Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bathtime with Caligula

I think I am a truly awful writer. "No, no!" I hear my fan cry, a lone voice in a welter of disinterest. Satire is the last refuge of moral cowardice and although I wear its white feather with, if not pride, a certain carefully constructed and entirely false modesty, there are those more luminous than I who drape themselves in a positively overwhelming feather boa of white, like enthusiastic Gay Pride participants. David Sedaris is a case in point.  Sedaris is Garrison Keillor's evil twin: like him, Sedaris  focuses on the icy patches that tend to trip one up on life's treacherous sidewalks, though the ice in his work is much more slippery and the falls much more spectacularly funny than in Keillor's. Many of his short essays which appeared originally in the New Yorker, Esquire and elsewhere deal with his father, Lou, which leads me to suppose that In order to be successful one must have had a spectacularly dysfunctional childhood. We have all come across a "Lou". Lou is a micromanager who tries to get his uninterested children to form a jazz combo and, when that fails, insists on boosting David's career as a performance artist by heckling him from the audience. Sedaris suggests that his father's punishment for being overly involved in his kids' artistic lives is David's brother Paul, otherwise known as "The Rooster," a semi-literate ne'er-do-well whose language is outrageously profane. Sedaris also writes about the time he spent in France and the difficulty of learning another language. I think I know how he felt. After several extended stays in a little Norman village and in Paris, Sedaris had progressed, he observes, "from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. 'Is thems the thoughts of cows?' I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window." But in English, Sedaris is nothing if not nimble: in one essay he goes from his cat's cremation to his mother's in a way that somehow manages to remain reverent to both of the departed. "Reliable sources" have told Sedaris that he has "tended to exhaust people". One reviewer spewed his pastrami sandwich all over his desk after reading a Sedaris essay, in fits of almost incontinent mirth. I wonder if they say the same about me. I think I'd take it as a compliment.
The title of this post has no relevance to anything whatsoever.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ecclesiastes 12:12 - Again

..for the writing of many books is 
(carrying on being) 

Indeed so. The BBC reckons that the average reader won't have read more than six of these, which list has been floating around on the Net since the Guardian article marking World Book day in 2007.

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible (all of it)
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger 
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma -Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Inferno - Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - E.B. White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad 
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas 
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl 
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

I'm less interested in sharing how many I've read - I don't really think that you get an A* for quantity; I'm much more interested in finding out how the selection was made and in the intervening three years, would any new kids on the block have the literary muscle to displace any of the current postholders on this (rather wobbly) ladder of fame.
I think this rather longer list is much better however, as long as I have a few years left crawling the earth like a superannuated cockroach waiting for the end. Alternatively a long prison sentence would provide me with about the right length of time to get through them all.
The image is of a Gutenberg Bible. 
[Stupid link: Johannes Gutenberg is credited with marketing a periscope, so the faithful could see over the crowds at religious festivals. In 1430 something. Which was so long ago that nobody cares; perhaps this is why nothing on the list except Shakespeare and the Bible is more than two hundred years old. Shame, really]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Studies in Theology

The Pope's pronouncements rarely go unremarked. His latest on condom use by male prostitutes is a marvellously  obscure theological exercise in ambiguity, which has had everyone from the UN to Oprah hopping up and down wondering what he actually meant. 
In contrast, SPCK is promoting an Advent course from the pastor of a Baptist Church in Nevada City which is refreshingly simple. It begins with a full-frontal exegesis of Luke's account of the Annunciation, using 'virgin' in its most customary modern form. Ah. OK. I was reminded of my first days at a (remarkably liberal) theological college with its “professional approach”, distinguishing between “official theology” (the production of church institutions, like Rome), “ordinary theology” (the reflection of virtually all believers), and “professional-academic theology.” The purpose of academic theology is to mediate constructively and critically between the other two flavours. In order to do this, academic theology should distance itself from both church and academy; “systematic theology must necessarily be a bit of an outsider in both the church and the university if it is to contribute fruitfully to the quest for greater understanding of the Christian faith.” OK, That lets me in, then, because I’m nowhere near an understanding of whether the virgin birth was an historical and biological fact but I do think it has immense doctrinal value. I think  that the concept of Jesus as the “Son of God” does not depend on the doctrine of the virgin birth; on the contrary, the stories of a virgin birth depend wholly on the Christian community’s prior faith in Jesus as the “Son of God.” The Biblical narrative tends to suggest that we  put the cart before the horse. Students of theology, however, the ‘Queen of sciences’ are notorious for their arrogance and are sometimes thought by non-theologians to be subject to delusional states who are entirely able to put whatever spin is most appropriate or relevant to the audience on everything from Jonah’s whale (one theologian described it as ‘a pub’) to the role of angels.   If you’ve ever fancied  flirting with the Queen, the following should be enough to put you off. With thanks and apologies for shameless plagiarism to Ben Myers.

     1. As a theological student, your aim is to accumulate opinions – as many as you can, and as fast as possible. (Exceptional students may acquire all their opinions within the first few weeks; others require rather longer.) One of the best ways to collect opinions is to choose your theological group (“I shall be progressive,” or “I will be evangelical,” or “I am a Barthian”, even “I can spell “Schleiermacher”), then sign up to all the opinions usually associated with that social group. If at first you don’t feel much conviction for these new opinions, be patient: within months you will be a staunch advocate, and you’ll even be able to help new students acquire the same opinions.

2. At the earliest possible opportunity you should also form an opinion about your favourite theological discipline: that is, you should choose your specialisation. To communicate this choice to others, you should dismiss as trivial or irrelevant all other disciplines: the systematic theologian should teach him (or her) self to utter humorous , disparaging remarks about the worth of “practical” theology, while the New Testament student should learn to hold forth emphatically on the dangers of systematic theology; and so on.

3. As far as possible, you should try to avoid all non-theological interests or pursuits. All your time and energy should be invested in reading important books and discussing important ideas. (Novels, TV and video games in particular should be avoided, as they are notorious time-wasters; they furnish you with faster reflexes but no new opinions.)

4. Every successful theological student must master the proper vocabulary. All theological conversations should be peppered with these termini technici (e.g. “Only a demythologised Barthian ontology can subvert the différance of postmodern theory and re-construe the analogia entis in terms of temporal mediation”). The less comprehensible and more sibylline the sentence uttered, the better. There are some stock-in-trade terms that are de rigueur (e.g. perichoresis, imago Dei, Heilsgeschichte - I actually remember what this means -  even a load of Bullsgeschichte), but the really outstanding student should find creative ways to deploy a wide range of foreign polysyllabic words. Phrases of Latin, Greek or German derivation are particularly prized. (Those of Hebrew of Syriac extraction should be used more sparingly – they are usually greeted with some puzzlement, or with cries of “Gesundheit!”)

5. Now that you’re a theological student, you will discover that the world is filled with people who – incomprehensibly - don’t share your new opinions. Every conversation should thus be viewed as an opportunity to persuade others of their simple-mindedness and to convert them to a better understanding. If you’re feeling shy about this, you should start by practising on your family and closest friends. They won’t mind. Honestly. And it’s not always necessary to engage in a full-blown discussion; at times a single Latin term or a knowing smirk is all that’s required to demolish another person’s argument.

6. Were you raised in a conservative Christian family? If so, your theological education provides you with the perfect opportunity for rebellion. The benefits of theological rebellion should not be underestimated: rejecting all your parents’ religious opinions allows you both to assert your independence and to imply that your parents are backward and naïve. In this respect, theological education can be every bit as effective as smoking cannabis or moving in with your girl or boyfriend: but without all the bad smells.

7. Every true theologian is an avid collector of books. The day you became a theological student, you entered a race to amass a personal library larger and more impressive than those of your peers. Books should be acquired as quickly and as indiscriminately as possible; second-hand books are even better, since they give the appearance of having been read, which can save you a great deal of time.

8. When you are asked to preach, you should take the opportunity to display the advantages of theological education. Every good sermon should quote the words of some great theologian; even better, a “great German theologian”. Don't forget, pronouncing "Barth" as in the English "Bath" is absolutely correct. Saying "Bart" as in "Simpson" will surely provoke titters of amusement from an enlightened congregation. And the phrase “the original Greek says…” should be used sparingly but effectively – perhaps just eight or nine times in a sermon. The church will surely ask you back. Frequently.

9. The goal of theological education is a good career: preferably an academic career, although in some cases you might have to settle for pastoral ministry (or worse, a regular job). It’s never too early to get your career on track: every essay, every conversation with a professor, every question you ask in class – these are the opportunities to show the professor how deeply you share their opinions, and how superior your own insights are to those of your classmates. In all circumstances you should revere, admire and emulate your professors. Even if they are neither wise nor virtuous, your goal is to become their perfect reflection, mirroring back to them their own opinions, preferences and prejudices. To show that you are the professor’s true protégé: this is the beginning of wisdom, and the bedrock of any good career.

10. Under no circumstances should you resort to old-fashioned pieties like daily prayer and Bible-reading. There are far too many important things to be thinking about, and far too many important things to be reading. Church attendance is acceptable, however, since it gives you the opportunity of improving your pastor’s theological education.

I wonder if Pastor might appreciate my thoughts. Er..

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Pleasures of the Queue

No. I won’t. I will not queue to see Harry Blotter and the Ghastly Shallows Part The First accompanied by squeaking juveniles in winter dishdashas. Even if it is in 3D IMAX. At the 360 Mall. At least the queue was well-behaved, shuffling obediently forward for the 2.30 showing. Unlike the despicable events in the queue at the US premiere.  

That barometer of taste and decency, Holy Moly, put it so well…

As hundreds of fans queued up for a stupid amount of time for tonight's premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one man got a bit too excited and got arrested for exposing himself to the young girls in the queue. It was made all the odder by him looking like a wizard, which was probably all part of his devious plan.

Ah. Excellent. I myself was several thousand miles away, thus cannot be held responsible.

It's probably too obvious to suggest that he'd turned up looking for his wand to go Slytherin' up a wizard's sleeve, (oh, please...)or that he may have Genital Hogwarts, or (That's enough of that - Ed) Obviously this a creepy and despicable act, but I loved the fact that he looks EXACTLY like a baddy from Harry Potter and whilst I certainly wouldn't wish a pervert like this on young people... Some of them really are old enough to know better.

I was tempted to add an image at this point, but the perpetrator looked uncomfortably like me. Except for the nose and the eyes.

It's quite a puzzle to me since I still find myself creeping back to Hogwart’s in moments of (minor) crisis, wondering which character I most resemble. Is it Grumblebore or Griphook the Goblin? I think Harry’s wandwork is so much more orchestral in the books and seeing him fizzling Death Eaters and other associated crepuscular organisms is much less riveting than reading about it. And, no, I didn't go, so if you were expecting a witty and well-crafted review, there's a million of them on the Net. I shall wait until the froth has subsided and good seats are obtainable in the Bachelor’s Section. The Gipsy laughed at me. I shall go alone, much as Lisa Marie Presley ought to have done. She's the one on the right.

Much as I am certain to derive some quietly expressed amusement from the flying broomsticks, I do think my tastes are a little subtler these days. Russian Kusmi tea from Paris and Nespresso coffee. Passing the Nespresso shop in the 360 prompted a look at this. GC and JM, plus a couple of hotties. Oh, yeah.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Red Poppies Dance

Fresh perspectives illuminate ancient truths. Not being a liturgy junkie, faint whiffs of it are enough to bring me out in hives, but I have to admit to almost pleasant surprise the other day when reading some friends’ blog on symbology in worship. One rather creative and really quite powerful element in one of their meetings was an invitation to join with two others with three pieces of rope. Participants then tied the ropes together, helping each other to make the knots fast, symbolically joined in agreement in prayer. 

Billy Graham used to tell them ‘I want you all to get out of your seats…’. Brownsville encouraged ‘running to the mercy seat’. Whether or not one flies with the notion of a clear-cut, Damascus Road conversion or more like the little man in the tree, the idea of symbolic commemoration is both Biblical and (dare I speak the word) attractive, it would seem, to the human spirit.

Tomorrow being Remembrance Day, millions of poppies are sold worldwide – almost a liturgy of sorrow, perhaps. The fact that we tend to clothe it with ‘acts of worship’ seems to me – many disagree, I know, so no need to comment – to gild an already bloodstained lily. So, what about a liturgy of joy and consecration which is equally meaningful and thus can be celebrated? In the same series of meetings, new believers were encouraged to go and stand near one of the many mirrors surrounding the hall and, with a red marker, draw a bold red cross through their own image, symbolic of “I no longer, but he who dwells in me”. I couldn’t quite see myself doing it but, wow, I so wish I’d thought of it myself.

Wingless in Gaza

Doubtless it will come as something of a relief to hear that for a while I have had little to say. Or, at least, little to blog about. Recently, I have written about the juxtaposition of Guy Fawkes and religion elsewhere, pointing out that a predisposition for violence and destruction is not confined to cave-dwellers in the mountains of Northern Waziristan, but surfaces in historical narrative with the frequency of facial boils.
It came as a surprise to hear a piece on the World Service today about a man with a trip-hammer intellect, rated as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. Naïf Al-Mutawa is a psychologist and entrepreneur, who also happens to be a friend's boss. The voice was remarkably young-sounding, attractive and articulate, Obama in a dishdasha, almost. He is the creative intellect behind “The 99” comics where interfaith dialogue reaches new heights as the '99' superheroes named after the names of Allah collaborate, share superpowers and problem-solve the Islamic way with the likes of Superman and Batman,  giving the bad guys a hiding. Excellent, stylish, conceptually almost brilliant and apart from a rather Charlton Heston look about the characters, very timely. Fresh eyes frequently bring enlightenment to otherwise jaded palates, and apart from a little local difficulty with the Saudis for whom such frivolity verges on the blasphemous, the concept has marketing wings, it would seem.
"I insisted on the relationship starting out as distrust between both sides of superheroes,” Al-Mutawa said. "The characters will realize that their mutual suspicions empower the real nemesis. “It will only be through trust that the bad guys are going to be beaten.”
Impressive spin indeed. It does seem rather a shame that Hamas and all the rest of the lunatic fringe seem not to read many comics.