19 December 2011

Taking a break

I’m going to be taking a break over Christmas. Not just work-wise but blog-wise too. I’ll continue to write, but I can’t guarantee I’ll have ready access to an internet connection to upload. I haven’t decided if I’m taking my laptop with me as I tour the country visiting family for a few days at a time. I’ve got a large pile of half-finished posts that I really ought to get back to. So even though January will be the busiest month of the year for me work-wise, I hope to be able to make some regular postings. Some of these will be responses to posts that are months old and others will be the product of the musings of my mind over the Christmas period.

Besides, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of better things to be doing at this time of the year than perusing the web. With over 100 posts written this year, I think I’ve done enough for now. I hope to have more time in 2012, though I can easily imagine that that will disappear somehow. Either way, some changes are afoot, some of which can go online, others of which probably can’t. The blog has certainly grown in readership this year. For the first 5 months it averaged a meagre 100 hits per month whilst in the last 5, it’s garnered almost 900 per month, though it’s still a long way short of the superstar blogs.

Have a good Christmas!

14 December 2011

A suicide on the rails

I apologise for any typos or lack of coherent thought in this post. I am typing this in a short space of time as I try to gather my thoughts. Last night all the trains on the line I use to get home were heavily disrupted. The reason was because a person was hit by a train; in all likelihood, a suicide. This is a reasonably common occurrence on this line. I delayed leaving work and stayed a few hours late (having arrived a couple of hours early in the morning), but managed to get home in a reasonable time. As usual, I buried my head in a book on my commute. Only this time, what I was reading was resonating with my surroundings. The section of the book I got to was a long suicide note. I haven’t yet finished it, but I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter on the train.

There were phrases used like “inconsiderate behaviour” or “thoughtless act” and all I could think was this: which is more inconsiderate: to end one’s life or to not care as to the reasons and circumstances why someone might do it. I don’t know the person’s identity, so I don’t know if I ever knew them. But I have had friends attempt suicide before, some unsuccessful, some successful. Today there is most probably a family grieving and friends wondering what signs they missed, digging through their memories in search of a reason.

When we have no direct connection with another human being it becomes far easier to be judgemental (not that it’s particularly hard, otherwise) and to treat them as something other than a valued individual. This is something J. B. Priestley in his play, An Inspector Calls. There may 1, 2, a dozen or hundreds of people I pass by every day who may be in a very dark place yet managing to mask it, while inwardly crying out for someone to understand them, to accept them, to love them.

9 December 2011

The books of shame

As you may have worked out, I’m a bit of a bookworm. It’s what keeps me sane on my commute into and out of London every day. I’ve made way through lots great books but I’ve also come across some fairly disappointing ones. There are those, though, that I am ashamed to say I never finished. I have a pile of them on the desk in my study, staring at me. Like Poe’s Raven, they just remain there implacably, goading me to give them another go.

In the meantime, I find excuses to not revisit them, mainly because there are plenty of other books I would rather read as a matter of priority. So here I will swallow my pride and admit to the books that I have but which failed to get through cover-to-cover. Just note this doesn’t include the books I am currently reading (which, if you’re viewing this on the desktop version, you can see in a widget on the left sidebar).

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren – I briefly went through the reasons for this recently (see point 2).

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick – An odd one. I love Philip K Dick’s short stories and have quite liked a few of his books, but I just couldn’t get into this one. The premise was that the Nazis won the Second World War, but that’s not really very clear in the text. I just got bored and moved on.

The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose – This is another one from a writer I love. My Master’s thesis was written on a subject Penrose pioneered. This is his first book on computing and artificial intelligence (the follow up being Shadows of the Mind). As fascinating as the ideas are, I just got bogged down in the technical computing of Turing machines and pages and pages of binary code and programming instructions.

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton – one of the most important books in the history of science. Whilst I spent my formative years being taught a lot of ‘Newtonian’ mechanics, I felt it was important to read Newton himself. Similarly, for Euclidean geometry, I read Euclid; for Darwinism, I read Darwin’s The Origin of Species; and for Platonism, I read Plato’s Republic. But this was just so hard to get through. I have subsequently become aware of a hypothesis that Newton was being deliberately obscurantist in his examples in order to avoid plagiarism.

The Book of Dave by Will Self – Truly one of the most frustrating reads of all time. I picked it up on the premise that it was a witty satire on religion, where the diary of a London cabbie became the basis of a post-apocalyptic society. What I wasn’t aware of until I started reading is that the dialogue is written entirely phonetically in a cockney accent. To try and make sense of it, you have to try and read each sentence two or three times. Some things are worth a lot of effort to read; this wasn’t one of them.

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew – I’ve been questioned as to how I could put this down. It’s been maybe about 12 years since I started this. I just didn’t find it terribly interesting at the time and got distracted by Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the entirety of which I read between my GCSE mocks and my finals, which probably contributed to me losing a grade on 8 out my 9 GCSEs.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – One of the classics, but one I just struggled to be able to get a handle on. This probably had much to do with the fact that I didn’t try to read it until after I had seen Apocalypse Now. The book I have it in contains many other stories by Conrad, all of which are fairly similar and could be considered as early attempts building up to the masterpiece. But once you’ve read 2 or 3, they do just seem to merge into one.

Does God Believe in Atheists by John Blanchard – Creationist claptrap. I heard him speak when he came to my church, promoting this book, many years ago. The book manages to waste a lot of paper by not saying much. Blanchard wants to start by defining an ‘atheist.’ He does this by first defining a ‘theist’ in an extremely narrow way that would exclude Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, a fair few christians and many others besides. He goes on to use Richard Dawkins as the primary spokesman for all atheists, getting muddled up between atheism and an understanding of various sciences including evolutionary biology, cosmology and geology. It was just painful to read.

A User’s Guide To The Brain by John Ratey – This is another one that I found utterly fascinating, but at the same time I just couldn’t understand it. It’s a pop science book on neurology, though it doesn’t shy away from the terminology. What I have read, I have loved. I just find it easy to get distracted by other books.

So those are mine. Have you got any books of shame, or have you managed to finish any of those that I haven’t?

7 December 2011

10 Reasons why I’d make a rubbish charismatic christian

I recently came across a few posts that were along the lines of “I’d make a rubbish [insert denomination/tradition/affiliation] christian” where the person identifies their own particular type of church. I’ve long thought that I don’t really belong in the kind of church that I do. I think part of it is that I would never want to attend a local church where I was totally comfortable; I like to be challenged and, in turn, to challenge others.

So this is my contribution/confession. I don’t identify my church, as I am not a spokesman for it, but it is sufficient to say that it is an independent charismatic Pentecostal church with no strong ties to any major national or international umbrella organisation. Just note, the only order here is the order I thought of them, and they are no way meant to represent any sort of scale of importance.

I’d make a rubbish charismatic because…

1. I’m not very charismatic. OK, I know that charismatic in the church sense is derived is ‘charismata’ meaning spiritual gifts (see point 6 below) but it is commonly taken in the English vernacular meaning of an outgoing, bubbly sort of person. I’m a quiet, withdrawn, dull sort of person.

2. I never finished The Purpose Driven Life. This seems to be one of the most widely read books in charismatic circles, but I couldn’t stand it. The introduction asks you to sign an agreement with the author, and asks that you only work through 1 tiny chapter each day. I don’t sign agreements readily and don’t’ restrict my reading. I could quite easily have finished the book in a week. But it was just so trite and patronising. And as for the theology, don’t get me started…

3. I’m highly sceptical about the Toronto Blessing and Lakeland Revival. Much has been written and said on both of these events. My personal take (briefly) is that what may have started out as a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit was quickly overtaken by mass hysteria and hype. To the best of my knowledge, not one of the claimed healings at Lakeland was ever verified (please point me to the supporting evidence if I am wrong).

4. I don’t have the gift of tongues. This often seems to be over-emphasised in charismatic circles. I think it partly comes about as a result of a particular reading of 1 Corinthians 12:31 where Paul writes “strive for the greater gifts” and this is taken immediately to mean talking in foreign languages (or xenolalia). I’m not convinced it is (Paul, in the same book, writes that he would rather people prophesy than speak in foreign languages). I also find it quite demeaning when you hear the occasional preacher saying that if you don’t speak in tongues then you’re not a “true christian.” I find that really unhelpful and wonder how many people have left churches because of a similar rhetoric.

5. I don’t have a copy of the New Living Translation. This seems to be the most common version of the bible used in Charismatic churches, though it’s surprisingly hard to get hold of a copy in print. I had a discussion on what version of the bible I used recently.

6. I read the bible in Greek. This is not a boast. I can only read Greek due to the fact that I did a maths degree at university. We quickly ran out of symbols from the modern alphabets and by convention, Greek was the most common. I have had a go at reading Euclid in its original form, though that’s pretty touch going. I rely on Strong’s Greek dictionary in my concordance for the translations. If I am ever unsure about the particular phrasing I go back to the Greek to look it up. Most charismatics I know quote the bible as if it were written in English. Jesus did not say “I am the way the truth and the life,” because he didn’t speak English.

7. I’m not a young earth creationist. Though not a universal amongst charismatics, I think there is a broad leaning towards this view. I know there are some in my own church, and some that are not. For most, though, I don’t know what their view is. I’ve laid out mine here.

8. I don’t drink beer. What I find distinguishes charismatics from, say, baptists, is that fewer charismatics are tee-total. Meetings at the pub are fairly commonplace. However, I never acquired the taste for beer and the smell of it makes me nauseous.

9. I’m highly interested in Biblical origins. This is linked in with points 6 & 8 above. Most charismatics I have across don’t seem to consider the question too much and treat the bible as a neat package, delivered on their doorstep, with no questions about its origin being considered. I find it a fascinating field of study and makes me look at both biblical and non-biblical theological writings in a quite different way than I used to. I am writing a blog post on this subject at the moment, but have no idea when I shall finish.

10. I think that doubt is a valuable thing. I have often heard the notion “don’t think, just believe.” This is usually my prompt to walk out, as I think it’s an abandonment of rational thinking. When we’re called to “love God...with all our minds” I take that to mean we have to be intellectually honest, acknowledge uncertainty and be willing to admit we might be wrong. I subscribe to the view that doubt leads to enquiry which leads to improved knowledge & understanding. For an overview of my theological epistemology, see this.

6 December 2011

Book Review: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Prior to reading this, I was well aware than this is considered something of a modern masterpiece, with it often being cited as the book that led to Marquez being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Therefore I approached it with some anticipation, particularly as I enjoyed Love In The Time Of Cholera. However, I have also had many disappointments of books that have had high praise but which have nonetheless been disappointing. Notable recent examples have included Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children.

The start of the book is fantastic, and a real pleasure to read. In style, it is very similar to Love In The Time Of Cholera in that the language used is extremely poetic. This, however, is about as far as it goes. Having read the book from cover to cover, I really couldn’t tell you what it’s about. The story is set in a place called Macondo. It is somewhat ambiguous as to what sort of settlement Macondo is. At the start of the novel, it comes across very much as a small village. Later on, it seems to be a provincial area and at times it seems to be a whole country. The story itself is non-linear which adds to the confusion. So a character that is killed very early on crops up again alive and healthy later on.

The other thing that really annoyed me was the names. It’s supposed to be set across several generations, only to keep the idea of a link between them, almost every male character is named Aureliano or Jose. When this is combined with the non-linear story line what you end up with is a book made up of pages and pages of beautiful word-imagery that is disparate and incoherent. There are individual sentences in here that are wonderful, but adjacent paragraphs often bear no relation to one another.

The ending of the book (which I shan’t spoil) does go a long way to explaining why this is. I felt, however, that it was a bit too convoluted. Because of the issue of the names, the reader can’t really get to know any of the characters which is something I value a lot in a fiction book. So would I recommend it? Barely. It is a frustrating read, but there are some really beautiful phrases used where Marquez can, with just a few words, conjure up images in your head of stunning aesthetics.

5 December 2011

On web anonymity

It may not have escaped your notice that this blog is semi-anonymous. The username I tend to go by, Sipech, is actually related to my real name, though I choose to not reveal it in full. Those that know me “in real life” may be aware of the blog, and I estimate that about 25% of those of you who are reading this have met me. But for the rest of you, does it matter that you can’t put associate my writings with a name or with a face?

This led me to think: are web users who choose to retain their anonymity less credible than those who don’t?

Prompted by this, I asked an open question on Twitter. Interestingly, all the responses I got were from users who, like me, opted to retain their anonymity. I don’t keep mine a particularly closely guarded secret. I’ve entered into email correspondence with some people, and my email address bears with it my real name. Part of the reason I choose to use a pseudonym is to distance my work life from my blog.

On the one hand, someone who opts for anonymity may be perceived as hiding something in some way. On the other hand, though, I don’t see what is materially gained from knowing an individual’s identity in some way. There are exceptions, where a blogger may have specialist knowledge or access to information that the public in general wouldn’t have. In such a circumstance, the writer may meet with some scepticism (and rightly so, I believe) if it may be thought that they are making things up. There have been some notorious cases of bloggers who have faked their identity or where they have been ‘unmasked’ for various reasons.

What about those who choose to reveal their true identity? Do they (or you) think there is something to be gained by doing so, or is it an issue to which little thought is applied?

One experiment I had in mind would be for a well-known blogger to create a second blog and write anonymously. The content need not be significantly different. I think it would be interesting to see if the same content under an anonymous label would garner the same level of attention.

Of course, there are a number of other factors to consider in such an experiment, like how long it took for a particular blogger to gain a significant following. So it’s not an experiment that could be done a few weeks. Several months to a year may be a more reasonable estimate.

I don't know the answer to these questions. I'm just throwing them out there. What do you think?

2 December 2011

Book Review: Did St Paul Get Jesus Right by David Wenham

This is actually the second time I’ve tried to write this, as I accidentally deleted the first one. Normally I don’t write reviews more than a couple of weeks after I finish a book, but this is an exception to that.

This was the first book I finished that I received for my birthday last month. The reason I was interested in this was to explore the idea of Pauline theology as it relates to christian theology as a whole. In many online discussions I have, there is often reference made to Paul in particular shaping the form of the early christian church. Though it may be difficult to do, because of prior knowledge of Paul, I think it would be nonetheless interesting to see what kind of belief might emerge if someone were given the Bible, but with all of Paul’s writings erased. Would the theology that emerged be radically different from the many ‘flavours’ of christianity that we already have?

It has to be noted that the book is very short, at just over 150 pages, and I got through it in a week, even though I was reading another book at the same time. The basic question is that of the title of the book. The author begins by making more of a populist case than a scholarly one, by citing Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as representing the viewpoint which Wenham sets out to oppose. Since these are both works of fiction, it seems a similar approach to opposing christianity by taking The Shack and Left Behind as your starting point. He does mention a couple of more serious writers in passing, though they are not mentioned again beyond the opening chapter.

Wenham starts his answer by looking at whether or not the documents we have are the most reliable sources for our information. In this, he stays close to the orthodox views of F.F. Bruce’s Are The New Testament Documents Reliable. This orthodox theme runs through the book; so although Wenham claims he’s trying to taking an impartial view, I couldn’t escape the idea that his conclusions had already been reached and that the substance of the chapters was his filling out the pages.

He goes on to look at various issues, which are all pertinent. These include Paul’s view on Jesus himself, ideas of apostleship, sex and the afterlife. One of the more interesting points is how little Paul directly refers to the teachings of Jesus. Though Wenham correctly points out that there may well have been a difference between Paul’s letters and his preaching, I don’t think the explanation that recalling Jesus’ teaching was restricted to Paul’s preaching which we don’t have preserved, though reasonable, is not entirely convincing.

What I felt was lacking was a rigorous engagement with the views that Wenham sets out to oppose. I wouldn’t quite say he was setting up a straw man; it was more a case of occasionally talking about a straw man that you couldn’t examine in detail. What Wenham does present is very good and deserves serious consideration; if a writer were to put forward a case proposing that Paul was primarily responsible for the foundation of christianity, they would have to engage with Wenham’s arguments and do a lot of work to cast doubt upon or refute them. Well worth a read, but it’s left me wanting to read some other follow-ups.

1 December 2011

Should I write a book?

This is just a quickfire posting, written in haste. I’m rather behind in my blogging as work is taking up the majority of my time and all I have time for when I get home is a quick dinner and a wash, which I prioritise over writing. So I may be infrequently posting, but at least I smell OK and have am ample waistline!

I do have some time off over Christmas, though, and I was pondering writing a book. I don’t have the time needed for something the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which ended yesterday but I’ve long considered the possibility. I’m no spring chicken anymore, with my 30th birthday not seeming all that far away. So if I weren’t to start now, would I ever?

Then I run into my second problem: what to write? As with my blog, I am full of ideas and great at doing outlines and making a start. What I’m not good at is finishing and polishing the thing off. I now you’re supposed to write about what you know and are passionate about, so I was thinking about doing one of the following:

1) A fictionalised history of the early church, only setting it in modern business. The story would start with the retirement of the CEO and document the spread of the business along with the personal wranglings of the directors, especially the relationship between one of the CEO’s most trusted execs and a new guy who had previously made several attempts to kill the company off.

2) A manifesto for religionless christianity. This is a challenge that Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid down in his Letters & Papers From Prison and one I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I don’t know if something like this has been done already, or whether that falls under an Emergent/Fresh Expressions label; to be honest, I don’t know much about those two, so I may be inadvertently following someone else’s footsteps.

3) The joy of science. I would just go through all my science books and notes from college and university, pulling out all the things that I just find fascinating and interesting. It would be a bit of a compendium, with no overall narrative. It should just be something to bring a smile to a geek.

4) A snapshot of the churches in England. Similar to the Mystery Worshipper, my plan would be to take a sample of churches from across the country (one per county/major city) and just find out what is being preached on one particular Sunday, randomly chosen. I would download the sermons off their website, listen to them and write some notes on them. I already download quite a few from churches I’ve never been to and listen to them while I do the washing up.