Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bitch Fights

There are more and more girl fights going on it seems. Not just the domestic skirmishes of the drunken butcher lesbians getting possessive over the even more drunken less butch lesbians. These always occur when too few Y chromosomes are present in the presence of alcohol and flirting.
No, this is the girl on girl scrapping over boys, ex-boys, drinks, dresses and the like which used to end in tears. Now its more often ending in full on bitch fights.
It's not just the hair pulling stand off where both parties get locked in an extended judo-like stance. These are always fun when you separate them and they both end up holding the other muppet's hair extensions and they have to hobble out in one high heel as the other shoe gets couriered to the front door by doorman express.
The type of things I'm running into more often are girls attempting to throw punches or each other around. I've seen a good girl on girl left hook but that was only once. Luckily the participants skill level is a lot lower than their blood alcohol or their anger level. This doesn't stop them attempting to bottle each other or even try and shove a broken bottle neck into the others face.
It poses an issue for the mainly male door teams though. If it's an old fashioned hair-pulling stand off you can see it's not escalating in a hurry. You can overwhelm both parties when support arrives and by bulk alone get both parties to submit to an exit in disgrace.
When it's a whole load faster and nastier, you can get a quick radio shout out but have to think fast. If I flatten one or both, they'll likely end up in A&E. If I leave it, crimes will be committed, A&E will still beckon and I'll have explaining to do.
What I do usually is move fast and light, enough to alter the situation in my favour but not incapacitate anyone. It's not ideal. I could end up with a punch or bottle coming my way but I feel better taking the risk than having to scrape bits off the floor every time. Others I work with seem to form a spectrum of views on this. I don't know what the right approach is but I'll need to find one with the increasing proportion of my physical interventions drunken chavvete fights are taking.

Thought For The Day: BBC Radio 4

Dr. Mona Siddiqui

30th September 2008.

Several years ago I sent an email to a colleague who was about to publish an article I had written for an edited collection. To this day I can't understand what he found offensive in that email but his subsequent reply was indignant and rude. We managed to clear the air but I was left perplexed, wondering how is it that what we say and how we are understood can be such worlds apart.

On this programme yesterday, Sherry Jones, the American journalist spoke of her own integrity in writing the historical fiction, The Jewel of Medina which depicts the life of Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammed. The book which is to be published later on this year was pulled by the American publishers Random House amidst fears that it would incite extremists to commit acts of violence. Though most of us can for now only speculate on the style and content of the book, it would appear that what the author intended and what has actually been understood of the book are also worlds apart. Sherry Jones has said that she has written respectfully about Islam and claims that she envisioned her book to be a bridge builder. Her critics however, perceive the intimate portrayal of the Prophet's personal life as sacred history being depicted as soft porn.

It is ironic that a religion which had its birth in arab lands, a people famous for their mastery of story telling, poetry and allegory has in recent years been denounced for its inability to tolerate different forms of literary and artistic expression. But ideas cannot be confined and the written word will assume its own life form. While Europeans are still debating the furore over the Danish cartoons, this book may yet be even more controversial As believers we can have faith that certain events happened but we can never really know; we can honour all the prophets of our shared history but we cannot be certain we have really understood them. Any literary work which aims to explore the past, even a sacred past is not necessarily setting out to tell us more truths, it may even be embellishing simple facts, but it is providing another lens, another viewpoint. We can either accept or reject this lens but we owe the writer a safe space for this exploration.

As Ramadhan comes to an end and Muslims all over the world prepare for 'Id, lets hope that we have all emerged with a lot more humility and self-reflection, for faith without understanding and generosity is not faith at all. Islam has a rich legacy of creative and artistic expression where the writer, the artist has been revered, even if critiqued. If it really is love of the Prophet that may incite some to commit violence, lets hope that it's the tolerance of the same Prophet which will inspire them to stay calm.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bad Nights

Some nights go tits up for a simple clear reason, others just go and go and go. You're short on numbers in the middle of the month and lower the bar for admission. All sorts of undesirable trash roll in and the inside teamroll's them out again. That's to be expected.
When the students return after a break, they roll in half cut and get rolled out fully cut an hour or two later. They're young and stupid and apart from the vomit they really don't cause any bother.
Other nights you just can't explain it. You let in a good healthy mix of locals, regulars and out of towners. You find a good male/female balance. The age range is fairly wide and you've not got too many big groups. All goes smoothly until one drunk gets his walking invitation, then 5 more in 20 minutes. Then there's one scuffle, then another then two at the same time. You might as well park a police van outside front door at this point as there'll be drugs finds, domestics and stranger scraps before the night is out. Where they come from, I have no idea. Maybe there's a fatal combination of songs that send people into a amoral state? Maybe there's a critical mass of incidents after which all bets are off? I've not got a scooby but it keeps me on my toes, even when I think it's going smoothly. It normally means a new shirt for me as there's only so much of other peoples claret I can be bothered to wash out of a cheap white shirt.

Darkness. (With thanks to Jon Birch over at Asbo Jesus.)

This is how I feel!

A frustrating night at college, defiant and awkward pupils at school, the ongoing college fees issue, missing Tallinn, the last gasp of a poor Summer and the onset of S.A.D. and now a heavy cold meaning I missed participating in Verdi's Requiem in Liverpool Cathedral.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thought For The Day: real religion is not at war with science

The Rev. Angela Tilby on BBC Radio 4

It was announced recently that Michael Reiss would step down from his post of Director of Education at the Royal Society. This was after the row that followed his suggestion that biology teachers should try to engage with pupils who held creationist views. Those who attacked him seem to have been insisting that science teaching must be 'pure'; as though there was danger of infection from religious ideas. It probably didn't help that as well as being a distinguished scientist Michael Reiss is an Anglican priest. We do so like things to be simple: pro-God or anti-God. Pro science or pro-faith. But perhaps this is where the debate about what is taught in school has all gone wrong. We are not teaching children to engage with complexity.

A Greek Orthodox scholar once said to me that he thought the great problem facing humanity is that we are gripped by two kinds of fundamentalism; the religious kind and the secular kind, and though they appeared to be on opposite sides they are in fact both on the same side. They agree exactly about who God is and what God does - they only differ on whether the God they agree about exists. So they can cheerfully shout at each other till kingdom come from a position that can never be challenged.

Real life though presents us all the time with contradictory stories. I have grown up believing in evolution. I accept that the mechanics of natural selection are blind; that they reveal no God given purpose in nature. It is the sheer blindness that produces the paradox in which we live: where astonishing variety and potential is matched by dead ends and catastrophic extinctions.

At the same time I am a Christian believer and its natural for me to want to echo the 19th Psalm when it says: 'the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handywork'. So I live with two stories. One is awesome but inhuman; in the other the universe is an intimate expression of God's wisdom and beauty. At times the difference troubles me. I feel the clash. But I also know that both are true; and one of the things I have to do is to live and think and pray in such a way that the two stories bounce off each other, like all those whizzing particles at CERN where the clash reveals ever deeper structures and poses new questions.

Real religion is not at war with science. The Vatican is hosting a conference on Darwin this year. In July the Pope said that there is no conflict between evolution and faith. Yet there is I think a spiritual challenge to accepting the Darwinian view of nature; and it is surely this that our schools should attend to: helping us all to live with nature's blindness while responding to both its wonders and constraints.

Comment: Do we do this through the teaching of Science or Religious Studies?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Feathers & Shit

I hate the pointless, low value imported chinese night out accoutrement that hen do's feel the need to adorn their entire party with before staggering 'round town to end up in the club I'm at. Stag do's occasionally have a bloke in a wig and a dress but they'll more than often leave in the dress and the wig is at least easy to make vanish.
The feathers from boas, deely-boppers, hat brims and garters get everywhere. By the middle of the night it looks like a flock of bright parakeets have been preening themselves to baldness inside the club. By the end it looks like the flock's been ripped to pieces. This despite the efforts of the glass collecting staff and sticks covered in gaffer tape.
This is temporary and highly annoying but the clincher has to be glitter. Be it body paint, sparkly hats or just sprinkled liberally on drunken ladies this gets everywhere. It clings to sweaty surfaces and hides in the weave of fabrics. After having to get close to many drunken glitter bearing fools I can find the stuff emerging for days. It doesn't wash out in a hurry of hair or clothes. It'll transfer from one thing to another endlessly. It likes to emerge on my bag of spanners face or simple dark clothing at any opportunity likely to cause the greatest embarrassment, interviews, dates or passport photo-days.

Mat 8.5-13: The Healing of the Centurion's Servant: an interpretation.

Following on from the previous post I made a remark in the comments about the story of the Centurion and his servant possibly being a story about a gay relationship. Questions of Identity took me up on this and wondered whether that might be an abuse of Scripture, hence today's post. I'll leave you to decide for yourselves. I am indebted to the theology of Canon Jeffrey John for this thought provoking interpretation.

A first century Jewish reader of this Gospel story would have had their suspicions about the relationship between the Centurion and his servant, as being more than professional. The word Matthew uses for sick "servant" is "pais" which can also mean boy or son. Luke uses both "pais" and "doulos", the regular word for slave.

Homosexuality was portrayed by the Jews as a Gentile thing and the charge of homosexual practice, especially directed at the occupying forces, formed a part of conventional ant-Roman polemic in contemporary literature. The charge was well founded and there is plenty of evidence about Roman military life to back it up. Domestic servants were often kept by Officers on this basis and some relationships proved famously durable, (the Emeror Hadrian and Antinous being perhaps the best known couple). In this story the Centurion's deep concern and the statement in Luke's version that the "servant was very dear to him", would greatly stengthen a contemporary reader's suspicion.

The probability that the relationship was homosexual would not have escaped Jesus, Matthew or Luke and in view of Jesus systematic inclusion of so many other categories of person who were marginalised and declared to be "unclean" or "abominable" under Levitical rules, it is a real question whether we are meant to see Jesus deliberately including homosexuals here as another category of the despised. Certainly there is no sign of anything but approval from Jesus, nor any hint of "Go and sin no more" after his servant was restored to him.

Part of the disgust that many Jews would have felt for this Centurion and his request is the disgust that many heterosexual men feel for the homosexual, but with Jesus the disgust does not appear and the relationship, whatever it is, is restored. If such acceptance on Jesus part is part of the lesson of this passage it has never been learned by the church. Disgust and prejudice are still prevalent in the church and attemts are even made to exorcise homosexuals. The truth is that demonic forces in the genuinely Biblical sense are often at work within the church.

Comment: I don't expect that everyone will necessarily accept this interpretation, but I include it because Jeffrey John, who is a first-rate theologian and Biblical scholar has used some compelling arguments to suggest that we should think beyond the generally accepted interpretation - and in the end that is what the various understandings are, someone's interpretation. Who is to say which is the right one unless we say in the same breath that the Holy Spirit no longer teaches and inspires us into new understandings?

Those who work for change suffer resistance,
so make us strong.
Those who do new things sometimes feel afraid,
so make us brave.
Those who challenge the world as it is arouse anger,
so grant us inner peace.
Those who live joyfully are envied,
so make us generous.
Those who try to love encounter hate,
so make us steadfast in you.

(The St. Hilda Community)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ray Boltz is Gay: Old news but time for reflection.

I'd never heard of Ray Boltz before last week: I don't tend to go in for Christian music in a big way - or indeed in any way post Elgar - so perhaps that isn't surprising. I came upon his story by chance as it was featured in a number of blogs I was browsing. I thought it was an interesting story: in its own right as a human interest story but also because of the way it has been covered in cyberspace.

As I understand the story Ray Boltz, who has been a significant influence in the American Christian music world for some years, has come out as gay. He did this, apparently, after a long period of soul-searching arising from a lifetime's understanding of his sexuality. He and his wife have now separated, at least in part as a consequence of his no longer being able to cope with the subturfuge of living as a straight man, although it seems to be an amicable and mutually supportive separation.

What has shocked me about this story is the way some Christian groups and publications, together with a significant number of individuals have turned on Ray Boltz and savaged him. Hot on the heels of the shock and distaste at this most vitriolic, wicked and un christian display of malice came a growing realisation that this treatment reveals the weaknesses in the theological approach of the Christian Right to issues of Human Sexuality. People are "disappointed" (the most mild description I could find) in Ray Boltz not so much because he is gay but because his admission of Homosexuality raises uncomfortable theological questions that the Right can not answer adequately and so would rather were not asked.

The time-honoured response of the Religious Right when threatened in this way is to resort to that most compassionately Christian of strategies: distance, ostricise, vilify, demonise and reject. The final stage is to question his Christian credentials and conclude that he is a "false Christian", was never saved and is in need of a true conversion experience. This conversion experience will bring him back, not just to God, but to the true way of the Heterosexual: everything will then be right with Ray and the natural order of things will be restored and he can be rehabilitated. The terms "gay" and "Christian" as applied to the same person is clearly a non-sequiter: it doesn't fit in with the theological world-view of the Religious Right, therefore it is clearly wrong.

So alien is the possibility that gays might also be made in the image of God, the Religious Right has to present sexuality as a choice. If gays were "born that way" it undermines homosexual discrimination on any grounds not jut theological grounds: a lifestyle based on innate propensity rather than conscious choice, is far more difficult to condemn. Yet Ray Boltz made a choice: he turned his back on his natural (note no use of speechmarks there) sexual preference and chose the heterosexual lifestyle. We can perhaps imagine the emotional turmoil: he didn't want to be gay. Who would when your co-religionists compare you to child-molesters; when you know that homosexuality is effectively the unforgivable sin in the eyes of man; when those same men - and it is, unsurprisingly, mainly men - tell you that God has a particular distaste for your sort and berate you with tendentious interpretations of scripture; when there is no acceptance, compassion or understanding in Christian society and when it must simply be easier, if not safer in some places, to play straight? So Ray chose to play it straight and we can't say that he didn't give it a fair go: thirty-odd years by anyone's standards must count as perseverence in the Spirit.

Ray chose Heterosexuality and in the end he couldn't sublimate his homosexuality. His true nature reasserted itself and that doesn't fit the script. It doesn't fit the script because it challenges the founding principle of the ex-gay movement: that God can change one's sexuality (although why he would need to if sexuality is merely a choice seems to me to be theologically inconsistent). This is too threatening.

Do we think that Ray didn't agonise in prayer over this? Do we think that he didn't repeatedly cast himself at the foot of the Throne of Grace in anguish? To hear some people talk you'd think that had never occurred to him. I have no doubt that Ray prayed long and often. I have no doubt that Ray repeatedly claimed the promise to be a "new creation in Christ" but he found it either to be an empty promise or one that God did not feel he needed to grant in terms of Ray's sexuality. I have no doubt that Ray then redoubled his efforts to be faithful to God, because surely God's failure to grant his prayer was merely an indication of his lack of faith? And this is how the Right sees it because there is no other alternative that makes sense in their theological world-view. Ray Boltz has let them down because he wouldn't - couldn't - fit the theological template as required. His experience has challenged a way of thinking. So now he is an unrepentant sinner and a deviant too and is therefore fair game for anyone to take a pop at.

Christians eh: don't you just love 'em?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Official: Evolution is compatible with the Bible

Announcing a conference next year on the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species", the Vatican said yesterday that Evolution was compatible with the Bible, but said it planned no apology to the scientist for the book's cold reception on publication.

Comment: 1.086 billion converts from creationism overnight. You've got to admire some aspects of centralised religion. What kept you guys?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

World opinion counts too in America's poll. (The Financial Times)

O.K. Putting "abortion" as the first word in the last title was an invitation to go off topic as Erika pointed out. Carry on disccussing abortion there if you must but today's post returns to the theme I was attempting to explore which is to what extent can we, and particularly Americans, see this election as a purely domestic one.

From: The Financial Times 16th September 08

One of the more comic episodes during the last US presidential election was the effort by Britain’s Guardian newspaper to influence the vote. The Guardian accurately foresaw that the state of Ohio was going to be crucial to the outcome. So it provided its readers with the addresses of 14,000 voters in Clark County, Ohio – and encouraged them to write letters, urging a vote against George W. Bush.

Ken Loach, a British film director, set the tone for this charm offensive by writing: “Today your country is reviled across continents as never before.” But – sadly – this effort to win friends and influence voters backfired spectacularly. In the event Clark was the only one of Ohio’s 88 counties to switch from Democrat to Republican in 2004. A headline in the Springfield News-Sun, an Ohio paper, summed up the local mood: “Butt out Brits, voters say.”

Perhaps wisely, The Guardian has decided not to repeat the experiment this year. But its journalists are still watching the US presidential election with mounting concern. Jonathan Freedland, a columnist, recently wrote of a “sinking feeling in the stomach”, as he watched the polls turn against Barack Obama. His article was headlined: “The world’s verdict will be harsh if the US rejects the man it yearns for”.

Mr Freedland is clearly correct to point out that foreigners (and not just Guardian readers) are overwhelmingly rooting for Mr Obama. A BBC poll of 22 countries, published a couple of weeks ago, found pro-Obama majorities in every single one of them – from India to Kenya to Germany and points in between. Israel is the only nation that I know of where the polls suggest that John McCain is the local favourite.

But should Americans care about what the rest of the world thinks? They are, after all, electing a president of the US – not a secretary- general of the UN. Foreigners may wonder why the ability to dress a moose or drive your kids to a hockey game is a relevant qualification for the vice-presidency. But the US is quite a successful country. So its voters may not be as bad at picking their leaders as the rest of the world evidently fears.

It is also true that a lot of anti-American sentiment is so deeply rooted – and so irrational – that it will take a lot more than the election of a charming Democrat to change things. Another poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org, published last week, found that 23 per cent of Germans, 30 per cent of Mexicans and 36 per cent of Turks thought that it was in fact the US government that perpetrated the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

It would be understandable if American voters looked at figures like that and decided that it really was pointless worrying about what the Germans or the Mexicans thought of the next occupant of the White House.

But, tempting as it is, that would be a mistake. The fact that the rest of the world overwhelmingly favours Mr Obama deserves to be a factor – no more than that – in the choice that Americans will make in November.

To understand why, consider another poll: the annual Transatlantic Trends survey for the German Marshall Fund. In 2002 – the year before the invasion of Iraq – this found that 64 per cent of Europeans thought that American leadership in the world was desirable. But the 2008 survey found that support for US leadership is now down to 36 per cent.

This matters to America – or at least it should matter. Both main candidates for the White House have outlined foreign policy platforms that stress the need to rebuild American alliances. With Wall Street in meltdown and the American military overstretched, the days when a new US president could confidently promise to “pay any price, bear any burden” are long gone. The next occupant of the White House is going to want to do a bit of burden-sharing. And he will have to turn to the Europeans – feckless and irritating though they may be – first of all.

There is little doubt that a President Obama would start with much more goodwill than a President McCain – and that would be a big advantage. But either candidate is going to have a chance to introduce himself to the world in the first few months of the presidency. Both would find it useful to be as charming as possible.

Gideon Rachman

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pulling my arm

When I'm working inside I'll occasionally be found standing still, just watching a situation develop. This is not the time for a drunken punter to be thinking that I need to be included in his drunken attempts at impressing his friends. He'll have said something funny or thrown some crazy dance move and then thought through the beer induced haze that I really need to be involved in his drunken moment. He'll wander up and touch my arm or god forbid put his arm around me to get me to play with him. I'll shrug him off and possibly shuffle off a little if it's practical. If he tries again I'll likely turn and advise him that I'm working and can't spare him the time. Then we have to see how stupid he really is. If he tries again I'll spin and possibly flatten him as I make it clear it's time for him to vanish, in a "there's the door, get through it" kind of way.
Hopefully whatever I'm watching will keep 'til I get back. If it won't, I'll sort it first then give the pillock my undivided attention.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Abortion is the No. 1 election priority? Stop it: you're frightening me now!

I was looking on another blog a day or so ago, an American blog and a thoughtful and thought-provoking one. I was quite surprised at how the discussion developed. "Let me give you a clue how I'm going to vote" was the tag line. The clue was abortion - in fact nothing short of the total irradication of abortion in the U.S.through the overturning of Roe v Wade. This is not a unique position by any means, as I discovered as I contnued to surf.

There are people who are going to vote in this election on the issue of abortion?

Now, please don't misunderstand me: I am not an advocate of abortion on demand by any means, but the idea that there are people who will cast their votes in this election first and foremost on the issue of abortion is terrifying. Have these people so little national self-awareness that they still believe that this is a purely domestic election? WAKE UP GUYS!!! You are the only superpower on the planet at the moment therefore the outcome of your vote has international ramifications and however unlooked for, that is an awsome responsibility.

If this was a British election I doubt anyone outside these isles - and a good few within them - would care in the slightest about our domestic concerns, but let's not kid ourselves that the U.S. election is one like any other. Now of all times you can not afford to be inward looking and go all isolationist on us as if what you choose has no wider implications.

Oh God help us, D.P.'s going all prophetic on us.

You bet I am: we have a resurgent Russia, we have Iraq and Afghanistan as yet unresolved, we have Burma, Georgia, Darfur, Israel/Palestine, Zimbabwe and Tibet as international rebukes; we have environmental degradation; we have the real and present threat of terrorism; we have Freddie Mac and Fannie May, Lehman Brothers and Merrill-Lynch, runs on banks and a consequent financial instability that reverberates around the world (for which, thank you - it's costing me money) and you want to vote on abortion? Are you so inward looking that you have forgotten there is a world beyond your borders?


Editorial from Sunday's Observer Newspaper:

It seemed that to many Europeans, (your supposed friends, partners and allies) especially of a liberal bent, the emergence of Sarah Palin as one of the dominant forces in American politics is a cause for dismay.

At first glance she seems to represent the triumph of the personal over the political. Her looks are remarked upon, her fashions critiqued. For supporters her status as a mother of five is touted as her greatest virtue. For others the Palin family is a source of sniping gossip. Her breezy, straight-talking style is hailed by admirers as a key to unlocking the vital support of the latest fad in polling demographics: Wal-Mart Moms. Others see it as a sign of a political ingenue possessing little in the way of sophistication beyond her background as a small town mayor.

This is to overlook the substance of her beliefs. Palin represents an extreme form of conservatism. She is not just anti-abortion, she opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. And Palin supports the introduction of creationist ideas into the classroom, alongside evolution. She is sceptical of global warming, only recently accepting that human activities might play a role, flying in the face of vast bodies of scientific opinion - even the US government's own advisers. She is pro-drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas in a world that needs to wean itself away from fossil fuels. Her grasp of foreign policy is limited to a series of hawkish and naive soundbites on Russia, terrorism and Iran.

America has had eight years of a government that has held similar views. The result has been to put ideological and emotional distance between it and large parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America. Apart from isolationist Republicans, this is bad news both for America and the rest of us. America needs a friendlier world to do economic and political business. The world needs an America more in tune with its natural friends and allies.

The political beliefs exemplified by Palin and her fellow religious conservatives are not the answer, no matter how well presented by her considerable political skills.

Change is the watchword of the American election. But McCain, in putting Palin on his ticket, is trying to pull off an audacious con trick. Palin does not represent change, but more of the same. And then some.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Well, if I am going to comment - and it seems I am, I am going to take a different approach for my own sanity.

In the street Palin is a Milf. Stand her next to McCain and she's a Barely Legal covergirl'

Charlie Brooker The Guardian, Saturday September 13 2008

Pssst. You know the American election, yeah? That unfolding spectacle across the Atlantic; the one you've been a bit worried about of late? (The one Doorman-Priest WASN'T going to comment on?) Well, the good news is you can stop fretting. It doesn't matter. It isn't real.

But don't take my word for it. I'm a cretin. Ask an egghead channel. As part of this week's US election mini-season,(Oh God NO, please!),President Hollywood (Mon, 9pm, BBC4) takes a squint at the curious co-dependent relationship between fictional and real US presidents. Each has informed and influenced the other, it seems: Hollywood and the entertainment industry swap positions as regularly as enthusiastic rutters in an even-handed one-night-stand. One minute Kennedy's giving the world of fiction a blowjob by providing a role model for noble decency that survives to this day, and the next, TV's slurping straight back, preparing the ground for Obama courtesy of The West Wing's Matt Santos.

As a result, the lines between fiction and reality are almost hopelessly blurred. And probably a bit sticky. Voters would dearly love to elect some kind of mythic "innocent outsider", the archetype for which was defined way back in 1939 by Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. That's why both Obama and McCain attempt to portray themselves as warm-hearted agents of change.

Bush pulled the same trick, of course, although his down-home aw-shucks act rings fairly hollow these days, what with the war and the waterboarding and all that. Nixon's ignoble spell in the White House inspired a string of conspiracy thrillers and slippery, sinister commanders-in-chief. But Nixon impersonations are growing stale. If nothing else, Bush's legacy should at least provide an exciting new template for movie presidents: the war-mongering pseudo-rube.

Anyway, President Hollywood itself is a pretty interesting programme with one glaring flaw: it was made before anyone knew Sarah Palin existed. If, as the show suggests, every election campaign somehow resembles a movie plot, this was the moment a rough'n'ready Dolly Parton/Erin Brockovich character stepped in to dispense a little butt-kickin' straight talk on behalf of everywoman. Or at least that's how Team McCain is spinning it. As a way of distracting everyone from the perceived weaknesses of friendly-but-doddery McCain himself, it appears to have worked, and worked well.

But their inspiration seems to have been drawn not from Hollywood at all, but the world of reality TV. The structure is markedly similar. Palin arrived as a complete unknown, which meant the news media had to spend hours explaining who she was in little VT packages; bung some gaudy pop and a few lens flare effects on top and you could've been watching a contestant biog on The X Factor. It helps that she's hot. Hot for a politician, that is. In the street she's a standard Milf. Stand her next to 500-year-old John McCain and she's a Barely Legal covergirl. While half the electorate argue about her hardline stance on abortion, the other half is debating which position they'd do her in first. Not out loud, you understand, but in their heads. Or online.

Furthermore, as a moose-hunting former beauty queen, Palin is a kooky character - precisely the sort of person a producer would home in on at the auditions like a dog sniffing meat. Obama's a stock character too, of course - the "likable tryhard" - but although he ticks precisely the same reality boxes as Palin (unknown, good looking, etc), he's not as obviously kooky. Given a choice between "kooky" and "able" in a talent contest, reality viewers reward "kooky" every time. And why shouldn't they? They're watching a TV show, not picking the next government.

Except they are in this case, obviously. It just doesn't feel that way. The unreal whiff of reality TV has overwhelmed the senses, and now, if some booming voice-of-God suddenly announced the whole thing would be decided in a live election day sing-off, none could raise an eyebrow in wholly honest surprise.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Oh All Right Then.....

I know I said I wouldn't but...........

BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, 8 September 2008
Clifford Longley

Just now the internet in America is buzzing with what you might call "the search for Sarah Palin's God". Every kind of speculation is out there among the blogs. The reasons are fairly obvious. She was chosen for John McCain's presidential ticket because there are a lot of conservative voters in America who regard her as one of their own. She helps Mr McCain's chances with them. As vice president she would take over the running of the country if anything untoward happened to the president, who is in his mid-seventies. What she believes could make a difference to everyone's life, American or not.

Sarah Palin has belonged to a pentecostalist church called the Assemblies of God, but is now being described as a post-denominational Evangelical. We know she favours creationism and does not believe global warming is caused by carbon emissions. She's against abortion and homosexuality. Whether she actually thinks that the United States invasion of Iraq was God's will, or merely said that she hoped it was, remains to be clarified.

This is where the rest of the world needs to be wary. There is a strong strand in fundamentalist American Protestantism that believes God has given America a special and manifest destiny in world affairs - indeed that Americans are in a sense God's Chosen People and hence there is no real distinction to be made between America's interests and God's interests. The merging of religion with nationalism is always dangerous.

I believe this is close to the true meaning of the famous saying quoted in three of the Gospels, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." Jewish nationalists opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine were trying to persuade people to stop paying taxes to the Romans, symbolised by the emperor's head on the coin. They wanted to recruit Jesus to their patriotic cause. He evaded the question by offering a general principle, saying, in effect, you can work it out for yourself. Caesar and God are two different things, so for God's sake keep them apart.

We British have to admit that we were once very good at confusing God's interests with Britain's interests; indeed, that is where Americans got the idea from in the first place. Now we've moved on, or let's hope we have. The positive side of this belief is that people who think they are acting on God's behalf can be very earnest, high minded and unselfish. If you're not careful, though, any and every quarrel America is involved in becomes a conflict between good and evil. What we need is the corollary of Jesus's words, "Do not render unto God the things that are Caesar's, nor to Caesar the things that are God's." Do not, in other words, confuse patriotism with piety.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

BBC Radio 4's "Thought For The Day"

Revd Dr David Wilkinson

Knowing that I was a scientist and a Christian theologian, someone asked me last week whether the imminent discovery of the 'god particle' would cause a problem to my faith. While gently reminding this person that the term is a misnomer for the elusive Higgs boson, I said "absolutely not." As an astrophysicist who worked with high energy particles in the cosmic radiation, I am thrilled by the construction of the Large Hadron Collider and excited by the opportunity to study in detail some of the crucial questions of the composition and early evolution of our Universe. As a Christian I am equally thrilled by the gift of science which makes this possible, and excited by the prospect of knowing a little more about how God did it.

Kepler once said that "Science is thinking God's thoughts after him" - although a penny for God's thoughts has taken a lot of euros and 10 years of building! People of faith have nothing to fear by new scientific discoveries. The God of Christian theology is not a god of the gaps, an intelligent designer who can be proved in the places of our scientific ignorance. God is the One who holds the whole scientific story in existence by maintaining the laws of physics.

I hope the collider is successful in filling in some more of the story such the origin of mass, the nature of dark matter or the interactions in a quark-gluon plasma. If our current standard model is confirmed or even superseded by something more elegant and surprising, then we are still faced by the origin, the beauty, the universality and intelligibility of the laws of physics themselves. Many of us are struck by the question of why the Universe is so ordered in this extraordinary way. I am drawn to a phrase in one of the letters of the apostle Paul who wrote that "in Christ all things hold together or cohere". Behind the myriad of particles and the laws, the universe has a coherent story because it is creation.

In 1947 in a lab in the Pyrenees, George Rochester and Clifford Butler, with a relatively cheap but ingenious experiment, discovered in the cosmic radiation the tracks of the kaon, the first known 'strange' particle. This was a crucial step to the building of large accelerating machines to study energetic nuclear interactions - a journey that leads today to the Large Hadron Collider. When I was a physics student, the then retired Professor Rochester became a friend and we would sit together in our local church. I asked him once why he thought God had made a Universe with so many strange and exotic particles, to which he replied "Of course all particles are God's particles. The really amazing thing is that he gives us the gift of science to discover them."

This "Thought for the Day" can be heard

N.B: American visitors might like to follow the link and also read or listen to Sept 8th's "Thought for the Day" (But I'm not doing "THE" Election.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Face to Faith: The Challenge

The Christian creed is full of bad science that makes it a religion of deception, argues David Bradnack

The Guardian,

Saturday September 6 2008

'Had I but served God as diligently as I have served the king, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs," said Cardinal Wolsey.

Had I but tried to understand mankind as diligently as I tried to understand your God, I would not in my grey hairs be given over to such bitter anger about the spiritual and intellectual energy that in my teens and 20s I put into trying to believe what I thought I had to believe for the salvation of my soul. My salvation finally came when, well into adulthood, I found that there was at least one intellectually respectable way of explaining that whatever happened about AD33 was not a resurrection as understood by the pious, and that the gospels are not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I think I remember my reaction on first being confronted with the creed, but I have only fairly recently been able to put it into words, because only fairly recently has "So what?" become a current expression.

The creed is arranging the deckchairs on a fantasy ship, concerned with who sitteth at the right hand of whom and who had - or did not have - relations with whom, not the icebergs ahead. You can deduce little or nothing from the creed on how you should live. As you believe in the holy Catholic church, you must do what the Roman Catholic church tells you to do - or if you have been taught to interpret catholic not as Roman Catholic but as universal, then you must do what the universal church tells you, but what does the universal church agree on?

The creed is your mission statement, but for all the guidance in it, our common enterprise could be burning heretics and stoning adulterers, marching to an unjust war, one in selfish hope of everlasting life for ourselves and one in enforcing intolerant doctrine upon others. It is left to a hymn-writer to add: one in charity. Much as I deplore Paul's theology, charity is a better rallying cry than belief in Mary's virginity and in Jesus surviving after death. Though you believe in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Creed of St Athanasius, and have not charity, you are as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. Though you have all faith in the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and have not charity, it profiteth us nothing.

Obviously some believers are very good people, but this is a placebo effect. They have been persuaded that faith will make them better, so it does. Their goodness lies in their attitude to other people, not in their faith in the resurrection.

The resurrection is a gimmick to catch the attention of the gullible. It does not prove that your sins have been paid for. If Christ paid for your sins by dying, and was subsequently made alive, the payment is fraudulent. It does nothing to show us that we shall survive death, let alone do so for all eternity. Manifestly we do not flit around in some semi-corporeal form for 40 days after our death as Jesus did in the gospels, and if Jesus could only manage 40 days, what hope of eternity is there for the rest of us?

Overcoming physical death confers no moral authority. It does not prove the divinity of Christ - other people have survived execution or been found to be alive after being pronounced dead, and no new religions have been started in their names.

Teaching the virgin birth and the resurrection is irresponsible bad science, preventing us from understanding the real world, just as opposing Galileo and Darwin was bad science and astrology and homeopathy are bad science.

The creed makes Christianity the religion of deception. Either you deceive yourself into believing in the virgin birth and the resurrection as literal fact, or you know they are a metaphor, but you mouth the words to deceive the gullible that they must believe them. I wish I could lay on those responsible the iniquity of it all.

David Bradnack is a retired teacher

Comment: No, come down from the fence and tell us what you really think!

I admire his style and as I started reading I felt a lot of sympathy for his position and actually, by the end, I could still see where he was coming from but didn't agree with his conclusions. I am not sure how I would have done it differently given the nature of his general premise.

Your Task (should you choose to accept it): Referring to religious sources, and showing that you have thought about more than one point of view, comment on David Brandack's article.

(Oh dear, once a teacher......)

Friday, September 5, 2008

And a belated vote of thanks......

To my good blogging buddies who held the fort during my time in Tallinn:



Reverend Boy

La Grandmere





Dr. Bob

Many thanks for a fabulous job. It is clear that people really appreciated the new perspectives.
I just realised, too, that sometime during my sojourn in Estonia, I passed my first anniversary as a blogger. Amazing. What a journey!

A quick word of explanation to my American friends

Please don't take offence: It's not that I've fallen out with you - any of you - honest. I am visiting but I am not commenting much because my limited interest in your election processes is all but exhausted.

I blame the BBC.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Theological Reflection from Estonia 3

The beginning of my last week at Püha Vaimu Kirik (see picture) found me preaching on Mat 16 with Peter’s recognition of Jesus as "The Christ, the Son of the Living God", a more sophisticated statement of faith than that expressed by the Canaanite woman. And herein lies the key to the Christian experience. I have said a number of times in sermons that Lutherans have this understanding about faith and good works with good works, important as they are, merely being the marks of obedient discipleship. The church, when it does these things well, is a remarkable agent for social change and a powerful moral force, but these are marks of obedient discipleship and are not our primary ministry. Our primary ministry, as Dean Gustav would say, is Worship, Word and Sacrament followed by Service. What is the motive for our Christian service? Why does a church like Püha Vaimu have links with significant social services organisations? Why do we continue to care for the marginalised and disenfranchised even when it is sometimes hard to be in sympathy with their plight?
In Mat 25.35-36 Jesus says "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me and I was in prison and you visited me." To do these things for their own sake is justification enough because they need doing, but as Jesus has already said earlier in Matthew (11.28) "Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest....and you will find rest in your souls." the wider justification for our good works apart from obedient discipleship, is to provide a Christian witness: a witness that points to Jesus and the salvation he offers so that people can say, as Peter said "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." And begin that journey of faith into salvation.

This raises the huge issue of the distinction between witness and evangelism There are many Christians who are impatient to speak to every "lost soul" and see preaching the Gospel in all seasons as an obligation and a duty: they dismiss a more cautious approach as "friendship evangelism": "But that person may drop dead tomorrow and you never spoke of Jesus because you were too busy relationship building." Others prefer a more softly-softly approach waiting for the Holy Spirit to prompt with the right opportunity to speak: they dismiss the alternative approach as a scatter-gun that does more harm than good to the Christian cause: "Well, I’ve told you so now you know. When you go to Hell, it’s not on my conscience." Yet both approaches aim at building faith to the point of a personal revelation such as that to Peter "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And even in bleak Kopli there is an overt Christian presence. Both the Salvation Army and Bethel, through the Peeteli Kirik, have a base there. (Bethel works particularly with street children and now runs a day centre and children’s home.) Both organisations experience growing church attendance. Even in Kopli the understanding "you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" is a daily reality and a rebuke to those of the NIMBY persuasion who resist the setting up of Christian centres for the vulnerable in their "nicer" areas. Nevertheless, this seems to be a situation ripe for a church planting: and a church planting of a fresh expressions approach.

I leave the last word to the Tallinna Kopli Korpus (Salvation Army): "Have I not commanded you? Be courageous. Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." (Josh 1.9).

Monday, September 1, 2008

Just go,

Why do the folk who've found themselves out on the street not just go away? Most will bimble about by front door, texting their mates still inside or just shouting abuse at us. They usually get bored and bugger off in a little while, once we've decided we're not letting them in, we are not letting them in. If they just go away and we don't have to see their pitiful faces for the rest of the night then the less chance we have of remembering not to let them in the next night they stumble round our way.
Some shuffle off, getting more abusive the further they get, that's amusing providing they move fast enough. If they move really slowly the police will often drive up slowly behind them, hear enough and have them cuffed before they realise it's not a taxi they've blocked by standing in the road to hurl abuse at us.
Others just don't go away. They sit across the road, or lean against the walls beside the doorway. They linger, occasionally trying to sneak back in or just lurking as if they've lost their purpose completely. They can linger for hours. Even after the doors are shut, the music's off, the dj's have left the building and the staff are emptying bottles into the bin. There's nowt for them but they just can't get moving or get over their ejection and the apparent social rejection this entails. Why they want to sit 'til they sober up on a vomit and beer stained street remains a mystery to me. They do go home, they're not still there in the morning. Why they don't take 5 minutes to gather themselves and sod off out of my night I have no idea.

Theological Reflection from Estonia 2

The Gospel readings have continued to guide my thoughts about my experiences here and I have been struck by their relevance to what has been going on. The following week’s gospel, Matthew 16, took the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and in my preparation to preach I had concentrated on the idea that it is we who seek to put limits on God’s grace. The Canaanite woman was the outsider, a woman, alone in public and a foreigner. She was not, therefore, part of Jesus’ vision for his ministry which he saw then exclusively in terms of being to the House of Israel. It is her persistence that wins his change of heart towards her and is significant because it suggests a development of Jesus understanding of his own mission. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of the full implications of his mission. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.

I wanted to argue the point that we need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!” We therefore need to consider who the outsider, the marginalised and the disenfranchised are in our societies. Who is the “other” today, those that we reject because they don’t fit into our self imposed pigeonholes of who God accepts?

This speaks to me: apart from my new issue of tourists milling about in church, my own personal struggle is with beggars, usually of the drunken sort. Here again I am challenged to consider the application to my own situation as I challenge others to consider the application to theirs. Tallinn, as all cities do, has beggars. Many are elderly Russian ladies and they get short shrift from most people who are fed the line that they are part of a Russian Mafia network of professional beggars. While that seems fanciful to me, I am in no position to come here and challenge received wisdom. What I do know is that these old ladies present a pitiful sight standing around holding out margarine tubs for alms. This could, of course, be the exact effect intended but it stirs my conscience every time – again you could argue that this is the intention. When I came here in 2005 it was midwinter and these same old ladies were out then. Would anyone really do that all day in sub-zero temperatures as part of an organised racket? “Preposterous.” said Anne-Liis, the Church Warden, when I told her the organised crime theory.

The Canaanite woman was met with rudeness and rebuff from Jesus and his followers. I watch the tourists from America, Sweden and Germany and all the other rich first world nations, their wallets full of holiday spending money, treat these old ladies in the same way: harshly and with rudeness and rebuff and they remind me of the Canaanite woman. Not only are they someone’s mother and grandmother but they are the “other” in Estonian society: marginalised and outcast in our eyes but not beyond the grace of God. A 10 EEK note represents 50 pence and a 25 EEK note £1.50. I need to make the judgement about whether I am supporting organised crime by giving to these old ladies or providing a hot drink to someone who has been harassed and abused all day by people who treat them as invisible. It is still a tough call and I don’t know the answer, other than to say that if they look like vagrants, they probably are, and most vagrants here are alcoholics so they should never be given money. With the others you make your best judgement.

The issue is the same with the toeless man who carries a sign that claims he is a war veteran who has lost his toes to mines and the legless man in the wheelchair. They too are the “other”, marginalised and despised. Gustav says that they have pensions. They may well have but what is the appropriate balance between suspicion and compassion? The legless man may have a pension: it will be small and he still has no legs and a shit life. Does he deserve to be abused and humiliated? Is he beyond the grace of God? The Canaanite woman wasn’t.

I spoke to him: he is clean cut and looks well cared for. I watched him for a long time before I approached him – neither of which I would probably have done at home. He never took the initiative with tourists but responded when they gave him money. His name is Sacha and he lost his legs in a train accident. Why should I disbelieve that? He confirmed that he had a pension: “But this is Estonia. It is a small pension.” He was articulate and personable. Does that make him more deserving of charity than the alcoholics who try to scrounge money and cigarettes from tourists? Does that make them more outside God’s grace than Sacha or the old ladies?

An evening with the marginalised and despised followed hot on the heels of these thoughts as I spent a night with the Head of Tallinn’s social services, Mart-Peeter Erss.

I had mentioned to Gustav something of my interest in issues relating to drug and alcohol dependency and HIV education. He organised for me to spend an evening with the Director of Social services himself. A needle exchange programme; a hostel for alcoholics and vagrants; a few very seedy pubs; a sink estate for problem families; feral children; a night shelter and a halfway house for homeless families; drunks and addicts collapsed on the street - one still with the syringe in his arm and addicted prostitutes. A typical night for Tallinn social services and not unlike a route I could trace in Leeds or Bradford. Even with the overwhelming sense of desperation and bleakness, three things stood out in my mind: 1) Mart-Peeter’s articulation of pessimism, "We aren’t changing anything". 2) The way I was shown round the alcoholics’ hostel. These men have nothing, have lost everything and seemingly now the right to dignity and privacy too. The warden just flung open doors without knocking. What was I? A visitor to a zoo? Let’s show the foreign visitor the exhibits. 3) Finally what struck me was that all of this was to be found in one northern suburb, Kopli, where 75% of the population is Russian. When I commented to Gustav the next day about the smell in the hostel his response was that I would find the same smell on tram no.1 and bus no.3. A couple of days ago an American tourist had described the Old Town as how Disney would do medieval. At the time I thought that was harsh. Walking home after Mart-Peeter dropped me off, I felt he had a point.

This is an incredible challenge to anyone with any compassion because the levels of deprivation and the human degradation and hopelessness is overwhelming: It has certainly overwhelmed social services – underfunded and understaffed as anywhere. What is the Pastor’s appropriate response to such a situation? Mine was to go and drink beer with Gunnar, our night security porter and a quickly established friend. A former policeman with extensive undercover experience, he just joined up the dots about the crime levels in Kopli. He also muttered darkly about the number of "train accidents" in Estonia. A lot of the men in the hostle were legless - in every sense. Gunnar talked about gangrene setting in when men collapsed in a stupor in the depths of winter and suffered frost-bite. He also talked about suicide by train.
I’m sorry to confess, I just don’t have the Mother Teresa gene in me. And don’t start me on the vexed question of where God is in all this. The trite answer is alongside the suffering and offering perpetual redemption. Beyond that I have no answer at all, because any response seems so inadequate.

The Canaanite woman was assertive with Jesus in regard to God’s grace. These people don’t have the wherewithall to be assertive with anyone, ground down as they are by unemployment, lack of education, poverty, addiction, speaking the "wrong" language and a culture of criminal activity as a way of life. This being the case such people need an advocate to speak for them. The church can be a powerful advocate but these people are distainful of organised religion are are extremely unlikely to make the expression of both need and faith found on the lips of the Canaanite woman.