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Archive for December, 2009

Loneliness by Aditya Grandhi.

Richard Dowden writes about the loneliness that so many people experience in the West. The fact that more and more people live alone; the fact that even when we are in the same physical space together we often want to preserve a sense of privacy and isolation. He contrasts this with the ‘communalism’ he has found in Africa.

There, whenever I find myself alone, people join me, not necessarily to talk, or out of politeness to a stranger, but to have human company. What is awkward is to leave someone alone. To be alone is abnormal. When I have said I want to be alone people ask if I am ill.

It is hard to be alone in Africa. Everyone has family. A person without relations is nothing. And family in Africa extends far beyond the truncated nuclear family of the Western world. Cousins several times removed are called brother or sister; distant in-laws are aunt or uncle.

Dowden is honest about the negative effects of this communalism (and those who comment on the article are even more negative):

Distant family members can call on you for money. They will turn up unannounced and expect to receive hospitality. You cannot refuse. When rich men die, their fortune is pulled to pieces and squandered by the many people who can claim a gift from the departing relative. And in most families there is a delinquent who has broken the rules or is disliked. They — and their offspring — are excluded or tolerated, but exploited. These days, when labour is becoming more expensive, the traditional practice of taking the child of a poor relative into one’s family to help them has led to exploitation. Where the child is a girl it has even ended in a relationship of slavery and rape.

Communalism can also make societies deeply conservative. Where maintaining the community is the ultimate goal, important but divisive truths cannot be discussed for fear of creating a rift, so decisions are left untaken. And the African family ensures there is no such thing as a self-made man: the classic rootless entrepreneur of 19th-century Europe or America who tears up the rule book and builds a new world.

What interests me most are his more philosophical reflections on what it means to be human:

Descartes wrote: cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. The African would say: cognatus sum ergo sum; I am related, therefore I am. There are two sayings from southern Africa that make the point: “A man is a man because of others” and “Life is when you are together, alone you are an animal”. John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, puts it like this: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” These sayings are easily applicable to all Africa.

In southern Africa, the concept is called ubuntu: you are who you are through others. This does not just mean family or group. Ubuntu extends to all humanity, shared personhood and values. In the past, the worst punishment in many African societies was expulsion. To be excluded was worse than death.

I think the overarching question is this: Is it possible both to belong and to be free?

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Who are the people who have shaped the world over the last ten years? (I promise that this will be the last “…of the decade” list this decade.) A panel of editors and columnists from the Times nominates fifty personalities who have most influenced the world in this period. Here are the top ten:

  1. Barack Obama (US politics)
  2. Simon Cowell (TV)
  3. Tony Blair (British politics)
  4. Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter (Human genome)
  5. Richard Dawkins (Evolution and atheism)
  6. J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
  7. Osama bin Laden (Al-Qaeda)
  8. Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google)
  9. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)
  10. David Beckham (Football)

I’m guessing they didn’t ‘weight’ the lists given by the contributors. So with Simon Cowell at no. 2, this didn’t mean that people thought him more significant than others, but simply that he turned up on more people’s lists.

Obama 2008 Presidential Campaign by Barack Obama.

It doesn’t feel quite right putting these people in a list together, as if they are contestants in a new series of Celebrity Big Brother, sitting together on garishly designed sofas, swapping stories about the cultural splash they managed to make. I’m uneasy at the idea that it’s possible to ‘compare’ David Beckham or Simon Cowell with Osama bin Laden – it seems to flatten and trivialise the mountainous differences that exist between them in terms of who they are and what their lives mean.

The Guardian instead chooses ten icons of the decade: faces/images that capture something essential about these last ten years. It’s more about symbols and cultural resonances than explicit influence. It’s well worth clicking through the photographs, and seeing whether you agree with the reasons given in the captions for including them. If you don’t have the energy, here are the names:

  1. Osama bin Laden
  2. David Beckham
  3. Barack and Michelle Obama
  4. Carrie Bradshaw
  5. Jamie Oliver
  6. Tony Blair
  7. Madeleine McCann
  8. Britney Spears
  9. Harry Potter
  10. Google

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If Mary and Joseph were turned away this evening from the local bed and breakfast, where would they end up? Quite possibly in a bus stop. This is the suggestion made by ChurchAds.Net, which wants to re-tell the nativity story in a modern, secular context. The aim of the campaign is to reach out to the 88% of adults in Britain who hardly know the Christmas story, and to remind them that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’.

I only saw the poster for the first time yesterday evening, driving through West Hampstead. Here is it (the artist is Andrew Gadd):

I like the image. It’s unsettling and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t undermine the more traditional depictions of the nativity. The tenderness of the scene remains, but the vulnerability and precariousness of their existence comes to the fore. Some people are curious; some are more interested in looking out for the bus; one person kneels in worship. The plastic carrier bag is crucial – visually, and perhaps theologically.

This is what it means for God to come amongst us, for the Word to be made flesh. He takes on the ‘condition’ as well as the ‘nature’ of humanity. He doesn’t just live (in the abstract), he actually shares our life, however dark or dangerous that life may be.

Years ago I heard of a film about the birth of Jesus set in a housing estate in New York. The Angel Gabriel coming to this American teenager. The Saviour born into the rough-edged reality of twentieth-century urban life. I was never able to track the film down. Please leave a comment if you know what it was called.

I like the sentimentality of Christmas; the nostalgia and the traditions; even the contemporary bling. But it’s good to have a few images within our culture that help us to remember that it was real; and that it is still real.

[Olivia has since sent me a link to this wonderful article (with photos) about the history of crib-making, with some recent examples of cribs that have been set in the contemporary urban landscape.]

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Fire: Disaster in the city by millzero.There are lots of studies about how people react to unexpected danger, how they calculate risk, and how they make decisions in a crisis. I’ve been thinking about this with all the weather chaos stories of the last week. People trapped in the snow, wondering whether to abandon their cars or bed down for the night. Which option has the greater immediate risk? Which has the more burdensome medium-term consequences? People trapped in the Channel Tunnel, not sure whether to sit patiently and wait for instructions, or to get up and do something.

One of the best books I have read this year is Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes — and why. She interviews survivors from various twentieth-century disasters — terrorist attacks, plane crashes, fires, kidnappings, etc. — and opens up not just the horror of the experiences but also the thought processes and calculations that took place within them. Then she talks to experts in psychology and sociology to examine more scientifically how the human person typically functions in a moment of crisis. She tries to pinpoint what is to our advantage, and what is not.

There are some compelling stories; it’s like reading ten thrillers back-to-back. And I learnt a lot. Most people, Ripley explains, go through the stages of denial and deliberation before coming to a decision about how to act. This is why passivity rather than panic is usually the initial response to disaster.

This is one of the few books that has caused me to change my behaviour. Now, I really do look around the aeroplane to see if the nearest exit is behind me — knowing that clambering in the wrong direction could cost me my life.

But don’t buy this book if you are of a nervous disposition…

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Orange marmelade by Simon Götz.

"Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove"

 

Which would you prefer: Intense but unreliable bursts of happiness, or a calm, underlying sense of contentment with life? I just came across a piece by Guy Browning about the quiet benefits of being content. It’s pithy and provocative, and short enough to quote in full:

Contentment is nature’s Prozac. It keeps you going through the bad times and the good without making too much fuss of either. Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove. Children are naturally content because they don’t know any different. It’s the knowledge of difference that breeds discontent and it’s when you finally realise that difference makes no difference that you can reclaim contentment.

It may sound dull, but being content is a profoundly radical position. It means you have no outstanding needs that other people, events or corporations can satisfy. You can’t be manipulated, corrupted, conned, heartbroken or sold unnecessary insurance policies. Contentment is the real peace of mind insurance policies claim to sell. Its definition varies between people but generally includes someone to love, somewhere to live and something to eat. And, almost always, one item of sentimental value.

The path to contentment is well signposted but generally points in the opposite direction to where we want to travel. Instead we rush off getting everything we want and then realise we don’t need any of it. A quicker way to contentment is to realise you don’t need any of the things you think you want before spending 40 years trying to acquire them.

Being happy with your lot seems to be the essence of contentment. If you are one of life’s good-looking millionaires, you just have to accept your fate and not continually struggle against it. Being unhappy with your lot is perfectly understandable when the one you’ve been given is absolute rubbish. Sadly there is no cosmic car boot sale where you can get rid of the lot you’re not happy with. All you can do is look at other people’s car boots and be happy with the junk you’ve got in your own.

Restless discontent is often held up as the great wellspring of personal and artistic progress. This is the ants-in-the-pants theory of progress and works well if you think progress consists of substituting one state of unhappiness with another. That said, contentment can be dangerously close to the squishy sofas of smugness and complacency. It’s worth remembering your lot can quite easily be an epic struggle against overwhelming odds but, even if it is, you can still be content with it.

I like the core idea: That we can waste our whole life trying to get what we don’t yet have, when in fact there is a peace to be found in accepting one’s situation, and making the most of it. But I’m worried about the edges of the argument, for two opposite reasons (both of which, to be fair, are half-addressed in the article).

First, it’s good that we are sometimes frustrated and exasperated and striving for more. This motivates us. It makes us seek answers, or fight for justice, or simply tighten things up a bit.

Second, I think there is a kind of contentment that can be found even if the ordinary elements of a ‘content life’ seem to be missing. It’s easy to say this when I have food in my belly; and perhaps I can only do so in the light of my Christian faith. Here, Christ himself, and all the saints, show us an inner peace and joy that can be found in God even when the ordinary expectations of life seem to be frustrated. This doesn’t mean that Christianity is a religion of passivity or despair. It simply means that the peace of God is a gift more powerful than any worldly setback, and a necessary foundation for any slight progress or major revolution that might eventually take place.

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With my love for circles, tangents, prehistoric art, and monumental gestures, I can’t resist linking to these images of Jim Denevan’s enormous desert art project – which also happens to be the largest artwork ever made, dwarfing Christo’s wrapped buildings and even the greatest of the anonymous crop circles (if they are human art rather than a form of alien communication…)

All the images I can find are in copyright, so I can’t paste them here; but please take the time to click on the link above and look. Here are some other sand images by Denevan – but they are nothing to compare with this latest project:

Spiral I by ChibiJosh.

Sand image by Jim Denevan on Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Spiral III by ChibiJosh.

doing the denevan V by dotpolka.

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That's Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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Today, they preserve not just your head, but your whole body, in the hope that years from now — with advances in medicine and technology — they will be able to reanimate your corpse and give you back your life.

This is the science of cryonics, as described by Simon Hattenstone. Only it is more a hope and a science. Or, as some would think, an emerging science that has only been embraced by a few prophetic ‘early adopters’.

In a bungalow in Peacehaven, by the east Sussex seaside, a 72-year-old man and his 62-year-old wife are planning their future. There’s no discussion of anything morbid, like death, because, as far as they are concerned there is no such thing as death. When they stop breathing, they will pass into a state of suspended animation. They will be frozen in a giant flask of liquid nitrogen at almost -200C, which will preserve their brains and organs in as fresh a state as possible until technology has advanced to the stage where they can be revived.

Many cryonicists choose to have only their heads frozen – because that contains all the vital matter – and by the time people can be brought back to life it will be easier, and preferable for some, to attach a new body. But Alan and Sylvia Sinclair will have their whole bodies frozen.

Alan now runs Cryonics UK, and every month he holds meetings with fellow cryonicists and potential converts to discuss the practicalities and potential problems of their suspension – of which there are many. First, upon so-called “death”, a team of experts must rush to their sides, pump out their blood and fill them with antifreeze. This is complicated because virtually all the members of Alan’s suspension team at Cryonics UK have practised only on dummies, rather than real people – and if, for example, air bubbles enter the pumping system, the brain will be irreversibly damaged. Second, there are no storage facilities in Britain, so patients will have to be transferred to the US or Russia. Third, science has some way to go before we can bring people back to life.

When you see this in a science fiction film, with the mood music and the beautiful actors, you think ‘why not?’ But the thought of my body stored in a warehouse in Arizona for 50 years sends shivers down my spine. Perhaps this unease is irrational, like the fear of being trapped in a buried coffin.

hai von der seite by loop_oh. 

The idea behind the science is not new:

It was Benjamin Franklin who first suggested, in 1773, that it might be possible to preserve human life in a suspended state for centuries. And that was that for close on 200 years, until physics lecturer Robert Ettinger published The Prospect Of Immortality in 1962, in which he argued that, since we keep food fresh by freezing it, we can do the same with the human body until such time as we have discovered how to defeat death.

The term “cryonics”, derived from the Greek kryos, meaning cold, was coined in 1965 when Karl Werner founded the Cryonics Society of New York, and the premise is that memory, personality and identity are stored in cellular structures, principally in the brain. So, if you can preserve the brain in decent nick, technology permitting, you can eventually restore people with their personalities intact. The cost varies from $28,000 for head-only preservation to $155,000 for full body.

The largest cryonics organisation, with more than 800 members waiting to be preserved, is the US company Alcor. It was established in 1972 and has frozen 87 patients. The Cryonics Institute, also American, and founded by Ettinger in 1976, has frozen 95. The two groups are rivals. When men walked on the moon at the end of the 60s, eternity did not seem such a huge leap for mankind. But progress has not quite kept up with our dreams.

I find it all rather freakish, even gruesome. But it raises lots of questions: About life and death and the borderline between the two. About personal identity and consciousness and the soul. About our deepest fears and hopes. Why is it perfectly acceptable to seek another decade in life through exercise, healthy eating, or medical interventions, but decidedly weird to seek another century or two through cryonics?

If the science were proven, and the technology reliable, and the contractors trustworthy — wouldn’t you do it? And if not, why not?

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I went to bed the other night convinced that I had invented a new word. I was going to launch it in this blog; then it would go viral; and in a few years’ time people would be referencing me as the originator in all the important dictionaries.

dictionary-1 copy.jpg by TexasT's.

The next morning, of course, I discover that ‘blogfather’ has 92,600 returns on Google, and that someone even merits the title ‘the BlogFather’ (Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, well-known not just for his prominence in the blogosphere but also for the encouragement he has given to many new bloggers).

The Act of Blogging by Michael Borkowsky.Why was I thinking along these lines? Because during a conversation about ideas and writing I encouraged a friend of mine to start blogging — and she did! Take a look at the results here.

I won’t pretend this experience is up there with celebrating a baptism or becoming a real godfather. But there is a quiet satisfaction in seeing something come to light in the virtual world that might otherwise have remained hidden.

You need something to say, of course. And something that is worthwhile — at least to a few people. But sometimes you only discover what there is to say, and whether it is worthwhile, by actually trying to say it.

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Herod's Temple on Jerusalem model_1358 by hoyasmeg.A few days ago I was preaching about Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The story is well-known: Zechariah goes up to the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem to offer incense, and has a vision. He is told that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son (John the Baptist) who will prepare God’s people for the coming saviour. When Zechariah expresses his disbelief, he is struck dumb, and doesn’t speak another word until the prophecy is fulfilled.

As I was doing some background reading about this passage I came across a wonderful explanation of the significance of Zechariah’s inability to speak (in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 680). This is how I went on to express it:

At the end of his vision, Zechariah is struck dumb — he can’t speak a word. And the silence has a curious effect. It means that when, in his priestly role, he leaves the sanctuary and goes out to meet the people, he is unable to give the final blessing. As he steps outside to bring the service to a close — he remains speechless. So this service, this Temple liturgy, remains unfinished. Put another way: It remains open-ended, continuing.

It’s as if Zechariah steps out into the temple precincts, into the streets of Jerusalem, and into his own home still presiding at the liturgy. It’s as if the doors of the temple had been left open wide, and the worship of God spills out into the streets behind Zechariah – who continues his priestly work, unable to bring it to a close. It’s as if the whole people are holding their breath, a divine hiatus, wondering how they are meant to live this liturgy in these unfamiliar places. Wondering when the final blessing would come.

I like this idea of the sacred spilling out into the secular, and almost embracing it. It’s the deepest meaning of Christianity: that the whole world is redeemed; that God steps into his creation through the Incarnation, through the birth of Jesus; and that Jesus steps outside the boundaries of Judaism in order to draw all people into his embrace. It doesn’t mean that the distinction between the secular and the sacred is lost – as if there were no longer any possibility of identifying the divine or taking hold of what is holy. It means, instead, that God’s presence can be discovered in every situation, because the whole of creation has been gathered together in the humanity of Christ.

This interpretation of Zechariah’s silence fits with another scriptural idea: that Jesus was crucified ‘outside the city gate’ (Heb 13), outside the world of the sacred, so that he could offer up and sanctify the secular.

[If you want to read the whole sermon I have pasted it below as the first comment.]

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I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s How to Write, edited by Philip Oltermann. There is a 100 page style guide, lots of general advice for writers, and separate chapters on: Fiction, Books for Children, Memoir and Biography, Journalism, Plays and Screenplays, and Comedy. It’s full of wisdom, and practical tips. Many of the articles are available online here.

There are many passages I would like to quote. I can’t resist these two paragraphs on cliches:

Overused words and phrases to be avoided, some of which merit their own ignominious entry in this blog, include: back burner, boost (massive or otherwise), bouquets and brickbats, but hey…, count ‘em, debt mountain, drop-dead gorgeous, elephant in the room, fit for purpose, insisted, key, major, massive, meanwhile, politically correct, raft of measures, special, to die for, upsurge; verbs overused in headlines include: bid, boost, fuel, hike, signal, spiral, target, set to.

A survey by the Plain English Campaign found that the most irritating phrase in the language was at the end of the day, followed by (in order of annoyance): at this moment in time, like (as in, like, this), with all due respect, to be perfectly honest with you, touch base, I hear what you’re saying, going forward, absolutely, and blue sky thinking; other words and phrases that upset people included 24/7, ballpark figure, bottom line, diamond geezer, it’s not rocket science, ongoing, prioritise, pushing the envelope, singing from the same hymn sheet, and thinking outside the box.

You can tick me off whenever I use any of the above.

Another suggestion that came up more than once was to aim at a plain style and avoid using adjectives and adverbs. I’d like to try this, but not at the end of a long day…

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Sometimes you hear this argument: Generosity, altruism, and self-giving are really just different forms of selfishness. Even if we are being truly generous, and making a real sacrifice in order to help someone else, the underlying motive will be one of the self-interest. Not because we are sly or manipulative, but simply because we are programmed to do what is ultimately in our best interests. This might include a degree of altruism, of caring for our family or friends, of going out of our way to help others. But deep down we are always thinking about what we will gain — even if that gain is the satisfaction of knowing that we are a noble person, or the pleasure of seeing other people given help.

There is some truth in this. It’s good to acknowledge that even when we do something for others, even when we are acting in a completely selfless manner, there is still an element of ‘myself’ involved. I am still choosing, freely, to do this deed. I am deciding, in some sense, that it is important to me, that I value what I’m doing. I can’t say ‘I don’t care about this’. The very fact that I want to give myself generously shows that I have an interest in giving myself — it matters to me. To this extent, there is no such thing as pure altruism. Put it another way: If I love someone, even by giving up everything for them, it is still because I love them. And if I choose to care for someone I do not love, it is still because I want to care for them.

But it’s not quite true to say that all self-giving is simply another form of selfishness — because it blurs some of the distinctions that we rightly make in ordinary life; distinctions that are crucial in moral thinking and in the choices we make about how to live. We come face to face with moments when we are called to be more generous than we have been, to put others first, to make a sacrifice that costs us some time or energy or personal satisfaction. Now and then we face a fork in the road, and we have to choose between selfishness or self-giving. We know they are not the same.

Yes, the self-giving needs to be a personal choice, it needs to be something I make a commitment to. In this sense it is still part of my own search for meaning and fulfilment. But it is nevertheless a kind of meaning and fulfilment radically different from the selfishness that seeks happiness locked up in one’s own introverted satisfactions. There is a selfishness which limits me and traps me; and there is another kind of self-concern that allows me to go beyond myself, that opens me up to others, and takes me beyond myself.

mother theresa kickin ass by messtiza.

I mention all this because yesterday evening I was in Kilburn with the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Theresa. During Mass in their convent chapel, three of the sisters renewed their religious vows. As well as taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Missionaries of Charity take an additional fourth vow. It goes something like this (I’m writing from memory): ‘I promise to give myself in wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor’.

What promise to make! A promise to make of one’s life a pure gift, to give oneself completely to those in most need, to those who will probably be unable to pay anything back. A promise to live for others in love. Of course, this has a religious meaning — it’s to do with knowing the love of Christ, and wanting to share that love with others. But even on a purely human or ‘philosophical’ level, it is a wonderful example of how self-giving is possible for the human person. Not a generosity that denies our own needs, but one which allows us to find a deeper kind of fulfilment in giving our lives joyfully for others. It’s a model not just for religious sisters, but for all of us.

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Circle line in meaningless composition (westbound) by fabbio.It’s true: The Circle Line will no longer go round in circles. I hardly believed it when I read the papers a few days ago, but now I have seen the official London Transport brochure detailing the changes.

From 13 December it will be a spiral. If you start at Edgware Road, you can still go all the way round — but then you spin out to Hammersmith. And the defining philosophy of the Circle line will be lost forever: The idea that you can step on anywhere in order to arrive anywhere else. Or, to look at it another way, that you can step on anywhere in order to go nowhere. It will now be impossible not to go to Edgware Road or Hammersmith.

This is profoundly unsettling for Londoners. I’ve never been all the way round myself (this is what I have to say in public…) But there is something reassuring about the knowledge that just below the pavement a train is going nowhere, endlessly. That people are there, apparently, in knitting clubs; and perhaps to play bridge, or on a blind date, or meeting their self-help group. That people are there to keep warm or kill time. And that people are there, with clipboards and microphones and counting instruments, doing sociological research into why all those other people are there in the first place.

There are minor delays on the Circle line... by fabbio.

There are minor delays on the Circle line...

No one uses the Circle Line to go anywhere, because everyone knows that there is only one train running in each direction — surely the only satisfactory explanation of why the gaps between the ‘trains’ are so long. But we all want to know that we can go around in circles if we so choose, and that within the thrusting purposefulness of city life there is still the option of going nowhere, in the company of civilised people, with a well-spoken announcer letting you know which stops you are passing through.

And it’s good to have physical evidence on a massive scale to prove to the mathematicians that two infinities (clockwise and anticlockwise) are greater than one.

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It is wrong to mention religion in public? I’m just skimming through a careers advice book called ‘What Color is your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers’ by Richard Nelson Bolles. (I’m not in a crisis; I just bought it for a friend. Really!) It’s a secular book, aimed at the secular market, recommended to me by a management consultant. It’s obviously one of the leaders in its field (9 million copies sold by the time of my 2008 edition). And here is the final paragraph of the author’s preface:

In closing, I must not fail to mention my profound thanks to The Great Lord God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who all my life has been as real to me as breathing, and Who has been my Rock through every trial, tragedy, and misfortune in my life, including the assassination of my only brother, Don Bolles. I thank God for giving me strength, and carrying me through — everything. I am grateful beyond measure for such a life, and such a mission as ‘He’ has given me: to help people find meaning for their lives. He is the source of whatever grace, wisdom, or compassion I have ever found, or shared with others.

This really took me aback. And it’s my own reactions that I find interesting. I thought, quite spontaneously: This is a bit over the top! Why is he telling me about his faith? Is this really the place for a sermon? Isn’t this going to put people off? Isn’t this a little bit inappropriate?

And then I thought: But why not? Where do I get this idea that ordinary people can’t talk about their everyday faith in the normal circumstances of daily life? Is it because I’m English and my culture has persuaded me to censor my conversation and avoid the topics of religion and politics? Or is it because I have been fooled into thinking that religion is purely a ‘private’ affair and must therefore remain hidden from the gaze of normal society — like an embarrassing secret we share only with intimate friends or our doctor.

Thank You God! by Daniel Y. Go.

Richard Bolles could have thanked anyone else (or anything else) and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. In a standard author’s preface you can honour your parents, your publisher, your agent, your neighbours, your cat, your therapist, your muse, your guru. You can acknowledge the inspiration brought to you by a shower of leaves on an autumn day, or by the inaudible voices of your ancestors. But if you thank God in such a public manner, it makes someone like me feel just slightly uncomfortable. As I said, it’s my own reactions that I am questioning…

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Just for fun, here is another ‘best of’ post. This time it’s the 100 best books of the decade, as judged by the Times. [I've linked here to the printer-friendly version to save you plodding through all 17 pages.] I’ll reprint the top ten, as they do, in reverse order:

  • 10 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
  • 9 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
  • 8 Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood (2008)
  • 7 Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)
  • 6 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
  • 5 Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (2006)
  • 4 Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers trans Robert Bringhurst (2002)
  • 3 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2004)
  • 2 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)
  • 1 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Lot’s of food for thought here. You get the impression that ‘best’ sometimes means ‘bestselling’ or ‘most influential’ or ‘of the moment’ rather than, well, best. But of course it is impossible not to be subjective. Or is it?! (I’d better stop, before I get into a whole discussion about the possibility of making objective value judgments.)

More Monsoons by ethan.crowley.

I’m not sure if The Road should be at the very top – but it is certainly a staggering work. Yes, it’s as brutal and stark as the reviews say; but it is at heart a story of a father’s love for his son. And there are moments of hope – one in particular – which I can honestly say shifted the existential ground within me and made me gasp with unanticipated relief and with gratitude at what the human spirit could bring.

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Beautiful people striving valiantly to save their marriages, their lives, their world, and their pets… That’s really all you need to know about Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster movie 2012. And that the star is my friend John Cusack (well – I was walking through Leicester Square two years ago and saw him stepping out of a car onto a red carpet at the London Film Festival).

IMG_0620 by SpreePiX - Berlin.

There is one interesting moral dilemma, however, within all the syrup and special effects. [Warning: medium-sized plot spoiler follows.] An elite and self-chosen group have the chance to save themselves from the impending cataclysm, and to give hope that in them the human race might survive. But to do this with the greatest chance of success, they need to preserve their resources, and abandon another group of survivors that desperately needs their help. If they do help, they might jeopardise the possibility of anyone surviving. The answer seems obvious. With so much at stake, of course you would abandon the others and go it alone.

But then there is one of those Hollywood speeches, and it’s quite effective. It goes something like:

We may get through this. We may not. But if we do, will we want to look back at this decisive moment in our history and admit that it is a moment of betrayal? Will we want to live with the knowledge that our new civilisation is founded on an act of raw selfishness, of injustice, of cruelty? Perhaps it would be better to risk death together than to walk into a future without them?

I know, it’s a bit cheesy; and I might be hamming it up a little (and mixing metaphors). But it presents a tight non-utilitarian argument in the middle of a disaster movie – an argument that says the end does not necessarily justify the means, the moral cost is too high, the damage done to relationships and to the hearts of the people involved is worse than the loss of life that might follow. And it is more than just the old ‘too many people in a balloon or on a raft’ dilemma, because it brings in this extra element of historical consciousness, of looking back to the present as a time of unique significance. The implicit reference, I assume, is to the way the indigenous peoples of North America were treated in the founding moments of US history. It’s about how a nation’s continuing identity can be scarred by an original sin.

It got me thinking more widely. About how, in a certain sense, every moral dilemma we face becomes a foundation for the rest of our lives, a turning point to which we can look back with shame or gratitude. This doesn’t mean we should become obsessed about over-analysing all our choices; and it certainly doesn’t mean that all choices (moral or otherwise) are of equal weight. But it’s nevertheless true that every moral choice we face is significant, and pushes our life in a certain direction. We can’t pretend that any moral choice is just in the background or at the edge; in some way it will define us, and define our whole future. We are constantly living with the possibility of making our present actions moments of original sin, or of original blessing.

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