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.