Archive for May, 2007

Love’s No Politician

Friday, May 18th, 2007

Maybe I am going to have my evangelical identity card swiped back off me, but when I watch Christopher Hitchens talk about Jerry Falwell, I think he speaks more truth than many of the obituaries I’d read from inside Christendom.

Hitchens is as a brilliant self-creation. I love reading his articles and his arguments in favour of the war in Iraq caused me serious consternation back in those heady days of 2003! He plays this beautiful role in America as the polymathic Johnny Foreigner who comes in and speaks with calm and poise and reason about all things from literature to politics to religion. It helps of course that he is such a masterful essay writer. His latest book, God Is Not Great will hopefully join his other writings on my office shelves but I am bit too consumed at the moment reading about Protestant identity in Ireland in the 1800s to delve into it. (Don’t invite me to a dinner party over the next six weeks or I might bore you senseless with talk of the second reformation and “soupers”).

Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority. He was a chief architect in the movement that allied conservative Christian believers with an increasingly right-wing Republican party. The evangelical Christian stereotype of the flag waving, tax reducing, social policy gouging, armed forces encouraging rabid patriot has only really developed in the last thirty years and all through that time, Falwell has been a key leader. He died this week and a lot of ink is being spilled in America about his political and theological legacy. I am more interested, understandably, in interpreting his work through a theological lens. I can’t help but think this quote of his is instructive:

This ‘turn the other cheek’ business is all well and good but it’s not what Jesus fought and died for. What we need to do is take the battle to the Muslim heathens and do unto them before they do unto us.

I won’t go nearly as far as Hitchens and call Falwell a charlatan but “Do unto them before they do unto us” makes me think of something else Jesus never actually said, “The satan can cite Scripture for his purpose“. Christians seem all too often to fall into the trap of thinking that the morality they hold to is the ethic that Jesus would underwrite. There are few issues on which I know for sure what Jesus would do. I suspect he has a pretty global view of political action, which rules all these American televangelist types out of bounds from the get-go. There are over 2200 references to economic justice in the Bible. There are barely 100 references to sexual sin. Falwell, for me, was always the clearest example of this “Bible-believing tradition” that didn’t seem to really pay much attention to what the Bible has to say.

Blaming the attacks of September 11th on feminists and lesbians is tragically out of touch with reality, but its also a tragic mis-representation of the God of Christianity. What is the right way for me to respond to a man like Falwell? How do I deal squarely and openly with what I view as hate-filled distortions without attacking the man, without being infected by the hate the way Hitchens is? How do you stand up to a guy like Falwell with grace? I just don’t know how to do it. Everything in me wants to just write him and his evolution denying, global-warming doubting, justice-ignoring bigots off entirely. Suggestions are welcome by the way.

One of Falwell’s chief partners is James Dobson who heads up Focus On The Family. He has come out against Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani due to his positon on abortion, gay civil unions and his 2 divorces. The first issue is a key one and its totally legitimate for a Christian to say they can’t condone a politician who endorses abortion. The second one is pretty much illegitimate. Civil unions are a civil right as far as I can see. The third one seems to be a non-event since other major Republican candidates who are Christians have been divorced as well, like say, Newt Gingrich. If Giuliani is the candidate, Dobson is saying he won’t vote at all. This is the legacy, politically speaking, of Falwell and co. A conservative Christian decides if he can’t vote for his chosen party, he can’t vote at all. The Gospel is totally compromised if it is bound up in any politics, even the sane, responsible, pacifist, environmentalist politics I propose! Barack and Hilary are just out of the question for Dobson. From this distance, it looks like Dobson is saying that if there is no one willing to be his mouthpiece, he won’t use his voice at all. This is not a Christian ethic. This is not responsible citizenship. It is power politics. Dobson’s beloved Bible, if it is the same as mine, seems to underline throughout the New Testament that the Gospel subverts power, humiliates power, and profits through weakness. I am just at a loss to understand how these theological problems don’t beset them on all sides.

If I was a really good theologian, I might be able to explain this by looking at the so-called Baptist believes of Dobson and Falwell and showing that the modern Baptist movement is actually deeply individualistic and has discarded its proud and noble roots. Folks like Stanley Hauerwas keep the through Baptist sentiments alive but the populist movement has just stayed in bed with Modernism for so long that its too cosy to rouse itself. I’m not that clever and well read or thoughtful so I just have to dangle that hunch there, like someone who promises to write you a song as a wedding gift and shows up on the day to tell you that he can’t sing, doesn’t own an instrument and didn’t have a chance to write the music down so he can’t remember it. Maybe Jaybercrow can save my blushes.

Some other things
Am I the only person who wonders if Willie O’Dea’s nose and moustache come off when he takes off his glasses?

I’ve often mocked the wife-unit over her stupid belief that there are people who are “lucky”. As usual, it turns out I was wrong. There are some unlucky people. It doesn’t necessarily follow that there are lucky people but she will be able to win every argument in the future on this topic.

This is one of the best blog posts that x3church.com have ever published. Watch the video of Ron Jeremy and Craig Gross wrestling beforehand to get some context.

Who wants to join me on the Hollywood Stock Exchange?

Your Correspondent, His food is just a necessity between sitcom watching

Living Vicariously Through Your Bully

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

You Tube is the fourth biggest website in the world. A large chunk of it seems to be taken up with debates between atheists and Christians who deliver inarticulate, sloppy monologues to the camera about their petty rivalries. I don’t think I’ve ever even gotten to the end of one of these videos. Stig probably has though. His job is to watch You Tube and tell me what is really good. The Panorama documentary on Scientology is amazing by the way.

Anyway, one of the more renowned atheist movements is the Rational Response Squad. It ought to bring out the apatheist in all of us with its stupidity. The Rational Response Squad argue for rational thought and then define rational in terms of naturalism. So wouldn’t it be rational to name the organisation the Rationalist Response Squad? Apparently not, even though faith is not irrational. If it was, their faith in the absence of a God would make them guilty of false advertising. Their faith that matter is all there is and matter is all that matters may well be rational but it is also Rationalist, the name for such a belief system- that human reason alone is the only source of truth. There are rational Muslims who believe in Allah. There are rational Hindus who believe in Karma. Even Christians can be rational and reasoned.

Yesterday I explained what the unforgivable sin was. The RRS fellows challenge people to commit the unforgiveable sin and in so doing, free themselves from what they see as the fear inculcated by institutional religion. This is all well and good and certainly worthy of the gigabytes it takes up on Google servers in some undisclosed, underground, radiation-proof location. “Lindy” is really hot for example. Interestingly she admits that I should reject the existence of the Holy Spirit as well. Atheist evangelism is what this is. Which is cool. I’m up for some market competition.

Kirk Cameron who used to be in some sitcom but more entertainingly was in the Left Behind movies (has anyone got them and is willing to bring them round to my house for a laughter filled B-movie fest?) came alongside an outdoor evangelist called Ray Comfort to challenge the Rational Response Squad. The debate is available to be watched here on ABC News but it is actually pretty boring and very low grade debating.

What is fascinating to me is that Comfort and Cameron, who together advance a video called “The Way of the Master“, intended to prove the existence of God without recourse to the Bible. Maybe I have too much time on my hands to think about this stuff but I don’t think you can prove the existence of God at all. I certainly don’t think you can prove him without looking in the place he revealed himself. When I first read about this I thought that was crazy and moved on.

I thought some more about it. I had the time, like.

Now Comfort and Cameron both seem to be totally sincere and utterly lovely men so don’t take this Zoomtard as an attack on them in any way. In fact, I think the work they are doing is important. But its important enough to be discussed. Believing that God cannot be proven is not really an issue of opinion. It is evident that God cannot be proven. If his existence could be proven, then you’d all agree with me that he exists. In the 1600s, a movement began led by philosophers you won’t know about called Lessius and Mersenne that argued that Christianity was best defended by philosophical argument. The reason you don’t know these fellows is because that argument isn’t very fruitful. Yet it seems to have had a lasting impact within the Christian sphere. This is a sad thing and I think Comfort and Cameron have fallen in with them.

When I criticise Intelligent Design people sometimes think I am anti-science. I am anything but. I am a trained scientist (well, computer science is like the colouring-in science degree). I don’t criticise Mersenne, Lessius, Comfort and Cameron because I am dismissive of the role of philosophy. I am married to a philosopher. I even respect her. But there is an elegance about the theory of knowledge offered by Christianity that seems to elude many Christians. Knowledge of God can be known through our own Self and through the observance of the world, but this knowledge is not “proven” knowledge. The revelation of God is uniquely and fully presented in the person of Jesus and more accessibly to us (since we live in 2007 and not 0007), in the form of the Bible. Knowledge about God that actually constitutes full knowledge is, Christianity says, to be found in those 70 or so books.

I would be moved to a kind of belief by the better arguments us apologists have but ultimately my faith in the Trinity comes about through the observance of God in the form of Jesus revealed in those glorious pages and in the living out of that tradition in the midst of my brilliant church community. Let me put it another way. I am compelled to believe because the idea of Grace has gripped me. I find Grace presented in the Gospels. Its beauty is beyond the reach of science and its profundity is deeper even than philosophy.

When you advance a God of the philosophical argument, you fall into the same trap as the ID crowd. You may convince some people (those who aren’t listening very well I fear) that this god exists, but he is not the god of the Bible. He is much more like the Prime Mover in Aristotelian thought. You can imagine an omnipotent, omniscient, good agent who still has no similarity to the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ“. This philo-god can have no Grace and can have no answer to suffering. It is so impoverished. You could believe in it in some sense, although it would make no difference to your life. You certainly could not believe it, because it would say nothing to you, care nothing for you and certainly not want to love you.

There are folks who read this webpage regularly who aren’t Christians. I fear as the years go by they are being swamped by god-botherers. I would hazard a guess though that if they do not believe in God they are just like my neighbours, some of my family and most of the people I have worked with in the past. The God they have come to disbelieve was only invented in the 17th Century. They haven’t done any real business with the claims made by this God we proclaim who is so strange and awesome, reasonable but beyond reason and very awfully elegant.

Ultimately, debates like this one only feed the culture of superficiality that lets people put up YouTube videos where they claim to be able to disprove heaven and hell with “simple logical thought” in two minutes and thirty three seconds. Christian faith is not an act of intellectual assent where you tick some boxes in your brain and say “yes” to some Platonic ideal of God. It is an invitation to a life long journey. Its not an accessory to wear, a security blanket for the cold nights or a get-out of jail free card for when you die. Ultimately its a relationship with a person. God is a person who wants you to know him. And spend time with him. And be changed by him. And be healed by him. And be amused by him. Comfort and Cameron agree to a set of rules that mean their game will never let them talk about this and as a result the Rational Response Squad won before it even began.

Your Correspondent, Riling you with neutered swear words, gosh darnit!

Entschsomething

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

There are certain passages that people don’t understand in the Bible. They are the passages that appear when you are harassed about your faith by someone who thinks that reading webpages counts as an education. Remind me to Zoomtard about that phenomenon later actually. “How can your so-called God be so forgiving if he doesn’t forgive everything?” is one of the things they say, thinking that with one sentence that they have punctured the 6000 year old belief system that all their beloved values actually assume.

They say this because they have read Mark 3:29:

But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

Now as so often is the case, reading the Message alongside the TNIV can be helpful:

Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.

Context is the key to understanding the text. In the verse right before that one, Jesus says that all sins can be forgiven and all blasphemies forgiven. This is in response to the religious big wigs accusing him of being a demon. The opening lines of the whole book of Mark are interesting too. Jesus announces his mission. Repent and believe. All sins will be forgiven to those who are in on the Jesus-train. There is a seat for everyone on the Jesus-train. Mark starts the whole Gospel with Jesus shouting, “Get in on the party before this train sails.”

What “Repent and believe” means is to turn away from the life we live naturally. In that life, we act as if God doesn’t exist. Or if he does exist, we try to squeeze him into our story so he can be part of our spirituality. We live I-centred lives. This has a negative effect on the way we relate to say, the environment, to voting, to other people. Ultimately it damages ourselves the most because we are creatures intended to live outside of ourselves, concerned with the Other, not the Self. Most importantly, it bypasses the primary relationship we were made for, the relationship with our Maker. So repenting is turning away from the I-life and believing is the turning towards the, lets call it, the Thou-life. Thats the life with God at the centre. Thats the life where we stop trying to get God to get on board with our plans and we start getting on board with his. Thats the life where we take our place inside his story, our cabin on the Jesus-train, if you’ll follow my embarrassed illustration.

The Holy Spirit is the person through whom this process of conversion occurs. Conversion is a bad word, and rightly so. Its all “Praise the Lord” and hands in the air and it makes me think of that horrific scene in Borat. But Conversion is actually a word I will use and hope to redeem. Christianity, to borrow from Jack, is not about making nice men. Its about making new people. A world of slightly nicer people would still be a dark world with fear and alienation and loneliness and violence abounding. It would still need to be saved. The Holy Spirit doesn’t want to make us nicer people although when she is finished us we will certainly be more pleasant. It is not a journey where men become nicer the way a horse can jump higher. Its a journey where men are made new like horses that grow wings. They become a new thing entirely, no longer a horse, but something more. This is conversion, fully understood and the Holy Spirit causes it over the course of the life of the Christian.

If you choose to not take that place offered to you, it follows that you are rejecting the forgiveness offered. It follows that you are rejecting the hand of the Holy Spirit and repudiating her. You are blaspheming her. You are rejecting the forgiveness and you shall never be forgiven.

This is an introduction to an entry I want to make in this journal of mine tomorrow detailing the deficiency of the Blasphemy Challenge.

Your Correspondent, Glasses, glasses, glasses, who wants more glasses?

Methinks, A Classic Zoomtard

Monday, May 14th, 2007

This Zoomtard Was Intelligently Designed
Back at the Science and God Conference we held last month, Dr. Denis Alexander discussed the problems with the Intelligent Design movement in the USA that claims that we can prove God scientifically from observation of certain instances in nature that can’t be possibly evolved. The mavens at the head of this movement have all kinds of very sexy, scientrific terms to lend credibility to their argument. One of them is “Irreducible Complexity”. There are a number of organisms that allegedly demonstrate irreducible complexity. The argument that the ID-boys use is that these structures are so complex that they can’t possibly have evolved. They wouldn’t work unless they were just popped into existence as they were.

Now amongst the many problems I have with this whole movement is how it plays into the hands of honest disbelief. When I debated Richard Dawkins, he cited the fallacious argument that the eye was irreducibly complex. Camera-style eyes like ours have evolved dozens of times in unrelated species. You wonder how anyone could think that the eye couldn’t serve an evolutionary benefit in a prior state. As Dawkins put it, an insect that has light-sensitive cells on its head has a considerable evolutionary advantage over its cousins who don’t. Even if all they can detect is shadow and light, they are less likely to be caught by surprise, more likely to live longer, more likely to hook up with lady-insects and propagate that genetic material, Darwin style baby. What can you say to Prof. Dawkins when he makes that point except, “You are damn right sir!”?

The major example of irreducible complexity that is proposed by the ID-crowd is the bombardier beetle. Weirdly, Darwin himself is rumoured to have suffered at the hands of this potent little fellow who can blast a compound poison out of its behind at over 200F. So ID tell us that this defence mechanism is amazingly complicated, and could only have been created with all the parts working together perfectly. If bits and pieces were added over the generations based on mutations, the explosive combination of decomposed hydrogen peroxide and oxidised hydroquinone would destroy the beetle.

There is an implication hidden inside the idea of irreducible complexity that must be lured out into the light. If there is a case of irreducible complexity, as Darwin would agree (even Dawkins would agree), science will have run out of questions to ask of that structure. By definition, irreducible complexity means beyond scientific investigation. So if the bombardier beetle really is a case of complexity that can’t be explained, we won’t even be able to produce a feasible explanation of how it could have evolved.

It is for that reason that the following feasible explanation destroys the idea that the bombardier beetle is a case of irreducible complexity. It is not proven fact, but it is a plausible hypothesis. My explanation of it is based on this excellent page from Talk Origins and they have set it to a simple video with a Coldplay soundtrack. Those biologists don’t have the time to have a hip ear.

One more reason theologians are cooler I suppose.

Bombard This Suckas
Consider an ancestor of the bombardier beetle. A long time ago. There was no Super Mario. Damn it, there was no badminton, no gheyball and no chess neither. These ancestors develop an orangey substance on their skins. This is all the rage. Lots of insects are doing it. The orangey substance, quinones, taste bad. It makes the shell of the insect taste bad so it cuts down on unfortunate bird related fatalities. Fast forward a long time and these little beetles now have wells of quinone under the skin. It further discourages any of that inconvenient eating.

Imagine how much more useful it would be if those wells of quinone emptied when the beetle felt threatened? You have been watching too much Heroes. Evolution isn’t sentient. But ultra violet radiation may have caused a mutation in the DNA of a beetle to create the ability to empty the wells when threatened which increased his chances of life and sex and reproduction and so his DNA was passed on and over generations this capability spread right across the population.

The same process, mutation, left to work its magic over a very long time leads to the wells developing muscles that controls the release of the quinone. Maybe around the same time many small wells became two big wells. Maybe that came earlier or a little later. But bigger and fewer wells developed which made the process more efficient.

Some creatures are immune to quinones. The insects that develop hydroquinones have a real advantage and that is exactly what happens in the bombardiers distant ancestor. More distant than what you’re thinking. This takes a LONG time. A long time later, if we caught one, we’d find under examination, ducts that channel the quinone and hydroquinone from the wells when threatened. Muscled would have evolve to cap the reservoirs except when threatened. If that bird came to eat him, he could let blast with this dirty foul tasting mixture and maybe Mr. Crow would move on to someone else.

Here is when things start getting a little more interesting. Hydrogen peroxide is evolved and when combined with quinone and hydroquinone it is more unpleasant and more widely potent. Very few creatures won’t be offended by this. A bunch of generations later, cells that produce catalysts intensifying the solution evolve around the reservoir muscles. The evolution of this defense mechanism continues that makes these cells more robust, allowing the reaction to be more potent (since it can now resist the high temperatures involved). This is the big change that makes the potent mix possible. The secreting cells release a catalyst that causes the ingredients to form into the fiery poison so rapidly that it serves as a defence mechanism, but the cells themselves can resist the effects of the spray.

At some point, beetles get born that have slightly more narrow openings to the reservoir turning the weak spray into weak jet. This process continues until the weak jet turns into the strong jet we have today.

And boom! In the words of Pearl Jam, “It’s evolution baby!” This is a plausible explanation of how the bombardier beetle came to be by slow and gradual change. This doesn’t prove that the beetle came about this way, but it does show clearly that its a strange kind of irreducible complexity that can be reduced to simple steps.

Your Correspondent, he’s the first mammal to make plans

How Do The Old Testament And New Testament Relate To One Another?

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

First things first. If you click this link again you won’t do any more work for about an hour: Bible battle.

Second things second. Evil comes from Presbyterianism.

I sometimes get emails from people who say, “Hey Zoomy. I don’t understand X, Y, or Z about Christianity. Explain it to me. In ryhme.” Well, when I say some people I mean one person. I’d like it to be more common because then I wouldn’t have to spend so long in my sensory deprivation tank dreaming new topics up. But someone emailed me with a question and they wanted me to ZOOMTARD my response. So here goes.

The question is why us Christians keep a hold of the Old Testament texts. Alot of people mean to ask whether or not the God of the Old Testament is a different angrier God than the God of love they find in the New Testament. The particular person asking the question doesn’t mean this. They just want to know what the deal is.

Well the deal is huge. Its a beautiful, complex, dramatic plotline that stretches from before the beginning and ends after the new start at the end. That sentence should probably be locked in captivity and punished for the rest of its life but I like it. The Old Testament begins with Genesis. The first 11 chapters of Genesis are very different to the next 39. They tell stories that look like myths but are different. The start of the book deals with Creation and the Fall, with Cain and Abel, with Noah and the Ark, with Babel and the tower. And then bam! All of a sudden an Iraqi pagan called Abrahm appears. The story changes. The tone changes. This isn’t myth, or something sharper than it. This is history.

And Abrahm lives in the Arabian peninsula and no one knows anything about who God is. Abrahm wakes up one day and he has a hunch that there is one God and this God is talking to him. He is brave enough to avoid the caveman Freud and follow this deep quiet voice he hears. The journey is amazing. But in Genesis 15, on the 8th page of my Bible, something very peculiar happens. God tells Abrahm that a great inheritance is coming his way. A son would come from his body and there shall be a day through this heir that Abrahm’s offspring will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abrahm responds by saying that is great and all but why should I trust that you are real? Why should I trust this promise is real? If you did actually exist instead of being a figment of my deluded imagination, you’d know I was crazy for taking you seriously!

God probably looked at Abrahm very seriously for a moment or two, you know, to let him know that he was listening and not just moving forward with his big God plans. Then he asks Abrahm (and this is the part that most modern readers would probably say “What the fuck!”) to bring him a heifer, a goat, and a ram who are all 3 years. Also, he wants a dove and a young pigeon. Abrahm brings him this strange menagerie and God says cut them in half and lay them out facing each other, making a corridor.

This seems bizarre and brutal to us. It was actually the equivalent of bringing in the high powered lawyers and drawing up a contract in Abrahm’s day. When you made a deal, you walked between these dead animals uttering your side of the deal. Then your partner did the same. What you were communicating was that if you failed to fulfill your side, may you be ripped apart like these animals.

Abrahm starts to freak. Its one thing to make a deal with Joe down the road but its a whole other scale to try and make deals with the creator of the universe. Abrahm was able to negotiate his way out of mortal trouble by offering a sister for marriage or by selling a few cows. This God character was unlikely to be appeased by a bushy-eyebrowed woman. God, in the form of fire and smoke walks amongst the animals. He says, this deal I have made, this promise I have uttered, is going to come true. Abrahm will have a son who will change the world. His offspring will stretch from end to end. And if I don’t fulfill my side of this promise, may I be ripped to pieces like these animals.

Forgive me, but Abrahm must have shat himself.

The brilliant thing though, the amazing thing, the thing that unlocks the Old Testament for me, the thing that makes all the synapses explode inside my brain and cause a lightbulb to go on above my head is that God doesn’t ask Abrahm to walk the line. God secures his side of the deal. He looks for no security for Abrahm’s side. God says if he lets Abrahm down, God shall be torn asunder. By not asking Abrahm to walk the line he is saying that if Abrahm’s side falls down, God shall be torn asunder.

Next time you pick up that heavy tome that seems like a swamp filled with contradicting signposts telling you how to get him, remember this. In the opening pages, God promises that one day a man will be born who will make the whole world new. He secures this promise by saying that if he doesn’t meet his end of the bargain, he will tear himself apart. More than that, he secures this promise by saying that if humanity doesn’t meet our end of the bargain, he will tear himself apart to keep it good.

At the beginning of the Bible, you have Jesus and you have Grace. Remember the first Law of Zoomtard:

Jesus + Grace
=
Gospel.

The Old Testament relates to the New Testament the way we relate them in the pages of your Bible. They fit together. They run together. They tell the same story. They weave an accurate portrait of Man and an accurate portrait of God. The New Testament is unrooted without its Older Testament. The Old Testament is a story ended before the end without its Newer Testament. They are both equally vital, astoundingly beautiful and charged throughout with a strange ferocious love.

In other news, Betamaxnomates is leaving us (like Stigmund) (the bastards) to move to Japan and I hope he visits this giant vending machine that pretends to be a shop and buys me a cartload of t-shirts. Here is the diagram that shows the evolution of the ironic t-shirt. I think we are ready for the next big step.

Your Correspondent, He would be “Earth” because, erm, he feels least clumsy when he’s Earth-bound.

He Bombs Fellas, Better Send For The Medics

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

Donald Knuth is a magnificent man. The father of computer science. A fine writer. The man who gifted us with TEX. And also a good old Christian with a deep love of the Scriptures. He is the kind of computer scientist that makes me less likely to hide the fact that I spent four years studying computer science.

And here is a brilliant article that will let you in on the wonder. Even the bit about paying $20 to everyone who spots an error in any of his books.

Knuth has a pipe organ installed in his home. Pipe organs are amazing, compelling, beautiful things. And playing one is a strange dark art to me. Its like taxidermy. I have no idea how it happens, why someone would start to do it or what it does to me that makes me so transfixed by it.

Your Correspondent, Off to the Natural History Museum

I Can’t Believe That The Axis Turns On Suffering

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Unusually for me, I am really struggling to get down to the task of writing the sermon I have to deliver this week. It is the first time I am delivering a sermon with the whole church present, kids and all. This is scaring me to a degree you probably can’t imagine or understand. Its easy for me to sit back and write some connecting thoughts on what a passage has to say to us if I can use whatever words I like. Explaining the words of Paul to a bunch of adults sounds like a thrilling challenge to me. Explaining the words of Paul to a bunch of adults and a shedload of kids sounds impossible to me.

That paragraph is so stupid I am certainly going to regret it in three years when I read over it.

How is that different from any other paragraph here though? This is a blog after all.

There was a phenomenon in the 1990s around Ireland for Catholic parishes to have folk masses. The Boss and I were remembering this craze this week. Hand waving homilies by priests preceded by a band of hip youngsters singing absolutely inappropriate music like Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. The ultimate sacrilege was the rumour that Everybody Hurts had been sung as part of the Good Friday liturgy. Dreadful folk masses are a perfect explanation of the rise of the Emerging Church however. There is no need for serious navel gazing by big fat thinkers like DA Carson. Its just the rebellion of 20-somethings who had to sit through church services where the culture of the day and litrugy had a car crash.

Worship music is so often for me, the worst part of being at church. Which leads us perfectly into a classic Adam and Joe sketch. And with that, hopefully I am led back into sermon prep:

Congrats to Funzo by the way, who won yet another contest last night. I wasn’t there but I heard that Stig’s break-dancing was the ice-breaker.

Your Correspondent, you can never get too much of such a wonderful thing

Die Gedken Sind Frei

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Yesterday I waxed lyrical about some recent God-experiences I had. So there are two things that these three experiences encourage me to write about. Well, I could probably write for the rest of my life (and maybe I just will do that) about the things these experiences bring home to me. But there are two things I am going to Zoomtard. And I am going to leave one of them until another day, like tomorrow.

The first is about the proper shape of spirituality and the second is about the proper place of aesthetics. Or in less pretentious terms, the first is about how we live fully and the second is about how music matters. I was talking with someone on Sunday about Sacred Space and they said they just couldn’t pray at a computer. I was talking with someone on Monday who kind of admitted they couldn’t get excited about things if they were just day to day. Neither of them seemed to think these comments telling. Now before I begin this first point in earnest I should point out that people are different and of course I don’t think people are deficient if they can’t pray at their pc or get excited about the things they do day in and day out.

But the reason these two comments struck me is because they expressed perfectly the default feelings about spirituality. The first is that spirituality is some special activity we pursue in a special location for a special purpose. But the Jesuits who put the Sacred Space website together named it that for a reason. All space is sacred. Everything is spiritual. There is no sacred/secular divide. The reason we have difficulty praying at a computer is because we associate computers with work and associate work with the secular realm and then decide it isn’t fitting to pray.

But God has literally dwelt in the workshop. He has gotten up and brushed his teeth and combed his hair and gone to make tables (and according to Mel Gibson he invented the modern dining table!). There is a time and a place for special worship and communal worship and I am a big fan of cathedrals and cemeteries and architecture that declares the task of communing with God to be a most vital task. But that shouldn’t mean we don’t pray and worship on the bus and in the garden and in the shower.

Spirituality is so commonly understood as something we do. But it is something we are. (Forgive the grammar crash that happened as those two sentences collided). We are at base, spiritual beings. All existence is at base, a spiritual existence. At least that is what the Bible offers us. And so we should fully expect to experience the presence of God in the music of Handel (or Radiohead) or in the beautiful Spring day but also in the domestic joys of beer and home and books. We should also fully expect to practice this presence of God on rainy winter days and even, if we are serious about it, the trivial trials of traffic and queuing and deadlines. The day to day is the most common place (in all the meanings of it) that we can hope to find God.

That is the first point. Yesterday I mentioned how I found God over a beer. So here is a beer related Adam and Joe video.

Your Correspondent, He woke up just in time

Turning Spare Time Into Work Time

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

I read a book once by a Catholic philosopher called Peter Kreeft where he shared what he called the 16th Proof for God’s existence. It went something like this:

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach exists.

Therefore, God exists.

You either get this, or you don’t.

I liked his style. Neuro and I went to a recital by the NUI Maynooth chamber choir on Sunday of Handel’s Dixit Dominus. Now you know me. I know all about how the Aliens movies were made (well, the first three) and I can tell you what the best soccer magazine is but I am useless at real culture. I had never been to a chamber choir before. I know Handel is a genius but I know it in the way my dad senses Radiohead are very good. I remember my dad and I watching Jools Holland one night back in 1997 when Radiohead debuted Paranoid Android and all he could say was, “That man sings like an angel”. Still, he’d be as out of place at a Radiohead gig as I am at a chamber choir. There were moments as the harmonies built however, when I really felt like there was no other explanation for the beauty assaulting my ears; there is a God and whoever he is, he is an artist.

The mentioning of Paranoid Android, that modern indie-rock opera, lets me force more Adam and Joe on you.

And then it happened again
I had the same impression a few nights ago. I had a mighty fine beer. I had my wife by my side as she browsed the web and potted about. And I had Calvin.

I know you didn’t expect that last addition. Maybe you did. That would be even worse.

Anyway, Calvin is a supremely good writer. He and his predestination are also the most misunderstood thinkers and thoughts around. As an aside I have never met a Catholic seminarian who didn’t mistake predestination to mean the removal of free will. It must be mis-taught. Also as an aside, Calvinists have really destroyed Calvin.

Anyway, let me start a mini-redemption of Calvin because the setting with the beer and the company and then the idea he threw down right at the start of his famous book, The Institutes, made me feel like I felt at the Chamber Choir. Something lights this world that is brighter than the sun.

He is talking about how flawed and hypocritical and subjective our perspectives are as individuals when compared to the illumination God brings to things. We’re all utterly tainted by our bad experiences and bad decisions and this badness builds systematically to obscure everything. So when we stumble across something that is slightly less tainted, like for example, anything I say at all, then it appears relatively to be blindingly pure. If we only ever see black things, then are ours are so shaken out of customary activity when they see something whitish “or even of a brownish hue” we will interpret it as pure white. But this “pure white” is thoroughly put into perspective and seen for the dull colour that it really is if it is set up alongside the Big G’s spectrum of colours. In the same way, if we only ever compare ourselves to the relative measure of ethics that our society or our peer group or most narrowly of all, ourselves offer, then we can seem fine and dandy. When however, you assess your ethics at the standard that the Big G provides, your righteousness appears like folly. Or as he puts it,

If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves enuded with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled (probably not the best idea there Jean), the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities…

And then this morning…
Sometimes I go for walks in the morning and I listen to lectures or sermons or music and I wander and think and pray and generally loll about. This is justifiable remember, because its my job. Let the jealousy pass there. Well I went walking this morning and I was once again struck by this deeply (unconvincing for you) true sense the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God. The birds were belting it out in the trees. The grey squirrels were evicting the red squirrels or whatever it is those bushy tailed rodents do. The sun shone. The sky was blue. I could gush for another few lines but I’ll save us both the embarrassment.

Your Correspondent, Brings his Ventolin everytime he meets you