Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who'd have thought it?

We have a new leader of the opposition, Edward Miliband. He is secretly Jewish.

Oh, no. Hang on a minute, that's not right. He CLAIMS to be Jewish but he is in fact a SECRET MUSLIM. Yeah. That's right. That's what I heard on the INTERNET anyway.

He has two brothers: David Miliband and Glen Miller Band

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16.19-31

Three friends die in a car crash, and they find themselves at the Gates of Heaven. Before entering, they are each asked a question by St. Peter himself :
"When the funeral service is taking place and your friends and families are talking about you, what would you like to hear them say about you?" asks St. Peter to each in turn.

The first man says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor and a great family man."

The second man says, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and a teacher who made a huge difference to our children."

The last man replies. "I would like to hear them say.... LOOK !!! HE'S MOVING!!!!!"

No, I’ve not gone mad. I start with that as an illustration: given time, I suspect each of you could come up with a joke about the afterlife and today’s Gospel reading illustrates that there were stories about the hereafter at the time of Jesus too.

What we need to recognise straight away is that the parable teaches absolutely nothing about the nature of the afterlife and it was not intended to; it does not document either heaven or hell, although it may have been the foundation for many of the erroneous beliefs about "hell" within some branches of Christianity. No, Jesus is merely playing around with a folktale. The difference is that we tell our afterlife jokes to amuse: Jesus told his to challenge a group of people – The Pharisees. The passage tells us: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling…”

Now the nature of a parable is that it has two levels of meaning: there is the literal meaning – what you see is what you get – but there is always another level, often more obscure and it is this level that carries the real punch. It’s a story with a hidden message: a spiritual nugget for those who understand. “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” we hear from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. (Ch 13)

But this time it seems that the Disciples and the other “ordinary” folk – tax collectors and sinners - didn’t get the meaning but the Pharisees did.
But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.

Let’s consider the literal meaning first.

The rich man in this story lives a life of ostentatious comfort, while Lazarus suffers right outside the gates of his house. The rich man's preoccupation with wealth, and their different social status, prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime. Both men die: Lazarus likely of starvation and the rich man?

Well, it’s tempting to imagine his cause of death as an over-indulgence linked heart attack or stroke. Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man to Hades and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hades. As Martin Luther wrote on this passage: “He lived to himself and served only himself….and by these dreadful and wicked fruits of unbelief, he covers them over and blinds his own eyes by the good works of his Pharisaical life.”

Just because this is the literal story and Jesus’ message is really to be found in the hidden meaning doesn’t mean that we can’t take a moral from this level of understanding. We can. We can talk quite reasonably about a practical application to our attitude to wealth and status, or at least relative wealth and status. I need to make this parable real for me otherwise it will remain as a mildly interesting religious story without the power to touch me. I need to find an application to my daily life: I don’t have a starving beggar living on my doorstep but, as it happens, I do find beggars in general, alcoholics and addicts, often aggressive and all rolled into the same person, a real problem.

How about you? Who is it that you don’t see? Who is your Lazarus? Is it about race, sexuality, gender, age, disability, social class, weight, political affiliation? What? Be quite clear that in those terms you can take a valid personal application from this understanding of the story.

So the parable works on that level because there is a challenge there to living the Christian life and serving the outcast and the marginalised out of obedient discipleship and we can read the parables in this section of Luke as illustrating faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the injunction to compassion, and see the possession of wealth as a stumbling block to that compassion. The Rich Man wasn't even a little merciful to Lazarus in his lifetime; he was blinded to the needs of compassion by his own wealthy lifestyle. Lazarus, by contrast, was forced to live a life relying on mercy and compassion.

Now this is the third in a series of parables which Jesus told to the same audience: the others were the Prodigal Son and the Unfaithful Servant and this idea of compassion versus wealth seems to work equally well for all three. Well, the ending of the parable in this interpretation is a little problematic but some scholars say that the latter verses are not original, so we could put them on one side, just concentrate on the folktale element and we have a perfectly valid application of a Biblical story which is that it is not sufficient merely not to do evil and not to do harm, but rather that one must be helpful and do good.

One is tempted to say that what happens in the death of our protagonists is a role reversal except that such a conclusion would be too literal an interpretation and would lead us down all sorts of misleading and unhelpful roads in relation to the afterlife.

Or, we could struggle with the hidden meaning where the latter verses are vital to the whole, addition or not. One of the keys to unpicking this level of understanding is to recognise that the key characters almost always stand for someone else. Well, we only have three – unless you include the dogs – The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham. (And it seems we should include the dogs because many scholars don’t think they are there are there as a throw away detail).

Actually, let’s start with the dogs, as they may be the key to unlocking the puzzle. Do you remember the account of Jesus meeting a gentile woman: a woman from Syrophoenecia? The story is found in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is initially very harsh with her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He just called her a dog, which was how the Gentiles were seen, so who are the children in that story? The Jews.

It is the same in this parable. Lazarus, unclean because of his sores, is comforted by and associated with, the dogs: unclean animals in Jewish belief and the Rich Man would certainly not have had one in his house. Lazarus is being presented as the outsider, the Gentile. At the same time the Rich Man is being identified with the Jews. The references to his clothes as being purple with fine linen identify him symbolically with the priestly caste of Israel. So, on his death it would be only right and proper for him to go to the bosom of his father Abraham and take the seat of honour beside him. But no, it is the outsider, Lazarus who takes the place of honour at the spiritual banquet hitherto reserved for the Jews, while the Rich Man is cast away. Note too the reference to the Rich man’s five brothers, another important symbolic clue to the Rich Man’s identity: Judah, the father of the Jews had five brothers. This detail cements the identity of the Rich Man as the House of Judah – the Jews.

You and I may not have spotted that without help but the Pharisees knew their history and were proud of their heritage. They got the references alright and they didn’t like it.

Yes, well, very interesting but so what? What has this to do with me?
Well the stories of the Syrophoenecian woman, the Centurion with his Servant, the parable of the Good Samaritan and a number of others, open up the prospect that Gentile believers would become “sons of Abraham” through faith in Christ. The Jews had been Abraham’s physical descendants, but after the crucifixion the place of honour and blessing would be given to the people represented by Lazarus. That’s you and me and potentially most of the people we know.

The self-righteous, accusing Pharisees and scribes, who were the religious authorities, should have been the ones telling these people of God's love for them. They should have been the ones teaching the sinners, exhorting them to return to God and receive His love and forgiveness. However, because of their faith in their own righteousness and their contempt for these common people who didn't measure up to their standards, the Pharisees and scribes excluded them and considered them outside the scope of God’s grace. Jesus had already warned them in Ch 3.8: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’

And what of the ending which didn’t get much attention in the literal understanding of the story? It’s key here: the ending points beyond the parable to Jesus. The Pharisees will not believe even when Jesus is raised. Remember, the disciples were themselves sceptical initially.
Not even the proverbial visitor from the dead would convince the elite to recognize the needs of the poor. Neither does Jesus’ resurrection have the power to create faith, if one does "not listen to Moses and the prophets”, which consistently direct us to caring for the poor, not being greedy and to giving alms.

Now this is quite a different understanding of the story to the first and yet in many respects the outcome is the same in terms of its practical application: in either understanding of this parable we need to talk about our obedient discipleship in the way we relate as Christians to others. From the literal understanding of the story we can legitimately talk about understanding our own prejudices and recognising the other in our society to whom we need to express the love and compassion of God. We can then work out ways in which we can be servants of those people in our charitable giving, in our volunteering of time and in our attitudes when we meet them.

If we consider the hidden meaning of the parable we are confronted again with issues of obedient discipleship in the way we relate to others. This time, though, our responsibility lies in recognising that it is not for us to seek to put limits on God’s grace. The task here surely lies in our being willing to see God in those we come into contact with, regardless of who they are and to trust the Holy Spirit that those same people will see God in us. This is our Christian witness and the Spirit works through us to convict others of their sin and to bring them back to God – whoever they are.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Full ahead

I've been privy to a number of opening nights over the years. They all have their own charms, from super clubs where you're in a team of 20+ to the relaunch of a flagging pub in the charmless end of town. There are a couple of things they all have in common though.
There will inevitably be jobs not done. The timescale of a launch is planned well in advance and all of the contractors are assigned their tasks. Initiations are sent out for the day and the PR machines spring into action. This means that when the inevitable delays, errors and cancellations occur there will always be tasks left undone. Most don't impact the fun for the majority of folks, most don't really have an impact on my work. Some, like the intruder alarms triggering all night, do have an impact but in a 'show must go on' type of way, we work 'round it and get it all running smoothly.
There is always a ludicrous guest list. The press, the local scene, the music, wine or ale specialists that they want to impress and even the contractors. This eclectic mix is inevitably supplemented by the staff, past present and future. All of these have partners and friends. This doesn't even include the VIPs, celebrities and investors who turn up to party. This as well as the high tide flood of punters stirred into curiosity by the promotions and PR drive.
Then we have the failures, things that were working 5 minutes ago stop working, things that didn't do that, suddenly do. This is just normal in a venue of any size, how you react to it usually takes teamwork and experience, not something you've necessarily got when those doors swing open for the first time. What you do then is think fast and solve it, lie, cheat, beg borrow and steal to make it through with the least amount of disruption to the smooth, polished facade your presenting.
The over-riding thing that is common to all of these events is the disappointment. All of the promoters, planners and stakeholders try hard. They commit a large amount of time, money and effort to making it as big as possible. They plan and hope for it to be as big as they can possibly imagine. They anticipate all of their marketing hitting the target, the weather being great, the cup tie not involving the local team, the competitors missing a trick. This doesn't come off and despite the cocaine smiles and sleep deprivation, they are all disappointed. I make it to the end of another shift, maybe stressful, maybe energetic but as long as I make it through and don't make too many mistakes I go away satisfied.

Fabulous!



(Irish dancers Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding)

It brings a smile to my face every time.

Thanks to Strelizia

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Pope, the Tabloids, Winterval and that Muslim plot to kill him


I just happened to catch a glimpse of today's Daily Express headline "Pope's plea to save Christmas from the P.C. brigade" as I meandered through the supermarket with my beloved. I didn't pick it up, of course, what with it being toxic and therefore dangerous: all that bile spills out. I couldn't help reading Pope Benedict XVI yesterday made an impassioned plea for Britain to return to its Christian values and condemned the “politically correct brigade” who dismiss Christmas though. Gosh , politically correct brigade in speech marks. I suppose he must have said it then. Strange, though, how this German should use the sort of English beloved of the right-wing press.

I haven't taken a lot of notice of the Pope's visit to Britain. I don't feel particularly strongly one way or the other about it and I don't intend to turn out either to celebrate or to protest. I do hope he has a good visit, though, and that Britain's Catholics feel the spiritual benefit. I have to add that I feel rather sad for him with all that he has to shoulder right now: the poor man might be able to do something in his infallibility about his church's attitude to women's ministry, contraception, reproductive rights and its hateful attitude to homosexuality but I don't see him as personally culpable for the sexual abuse other priests have perpetrated against children. Even if his knee-jerk reaction might have been to play it down initially, he seems to have been quite proactive of late in rooting out those who were in some way complicit by action or lack of action. I've never felt that the top man falling on his sword for the limitations of those below him makes much sense.

Anyway, back to the Daily Express. I'm pretty sure the Pope had more important things to say than lament about the downplaying of Christmas. Assuming of course that you believe Christmas has been downplayed.

Doorman-Poirot investigates. I found the text of his speech. No: as I thought, not even a passing reference to Christmas. Nor, indeed one to Political Correctness, which is, of course, the bete noir of the right wing tabloids.

The Pope actually said Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

Who could disagree with that most reasonable of prayers?

Perhaps the Daily Express had got it wrong. I know! Let's look at the Daily Mail, that bastion of all things truthful in our media.

Oh.

"Popes Battle to save Christmas."

Perhaps I misread the Pope's speech.

No. Unless there were two speeches.

Quick INTERNET search. No, just the one at this stage in his visit.

How odd.

Let's try the Sun then. The Pontiff let rip at the politically correct knuckleheads who deem [Christmas] offensive to other faiths ... He urged his VIP audience to use their "respective spheres of influence" to help turn back a tide that has seen Christmas renamed Winterval.

Really? I'm sorry but I just don't read that in the Pope's text.

How about the Daily Star? Speaking to a packed Westminster Hall in London, he urged people to turn their backs on the use of words like “Winterval” to describe the festival of Jesus’s birth.

Enough. ENOUGH. He didn't say anything of the sort! What is it with these people?

Aha! Sanity at last. Let's hear it for the Guardian (An article from 2006) Now all is made clear.

How audacious of the tabloids to plant these words in the mouth of the Pope. This isn't a simple misquotation, it is telling outrageous lies in an attempt to give legitimacy to their agenda in the confidence that a supine public will soak it up like sponges. I hope (but doubt) that he sues.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse I heard on the radio that a group of London street cleaners had been arrested on suspicion of plotting to do harm to the Pope. They had, it seems, the shift that would have seen them cleaning along the Pope's route in the early hours, giving them plenty of time to plot dastardly things.

The Daily Mirror gave us Six street cleaners arrested as cops foil plot to Kill the Pope It did have the good grace to refer to an "alleged" plot and was circumspect when it said It was feared the men were planning to plant bombs in bins to blow up the 83-year-old as he travelled through Central London on the second day of his UK trip. Thousands of innocent people would have been caught up in the blasts. and it was helpful to note Officers had insisted there was no intelligence warning of attacks on the pontiff. Sources said it suggested the threat was received in the last 24 hours and police took a "safety first" approach.

It wasn't perhaps quite so helpful to point out that the six men were of Algerian or Moroccan descent. Such details lead to speculation and rumour. And so the Daily Mail joins up the dotted lines and gives us Armed officers detained the men, all believed to be Muslims ... but also accurately pointed out A few hours earlier, counter-terrorism officers had been tipped off that the men could have been planning to ‘harm’ Pope Benedict XVI or carry out some sort of atrocity to coincide with his visit. With only a short time to assess the credibility of the information, Yard chiefs authorised their arrests but then rather spoilt it by adding Their response reflected the nervousness which surrounds the visit of the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics – who prompted outrage four years ago when he said the Prophet Muhammad had brought the world only ‘evil and inhuman’ things.

That's a big jump into speculation and by now the India Times is reporting Al Qaeda Plot to Kill Pope Benedict XVI Foiled In London By Scotland Yard .

The Daily Star takes an altogether different view Coleen Rooney hopes to meet the Pope after infidelity and illness tested her faith Always with their finger on the pulse, the Star. It did go on to note Armed police were last night guarding the Pope after an alleged plot to assassinate him was smashed Although one wonders how a plot which is merely a plot can be smashed. If it isn't a plot, there's nothing to smash. The Star helpfully went on to point out that the suspects hailed from Algeria, which is plagued by terrorism. I don't know about you but I think in making that link an idea is being planted. The Sun adds, darkly, that They are said to have only recently started work there which is obviously deeply suspicious.

But, as ever, the prize for the best story must go to the Daily Express who gave us Islamic terrorists disguised as street cleaners allegedly hatched an audacious plot to blow up the Pope Wow, Islamic Terrorists disguised as street cleaners on our streets allegedly plotting. Doesn't really work that, does it? It is an interesting juxtaposition of "terrorist" and "alleged". The Express went way further than the other papers in its baseless speculation It is feared plotters with links to Al Qaeda planned “a double blow to the infidel” by assassinating the head of the Roman Catholic church and slaughtering hundreds of pilgrims and well-wishers Again, note the use of speechmarks. Who was it, one wonders, who actually said this? And finally, just in case they turn out not be terrorists the Express has an escape clause An investigation is also under way to determine if the foreign nationals had entered Britain legally and were entitled to work here

So far then we have been told that they are Algerian - or perhaps Moroccan, are Muslims, they come from countries where terrorism is rife, they are recently employed bogus workers and they were plotting as an Al Qaeda cell to blow up the Pope and countless bystanders. Or they might just be illegal immigrants which to the tabloids is almost as bad as being a fully fledged terrorist.

All of these make today's Guardian-on-line headline Street cleaners who were arrested on Friday said to pose no credible threat and have been released without charge something of an anti-climax.

Still, in tabloidland there's no smoke without fire.

Don't hold your breath for a retraction or apology any time soon.

A challenging read for people of faith


I am a great fan of the Guardian writer Polly Toynbee. Even if I don't agree with her, which is rare, I always find her articles pertinent and challenging. No great fan - indeed often a cynic - when it comes to institutional religion I found her recent article "Sex and Death lie at the poisoned heart of religion" worth more than one read.

As Ben Goldacre pointed out in this paper on Saturday, while this pope claims condoms "aggravate the problem" of HIV/Aids, two million die a year. Ann Widdecombe's riposte that the Catholic church runs more Aids clinics than any single nation was like suggesting the Spanish Inquisition ran the best rehab clinics for torture victims.

Women's bodies are the common battleground, symbols of all religions' authority and identity. Cover them up with veil or burqa, keep them from the altar, shave their heads, give them ritual baths, church them, make them walk a step behind, subject them to men's authority, keep priests celibately free of women, unclean and unworthy. Eve is the cause of all temptation in Abrahamic faiths. Only by suppressing women can priests and imams hold down the power of sex, the flesh and the devil. The Church of England is on the point of schism over gay priests, women bishops and African homophobia. The secular world looks on in utter perplexity.


That's quite a taster. Do read the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Apparently there should be no Mosque at Ground Zero.......


....even though there was a Muslim prayer room on the 17th floor of the South Tower before it was destroyed. That is the true Ground Zero Mosque surely? How has that truly significant piece of news been kept from the public? That throws the "This is sacred ground which can't be tarnished by Islam because it dishonours the victims" argument right out of the window. And what about the Muslim victims? Have they been airbrushed out of history? At the moment the plane hit the South Tower there would have been Muslims at prayer there.

"Given the vitriolic opposition now to the proposal to build a Muslim community center two blocks from ground zero, one might say something else has been destroyed: the realization that Muslim people and the Muslim religion were part of the life of the World Trade Center." (The New York Times, Sept 10th 2010)

Monday, September 13, 2010

So easily forgotten in the current climate


"And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience.

This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are."

President Dwight David Eisenhower, June 28. 1957
At the dedication of the Islamic Center in Washington, DC


(Hat tip to Burr Deming)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

minimum unit price

The recently proposed minimum prices on a unit of alcohol will only have a positive effect on our trade.
The minimum price is inevitably so low only the most ludicrous drinks offer will be affected. The trebles for singles and drink all you can nights. These will not impact in a bad way on our trade.
No club, bar or pub will be suffering. We may see a few more, folks coming in, we may see a lot more folk coming in direct from home and already battered. We may even see folks starting their night earlier and enjoying a variety of bars on their way round to the clubs. We'll maybe see less young underclass strutting the streets with bottles and cans of super cheap super strong lager.
We may even see the habitual street drinkers and 'homeless' sober once in a while, or at least forced to confront some aspects of their behaviour.
The very cheapest of alcohol is not of benefit to anyone. I'm sure the supermarkets will survive one thing not going in their favour.

Absinthe I

This evil green poison makes for some very messed up folks.
An afternoon of sipping the green fairy can lead to such entertaining adventures as setting fire to your sleeves on a candle. This can happen to anyone leaning over the table to pour the wine or retrieve a distant condiment. Normally sniffing, screaming, flapping, flailing and agitation ensue with some patting blowing and general disruption. Occasionally, there are the smooth, who just smother it without getting fussed and carry on a little singed.
One gent on absinthe just watched. His shirt caught alight, at the cuff, I noticed as the whole of his sweater was alight like a garden torch. He seemed most interested in the interplay of flesh, fabric and flames. A quick tackle with a one armed full body hug dealt with the flames. a large jug of ice water held the arm until the blue light taxi arrived. A long gentle persuasion led him to getting the treatment he required and us bidding him good bye for the evening. The smell of burning arm hair stayed with us all night.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quran burning: he will, he won't, he will, he won't, will he? He didn't! Oh look. He went and did it!


This has been all over the media here. Pastor Terry Jones from the Dove World Outreach Centre Church in Florida has threatened to burn multiple copies of the Quran on Sept 11th as a protest against....well, all sorts of things really.

The Dove World Outreach Centre Church? You sort of know what's coming don't you? This is no mainstream denomination. It is a pentecostal-style set-up with a congregation of between 30 and 50. The sort of place where pastors work who are trained at the Hicksville Southern Baptist Bible College (no formal academic qualifications required to teach). Oh, but it's even worse than that. Pastor - or as we must now call him - "pastor" Terry Jones is both self taught and self ordained. How can one self ordain? Can one self ordain?

No.

Ordination requires specific regulated academic standards in theology and doctrine from accredited theological colleges and authorisation by a recognised denomination. Hatred of Muslims isn't a required qualification for ordination: well not on this side of the Atlantic anyway.

So, why does he want to burn copies of the Quran? Initially this was some vague protest which seemed "appropriate" to the anniversary of 9/11 (or for British readers 11/9). It now seems to have become linked with the prospective building of a new (which isn't new because it is an extension of property already owned by the Muslim authorities) mosque (which isn't a mosque but a cultural centre) at Ground Zero (which isn't at Ground Zero but several blocks away) - but let's not let factual inaccuracy get in the way of a good bit of Muslim bashing. He has been on Facebook holding a Quran and claiming that "This book is responsible for 9/11" I may go on and hold up a copy of the Bible and say "This book is responsible for the Crusades and the Holocaust." It's not the books. It's the misguided people who read and interpret the books against their prevailing doctrine and morality. Can you blame all Christians for all time for the Crusades? Of course not. Can you blame all Muslims in the same way for 9/11? Apparently so in some of the less logical branches of the American Right and that is both mad and dangerous. Dangerous to us all. If it was Just "Pastor" Jones one might just be tempted to feel that whatever came his way as a result of his actions would be well deserved and little mourned, but that is more of a Buddhist worldview and we are required to love and forgive this man. The way of the disciple is indeed hard.

"Pastor" Jones shows all the signs of early-onset Republicanism in his intolerance of diversity and active fear and hatred of Islam. He seems to believe that an act of gross provocation such as burning Qurans is somehow sending a message to Muslims that America will not take any more! "Where do we draw the line?" he asks.

Any more what? What line? What exactly is it that we are all being asked to stand up against? Well, Muslim extremism and terrorism of course. (Plus creeping Shara law and the fifth column enemy within. That goes without saying - although some are saying it.)

So let me just get this right then. Burning Qurans is going to send a message to Muslim extremists? You bet it will, and the ramifications of this ill thought through strategy will be wholesale bloodshed and murder. Already Jones has the death of two men on his conscience, and he has only threatened to burn the books: two Afghan men were shot in an attack on a NATO base in Afghanistan. A NATO base run by Germans, who most of us know aren't Americans. The cry now goes up "Kill the Christians!" as reported in my newspaper. So potentially anyone of European, Australasian or North American background becomes fair game.

Wonderful!

Thanks Mr. Jones.

Even his mayor, Craig Lowe has come out against him, saying he is "Part of a fringe group and an embarrassment to our community."

Ah, but all is well. He has been in contact with the Imam at the new (but not new) Mosque (which is not a mosque) at Ground Zero (which isn't at Ground Zero) who has agreed to a trade off. No Book burning and no Mosque.

Hang on. That doesn't sound credible.

No. The Imam concerned denies any such conversation.

Of the two, guess where my money goes on the honesty, integrity and reliability stakes?

What is this man doing? What is he about? Publicity of course. How wonderful in today's democracy that one lone nutter can cause the world to hold its breath. One lone nutter, who is NOT an ordained minister; whose "church" is NOT affiliated to any denomination; one lone nutter who has a support base of 30-50; one lone nutter who was thrown out of his previous "church" for "financial irregularities" - also known in plain-speaking as theft.

And this man commands the media? Or perhaps more to the point, the media flocked to him and thus lit the blue touch paper via the oxygen of publicity and a non-story became international news and, once again, we are left speculating to what extent the press, our guardians of free speech, have reported or made the news. Of course it is wonderful that he has been universally condemned but he has still scored a victory for those hardy "Christian" zealots who support this brand of provocative anti-Muslim insanity: now the Westboro Baptists have jumped on the bandwagon - those role-models of all things good in Christianity.

Book burning is cultural vandalism and aggression. The Romans and the Christians did it to Hebrew scripture; the Catholics did it to Lutheran texts; the Nazis did it to "decadent" writings; the Serbs did it to Bosnian-Muslim writings. It's been going on down the ages. What great examples to follow while making a recruitment drive for Al Qaida.

For those of us viewing the furore from this side of the Atlantic it continues to remain a mystery that Christianity - albeit a form of Christianity Jesus would not recognise - has become profoundly intertwined with political agendas and the concept of patriotism allowing such feelings to be hijacked by the conservative populists who take Fox News as gospel and love Glen Beck and right-wing shock-jocks on the radio. A climate of fear has been stirred up and President Obama himself, remember, is deemed by many on the right to be anti-American and, of course, a secret Muslim because he doesn't wear his church attendance on his sleeve. This is the politics of division and fear which has polarised the political landscape, marginalised, ignored, misrepresented and upset the relatives of the dead who are being invoked as supporters of a cause many do not support, which potentially leads to the scapegoating of Muslim citizens, the burning of holy books and the banning of places of worship. This is no way to commemorate those who died on the planes, in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Ceremonies commemorating 9/11 should be peaceful, dignified and respectful and not sidetracked by inflammatory sideshows. Let's pray that this aberration of a "Christian" gets the message.

Could I suggest you all listen to Radio4's Thought For The Day for Sept 10th with Dr. Mona Siddiqui

UPDATE:

On 20th March, largely ignored by the mainstream media, Mr. Jones went ahead and burnt a Quran. The power of Blogs, Facebook and Twitter in this age ensured the story spread like wildfire.

The consequence of this (so far) has been the death of seven U.N. workers in a mob riot in Northern Afghanistan. No doubt there will be more to come.

Mr Jones takes no responsibility for these deaths. "We find it very tragic any time that someone is murdered but we do not feel any responsibility for that." (The Observer 03.04.11) Someone needs to take this man on one side and spell out the nature of cause and effect to him.

He added "It definitely does indicate that there is a very radical element of Islam."

There's a very radical element of Christianity, too, Mr. Jones and you are right up there in the vanguard.

Still, that's what Christianity is all about - if you're pompous, stubborn, self-serving, irresponsible, self-publicising, deluded and dangerous.

Mr. Jones' new organisation is called Stand Up America. Ah someone else hi-jacking the identity of all for his own narrow agenda, akin to the amorphus Moral Majority. The Observer reports that Jones' church has "...put up three signs that that read Islam is of the Devil. A passing dessenter appears to have vandalised them, scrawling over the hate speech a new message that stated: Love all men."

I know it sounds trite but if we follow the model of Jesus when dealing with those of other faith groups, even those who were despised, you don't find him being provocative. What you get is courteous engagement: Jesus with the Centurion and Jesus with the Syro-Phoenecian woman for a starter and then the iconic story of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus deliberately makes a marginalised and despised foreigner the hero of his parable. Why? To make a point Mr. Jones hasn't learnt!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Official: God DIDN'T create the Universe - apparently


Good Grief: Stephen Hawking has been all over the media because of his new book, The Grand Design which, in tabloid-speak, said that there is no God - or at least if there is, he didn't design the universe. I still find it odd that in a largely secularised society the media is willing to devote so many splash headlines and column inches to issues of religion marginal to most of their readers. As it happens the book is not a deconstruction of theism: God hardly gets even a passing mention so I'm guessing that, true to form, the tabloid journalists haven't actually read the book.

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going." is Prof. Hawking's conclusion. That's hardly a ringing endorsement of Atheism but we'll let that pass. In answer to the question he posed in an earlier book, "Why does the Universe bother to exist?" Prof. Hawking now believes in spontaneous creation. Well, that's fine as far as it goes but as an argument it still doesn't seem to deal with the issue of why?

Call me a died-in-the-wool theist but I still have a huge problem with the idea of spontaneous creation from nothing. If there is nothing, how can it spontaneously become something? O.K. I am not a scientist but I do try to keep up with the debate as much as I am able and I couldn't help but note that Prof. Hawking's writing - from the quotes I read in various sources - is quite tentative: he uses words and phrases like "could be" and "seems to be".

We also need to recognize that when scientists talk of "nothing" they don't mean nothing in quite the same way that theologians do. When scientists talk of "nothing" they actually tend to mean quite a complicated sort of "something": quantum fields acting on quantum vacuum of space time; string theory; M Theory with its vibrating strings in space/time. (And no, I don't understand those ideas, so please don't ask.)

But if one concludes, as Prof. Hawking does, that "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper" that is not at all the same as saying "There is no God" so I am not quite sure how his argument sheds any light on the God question. There is no Nietzsche-like statement that God is dead in Prof. Hawking's new writings.

To what extent does it matter? Well, one has to wonder. Have a significant number of Theists had their faith undermined? I would doubt it, but of course I don't know for sure. The media outlets will spin the story to all sorts of conclusions that Prof. Hawking probably never intended. If one reads the editorialized critiques of the book rather than the book itself, who knows what conclusions one might draw?

While I am fascinated in Cosmology and arguments that attempt to prove the existence of God from that perspective, I prefer the argument from personal experience. To me the problem with the Hawking dismissal of a God lighting the blue touch-paper and then retiring from the arena, is that it seems to be missing the point because Theists don't generally accept that God did step back. Those of us who talk of a God who walks with us and sustains us and therefore, logically, the universe, don't subscribe to the idea of God in terms of a one-off creative force.

So, why is there something rather than nothing?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The dangers of sharing a room


It's been all over the papers. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has been discovered to have been sharing a room with one of his staff. Or to put it in Tabloid-speak, with a young, male aid.

Ergo, he must be gay and cheating on his wife.

What is it with our newspapers and perhaps with our prurient appetite for sleaze - or alleged sleaze?

So, if you share a room with someone of the same sex you are gay.

Blimey!

I've been on four choral tours. In approximately seven continental hotels with their are-they-doubles-are-they-two-singles-pushed-together bed arrangements, I have shared with the same male friend who is a decade younger than me. Why? Because we are mates, we enjoy each other's company and it's cheaper than two singles. May a politician and his aid - of whatever age - not be able to sit up late laughing and joking and sharing a few beers because they like each other and get on well?

Mr. Hague is a Government Minister. His government is implementing some of the most austere financial measures seen in this country for decades. Sharing a room sounds like setting a sound fiscal example to me.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ooops

up side the head.
Our lovely students fill the place with their drunken cheer. They're enticed in with all sorts of cheap drink related frivolity. One historic favourite was the tequila line. The DJ would wait until the dancers were flagging a little and the bars were lulled before they all switched to water.
He would summon the dj's assistant to get the two tequila bottles with speedpours. The oops up side you head tune gets on the PA and the floor fills with lines of drunken fools sitting in rows with their backs between each others spread legs. The rows would lean forward in sync, touch the floor on one side, touch the floor on the other then take both hands to their heads and lean back. This bizarre seated synchronised wiggling to a tune of little merit only survives on the promise of strong booze. The dj's assistant works his way up and down the lines pouring tequila straight into willing mouths. Not a great deal but enough to help and get them moving - perhaps back to the bar after they've worked their way up off the floor.
This had become a time honoured tradition, which in night club terms means it had lasted longer than 1 year. The best results we had from this were those so distracted by the slim, shifting line of tequila and their attempts to get their mouths under every last drop that they lean forward as the line they're sitting in reaches the end of their backstroke. The result, clashes of heads, spitting of tequila into hair and eyes of relative strangers and general hilarity for all those standing watching. Even the sober, bored looking ones sweating in a tie and jacket.