Archive for June, 2006

Vicious on the Mic and the Turntables

Saturday, June 24th, 2006

So I am preparing to go away for July. Lucky lucky me, I am back to Ukrainia to talk about God and existentialism with non-Christian students in the bread-basket of Europe. We will be there for the World Cup final when Shevi lifts the Jules Rimet trophy (a man needs his dreams). The national (verbal) poet of Ukraine has the same name as their national (football) poet. Taras Shevchenko is kind of like Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh wrapped up in one for the citizens of Ukraine. I am not quite sure whether this is a real coincidence or the equivalent of Ireland’s greatest poet and greatest footballer both having the name Kavanagh. I’ll check up for you though.

So I am preparing some interesting talks for Ukraine. The most peculiar is a philosophical consideration of beauty in an attempt to get people to consider Christianity. Let me rip off N.T. Wright (since I’m going to be doing that most of the time I’m in Ukraine). Imagine you, like me at the moment, are packing up your belongings to move house when you happen upon a dusty old file that must have been left by the previous owners. Its a faded manuscipt consisting of many pages of music and it appears to be written for the piano. Maybe if you sell this on Ebay you’ll have enough cash to buy a carpet for the stairs in your new house, you think to yourself. Thankfully, your spouse points out that selling unidentified music on Ebay probably won’t make a lot of money and she instead suggests that you take it to a dealer.

The dealer has one look at it and picks up the phone and calls another dealer. He is excited, he is puzzled, he is telling you that it looks like Mozart’s handwriting but it is not a well known piece. In fact, it is a piece he has never even seen before! More phone calls, more consultations, experts and dealers and performers are now crowding the little shop all addressing the faded notes on the parchments. It really does seem to be Mozart, but unlike any Mozart we’ve ever heard before. The shop suddenly becomes silent as someone with initative sits at the piano and starts to play. It is wonderful. It is breath-taking. It is hallmark Mozart but Mozart at the top of his game. It ends with a delightful flourish and the room lets out a collective sigh. But, but something seems incomplete. Even you can tell that. There are portions in the piece where the piano appears to just be marking time. There is one place where the writing has faded and it seems that the composer intended for a longer pause but the hand-writing is too faded.

The consensus is spoken by the pianist, “It is Mozart!” But it is a Mozart piece for a number of instruments and we just have the piano’s part. It is beautiful but tantalising. It is a classical work but it is marked by what it is missing. A bunch of you race back to the attic but the search finds nothing more than your Leaving Cert notes and some tacky wedding gifts. The piano music is all there is, a signpost to something that was there and that might be here someday in the future. One thing is certain, we can’t fill in the blanks ourselves. We can’t guess what is missing and throw in a violin solo in the pause and an oboe at the end in the hope of getting it right. If only those lost sheets could be found, then we could make complete sense of the incomplete masterpiece before us in the ink sitting on those pages.

This is where we are when we consider beauty. The world is full of aching beauty. Paul Simon is right on his new album Surprise when he sings that “everything in it [the world] is a love song”. But the beauty that we experience, on a mountain peak in Mayo, or in the closing lines of a poem, or in the virtuoso, improvised solo in a live performance, the beauty is incomplete. We always need to go back for more. We are never full by it. What is it? What does it mean? What is it for? These are the questions we ask as we search for the missing pieces of the symphony of our life.

It is by the questions it provokes that we must define beauty- the transcendant that it offers. This is the way of things with echoes. Beauty tantalises but never satisfies, absorbs us but is never absorbed by us because it is an echo. An echo of the voice we all hear. If we were to hear it fully, with all the pages of the symphony together, with all our questions answered, surely everything, all we presently see and hear and love and everything else would become beautiful.

Your Correspondent, You heard stories and you heard fables

I Believe In Joy

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

After a couple of very very busy weeks I now find myself sitting on the edge of a great empty to-do list. I know we write to-do lists so that we can get to the end of them but it is disconcerting to find yourself pretty much on top of all the work you have to do. Before you withdraw your financial funding from the charity I work for, I must point out that this lull time is like a solar eclipse. It comes about very rarely, for a very brief time and it can be predicted years in advance. All the university students I am usually meeting for coffee and Bible study and all the cool things I get paid to do have gone home to summer jobs, or to America for summer jobs or to Malawi for summer mission work. All the writing that I usually have to do for the next talk or training session or sermon is pretty much done (at least in outline). All the strategy and vision thinking that I have been wrestling with for the last year is either finished, unfinishable or likely to be done again by my successor in September. And so I’ve sat here staring out the window, or more truthfully playing Civ IV and watching the World Cup for the last week or so.

Next week will be busy again and even tomorrow I have to prepare for next week but the stress that I experience when I have nothing to do is much greater than the stress I endure when I have too much to do. It is different. It is more panicked. I don’t just feel restless, but useless. And I was thinking here this morning about why that is and thinking back to a few weeks ago when I taught at a small conference in Norther Ireland from the book of Galatians. Galatians is an amazing book. I know lots of people who read Zoomtard aren’t Christians and don’t care for the Jesus much but if you’re ever alone in a hotel room with nothing but a Gideons bible for company or if you ever get trapped inside a mausoleum during a quest to find the identity of your father’s murderer and the only thing to do is read the ornate, gold leaf Bible that the corrupt Cardinal was buried with, then turn to the back and look for the 6 short chapters of Galatians.

But this is a post about living as a Christian so maybe some of you would prefer to slip out quietly and go watch a movie. Galatians is the incendiary device hidden at the back of the Bible, waiting to explode in our face when we mistake Christianity for a religion and forget that its about turning the world, our world upside down. Every single chapter has the very same focus really- that Christians live by Grace. We are happy to accept that we first become Christians not through our own efforts but through the work of God but then we slip into living a life of maintaining our membership of God’s family through efforts and works. Paul bangs us around the head again and again about this dumb, deadly mistake. We are made members of God’s family by Grace. We live as sons and daughters of God by Grace. Good works, lots of effort, being nice or being tolerant or being open-minded or being theologically right never comes into our membership. Avoiding bad things or ignoring sinners or abstaining from alcohol or missing all the 18s movies definitely doesnt affect our membership. We are adopted into God’s family because he chooses to adopt us. When we are adopted we become his son, his daughter. Our behaviour or lack thereof never makes a difference to our status as his child. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

So what has this got to do with my panic stations at my empty to-do list? If what I have written above, if what I spend my life talking about is true, then my adoption into the family of God should be the bedrock of my whole life. If a God exists that becomes the most important truth for every human life. If that God knows us, then it becomes doubly more so. If that God loves you so much that he rips himself apart to bring you back to him then that is simply the only thing that matters. Everything else is of relatively minor importance, even spouses and children and career. What I am trying to say is that if I was living what I claimed to believe, then an empty to-do list would not cause panic. A full to-do list of significant tasks would not cause undue increase in self-esteem. My self-appraisal would be based in the sure and certain fact that God, the God who is God, looks on me and sees his son. This Grace should be the fatal blow to our psychoses. What it takes to administer that fatal blow is for another day or another year or another life. Sadly, the only other life depends on Grace so maybe you should go get another guide.

Grace is beyond our comprehension and beyond our capture. Maybe its not that Grace is untameable but that we are untameable and Grace is the tamer. I don’t know. To quote some old guy, “‘Tis Mystery All!” We don’t live it, that is for sure. I mean, if I don’t live it then what hope is there for people like you and you and you to live it? None at all losers! Sorry, I’m meant to be talking about Grace.

I’m at a loss to tie up what I’m thinking here. This entry deserves to be on livejournal, it is that bad. That wily old Paul says that a little yeast raises the whole loaf. There is no space between Grace and Karma, the two options available to our lives. They stare each other down and are completely incompatible. Either we live by Grace or by Karma. If we admit we were once rescued by Grace but now maintain our own safety through self-efforts then we are firmly in Karma. That little yeast affects our whole lives. How then, do we live?

Your Correspondent, Between his finger and his thumb, a sharp knife rests, and he’ll stab you with it.

No. I Was Born This Way

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

The weekend was spent in Mayo at my sister’s wedding. Although Westport might be the place God is most proud of making, it was all for nothing while we were there as the clouds smothered us so tightly that Croagh Patrick disappeared and Clew Bay might as well have been a dream for all the view we had of it.

Still, I reminded everyone of just how well I am doing in life, considering my serious disability. I can now go for months on end without anyone noticing the foot in my mouth. Fairly early in the night as distant cousins were discussing with Neuro the profitability of singing at funerals that I dropped a classic clanger.

Laughing a little too loudly in that, “I am just talking so as to fulfill my social obligations” way, I said,

Profiting off other people’s sorrow- it would suit you Neuro since only vampires would do that!

Distant cousin A was polite enough to not remind me there and then of their thriving undertaking business.

Your Correspondent, Movin’ you outta this atmosphere

Disagreeing With Michael J. Fox

Monday, June 19th, 2006

Furious Thinkers from both sides of the Liffey are writing quirky brilliance these days. Visit D4 resident Teragram and her amazing Belle and Sebastian revelations. Then cross the river to the real Dublin and see how much of an insane genius that quiet guy with the shaggy beard at the back of the room is. Jimlad– a man who improves the web.

One of the other Irish bloggers who I enjoy a great deal is Planet Potato. Unlike Teragram and Jimlad, Spud would never get into our collective because he hasn’t yet been washed in the blood of the lamb, the sinless Saviour of humanity, the only Begotten Son, Very Man and Very God, the Lord Jesus Christ. I hear he is scheduled to have a consultation in August though. But over the weekend he made a post on embryonic stem cells that made my blood boil and my temples pulsate with that hallmark of the furious thought. As I get better at this blogging/journal thing I realise the only motivation for a post is pure anger at something someone else has said. Sputtering rage of an arrogant nature is what Blogger and Diaryland and all the rest of them are making their money off.

What Potato says is that the only objection to embryonic stem cell research is a religious objection. Although I am in many ways the least religious person you’re likely to meet, I understand by what Potato means is that Christians are the doomsayers holding up the embryonic cure-train. According to Ireland’s second smartest hillwalker, the “chilling effect of religious intrusion” leaves Michael J. Fox and millions like him, languishing in the purgatory of early-onset Parkinsons.

Opposition to embryonic stem cell research is universal amongst Christians of all persuasions but is not exclusively (or even majorly) the domain of the God-botherers. People with worldviews that run the whole range from secular humanist to Islamic fundamentalist (they can be oddly similar, sort of like Communists and Fascists) oppose embryonic stem cell research out of ethical concerns. The ethical issue is whether or not an embryo should be afforded human rights. In Ireland, the large majority of people are not Christians (in practice or belief) and the large majority oppose abortion because they have serious and thought-through doubts about the ethical implications of terminating pregnancies.

To simplify a debate as momentous as stem cell research into the camp of progressive, intelligent secularists and their opponents, the Luddite, ignorant religious fanatics is to make any serious debate impossible. Until someone can show concerned secularists and Christians, agnostics and Buddhists, and whoever else, that embryos are not worthy of human rights, then the ethical risks (regardless of the metanarrative one subscribes to) of embryonic stem cell research are simply too great. We cannot kill some life (potential life) in the hope of treating other lives.

Finally, how great are menstrual cups? One of the great questions of our time, that has now been left unanswered (again) but tangentially touched upon by the amazing Babette.

Your Correspondent, A supposedly fun guy you’ll never see again

Cool In A Steve McQueen Sort Of Way

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

So the swamp of my working days cleared for a few hours yesterday and I did a huge amount of tasks that had been sitting around waiting to be done, managed to do so while watching all the World Cup games and played some Civilisation IV. I also finished 2 novels. Is it a surprise to you that my wife was off gallavanting around the city like some extra from Sex And The City with her bosom buddy? When wife is away, Zoomtard plays. By plays I mean works. That is just the kind of guy I am.

By the way, when will the Sex And The City touchstone get old? Well, I mean, old for me. Me who sometimes calls it Sex In The City. I know its probably stale, even decomposing for everyone else but to my mind, nothing captures chic urban living than those 4 slightly minging characters. I never watched a full episode. Samantha was the sex mad one and Carrie was the star and then there was pretty-but-boring art girl and the red-haired nervous one. Who cares Zoomtard? The point is, Neuro was off being Carrie to LyDiamonds Samantha(!). And I was working like a fiend.

One of the things I did was read Douglas Coupland’s new novel, JPod. Yes, the novel I have been waiting for for months. The novel that had a reminder installed on my phone so I could buy it when it was published. And man am I deflated. Douglas Coupland’s books began my love affair with reading. My brother got me Microserfs for Christmas in 1996 alongside a Michael Moore book and he apologised for the student-stingyness of the gift. He thought I was just pretending to save his feelings when I sat all Christmas morning enthralled by this novel with its pages of subconscious gibberish and its tales of life as a programmer but I wasn’t. The novel caught me up in a way only kids books (with titles like SKUNK And The OZONE Conspiracy by Margaret Cruickshank) and Michael Crichton novels had up till then. It was amazing. I read it. Then I read it again. Then I saved up my £2 an hour salary from my job at Londis to buy his other books and read them. So Doug is important to me and I love Microserfs and Generation X and Girlfriend In A Coma and Life After God in ways that I don’t love other books. I wait for Coupland novels in ways I don’t wait for others. Coming back to the last pages of Girlfriend In A Coma or the final thoughts of Life After God, I can’t help but think that there was something providential in me crossing paths with Coupland before I crossed paths with God. In the Google Map of my predestined life being generated and regenerated in the heavenlies, Coupland has a pin-pointed place preserved.

So JPod is a big let down. It has the feel of a book that is being made up on the spot. Neuro is a much more discerning reader than I am and she long ago gave away her affections for Coupland in the face of his childish or non-existent plots and his flimsy characters. For Neuro was able to see way back in the Families and Wyoming days that one of Coupland’s secrets was to draw characters you wanted to be friends with. He didn’t write characters you wanted to be, because they had intractable problems no one fancies. But you would love to hang out with his characters. So JPod suffers from these fatal flaws- plot turns and coincidences that are Hardy-esque in their stupidity. You have to know me to understand just how big an insult it is for me to compare your writing to Thomas Hardy but JPod is that bad. And the characters are thinner than my hair. And the Microserf re-hashing of the subconscious doesn’t even have a connection to the storyline like it did back in the first book.

But… wait a second! You start thinking about this book about 35 pages in. This is a game. Coupland has heard the criticisms and he is mocking us, poking us, gently prodding our info overloaded lives by publishing a book where he is emphasising all his own flaws. You start reading JPod and its a total let down. You keep reading it because you start to think maybe its meant to be a total let down. When Coupland pops up in the novel, you realise that whether or not his gamble pays off, Coupland is trying something he has never done before. His setting is the same as Microserfs- a software lab with some autism-scale programmers. His characters are all the same as every other Coupland character- smart, culturally plugged in, ironic, wealthy cynics. His plot is the same as many Coupland plots- family dilemmas mixed with career-laden existential angst. And at the end of it, the climax is as brief and hurried (in contrast to Shriver, who’s Double Fault was the other book I read, who draws out climaxes superbly) as in other novels, but in this case, self-consciously so.

JPod is not a postmodern novel like Coetzee’s Foe, where the narrative collapses and the author is straining to say something profound about all discourse in our time. It is a postmodern novel the way that 2nd grade theologians like them- simple enough to make sense of and not especially taxing on our vocabulary. It is as compellingly written in places as other Coupland novels and as usual, there are a few idea nuggets we would do well to treasure. But I’m not a skilled enough reader to know whether a deliberately bad book is a good book. If it isn’t a deliberately bad book, then this is a very bad book. But it might be worth the read anyway.

Something definitely totally and utterly worth your while is Powers Of Ten, a video made by IBM in the late 70s to show how important perspective is, how everything is connected, how life is too fucking amazing to be an accident. I might be editorialising it there. The creators may not have had the same intention, but if you have 9 minutes, watch this and consider how the universe is a love letter after all: The Power Of Ten.

Your Correspondent, Bought Charlie Sheen’s used toothpaste on EBay

I Could Live A Million

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

So in Blue Like Jazz there is the minister who swears a lot, right? That guy is Mark Driscoll. Mark Driscoll is involved in a lot of interesting things. And he has a blog. On this blog he compares 24’s Jack Brauer to Jesus Christ, and I love it! I am not so certain about 60 minutes of preaching though. I side with all sensible people in thinking most sermons should be 20 minutes long and sometimes you should feel free to go to about 30 minutes. An hour, or even say, 57 minutes (Mr. Moore!) is going over the top.

Fighting terrorism isn’t as dramatic in reality as it is in 24, of course. In reality, fighting terrorism mostly means leaving hundreds of men to stew in their own sweat on a camp in Cuba while America is busy defending democracy. See, the way you defend democracy at home is to defend it abroad. The thing you should definitely be doing while defending democracy abroad is banging people up in Gitmo without charge, torturing them and hoping that no one has the cojones to make you pay for it. Lo and behold, no one does have the required cojones to take on the USA about their distinctly Stalinist camp. Well, no one except hapless bloggers like me and Teragram of course!

The “suicides were publicity stunts” is just one of many tragic inhumanities committed by the Bush government around Camp X-Ray that are referred to as “gaffes”. Thinking people commit suicide to get publicity when they have been held for four years without charge in a prisoner of war camp is not a gaffe and calling it such is a crime against truth. American evangelical teenagers are often (rightly) lampooned for wearing WWJD bracelets. The WWJD stands for “What would Jesus do?” Often a far more useful question to ask is “What wouldn’t Jesus do?” I might be going out on a crazy solo run here but I think Jesus wouldn’t shave Muslim mens’ hair, bag their heads, dress them in orange suits and leave them in the Caribbean heat to confess to crimes he didn’t bother informing them they were accussed of.

While the rendition scandal seems to maybe possibly be coming to a head this afternoon with a press conference from the Foreign Affairs department in process as I type about an unauthorised transportation of a marine through Shannon Airport, all the news focus is on the death of Charles Haughey. I am really glad to see the mature perspective that Ireland is coming to on Haughey. For all his crass criminality, Haughey was a man of his time and of his place. This isn’t to lessen the crimes of tax evasion, corruption and bribery but no analysis of Haughey and the other Moriarty Tribunal goons can succeed unless we accept and absorb the fact that Ireland’s leadership was reflective of Ireland as a nation at that time. Gangsters at the top got away with it because gangsters at the bottom didn’t see anything wrong with it. We were a nation of short-cut takers, under-the-table dealers and wink-wink, nudge-nudge go-on-you-good-things. Ireland in the 70s and 80s was a corrupt place. Our leaders were therefore corrupt. Haughey was a criminal, but his crime was the crime of his nation. He was a man who, as Mary McAleese put it, believed in Ireland and so of course his belief affected his practice, which was Ireland late 1970s through and through.

That we are now starting to realise this is the clearest sign possible that we are coming out of those dark years into a time more honest and transparent. That Bertie Ahern is the one leading us to view Haughey fairly is a slightly surreal fact, but appropriate nonetheless. Bertie was schooled in the Haughey way of politics but has matured into a leader of a country aspiring to (if still amateurishly grasping at it) integrity and excellence. Ah, maybe I’m just an eternal optimist but I think we’re doing alright and Haughy, for all his considerable warts, played his part.

Your Correspondent, Gardening At Night

Gamble Everything For Love

Monday, June 12th, 2006

Less than four minutes into USA’s World Cup effort you interrupt the game and ask me why I haven’t been updating? Well before Jan Koller goes and scores a goal let me explain that I have been really really busy at work. In the last few weeks I have been preparing for my month of dietary research in Ukraine, teaching a bunch of Northern Irish that churches are more socially destructive in their country than pubs and been busy turning the esteemed charity I work for into my own personal slush fund. Does that satisfy you? Now watch how powerfully that tall freak heads the ball past Kasey “I should be a librarian” Keller.

The USA are managed by a man called Bruce Arena. How American a name can you have? I am sure Bruce Arena’s archetypal name has been blogged a million times already this month but it needs to be pointed out. Also, their reserve keeper has Tourettes. If ever there was a mental condition brewed up in Satan’s lab for goalkeepers, it is Tourettes. Or one of those X-Men conditions that let you freeze people when you look at them. Or Flybrane. That is when, like a fly, time runs 6 times slower than it does for the rest of us. I have learnt about all these conditions from my dad’s scribbled neurological notes so you won’t find them published anywhere. Yet.

I saw the third X-Men movie and the new Omen and Friends With Money and a bunch of other movies since I last wrote to my adoring internets. They were all terrific in their way. X-Men and its girls with stranger than usual powers way, Omen with its terrifying nightmares and Pope who doesn’t notice when his Cardinals take alarming liberties with Revelations 8 and Friends With Money with three of the best actresses in the world in the same movie that has Jennifer Anniston excelling in it. This is one of those smart, funny, realistic movies based on great dialogue and outstanding performances by Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand that still won’t get your attention even with Friend #5, Ms. Former Brad Pitt.

I wish I could hang around but Paul Simon’s new album is amazing, I have the latest Douglas Coupland novel to read, the World Cup is on for the next month and I am going to a family reunion where I’ll meet a lovely old priest I first met 16 years ago this evening. You could be naked and covered in tiramasu and I still wouldn’t be interested in hanging around with you.

Your Correspondent, His Friends Can’t Wait To Meet You