Monday, May 23, 2011

Paradise Postponed. Again.

So, Paradise has been postponed, yet again. An elderly gentleman named Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on Saturday last, for the second time, it would seem. The first time in 1994 was a non-event because of less-than-perfect arithmetic and this one seems to have gone the same way. Poorly applied algorithms aren’t very reliable, unfortunately.  It’s now Monday, and I and all my believing friends seem to be all present and correct. My heart almost missed a beat when the principal failed to show up for work, but it transpired that he'd gone to Africa, not Paradise.  Nevertheless, scare tactics work as expectations of the Rapture have spurred so many interesting new business ventures for those willing to take a few risks.
There are a number of key problems with the Rapture as a business opportunity: first of all that many regular and loyal customers are looking forward to it, so presumably won’t be around for repeat sales. No worries. Unrighteous Mammon has ways around the absence of God.
Rapture businesses want to make your Rapture experience as uncomplicated, worry-free and profitable as possible. Here’s an example. A company called “Eternal Earth-Bound Pets” will take care of your abandoned dog or cat once you’ve been whisked off in the twinkling of an eye to bask in the presence of the Lord. The company charges $135 for the first animal companion and then $20 for each additional, payable in cash in advance - no cheques or credit cards. Further, the company promises it will still be around on the 22nd because, “…each of our representatives has signed an affidavit affirming that that they do not believe in God or Jesus, and that they have blasphemed suitably in accordance with Mark 3:29, thus negating any chance of salvation.” Pet counselling can be arranged for an additional charge. Unmissable, really, and certainly one less thing to fret about.

The Almighty was unavailable for comment although it was rumoured that there was a stony silence in  heaven for over half an hour since a senior seraph remarked that they hadn't seen Him quite this ticked off since Pat Robertson blamed a tsunami on the gays.
Excellent. I now see that my car service has been completed and I can be on my way very shortly. Home that is, not Heaven, traffic permitting.
One final, spooky little thought. Oprah is doing her final taping this week. Oblivion surely crooks its bony finger. Very soon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Right Man

Now that DSK is out of the running for the French Presidency it's a wide open field. As part of the selection procedure I think that potential candidates should fill out a questionnaire to determine their suitability for high office. This is a work in progress, obviously, but I thought something along these lines might be quite a promising start.

What's the greatest threat to world peace?
  • Terrorism.
  • Godlessness.
  • Barack Hussein Obama.
  • Intolerance.
  • Environmental damage
  • Barack Hussein Obama
  • All of the above

What about the gays, then?
  • They will Burn in Hell.
  • Equal rights for all would be nice, but I can't see it happening somehow.
  • As long as they stay in the Church where they belong, that's fine by me.
  • Everyone should be eligible for a civil union. Including animals.
  • Whatever.

Have you ever obliterated a village?
  • Yes.
  • No, but I want to.
  • No, but I've killed the equivalent population of a small Siberian town.
  • Only a simulated one online.
  • Not that I can remember, but...
  • Absolutely not. That would be cruel.

  • Women have the right to choose.
  • Some women have the right to choose...
  • It's murder.
  • God does not condone it, so I don't either.
  • Whatever.

Do you have a mistress?
  • Of course I do. I thought it was compulsory.
  • I have been flawlessly faithful to my lovely heiress wife for thirty years.
  • I'm gay, you moron.

What about the plight of the homeless?
  • They continue to be marginalised, and more must be done to help them.
  • I'm afraid I don't know any.
  • Who gives a shit? I certainly don't.

What was your stance on the war in Iraq?
  • It was an illegal war, and frankly, I didn't trust the President's motives.
  • We brought freedom to an oppressed people. Almost.
  • We shouldn't be sticking our noses in other peoples' business.
  • The price of fuel can alienate some voters.
  • I'm mindful of the long-term environmental damage caused by depleted uranium.
  • Whatever.

Stem cell research?
  • I'm against it.
  • I'm in favour.
  • I really don't give a shit about trees.

What's your deepest, darkest secret?
  • I was a crackhead and an alcoholic; I killed someone in a car crash, but I think I got away with it.
  • I committed some questionable acts while part of the armed services.
  • I frequently walk around with a concealed sidearm. It makes me feel secure, somehow.
  • I may have shot and killed someone, but I'm not sure, being drunk at the time.
  • I hate most people. All the time, as it happens.
  • I'm squeaky clean. As a button. Really.

If you could have a catchphrase, what would it be?
  • "Rock and roll!"
  • I'm glad you asked me that”
  • "Well, that's a difficult question, and quite honestly ..."
  • "For our children!"
  • "Freedom!"
  • Father, forgive."
  • All of the above. But not on the same occasion, of course.

I think this would go a long way towards weeding out unsuitable centrist candidates thus leaving a clear, unequivocal choice between Sarkozy and Le Pen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lucrece in New York

It's so French to see conspiracies everywhere; it's almost embedded in French culture. But the appalling charges levelled against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have caused more that a Gallic shrug in the Elysée Palace and amongst les bourgeois, who are normally remarkably tolerant of the sexual peccadilloes of their leaders, for whom seduction, sans violence, is an art form. This has exploded like a landmine, a sex scandal "à l'anglo saxonne" with dirty laundry billowing in a most unseemly fashion on Parisian boulevards. Like most breaking stories, fact and speculation become intertwined. Had he wanted to satisfy his bestial and corrupt desires, he would surely have had no problem, financial or otherwise, in engaging the services of a leggy $3000 a night escort, discretion guaranteed. Instead, he has been portrayed as a potential rapist, sodomite and kidnapper, which individually is bad enough but collectively scarcely credible. And, all before lunch as well. Did he 'flee the scene'? No, he had lunch then boarded his flight, having phoned the hotel since he'd left his mobile phone behind - the Press suggesting he 'left in haste'. It seems clear that something went on which wouldn't look good on his CV - perhaps he made some kind of pass at his accuser, an  African-American maid, but it takes considerable determination and physical intimidation to force a young woman to engage in unwilling fellatio.

So, is there a conspiracy? Three weeks ago, Strauss-Kahn evoked such a possibility in an interview with French newspaper Libération when he said he thought he was under surveillance and named the three principal difficulties he foresaw if he was to stand for the presidential elections.

"Money, women and the fact I am Jewish"

Oh, dear. A rich philanderer with sympathies in Tel Aviv - he might as well paint a target on himself. Meanwhile, he is a guest at Riker's Island, where he'll hopefully not get to be best friends with Abdullah, 230 pounds, the Taleban weightlifter from Kabul.

“The mightier man, the mightier is the thing 
That makes him honored or begets him hate; 
For greatest scandal waits on greatest state.” 
The Rape of Lucrece (Shakespeare)

Whatever else DSK turns out to be, he is no Tarquin and the maid is unlikely to suffer the same fate as Lucrece who stabs herself after being raped (image detail Paolo Veronese, 1583)

The presidential elections will have to wait. For quite some time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Letters to God

A six year old girl wrote a letter to God which ran something like this...
"Dear God. Who invented you?"
 Her father sent the letter to various church leaders, some of whom responded, some didn't. This was the response from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

I'm really quite impressed. For a nonconformist.

Blind Justice

There's something rather ironic today about the blindness of justice, all being equal under the law. An Iranian man who after repeated rejection by a woman, threw a bucket of concentrated sulphuric acid in her face was to receive the same punishment himself today. At noon, he was to be anaesthetised then acid dropped into his eyes by medically qualified personnel. The woman, blinded and disfigured for life, without benefit of anaesthesia, is apparently quite willing to do to him exactly what he did to her and has travelled from Spain in order to be prepared to do so. After repeated and hitherto unsuccessful attempts to restore her sight in Barcelona, she has insisted on her right under the law and is currently deaf to all entreaty from her own and other Western governments to either pardon him or accept financial compensation, which is the only legal way to avoid sentence being carried out.  An eye for an eye or qesas (retributive justice in kind) is carried out rarely, usually for murder and the moral quagmire is appalling. Western culture recoils at the barbarity of both the offence and its punishment but Iran is an immature democracy, ruled by a theocratic elite and the likelihood of this woman saying 'go, and sin no more' is remote.
As of this moment, sentence has been postponed but the Damoclean threat - an appalling punishment in itself - still hovers.
Many around the world commented that the efficient dispatch of the skinny old man in Abbotabad last week carries moral consequences of similar magnitude. The story is told of Alexander the Great and a pirate he captured. The Emperor (Obama) placed the pirate (Osama) on trial, angrily demanding of him "How dare you molest the seas?". The pirate responded "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat and you do it with a great navy, I am called a pirate and you an emperor." (Augustine,City of God) We might observe that a trial was not, in this case, granted to the 'pirate'; instead his guilt was assumed and, one might argue, retributive justice was similarly applied.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Creative Dissatisfaction

Here’s a question. Is ‘creative dissatisfaction either a) sinful b) divisive and counterproductive or c) absolutely essential to church growth? It comes as no surprise when I tell you that I’m pretty firmly in camp (c).
What does ‘creative dissatisfaction’ really mean? I think it means that we’re always on the lookout for opportunities, usually masquerading as problems, and ways to improve, if necessary dismantling irrelevant structures. No sophistry here, if a way can be found, or presents itself, there’s no escape, it should be implemented, not endlessly talked about, mulled over, prayed over or agonised about.
Good leaders should fully and visibly embrace the need for “constructive dissatisfaction” and the desire for positive change - not just putting it on the agenda but personally investing themselves in it. If they do, a group forms up behind them, buying into the concept and adding to the investment. We used to call it ‘catching the vision’ as I recall.
Wherein lies the danger? Obviously, the notion of change of any kind often brings out the worst in people.  The movers and shakers are often perceived as always harping and critical – usually by people who can’t see the rhino on the lawn and if they do they simply walk politely around it, hoping it will find somewhere else to graze. The frogs on the lilypad sit in comfort, croaking soothingly about Tradition, which makes me want to kick the lilypad hard since investment with a capital letter confers meaningless authority and an antithetical view of progress.
Whether the Church likes it or not, pilgrimage is a nomadic way of life. Daring to take a long, cool look at ourselves and ask why we do what we do takes courage.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

For The Love Of Literature

All the best titles for books have been taken. Were I ever to bestir myself from characteristic languor and indolence, leap to my intellectually challenged feet and actually exsanguinate sufficiently to write a book, I wonder what it might be called?

Here's a synopsis. Or three.

"Nail Clippings And Other Scrapbooks"
William would like to own a dog, but is unsure which breed to buy. He also wants to meet women. Loitering in parks waiting for female passers-by with canines he feels is beneath his dignity, so he gets a job as a mobile dog-groomer. Visiting the houses of those sufficiently well-heeled to afford his services, he encounters gay pride, narcissism and nymphomania. And, that's only the dogs.

"Fire Me. I Dare You"
If you work in an establishment where the chairman's door is always open, fresh coffee is always available and the secretaries all have pleasingly full bosoms, you have my permission to wind a piece of electrical flex around your smug, self-satisfied neck, firmly attach it to the air-conditioner and leap from a tall building. On the other hand, if the place is managed by the guy who does the photocopying, there's a concrete ceiling for promoted posts and you have a constant nagging headache, this book is for you. Learn how to subvert meetings with subtle but effective points of order, bury unpopular people in mindless, labyrinthine paperwork and get your immediate superior to resign on the grounds of ill-health.

"The Rock Star Librarian"
Janet is fifty-four and technically a virgin. She spends her days in the reference section of the public library, cataloguing building permits, hence is myopic with a secularised eschatology of progress. Catching the same bus every day, she encounters Hans, an exchange student half her age from Dusseldorf with whom she strikes up an unlikely eight minute conversation every morning. Hans is plausible and darkly good-looking, introduces her to the ELO and Ecstasy, via an evening at a string quartet concert. This so dislocates her personality that she takes to wearing ripped Prada jeans and develops a taste for Sambuca on the rocks. Her consequent moral decline is a powerful political statement about the perils of French lingerie and the validity of libraries in the age of Google.

Oh, where shall I start? Perhaps I might be able to weave all three themes together somehow.

Friday, May 06, 2011

My Tribe

It's never a good idea to read philsophy in the privacy of one's own bathroom. Firstly, one's attention should be diverted elsewhere and lumbar musculature tends to complain on prolonged inactivity. Secondly, it provides a window for a period of (often lengthy) introspection. My stay there today was fruitful, in more ways than one.
I may have inadvertently discovered my 'tribe'- those called, quite cruelly, I think -  'cynics' in the gentlest and least toxic sense. I asked myself  "Am I a disgruntled and misunderstood idealist, a subversive wit, perhaps a professional misfit, a sceptical jester, almost a curmudgeon, or, a secret sentimentalist who longs for a simpler, sweeter life?" I humbly answered 'Yes'. It seems that cynics are as diverse as dogs, but all brethren  under the skin. Something about the ways of the church or even the world makes us want to howl. Epictetus the Stoic wrote  that "a cynic is a spy who aims to discover what things are friendly or hostile to man; after making accurate observations, he then comes back and reports the truth."  It seems I am in good company. Think of Voltaire and Mark Twain, the bitter irony,  biting sarcasm and mirthful ridicule, exposing the follies of their times like open sores as well as the fatuous, vacuous and timeless foibles of mankind.

What a sadly maligned and misunderstood tribe we are!

Cynicism, after all, springs not from cruelty or viciousness, but from precisely the opposite: a fatal love of virtue. If we were mere realists, we'd have no need for cynicism; the world would never disappoint us because we'd expect so little of it. But the best cynics are still idealists with a wounded childlike soul under their scarred hides. We wanted the world to be a better place, and we find it so difficult to shrug off disappointment when it lets us down. Our cynicism gives us the painful power to behold life shorn of its sustaining illusions. Thus, my own definition of a cynic:

"an idealist whose rose-coloured glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stamped into the earth, immediately improving his vision."

If we were activists, we'd do something constructive about our discontentment. But we're smart enough to know that we will never prevail, and probably a little too lazy to attempt any labour that's predestined to fail.  So we retaliate with our unique brand of wounded wit. If we can't defeat our oppressors, at least we can mock them in good fellowship. That's about as much justice as a cynic can expect.
This post was written to cheer those who know me well, and to feel better about themselves in consequence. You know who you are.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Uneasy Rapprochement

So, Fatah and Hamas are going to end four years of bitter wrangling, kiss and make up. Are they, indeed. Smoke and mirrors again.
Hamas’s refusal to allow Fatah to regain a foothold in the Gaza Strip and Fatah’s refusal to allow Hamas to reciprocate in the West Bank are two of the main obstacles to genuine reconciliation.  The signing of the 'agreement' creates a façade of unity but it is unclear how they will implement the agreement on the ground. The subtext is, of course, statehood and the unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence. Both sides believe that once this Holy Grail has been achieved, they will be able to exert more and more political and even military leverage on a fragmented Israeli state, and the belief that it should be achieved at any cost may well prolong the deadlock.  A senior Hamas leader said in Cairo 'we are prepared to pay any price for reconciliation'. Except, perhaps, the recognition of the state of Israel, which would effectively remove Hamas' raison d'etre. Tax dollars were withheld by Israel since if a joint Hamas- Fatah account were to be created, transfer of funds to a terrorist organisation dedicated to Israel's overthrow would be suicidal and spectacularly stupid. Israel would therefore need assurances from the PA that its funds would not be funnelled in some fashion to Hamas, in other words a measure of trust, which will be a very long time coming. Calls for a third Intifada are numerous on Facebook and the Israelis are well aware of the potential momentum which could be generated. Yet, Israel has its home-grown radicals. Any significant attempt to give away East Jerusalem as a capital for Palestine would meet with violent resistance. Israel need a safe pair of hands at this moment and steps should be taken to build bridges with Israeli Arabs – of whom there are a surprising number – who would much prefer to be governed by Israel rather than Gaza and hence, by proxy, Damascus.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Two Men

Two men died this week. They had one thing in common - a burning, unquenchable zeal.

One man was born in modest circumstances on May 19, 1931, the beginning of the Great Depression, in Hammond, Indiana, to a line of devout Pentecostal preachers. The other was born to privilege and wealth on March 10, 1957 in Saudi Arabia.
One, armed only with faith and the love of God, entered the dark and violent gangland world of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City to make war on the drug-fuelled forces at its heart. The other, armed with an AK47 assault rifle, went to an equally violent, dark and dangerous Afghanistan, joining the mujahideen to kill the Soviet violators of an Islamic land.
One founded Teen Challenge, a biblically based  drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, expanding to over a thousand centres in eighty countries worldwide. An entire generation became inspired that their lives mattered to God. The other founded Al Qaeda or 'the base' a multinational stateless army dedicated to violence and terror.
One believed that God can and does reach the desperate, marginalised and dispossessed with his love and grace. The other envisioned a complete break from foreign influences in Muslim countries and the creation of a new Islamic caliphate, that a Judaeo-Christian alliance is conspiring to destroy Islam and that the killing of bystanders and civilians was religiously justified in jihad.
One died tragically in a car crash in Texas, full of years, leaving behind a legacy of purpose and hope. The other was shot dead by American special forces, hiding behind a woman, in a specially purchased walled compound less than half a mile from a prestigious Pakistani military academy.
Whose reward will be the greater, I wonder?