Archive for September, 2007

One Line Review 3: Dancer In The Dark

Monday, September 24th, 2007

This is the best Christian analogy of our time, better even than that one with the Lion.

Your Correspondent, That thing with the hamster was a long time ago.

One Line Review 2: Superbad

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

If I had seen this in secondary school, me and my two best friends might have looked up long enough from our web designing, lego-making, Soledad O’Brien watching to notice girls and learn how to use swear words amusingly.

Your Correspondent, We even called ourselves “En triple entente”

One Line Review 1: Run Fat Boy, Run

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

When Simon Pegg who made Spaced teams up with Michael Ian Black who made MTV’s The State and they convince Dylan Moran to appear in a movie you are pretty much assured that if you had to give away a 1942 Rolex to get cinema tickets, it’d be worth it.

Your Correspondent, Thinks Thandie Newton is the best looking skeleton he’s ever seen

Sshh! He’s Making An Announcement

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

Since the last entry was the best entry it’s probably a good time to say that I’ve been ignoring a large gorilla that has sat growling in the corner of my intellectual room for the last three years and I am off to silence it.

Zoomtard will resume normal service in a few months, when scarred from battle he returns victorious.

Your Correspondent, Biting his nails in anticipation.

Her Good Looks Could Have Sailed A Ship

Monday, September 10th, 2007

A new book about Mother Theresa consisting largely of her correspondence with friends and colleagues has caused a flurry of media attention. The reason is that some of the letters document a dark night of the soul that the Calcutta-based nun endured for almost forty years. Much of the commentary has taken the form of relieved sceptics receiving these letters as confirmation of something they always suspected- that faith, even the most robust and vital of Christian lives, is really the product of a mind willing itself into a pattern of thought that defies experience.

Renowned public atheist Christopher Hitchens launched himself into the general consciousness in 1997 with his bombastic anti-hagiography Missionary Positions: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice. In the last few weeks he has had lots to say about the newly published letters. Most of the comment can be summed up with the title of a recent column, The fanatic, fraudulent Mother Theresa.

The renowned English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge became a Christian later in life after decades of agnosticism. Eventually he converted to Catholicism, primarily due to the influence of Mother Theresa. He describes his first encounter with her like this:

I will never forget that little lady as long as I live. The face, the glow, the eyes, the love-it was all so pure and so beautiful. I shall never forget it. It was like being in the presence of an angel. It changed my life. I have not been the same person since. It is more than I can describe.

In the ten years since her death, public perception of Mother Theresa has fractured into two sharply contrasting viewpoints. The first is the traditional view of her as a walking Saint captured by Muggeridge. The second is the new emerging sceptism about this beatified do-gooder. Anything that appears so good from the outside must be rotten somewhere deep on the inside. Much of the response to the letters has taken this form. “Ha ha! She was faking it all along!” is the most common tone taken.

But contrary to this conclusion, I have read the excerpts from Mother Theresa’s letters and discovered a new found respect for this hero of the church. Her dark decades of the soul don’t make me fear her honesty, they lead me to marvel at her authenticity. This new book doesn’t pierce the myth of her godliness, it reinforces the sense that her life is an example to any Christian trying to live out genuine Biblical faith.

When Mother Theresa struggled to love God by loving others in spite of an apparently silent heaven she was testifying to a long and established tradition encoded into the Bible itself, a common experience of believers from King David right through to today. We call these Psalms the Lament Psalms and in a culture that elevates the individual and a church that slips into the same patterns we rarely hear them at Sunday services. But familiarity with these Psalms and their usage would render so much that is written by Hitchens and co moot.

Psalm 73 or Psalm 44 are classic examples of the Lament Psalms. They are songs of complaint where the Psalmist holds God accountable for the apparent failure to deliver on his promises. As part of his covenant with humanity, God promises to deliver certain things. These Psalms rise out of a context of faithful and passionate believers trying to reconcile the reality of their situation with a belief in a God who has promised to be there for them. The lamenting Psalms are not just limited to grief. If YHWH is not holding up his side of the bargain then we must sing out in protest. If God is meant to be near, but trouble is near instead, then we need to voice our concerns. When the wicked prevail, when the righteous are trampled on, when God seems far away, the only authentic response is to cry out to God and plead your case. This is what the Psalmists did. It was such an essential aspect of a faithful life lived in the real world that their prayers were absorbed into the Canon.

The most famous lamenting Psalm is 22. It is the pinnacle of these protest songs and it is the most renowned because it is the Psalm Jesus cries out when dying on the cross.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

It is beyond me to grasp how anyone could interpret Mother Theresa’s lack of experience and discontent at that absence as an act of unfaith in the face of this Biblical testimony to what real faith looks like. The Gospels are clear that Jesus himself felt totally seperated from YHWH. Does it follow that Jesus was a fraudulent fanatic, a faker, a man with a need for a psychological crutch? This is not an impression one can form from reading his interactions in the Gospels.

In the Bible, people lament because of their dire present circumstances that needs to be met with prayer. But the prayer needs to be authentic, not platitudinal. When Mother Theresa admitted to herself and her close spiritual friends that she felt alone and disconnected from God it was a profoundly mature sign of true spirituality. In the Bible (in the actions of Jesus even), the temptation to defiance in the face of desolation is overcome by authentic offering of prayer- these pleas, like Mother Theresa’s are acts of hope and a radical expression of faith.

Many read this new book and see hollowness at the heart of Mother Theresa’s faith. Where they see nothing, the insightful Christian (in fact, anyone at all of insight) should see real substance. Too often Christian faith is allowed to be parodied as a purely intellectual acknowledgment of some abstract claims. “Believing in Jesus” becomes an empty belief that doesn’t lead to any action. It may not be fashionable and it may not be commonly stated but suffering, especially of the wrestling, existential type that Mother Theresa endured is part of the walk followers of Jesus can expect. My friend wrote about her own experience of this recently.

Reading the coverage of her doubts and her anxieties, I was reminded not of a charlatan but a demon. In C.S. Lewis’ masterful novel, the senior demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood thusly:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Your Correspondent, His will could have sunk it

Not A Water-Dwelling Mammal

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations is one of those books that you pick up, compulsively read and then carry with you everywhere you go for about three weeks in the form of annoying dinnertime conversation. I mean, how can you keep the fact that the Incas had no written language or wheels and yet had an empire spanning 4,000 miles to yourself! Or that Mexico’s population dropped by 96% through illness when the Europeans arrived! Or that China is totally weird and always has been!

The book starts off at the very beginning of time. Sorry, I imbibed some of the Market-Is-Good ideology of the superb writer David Landes there. It begins really with an assessment of where the world was at about 1000AD and how it got there. This is very Guns, Germs And Steel but you know, not boring and not misappropriated in every internet bulletin board debate for the last seven years. Then it gets into the good stuff of explaining why some countries get rich and then lose it all, some stay poor and never get anything and why Britain and Holland always seem to be doing unusually well for themselves.

He tells a class story about the Dutch. They were a thriving little merchant nation, if we can call a loose confederation of states and cities a nation. Through a series of unlikely events, Charles V of Germany became the King of Germany, Spain, Portugal, Burgundy and all the Low Countries. The only way I can describe this strange sequence of events is to remind you of well, anytime I’ve ever played Risk with you. You haven’t played Risk with me? Well you obviously can’t master the history of Economics then. But on the plus side, at least you still have confidence in yourself. Unlike anyone who has ever played Risk against me. It happens like this. The game is humming along nicely. You might have been eyeing up the Middle East. Then I roll the dice and suddenly I start to move and three minutes later the game is over. One guy went to put on the kettle. He comes back, we’re putting the game away and I’m doing my little victory dance, with all your underpants on my head (the spoils of war). That is the only way you can possibly understand the masterstroke that Charles V pulled off.

So he ends up the King of Spain and somehow, encouraged by the Pope and other nefarious baddies, he decides to continue the Iberian peninsula’s two centuries long tradition of antisemitism. All the Jewish people had fled Portugal and Spain and found refuge up in the Calvinistic north but now Charles V decided to go after them too, all to cleanse his Empire of those people who were so disgustingly similar to Jesus. Things happen, ideologies clash and soon there is war. The Dutch find their free marketeering ways limited by you know, the corpses on the road so a bunch of independent traders come together to form VOC, the Dutch East Indian Shipping company.

This was a bold move. Portugal had been in control of the Indian Ocean for many generations. How insane is that- little silly Portugal of the flamboyant footballers and silly monuments, they were a massive world power. And the British were entering into the distant imperialism-game with verve by this stage (the local Irish project wasn’t delivering the results they hoped for, I guess). How can a bunch of egghead flower sellers and polder farmers dare to go into sea-faring adventures with the brigands of Portugal, the Pirates of the Far East and the cannons of Britain? Well they realised this was the most unlikely endeavour that ever happened outside of a “Nerds win in the end” Hollywood movie. So these inexperienced fishermen who found themselves on the harsh open seas going into battle with hostile traders in a desperate effort to slice off a bit of the world, subdue the population and call it New Holland did what they had to do. It was the 16th Century equivalent of the Rocky scenes in the meat rooms. They probably played the Rocky theme tune on their harpsichords every day as the sailors did their drills and practices, running up and down the masts and rolling canons here and there and putting out pretend fires.

What happened was that by the time the VOC fleet reached the Indian Ocean to get in on the colonisation free-for-all, they were the sharpest fighting machine on the seas. They soon had 40% of the world’s pepper sales in their pocket and the only supply of nutmeg in the world. It seems the Mighty Ducks movies were actually based on a true story after all.

Your Correspondent, Has got a preposterous hypothesis

Summing Up That Big Orange Book

Friday, September 7th, 2007

I read a big orange theology book on my holidays. I’d sum it up like this.

Christians have often said that Satan makes the theatre his church. They failed to understand that God wants the church to be his theatre.

Your Correspondent, The Bible doesn’t mention him, even once

Believing We’re Alive When We’re Still Dead

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

This day last year I started my new job which I hoped would be my dream job and I hoped that in years to come, grandchildren would sit on my knee and I’d tell them about the cool things I did and learned as part of this role. How do I feel about it now? Well I know it’s not part of the agreement we make with the Big Fellow but I think I’d probably be happy to just stay here for the next few decades. Life being what life is though, as I sit here and consider how sweet a place it is to sit, I am already thinking about the next move.

A new month is a new banner and for the first ever time I have used a photo that wasn’t taken by me or one of my immensely more talented buddies. In this case it is a flickr user who goes by the name of fatcontroller. You should go peruse his photos, especially the zoo ones from which the banner image is taken.

Serious respect to anyone who can decipher the awfully clever reference I am making in my tagline.

Back when Zoomtard began, the reason I kind of wanted to start a blog was how much I loved Mimi Smartypants’ blog. Three years ago she mentioned James Frey and how this renowned writer had written an autobiography that she considered one of the worst books she had ever come across. Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces, claimed to be the memoirs of a stunningly gifted man who engaged in all kinds of crazy shenanigans involving drugs and crimes and sentences and addiction. The Smoking Gun however, revealed this to be a bit of a sham. The accounts of the autobiography didn’t really square with the reality of the situation.

Oprah chose the book for her book club but when the TSG unveiled its truth-defiency, she was very angry. Thoroughly angry on behalf of her readers who may or may not have enjoyed the book but they expected it to be a True Story and they felt very cheated that there were in fact poetic licenses taken by this young upstart. So she did what any media mogul would do and she invited James Frey on to her show to give him a good talking down to. He submitted to the game and apologised on the show.

So the story went to sleep for a while until a big book conference this summer. Time covered the resuscitation of the story here. Joyce Carol Oates (another literary bigwig) delivered a talk where she argued that truth in memoir is a curious thing, much like love in a Huey Lewis And The News Song. She says,

the tradition of personal memoir has always been highly ‘fictionalized’ — colored with an individual’s own ’emotional truth’ — and that the James Frey memoir would seem to be in this category. It would seem that Oprah Winfrey was judging the memory from a more literal perspective, but this makes sense since the great majority of her readers would expect memoirs and autobiographies to be ‘true.’

The readers weren’t the only people to expect it to be “true”. The courts forced the publisher to pay $3.25 million in refunds to aggrieved readers shocked that the Truth of a person’s memoirs could be so subjective, so tainted by “emotional truth” which they feel is tantamount to a lie. Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese was drawn into the controversy at the same conference and her comments can be viewed here. (How weird is it that there is a tv station dedicated to books?) What really offended Talese was not that Oprah expected the books she endorsed to be “true”, but that she didn’t care either way. It was all an act. Oprah was getting slack from her fans and so she passed that flack out to Frey in a public atonement where the nature of Truth was allegedly contended for but in reality Oprah was just doing business.

This is the kind of story that I am sure excites real fans of literature. It probably doesn’t get your blood pumping. It doesn’t affect me a whole lot either. What makes it interesting though is how I can compare the two mindsets at work, one in the “Oprah camp” and one in the “Oates camp” through this story.

The Oprah camp believe in something called Truth with a capital T. When they bought, read and enjoyed Frey’s book their whole experience was utterly grounded in the idea that they were reading a recounting of actual events. The Oates camp of literary big-wigs believe in a concept of truth that is much more ephemeral. They are unwilling to say that the meaning of the events can be accurately captured by reporting the event. Something internal and personal charges the external with a value that can’t satisfy the demands of the T-truth people. What we have here might be a really good illustration of the difference between the Modernism mindset and Post-modernism. Truth for the first group is an abstract, objective standard that applies in all times and all places. truth for the second group is an intensely personal event that

A lot of energy is directed these days, not least in the church, to discussing and attempting to dissect the movement from modernism to post-modernism. Its a “paradigm shift” and a “Copernican revolution” and a whole bunch of other clichés that none of us are sure about the meaning of. In reality though (concentrate for Zoomy is making a Big Point), modernism is in labour and its spawn will be post-modernism. They are not against each other. They are in line with each other. Post-modernism is better understood as ultra-modernism. It is modernism taken to its logical end. And the discussion of Frey and his literary controversy gives me a chance to show all four of you how.

The Oprah crew are looking for Truth with a capital T. By that, I mean that they are looking for an objective, verifiable, abstract truth. When you search back through the intellectual family tree you find that this concept began with Francis Bacon and especially René Descartes. “Des-cart-es” held that truth could be perceived by the rational mind set loose to think. The individual can do it on his own. Modernism and the Enlightenment project that serves as our mental architecture arose from this. Truth slowly morphed so that it now means something like scientific proofs.

We think that the shift to post-modernism is a shift away from and against modernism but I actually suspect that it is a superficial distinction. At root, post-modernism is really best seen as modernism’s ultimate culmination. Admittedly they seem to be different beasts when they are fighting about whether Frey is a lying charlatan or a literary treasure. But this is just one little skirmish in a bigger battle as the child dispossesses her parent. The Oprah club think that objective truth is out there somewhere and it can be accessed by any reasonable human who so wishes to apply their gifts with discipline and effort. The Oates club have just taken that to the logical conclusion and assumed that if all human beings as individuals can equally pursue this project then the objective truth becomes the subjective experience. In modernism we could each individually pursue the truth by looking outside with our rationale. In post-modernism, our rationale encourages us to pursue the truth as individuals and so we look inside.

Oprah’s Club were offended on behalf of Truth and dishonestly set up an ambush of the offender. Oates Club are offended by the dishonesty but in their dismissal of the idea of right and wrong and true and false they loose the grounds for offence. So this brings me round to the biographies that I think are the best ever written. The Gospels are composed in the genre of Greek biography. They are technically, I suppose, bioi. Those in Oprah’s Club typically dismiss them because their assumptions rule them out since they can’t be “historical”. Those is Oates’ Club typically dismiss them, well, I don’t know why they aren’t captivated by them but it might have something to do with the very clear and dominant message they offer (the metanarrative?).

I can side with neither Oprah nor Oates. One thinks you can grasp an objective truth that is beyond our reach and the other makes the individual, by definition a finite proposition, the ultimate standard of all truth. Modernism: You can’t reach for the truth without being a “You”, totally subjective. Post-modernism: You are wasting your time if you reach for something that isn’t there, so in your reaching you are surely admitting the existence of the objective standard you then try to dismiss.

Against the “scientific biography” of Oprah and the “emotional biography” of Oates there stands the Gospel biographies of Jesus. They are explicitly dealing with events and meanings that they claim are objective. John for example admits that he is writing his account so that you, the reader, will come to believe that Jesus was Messiah. But they deal with these objective issues fully aware of their subjective positions and the influence of their emotions and experiences on how they perceive. Thus we have for example in the Gospels, a detailed account (written by the disciples themselves) of how Jesus’ disciples took a long time to understand the Gospel.

Many of the things I hate most about Christianity takes the form of Modernist thought imported into the church. The kind of evangelism that gets my blood boiling, the mode of dispute that is most common, the moral positions we take- it’s all so shallow to my eyes. Many of my generation are therefore receiving post-modernism as a welcome antidote to the excesses of modernism. I understand why. But I fear the excess of the child will turn out to be just as great as the parent. I’d prefer to try and reach past both to try and figure out a way of replicating the view that Jesus had on the world- where the real Truth, the definition Truth, the source of all Truth, actually became a person.

When Truth walks around and explains itself by means of parables and crucifixion, it’s time for Oates and Oprah and every other desperate attempt to catalogue reality that the human mind can generate to get off the stage.

Your Correspondent, A roly-poly little bat-faced girl