This book has very little to do with the theme of this blog, except, perhaps, at a stretch, the quest to make stuff beautiful. Makes a great present though for a certain type of person, and you’ll know someone.
This book is just enormous geeky fun. It’s all about the fonts that surround us every day, their history, their designers, some of the fashions and controversies. It is true that after reading it, you’ll never look at printed words the same way again. I started, for instance, noticing what an unhealthy, disjointed font-nightmare a hospital corridor is. The same goes for the average British high street. But when people curate and corrall and design fonts, and put them together on a page, yummy.
I took ages to finish it, and (if I had a shelf for this purpose) would probably file it as ‘good loo reading.’
All of us know someone who’ll like this — the same people who read Lynne Truss’s ‘Shoots, eats and leaves’ for example.
I gave it four stars instead of five because, I mean, it’s quite a lot about the fiddly bits on the end of letters.
This wonderful book gets under the skin of what happened to the Arab and Muslim world in the past 40 years and gives a voice to the writers, lawyers, media types, thinkers, critics, imams and others who resisted the ‘black wave’ of religion-shrouded revolutionary terror.
Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese, and therefore heir to those who watch (and often trade with) the great tidal forces sweeping around them, sees 1979 as the point the Arab and Muslim worlds collectively departed from their pluralistic senses. That year was the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to jihad (sponsored by America and funnelled through Pakistan); and the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots.
Out of this came the breakdown of a sleepy, plural, varied, tolerant Islam and its replacement with state terror (in Iran), the rise of the Wahabhis in Saudi, and these overlapped with the Islamism that Zia ul-Haq was imposing on Pakistan, to that country’s loss. Out of all that came the sprawling Saudi-Iranian rivalry with each outdoing the other in Islamicness; assassinations, war, and Sunnis and Shias killing each other: Muslim shall make war on Muslim. Ripples of it spread through the West: book burnings on English streets and the carnage of the twin towers. But the real churn was elsewhere.
It’s an astonishing story, and an astonishingly sad one. What a strange time we have lived through! Deeply researched, brilliantly told, and in my reading as good and influential (though with a different scope) to classic books like Albert Hourani’s The Arab World. The book’s impact comes from the way the story is told and the links followed, and from the fact (as it lays out) that any number of people resisted and yet were too small and too isolated to stop themselves being drowned or exiled by the Black Wave.
Perhaps the Arab and Muslim world is weary of war and the wave is ebbing. How sad though it all is and was. This book is a trusty guide.
Not that I am personally planning on calling it quits any time soon, but I was wondering recently what ‘healing’ looks like in the context of the end of our lives.
We don’t know if this will be relevant for us, of course. Some friends of mine have been snuffed out without much time to do anything about it. Some apparently didn’t know it was going to happen. But most of my late friends and family had plenty of warning.
One part of healing near the end of life is, of course, that your life doesn’t end, you recover, and go on to see many good days.
But it occurred to me recently there is such thing as a ‘time to die’. However good or bad or complete has been our life, whether its conclusion will be bitterly painful or a blessed relief, our impact on the world is over, our days are winding down, this is it.
I wonder if ‘healing’ in this context isn’t about making peace with that fact; and going on to make peace with as much in your life as you can, and especially with God.
What’s fun about this idea is that it gives you back some agency. You’re in charge again. You have accepted the big fact (you’re mortal) and now you’re free again, to love and conclude things as you see fit, and as best you can.
Yesterday in our church our preacher tried to explain the word ‘providence’, an old-fashioned word that, like the groat or the florin, has or had considerable value, but has passed out of common currency.
And it still has value, perhaps especially when we look at the yoke that Christ has laid upon our lives and ask, is this yoke, as promised by Jesus, truly light, truly easy? (See Matthew 11:30.)
She—our preacher—explained that ‘providence’ referred first to God sustaining the Universe, upholding its natural laws; and then secondly, to God arranging things in life so that they turned out well and for our good. Exactly how the second meaning of providence squares with the first is a paradox, I think, but just because I can’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Just suppose providence is a thing. It leads to several thoughts.
I’ve seen blogs recently about people writing letters to their ten-year-old selves. Mine would be very simple: life so far has turned out better than ten-year-old me was capable of imagining. Half-formed ten-year-old dreams and desires turned into milestones upon which I can look now back on, half a century later. There was pain along the way, but it was not to be compared with the flowering or fruiting of those desires that accompanied them. Either I got lucky, or there was the hand of providence somewhere.
That which starts by tasting bitter often ends up being sweet. It’s possible that an eye for providence may help us with that thought.
We keep walking into drippings of God-soakedness, like colliding with spiders’ webs, which in the season I’m writing this, early autumn, are everywhere. I know that coincidences are mathematically inevitable, but that does not stop them also being the hand of providence. Several years ago I quoted the theologian Frederich Buechner, and it’s worth unearthing again:
“I think of a person I haven’t seen or thought of for years, and ten minutes later I see her crossing the street. I turn on the radio to hear a voice reading the biblical story of Jael, which is the story that I have spent the morning writing about. A car passes me on the road, and its license plate consists of my wife’s and my initials side by side. When you tell people stories like that, their usual reaction is to laugh. One wonders why.
I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know. Who can say what it is that’s going on? But I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.” ― Frederick Buechner
Beware middle age. You become aware the world has changed around you, you are no longer at the cultural centre of things, and you attach moral weight to the change. You haven’t just grown old–blithely ploughing your land into a deep rut while the world stayed fertile and flexible–you think it’s got worse. The country is going to the dogs.
I don’t entirely believe this. I rather prefer Dickens’ formula, that the good old days, like now, were the best of times … the worst of times.
But surely some things get worse, even as other things get better, as the erratic lighthouse-beam of the world’s attention lights stuff up?
One of the things that may have got worse is the fraying of the social fabric. Commentator and cultural critic (or, OK, journalist on a deadline) David Brooks wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic1 in which he tried to answer a couple of questions:
Why have Americans become so sad? – he points out a few statistics, rising rates of depression and loneliness, increasing lack of friends, and ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.’
Why have Americans become so mean? He cites restauranteurs and medical staff, for example, facing never-before-seen levels of rudeness, cruelty, and abuse from the general public. Himself a recent, adult convert to Christ, he says, ‘we’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational and spiritual crisis.’
Many reasons have been offered (as he points out): the rise of social media; the decline of community organizations; the toppling of the pyramid that had male, white, hetrosexuals at the apex; and the high levels of poverty and insecurity after we baby boomers bought all the houses, snaffled all the good pensions and left the national finances neck-deep in the red.
Brooks doesn’t dispute any of these, but he points to a deeper cause. ‘We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration … We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.’ His solution, if I’m reading him right, is education.
He may be right. But (even accepting his diagnosis) I’m not so sure. My problem is that I’m not sure that ‘moral education’ actually works. I rather think (and maybe I have the apostle Paul on my side here) that any amount of moral instruction only makes us more creatively sneaky at finding outlets for our evil hearts. Paul himself knew all kinds of law, he had moral instruction from his nose to his toes, but his true nature still leaked out as pride, hypocrisy, cold-heartedness, snobbishness and self-righteousness. My reading of the gospels is that Jesus found the Pharisees, moral crusaders whether you asked them or not, much harder to bear with than the ordinary sinners who drank too much or slept around. The Pharisees’ collective A+ in moral education played to their low cunning and monstrous smugness.
But if it’s not education, what? I think the answer is love. I would argue that loving behaviour, like many other things, travels down human networks. The kind or courteous person in the workplace changes the workplace. The generous act spawns further generous acts. Human goodness spreads. It’s not so much ‘education’ as lived-out loving decency that exerts a soft pressure on those who receive it.
I have heard that one of William Wilberforce’s aims in life was ‘to make goodness fashionable’, and I think it is true the one person’s behaviour can eventually, via a long and winding road, change the culture. There are many examples of this. For example, I have worked with legal professionals and judges for more than 20 years. I have never seen even the faintest suggestion of a bribe. I remember the horror at my son’s school when word got out that a parent (not from a British culture) had offered a teacher money to smooth the path for a child. It was a scandal roughly on a scale of someone exposing themselves in the playground. That is not to claim my own culture is especially good, just that in the matter of bribery in those two instances, it was unthinkable and inconsciable. That’s culture. Integrity (in this narrow area in these isolated cultural examples) has become fashionable.
Or take sport. In Rugby Union, the only person who can question a referee’s decision is the team captain, and they can only make a polite enquiry. In soccer, players surround the referee and harangue them. There are two different cultures. Maybe one day soccer players will be as polite to match officials as rugby players are today; or maybe one day rugby players will be as rude as soccer players are today. I suspect whichever way any of this changes, it will be because some influential people did it first and in some mysterious way their behaviour became fashionable and normalized within the culture.
The Christian church changed the brutal Roman culture; it became unappealing to watch people being eaten by lions. The @metoo movement addressed and changed the laddish culture of the ‘noughties. What was done then is no longer accepted now. I don’t think it was education that did this; somehow it was social pressure tied up with love.
Interesting. Reminds me of Paul’s description of the Philippians, whom he instructed to ‘become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.’ (Philippians 2:15)
Mental health demonstrates a wide bifurcation between Western and other worldviews.
The ancient Greeks, lending their day-to-day language to the writers of the New Testament, had simple terms that undergirded simple ideas. There were such things as ‘unclean spirits.’ People could be bothered by these unclean spirits and could thus be ‘demonized’.
When Jesus came along, he was able to wear this worldview effortlessly. He spoke on occasion to evil spirits within a person; they spoke to him, usually calling out curses; he cast them out; the patient recovered. It’s worth remembering that Jesus also ‘rebuked’ fevers and indeed ‘rebuked’ the wind and the waves. But as regards ‘unclean spirits’ he didn’t feel a need to update the ancient worldview; he operated successfully within it.
Western medicine has, I think, turfed out this worldview entirely, even though plenty of people still hear voices, voices that tell them to do evil things, and even though some people would self-diagnose as ‘demonized.’
Once I was on a conference call with a sick and very damaged person (he had been tortured). The leader of the call asked if anyone was in the room with him. The answer? No-one, he said, except the demon who watched him all the time and never left him.
Essentially, I think (and this is not my subject) quite a few Western-trained mental health workers would think the person self-diagnosing as ‘demonized’ was actually deluded and deceived and essentially, misdiagnosed. (I don’t want to downplay, though, the tenderness and skill with which some people within Western diagnostic traditions will nevertheless work with such a patient.)
There are plenty of fine reasons for this Western stance. Unfortunately (and I am very hestitant here because it really isn’t my subject), Western mental health is still in my view rather primitive. I wonder if it isn’t, in fact, roughly where Western physical medicine was about 300 years ago–dogmatic, authoritative, ineffective, its practice centred around humours, bleeding, and leeches.
How often are the mentally ill cured? I do not know. To what extent is mental illness itself a metaphor– in the sense that we sort-of know what physical illness is and (by way of metaphor), describe other things wrong with humans as ‘mental illness’? Are we medicalising something that isn’t an illness? For example the widely-cited Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) has a new entry called ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’. This in effect medicalizes people who suffer bereavement for longer than might be considered normal. I don’t know enough to critique this properly, but at least on the face of it it seems odd to give a medical label to someone who’s taking a long time to move on. If you can’t pull your socks up in a decent amount of time, DSM-V seems to say, there must be something medically wrong with you and you need a psychiatrist. I am not entirely sure that I am happy with this, nor that it is right to use phrases like ‘mental health epidemic’ when more and more stuff like this is unearthed. ‘Mental health terminology epidemic’ might be equally fair. The wave of sadness and depression that is passing through the country, is, of course, not doubted, just (arguably) not properly diagnosed and even if the diagnosis is right, isn’t being ‘cured’. Or isn’t being cured all that much. People are still suffering and sad, which is the real scandal. People are still plagued with voices and terrors.
This circles back to the bifurcated worldview. It would be fine to disparage and move on from the ancient worldview if the modern worldview wasn’t, in itself, so frequently ineffective and disappointing.
Gavin Francis’ book Recovery — GP’s take on the neglected art of convalescence –:
has a brilliant example of what good, or harm, our minds can do as part of our well-being; worth quoting. Francis talks about two middle-aged men who ‘a few weeks apart both suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed, ostensibly dead, but who were successfully resuscitated with electric shocks. Both were then fitted with portable electronic defibrillators …[that were] about the shape and size of a matchbox’. If either man collapsed again, ‘the portable defibrillator would sense the change and shock the heart back into a healthy rhythm.’
‘For one of the men, the intimate experience of the proximity of death, the fragility of life and his new reliance on the implanted defibrillator was utterly traumatic. He began to suffer panic attacks and fiddled ceaselessly with the swelling beneath his collarbone. He couldn’t find a way to stop fretting that it might fail. At the time of his cardiac arrest he had been working as an administrator but he found himself unable to go on working. He was afraid to be alone, and his nights became a torment of insomnia.
‘For the other man, the almost identical experience of collapse and then resurrection became an epiphany of gratitude. His new life was a gift, he said, for by rights he should now be dead, and all the tedious, niggling irritations that once troubled him seemed to dissolve. It was enough to be able to breathe this air, walk on this earth, see his grandchildren. He had always lived modestly, but now began to emjoy sumptuous meals, fine wine, and booked holidays to places he would never before have considered visiting.
‘He had died, but then he lived again, and that new life into which he was born seemed one of richness, tenderness and gratitude.’
In his striking and unusual book, the late theologian Walter Wink writes this:
This book is unashamedly about things spiritual. It assumes that spiritual reality is at the heart of everything, from photons to supernovas, from a Little League baseball team to Boeing Aircraft. It sees spirit– the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God –at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship … [It] celebrates a divine reality that pervades every part of our existence.
Walter Wink, The powers that be, 1998, Galilee Doubleday, p 13
Wink points out that ‘Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers” — which occur naturally in New Testament writing — ‘not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures and systems … Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an innner, spiritual reality’ (p24).
This is striking and unusual stuff. As Wink goes on to point out, when it comes to ‘Powers and principalities’, ‘fundamentalists treat the Powers as actual beings in the air … and secularists deny that this spiritual dimension even exists’ (p26).
The elegance of this outlook is that it roots the New Testament worldview into everyday structures of injustice and unrighteousness (or indeed structures of justice and righteouness). So by doing battle against, say, injustice, you are actually resisting spiritual powers, for which the gospel offers weapons and tools.
For example, Ephesians 6 says:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:10-12 NIVUK
This scripture makes a lot of sense in contexts where spiritual forces are rife and obvious, where local industry manufactures charms and amulets, and where you can buy services like spells, curses, protection from the evil eye and love potions. I have worked with many missionaries who have spent time in those contexts and found New Testament-type solutions beneficial and fruitful.
It’s a lot harder though, in secular and materialist contexts, to know quite what to do with all these scriptures.
Wink offers a further insight. These powers, he claims, become fallen and demonic when they pursue ‘a vocation other than the one for which God created’ them (p29). So, calling an institution to be just and and upright and to fulfill the purpose God intends for it, is not just a matter of (for example) campaigning but is also a spiritual conflict requiring the kind of spiritual weaponry that the gospel offers. This is because the institution involved has a spiritual face as well as a material one.
This makes a lot of sense.
Ir explains why in the book of Revelation, letters are written to ‘the angel’ of each of the seven Asia Minor churches — not to the pastor, or the leadership team, or the congregation, but to the spiritual reality, the culture, that they together contribute to and embody.
It explains why in the same book, earthly realities are described withthe imaginative imagery of dragons, beasts and whores, a spiritual view of human institutions.
It helps make sense of the Beatitudes, which sees human attitudes and behaviours as having potency as spiritual weapons: Are you spiritually bankrupt? You’re blessed: yours is the reign of heaven (Matthew 5:3, my paraphrase).
Here’s his summary:
Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequences of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestation can the total structure be transformed.
Are we going anywhere? Are we nearly there yet? The fun thing about blogging is that you can attempt subjects in which you are completely and entirely out of your depth.
This has all happened because I was listening to a set of lectures on St Augustine’s City of God, as I have written elsewhere.
The question is easy enough to pose: are we (as a species, or even as an entire created order) going anywhere?
First let’s congratulate ourselves. No other beasts or plants are asking this question. Even our brother apes appear not to worry much about the tides of history; they are happy knowing where the next banana might come from.
One possibility is that history isn’t going anywhere: it’s just random, pointless noise.
A second, more popular I think, is that it is in some sense cyclic: the rivers pour into the sea, but the sea is never full; what comes around, goes around; no-one can ever say, ‘this is new’; that kind of thing.
A third, beloved of Christians, Muslims, rationalists, communists and many cosmologists among others is that history has a direction, it’s going somewhere. Some science fiction too: ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, ‘The final frontier’: the universe is a giant unploughed prairie, just awaiting the covered waggons, and that is our story and destiny. The idea of ‘Progress’ and ‘Progressive policies’ still resonate, and when we see the decline of poverty and the advance of medicine worldwide, we can sort-of believe it.
It’s possible to argue that this idea of history having a direction, a start and an end, originated somewhere in the Judeo-Christian scheme.
Augustine saw history this way. For him, history had a direction and the big clue was the incarnation of Christ, when the beyond-time God hitched himself to the time-bounded creation. There was a time before this happened; there is a time afterward; there is a direction for the future.
It must be very bad form among proper historians, I imagine, to believe this. But I think it is Christian orthodoxy. History is about conception, resurrection, consummation, all around Christ, all about the timeless God involving himself with his creation and eventually filling it out with love and making it whole.
Surely this idea can be criticised all over the place. But it does give a point to each of our individual lives. The point: everything we are and do now that anticipates, outlines, foreshadows or even hastens that consummation has point and value. Everything that doesn’t, doesn’t. Not only does history have meaning and direction, our each individual moments have too–and they revolve around love.
This is an unashamed plug for Audible. After a long time protesting that the only way to get audio books at a good price was to join Amazon’s equivalent of a book-of-the-month club, we finally capitulated few years ago and signed up.
One book a month is more than I would like to buy. There are still such things as libraries that give you books for free. But to sweeten the deal Audible also offers free books that are additional to your subscription, and I think these disappear from your personal library if you ever stop paying your £7.99.
Somewhere along the line, Audible appear to have bought a whole catalogue of courses that used to be marketed separately as ‘The Great Courses’ ; and they added some of these to their free offerings. They are lecture sets, from able and obsessive communicators, and like most lectures I’ve ever been to, I enjoy the feeling of dining at a rich person’s table, even if I don’t belong there, and soon forget most of what 1I took in.
They are so good. I tend to listen to them while I work through a keep-fit programme, which, as anyone who does this kind of thing will testify, is among the most boring activities on earth. Unfortunately it’s also a kind of investment in health that you get compelled to make.
So, the Great Courses, to distract from the zombifying act of personal training. Like I said, they are so good. Here’s what I’ve listened to so far:
London: A short history of the greatest city in Western World by Robert Bulchoz. Wonderful story from a lecturer (I think) at Loyola University in Chicago, who in my listening never put a foot wrong in his knowledge of the city, told me huge amounts I didn’t know, and gave me the little warm glow that happens when someone from the outside praises a thing you love from the inside.
Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. Another survey of the UK by an American lecturer (if I remember right), starting with Beowulf and ending in somewhere in the 21st century. He has evidently read everything and slotted it into its historic context. Absolutely wonderful. Wish I could remember 90% and forget 10% of this rather than the other way around. His only fault was not talking much about Anthony Trollope.
The world of Biblical Israel by Cynthia R Chapman. So nice to hear Biblical studies from a Biblical scholar who isn’t aggressively trying to undo and unpick the Bible, or indeed aggressively defending it, but rather treating it as a thing that is there and explaining it with respect.
Understanding Complexity by Scott E Page. This was somewhat nearer the maths and physics that I failed to understand as an undergraduate. An introduction to the theory of complex systems, with entertaining divertissimos (if that’s the plural of divertissimo) into how complexity theory should be applied to the life we find all around us. Complexity is why economic predictions are always wrong and why (I think) a drug that did me a lot of good when I took it for a season nearly killed me when I went onto a second course. Drugs and human interactions are not simple, they are complex. Doing the same thing a second time can have the reverse effect to what it did the first time. I wish every politician and civil servant who tries to manage a complex entity like the UK, and every physician who tries to solve human body problems would listen to this.
Augustine: Philosopher and Saint by Philip Carey and Books that Matter: The City of God by Charles Mathewes. Two majestic introductions to the life and thinking of the North African saint and ‘Doctor of the Church’. I’m still working through the lectures on Augustine’s great work ‘The City of God.’ I’m used to physics and so I’m aware how Copernicus changed the whole way we think about the solar system, how Newton did the same for physics, and Einstein did it again for cosmology, and the founders of quantum mechanics did for quantum theory. I didn’t realize that Augustine had done much the same for Western theology and perhaps even historiography. This is well beyond me. But even the bits I do understand are revolutionary.
I believe no-one should ever listen to a lecture or read a book because it’s ‘important’. You should only ever tackle anything if it’s fun, a rollercoaster. These were.