Saturday, December 31, 2011

Food At Year's End

New Year’s Eve can be quite a major deal here. People go out to friends, getting invited, dependent on who is doing the cooking. Ah. It would seem we are eight, sorry, nine for dinner tonight, rising to thirteen or more for dessert. Provisional menu herewith, written out by hand by chef for the purpose of instructing various minions, but, things change on a whim. The saucisson brioche has been made from  The Porcine Beast of Which We Do Not Speak (no, best not ask...) and tastes rich  and muscular. Those who pray might like to offer something powerful to the gods who control whether or not dishwashers malfunction at crucial moments. As the year closes, I find myself asking if the (pseudo)scientific Mayan folklore detailing the end of b'akt'un 13, or, if you like, the final wrap about a year from now will be heralded by voice recognition software (the next big thing - SIRI is light years ahead so far for those with an iPhone 4s) or if we'll all still be eating potatoes in duck fat, just like tonight.

Books At Year's End

It is almost impossible to be blasé about Paris, even when skies are patchwork grey and rain threatens. The city has a life and breath of its own, tourists notwithstanding. A half hour from home is rue de Rivoli where WH Smiths, une bouffée d’Anglais, nestles almost cheek by jowl with one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the Crillon whose website gives no indication of the cost involved to walk through its hallowed portals. Dressed in Ralph Lauren, I felt like a pauper when taking this photograph. A little adroit navigation around the tourist traps reveals English books– blessedly uncensored – it seems that people do actually read these days, abundant and hot off the press. Bespectacled bibliophiles are thumbing languidly, myself among them. A word or two exchanged speaks volumes. A prize unavailable under burning suns is seized.  Rue St Honoré  runs parallel and one can find pairs of socks for only 50 euros. Amongst other things.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hedgehogs with Buggies

The Greek poet Archilochus was one of the first to focus on human emotions and personal experience. He wrote “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Those who write and think view their world in one of two ways – hedgehogs who look at things in terms of one great defining idea, like Plato, Pascal and Nietzsche, or foxes who draw threads of experience together and for whom the world can’t be reduced to one single idea,  people like Aristotle, Shakespeare and James Joyce. The Amish are hedgehogs. A British reality show ‘Living with the Amish’ follows six British teenagers from a variety of backgrounds as they stay at five different Amish settlements from Pennsylvania to Ohio, cataloguing the responses of both their hosts and themselves when subjected to a regime of Benedictine severity. Clothed separately by each denomination – on their arrival they looked about as out of place as a stripper at the Eucharist, bereft of iPads, phones and the trappings of modern Western civilization, they were made to get up for milking at five, help with a barn raising – yes, the entire structure is assembled by hand - and learn the simple Biblical structures which underpinned each household they visited. I don’t often find myself caught up by reality shows, but this was a quite engaging experience. 
One had no choice but to attempt to measure the purity of one’s own Biblical interpretations against the clarity and straightforwardness of the kindly but firm Amish hosts. One thing plumblined their lives. The Word of God.  As written in the King James Bible. Full stop. No clever exegesis, no wriggling out of the awkward bits. There was a clear-eyed innocence about each of the families and their many children which was really quite touching. Amish children are homeschooled until fourteen, then work in family businesses; the contrasts were stark. Deliberately. The quiet Etonian, a rich, spoiled brat, a loud, black Cambridge undergraduate, an ex- foster kid in need of a father figure – all were received thoughtfully and the Amish gave more that they knew. One sensed clever editing – the British responses were careful never to offend, perhaps in deference to the Amish habit of weighing words carefully. Would that we could all learn to do the same, how much simpler diplomacy might become.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fictional Morality

I sometimes find myself in what might be described as a blogging cycle. On one hand, light, upbeat - even frivolous. On the other, when something wrenches guts hard enough, a meatier, sugar-free post, rather like today's. 
People often admire literary intellect, irrespective of expressed moral view and the notion gains credence that excellent facility with prose in some way excuses sins. Christopher Hitchens, the champion of vitriolic atheism has left this world, perhaps to discover that most of his tightly reasoned theories about God, the afterlife and the permanence of the soul have been set at naught. His style was excoriating and passionate, some might argue grossly offensive, even repellent - in his own words he once remarked that he 'ought to carry with him some sort of rectal thermometer', presumably to measure how rapidly he was turning into an old fart. The influence of such writers on popular culture, the axis of leverage which they are able to command over the mind of the reader is almost impossible to calculate. I was seduced, but not captivated. 
I don’t believe that the humanities are necessarily humane - in other words, shape our moral perceptions for good rather than evil. Indeed, I would go further: I think it more than conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text diminishes the sharpness  of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart. The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fiction, consequently the cry in the poem may come to sound louder and  more urgent than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Is there, I wonder, a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential for personal inhumanity? As we succumb more and more to the fantasy of aesthetics, we fail to realise that the moral plumblines keeping us upright have been twisted into grotesque, unrecognisable shapes. Thus, the more aesthetically refined we imagine that we have become, the more our internal moral structures decay until we become a satyr, a Dorian Gray.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Carols on Speed

The last twenty four hours have been catchup. Apart from a Skype call to NZ, (ain't Skype wonderful, especially when it's legal), an old friend from the Friends was in town in transit to San Francisco and we snatched a fast cafe or two together in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower before I headed for Bobino and he for Brussels.
The new churches don't often do Christmas very well. Anglicans - especially Anglo-Catholics can get into the groove of welcoming the annual churchgoer who shows up at Christmastime. They get to sing a few carols while sober and listen to Nine Lessons which is as efficient a way of evangelising the heathen as any, I suppose, since they get the whole panorama of prophecy and fulfilment in a few easily digestible bitesize chunks, accompanied by choirs, candles and christingles. OK then. What about the New Churches? For them, doing stuff out of the book is a bit like asking Herod to babysit. It doesn't sit comfortably with them, since carol singing is quite a traditional art form and that's usually the last item on their agenda. Fetching up at Bobino earlier than usual, the sight of a full orchestra - with a drummer - playing the old faves, came as something of a surprise. The meeting started proper half an hour earlier than normal, miraculously on time and was billed as the Christmas Service. For once, I didn't feel like the Oldest Member - some of the congregation had brought parents with them, I suppose. It was instructive to listen to what a group of creative people can do with some quite traditional music. 'O Come, All Ye Faithful" rebranded as "O Come Let Us Adore Him" was, to be honest, quite breathtaking. Have a listen...Search on the site for the track. Yeah, OK, I bought the album. new this year, called 'Born To Be King". Brendan White was on fire and the crowd loved it. Including me. The place was tricked out with fake snow and big polystyrene snowflakes which surprisingly enough didn't look at all tacky. The final set finished off with a group of clearly professional dancers, topped out by a Billy Elliott type with some spectacular classical ballet moves. As Christmas services go, this one was right up there...Lovely.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Peeping Bosons

Those who follow this blog know that from time to time I like to think a bit about physics, so it comes as no surprise that I make comment today on that faint aroma, that cloud the size of a man’s fingernail, that shrug of eternity, the Higgs. Few of us, myself included, have an intimate working knowledge of that ultimate racetrack-cum-wrecking-ball , the Large Hadron Collider about which I have written elsewhere, the worker bees who drive it  yesterday announced that they “might have found something”.  So far, it’s nothing more than a twinkle in the eye of God, but we live, as always, in hope.
Nevertheless, despite such earth-shattering news (pun intended), I am irritated. Those who know me realise that this is merely a façade, concealing a sunny urbane interior, but it is surely not beyond the pronunciation skills of the least literate BBC journalist to pronounce its name correctly. We get ‘ bozen’, ‘bosun’, even more improbably, ‘bozone’. It’s BOH-ZON, people. Do try to get it right.
Fearful and even wonderful

My A level class know about bosons. We talk about them a lot. Not the Higgs, I have to say, it’s a bit exotic even for us. For those unfamiliar, a boson is an exchange particle. Imagine two battleships firing cannon at each other. The guns, hence ships recoil as the guns are fired, representing the repulsive force between two protons, let’s say, in close proximity. As they do so, they exchange gunfire in the form of explosive shells. The shells are the ‘exchange particles’. To see a little animation, have a look here. Not difficult so far and all the other bosons have lost their virginity to the rapacious onslaughts of particle accelerators. Except the Higgs, which might have been peeping out the other day. Unfortunately, if we take it a few steps further we find ourselves enmeshed in labyrinthine gauge field theory and other exotica beyond my limited intelligence. Simply put, however, the Higgs confers mass on the building blocks of matter (quarks and leptons) and the mass of something is a measure of its resistance to being pushed around. Now, there’s something we can all understand.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tree of Life

Yggdrasil - the Norse Tree of the World

Someone once remarked that cinema has become the new religion, with sacraments and doctrines. High-profile hits such as “The King's Speech “or “Inception” inspire followings so devoted that disparaging remarks are seen as heresy. To criticise is to cast aspersions on someone's fundamental beliefs, the very core of their existence, like a religious war in which neither side will tolerate the other's gods, or lack the of them. Terrence Malick [Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005)] collected the Palme d'Or in Cannes with 'The Tree of Life' which people either loved or hated.  A few walked out on first screening of this vast, cosmic landscape upon which, if we choose, we can write our own narrative. To binarise the film in terms of a Beavis and Butthead 'cool or sucks', 'like or dislike', misses the point. It has been described as emotionally thin, American faux-angst, faux-reflection, taking longer and longer to say less and less. This too misses the point. Saying less is the whole idea. This is not a spectacle, it's an interactive experience on a galactic scale. It evokes deep childhood resonances and intimate memory echoes – down to Beatrix Potter and hosepipes on summer afternoons, slowly drawing us to the central themes of innocence and loss. Brad Pitt is the embittered, tyrannical and unfulfilled father who once dreamed of becoming a great musician, trying to teach his sons that the way to worldly success lies in aggressive pursuit of perfection. Mother, (Jessica Chastain), believably saintly, offers the reverse paradox of Job, presenting us with a typology of goodness without reward.
The boys are encouraged to respect the violence of their father and secretly despise their mother's gentleness, so that fear and love fuse in uneasy and strange paradox. The film contains bizarre symphonic passages of non-narrative spectacle, vast Hubble galactic images, impossibly high waterfalls, prehistoric jungles, Kubrick writ large. Most strange was the wounded dinosaur lying prostrate and helpless beside a river while another dinosaur comes along, plants its great foot on the other's neck before moving heedlessly on. Is this the only message of the universe – pure survival? But then how is it we seem to want something other than survival? What do we want to survive for?
Five big stars. A masterpiece.

Monday, December 05, 2011


Odd, isn't it. I was invited to attend a 'bible study' recently. I have to confess, I'm not much of a one for 'study' as people most readily perceive it since adults should not be admitted to bible studies unless accompanied by a child because adults can't be trusted to rightly divide the word of truth. Without my usual banging on about it, the study in question was around the lectionary readings, Advent Two Year B yielding Isaiah 40  which always reminds me of the incomparable tenor solo from Messiah  -  followed by Second Peter with its interminably tedious wrangling about authorship. No doubt it represents the faith and the teaching of Peter the apostle, but it probably came to a later generation who were troubled by the delay they had experienced in waiting for Jesus to return. You see. I'm doing it myself. Forgeddit, argue about something important  - like the central message of patience. The Gospel is from Mark - the Baptist echoing a patient wait for one to come.
Almost in spite of myself, I was drawn to this theme. There's an old Bedouin practice where honey is collected by storing the combs vertically in muslin bags so that the honey can drip with infinite slowness through the muslin. When tempted to squeeze the bag to increase the flow rate one should be aware that if the honey is forced through the muslin it ends up streaked, valueless and lacking in purity. H'm.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Islands in the Sand

Living here one learns to make allowances. Accommodations, if you will. 'Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity' is a maxim which if applied reduces choler, leeching and the risk of acute myocardial infarction.
On this, a bright, sunny Saturday morning with a refreshing nip in the air, I left home in bonhomous mood to run an errand or two. Upon my return, I found myself marooned in an island of sand. Since leaving home, a battalion of gigantic earth-moving behemoths had arrived, unbidden, kindly fenced off the approach road to my apartment block for several hundred metres in every direction and were industriously engaged in tearing up vast swathes of desert. I approached with caution, looking for the obvious entrance which  had surely been left for residents and which, in a senior moment, I must have overlooked. Locking the four-wheel drive, I circled, my emotional temperature rising. When at length I seriously considered the possibility of ramming one of the flimsy roped off fences and driving through it, it was clear to me that I was becoming homicidal. I got out of my car, wishing I had a weapon. One of the digger drivers with remarkable courage, perhaps, approached me, swathed like a mujaheddin in Ray-Bans and stood on the rope while I drove over it. His reward will be in heaven.
I have yet to discover how exactly other residents are overcoming this problem. When the great detective once wrote that 'the impossible has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks', I was sure I knew what he meant. No shit, Sherlock...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Circles and Almonds

The person on the left once wrote that 'loneliness is the most terrible poverty'.
Some are, like me, perhaps, by accident or design, more comfortable loners than others. Which is not to say that they never feel lonely. Of course they do, sometimes achingly so. When in the company of friends often after an absence, there's a temptation to overreact in a social setting, to re-establish kinship, place and order.
Perhaps we all have some kind of continuum of interaction which those who live together slip into comfortably, a kind of 'vesica piscis', if you will. For those unfamiliar with this - literally a 'fish-bladder,' it's the intersection of two circles with the same radius so that the centre of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. The Italian name is 'mandorla' or 'almond'.
There's a beautiful, almost mystical clarity about this shape with  its height to width radius of the square root of 3. 
Playing arbitrarily with numbers, 153 happens to be the number of fish apparently caught in the miraculous catch in John 21 and consists of the sum of one squared, one triangular and one circular number (100+28+25) Evagrius of Pontus wrote a treatise on prayer consisting of 153 separate thoughts for this reason. Medieval illuminated scripts enclosed Christ in Majesty within a mandorla, the cover of the Well at Glastonbury is decorated with one, and both freemasonry and the Church of Scotland make use of it in their emblems. For earthier New Age philosophers, the resemblance to the female genitalia is more than coincidental.
Returning to a relational theme, what happens when this balance is disturbed? Both circles become warped. If the diameter is too small, one circle will become isolated with respect to the other - we all know marriages which have drifted so far apart that the central diameter and hence the aperture is almost non-existent. On the other hand, if the circles overlap too much, one circle becomes the other, a personality becomes so subsumed into the other that, like Siamese twins, one must be sacrificed.

No significance whatever is implied. Turbulent thoughts, lacking streamlined logic when captured momentarily, throw up curiously concatenated ideas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blither and Rant

Only someone who doesn’t know the first thing about religion imagines that the answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” is either informative or interesting.

Enough is enough. Attacking the New Atheists is like shooting a man who is giving himself a lethal injection.
Reserve Cluster

The discussion on children continues in the Church of England. Should they or should they not receive something more than an avuncular pat on the head when accompanying parents to the Table?  Some, espousing the 'muddle way', give the kids grapes when they come to the table. Red grapes presumably, and seedless (Health and Safety). Does the vicar eat all the unconsumed grapes, I wonder? In which case they will give them all wind producing squadrons of flatulent ten-year olds plus the vicar during the quiet bits. Also, is there a Reserved Cluster?  Perhaps we could give the kids raisins instead. But why Communion only in one kind? Why not  use Raisin Bran - you get both elements in one mouthful. Hell, why not give the kids a bowl of cereal with the added eucharistic symbolism of milk and honey? Breakfast on Jesus. And, why not?

“I share your pain” carries about the same weight of sincerity and conviction to a bereaved person as “I know how you feel: I lost my iPhone last week.” 

What’s the difference between a contemporary funeral and a major defeat for a sports team? Public expressions of grief are acceptable in the latter; the former have to be “celebrations”.

It is as sacrilegious to listen to music while you’re running as it is to chew gum while you’re praying. And vice-versa. No toilet jokes here, please.

Concerning online Bibles. The day is soon coming when preachers will say: “If you have a mobile phone please turn it on. Your text for this morning is …And no games during the sermon, please…” The new index of spirituality is not how big and well-thumbed your Bible is, instead it’s whether your iPad boots faster than a Galaxy Tab.

Of course the British government wants to hand over schools to the private sector to turn out capable professionals and supine consumers. Perish the thought of education as the midwifery of an interrogative citizenry. Whitehall and the City live by deceit; the last thing they want to encourage is bullshit detection. Dumbing-down is not a tragedy, it’s a strategy.

Patriotism has moved up in the housing market since the days of  Dr Johnson: it is now the second refuge of the scoundrel. After Wall Street and the Bank of England.

With thanks to KF. All theological perversions mine.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Le Cochon de Gaza

Given the title, I think it’s rather unlikely that this one will make the Kuwaiti cinema screens. When Jafaar, a Palestinian fisherman, finds a live Vietnamese pot bellied pig in his net, one senses trouble from the outset. From this simple premiss, working on a shoestring budget, debuting director Sylvain Estibal serves up a political parable with a complex yet warm satirical bite. The film is determined to debunk Arab-Israeli differences with plenty of in-jokes on both sides. The action is set on the eve of Israel's voluntary disengagement from Gaza in 2005, although the chronology is deliberately a little vague.
The pig's arrival complicates life for Jafaar, who is desperate to stay out of trouble. One is never quite sure whether he fears his wife more than the authorities and after his early panic – he has, after all, never seen a pig in the flesh - first attempts to hide it from his wife and then offload it onto a choleric German United Nations official. Subsequently, he is persuaded by his local barber to gain some commercial advantage from this unexpected windfall. He proposes to sell it to Yelena, a young Russian-Jewish farm worker with whom he communicates through a wire fence. She insists that what she needs is not the pig itself but its sperm for pig-breeding purposes.
Cue a series of sperm-related gags, including Miss Piggy pinups and a Palestinian policeman who confiscates Jafaar's flask and quaffs its contents, taking it to be medication when in fact it is the results of the pig's pleasuring, with Jafaar’s help, wearing a pair of pink Marigold’s to prevent contamination by the unclean beast. The entire theatre fell about at this point, along with the gag where Jafaar ashamedly tries to persuade a ten year old boy to buy Viagra for the pig to increase its output. The gloves come off when local Islamist militants, learning of Jafaar's activities, accuse him of siding with the enemy on the grounds that the pigs Yelena is breeding are used for demeaning purposes. They seize Jafaar and the pig, ineffectually disguised as a sheep, who find themselves pencilled in as suicide bombers, both being fitted with dynamite waistcoats. All however ends well and both Jafaar and the pig survive, miraculously.
Both Arab and Israeli sides are relentlessly skewered, which impartiality makes the film gentle and rolling with a keen eye for the absurd, both class and racial disparities being equally lampooned. In Arabic, Hebrew and English with French subtitles. Loved it.

The Deserving

Anagram - 4 Request Armchair
Any prophetic nerve-endings I have resonated in deep foreboding this last week. The “Occupy” protest drones on, many protesters simply crying ‘foul’ with no clear idea of the rules, with ethical fluff from the Church – bishops who are losing the argument invariably turn to prayer. 
The guilds system on which the City was originally based has been hijacked by the buccaneers, the free market thinkers, rogue traders and others whom most consider undeserving of the largesse heaped upon them. Eye-popping bonuses and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice is brought about by the illusion of skill over and above that possessed by ordinary, hence poorer, mortals.

Lead trumps?
If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves – that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive – are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself  with skills you don’t have with outcomes for which you weren't responsible. Many of those who are rich today got there because they found themselves in a position to capture certain jobs. Without sour grapes, this owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.

The findings of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, prick the financial high-fliers' balloons. He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years and found that the consistency of their performance was zero. "The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill." Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers throughout Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. I have often asked myself whether my boss is possessed of superior intelligence, judgment and  vision or did they get there through a combination of luck, bluff and bullshit.

In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated.
From the outside
On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses' scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders. The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for. Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people. Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects. Consistently, team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, hence psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. The conclusion is straightforward.  If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you're likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you're likely to go to business school.
Bishop of London and banker
What, I wonder, should the Church be saying? To my surprise, the Vatican has issued via its Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace a document suggesting the creation of a new global authority empowered to make economic decisions for the common good rather than individual national interest.  In keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, which advocates always dealing with problems at the lowest, most local level of authority possible, such an authority should intervene in global matters only when “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.” 
Oh, dear.  Why are small shivers running down my spine?

Monday, November 07, 2011


Google and I have something in common. We are both celebrating an anniversary. I share the day I last had a drink with Marie Curie's birthday, although to be honest I did have other things on my mind on the November day when, with trembling hands, I finally waved farewell to Uncle Jack Daniels and all his friends.
Maria Sklodowska toiled her way through the Sorbonne by working as a nanny and tutor. I too find myself nannying children through examinations, but do not, it has to be admitted, stand any chance of being awarded not one but two Nobels. She won the first for physics shared with both her husband Pierre and her professor Henri Becquerel in 1903 for work on radioactivity, the second eight years later for chemistry for discovering radium and polonium and the pioneering work of isolation.  
Later, her researches exacted the ultimate price, she died from aplastic anaemia contracted from exposure to radiation. Its damaging effects were not then known; she worked in a shed without proper safety measures and carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark. When I first began to drink, I too had no idea that its effects would come so close to exacting the ultimate price from me also. I am grateful that it did not and that Jeremiah 29:11 has held firm for me. 
Nevertheless, I myself was awarded a prize which may go some way towards prolonging my life and increasing cardiac fitness. 
The accompanying card is too small to see, but like a microgram of radium, carries more weight.
The fat naked man is not I. Surprisingly.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Unusual Eid

Newly arrived from the desert, it's quite a change to be surrounded with culcha again. I had intended to return to Hillsong and made it with squeaking room to spare and almost twenty minutes late. The video link above is a little bit boisterous but, nonetheless shook a few cobwebs out; you get the idea.  People often write a  lot of hype about Brendan White's sermons being all over the place and lacking in focus - he's the guy who wanders onstage clutching a Bible half way through "God is Able" on the video - but he leads a young, vibrant, enthusiastic congregation with vision and can be forgiven for a few lapses in theological rigour. Not so this week; the litmus test of good preaching is that it tends to stay in one's thoughts and today was quite exceptional. Author of "The Call of God," Christian Robichaud who has a Quebecois accent and a worldwide ministry to the poor and dispossessed, was talking about the gift of faith and the fact that Abraham was considered to have been perfected in it. I left a little early to rendezvous with Gipsy who had a few errands to run, then remembered I wanted to get the live DVD, so popped back in - they do hang about for ever, these Church types - and almost tripped over Brendan and the guest speaker in the foyer. Brendan said "I've seen you before, haven't I?" Since I had not met him before and hadn't set foot in the place for almost three months, I thought this no mean feat and since we found ourselves in conversation I told him that I had probably travelled further than anybody else to be at the meeting and that my presence probably raised the average age by a couple of months. He laughed and slapped me on the back in a brotherly, Antipodean kind of way. It was interesting too, that the guest speaker was quite unaware that it was Eid al Adha, the festival which commemorates the sacrifice of Isaac. I remarked that there might have been a stray Muslim or two in the crowd who needed to hear it.

I hadn't explored south-east Paris before so a trip to Bercy Village was a novelty. Bercy was inhabited over four thousand years ago, according to the many wood and stone artefacts found locally. More recently, it became a winery and storehouse, barrels arriving by boat were stored in the cellars of Bercy before onward transport to the capital. With many original architectural features intact, it's now a chic little shopping mall with New York burger houses amidst more traditional restaurants. 

A wander in the Parc de Bercy was a welcome open space - the grass-walled Omnisports stadium on one side (Paul McCartney is playing there later this month) and the Cinemathèque Français on the other. Same architect (Frank Gehry) as the titanium covered Guggenheim in Bilbao, it's where the intellectuals go.

Paris is quite busy on a Sunday so rather than brave the crowds in le Marais, after having taken in an outdoor art exhibition near Montparnasse, we skipped out of town early and dropped in on friends - not a bad way to finish up the day. Gipsy's fish curry was really rather good, and the fresh pineapple flan would have been had she not attempted to toast it in the toaster, trying to remove the charred and smoking remains with the device still plugged in. I found myself having to be rather stern since the shock of seeing me hanging about again has clearly affected her judgement.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

I Don't Like Church

No protesters are shown. Dean and Chapter might object.

All too often, I find myself trying to think of an excuse for not going to church. I don’t like church. And I’ve finally figured out why. There are people there.
They mess up my intimacy with God. They arrive late, leave early, don’t turn off their mobile phones, sing tunelessly, can’t seem to keep themselves or their kids quiet, talk during the instrumental music, and pretty much ruin the entire worship experience for me.
I’m almost sure I could have a better encounter with God if I stayed at home. I’ve heard that many people – good, solid believers – are giving church a miss. And I sympathise with them increasingly.
There are other reasons I don’t like going to church. They do a lot of things there that just don’t float my boat. They are cosily nostalgic, singing appalling songs that I would have tipped overboard years ago. They might make announcements about Mums and Tots activities. Being neither a Mum nor a Tot, I’m not quite ready for that. They recruit for people to work in the Sunday School – aka the Children's Ministry (Noooo). They give reports about all kinds of things I've never heard of and they give updates about activities in parts of the world I really don’t care that much about.
In other words, church doesn’t meet my needs and it doesn’t centre around me.
Which is exactly why I need to go.
More than almost anything else, I need regular reminders that the world does not revolve around me. The more painful, inconvenient, cringe-making and bothersome the reminder, the more likely it is to unglue me from my oleaginous, self-absorbed adulation of me. All week long I can get away with self-concern. Most of the time, I get to make my own schedule, plan my own priorities, say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want, and, aside from some rare moments when good friends point all this narcissism out to me, I enjoy having me in the centre of my universe.
But then, Friday morning. Church counters all that. When I go to church, we start out with a time of praise, which reminds me that God is so much bigger than I am. We then move to a time of confession, which shakes me into remembering that I’m not as good as I think I am. And all those other people and announcements about stuff which is nothing to do with me shows me that I am not an island. Rather, whether I like it or not, I am part of a living organism with gifts, strengths, weaknesses, callings, and needs.
The image is of the other St Paul's which is learning hard lessons of its own at the moment.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Physics For Dogs

Don't interrupt me. I'm thinking...

When I am old I intend getting a dog. Perhaps a Braque Bleu; they have a thoughtful, theoretical look about them and a well-chosen one will keep me sprightly until well past my sell-by date. Should this become the case, I shall unfailingly buy my dog a new book which has had me burbling delightedly called "Physics for Dogs".  I spent a happy hour checking the accuracy of the formulae used in the text, which contained remarkably few errors.
Canines with only a rudimentary grasp of statics, dynamics and Newton's Laws of Motion can use some simple physics to master their corner of the universe. Savvy canines can learn, amongst other things:-

How to bring down the mailman with the correct ratio of stealth, stored potential energy and impulse (FaverageDt)

How to poo strategically, indoors and out, by understanding variable-mass systems and momentum conservation. Calculus required.

How to open any cupboard or bin using Newton's First Law of Motion.

How to successfully drink from the toilet without damage caused by an accelerating moment of the toilet seat.

How to play ‘fetch’ efficiently by calculating projectile velocity and maximum range - this requires a grasp of elementary trigonometry.

How to get out of a bath with or without your bather’s consent  by accurately compensating for friction between the rear paws and the bathtub.

All equations, free body diagrams and annotations are available in the text, together with useful estimates for such things as age-compensated velocity when owner throws a Frisbee and so forth.

More advanced canine students might like to learn about quantum tunnelling to reach the cat next door, but this will be beyond the reach of all but the most able.

I’ll try to pick a bright one.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dollars and Deals

This captured vulture was accused of spying for Mossad by the Saudi press,  but was later exonerated by a Saudi prince.
The AP published yesterday that a Saudi princeling has upped the offer of $100,000 for the capture of an Israeli soldier by a further $900,000 if used for the exchange of Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli jails. H'm. The Arab presses either print the article in its entirety without comment or tweet ravenously about the Saudi predisposition to play Devil's advocate dependent on who they perceive to be winning the propaganda war. Paying for jihad seems to some to be as repugnant as paying for indulgences, to others, a fair price to pay.
If those on the Eastern fringes of the Gulf do nothing else, they can make their considerable resources available to the footsoldiers engaged at the front line of the conflict with the hated enemy.  As a propaganda exercise, as the vultures gather,  it may very well backfire. 
Would that it were so simple.  Here's an alternative.
Some believe that the ties of the House of Saud to Tel Aviv have in recent years become increasingly visible and pervasive. A much-discussed secret Israeli-Saudi alliance may well exist within the context of a broader Khaliji-Israeli alliance formed through strategic cooperation between the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and the Arab sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf. Together Israel and the Khaliji ruling families form a frontline for Washington and NATO against Iran and its regional allies. The alliance also acts on behalf of Washington to destabilise the region, creating ethnic divisions between Arabs and Iranians, religious divisions between Muslims and Christians, and confessional divisions between Sunnis and Shiites relying upon uninformed public opinion to keep the snowball rolling, bloodstained, down the hill.  It is the “politics of division” or “fitna” that has also served to keep the Khaliji ruling families in power.  Israel and the Khaliji ruling families would not survive without the regional fitna. Iranophobia may have been used by the Khaliji ruling families, from the U.A.E. to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as a pretext for the repression of their own people, who are demanding basic freedoms and democratic rights in the sheikhdoms.

All this may very well have a ring of truth about it - the ideas are not new. It remains to be seen whether or not a few zealots in Gaza will attempt to take the bait, scoop the jackpot and suffer the consequences of their so doing. 

Meanwhile, one rocket on average per hour has been fired in the last thirty six hours from Gaza, in response to  the Israelis targeting a 'terrorist squad' in southern Gaza that was preparing to launch long-range rockets. Five Islamic Jihad militants were killed, including a senior commander of the Al-Quds brigade. 

The cost of raw materials for a Qassam IV rocket is about $500.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Theological blather

I get like this sometimes. Apart from Kim Fabricius' shortsightedness in his quite unaccountable affiliation to the United Reformed denomination - it is neither - his take on matters of the Name is occasionally insightful and often howling...
Kim, high five for these and my apologies for adding a twist of citrus of my own.

I have often thought that a fitting soteriological image, a symbol for the work of Christ, is the toilet.  Apart from the handle, which is an Arminian attachment.
(Sanctum sanctorum. Nothing wrong with that. Ed)

I see that in the new English translation of the Mass, the blood of Christ is shed not “for all” but “for many”, with the annotation that not everybody chooses to be saved. As if the reversion to exclusivity isn’t bad enough, it’s compounded by an Arminian gloss. What a muddle. Perhaps the next translation will go Calvinist with “for a few”. (That's enough. Ed)

Paul’s list of ecclesial vocations in I Corinthians 12 is not, of course, exhaustive. In the UK, for example, for the church’s common good, there must surely be a charisma for arson.
(Been there, done that, in an imaginary kind of a way. Shame about the frescoes. Ed)

Paul wrote that he was not “ashamed” of the gospel (Romans 1:16). Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find someone ashamed of anything. Embarrassed  perhaps, but not ashamed.
(Far too near the knuckle, even for me. The squirm factor of the street preacher in a baggy suit is too, too close to home. Ed)

J.B. Phillips wrote a famous little book called Your God Is Too Small. But isn’t the problem that many people’s God is too big? 
(What is this, Goldilocks? Ed)

If (following Stringfellow and Nouwen), the kingdom of God is like a circus, the kingdom of the world is like a zoo. True, a zoo is not “nature red in tooth and claw”, but that’s only because the animals are either grazing or sleeping. Except for the chimpanzees: they are either grooming or mooning.  Yep, that’s the world…
(I'd like it placed on record that this makes no reference to sex. At all. Ed)

The “Zero Intolerance” church is the latest effort in market-ecclesiology of the United Reformed Church.  Very counter-culturally, there is a catchy sound-bite advertising offensive. Equally anti-zeitgeist, local congregations are offered the choice of opting in or staying out. And training (a euphemism for disempowerment) is, of course, de rigueur. The only thing the campaign is missing is a patron saint.  My suggestion would be Pelagius.

The United Reformed Church is now receiving applications for the post of Moderator of the Synod of Wales.  Unless all applicants are immediately deemed un-called, and therefore unfit, for this ministry, I’d rather we cast lots.
(Worked fine last time...Ed)

God is on the move. It is called “illegal immigration”.
(Unless you're a Mexican. In which case it's called Russian roulette)

Advice to a young minister: Remember that when you preach, you are speaking to everyone in particular.
(Caveat orator. Applies to old preachers as well. Ed)

Have you ever thought that the parable of the Prodigal Son might be an autobiographical story about living post-exilically?
(If we wait long enough we'll all find our when the Islamists reconquer Jerusalem. Ed)

My body is finally turning into a temple. But it’s age, not sanctity: I no longer have the energy to be a brothel.
(I'm tired. Ed)
You married, dearie?

And, since an image is de rigueur otherwise absolutely nobody reads anything one might write, here's the Pope celebrating the arrival of the seven millionth soul on the planet with the secular humanist and philosopher Julia Kristeva at the recent interfaith, er, encounter in Assisi. Peter and the wolf.