More about the books

A slight problem with science

What science is good at. And what science isn’t good at. According to @rabbisacks

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I? Why am I here? How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name.

 

(Actually this is not a problem with science; just a necessary limitation worth recognizing)

Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence

by Jonathan Sacks [Hodder & Stoughton]
Price: - - - -

Three annoying habits of Christians (and how to cultivate them)

annoyedThe Christian faith triggers a number of  reactions among which are:

‘Not really sure’

‘Not for me’

‘Not today’

Or

‘I’d rather put my head in a food mixer.’

Some of this might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, on genuinely irritating habits of Christians such as:

  • Reactionary politics
  • Believing conspiracy theories
  • The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials
  • Over-prolonged eye-contact
  • Invading my personal space
  • Excessive empathy
  • Puppyish enthusiasm

and

  • Always wanting me to go on courses

I do believe, however, that some irritating habits I see in some of my fellow Christians are worth nurturing. Here are three. If only I could:

Grace. Refusing to speak ill of people. Introducing a positive note in the office just when morale is at its most deliciously dismal. Not bearing grudges or engaging in satisfying acts of minor malice or revenge. Doing the coffee cups. Not assassinating people behind their backs. Buying the biscuits.

Certainty. ‘I have become one of those annoying people who is sure God loves him. Goodness and mercy will follow me all my days. God will not stop doing good to me. My death will see my longings fulfilled, my tears wiped away and possibly my nose blown. I know I deserve none of this and I agree you are as good a person as me. Sorry if you find that irritating in some way.’

A light touch. Aw, I wish I had this. And I wish the millions of people banging away on keyboards in their bedrooms had this. God save us from point-by-point refutations.

Satire should, like a polished razor keen

Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen

(Mary Wortley Montague, quoted in Stephen Pinker p 766.)

How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 1)

Overgrown graveyard 3

I asked my former church leader, Canon Stephen Leeke, this question:

‘I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?’

Stephen kindly responded.

As an Anglican minister I have conducted many funerals and since I retired I seem to be doing more! Many of them were for people who were not committed Christians. The Church of England funeral service is a great asset and has been carefully worded with some very useful features.

My principles:

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
  • The deceased and his or her opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
  • Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
  • Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.

All human life is precious and God loves us all

This is one of the things a funeral service is saying implicitly. And it needs to be said. If I refuse to officiate because the deceased was not a ‘Christian’ (by my reckoning), what am I saying about God? He only loves the faithful? – He doesn’t. I am only interested in those who have joined up? – I ain’t! 

I was asked to preside at the funeral for one of my school teachers whom I hated. In preparing for the event I found that his children had a similar emotion! They said to me, ‘We don’t know what you are going to say.’ I said that I would not lie and nor would anyone know my opinion of him. I spoke about his good points and his achievements, balanced by the fact that not everyone liked him and he was far from perfect. The congregation thanked me afterwards for painting a true picture of the man they knew and mourned even though he was problematic. I was acutely aware that I am far from perfect too and that I am not the one who has to judge.

I am not the judge and God knows the thoughts of our hearts

It is given for man once to live and then comes judgement. Some people wouldn’t mention that word at a funeral but I am grateful that the CofE service does.

So suppose everyone says he was an atheist, but was he? And was he at the time of his death? I have known people come to a living faith in Christ hours before their death. And others who have said ‘Amen’ to prayers they heard when in a coma. So who is to tell what the dead person believed (or even what they wanted?) I just don’t know, so I rarely ask the family what the deceased believed or whether he was a churchgoer (does that guarantee a ticket?). But I have discovered that the Funeral Director often asks whether they want a ‘religious’ funeral or a non religious one! Relatives can demur at asking for ‘religious one’. It sounds a bit off-putting. But if they nevertheless still ‘want the vicar to do it,’ fine. Where there is faith there is hope.

When suffering filters out the non-essentials

seek simplicity

A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.

Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.

Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.

We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.  Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:

Does:
  • People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
  • Pottering in the garden
  • Conversation
  • Meals together
  • Storytelling
  • Belonging
  • Being happily part of a family

Doesn’t:

  • People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
  • Email
  • Meetings
  • Eating ‘al desko’
  • Looking at a screen into the small hours
  • Death by Powerpoint
  • Being famous
  • Being wealthy

‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?

The joy of memorizing whole books

words.jpgThat said, I’ve only memorized two, and both were Bible books. Between about 1993 and 2005, I memorized Mark’s Gospel (whose 16 chapters is about 11,000 words) and somewhere later in the noughties I memorized Ephesians (whose six chapters is only around 2,500 words). I think I averaged about a chapter a year, and I was also reading the whole Bible each year usually, plus any special research projects. So it wasn’t my sole focus. And I was raising kids and holding down a job and so on.

Is it hard? Not at all. If like me you read the Bible devotionally anyway, you might as well. Like learning a language, only early death can stop you.

How do I do it? A bit at a time with lots of revision.

How did I start? I memorized a few psalms, to sort of convince myself I could do it.

What are the benefits?  I found them huge. Here are some:

  1. You really, deeply reflect on every word. It feeds your soul. This really is something. It’s like crossing a landscape by foot or narrowboat rather than on a motorway. Mark is (I think) the collection of stories Peter told while he was visiting the churches. You’re almost with him there in the audience, at that first telling among the smoking oil lamps. Wonderful. Meanwhile Ephesians is that astonishing, eagle-eyed view of the whole destiny of the Universe, and the church in its small acts of reconciliation and worship is somehow at the beating heart of it. There’s nothing like these two views. (Except, I suppose, other Bible books.)
  2. You can do it odd moments. When I lived in Singapore, I did it during my bus journey to work.
  3. It’s great for when part of your work is preparing talks or (as in my case) writing books. So much material is already in your head, pre-digested. I do find myself quoting Mark or Ephesians quite a lot.
  4. Loads of old people do sudokos to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Fair enough. (I am not yet old.) But honestly, you can do a lot better. I noticed Ephesians was a lot easier to memorize than Mark, and not just because it was orders of magnitude smaller. I think maybe my brain got better at it.

How do I keep the memories fresh? In principle, I go through the whole two books again every year, often during a retreat day. I recite them out loud. My medical adventures of the past few years have disrupted that schedule, but I’ll get back to it. I have the book open when I recite it, because I have forgotten parts over the years.

It’s a good question whether I should take the necessary couple of months to get right back up to speed and be able to do the whole thing without opening the book: I tend to think that isn’t worth it, unless I was going to present that material in public or something.

How does it differ from other Bible memorization schemes? Well it’s probably personal taste, but I like the organic approach of tackling a whole of an author’s work. I prefer this to memorizing scripture nuggets out of context. This may be work for you, but I find it a bit forced.

Should I have a go? Up to you. Let me know how you’ve got on in about 12 years.

 

 

 

Spiritual honesty, that rare and refreshing place

honesty

The honest place is a happy place, often quite a funny place, and the place where most people gather and where the walls are down.

That wonderful scholar F F Bruce pointed out that the wisdom literature in the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, the Song) are all about human responses to truth. They are the place in the Scriptures where you can sound off about how you really feel. (God loves me! God hates me! I’m not giving up! I am giving up! I wish that person was dead! You can overdo religion! Ordinary lives and ordinary pleasures are wonderful!)

I don’t know about you but though I made a commitment to follow Jesus years ago it is taking me a long time to be honest. It has taken me many years and a lot of pain to say things like:

‘God, don’t talk, I just want to hold your hand’

or

‘God, I feel like a tin can being kicked down the road, and you are the one doing the kicking.’

Learning to think those thoughts is, I have found, worth the effort.

The day the stars fell from the sky

Ice on roofWhen ice melts off a roof, you hear dripping and thawing for some time. Then, occasionally, a whole chunk falls off. I think I have lived through such a change in the UK. Census returns show it:

UK Census 2001 Christian: 71.7% No religion: 14:8%

UK Census 2011 Christian: 59.3% No religion: 25.1%

A piece of ice fell off the roof. When I was growing up, we theoretically believed in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

School worship was vaguely Christian.

National celebrations like Armistice Day saw the country getting its Christian hardware out.

It was a staple of farce that the moment something immoral was happening in your house, the Vicar would call, and you were bothered.

In fairness it was all ripe for collapse, because not too many people believed in it really, though some did.

What has happened since has been:

  • The incineration of millions of old nominal Christians (after they died).
  • Their replacement by millions of younger people not brought up in Christian traditions
  • A new widely accepted story about what we believe.

The new normal

I blame the BBC for this latter point, though really our national broadcaster only reflects back to us our own thoughts. What is the new normal? All religions are treated equal and thereby categorized and thereby diminished. The BBC looks down on them all and ‘caters’ for them all, while believing in none of them.

The position from which it looks down is not defined, but is assumed to be somewhere liberal, reasonable, empirical, scientific:  a totally superior vantage point to where the poor saps who still follow ‘a religion’ lurk. Christians may prefer Fair Isle jumpers and fair trade coffee to beards and burkhas but really. All religions are the same and don’t lead anywhere. Though of course one must give them the utmost respect.

Ursa MajorThe Christian faith was like the constellation Ursa Major in the Northern hemisphere: always there, always indicating true north, always pointed out to children, always called the wrong thing, but everyone recognised it.

Now the stars have fallen from the sky.

Millions of thoughts flow from this, which might occupy other blogs. One is worth thinking about in passing.

It is a loss. Since the Emperor Constantine the European peoples bought into a project to unite every aspect of their lives– science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, birth, marriage, death–under the Lordship of Christ.However well or badly that worked out, we agreed on where the pole star was. Now it’s gone.

Interesting. Thoughts, anyone?

 

Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.

Amazon

For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.

Why?

Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.1
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.

 

Things to do when you’ve missed your train at Kings Cross (part 1)

The British Library1.No, don’t go to platform 9 3/4 and watch the tourists photographing each other. Come out of the station, skip past St Pancras, and walk into the British Library.

2.Breathe deeply. Relax. It may look like a Young Offenders’ Institution, but this is an holy place.

3. Climb the broad stairs to the dimly-lit room where they keep their treasures.

4. Try not to get too excited.

5. Find the folio in which Handel hand-wrote the Hallelujah Chorus. It is open at the last page, the final, endless A-le-lu-ia, and you can see Handel’s spidery lines, his scribblings-out, his squashed semibreves, his desperate haste. This is not the forensically typeset version of the printed score. It is Handel’s own untidy and spontaneous penmanship.

(This is a photo of a facsimile, not the original, just in case you thought I’d done a bad thing.)Handel - in his own hand!

6. Reflect. Here’s what the all-knowing Internet says about Messiah:

In 1741, Handel composed Messiah and what we know now as the Hallelujah Chorus. While designing and composing Messiah, Handel was in debt and deeply depressed; however, the masterpiece was completed in a mere 24 days.

Despite his mental and financial state, the Hallelujah Chorus’s birth story is a glorious one. After Handel’s assistant called for him for a few moments, the assistant went to Handel’s work area because he received no response from Handel. Upon entering the room, the assistant saw tears emerge from Handel’s eyes. When the assistant asked why Handel was crying, Handel proclaimed, “I have seen the face of God.” 1

In front of Handel would have been the manuscript that’s now in front of you.

Here’s the internet again“Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”

7. Reflect some more. Life wasn’t going well. But a gifted person, in the place God meant him to be, doing the thing God gifted him to do, met God, created something beautiful, and 275 years later, the world is still reverberating.