Are you comfortably numb?

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

I finished reading this book last week. Whatever your views on Lewis' theological stance, there's no denying he's a great writer and has a wonderful ability to expose the human psyche with disturbing accuracy.

The Great Divorce is about a group of people from Hell being allowed to go on a daytrip to Heaven. In Heaven, they are met by acquaintances they knew from earth, and the book consists of the various conversations that take place between each 'Ghost' (from Hell) and 'Spirit' or 'Bright Person' (from Heaven). The book describes the excuses humans make for wanting to do what they want, even when it's blindingly obvious that being in Heaven is a far more joyful experience. I suppose you could say it's about how human beings refuse the best thing they could possibly have, and have for free, because it involves admitting they're wrong.

Whatever your religious beliefs, it's a very good read and very thought-provoking.

Here's a particularly captivating passage:

Almost at once I was followed by what I have called the Big Man - to speak more accurately,the Big Chost. He in his turn was followed by one of the bright people. 'Don't you know me?' he shouted to the Ghost: and I found it impossible not to turn and attend. The face of the solid spirit - he was one of those that wore a robe - made me want to dance, it was so jocund, so established in its youthfulness.
'Well, I'm damned,' said the Ghost. 'I wouldn't have believed it. It's a fair knock-out. It isn't right, Len, you know. What about poor Jack, eh? You look pretty pleased wth yourself, but what I say is, What about poor Jack?'
'He is here,' said the other. 'You will meet him soon, if you stay.'
'But you murdered him.'
'Of course I did. It is all right now.'
'All right, is it? All right for you, you mean. But what about the poor chap himself, laying cold and dead?'
'But he isn't. I have told you, you will meet him soon. He sent you his love.'
'What I'd like to understand', said the Ghost, 'is what you're here for, as pleased as Punch, you a bloody murderer, while I've been walking the streets down there and living in a place like a pigstye all these years.'
'That is a little hard to understand at first. But it is all over now. You will be pleased about it presently. Till then there is no need to bother about it.'
'No need to bother about it? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?'
'No. Not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself. I had to, you konw, after the murder. That was what it did for me. And that was how everything began.'
'Personally,' said the Big Ghost with an emphasis which contradicted the ordinary meaning of the word, [how brilliant is that!] 'Personally, I'd have thought you and I ought to be the other way round. That's my personal opinion.'
'Very likely we soon shall be,' said the other. 'If you'll stop thinking about it.'
'Look at me, now,' said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the slap made no noise). 'I gone straight all my life. I don't say I was a religious man and I don't say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that's the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn't mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That's the sort I was and I don't care who knows it.'
'It would be much better not to go on about that now.'
'Who's going on? I'm not arguing. I'm just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I'm asking for nothing but my rights. You may think that you can put me down because you're dressed up like that (which you weren't when you worked under me) and I'm only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?'
'Oh no. It's not so bad as that. I havne't got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better. Never fear.'
'That's just what I say. I haven't got my rights. I always done my best and I never done anything wrong. And what I don't see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you.'
'Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me.'
'What do you keep on arguing for? I'm only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity.'
'Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.'
'That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that's their lookout. But I don't see myself going in the same boat with you, see? Why should I? I don't want charity. I'm a decent man and if I had my rights I'd have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.'

Friday, April 27, 2007

Penal substitution - Wright or wrong?

If you want some spiritual and intellectual stimulation I suggest you go here, here and here for articles and blog posts on the mystery of penal substitution. There's also a response from Steve Chalke on the criticism he's faced on the last weblink.

I'm not going to launch into a deep theological discussion of what penal substitution is and why people are wrong or right about it. What I will do is note down how I have been personally affected by this debate.

Upon reading N.T. Wright's article, I was pleasantly surprised by how good so much of it was, and how much spiritual inspiration it gave me. He is a very gifted writer and uses this ability to unwrap spiritual realities with great personal resonance.

But hang on a minute - this is N.T. Wright we're talking about! The bad guy! The one who endorsed THAT book. He can't be good - I must be mistaken.

Oh, but... what's this N. T. Wright is saying here? The following:

What has happened since the initial flurry of debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.

Now, regardless of whether Steve Chalke was right or wrong about what he wrote, the fact is that this is true of many, many evangelicals today.

Including myself.

It was at this point that the penny dropped.

I have a great tendency to think things are good based on the theological brownie points of the author or speaker. Dick Lucas good. Steve Chalke bad. John Stott good. Rick Warren bad. John Piper good. And so on...

And N.T. Wright made me realise - what a load of rubbish.

The Bible should be our first and only port of call of validity. If something is biblical, it is good. If something is not, it is bad. We shouldn't measure it on how "Reformed" it is on a scale of 1 to 10. On what church it's from. On who the author knows. (On whether the author knows my dad?!)

I think it is very easy for evangelicals to feel cosy in this theologically perfected world - we know we have our Ts crossed and our Is dotted. But really we don't, if we're not gracious, truly discerning and never complacent and arrogant.

We are all sinful and no man is going to write the perfect book. Only God has done that. So what this debate has made me realise is that I need to get rid of my spiritual arrogance and start reading things with my brain, not my ego. Let no one condemn Steve Chalke's book without having even read it. And certainly, let no one condemn Steve Chalke. That isn't our job. Do we care about The Lost Message of Jesus just because it demolishes the evangelical tradition or because we care about the Gospel, God's glory and we care about Steve Chalke's own spiritual state? Are we treating him as a brother in trouble, knowing that any one of us would fall in this way were it not for God's merciful grace? I have to say that many of us are not.

If we are to uphold the truth of the Gospel, we must do it graciously, and discerningly. It's not easy but it's essential. It is what Christ would have us do.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Submitting a proper response

So, here is the conclusion to the submission vs obey discussion (thanks to Mum for help with this). If anyone has a counter-point to offer, please do and I will reconsider further! Also forgive me for my faltering use of the Greek. It's not my strong point. In fact, you could say, it's all Greek to me, but that would be ridiculously cheesy. Anyway, for now...

Ephesians 5:21 - 'Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ' (NIV)
This is referring to relationships between members of the church. The Greek word is Upotasso here, translated as submit.

Ephesians 5:22 - 'Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord' (NIV)
Here the word 'submit' is not actually used in the Greek - this verse refers back to verse 21, so it is referring the relationship between wife and husband to the relationship between church members. Now given we do not interpret the Scripture as meaning that we should obey each other as church members, rather submit, v22 seems to mean that wives should indeed submit and not 'obey'.

Ephesians 6:1 - 'Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right' (NIV)
This is not 'Upotasso', it is a different word which we interpret as obey. (I think it's 'pakou' but I could be wrong.)

1 Peter 3:1-6 - 'Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands... They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master' (NIV)
The same 'Upotasso' verb is used for the 'submissive' here but the 'obey' verb is used for the reference to Sarah.

However, a simple reading of the text (even without the Greek) tells us that wives are always commanded to submit, never to obey. The reference to obey is in regard to Sarah and Abraham. It does not say, 'obey like Sarah', it says 'be submissive, like Sarah, WHO obeyed...' Also, this references the Old Testament, which may use different vocabulary or can even be taken as a slightly different model for marriage. Is that heretical?!

What is clear is that wives are commanded to submit to their husbands as church members submit to each other. Unless we're going to start commanding church members to obey each other, I'm going to go with 'submit' and not 'obey'.

This doesn't really expose what we mean by the terms though. I think that obey has negative connotations and implies an authoritarian relationship such as child to parent. And given the words are different in the Greek, I think there is a reason for that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

So many blog posts, so little time...

At the moment there are so many things going on in my head and I do want to eventually blog on all of them but I don't have time right now!

So watch out for future posts on:

- the conclusion to the submission/obey debate (at least in my head)
- thoughts on N.T. Wright in view of this article and the evangelical scene in general
- tentative ramblings on Derrida's approach to deconstructivism following a (very superficial) mini-essay on postmodernism last night
- the annoying nature of characters in Neighbours such as Lolly.

But for now, I am going to pack my bags and go and see the man I love! No doubt posts will be made while I am procrastinating for the rest of this week (aren't deadlines on the first day of term lovely?)

Happy Wednesday everyone!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Parkinson eat your heart out

Tom King's blog may now be defunct (*insert baffled sob*) but his question-asking ability isn't. Here goes.

1: Who would you consider to be the single most culturally influential human being of all time, excluding religious figures?

The first person to spring to mind is Marx, simply because so many strands of thought have developed from his original philosophy and because so many people have a general concept of a Marxist way of thinking. But then I would have to settle on Hegel (for want of a more rounded knowledge of historical figures, probably) because Marx gleaned so much of his metanarrative from Hegel's. Hegel also opened the door to a huge tide-change in the way (Western) humanity thinks, as he introduced the idea of synthesis, thus breaking down the previous assumption that if (a) is right then (b) must be wrong. This led to all the post-modern and relativist strains of thought we see now. So I would probably say Hegel. Although obviously Plato, Socrates, Aristotle et al were hugely influential. If we're going on timescale, Aristotle probably wins as his teaching was so instilled in so many cultures for hundreds of years (until Galileo, really).

2: If you could change one thing about your academic experience at any point, what would it be?

I would have learnt earlier on to give my teachers the respect they deserve. I think that too many times I've embarrassed myself and my parents, not to mention been completely hypocritical in how I've behaved in relation to them. I would like to have shown them my appreciation for their effort more genuinely.

3: Which word would you add to the English language if you could? (shamelessly stolen from Miss Mellifluous's question for Paul)

It's gotta be crimous. Sao Paulo is pretty crimous.

4: What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you recently?

Hmm.... surprisingly enough I can't think of much. In fact I don't think I've embarrassed myself at all recently. So I'll just pick an embarrassing thing. I once walked in on an American missionary doing a poo at our friends' house. But it was probably more embarrassing for him. Locks are there for a reason, people!!!

5: What do you consider your greatest achievement, in human terms?

Ooh Tom, look at you turning into quite the little Reformed theologian! Gotta use the phrase 'in human terms' at least twice a minute to be kosher. Anyway... tough one. I think maybe just getting through this year without going mad, and without my marks slipping loads, and getting Redbrick out every week, improving our meeting of deadlines and rebranding it. But then again all that was only possible through God, because without him I would have gone mad. So maybe just learning to cook a pretty good curry.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Answers on a (virtual) postcard please!

After church yesterday, a few of us stumbled across the 'submit vs obey' discussion. That is, whether in the wedding vows, the bride should promise to 'obey' her husband. Now I've always thought that it should be 'submit', rather than 'obey', and when we actually explained what we meant by the two phrases, there was no difference in practice. Apparently the 1 Peter reference says 'obey' where the Ephesians one says 'submit'. Anyone know anything about the Greek? Anyone got any gems of wisdom to offer? Please comment!

Collecting thoughts

I have now finished my week's work experience at the Sunday Mercury. It was good for me to see that side of things and it did help in defining what direction I want to take.

I found it really hard being in that writing environment where the ethos is a lot more on the sensational rather than the truth. They obviously never publish anything that is overtly untrue, but the distortion and sheer ruthlessness that goes on sits rather less than comfortably with me.

Even though I was totally incapable of writing in the style that they require (although I did my best), I found myself wincing every time I tried to. Oh how I longed to just write a sentence that was balanced and truthful, rather than aiming to hit every single one of the reader's scared/angry/prejudiced buttons.

So it did help in making me see that is one side of the media I definitely do not want to go into. As a Christian, it would be impossible to marry my faith with my job in that position, unless I let one stagnate. I found out that you can't apply for a job at the Birmingham Mail, Post or Sunday Mercury specifically - you just apply to all three and they then allocate you to one. Then you rotate around all three.

I don't know if this is the case with other newspaper groups but I suspect it is, which means that it would be potentially hard to apply to a job with no qualms whatsoever of where I'd end up. Also, even though the Sunday Mercury is perhaps more extreme, any newspaper puts a spin on things and my conscience really kicks against a lot of what goes on.

So there you go. At least I have some more direction now. A clichéd reason not to go into newspapers, I know. Along with the terrible pay, anti-social hours, etc... I'll pray on and would appreciate anyone doing the same.

On a side note, I noticed that one news programme interviewed Lionel Shriver about Cho after the VT massacre! What she said was spot on - that this type of killer is heady on the idea of (even posthumous) worldwide notoriety and that this fuels them. She pointed out that he's got exactly what he wanted and predicted - just look at the number of pages and internet space devoted to him, his childhood, his beliefs, his videos, plays, and thoughts. What is most chilling is that Cho's silence throughout childhood and early adulthood reflects exactly the character of 'Kevin' in you-know-which-book.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cho Seung-hui

Apparently people think that police and university chiefs should have "done something" about 23-year-old killer Cho before he massacred over 30 of his peers and committed suicide.

What exactly should they have done? Sectioned him because he was depressed/suicidal? Form an orderly queue now then people...

Cho himself seems to have had a skewed view of things which is perhaps expected for a mass murderer.

Cho killed 32 people... but he was "forced into a corner".
Cho killed 32 people... but he does not have blood on his hands, everyone else does.
Cho killed 32 people... but this was his only option, because they were rich.
Cho killed himself afterwards... but he died like Jesus Christ (who was murdered by the authorities).

While this crime is one of the most horrible to have been perpetrated by one person, somehow the wickedness of Cho's actions seem to be undermined by his textbook, almost stereotypical desperate emo teenager act. Did he really mean all those things? We'll never know. But thanks to NBC broadcasting police evidence against the wishes of the victims' families, we now know what Cho wanted us to think he meant.

Oh and by the way, if you're interested in the psychology of young mass murderers who work in educational institutes, do read a book called We Need To Talk About Kevin. I hear it's pretty good.

Finally, kudos to The Independent for banging the Iraq drum consistently throughout all this (see today's predictably sensational front page).

Relatedly, a pertinent question was posed on the Guardian's comment is free section:

"The first question that comes into my head after reading about the Virginia massacre is - how many people in Iraq died as a result of the US occupation there today?" (paraphrase)

Too Indie? Or a good point? You decide.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Working for the Merc

I started my week's work placement at the Sunday Mercury in Birmingham yesterday. I was feeling pretty crap about it beforehand, given I no longer even know if I want to work in newspapers (but fear not, fans of Rebecca King - I still want to go into the media - phew), but it turns out it's much better than I thought.

It's very different to the Mail as it's a weekly and therefore fewer of the staff have a blood pressure of over 1000 and appear like they are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In fact they even find time to chat, exchange a joke or two and have lunch. Immense.

They're also much more of a tabloid than the Mail. Those who would think this was impossible - you ain't seen nothing yet - the Merc start off articles with phrases like 'evil sex beast'. Sorry, I mean 'EVIL SEX BEAST'. Also immense. I thought this would mean they were harder to write for as I'm not adjusted to the tabloid vocab - you know, changing the word 'toddler' or 'child' into 'TOT', 'teenager' or 'child' into 'YOUNGSTER', friend into 'PAL' etc etc, but actually it seems easier, in that so far my writing hasn't been butchered into something unrecognisable with a byline that still belongs to me.

They've also encouraged me to come up with my own stories and at the moment I'm getting to write a feature on something that was my own idea... don't be silly, of course I'm not going to tell you here - I'll post it pre-publication. Suffice to say it's been pretty fun.

It has made me realise that working in newspapers doesn't have to be all about hideous deadlines and heart-attack inducing stress, nor hours of the kind that don't even exist in a sensible world. But we'll see if it changes my mind on the direction of my future career for good after more mulling. Don't hold your breath...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Justifed, I'm justified... or am I?

Thanks to someone who is amazingly clever (allegedly), I have realised how to justify posts on the blog after years of being annoyed because they're not.

However, now I'm not sure if it actually looks better.

Comments would be appreciated.

Free speech and being brave

In church on Easter Sunday, it struck me just how bold you have to be to be a biblical preacher today. I often find myself flinching when I hear phrases and concepts that a non-Christian would find shocking coming from the pulpit, worrying that they will find it too offensive. In some cases I think this is fair enough as I've heard a few sermons where any ideal of "meeting people where they are" is lost in a dogmatic diatribe that is not seasoned with grace but with anger.

But if we're Christians, we have to realise that what we believe in is the most offensive thing anyone could hear. It was never meant to be watered down or made easier to swallow. The Gospel is offensive in its very nature: it tells us that we are deserving of hell, eternal damnation, because of what WE have done. Of course, its offensiveness (to those who do not believe it and still trust in themselves) is accompanied by what Christians can see as beautiful - the knowledge that despite our hopeless sinfulness we can be saved by the most complete and deepest love ever known, by God sending his son to be cruelly killed so that we may go free.

Listening to this message on Easter morning, I pondered all this within the framework of freedom of speech, society and tolerance, and how people's perceptions of those things are changing. Surely Christian preachers deserve more credit than they get? Those who have fought for greater civil liberties over the centuries have generally been standing up, courageously, against the status quo - fighting for the greater good in the face of institutionalised discrimination or persecution.

The status quo we now face is one that demands we all embrace a twisted tolerance - not tolerance as it used to be known, but endorsement for anything and everything as it all has equal value. Our society has now institutionalised inoffensiveness - we can believe what we want to believe as long as we don't try and say that anyone else is wrong. Christian preachers are now the ones going against the grain by teaching a message as 'the truth', and this out of love for those who hear it.

At a time when it is quite possible that our leaders, and indeed us as individuals, could face imprisonment in the near future for preaching Christ crucified for our sins, our pastors should have our sincere and prayerful encouragement. And to those who vehemently oppose what they preach, as everyone has a right to do - at least respect their bravery in taking a real stand and declaring what they believe to be true in the face of much adversity.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Joni Mitchell - Blue

Most people’s impression of Joni Mitchell is just a hazy image of Emma Thompson crying in Love Actually to the sound of a woman warbling about clouds. In short, the person you know who’s most likely to like Joni Mitchell is your mum. Don’t let this put you off though, it just means your mum has good taste.

Mitchell is like a female Bob Dylan, except she can actually sing. ‘Blue’ is the album you’re most likely to encounter first, and like most albums from classic artists it looks like a Best Of, with gems like ‘Carey’, ‘River’ and ‘California’ gracing the track listing.

Mitchell is an extremely talented musician (if you don’t believe me cos she’s a girl, good luck playing ‘This Flight Tonight’ on the guitar) and has superb control of one of the purest voices ever to glide over the airwaves, but the success of this album lies in her ability to wed this musicianship to beautiful lyrics. Some of these look stupid on paper – ‘I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you’ being one example – but don’t be fooled. Yeah, she talks about love, but with the human every-day touch that The Kinks brought to the 60s with tracks like ‘Dead End Street’ and ‘Come Dancing’ and that Pulp brought to Britpop – woodchip on the wall, anyone? When he’s gone, sings Joni, ‘The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide’. This observational spin also finds itself into lines you would never think could scan and just sounds like prose, but somehow Mitchell crafts it into something that sounds way more natural than anything the Artic sodding Monkeys could come up with – ‘The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68, and he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café….’

But anyway, on to the best track of the album, which is undoubtedly the painfully gorgeous ‘A Case of You’. I didn’t have to listen to this song more than once to fall in love with it. The first line has Mitchell aching ‘Just before our love got lost…’, a phrase which in itself sends shivers down my spine – not many artists can capture a process so complex and agonising in one simple clause. A slow, syncopated guitar strum blended with a melody that is the perfect vehicle for haunting lyrics makes this track pure gold on a stick.

Okay so who am I kidding - you probably won’t like this if you’re not into slow, melodious tunes sung by a woman, and ‘Blue’ (the song) annoys even me as Mitchell reaches notes only dogs can hear, but not enough people recognise her for how great she is. If you see her ‘Hits’ album going cheap anywhere, get it. It’s got some corkers on it, as you’d expect from the title: ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘Come in from the Cold’, etc. Not to mention ‘Help Me, I think I’m Falling in Love Again' - I even know a boy who likes that one.