Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday

I rather think this has passed me by in recent years, a bit like Hallowe'en. Black Friday is upon us. The day following Thanksgiving. A day when stomachs are still turkey-full and yesterday’s key lime pie barely digested, then gives way to a paroxysm of greed, when shoppers descend like vultures to pick up pre-Christmas bargains on the busiest shopping day of the year. It appeared to have originated in Philadelphia in the sixties, either to describe the fact that retailers slipped from red into black on that day, or the post-Thanksgiving traffic was so unbearably heavy. Some stores opened their doors at midnight and braced themselves.
The UK seems to have joined the feeding frenzy, which indeed it has become. Stores were criticized because of their lack of security, as people literally fought for bargains in-store. 

French shoppers, it would seem, are less ready to be seduced by the US phenomenon than their British counterparts. This from today's 'Independent'. Were this an isolated circumstance it might be newsworthy, but what follows is simply a sample of events mirrored all over the decadent, culture-hungry West.

At least three people were arrested in the mayhem and several people were injured, including one woman hit by a falling television. In London, officers were called to three Tesco stores and an Asda amid fears of confrontations in heated queues but after attending the 24-hour supermarkets in Edmonton, Willesden, Surrey Quays and Edgware, a spokesperson said no one had been injured or arrested. Images posted online showed chaotic scenes in Edmonton, with witnesses describing “mayhem” as discounted coffee machines went on sale, while footage from an Asda in Wembley showed people fighting over televisions. Seven Tesco stores in the Greater Manchester area saw disorder. Several hundred people reportedly tried to storm the Wigan branch, while more than 500 shoppers descended in Ashton Road West.

For some time, I had been looking for a pair of boots. I called a store in the UK, who politely informed me that an online order might be delayed by a day or so because it was, after all, 'Black Friday'.
I cannot imagine, in my wildest nightmares, camping out in freezing conditions in order to be first through the doors in the wee small hours to grab a TV, a microwave or, indeed, a pair of boots or, worse still, come to blows with equally determined buyers. I have written elsewhere about the pursuit of luxury and a segment follows.

As children, our mothers used to glare at us, wag their finger and intone "Money is the root of all evil!" No, it isn't.  The apostle Paul wagged his finger at Timothy, his young disciple, and reminded him that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’. Much as the Pharaohs might have wished it to be otherwise, we can’t rely on it or take it with us. In a moral universe, therefore, it is best to use wisely that with which we have been entrusted.”

We might redact the text for Black Friday to read ‘the love of what money can buy is the root of all evil’.

Were I for some reason, unable to obtain my new boots, the sky would not have fallen. No lives would have been lost and I would have relinquished little more than sartorial elegance, which is neither a blow to my pride nor a physical necessity. I am at a crossroads of sufficiency. I really have too much and am looking for ways to shed what has become too much to carry, to wear, or to amuse myself with. The other day, I discovered a suitcase full of winter clothing I had forgotten I had. H’m.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hard Labour

Haven't been down South at this time of year for a while. Last year, I was wrestling with an unfinished apartment in George Street, Jerusalem and the year before, Paris. So, the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, leaf mould, blocked guttering  and all the other little idiosyncrasies of a seven-acre plot all added up to a spot of Hard Labour. All the tasks that one could never find time for, delicately procrastinated into the sweet bye and bye descended like the Assyrian hordes, all at once. 
It's been raining here. Rather a lot, as it happens. The high water table on the elevated parts of the land means that when there's a deluge, it all finds its way south, carving pathways through stones and gravel. For weeks we had quite a few streams that moated the house, all of them having gathered momentum higher up, lifting stones the size of basketballs. In short, instead of delicate indentations in the unmade road, we now had ruts the depth of trashcans making visitors with low slung vehicles nervous. Gipsy with her usual optimistic insouciance airily brushed aside the task, claiming a few barrows of rubble would fix the problem, at least for the time being. I listened, gloomily, envisaging slashed tyres and broken axles followed by a requirement of lorryloads of gravel. Where's some slave labour when you need it? I reminded myself that the place wasn't Downton Abbey, rolled up my sleeves and started shovelling, pushing images of prisoners in labour camps to the back of my mind. G, being a solidly built creature, hauled and shoved with me and at least a few of the ruts are passably filled in. I recalled the Rule of St Benedict and smiled grimly.

Having a pool with pretty underwater lighting is delightful. In July. Having to bed it down for the winter involves a little delicate chemistry, plus encasement in its winter coat. Scorning all assistance, when G had gone on some small errand - nail varnish, as I recall, being on the list - I elected to unwrap the robustly constructed made to measure cover, all fifty-five square metres of it, and put it on unassisted. There were regrettable outbreaks of bad language, unheard except by local wildlife. I'm surprised they didn't turn up to watch. I won't go into detail, it's too painful. G returned from her shopping trip, took one look at my sweat-sodden face and remarked "It's the wrong way round." Indeed it was. I had been attempting to force it to be the right way round for some time. She and I then unhooked it from its retaining divots or whatever they're called, folded it, turned it, and on it went like a well-tailored suit.
The pool house door doesn't shut. I am confident that with a little bit of paring with a wickedly sharp Swiss Army knife, any swelling can be expeditiously removed. The number for the ambulance is in the book and if I survive without too much blood loss, I'm going back to Paris.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Islam Reimagined

I've never really had much time for 'interfaith dialogue'. One reason for this is that whatever the original branches of thought once had in common, they have now diverged so much that little fertile ground is left for debate. It came as something of a surprise therefore to read a balanced, thoughtful and altogether understandable piece written by a Muslim on why Islam has become what it now is. I've adapted some of the text and made additional comments where necessary. My thanks to Ahmed Vanya - an interview with him can be read here - worth a look, I think.
Paraphrasing "When Muhammad died 632 CE, it is well understood and accepted that the Qur'an had not been compiled as literature for scholars to read and interpret. The messages said to have been revealed from God, or Allah, to Muhammad over a period in excess of two decades were either orally passed down or written on animal bones, leather and scraps of parchment, without systematic collection or  adequate background or context. The Prophet himself provided no authoritative narration or explanation for the Qur'anic verses while he was alive. He also did not provide a method for selecting his successor, nor did he authorise his companions to record the Hadith (his actions and sayings) while he was alive. Later, therefore, subsequent generations had to sift through mountains of material of dubious provenance, in an age when record-keeping was primitive and during a period of discord, partisanship and violence, even among those who were close to the Prophet". There was no Council of Nicaea to establish the weight and value of the material - all, it seemed, carried equal authority. When viewed in this light, it is little more than sophistry to an educated, free-thinking Muslim to expect historical accuracy or precise interpretation.

"In the early days of Islam, after Muhammad's death, Muslims splintered into many sects and factions, in much the same way as Christianity had done, six hundred years earlier. There were endless debates about doctrine, theology, and religious law, due to divergent interpretations of the Qur'an and the Hadiths. Between the eighth and tenth centuries, a school of theology known as  the Mu'tazila flourished in what is now modern Basra and Baghdad. Their adherents were best known for their assertion that, because of the perfect unity and eternal nature of Allah, the Qur'an must therefore have been created, as it could not be co-eternal with God. From this premise, the Mu'tazili school of kalaam (best translated as Islamic apologetics) suggested that the injunctions of God are accessible to rational thought and inquiry and because knowledge is derived from reason, reason is the final arbiter in distinguishing right from wrong. Not unsurprisingly, they waged an intellectual battle with the traditionalists, who gave absolute primacy to strict literal interpretations of the revealed texts: the Qu'ran and the Hadiths. Unfortunately for the future of the Islamic tradition, the literal traditionalists won the struggle, and went on to establish among the Sunni Muslims the four legal schools of Shari'a, which became the dominant form of Islam from then onwards. This mainstream, legalistic, text-bound, literalist Islam, controlled by traditional Muslim scholars, a mixture of humanistic and ethical values with a supremacist ethos, developed through the centuries is what has reached us today. Due to its literalist tradition, it does not have the flexibility or the ability to overcome interpretations of the scriptures that are inimical to pluralistic and humanistic values. Many equate this literalist view to be representative of the "true" Islam". But just because it is the dominant form, it does not mean that it is necessarily "true". Religious traditions change and even metamorphose over time, based on understanding underpinned by cultural awareness and increased knowledge, interpretations, and practices of their adherents. By analogy, over the years, Christianity has on the one hand thrown up organisations as barbaric and brutal as the Inquisition, on the other, looked back to its founding fathers in a desire to 'get back' to the Second Chapter of Acts and in so doing, sought to impart ancient truth with cultural relevance. Therefore, using reason and common sense, why cannot modern thinking find a way to reinterpret Muslim texts to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values? Like most religious practice, the pathway of convenience, even laziness is often the most popular, which in some leads to support for Muslim charities and other agencies with little real thought for whether or not their money is being used for subversive, even violent causes. For others, thinking becomes subsumed into blind, unreasoning obedience and cults like ISIL flourish under its banner. As reasonable voices are raised in protest, however, it seems inconceivable that savage, medieval barbarity will overcome and drive the world back into the Dark Ages.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Double Game

I'm not a great fan of op-eds, especially political. Everybody's take is different, it depends which voices are shouting the loudest in your ear. However, so much has been going on and my friends in Jerusalem are telling me that the current atmosphere there reminds them of the opening days of the Second Intifada in the autumn of 2000. Tension and fear. A sense of foreboding.
"I can feel it in my bones, what's coming" people are saying. What's coming looks a lot like more violence.
There are fewer pedestrians on the streets, even on Jaffa Street. People tend to look over their shoulders, stand further apart on the tram stops and have become cautious and alert in public places. Most of all, it would seem, stoic melancholy overlying a dark rage has returned. So very familiar.
The wave of shootings, vehicle attacks and stabbings has had a profound effect. The faces of murdered innocents plaster news sources and there is to be a relaxation on gun ownership. Talk of a Third Intifada is everywhere. The most recent atrocity, an early morning synagogue attack  killed five, four of whom were rabbis and one of whom was a member of an almost dynastically revered rabbinical family. Images of  bloodstained carnage splattered all over the media suggests an increasing boldness by perpetrators, heedless of their own lives, presumably sacrificed in the cause of jihad. This, together with subsequent rejoicing in East Jerusalem together, unbelievably, by a moment's silence in the Jordanian Parliament for the perpetrators surely defines a red line. When innocents are killed it is heinous. When they are at prayer, lost in contemplation of the Divine, such action is beyond depraved.
Yet some commentators are suggesting, atmospherics notwithstanding, in a number of substantive ways the current reality differs sharply from the time of the two intifadas (1987-92 and 2000-04). The new violence, though indiscriminate, brutal and murderous, is more narrowly focused. It is limited, for now, to specific areas of the country and to areas surrounding East Jerusalem.
But Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, has so far stayed largely quiet.
Why? Because the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank appears to be playing a double game.
On the one hand, the Palestinian press, one assumes with the connivance and imprimatur of the office of Mahmoud Abbas, is engaging in incitement, spreading fear and anger about supposed Israeli plans to upset the delicate rules for Jewish worship on the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque area. Abbas himself has spoken of Jews "desecrating" and "contaminating" the site — the holiest place in Judaism. This in and of itself is provocative insofar as it clearly defines the Muslim attitude to the 'kuffar' or unbeliever, as being dirty, unworthy and sub-human when compared to Muslim purity, indeed religious supremacism is enshrined in every word of the Qu'ran. Furthermore, its adherents appear to face no moral dilemma by storing Molotov cocktails and missiles inside its walls.
According to the status quo arrangement, Jews may visit at certain times but cannot pray at the Temple Mount. The same applies to Christians, but less provocatively.
Whether such an arrangement is fair or just is another question. But there are no plans to change it, indeed Benjamin Netanyahu has reaffirmed Israel's commitment to it.
Meantime, overlaying all the incendiary rhetoric, PA security forces are continuing to co-operate with the Israelis in ensuring relative quiet on the West Bank. This reflects the general lack of Palestinian enthusiasm to provoke another mass confrontation with Israel.
Such a double game is dangerous. While the attacks on Israeli civilians have been presented in some news reports as spontaneous, isolated acts of rage, an examination of the biographies of the perpetrators so far suggests something rather different.
All of them are or were committed members of terrorist or revolutionary organisations, either the PFLP - a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organisation - Hamas or Islamic Jihad, groups that have been fanning the flames of anger over the trumped-up threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.
It's unlikely that the terrorists who carried out the attacks received specific and personalised orders but it's hardly a stretch to suggest that a general green light has been issued. The Palestinian Islamists want to leverage Muslim concerns regarding Al-Aqsa into a violent uprising with themselves at its head. Why now? Perhaps Hamas and Islamic Jihad hope to launch themselves back to regional and global attention by spuriously associating an Israeli threat to a Muslim holy site. Even in the most unlikely event of people getting back to the negotiating table, I can't see it working. 


Saturday, November 01, 2014

Calvin's Cronies

I have found myself in recent times thinking about "church". I don't get to go as much as I did - we travel from Paris to the South a lot and for the past month or so, the rail link from home to St Lazare has had maintenance closures, so weekend services are very severely limited and people are bussed to another station before being able to get up to town. No, I don't feel guilty, nor do I think someone should try to make me. I miss 'church' in some ways, although a flagship building and strong, qualified, doctrinally sound exposition doesn't really make up for the fact that it's quite a friendless place, on the whole. As in any other large organisation, there seem to be circles within circles and the vagabond in me likes to sit at the gateway, nod, smile, dutifully sharing the Peace with people I've never met and speak to no-one.
On the subject of flagships, it's been interesting, and rather saddening, to watch the implosion of that New Calvinist behemoth formerly known as Mars Hill whose charismatic if rather outspokenly brash senior pastor Mark Driscoll has been dismissed. It seemed he let his enthusiasm run away with him, smacked around a few too many followers, and a lot of vulnerable people found themselves browbeaten and abused by someone who should have known better. Now amidst the rubble, fallout and haemorrhage, both pastoral and financial, the whole structure is being dismantled and sold off in the ecclesiastical equivalent of a fire sale. When church becomes big business, it becomes susceptible to all the temptations of profit, status and media approval ratings. How it could have been prevented is a different thread.
I've always been in favour of small over large. Small means being known, large means anonymity where the secrets of the heart can be more easily concealed and transparency lost.
It seems that Mr Driscoll has apologised. Small means that apology has more meaning - usually, individuals are those wronged, and if one claims to apologise to an organisation, it's like apologising to the bank for exceeding one's overdraft limit, it lacks conviction and can be filed away under the header of the politics of expediency. It may only be at the circumference of the problem, not at its centre. A narcissistic apology with no desire to make amends is no more than manipulative theatre since it proclaims "I am hurting because of this", rather than "You are hurting because of me".
But, of course, the big/small issue is only a part. I don't want to 'belong' to a large organisation so large that the man in charge takes on the status of a rock star, the worship team has its own fan club and in a time of need you have to queue, call or make an appointment to see someone who doesn't know you and ends up just giving good advice which you probably knew already, not sitting with you in the ashes, with a servant heart. Neither do I want to belong to a small organisation which replaces pastoral care with a Blackshirt beating which is why I find New Calvinism particularly unappealing. It's just like Old Calvinism in ripped denim jeans. There's even a Facebook group called "Calvinism. The group that chooses you". They are still relatively few in number, but that doesn’t bother them: being a persecuted minority proves they are among the elect. They are not “the next big thing” but a protest movement, defying the woolly baa-lamb mainstream that, they believe, has gone soft on sin and has watered down the Gospel into a glorified self-help program. A protest movement headed up by a Sherman tank of a preacher who once wrote that the mainstream church has turned Jesus into a "hippie, queer Christ, neutered and limp-wristed....  a Sky Fairy of pop culture" is bound to cause a few casualties, which is a shame.
I've seen my fair share of church breakups, most frequently caused by a systematic lack of humility together with self-aggrandisement conveniently masquerading as 'vision' sometimes laced with a sadistic sense of self importance consequently I'm quite relieved not to have been a part of this one. I found myself comparing it to ISIS. Cult minority status, unquestioning obedience to leaders, dissent stifled, emphasis on militancy...
Or, perhaps I go too far.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Observation

There’s an interesting French word, “flâneur”. Translated it could mean: stroller, lounger, saunterer, loafer. An idle wanderer having no particular destination or objective. Flânerie refers to the activity of strolling and there are people in France, especially in Paris who are flâneurs. It sometimes seems as if the entire city is populated with them. And while they strolled, they observed and while they observed, some of them took notes. Sherlock Holmes once said to Watson ‘you see but you do not observe’. Most of us just ‘see’, most of the time.
The extraordinary slides imperceptibly into the commonplace, gliding past our consciousness as if non-existent, or it only existed as a fleeting, half-remembered impression, instantly forgotten. What colour was the coat the woman was wearing? What was curious about the dog across the road? Why did the man in the car seem to be waiting too long before turning?
Writers sometimes sit in cafés, watching. They fleetingly devise scenarios, stories about the people that pass them, who never notice that they are there. The mental filing cabinet fills with thoughts and ideas. It’s easier with individuals. An impression crystallises almost instantly, a collection of information about gait, facial expression, dress and a multitude of non-verbal signals which are assembled at lightning speed, the limbic and reptilian brain assessing threat, fear, anger or desire.
By way of explanation, I was turned loose in the city yesterday for a little bit of flânerie and found myself sitting at the interface between two arrondissements, drinking coffee. There was noise across the street. Several men, Afro-Caribbean in appearance, were talking loudly amongst themselves. Arms were waving, fingers being pointed and a few pushes and shoves exchanged. To Western eyes, this looked close to the breakout of a violent, possibly drug-fuelled confrontation. Very few stopped to watch. Parisians don't. After a few minutes, as swiftly as it had started, all was quiet. People went their separate ways.

I found myself wondering what were the circumstances that led to the small window of events that I had witnessed. Possibilities flitted ephemerally through my mind before I just filed it all away in the mental lockup. One of these days, I might pull all the files out of the filing cabinet, put them all together and call it a novel.