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.

31 January 2012

A move to Wordpress?

For a little while, I've been contemplating moving this blog to a different platform. My understanding has been that Wordpress is in most respects, a superior platform to Blogger. I've managed to set up an account and move my posts over.

You can find the new blog at http://sipech.wordpress.com/

I'm going to post most things on both sites for a while, as I'm not yet decided if I want to make the move permanent. It was only when I started to look through Wordpress that I discovered many features are hidden behind a paywall. So although the appearance is generally a lot more professional than Blogger, the customisation is greatly inferior. At least, that's how I see it.

If you've migrated accounts, drop a comment and let me know what your experiences are, and if you've got any hints & tips.

30 January 2012

Book Review: The Limits of Science by Peter Medawar

I can’t remember where it was that I first saw this referenced. It took a little bit of finding, as I could not find it print in any major bookstore either on the high street or online. Eventually, I managed to get my hands on a second hand book. The cover is a bit, well, utilitarian. I’ll include a photo, so you make of it what you will:

As soon as you see it, you’ll realise it’s a tiny book. The book is comprised of 3 essays and in totality it is less than 100 pages. The first is entitled “An essay on scians” where the author has used an alternative, archaic spelling of ‘science’ to make his point. It is a very general essay on the nature of science. There is some detail in there but it is only there to make a point rather than educate the reader in any particular point. It is greatly enjoyable; I would describe its style as an Englishman attempting to write like Richard Feynman. After all, where else would you find a subsection entitled ‘Science and cricket’? In a short essay he manages to cover issues of sociology, politics, history and the public perception of science.

I would recommend this to anyone considering taking an undergraduate degree in any science. It is a real gem; concise, clear, passionate and well thought-through.

The second essay has as its title a very straightforward question: “Can scientific discovery be premeditated?” This is an even shorter essay, at just 8 pages. Medawar uses 3 examples to demonstrate his argument that the answer to the question is “no.” His main target seems to be the industrialisation of science in modern academia where research is often only funded if an application of the science is foreseen. This goes very much against the spirit of science that prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

His final essay is the culmination of these, where the main question posed is that of whether or not there are questions that science cannot answer. Specifically he has in mind “childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as “How did everything begin?” “What are we here for?” “What is the point of living?””

It would be very easy to heap praise on Medawar because his views line up roughly with my own. That is to say, he thinks there are questions that cannot be answered by scientific means though he rejects the school of positivism as put forth by AJ Ayer and the Vienna Circle, by accepting that such questions do make sense.

Probably the most interesting part of the essay which I had not previously considered was his consideration of ‘The Law of Conservation of Information’ which is stated thus:
“No process of logical reasoning – no mere act of mind or computer-programmable operation – can enlarge the information content of the axioms and premises or observation statements from which it proceeds.”
He finishes the essay with a consideration of ‘The Question of the Existence of God’ – a subject that tends to divide opinions like few others. I shan’t tell you what his conclusion is on this. I would heartily recommend that you read it for yourself. You can get a second-hand copy from Amazon (as I did) for a couple of quid, as it seems to be out of print now. But it is well worth it; eloquently written, sharp, witty and not overflowing with superfluous words.

23 January 2012

Book Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

In some of my reading I am trying to make up for lost time. I didn’t read much while I was doing my A-levels or my degree. I did get through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I think that that was a huge mistake. I’m guessing most people my age will have already read this book, but I needed to catch up. Oddly, it’s one of those books so famous that most people who haven’t read it could give you a summary of the plot as well as some of the detail. What I was keen to do was to read the original text and learn for myself, rather than count on the wisdom of others.

There are few things to note from the outset. Firstly, there are no chapter divisions in the book. This makes it quite difficult to note where there are natural breaks in the narrative. Whenever I put the book down I would lose my exact place (in spite of the use of a bookmark). Secondly, you have to note the language. It is a little archaic and the terminology used at times may well seem racist, though this is probably more a reflection of the cultural norms of Defoe’s day. Thirdly, the book is told entirely in the first person, though it is not clear if Robinson is writing this as he goes along his journey or whether it is written in retrospect, which keeps the reader joyfully uninformed as to his final fate.

There are 2 principle stories on which Defoe seems to have based his book, both of which are biblical: The parable of the prodigal son and the life story of Jonah. Crusoe is a runaway from home, leaving against his parents’ wishes. He goes through some early disasters including a near-shipwreck in the seas outside London and later, being taken captive by pirates off the west coast of Africa. He escapes but soon ends up shipwrecked properly on a remote island, the only survivor of the ship’s crew. This opening part of the narrative has the feel of being rushed and is a little confusing, as the author doesn’t always make clear precisely where the story is taking place.

While Defoe portrays Robinson Crusoe as an everyman, begging the question of the reader “what would you do in his situation?” our hero is actually very well provisioned. The author goes into some depth describing the salvage operation which enables Crusoe to have to hand canvas from which to make shelter, a gun & gunpowder with which to hunt amongst a whole load of other things which come in handy as a narrative device to stop Crusoe from dying in the first few days of his time alone. By the time I got halfway through the book, I will admit to finding it a bit turgid, as Defoe waffles a little bit.

However, he does it rescue it with the appearance of other people on the island. I will try not to spoil it for you, but if you don’t want to know too many details, this may be a good time to stop reading this review. Crusoe spies evidence that the island is now playing host to occasional visits from a tribe of cannibals. It is only then that we meet the second most famous character in the novel, Friday. Most people the name, but not the man. He is one doomed to be dinner at the hand of the cannibals but is rescued by Crusoe, who adopts a highly imperialistic attitude by adopting Friday as his slave.

Although the novel deals with a wide variety of subjects, including colonialism, providence and human nature, they are all approached indirectly, so as a reader I was left mulling things over whilst reading at the same time, which slowed me down somewhat. So even though it is a very short book, it is extremely rich and I would recommend that you read it if you haven’t already done so.

20 January 2012

Friday round up

Hello everyone. It's that time of the week when I was aiming to have finished my latest blog post, but find that I just haven't been efficient enough. So, as is often the case, I have a bunch of half-written stuff saved on my laptop and a few jottings in a notebook. None of which is ready to go up online yet.

So what I shall offer you instead, if you had not already found these already, is a selection from the best of the blogosphere from the last week or two. Enjoy!

Christianity for the rest of us: A short, but honest, account of being hurt in church

Dyfed Wyn Roberts on inspired scripture and the rather poor argument that is often used to back it up

Running Life: “taking a high church Anglican to a Pentecostal church should be a spectator sport.”

Heresy Corner: Bored of the American elections

PhillipaB witters on: A lovely collection of footballing snowmen

Quodlibeta: Some interesting thoughts on the multiverse:

For an example of truly terrible journalism, please see this from the Telegraph’s science correspondent, which epitomises everything that is ever wrong with science journalism.

Finally, here's a really fun video showing a "spaghetti monster" created my mapping particle paths as they orbit around a trefoil knot.

18 January 2012

Why I prefer a paper Bible

There are lots of words that could be used to describe me. Among some of the more reasonable would be ‘Luddite’ ‘technophobe’ or ‘old fashioned.’ One aspect in which this is true is how I read books. I do not own and have no desire to own a kindle or other sort of tablet device to use as my primary mode of reading. I love picking up a real book and reading it. Even when I have read something, I still like dipping back into it occasionally. Though, of late, I haven’t re-read many books entirely, there are a few which I like to return to again and again: Jamaica Inn, Jude the Obscure, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and His Dark Materials are among the works I’ve read more than once.

Above all these, though, is the anthology of writings which is commonly known as the bible. It really is 66 separate books (though some are sequels to earlier books), spanning a variety of genres, telling the history and beliefs of a nation, climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of one man; and of starting to explain what it all means for the wider world.

Though I consider myself a religionless christian (where I use the term ‘religion’ to indicate a life of ritual, rite and ceremony) the bible is still, for me, the primer for my belief.

Also, as a reasonably well-educated person (though, admittedly, I don’t have a PhD) I know the importance of, where feasible, checking your sources. If I see, say, a rumour on Twitter of something significant happening, but it’s not being reported by and of the mainstream media then I become quite skeptical and will (if I think it’s worth the effort) try to trace the origin of the idea.

Likewise, if I hear or read anything about christianity, then my first port of call is usually to check against the bible. Is someone making something up (even if it sounds like the sort of thing that ‘might’ be in the bible), quoting something out of context or choosing to ignore another point of view that might significantly alter their position?

So here I come back to the point about paper books. If I do an electronic search for what I am looking for (say, on Bible Gateway) then that is all I will see. Though I have a concordance, I am reluctant to use that as a first reference. You see, if I only have a vague idea of what it is I want to check, and I don’t ‘cheat’ then what I have to do is read a lot more material than I otherwise might.

For example, if I think that the passage I am looking for is in 1 Corinthians, what I have to do is re-read most of, or maybe all, of the book. What happens when I do this? More often than not, I come across a passage that I can learn something from, or remind myself of, that I had no intention of reading half an hour earlier. Also, by reading large sections quite quickly, I find that the books flow much better than when broken down into small chunks over a long period of time. Even if you take the longest gospel, Luke, this can easily be read in one sitting on a quiet afternoon (if you have the luxury of such a period of uninterrupted peace). Yet many will eek it out over a week, 2 weeks or even longer!

Of course, I put a reasonable time limit on such searches, otherwise I would never reach my goal. This I usually cap at about half an hour; only if I can’t find something after that do I resort to my concordance.

An analogy I find useful is that of climbing Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England. I ought to add, I’ve not actually climbed it myself, though I have climbed much taller mountains in the Alps. Many who attempt to conquer it don’t make it to the summit. It’s not because it’s an especially hard mountain to climb, it’s because there are some beautiful sights to be found just off the route to the top. So climbers get distracted by these and by the time they are ready to move on it is necessary to start making their descent, lest they be caught by a creeping nightfall.

The other benefit to the paper bible is the cross-referencing that is included in some. In my NRSV bible, I have a list of cross-references in a thin column down the centre of the page. So what I do is look up the reference whilst keeping a finger in the original passage. Any electronic bible I have used has not been able to replicate this with either the practical ease or the tactile pleasure that you get by flicking through pages.

So what about you? Are you one to adopt any and every new technology as it comes to market or are you more of a stick in the mud like me? Would love to read your opinions.

16 January 2012

Celebrity Christians

[Please note that this was written before the recent flare-up of vitriol both propagated by, and in reaction to, Mark Driscoll’s comments about UK christians]

Those of you who know me will know that I’m quite critical of what I call the ‘cult’ of celebrity Christians. By cult, I do not mean occult, or necessarily that all such folk are unsound teachers (though I do have strong reservations about some). I merely mean that that they often have a wide following that is much broader than that from their own individual churches.

Such people include (but are not limited to): Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Bill Johnson, Alister McGrath, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Ratzinger, Rick Warren, Rowan Williams & Tom Wright.

I was tempted recently to go to a one day conference where another of these kind of people was to be speaking: William Lane Craig. But then I just caught myself and started questioning my motivation. So this post is simply an exploration of what went through my mind in relation to that, as well as my concerns in relation to the phenomena of the celebrity preacher.

The bite from the blogosphere

For just about everyone that gains any level of “fame” there will be detractors. It’s not hard to find them; all you need do is type their name into Google and add the word “false” at the end. One has to be very cautious with this, I think, as it is tempting to think “there’s no smoke without fire.” You can also go the other way, and think that because someone is coming up against a lot of opposition that they must be talking sense.

The truth is, the blogosphere can be filled with a lot of junk and people pushing their own agenda. As an aside, I will let you draw your own conclusions about this tiny and obscure corner of the blogosphere that you find yourself reading at this instance. For me, the key word is “discernment.” There is a subtle difference between this and “judgement” though the consequences can be very far apart.

It is very easy to condemn someone with whom you disagree as “false” and to launch attacks on them. Of those named above, the newcomer to the scene who has only really come to prominence in the last couple of years is Mark Driscoll. I do not agree with everything he teaches, but I will not condemn him as a false teacher. I think he is mistaken on some issues, but I do not, based on that, reject anything and everything he says.

On those that I tend to agree with more, say, Alister McGrath, I do not accept uncritically everything he says or writes as being true and correct. To do so would be to fall foul of the Argument From Authority fallacy, though I do have some unorthodox views on this which I may expand upon on in a future post.

Are we guilty of “itching ears?”

Amongst the detractors, there is a common verse that is referred to. 2 Timothy 4:3 says

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

In today’s world of social media, it is easier than ever to listen to whatever you want to listen to. Sermons and blogs are published online and you can gather all the soundbites you like off Twitter. In so doing, one can filter out anything you disagree with and choose a select group of people to listen to.

This is not something new. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians “What I’m talking about is this. Each one of you is saying, “I’m with Paul!” “I’m with Apollos!” “I’m with Cephas!” “I’m with the Messiah”” (1 Corinthians 1:12, NTFE)

You could take any period of history and substitute any names. If you take the slightly later church, you could have Origen, Tertullian & Ignatius. Move on to the Reformation and it might be Luther, Calvin & Zwingli. Today, it could be any of those I named at the top. The important thing to me is that we don’t become followers of men & women, but that we are followers of Jesus. That’s pretty much Paul’s gist in this passage and it's one that I think has never ceased to be relevant.

Some individuals may be self-promoters, others are promoted by the institutions and organisations they are a part of. I would love if it the prominence were given not the person writing the books & blogs or preaching the sermons, but to the words that are written and spoken themselves. Instead of looking to a select few and hanging on their every word, I think it would be far better for the anonymous masses of churches to declare truth and have their words assessed on their own merits.

Of course, that then begs Pilate's question: "What is truth?"

13 January 2012

Book Review: The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg

I was first made aware of this book a few years ago when I read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. For those unfamiliar with that book, the author is a former journalist who wanted to examine the evidence for the claims of the gospels by interviewing various christian scholars. One of the first experts Strobel interviews was Craig Blomberg, who refers to The Historical Reliability of the Gospels several times. The version I read was a later addition, and has clearly undergone some revisions. For starters, the version I read referenced books written after The Case For Christ was published.

To begin with, you have to note what this book is and what it is not. Blomberg deals with this question at the start of the book. He is only interested in the historical side of the gospels. Of course, from this stems the theological aspect, but that is not the aim of the book. He also restricts his view to look at the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John; there is very little by way of discussion of the rest of the New Testament, though I personally felt that it would have been apposite to include a look at Acts as well, given that that is the only historical book of the New Testament. Yet it has been left to a very brief discussion at the end of the book.

What follows is a work which summarises the scholarship of others, leaning heavily on the work Gospel Perspectives (which Blomberg contributed to, amongst others). He begins by looking at the general methods for the historical study of the gospels. These include harmonisation, redaction criticism and form criticism. Here, I felt Blomberg was fairly even-handed and gave praise to each methodology where due and criticism where it was deserved.

He demonstrates that he is not afraid to tackle potentially thorny issues head-on as from here he launches straight into the issue of miracles. He lays out various objections that one may have to believing the miracle stories of the gospels and then sets about his task of trying to show why they may be considered reasonable. It is here that I began to diverge from Blomberg. It seems his conclusions were reached before doing any research, though one may have guessed this from the outset. Personally, I found the chapter quite unconvincing and the arguments put forward fairly weak. That’s not to say I think it is without merit, but merely that his conclusions do not resonate with the evidence he presents. Central to this, and central to all of christian belief is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Though multiple references are made to the recent magnum opus on this topic, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God , I felt that Blomberg’s case was too watered down. If it doesn’t convince me, a believer (albeit one not to taking to believe anything that confirms my viewpoint) I strongly doubt it would convince even the most open-minded of sceptics.

From here, he then widens his viewpoint to look at contradictions between the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), though he acknowledges at the start that there are so many “supposed” contradictions that he doesn’t have space to address them all. This is a little more reasonable than the previous section, particularly when one takes into account redaction criticism. The main argument is that if you accept that the gospels do not necessarily contain verbatim testimonies then to say “Jesus said x” may still be an honest and reliable account of the message he conveyed.

Central to Blomberg’s argument is to compare the multiple accounts of Jesus’ life to multiple accounts of other historical events and persons. Where there are summaries or apparent omissions, Blomberg challenges the critical reader to consider whether the gospels are often judged more harshly than other historical works. In particular, he argues that we ought to try and view the gospels through the eyes of early historians, rather than apply 20th/21st century historical analysis to a context where it does not belong.

Moving on from the Synoptics, he goes on to look at the specific case of the gospel of John. This is by far the most slippery of the gospels, when it comes to historicity. It seems to me a fairly common consensus that John was the last of the gospels to be written, and is the most “theologically biased.” In this, my opinion has generally been that the author of John’s gospel has been more of a portrait painter, whereas the Synoptic authors were trying to be more like photographers. So John has more character fleshing out the work, at the expense of strict historicity. Blomberg’s analysis seems to try to reconcile this view with his hypothesis that the gospel is also historically accurate. In this, though, he seems to come rather unstuck. He resorts to rhetorical flourishes at the end of his sections which give a far more firm conclusion than his own analysis allows for, which rather frustrated me as a reader. He tries to wriggle through arguments, rather than accepting what seems, to me at least, to be a far more reasonable conclusion that the gospel of John actually has some inconsistencies with the Synoptics. This is probably best demonstrated by Blomberg’s own words:
“Is John unaware the Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth? In fact, John knows the birthplace, but apparently some in Jesus’ audience did not. Their ignorance is not surprising, since Jesus had grown up and lived in Galilee for all but the earliest years of his life. That John lets this mistaken impression stand without comment testifies only to his skilful use of irony.”
His last major study is to look at the historicity of Jesus outside of the gospels; in other words the potential corroborative or falsifying evidence. This is one of the more convincing chapters, though its main point seems to be correcting the hypothesis that Jesus never existed.

In the appendices, Blomberg really hits the nail on the head. His section on historical methods is, I think, bang on. Here, he discusses what should be the “status quo” of belief when looking at any historical source. Should it be disbelieved until otherwise shown to be true? Should it be believed until otherwise shown to be false? Or should the default position be somewhere between? For me, this should probably have formed part of the introduction to the book as this historical hermeneutic is vital to how one undertakes such a study.

In his conclusion, Blomberg does not conclude that the gospels are entirely historically accurate. The evidence is not strong enough. Instead, he concludes that they have “general reliability.” That is, though they may not pin down every point precisely, they are sound enough to be regarded as the most trustworthy accounts for the life of Jesus.

There is one key omission from his discussion, and one that has been on my mind quite a bit over the last 6 months or so, which is the historicity of the Nativity narratives. But with that and a few points already mentioned aside, this is a worthwhile book to read. I don’t think it’s a totally convincing case but it does deserve to be taken seriously, as indeed Blomberg takes seriously the views of serious critical scholars.

11 January 2012

Sacraments as Signposts

I was having a little think the other day about what those of a high church persuasion refer to as “sacraments.” I wrote a little about these fairly recently. What got me thinking was a few instances where I had various people push the idea of the sacraments as being the main part of any church service. That is, they were more important than the worship or the sermon, even to the extent that anything else was marginal.

Also, I was recently described as being anti-anglican, though I think this is not really an accurate label. What I am opposed to is tradition for tradition’s sake and instances where a church has become an institution. There are strong aspects of these in both Catholicism and Anglicanism, though it would be unfair to apply such a specific charge universally against such large and diverse bodies.

Coming from an independent church background, looking as an impartial outside observer upon the public face of these two organisations, I cannot escape the idea that today’s anglican and catholic churches are the equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Key to this is the sermon on the mount as recorded by Matthew. Throughout this section, Jesus emphasises that there is a reason for the law. The law does not exist for it’s own sake, it is an application of more fundamental ideas. He gives something of a backhanded compliment in chapter 5:17-20 (Green):
“Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one tittle pass away from the law until all comes to pass. Whoever then shall break one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, if your righteousness shall not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way shall you go into the kingdom of heaven.”
His point, which is also made elsewhere in the gospels is that the law was being observed for its own sake. The scribes and the Pharisees come across as being more concerned about the letter of the law than the underlying reasons for it. So while law and tradition are important, they are not the end goal.

So when I look at the institutional churches, what I see are institutions that are more concerned about their self-preservation and keeping their own rules and traditions than they are about actually being a church; where I’m using the term church to mean a collection of people.

So coming back to the sacraments, they are important for christianity, but they are not the be all and end all. They are signposts and symbols for God and the gospel. To become “evangelical for the sacraments” is like a person who spends their time admiring and arguing for the preservation of a motorway sign. We may be used to seeing the signs in a particular form, and if this form is changed, then I don’t doubt a conservative element would protest at such a change. But if a new format of the sign is used, which still serves the function, then it is in no way false, misleading or heretical. It’s just a different way of doing things.

Of course, one can to the other extreme and try to rid christianity of any and all traditions, embracing everything new just because it is new. Here, I am thinking particularly of the use of technology within churches. If you have song books that work well, is it really justified to spend a lot of money of a projection system? Of course, some investment may be necessary, but upgrading one's PA system just for the sake it shows, in my opinion, questionable discernment; and I have seen instances of this is quite a lot of churches of varying stripes.

Returning to the signpost analogy, by concentrating on the sign, you never embark on the journey. This is probably my biggest concern for those whose energies are devoted to the preservation of tradition. Trying to stick to the precise methodologies by those who lived in vastly different time period and culture seems to against the instruction for each “to work out their own salvation.” By concentrating on treading in the footsteps of others, we may never look up and notice our surroundings or where we are headed. To this end, I love the maxim from Hebrews “Looking unto Jesus” which was, by the way, my old school motto.

10 January 2012

Long lost brothers?

Are Tom Wright and Martin "Wolfy" Adams long lost brothers. I've never seen them in the same room together. I wonder.....

Noted theologian

World Darts Champion

9 January 2012

Empty chair syndrome

Last autumn, there were a couple of stories going round the blogosphere (though rarely hitting mainstream media) that seemed to me very similar, though with some holding apparently contradictory views. The link between them is an empty chair on a stage. During his recent speaking tour of the UK, William Lane Craig invited Richard Dawkins to a debate. Craig was already booked to speak at the venue in Oxford, so Dawkins would not have as far to travel as the visiting American. Dawkins declined this invitation, though apparently Craig left an empty chair on stage to signify Dawkins’ absence.

More recently, another empty chair was left on stage, at a test for Sally Morgan. Led in part by the science writer (and now something of a libel law expert), Simon Singh, Sally Morgan had been invited to take part in a test of her psychic abilities. Like Dawkins, she declined this invitation. Unlike Dawkins, though, Morgan chose not to write an ad hominem attack on Singh to be published by a national newspaper. There were however, some letters sent between Singh and Morgan’s lawyers, which, in spite of being marked “Strictly Private and Confidential” Singh thought appropriate to publish online. I will leave it to you to consider whether it was appropriate to publish the letters.

What struck me was the reaction from the “pop science” or “science journalism” section of the blogosphere, who seemed to consider that in the case of Dawkins/Craig, that the person declining the invitation was right in declining and that the empty chair was a bullying gesture, while in the Morgan/Singh case, Morgan was considered be the slippery one who was rejecting a perfectly honest invitation.

My personal opinion is that in both cases, the invitation should have been accepted. My reasons are as follows: Both Dawkins & Morgan have made personal financial profit from their relative claims. As such, there is some duty of responsibility to defend their claims. In contrast to this, had an anonymous blogger (such as myself) been invited, I think there wouldn’t be a duty as no one has paid me for my writing or for a tv show (which is probably a fair reflection of the value of my thoughts!). Both have considerable media experience and so would not be flayed in an environment where they are far less experienced and uncomfortable than their critics.

On the other hand, I do have sympathy for them both. In both cases, there was an underlying theme of trying to portray the non-attendee as being in some way scared or unwilling to appear on a platform with their critics. The empty chair is loaded symbolism, somewhat akin to giving them a white feather, in an effort to shame them. This is, I think, an act of bullying that should not be encouraged.

In the case of Craig/Dawkins there was also a phrase banded about to the effect of “[this would look good on your CV, not mine]” in reference to the merits of one having debated the other. I think various other commenters have made as much of this as can be made, so I will offer nothing further.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever invited me to a debate or a test of my claims in a public arena. I certainly do not recall ever having declined such an invitation. If such an invitation were to come, I think in all probability that I would decline. I am not a skilled debater. One of the reasons that I choose to write is that I have a mild stammer, which always makes me appear to be even less intelligent than I actually am. The trouble is, my mind moves faster than my mouth, so when I come to speak I can usually think of 2 or 3 ways of saying the same thing, and I often get muddled. By writing, this can be slowed down. So when it comes to oratory, I prefer to write word-for-word and then either read or memorise what I am to say. This makes such events as those Dawkins & Morgan were invited to something of a problem for me.

But if such a case were to arise, I would dearly hope that no one leaves an empty chair for me on stage. It is an act that I think is ungracious and, if you will allow me to be a little quaint, a rather poor show. If I were to go further into old parlance, I would say it is “ungentlemanly” or “unladylike” though I hope you do not infer this to be sexist; it is not meant to be.

It is rare for me to pick a fight. I do not go out of my way to present challenges to others that I demand they meet. I may ask questions of them to clarify their views and I may respond to articles, blog posts, etc. that others have written. Anyone is, of course, welcome to write responses to anything I write. If such a response is included, I would hope that they inform me and I am very willing to provide a link to any such response in my blog. I do not like the empty chair and would hope that I never stoop to such a cheap level as to do anything like it. Debate and the free exchange of ideas should not be about point-scoring, but should be constructive and proactive; something I always try to achieve here, though I could not necessarily say that I always succeed.

6 January 2012

2011 in books

So another year has passed, and I’ve managed to read quite a few books in that time. In fact, when I compiled the list below, I surprised myself at seeing I had gone through them at a rate of almost one a week; and that included some fairly weighty 500+ page volumes. I try to maintain a balance between what I tend to identify as my 4 main genres of reading, though as you can see I have been far biased towards the christianity end of the spectrum. There are still some books I received for my birthday in autumn and for Christmas which I have not read. In all, I currently have 4 books on the go at present, with a further 24 on my dining table awaiting to be read (including some of the “books of shame” which I want to finish at last). Of these, there is definite bias towards the fiction side, not least a large number of the less well-known works of Thomas Hardy.

So here's the list, along with a couple that I'd started. Every one should have a link to the relevant review.

Christianity (18+2)

Letters & Papers from Prison – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat – John Ortberg
Why men hate going to church – David Murrow
A Place for truth – ed. by Dallas Willard
The Resurrection Of The Son of God – N.T. Wright
The Crucified God – Jurgen Moltmann
The Reason for God – Tim Keller
The Didache: a window on the earliest christians – Thomas O’Loughlin
Why God Won’t Go Away – Alister McGrath
The Problem of Pain – C.S. Lewis
The New Testament & The People of God – N.T. Wright
A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable – F.F. Bruce
Lost Christianities – Bart Ehrman
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Richard Bauckham
Heresy – Alister McGrath
Surprised by Hope – Tom Wright
Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? – David Wenham
*The Historical Reliability Of The Gospels – Craig Blomberg
*Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey

Science (10)

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre
Boffinology – Justin Pollard
Three Roads to Quantum Gravity – Lee Smolin
Cycles of Time – Roger Penrose
Gaia – James Lovelock
The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
The Meaning of it all – Richard Feynman
You Are Here – Christopher Potter
The Logic of Scientific Discovery – Karl Popper
God’s Philosophers – James Hannam

Fiction (12)

Love in the time of cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Chosen Ones - Alister McGrath
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Shadow of the wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Tess Of The D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
The Master & Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night-Time - Mark Haddon
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Kokoro – Natsume Soseki

Other (8)

Captive State – George Monbiot
The Borgias & Their Enemies – Christopher Hibbert
Begat – David Crystal
No Logo – Naomi Klein
Treasure Islands – Nicholas Shaxson
Wired for God – Charles Foster (this could be put into christianity or science, though it doesn’t fit very well in either)
Churchill’s Empire – Richard Toye
Map Addict – Mike Parker

Total = 48+2

* = currently reading (i.e. unfinished)

5 January 2012

Book Review: Map Addict by Mike Parker

I can’t remember how I came across this book, but I do recall a great desire to read it as soon as I saw it. I have long loved maps and could spend ages just perusing them for all their detail. My love is for ordnance survey (OS), and when I went on holiday in 2010 to the Alps I found the maps they provided to be substandard and was really missing an OS equivalent. The main reason for this was that instead of putting on there all the paths that existed, the only paths that were put on the map were the recommended ones. So if you knew you were looking to go left at a fork in a path half a kilometre ahead, then you might well be forgiven for taking the left route when you come to a fork half a kilometre ahead. But no, the first left turn is not a recommended route and so wasn’t on the map. It was only when you go down the route for about a mile that you realise why it is not a recommended route.

So anyway, with that aside, I thought it would be interesting to read a book by someone with the same kind of passion as me. However, I was wholly unprepared for the level of enthusiasm that Parker has for his subject matter. He begins with a little autobiography where he describes how, as a child he used to initially save up to buy OS Landranger maps and even steal them on occasions. His ambition was to obtain all the maps for the whole of Britain. This is certainly a long way beyond my level of enthusiasm; indeed, I would expect very few readers would have such a level of fanaticism as is on display here.

The book encompasses a wide range of topics, from the history of the OS, the actual geography of the land, the politics of what goes into a map and what is excluded, etc. All through it, however, there is an exuberant sense of old fashioned British eccentricity. The first 200 pages are excellent and I would heartily recommend to anyone who has planned out a walk in their head, using a map, before setting foot outside the front door.

The latter half of the book goes even more esoteric and with it, some of the quality is lost. While there is a very interesting interlude about war and European politics, Parker then goes off on a tangent about the influence of christianity on maps and the author’s own mild paganism. This is certainly the low point of the book, with some lackadaisical history and a failure to understand the purpose of ancient maps; they were never meant to be navigational tools, and anyone who used them as such would never have been able, say, to trek to the crusades. Such sloppiness is epitomised when the author writes “the suppression of scientific understanding by ultra-zealous Christianity began in about the fourth century AD, and it is something we are still struggling with seventeen centuries later.” As one might expect, there is no reference or firm supporting evidence given to back up this assertion.

The last couple of chapters are slightly more redeeming than the previous couple, but by the end I was just looking forward to finishing the book. Overall, read it for the first 200 pages, but you needn’t bother with the rest.

4 January 2012

Justice is a delicate thing: reflections on the Stephen Lawrence case

Yesterday, 2 men were convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, 18 years ago. Today, the newspaper headlines are themed by the notion of justice.

The Times: "Convictions mean justice at last for Lawrence"
The Independent: "The moment Doreen Lawrence's 19-year wait for justice ended"
The Guardian: "Stephen Lawrence verdict delivers justice after 18-year wait"

I am not convinced that everyone is agreed on what the notion of justice means. To me, it is something entirely different from retribution, though some less savoury aspects of the press seem unable to make this distinction. It has been noted (e.g. by The Sun & the Daily Mail) that at an earlier trial 3 others were declared 'not guilty' of Stephen's murder. There are now some calls for a re-examination of the accusations made against them.

The BBC had a particularly ill-judged section on this in the 10 o'clock news last night, when one of their camera crews and a reporter turned up at the home of one of these 3 men demanding that he answer their questions. If any further convictions are to come about, then the appropriate judicial process has to be followed, not trial by media.

I cannot speak for the innocence or guilt of these men, as I do not have access to all the evidence. Yet, in this country at least, the idea of presumed innocence until proven guilty is under threat.

It has to be remembered why Gary Dobson & David Norris were made to face a second trial. It was because there was new evidence which was not available at their first trial. This was the idea behind the repeal of the double jeopardy law. If there is no such new evidence against the remaining 3 men, then it would be a great injustice to make them face trial again, as that indicates that the only reason is a presumed guilt and that the original trial verdict was incorrect.

It may be the case that the trial verdict is incorrect and that they did perpetrate the crime. But without evidence to support this, the default position has to remain the presumption of innocence, nomatter what our gut instincts may be.

2 January 2012

Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

I wanted to branch out some of my reading and get into some Japanese literature. So I asked around for where would be a good place to start. I got 2 suggestion: Kokoro and The Tale of Genji. The latter was quite long and seemed a bit of an investment for a first foray, so I opted for Kokoro. Upon reading the description about the book, I was expecting something that would be broadly similar in themes and style to one of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels. What I found was very different, but still extremely good.

The first thing to strike the reader is that the book is all told in the first person, although there are two different viewpoints. The second thing is that no one is actually given a proper name throughout the entire book. Indeed, there is a paucity of characters which gives the book it’s distinctly “sparse” feel. The first narrator, through whose eyes we see the first half of the novel, is a young man, studying at college. He spies an older gentleman and instantly decides to follow him. This older gentleman is referred to as Sensei, though that is not his real name.

The author becomes, as it were, disciple to this reluctant rabbinic figure and they form something of a friendship. Here, it is worth saying something about the translation. My Japanese is appalling; I can say about a dozen words and even then my pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the first part of the book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the translation had left the book a little staccato. The sentences were often short, simple and did not feel to have much flow to them. However, in hindsight, I think this may have been excellent writing from Soseki as the second half (which is narrated by Sensei) is much more fluent. Therefore, I think the punctuated writing pattern of the first half reflects the relative immaturity of the first narrator.

The central theme of the book is one of self-loathing. In particular, in all of the first narrator’s discussions with Sensei, there is a nagging sense of something in Sensei’s past which not even his wife knows about. This is brought out early in the novel when it is revealed that Sensei regularly visits a certain grave, though the identity of the grave’s occupant is not revealed until much later on, though I shan’t spoil it.

The change in narration comes about when the first narrator constantly questions Sensei as to why he is the way he is: aloof and withdrawn from the world, with a distrust for everyone in it, including his own wife. Throughout the first part of the novel, Sensei avoids these questions, but decides to write a letter to his disciple laying out much of his personal history in an effort to ensure that at least somebody knows what his reasons are. It is this letter that forms nearly half the book.

There is much more that I could write about this, but I shall refrain for fear of spoiling it for you. Needless to say, I would really recommend this to you. In fact, I wish I had read this when I was in my early 20s, around the same age as the first narrator. If I could describe it as a piece of scenery, it would be of a handful of people on an open moor, separated by wide open spaces, calling out to one another, but always just on the boundary of being out of earshot. It has a bleakness to it, but not in the fatalistic sense of Hardy. The bleakness is in the outlook on life that Sensei possesses, based on his own past and the things he blames himself for, though it is slightly open-ended as to how much of what he has piled on his own shoulders is his own fault.

1 January 2012

Book Review: God's Philosopher's by James Hannam

When I first saw this book (I forget where) it seemed just about as ‘up my street’ as a book could me. My main two passions are christianity and science. So books that cover the two (without being needlessly antagonistic towards each other) tend to end up on my reading list.

In his introduction Hannam sets out his aim which can be summarised as “myth-busting.” Some may regard it as revisionist, though I think that would be a little harsh. The central myth is that the latter middle ages did not contribute much to scientific thought, and that the Enlightenment emerged out of a medieval intellectual vacuum of The Dark Ages; the latter two terms Hannam regards as prejudicial and which are then subsequently rarely, if ever, used again.

Hannam also goes so far as to cite the particular examples which he considers have given rise to popular misconceptions, with John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science being probably the most famous example.

The structure of the book is one of multiple mini biographies. These are given in pretty much chronological order. The timeline covered is roughly A.D. 999, when Gerbert of Aurillac became pope, through to 1642 which saw the death of Galileo. Given this time period and the number of figures involved, it can be hard to keep track of who is who, though the appendix does contain a very helpful timeline as well as a list of characters with a 2-4 line summary of why they are important.

At the start of the book, one could be forgiven for questioning whether or not it’s a science book, as much of the discussion is theological in nature, and could be considered a summary of medieval church history, particularly given the inclusion of several popes into the discussion as well as Thomas Aquinas, famous for his Summa Theologica. But that’s kind of the point. As the book progresses, we get more and more towards what our modern 21st century sensibilities recognise as science, but it is a gradual process with no sudden great leaps.

I know from having read some other reviews of Hannam’s book that his viewpoint is not universally accepted. I myself am no expert in this period of history so cannot really comment on its validity. The strength of the book is its meticulous cross-referencing, where original sources are preferred over secondary and an extensive bibliography is also included. So any time a claim is made that may go against one’s preconceived notions, the author gives the reader all the help they need to check the relevant facts. But this is not merely a scholarly book; it’s written with evident enthusiasm for the subject being discussed, like a highly energetic tour guide taking you round an exhibit for which they have a passion. It’s this exuberance that comes off the page which makes it pleasure to read, as well being highly informative.