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Archive for February, 2010

An old friend, Fr Martin Boland, has recently started blogging. Do take a look at his site: The Invisible Province.

Provincetown Harbor horizon just after dusk (folded) by Chris Devers.

I couldn't find an image of The Invisible Province, so here is Provincetown Harbour...

Here is his mission statement (I’m sure he would hate that phrase):

An attempt to map some of the features of the cultural landscape while challenging the current orthodoxy that culture and faith inevitably exist in opposition. The Invisible Province seeks to show that modern culture cannot sever itself from questions of transcendence and faith and nor can faith distance itself from culture. In surveying the fault lines between culture and faith, The Invisible Province reimagines this relationship and suggests avenues for mature dialogue.

Just to give you a taste of his writing, these lines come from his post about fashion designer Alexander McQueen:

But McQueen’s importance will not be based on his preoccupation with mortality or the tragic nature of his own death. His importance will lie in the fact that he could take a roll of fabric and in his mind’s eye, he could see how it might transform the human form: lengthen legs; broaden shoulders; pinch a waist. Combining this interior knowledge with his store of cultural references from history, religion and society made for new levels of creativity. McQueen understood that in societies where the visually crude and crass predominate, a garment of transforming beauty could still seduce us. Fashion, for a brief moment, could make us pause and wonder. His legacy is not death, but beauty.

And here is the opening paragraph of his review of the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain:

A common criticism levelled at contemporary artists is that they don’t know how to paint. Chris Ofili certainly does. The current retrospective at Tate Britain presents him as the most painterly of painters. His works are all about the sensual layering of paint; the celebration of virtuoso technique; the fusing of colour and pattern that calls to mind the printed textiles of Nigeria, Ofili’s ancestral home. Not content with exuberant brushwork, he decorates his works with an infectious rash of psychedelic ornamentation, a multi-coloured braille. Collaged magazine images and glitter fizz and spark. Images are sampled from popular black culture (the pimps, dealers and prostitutes of blaxploitation films) or religious iconography (the Virgin Mary, the Last Supper) and then mashed up on the canvas. And, somewhere, you will find the unmistakable signature of the artist: a lump of elephant dung elevated to the status of a modern totem. “[Using the dungballs is] a way of raising the paintings up from the ground,” explains Ofili, “and giving them a feeling that they’ve come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall.” In Ofili’s hip-hop aesthetic the beautiful and the degrading, the sacred and profane, history and culture bump and grind to a sweaty rhythm.

I think the blog will be well worth following.

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Berlin Wall 1987 by fjords.

The Berlin Wall 1987

The Church is often criticised, not just for being an institution with many weaknesses, but for being an institution full-stop. As if institutions by their very nature repress the human spirit and undermine authentic relationships.

Francis Fukayama writes about the reasons behind the successes and failures of recent democratic movements. I don’t know enough politics to judge whether all his analysis is correct, but the sociological point he makes about the importance of institutions is worth noting, for religion as much as for politics:

The collapse of the Orange Revolution should teach us that enduring democracy is not just a matter of ideas and political passions, but of concrete institutions embodying democratic values. It is also about the human agents who create them: the right leaders can make or break a transition to democracy.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago, there has been a huge disparity in post-communist outcomes. In Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and the Czech republic, there has been solid support for democratic, rule-of-law states that could qualify to join the European Union. In Russia, by contrast, there was huge disagreement after 1991 not just over whether the state should be democratic or authoritarian, but over the country’s borders, ethnic identity, and relations with neighbouring countries. So the single most important determinant of which countries would go on to become successful, stable liberal democracies was the degree of consensus in favour of strong new state institutions. [Spectator, 13 Feb 2010]

Values need embodying in institutions, in customs, in laws. Of course they can become ossified, and of course not all institutions are good institutions. But if you try and share your values without having an eye to how they can be carried forward in concrete practices, they will probably not take hold and endure.

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Sally by sally_monster.When I was about ten I became obsessed with Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the whole Peanuts comic strip. I still have a library of those paperback compilation books that I haven’t had the heart to part with.

One of the recurring scenes was of Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, standing in front of her class for a ‘show and tell’ session, when she had to bring in something interesting from her weekend or holiday and explain why it was so interesting.

I was talking to a primary school teacher last week. She told me that the fashion in schools these days is not ‘show and tell’, but to teach children to show without telling. They have to find ways of letting a story speak for itself, of letting a drama unfold, of leading listeners to a place where they can reach a conclusion or draw a moral for themselves.

It’s good that advertising executives in the film industry are learning the same lessons themselves, and realising that it is better to tease people in the trailers than to tell them everything about the forthcoming film. As Jane Graham writes:

[Until very recently] the vast majority of studio-financed trailer-makers have played it safe, their audience-tested trailers following the basic three-act rule of set-up, jeopardy and emotional- or action-based blow-out. Now, however, thanks mainly to that feral little monster, the internet, and one of its most recent and riotous offspring, the viral, there are strong signs of a creeping rebellion in trailer-making…

JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield trailer, released in July 2007, was a brilliant example of the latter. Shown in US cinemas before the blockbuster Transformers, this teaser used footage from what looked like a home movie featuring screaming, running crowds and explosions in New York. Flying in the face of the first commandment of film promo (consistently supported by market research) that the more the trailer explains and reveals, the more commercially effective it is, it was devoid of information and untitled – only a release date and the name of JJ Abrams appeared onscreen.

As David Stern suggests, the most significant impact that Rance’s “improv” virals have had on trailers has been to free them from a commitment to plot information. The best online trailers don’t go beyond “teaser” territory, needing only to intrigue, or even confuse, to set film fans off on a detective’s quest. This has allowed for some genuinely innovative and smart promo work, like the fake news report on Dr Manhattan that formed part of the alternative Watchmen universe, and the Coraline trailer in which Neil Gaiman gravely described the effects of koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, which set the tone for his script.

It’s better to tease than to tell. And it might mean that I don’t have to close my eyes and hum during the trailers to avoid having the plots revealed.

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I had an article published this weekend about the faith of Jean-Paul Sartre — his nominally Catholic upbringing, his atheistic philosophy, and the subtle shifts that took place in his thinking towards the end of his life.

Jean Paul Sartre y Simone de Beauvoir (lomo) by OscarDC.

The tomb of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Cimetière du Montparnasse

I can’t copy it all here, but here are a few lines about his early life:

Sartre was a Catholic. His mother didn’t have a strong faith, but she had him baptised. When his father died – Sartre was only 15 months old – he and his mother went to live with her parents. Sartre’s maternal grandmother was more involved with her faith, so there was some rhythm of church attendance and Mass-going for the young boy. He remembered the feeling that God was watching him all the time, especially when he was naughty; and the pain in his knees when he was forced to kneel in church.

But God gradually drifted out of his consciousness, and religious indifferentism became the background to his growing up. By the time of his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in 1945 he could say ‘existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position’. Much of this was posturing: he softens this statement in the lines that follow. Yet there is no doubt about the powerful and largely negative influence he had on the faith of many young Catholics in this period. I admire much of Sartre’s philosophy, but I am not naïve enough to think that his words or his lifestyle were simply a force for good in post-war European society.

Sartre was a notorious atheist, attacking a particular conception of God. It’s a shame that he didn’t go deeper in his exploration of how God was understood in the tradition of Christian philosophy and theology:

He had plenty of opportunities for discussion over the years. Catholic heavy-weights like Marcel, Maritain and Gilson were in dialogue with existentialism. Stalag XIID, his prisoner of war camp, was full of French priests, some of them serious thinkers. He gravitated to them as fellow intellectuals. They taught him Gregorian chant, and he gave them talks on Heidegger. If only it had been the other way round, and he had had a few existentialist drinking songs up his sleeve, to sing in exchange for some lectures on Aquinas’s understanding of God as Pure Act.

There were nevertheless some shifts that took place later in his life:

There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.

In these final philosophical reflections Sartre seems to repudiate much of his life’s work and embrace ideas such as the need for an objective morality, the transcendent end of the human person, and a quasi-messianic notion of how society can find perfection. When pressed, he insisted that these conversations did indeed express his opinions, and that they were not foisted upon him by Lévy.

I stayed in Paris for a French course a few years ago and went to visit his grave. He’s buried, now joined by Simone de Beauvoir, in the Montparnasse cemetery. I prayed for them both. I knew the story of a death-bed conversion was just a myth, but I also knew about the intellectual movement that went on in those later years. It gave me enough grounds to hope that he might, just possibly, have been open to the Lord’s mercy at the very end of his life, as he went to meet the One he had denied so many times. [The Tablet, 20 Feb 2010]

stalag xii d by duesentrieb.

Stalag XIID - the prisoner of war camp where Sartre conversed with many French priests

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I still hardly use Facebook. If I remember, I copy these posts onto my homepage. And if someone sends me a message, I try to reply. But being ‘the wrong side of 40′ most of my middle-aged friends still prefer email to social networking.

Nokia e61 smartphone by Ziębol.I used to console myself with the idea that Facebook is the past, and something new will soon step over the digital horizon. It seems I was wrong, and Facebook is actually the face of the future.

It’s not just that Facebook growth is still exponential (I don’t just mean large, I mean exponential: it’s rate of growth is going up; the number of active users doubled from 200 million last summer to this month’s 400 million). It’s that our personal identity, and our commercial identity, is becoming defined not by what we consume (shopping), or watch (TV), or search for (Google), but by what we connect with in real-time.

This is why mobile Facebook and all the new smartphone applications will shape the evolution of culture and human consciousness over the next decade. Blogging, by the way, is almost prehistoric by now.

David Rowan explains the background:

What we are witnessing is the ultimate battle for control of the internet. Google, employing the world’s smartest software engineers, has dominated the desktop-internet era for a decade through its unbeatable algorithm-based computing power. But now we’re into the mobile-internet era, Facebook intends to dominate by knowing what we are thinking, doing and intending to spend — wherever we happen to be. As Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg sees it, this “social graph”, built around our friends, family and colleagues, will determine how hundreds of millions of us decide on everything from holidays to cosmetic surgeons. And with Facebook the proprietary gatekeeper — its mobile-phone applications already attracting extraordinary engagement from members — that’s a potential advertiser proposition that Google can only dream of.

It’s not that Mr Zuckerberg is still only 25 and naively arrogant that annoys Google, nor that his company has enticed swaths of senior Google talent. It’s that Facebook’s fast-growing dominance of the “social” internet threatens its rival’s entire business model. If it can sell advertisers access not just to what you’re thinking, but to where you are, who you’re with and what you plan to do, Facebook’s revenues from individually targeted “behavioural” advertising could increase exponentially. And it knows it.

“Google is not representative of the future of technology in any way,” a Facebook veteran boasted to Wired recently. “Facebook is an advanced communications network enabling myriad communication forms. It almost doesn’t make sense to compare them.”

Mr Zuckerberg’s human-powered view of the internet also taps into our yearning, as social creatures, to climb Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to attain self-actualisation: of the 400 million active Facebook users (up from 200 million last summer), half log on in any given day; they share five billion pieces of content a week and upload more than three billion photos each month. On average, they spend more than 55 minutes a day on Facebook. Those who access it via their mobile devices are “twice as active”. Now do you see why the search gurus in Google’s Mountain View headquarters are so anxious?

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It’s been running for a few weeks now, but I haven’t yet highlighted the email subscription option for this blog. It’s in the right-hand column, near the top. Just leave your email address, and each new post gets sent to your inbox.

Inbox Art by 10ch.

This will save you endless worry and heartache about which posts you might be missing, and whether you are reading them hot off the press or not. And the email comes with all the images, links and comment options – so it gives you the full online experience.

Of course I am only suggesting this to those strange people out there who are trying to fill their inboxes rather than empty them.

Inbox 1790 by Tidewater Muse.

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It’s Ash Wednesday – another excuse, if any were needed, to post about human origins. After all the festivities of Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras, we approach the priest on this first day of Lent to have our foreheads marked with ashes. The traditional words spoken at this point are: ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ (The priest standing next to me this morning as we distributed the ashes, a former Carthusian monk of a venerable age, used the Latin phrase that was still lodged in his memory: ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’.)

I was connecting this with last week’s philosophical anthropology lecture about human origins. Much is still unclear, scientifically, but one of the fascinating discoveries is that human beings who are anatomically modern emerged in pre-history many thousands of years before there is any evidence of characteristically modern human behaviour.

So you can find homo sapiens skeletons from about 200,000 years ago, and in terms of their anatomy there is hardly any difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’. If a crowd of such homo sapiens came towards you on a summer’s afternoon you’d say, ‘Look, there are some human beings’.

Dame de Brassempouy: le visage haut de 3,6 centimètres (reproduction)  by fredpanassac.

The "Dame de Brassempouy", perhaps the first representation of the human face, from about 25,000 years ago

But the evidence for modern human behaviours comes much later, sometime between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago (we are not sure exactly). Only in this period do we begin to see the cognitive leap that gives us our name (homo sapiens, wise-rational man), so that by the time of our Cro-Magnon ancestors in the upper paleolithic period (about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago) there is an astounding proliferation of new behaviours. The pattern of intermittent innovation is gone, replaced by revolutionary advances: sophisticated hunting and fishing tools; elaborate architectural designs constructed with mammoth bones; kilns that could bake clay statuettes to 800 degrees Farenheit; decorated bone tools; elaborate burial sites filled with grave goods; the well-known cave art from central France; and – my favourite – a multi-holed bone flute from some 30,000 years ago.

The question is: What happened? And why is there this lag between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and what we think of as modern intelligence and creativity? There are three possibilities: (1) The intelligence was there in potential, but some other factor needed to develop in order for it to be released; (2) the intelligence was working away, gradually, as human culture developed and human wisdom accumulated, and the revolutionary consequences of this would only become apparent, with their archaeological evidence, over a hundred thousand years later; or (3) something else happened to allow the emergence of creatures we would recognise, behaviourally as well as anatomically, as full-blown homo sapiens – people we could call our brothers and sisters.

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Quite a few friends of mine have done online dating; some with great success.

It gives you a bigger pool of people to meet; and it allows you to check them out through the all-important profile: age, work, interests, where you live, religion, background, favourite film, favourite band, etc. And of course it allows you to create your own online persona through your own profile.

But, according to some new statistics from one such site, it’s still the photograph that matters. There’s a New York Times article here; and some quotes from Jonathan Richards here:

Men should show off their abs (if they have them), make no eye contact, and not to be drinking. Women should look flirtatiously at the camera… possibly be doing something interesting such as playing a guitar, and under no circumstance have their pet to hand. Those would be some of the lessons for singletons mulling what type of picture of themselves to post on a dating website.

Leading US-based dating site OkCupid.com examined the profile pictures of 7000 of its users aged between 18 and 32 and assessed them according to a range of criteria, such as ‘basic look’ (Was the subject of making eye contact? Smiling?) and context (Were they showing off any flesh? Indoors or outdoors?). The site then gauged the photo’s ‘performance’ by measuring, among other things, how many times the subject was contacted, and what kind of response rate they’d had.

Sam Yagan, one of OkCupid’s co-founders, said that many of the rules about dating in the real world applied online: ‘A girl might find a man staring straight at her intimidating, so the ‘look away’ profile shot softens him a little’. Meanwhile, intimidation for guys, it seems, comes in the form of a woman holding a drink or, worse still, a cat. [TheTimesMagazine, 7 Feb 2010]

This is all to be taken with a pinch of salt. But I couldn’t help smiling at the idea that women with pets receive 24% fewer contacts from men, but men with an animal meet 50% more women. What does it all mean?

Rudy's Dream (pet portrait) by The Lone Beader.

And it’s interesting that at least in this unscientific survey men are attracted to women who look at them, but women are attracted to men who are looking somewhere else. Perhaps this is something to do with the Mars-Venus stuff…

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Not many people would know that there is an enclosed monastery of contemplative nuns in a fashionable district of west London. Michael Whyte has just finished a documentary film about life in Notting Hill Carmel and, remarkably, it is getting a national cinematic release in April. You can visit the monastery site here; and the site of the film here (with some beautiful images, and an online trailer).

After ten years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unprecedented access to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in London’s Notting Hill. The monastery, which was founded in 1878, is home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns. The nuns lead a cloistered life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rarely leaving the monastery except to visit a doctor or dentist. Silence is maintained throughout the day with the exception of two periods of recreation.

No Greater Love gives a unique insight into this closed world where the modern world’s materialism is rejected; they have no television, radio or newspapers. The film interweaves a year in the life of the monastery with the daily rhythms of Divine Office and work. Centred in Holy Week, it follows a year in which a novice is professed and one of the senior nuns dies. Though mainly an observational film there are several interviews, which offer insights into their life, faith, moments of doubt and their belief in the power of prayer in the heart of the community.

I was lucky enough to go to a screening this week. I’ve known the community for a few years because they have links with the seminary where I work. A key part of the Carmelite vocation is to pray for priests, and the sisters at Notting Hill pray each day for the priests and seminarians of Westminster Diocese. We visit them once a year in small groups, and chat in the ‘parlour’. So it was a real eye-opener to see what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ after all this time.

St Therese in  Notting Hill Carmel by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Some of the sisters (at the visit of the relics in October)

I was struck, perhaps inevitably, by the silence; but also by the noises that emerge from this silence. One of the sisters explained that they don’t feel disconnected from the city, because they are there to pray for the city, and to live at its heart. And you could see and hear these very connections in the background: the sound of a siren, of a train pulling out of Paddington Station; the sight of a police helicopter flying over, seen above the arms of a wooden crucifix in the garden.

Some of the sisters talked about their vocations, and about the struggles of prayer. It was very real. Moments of joy; moments of darkness and boredom — sometimes lasting for years. You had a sense, throughout the film, that they knew who they were and what they were doing. Simple things: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the sick, swapping news and stories (in the time of recreation each evening), kneeling in the chapel. Simple things that add up to a huge commitment of life.

One sister took evident delight in taking a chainsaw to an overgrown tree; and the director seemed to take an equal delight in cutting abruptly to this scene from the silence of the Chapel.

The final shot was breathtaking. Only at the very end, after following the sisters within the confines of the monastery walls for what amounted to a year, did the director use an aerial shot and pan back from the monastery to the surrounding streets and housing estates — and to the whole of west London. You realised that this monastery, so hidden away and unacknowledged, is truly part of the beating heart of London.

I’ll post again when I hear details about when and where the film is showing.

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I went to my first proper poetry reading this week. The editor of the magazine ‘Poetry Wales’ introduced a number of poets she has published recently, including an old friend of mine, Samantha Rhydderch. You can see her website here.

It was a dingy basement in a west London cafe (the Troubadour), full of atmosphere and history. It became an unexpected pilgrimage from me, as three of my teenage heroes had played within these very walls: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix. There were faded photos to prove it.

The whole event felt countercultural, even subversive. A group of wonderful, talented people, who could have shared their words with two billion people over the internet, simply by recording themselves at home and posting to YouTube. Instead of that, they chose to travel six hours on a train from Wales so that a tiny audience (50 at the most) could actually hear the sounds of the words as they came from their mouths, feel their breath, see them in the flesh, and taste the experience face to face.

magnetic poetry by surrealmuse.

Paper publishing itself is almost an anachronism. But the editor gave a lovely speech about how the printed word, above all for poetry, gives you a stillness and space in which to hold the words, that is simply not possible in any digital medium.

My favourite first line of the evening: ‘Every crashed marriage has its own black-box…’ (I’m writing from memory; and I apologise that I can’t remember the writer’s name – perhaps he can post his poem here…) My favourite newly discovered fact: That the lettuce was a sacred object in ancient Egypt.

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There was lots of talk last week about football and morality, and the old question of whether sporting heroes need to be perfect role models when they are off the pitch and back in the real world. It brought to mind a much more interesting question raised by Simon Barnes as he was looking over the sporting scandals that erupted last year: when does a cheat become a ‘gate’? When, in other words, do the failures and weaknesses of individuals morph into an institutional conspiracy that merits the suffix ‘-gate’?

Watergate Complex from TR Bridge by dbking.

The original Watergate complex

For me, the interest lies not only in the analysis of modern sport, but in the way it illustrates how corruption can grow within any community or institution — if the pressures are strong enough, and if the individuals involved are without firm moral principles.

When does a cheat become a gate? It’s the most important question of the sporting year. There’ve been an awful lot of cheats in the course of the past 12 months, but only three gates. All the same, it is three more gates than sport needs. Liegate was followed by Bloodgate which was followed by Crashgate. When taken together, they ask a series of devastating questions about sport.

Cheats are much less important. The affair of Thierry Henry’s handball didn’t become Handgate or Henrygate, because it didn’t have the stuff a gate needs. It was a flagrant piece of cheating, but it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. The only reason it gained such notoriety was because the consequences were greater: Henry’s balloon-bipping double-tap meant that France, rather than Ireland, qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.

No one within the sport condemned Henry for his lack of morals. Everyone took that for granted. No, the problem was felt to be one of officiating. We can’t expect players to be honest, so we must do something about catching them at it. But then Fifa decided that football was a better game when cheats are given a fair run, and so we move on…

Bloodgate had elements of farce. Harlequins were playing Leinster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. It was an ultra-tight game of rugby, and they wanted to bring on a talented kicker, Nick Evans, to go for a dropped goal. Alas, they had already used all the tactical replacements they were allowed. So they made a substitution instead. This is permitted in the event of a blood injury — wise precaution in these Aids-conscious times. Evans came on, had his chance for a dropped goal, but missed.

Harlequins were able to make this substitution because Tom Williams used a capsule of fake blood (piquant detail: it was bought in a joke shop near Clapham Junction) to simulate the injury. It was given to him by his team management. He was instructed to burst it and fake an injury. Subsequently, Williams was cut in the mouth with a scalpel to aid conviction.

All this was rumbled. The cover-up was uncovered. Williams decided to come clean. The Harlequins director of rugby, Dean Richards, was banned from the sport for three years, the club were fined £258,000…

In all three of these events, a request — or a demand — for cheating came from people who held positions of authority. This wasn’t a bit of casual skulduggery, this was organised. This was cold-blooded. This was cheating as a matter of official policy.

This is not a crime of passion, this was premeditated plotting. And that changes everything. It’s not naughty boys cheating during the exam, it’s the school-teachers supplying the crib-sheets. The teachers are not just helping their boys to get a result, they are destroying the examination system.

You can argue whether or not that is a good thing — you can’t argue that it is destructive. The system that McLaren, Harlequins and Renault are destroying is called sport.

This kind of organised cheating not only destroys the spectacle of sport, it destroys the meaning of sport. Why watch the races, if every race is fixed?

Sport can’t exist without faith. We know that modern athletes will cheat in hot blood. That’s disappointing, but we are learning to live with it. But when we know that cheating is also fixed, authorised, formalised and institutionalised, our faith is broken. Institutional cheating is not just a scandal. It is the gate to sport’s grave.

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We have just begun the second semester at the seminary, and I started teaching a new course entitled ‘philosophical anthropology’. It’s about the nature of the human person – not from the perspective of faith (that comes later), but just from the perspective of philosophy, reason, science, experience, etc.

I start with Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2):

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

But then I go on to explain how difficult it is today to justify this classical view that the human being has these unique qualities. The thrust of so much science and philosophy is to prove that there is simply a sliding scale of natural skills, and that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences of degree and not of kind.

Dolphins in the Red Sea by Tom Weilenmann.

As an example of this type of thinking I brought out an article by Jonathan Leake and Georgia Warren from the Sunday Times from a couple of weeks ago, giving evidence of human-like traits in the animal kingdom. Here are some quotes:

In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.

It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things…

Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.

Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.

Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.

All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.

This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates…

Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.

Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.

This is the question of whether there are non-human persons. 

So I have the next eleven weeks to explain how much of this is true, but that there are still some unique qualities about human reason, freedom and moral conscience that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

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BIGBANKGIRLBALOON by David Boyle.There is a wonderful exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called ‘Fakes and Forgeries‘. I’m sorry to be recommending it so late in the day – it finishes this Sunday (7th Feb).

The exhibits ‘belong’ not to some rich collector or charitable foundation, but to the Metropolitan Police, and they are all items that have been used as evidence in recent forgery trials.

In the first room there are some masterpieces by de Staël, Chagall and Giacometti – but they are really by John Myatt, one of the greatest forgers of the late 20th century. And as an example of changing fashions within the art market there is a ‘Balloon Girl’ stencil print in the style of Banksy, the contemporary graffiti artist.

It raises so many questions. If John Myatt can paint as well as de Staël, Chagall and Giacometti, does that mean he is the greater artistic genius (because unlike them he is not trapped within a certain style)? Why should the price of a luminous painting crash just because the certificate of authenticity is shown to be worthless? (I know, because it’s a market, and we are paying for the connection with the artist and for the investment).

A lovely twist arises from the fact that some of Myatt’s paintings are now becoming collectors’ items in their own right because of his fame and the notoriety of the cases.

I learnt some legal definitions. A ‘fake’ is an ‘innocent’ object that is later tampered with, e.g. by adding a fake signature. A ‘forgery’ is an object that is ‘guilty’ from the start – it was created in order to deceive someone. A ‘copy’ is a replica of a work of art that is created without any intention to deceive. A beautiful ‘Matisse’ is displayed here, even with his signature copied in the corner – but this is perfectly legal, because no-one was trying to pretend that it was really a Matisse.

blatant forgery by Yersinia.

Much of the skill lies in creating a false provenance: fake letters of authentication, false stories about how the work passed from the artist’s studio to the present-day, even tampering with archives in order to create the impression that a non-existent work really did exist in the documented history.

I know forgery is wrong, but the exhibition had all the fascination of a good heist film, and I couldn’t help admiring – not the dishonesty of the forgers, but their artistic skill and ingenuity.

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World Youth Day 2008 Concert (#458) by Christopher Chan.

World Youth Day - Sydney, 2008

I did a recent post about the religious identity of young Catholics and their desire for a sense of belonging and purpose. John Allen explains how the emergence of a certain brand of ‘evangelical Catholicism’ reflects a broader sociological reality that can be seen across different religions. He draws on the work of the French sociologist Olivier Roy:

It’s not just Catholics passing through an evangelical phase. In fact, the revival of traditional identity and the push to proclaim that identity in public is a defining feature of religion generally in the early 21st century.

In Europe, Roy points to the vigorous defense of the public display of crucifixes by Catholics, the insistence of Muslim women upon wearing veils, and a trend among younger Jewish men to wear the kippah at school and in the workplace. On the Christian side of the ledger, he also includes the massive crowds drawn by the World Youth Days instituted under Pope John Paul II, and the more recent “Christian Pride” festivals organized in some European cities as a self-conscious response to “Gay Pride” rallies. Globally, Roy notes the explosive growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, the success of Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat and neo-Sufism within Islam, the comeback of the Lubavich movement inside Judaism, as well as the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the popularity of Sri Lankan theravada Buddhism.

Though highly distinct, Roy argues that these evangelical strains within the world’s major religions share certain defining features: “The individualization of faith, anti‐intellectualism, a stress on salvation and realization of the self, [and] rejection of the surrounding culture as pagan.”

One can debate the merits of certain items on that list, but in the main Roy’s observation is indisputable: The reassertion of traditional markers of religious identity, interpreted in a personal and evangelical key, is part of the physiognomy of our times far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

I’m not sure all this works as a description of the sources of renewal I have met within British Catholicism, but there is plenty to think about here.

Interestingly, Roy doesn’t see this as a comeback for religion, but a sign that mainstream religion is becoming more and more detached from the broader cultural and political environment. So it is a sign of the success of secularism.

[It's] a body blow, or at least a serious challenge, for religions such as Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, which historically have emphasized the integration of religion with cultural, national and ethnic identity. Certainly the heavy losses Catholicism has suffered to Pentecostals in Latin America, and more recently in parts of Africa, seem to lend credence to that view.

But Allen counters that this might be just the moment for Catholics to re-engage with the culture and show the possibility of integrating faith and reason.

One could argue that Catholicism is uniquely positioned to do justice to the legitimate aspiration for identity expressed in today’s evangelical push, while ensuring that it does not become so thoroughly disengaged from, or antagonistic to, the surrounding culture that it ends in the extremist pathologies Roy describes. That seems to be what Benedict XVI has in mind when he talks about contemporary Christianity as a “creative minority” – clear about what makes it different, but aiming to renew the broader culture from within, not forever warring against it.

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Bullying by aeneastudio.I’d heard about these schemes that bring criminals face to face with their victims. I’d never given them much thought.

Gavin Knight writes about the work of David Kennedy, an academic at Harvard who helped to develop Operation Ceasefire in the US. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Boston was gripped by an epidemic of gang-related violence. The instinct of the police and courts was to come down as heavy as possible on those who were caught.

Kennedy suggested a different approach: talk to them; make them think about the reasons for their actions; show them the consequences of their behaviour — for their own lives and for the lives of those they had harmed; and help them to see that deep down they wanted something else, something better.

It’s an Aristotelian approach to moral reasoning: look at the ‘end’, the consequences — above all the consequences for you as a person — and reflect on whether this is what you really want. In the hard-edged context of gang violence it sounds idealistic and even naive. But apparently it worked:

He summoned gang members to face-to-face forums—“call-ins”—which they could be compelled to attend as a condition of parole. The first was in Boston in May 1996, with a second in September that year. In the call-ins, gang members were not treated like psychopaths but rational adults. It was businesslike and civil. The object was explicit moral engagement. They were told what they were doing was causing huge damage to their families and communities and that the violence must stop. The police said that any further violence would result in the whole group being punished. In emotional appeals, members of the community, victims’ relatives and ex-offenders spoke about the consequences of gang violence. And youth workers said that if they wanted out of the gang life they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction problems…

In the call-ins Kennedy aimed to show that the street-code was nonsense. Gang members were challenged about using violence to avenge disrespect. They were told about a drive-by shooting where a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet. “Who thinks it is OK to kill 13-year-old girls?” they were asked. To counter the belief in loyalty they were given examples of gang members fighting among themselves. They were asked: “Will your friends visit you in prison? How long will it take your friends to sleep with your girlfriend when you’re in jail?” One gang member called out: “Two days. And it was my cousin.” One by one, the rules of the street were dismantled…

Ceasefire challenged the orthodoxy of traditional enforcement. It questioned whether enforcement and criminal justice were effective deterrents. Old-school cops were stunned that a group of drugged-out killers could be influenced by moral reasoning. Criminologists were confounded that homicide, a personal crime often committed on impulse, could be stopped simply by asking. It sparked a vigorous discussion amongst academics who could not believe the results.

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