of the speakers from the non-american audience.

This is very much a book of the current time with the issues being discussed and the other recent writings referred to being very much focused on issues that have come to the fore in only the last decade or so. So as a comment on the status of truth and various related issues, this is a very good guide on the modern thought, though I suspect that it will not have a shelf life of more than 10 years, as by then discussions will have moved on and some of the contributions may appear outdated.

11 March 2011

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This is one those books that gets passed around via word of mouth recommendations. I picked it up just due to the wide variety of friends who, with widely varying tastes, all raved about how great this book was. So I came to it with high expectations, but almost as much as I expected it to be good, I was also expecting to be disappointed, thinking that nothing could match the hype.

The story kicks off in a cracking way. We are introduced to our main protagonist and the first person narrator of the story, Daniel, who is taken by his father to a mysterious place known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he picks up a copy of a hitherto unknown work called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Fascinated by the story, he takes the story to a book merchant, who offers Daniel a huge sum of money for the book. But Daniel is more interested in the story and of the story of the author behind it.

As the story develops, a murky figure lurks in the shadows of the streets of Franco's Barcelona, seemingly intent on destroying all the works of Carax. So as Daniel gets a little older, he sets off in search of the full story of Julian Carax, trying to discover who he was and what fate befell him. As Daniel talks to a number of people who had dealings with Carax, his family or his friends, much of the main narrative is told in flashback format, and as Carax's story is revealed, it shows a worrying parallel with the events happening in Daniel's life. Pursuing the memory of an obscure, it seems, is not a safe hobby. As events draw themselves to a conclusion, the lives of Daniel and Julian seem to be spiralling towards each other into an inevitable conclusion.

After a captivating opening, in which Zafon makes it apparent that this book is a love letter to the novel. He peppers the reader with references and nods to various other works of literature for which Zafon has a clear affection. After this, though, the book does fall into a bit of a lull. The essential plot device he uses is for two friends to go and talk to someone who sheds a little more light on the mystery before something bad happens to one or both of the two friends. This pattern is repeated multiple times and does lead to a little frustration on the part of the reader. The resolution of the mystery (which is actually fairly predictable from about page 40) is also a little disappointing, as it comes from a deus ex machina. The climax which comes after is also a little predictable.

That said, this is still a fun book to read, with some great aphorisms dotting the landscape and some wonderfully poetic descriptions of the landscape of Barcelona during and just after the Spanish Civil War.

1 March 2011

Book Review: The Borgias And Their Enemies by Christopher Hibbert

It needs to said at the start what sort of book this is and what it is not. It is a narrative, told very much in bitesize chunks, scattered with quotations from the original sources. It is not an analytical review of the period. It details the corruption in the catholic church during the late 15 and early 16th centuries, though never in a polemic way. Hibbert is always measured in his approach and where events are disputed or appear to have been created out of speculation, he is quick to say so and does not draw judgement on their veracity; this is mainly in relation to the rumours of incest. Though even if we set those aside, there is no room for doubt left that the reign of the Borgias was nepotistic, bloody, ruthless and fuelled by greed and lust.

The story is told in roughly chronological order, though as each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the history, there is a little jumping around, so there is no single timeline running throughout. Hibbert's scholarship is evident, though not totally transparent; while he states certain facts and at the end gives a list of further reading, the two are not married up, so that I was left frequently asking “where's the justification or the evidence for that statement” and Hibbert doesn't provide the answer. There is also a seeming lack of questions being asked. I was expecting more centext and at attempt to understand the importance of the Borgias both at the time and their lasting on impact on catholicism, italian politics and the wider world; unfortunately there was none of this.

Instead, what we have is a setp by step case of “this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. And then this happened” whilst all the time leaving the reader to do all the analysis with only the narrative as a guide. So if you want a dispassionate narrative then this is the book for you. If you are interested in the impact and importance of the Borgias, then you are better off reading Machiavelli's The Prince. That said, this is a valuable resource and I would recommend it as part of any thorough reading of the history of the family and the period.