Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ecclesiastical Shenanigans

You can't throw a brick without hitting a vicar in this town. It's bursting its seams with 'clergy'. Of many, various and multilingual forms, kinds and denominations. In other words, shout "Reverend" and get trampled in the melée.
There are the chandelier-swingers, often hard of hearing from listening to Christian rock, who get down and dirty with their congregations and ask them to say "Amen" quite frequently. 
Now this, my son, is a real dog collar
This is a sinister stratagem to ensure nobody nods off before the offering. Then there are those with dog collars. Real ones, desperately uncomfortable pieces of plastic that hug the neck and possibly stretch it, reminding one of Ndebele women in Zimbabwe. Like a good horse-collar, it keeps its Anglo-Catholic owner's nose firmly and irremediably pointing heavenward to avoid the friction burn that inevitably results if they turn their heads a bit too quickly. High Anglicans thus find doing meek a bit difficult.
Why this unhealthy preoccupation with matters clerical?
I received a threatening email from a so-called friend the other day, who announced - without a trace of apology, I might add - that he was to be "ordained", and I had better pitch up to the festivities. Or else. At first, I thought he said "enchained", but I guess my comprehension skills deserted me, momentarily. As soon as it was clear that there were tea and buns to be had afterwards, I signed up.
Ordination. I looked it up. The whole shenanigan involves trading up the diagonal thingy that the church house-elves, otherwise known as 'deacons', wear for a proper white long scarf (yes, I do know what it's called but do give me a little poetic licence) decorated with various motifs advertising one's allegiances, a kind of ecclesiastical football shirt, and entitling one to fairly advanced privileges. For example, asking if there be just and lawful impediment and so forth and fining the drunk at the back of the wedding service who thinks it's funny to raise objections. One of the downsides is you have to hold squalling, white-clad infants and pour cold water on their heads. Dropping them in the font would be a good deal more efficient. A memo to Synod, perhaps?  And, you get to metaphorically slip a silver dollar in the departed's mouth to make sure that Charon doesn't run out of gas on the way over the Styx.
Cathedrals are mostly stone-built, thus uncharitably cold. The venue for the bash lived up to its reputation. It's a squat, dumpy, unattractive building - a fat spotty girl surrounded by beauty. The phalanx of professional attendees in addition to a rather jolly red-clad bishop was, I have to say, impressive however. Quite a large number of priests turned out in support to welcome the new lads on the team. They had both been under house-arrest with the Franciscans, I gather, for twenty four hours before kick-off. I imagined monastic types who drank a lot of beer sitting in absolute silence. I saw a cardinal. He didn't smile much, It seemed to me that he either had a persistent dental problem or had recently been baptised in lemon juice. Two men in sinister pointed black cowls glowered balefully, looking rather like twin Angels of Death. I did wonder briefly whether they were the Bishop's minders. But, no, they had left the scythes outside and it seemed that they were quite harmless Armenian priests. Allegedly.
Incense makes me sneeze, kills fleas and causes migraines. Nevertheless, copious clouds of it were dispensed by a veteran of the smoking handbag, who turned, pirouetted and wafted enthusiastically. I admired his wrist-work, reflecting that the Pope is probably addicted to the stuff. The building was so cold it hung like cigar smoke in the air. It seems that God quite likes the aroma, however, and he is, after all, entitled to burn whatever he wants in his own house, I suppose.
Quite a nice touch was that they gave each of the candidates a Bible. Strange, really - they'd most probably read it already, but this was a gigantic version, weighty and impressive, perhaps with big print like the special section in the library for those with visual impairment.
This particular gentleman in whose honour the proceedings were held has a penchant for, let's just say, amusing ties which he persists in wearing in public. Now that his choice of neckwear is severely restricted by his new responsibilities, I really must look around for a Bart Simpson clerical shirt for him.
In the event of no further communication on this blog for a while, readers may assume that the Anglican equivalent of the Inquisition has had a word with me. No doubt I shall be out of hospital shortly.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Beauty and Form

"But there are other, highly intellectual sources of beauty. Mathematicians often describe mathematical formulae in emotive terms and the experience of mathematical beauty has often been compared by them to the experience of beauty derived from the greatest art." For this, my thanks to the only female statistician I know - you know who you are.
MRI studies have recently concluded that mathematicians experience similar cerebral stimulation when viewing 'equations of great beauty' as others do when exposed to great works of art.
So. Let's do a not-very-well-thought-through gedankenexperiment. I show you an equation thought by some to be 'beautiful' together with a piece of art which I think matches its beauty in some way. You get to look at them both then make up your mind. OK?

First, Euler and Botticelli. Leonhard Euler's identity has been likened to Hamlet's soliloquy in terms of its beauty - I have paired it with Sandro Botticelli's Venus which took my breath away several years ago when I saw it in Florence. Euler's identity is ubiquitous in science and mathematics; Richard Feynman once described it as "a jewel". It links five fundamental mathematical constants with three basic arithmetic operations each occurring once.
I think it's glorious, like a matryoshka doll. Unwrapping it reveals more wonders. The Botticelli's purity of form, perfect curves and spectacular precision touches a different place.

Next, the Pythagorean identity, beginning with the-square-of-the-hypoteneuse-is-equal-to-the-sum-of-the-squares-on-the-other-two-sides paired with Piet Mondrian. You'll notice that the diagram shows it better. Both of these resonate for me - but which is "numerically" superior?
The authors of this study are suggesting that it seems to provide a partial answer to a critical question in aesthetics, one which has been debated since classical times, namely whether aesthetic experiences can be quantified. If they can, it will satisfy my Floridian statistician. If not, a reader might get a double dose of endorphins. I still don't know, MRI data or not.

Dark Tetrad

How much do we know about what the Internet is doing to us? I have to confess, I spend a lot of time there and I have begun to be self-critical of what I do and where I go. For me, considerable Internet time is spent “finding things out” that simply catch my attention, and much like real interactions it sometimes feels as if I am having a conversation with myself – 'the idle thoughts of an idle fellow' – if you will, which allows me to meander from one informational node to another.
Perhaps I should be quite grateful that I don't as a rule feel the need to comment exhaustively on the thoughts, rants and emotional detritus of others. I think this is mostly because the act of comment is a reactive rather than a proactive event but I do occasionally weigh in on a forum somewhere. Many political forums, in particular those associated with, for example, climate change or Israel, seem to fuel strong opinions, disagreement and occasional episodic trolling. Such behaviour seems to be targeted at those with fragile minds, whose emotions run fast, but whose intellect travels more slowly. Recipients seem sometimes to almost enjoy the online persecution that they receive from a menagerie of trolls using monosyllabic, piously gentle and sometimes Biblical responses to the vituperative ad hominem attacks upon them.
Harmless little trolls?
I began thinking about what this has to tell us about the personalities of trolls themselves and what, if anything, an uncensored Internet should do about them. Recent research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterised by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).
It is hard to underplay the results – disturbing as they were. The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behaviour. What’s more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet. The correlation between sadistic traits was particularly strong, since the allure of trolling is attractive to those who buy into the idea that “the more beautiful and pure a thing (or person) is, the more satisfying it is (they are) to corrupt.”
A new psychology seems to be emerging, one in which the type of behaviour which would normally be considered either gratuitously offensive or simply illegal if conducted in real life is either excused, ignored or condoned online. The Net as an organism might be thought to encourage antisocial behaviour since the consequences of such actions largely go unpunished, except by exclusion within a small cluster of offendees, and since the perpetrator is not geographically constrained to behave himself, he can simply drift into another cluster and indulge his fantasies there, over and over again.

Psychology has plenty of data but currently relatively few answers, it would seem, on the effect that exposure to trolling has on the public perception of controversial issues. Trolls - as real people - push other real people's emotional buttons and it seems to have the effect of hardening pre-existent beliefs thus making people less amenable to reason. I suppose this makes sense, in a way, since people feel first - a knee-jerk reaction, and think later which I think the psychs call 'motivational reasoning'. So, one way or another, the trolls always win.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mad Hats

Headwear isn't usually at the top of my list for gentlemen's attire, nor, indeed, for writing frivolous nonsense about. Some people like hats and look good in them; others don't. I tend to the encampment of the bare-headed, almost irrevocably penciling me in this latter category despite the air of sang-froid and superiority that a well-made fedora confers on the wearer. I happen to have one or two and when the west wind blows, I actually wear one, either the Stetson Panama - quite the military favourite, or the German hunting hat in which I can hide in the undergrowth when hunting boar. Right. I was once sold a hat, or rather a cap, by a persuasive and very gay salesman in Greenwich Village and had my photograph taken wearing it while reading a copy of Village Voice, labouring under the delusion that it made me look like John Lennon. In reality, I looked like a superannuated costermonger. People with heads shaped like oversized coconuts or the northernmost tip of Pluto like mine really ought to give them a miss. I knew a vicar once, very Old School, who, whenever a lady was halfway across the pelican crossing, used to stop his car, get out and doff his hat in cavalierly Restoration fashion, while seeing her safely across the road. He was, it appeared, oblivious to the imprecations, waved fists and furious honking. After his protégé had been safely delivered kerbside, he would further doff his hat to the queuing vehicles whose drivers were foaming with rage. Had he not been wearing a clerical collar, he'd've been assaulted.

And now to the teacher's Nemesis, the baseball cap. They reproduce, I am certain, in foetid urban alleyways and appear for sale newly minted on a million street stalls worldwide, proclaiming street-smart slogans only known to rappers, children and those of diminished mental capacity. For some, the little tag at the back cannot be appropriately tightened which makes the wearer look as if he has had his head flattened by a paving stone. Still others grip the short-haired wearer's head as if glued in place, its brim jutting aggressively forward like a curved Arabic blade. The clear message is: "Mess with me. Go on. I dare you".
Another gentleman of my acquaintance, also a clergyman - how come I seem to know so many - has so far resisted the temptation to wear his leather Harley Davidson baseball cap with his clerical collar. How very disappointing. I wonder where he parks his bike?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Bright Lights and Conversation

I have had a number of interesting conversations with luminaries of varying brightness in recent times, having hung out with a colonel in the US military and ate lunch with the unforgettable Vicar of Baghdad.
The colonel didn't tell me what he actually did, presumably because if I knew he'd have to kill me. We spent a moment or two chewing the rag about that most sacred calf, the Peace Process, and John Kerry's part in its downfall, to misquote Spike Milligan.
The conversation turned to Presidential elections in 2016 and I ventured the suggestion that Kerry might throw his oversized hat in the ring. After, of course, he's paid a visit to Stockholm to collect a well-deserved Nobel. My new friend was sceptical, wagering his guinea on the darling of the Left whose Washington power base would blow Kerry away like an idle wind which she regarded not.
If I were HRC, which, thankfully, I am not, I wonder how I'd set about winning the seat of Lincoln?
I think I might start out with setting up a huge national fundraising apparatus and toady up to party regulars in order to secure their loyalty.  The bar bill is gonna be in excess of a billion, after all. The bad news, of course, is that this is exactly the kind of thing that would make me vulnerable to a grassroots rebellion. Put another way, in modern presidential politics, every day is Bastille Day. Blue collar Democrats, the lifeblood and mainstay of the party, are running home to mama in increasing numbers, lurching back towards their customary populist and pacifist instincts and venting their suspicion of the emerging military-digital complex, along with outright contempt for the wealthy and for conservatives generally. This opens up the field to a kind of lefty Sarah Palin emerging, who at this moment is doing nothing more than occupying a sofa in Iowa, rather than Wall Street. I would have to run against the very status quo I personify, making myself something more than the default choice of the establishment.
The current inhabitant of the White House has sent two of his best champions to do battle here, near land adjoining Armageddon, which frequently seems like a proving ground for great statesmen.  Propaganda notwithstanding, the score on the ground is still fifteen-love to the Israelis and the others will be hard pressed to steal a set from them. If anybody at all could snatch a result which stands any chance of lasting and were I able to vote, and he were able to stand,  I think my money would be on the man in the bow tie with a silver cross around his neck.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Age to Age

Following an earlier theme, I sometimes wonder how many people don't like the label 'Christian'.The Greek root  and Latin suffix "follower or belonging to' - as in slave ownership - 'of the anointed one, or messiah' in Hebrew has always felt ambiguous, somehow. Before reaching for the faggots and flaming torches, don't forget I'm a professional flying buttress, uncomfortable with the pierced ear of slavery, so hear me out. I think I'm in agreement with K S Wuest when he remarked that the Antiochans, where the term was first used, had a wicked sense of humour and were fond of making up derisory nicknames for people who didn't seem very keen on the deity personified as the current Roman emperor. Tacitus, the historian writing at the end of the first century, noted that the 'vulgar' or popular appellation was used when referring to the Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in CE 64. Peter, and later, Polycarp and Ignatius were proud standard bearers for the nickname and it does rather seem to have stuck.
Why the history lesson? I read an article in 'Christianity Today'. Not perhaps my publication of choice, but I couldn't seem to find a GQ anywhere. An eighteen month old copy was lying around in the staff room and a real fifty-dollar word caught my eye. Juvenilisation. The article was, I have to say, quite well-written, and it explored the connection between yoof culcha and the rise of the postmodern Church, coming to the conclusion that the church had basically been juvenilised, hijacked by the immediacy of modern culture, sin had been largely subsumed into an egocentric narcissism of immediacy and discipleship other than being a rather long word, had been overtaken by focus groups and the Alpha Course. Young people as a demographic capable of social and indeed denominational leverage is quite a modern phenomenon. Before 1950 and the beat generation, before Chuck Berry and Elvis, adulthood was defined in terms of getting married, having first found a job, then producing children, often in quite large numbers. If you were a churchgoin' type, you attended on a regular basis with other sober folk who carried a similar denominational stamp. Events on a Sunday morning were probably quite similar to those your parents and grandparents had experienced. Then somebody invented teenagers, brimful of hormones and rebellion, Woodstock and Jimi and the Rolling Stones followed later. Out of this very different paradigm, new forms of social activism and church identity began to emerge. I'm not going to write a thesis on the sociopolitical impact of, say, the New Charismatics or whatever, but yesterday, I attended two churches, back to back and I came away thoughtful. Not because of their differences, which were obvious, but because of their similarities.
If there's a band, people don't sing any more. Hymns or otherwise. Apart from the Trappists who take rather a dim view of idle talk in general and probably rock bands in particular, people find themselves mostly listening, occasionally joining in as far as a modern lyric allows, and if all there is is one acoustic guitar, mooning along listlessly to some saccharine and repetitive mantra or other. In short, much of it, pleasant as it undoubtedly is, is a little bit juvenile.
I made a point of taking note of what was sung. Stripping away the slick guitar licks and atmospheric keyboards, most of the songs were - well - lyrically bland and lacking poetic robustness, celebrating love as to a paternal figure in the same way that a lovestruck fourteen-year-old might. I imagined them without the words, and thought of beaches and sunsets, hand in hand with a barefoot, slim, dark-haired girl in a white dress, smelling of patchouli. There was beauty there, undeniably, but in the middle of it all I found myself somehow exterior, as if watching from a distance and from this perspective, I wondered what mature, grown up worship might actually look and feel like, if indeed it actually exists. Adults aren't usually propelled so determinedly by their emotions and watching people with greying hair and the weathering of years on their faces behaving uncharacteristically - waving arms, beatific expressions, swaying gently and so on, gave pause for a thoughtful moment. Anywhere else but in church and arrests might follow. Years ago, we clapped hysterically, jumped manically and touched heaven, perhaps. Many still do and I would say to them as enthusiastically as I can 'more love, more power'.
Then, everybody got older, but the culturally relevant tree had already been planted and it grew unstoppably and the old still behave like the young, the new inheritors of the stage. I wondered if I was influenced by the fact that last Sunday was the presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Nunc Dimittis is emblazoned on banners in English and Hebrew. Was old Simeon a mature worshipper, I wonder?

Monday, February 03, 2014

Eat a Bit

Two social activities dominate my time here. Eating and churchgoing. Both are quite solitary activities. Eating alone is something which I have to do, dinner companionship being rather sparse, indeed, mostly non-existent. Singles of my particular vintage are best left to their own murky devices, perhaps. Being a creature of shamefully predictable habit, it takes quite an effort of will to insist to myself that I go and explore the multitude of dining options here. Instead, I find myself on an almost nightly basis at the same congenial little watering hole. The wait staff know me, I always drink the same beverage and before I have removed my coat, it is waiting for me. I know the menu very well, so much so that the 'specials' are often restricted and there is no calamari on a Tuesday, prompting idle speculation about their delivery scheduling. I drink disgusting coffee and pretend to enjoy it. I listen to conversations around me, most of which are to do with human relationships and the breakdowns thereof. If invited, I nod, sagely, murmuring agreement.
But, churchgoing alone? Why? How can it be that you can attend the same meeting, service, gathering or whatever every week at the same time and still feel it to be a solitary activity? The wait staff might be a bit more extravagantly attired, but they know me. The same beverage and indeed foodstuff is on offer every week. I know the menu very well and can repeat it back when required in more or less the right places. I drink disgusting coffee and pretend to enjoy it. I listen to conversations around me most of which are to do with the breakdown of relationships with God. If invited, I nod sagely, murmuring agreement.

No, it isn't really quite like this, because in both places, we want to be recognised. We want to be known.

I get to listen to very good Old Testament teaching with the chandelier-swingers before composing myself into suitably camel-faced sobriety for the Anglicans on Sunday evenings where one does rather have to behave oneself. The former are running a series on the Tabernacle - the portable tent the fledgling nation of nomads and wilderness wanderers carried around with them as they travelled for a rather long time in the desert, if Scripture is to be taken literally. Living here, one is surrounded by experts on the OT and the preacher was no exception, sprinkling some of the Levitical scriptures with a generous seasoning of Talmudic wisdom. The Holy Place, where the priests went, contained inter alia twelve loaves stacked in sixes on a portable acacia wood table the size of a piano stool and was, it appears, an archetype, almost a replica of a wealthy man's dining room of the period, containing as it did, a menorah for light and an incense burner for the olfactory delight of the guests.

God invited people to 'eat a bit', as a Jewish mother, or indeed, an Anglican priest might say. I think he still does and it never ceases to amaze me that the tent of meeting with its intricate, exact paraphernalia foreshadows Christ in minute, perfect detail. How did they miss it?

Before knives and forks, eating together and sharing food was a more congenially intimate activity than it has now become. Stretching over the table to grab the tabouleh bowl or the pitas was really OK. Speaking with one's mouth full was probably quite all right. The necessity of nourishment brought intimacy, cemented family and allowed inclusion of sojourners, wayfarers and the odd vagabond like me.

All of which, I suppose, reminds even my vagabond soul that there is somewhere where I am known, there is such a place as home, material in France where the food is good and the conversation flows like a good Bordeaux, and spiritual, in the houses we build to accommodate our God, who is still to be found there, but who needs nothing more than a table in the wilderness where stones are turned into bread.