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Archive for November, 2010

Photo from Milwaukee Journal

Dorothy Day is one of the greatest and most significant Catholics of the twentieth century. Today is the 30th anniversary of her death.

When I left school I worked for six months in a small religious book publishers, and I was asked to do some research in order to revise a pamphlet they wanted to print about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. I spent a couple of days in one of the London libraries reading some of the early biographies, and I was completely bowled over.

It was the simplicity of her love – for Christ, for the poor, for whoever was sitting next to her. It was the fact that she took the gospel seriously, and literally; and believed it was something to be lived and not just explained away. It was her intelligence, which made her think about the causes of poverty and injustice, so that talking, writing, publishing and debating (all for ‘the clarification of thought’) were as much a part of her mission as opening soup kitchens and houses of hospitality. And it was her beauty – the beauty of her writing, the beauty of her life. Much of it, I’m sure, was romanticised – I was 19 and looking for heroes and heroines. But she remains one of the most important people in my life, and her life has shaped my own thinking and the way I look at the world as much as anyone else’s has.

I went on holiday/pilgrimage to New York in the summer of 1998 just after my ordination. I had supper and celebrated Mass in the main Catholic Worker house where she lived and worked, and had some great conversations – she was still remembered and revered. I hunted down the building where the first house of hospitality was set up. By then it was a Chinese takeaway, so I went in and pretended to look at the menu while I took in the atmosphere and the history. I took the boat to Staten Island and found the spot where she is buried. It’s one of these cemeteries without upright headstones, so the lawnmower can sweep right over the graves. You ask a man in the office and he tells you where the small plaque is hidden. I spent a long time there praying.

I still pray to her often. And one of my prayers is that I will live to see her canonised.

If you don’t know much about her, here are some paragraphs from a short life by Robert Ellsberg. If you want to follow this up, the best book to buy is Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg, which is a fantastic collection of short pieces and excerpts from her longer articles and books. The introduction is itself one of the best short biographies you will find.

The Catholic Worker, a lay movement she founded in 1933 and oversaw for nearly fifty years, was an effort to show that the radical gospel commandment of love could be lived. She understood this challenge not just in the personal form of charity (the works of mercy) but in a political form as well, confronting and resisting the social forces which gave rise to such a need for charity. She represented a new type of political holiness – a way of serving Christ not only through prayer and sacrifice but through solidarity with the poor and in struggle along the path of justice and peace.

Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897. Though she was baptized as an Episcopalian she had little exposure to religion. By the time she was in college she had rejected Christianity in favor of the radical cause. She dropped out of school and worked as a journalist in New York with a variety of radical papers and took part in the popular protests of her day. Her friends were communists, anarchists, and an assortment of New York artists and intellectuals, most of the opinion that religion was the “opium of the people.”

A turning point in her life came in 1926 when she was living on Staten Island with a man she deeply loved. She became pregnant, an event that sparked a mysterious conversion. The experience of what she called natural happiness, combined with a sense of the aimlessness of her Bohemian existence, turned her heart to God. She decided she would have her child baptized as a Roman Catholic, a step she herself followed in 1927. The immediate impact of this was the painful end of her common law marriage. The man she loved had no use for marriage. But she also suffered from the sense that her conversion represented a betrayal of the cause of the poor. The church, though in many ways the home of the poor, seemed otherwise to identify with the status quo. So she spent some lonely years in the wilderness, raising her child alone, while praying for some way of reconciling her faith and her commitment to social justice.

The answer came in 1932 with a providential meeting. Peter Maurin, an itinerant philosopher and agitator, encouraged her to begin a newspaper that would offer solidarity with the workers and a critique of the social system from the radical perspective of the Gospels. The Catholic Worker was launched on May 1, 1933. Like a true prophet, Maurin was concerned not simply to denounce injustice but to announce a new social order, based on the recognition of Christ in one’s neighbors. In an effort to practice what they preached, Day converted the office of the Catholic Worker into a “house of hospitality” – the first of many – offering food for the hungry and shelter for the tired masses uprooted by the Depression.

But Day’s message did not end with the works of mercy. For her the logic of the Sermon on the Mount also led to an uncompromising commitment to nonviolence. Despite widespread criticism she maintained a pacifist position throughout World War 11 and later took part in numerous civil disobedience campaigns against the spirit of the Cold War and the peril of nuclear war. Later, in the 1960s, when social protest became almost commonplace, Day’s peacemaking witness – rooted in her daily life among the poor and sustained by the discipline of liturgy and prayer – retained a particular credibility and challenge.

The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional and even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience, and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed in the secular world with all the “precarity” and disorder that came with life among the poor.

You can find a link to the London Catholic Worker here.

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There is a bit of a backlash against David Cameron’s desire to measure the nation’s happiness. Not that you can’t measure some of the things that often make us happy, or some of the signs that indicate we have reached a certain level of happiness. Just that the contemporary obsession with seeking happiness might actually be making us more unhappy!

Tim Lott wrote about this in the Times yesterday (2:4-5; paywall).

In this country we seem to take our cue from the American Constitution and believe in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right. In this formulation of human fulfilment, happiness is like an elusive animal that has to be tracked down mercilessly, until we finally capture, then cage it.

This world view is misconceived. In his recent book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, the writer Edward G. Wilson called America ‘a land of crazed and compulsive hopefulness’ and deplored the idea that unhappiness had become something to be ashamed of.

Much the same argument was put forward in Barbara Ehrenreich’s counterblast against the ‘positive thinking’ culture, Smile or Die, in which she complained that during her experience of breast cancer it was distressing constantly to be told that she had to ‘stay positive’.

Both Ehrenreich and Wilson are correct – the pursuit of happiness, as we currently imagine it, is counterproductive. The thing about happiness is, the more you seek it, the more it eludes you. As the novelist C. P. Snow wrote, ‘The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.’ But we continue as if we took the fairytales literally, hoping to find a way of living ‘happily ever after’. We can’t; and neither should we want to.

Because there’s no such thing as happiness – at least as it is confected by marketers and advertisers. There is a whole commercial world, quite apart from that other imaginary world of fairytales, that is invested in telling us not only that something called happiness is achievable, but that you are a failure if you don’t have it.

This flies in the face of every fact of human nature. It is the most normal, natural and everyday occurrence in life to feel unhappy. The rejections, slights, embarrassments, petty failures, snubs, stresses and disappointments of life are simply not avoidable… Unhappiness is not some dreaded malignancy to be avoided at all costs, but a proper and inevitable part of the warp and weft of life.

Then he comes back to his central point:

…that the pursuit of happiness is actually what leads to unhappiness. Rather than spending our lives indulging in this hopeless quest, we should seek acceptance of what is humanly inevitable – the alteration of happiness and unhappiness. Recognition of this unpredictable process has the great virtue of avoiding an extra layer of unhappiness, that is, the disappointment of unrealistic hopes.

So we have normal happiness, and normal unhappiness, without the extra level of unhappiness that comes from being unhappy that we are unhappy. Easy!

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Most of us treat failure as something to be avoided. We do all we can to succeed in whatever we have started, and to avoid getting involved in any projects that might expose us to failure.

One of my bedside books at the moment is The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence by Tom Peters. He presents a Theory of Failure in chapter 19 which is a real challenge to people of a more cautious nature like myself.

Here is my summary: To succeed in any area, you have to try a lot of stuff – quickly. If you try lots of stuff in a hurry, you will make lots of mistakes – always. Hence, making mistakes often is a very good sign of progress; perhaps the only sure sign. So moving forward is not about just tolerating mistakes, it’s about being open to them, learning from them, maximising them, celebrating them, even encouraging them.

He quotes Phil Daniels:

Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.

And at the end of the chapter he has his own list of favourite ‘failure’ quotations:

  • “Fail. Forward. Fast.” (High-tech exec)
  • “Fail faster. Succeed sooner.” (David Kelly, founder IDEO)
  • “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)
  • “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” (Winston Churchill)
  • “Whoever makes the most mistakes wins.” (Book by Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes)
  • “If people…tell me they skied all day and never fell down, I tell them to try a different mountain.” (Michael Bloomberg)
  • “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” (Michael Jordan)

Maybe this is all a bit too ‘Management-Guru-Self-Help-Book’ for you – but I found it very thought-provoking!

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There is a boom in documentary film-making. It’s not just because of the availability of cheap technology. It’s connected with a new way of seeking truth.

Hussain Currimbhoy is curator of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Britain’s premier showcase for new documentaries from around the world. He speaks to Sean O’Hagan.

There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often rough or even low-key. It’s a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the documentary.

British director Lucy Walker shares the enthusiasm.

I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making. There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened, my film [Waste Land] was number one at the box office in terms of what they call ‘per-screen average attendance’. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media.

Walker thinks people are looking for bigger truths. But it may also be that they are looking for smaller truths – as film-maker Adam Curtis explains:

There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that. Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured documentaries, like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here, people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated, are hidden.

O’Hagan finishes the article by quoting director Kevin MacDonald.

 “But documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as non-fiction, so why can’t the same loose rules apply to documentary?”

To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190 countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year’s Sundance festival.

“It’s amateur film-making on a grand scale,” says MacDonald. “But, because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming, it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect.”

In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. “The irony is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative. When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite.”

Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. “The only real breaking point,” he adds, “is when documentary actually becomes fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make up.”

That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.

I’m dying to see this Life in a Day. The idea reminds me of what was perhaps the best ‘exhibit’ at the Millennium Dome – a huge collage of photographs of ordinary life in Britain, pieced together to make it look like one single image, hung around the curving walls of one of the main rooms. I haven’t seen any reproductions of it since. Do let me know if you can remember what it was called or whether it still hangs somewhere.

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What’s the place of religion on the internet, and the significance of the internet for religion? Pope Benedict comes back to these themes in his latest document Verbum Domini about the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.

Spot the relevant app...

He encourages Catholics to make serious efforts to be more present in the world of the mass media. But he also warns that virtual relationships will only become meaningful if they are a means to some kind of personal contact between those using them.

Here are the relevant paragraphs.

Linked to the relationship between the word of God and culture is the need for a careful and intelligent use of the communications media, both old and new. The Synod Fathers called for a proper knowledge of these media; they noted their rapid development and different levels of interaction, and asked for greater efforts to be made in gaining expertise in the various sectors involved, particularly in the new media, such as the internet.

The Church already has a significant presence in the world of mass communications, and her magisterium has frequently intervened on the subject, beginning with the Second Vatican Council.[360] Discovering new methods of transmitting the Gospel message is part of the continuing evangelizing outreach of those who believe. Communications today take place through a worldwide network, and thus give new meaning to Christ’s words: “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Mt 10:27).

God’s word should resound not only in the print media, but in other forms of communication as well.[361] For this reason, together with the Synod Fathers, I express gratitude to those Catholics who are making serious efforts to promote a significant presence in the world of the media, and I ask for an ever wider and more qualified commitment in this regard.[362]

Among the new forms of mass communication, nowadays we need to recognize the increased role of the internet, which represents a new forum for making the Gospel heard. Yet we also need to be aware that the virtual world will never be able to replace the real world, and that evangelization will be able to make use of the virtual world offered by the new media in order to create meaningful relationships only if it is able to offer the personal contact which remains indispensable.

In the world of the internet, which enables billions of images to appear on millions of screens throughout the world, the face of Christ needs to be seen and his voice heard, for “if there is no room for Christ, there is no room for man”.[363]

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What is the meaning of happiness? The English word comes from the Old Norse ‘happ’, which meant good luck or good fortune. It’s connected with the words ‘haphazard’ (random, chance), and ‘hapless’ (unlucky). And my favourite dictionary, Chambers, says that ‘hap’ is still a noun in circulation, meaning chance, fortune, or accident – although I can’t remember ever having heard this used in ordinary conversation.

‘Happiness’ in Chinese – copied from the previous post

I mention all this because John P. Keenan posted this illuminating etymological comment on the Chinese character (above) that I used in my previous post:

The character is pronounced fu and is found in the dictionaries as 福. The form here is a “grass” character, an artistic rendering that flows like the grasses.

Its original meaning, as I was taught by Dr. Derk Bodde at the University of Pennsylvania, was “salary,” for that provided the ancient Chinese with a firm sense of prosperity. Today it simply means “good fortune” or “happiness,” and is found often in Chinese restaurants. . .

Even then, it was “all about the economy”!?

It’s easy to sniff or chuckle at this crude link between salary/prosperity and happiness in Chinese culture. But as you can see from the etymology of our own English word, the link between profound existential notions of happiness and material good fortune is pretty universal.

I happened (there is that word again) to write something similar about the connection between happiness and fortune in Greek thought. Here is an excerpt:

Let me look at two Greek words. One of them is a word used in ancient Greek philosophy: eudaimonia. The simplest way of translating this is ‘happiness’. But it’s something much richer, and there are always fights amongst the scholars about how to translate this word. Perhaps the best extended definition is ‘all-round human fulfilment’. It’s about living well, living a life that is all that it could be. A rich life; a fulfilled life. In fact one of the best equivalents, which sounds a bit old-fashioned today, is the phrase ‘flourishing’. I’ve got a friend, and whenever I used to say to her ‘how are you’, she would reply ‘flourishing!’ It sounds a bit quaint now, but it has a beautiful meaning. It means everything we have been describing: A good life, a rich life, a fulfilled life, a life that has grown into what it could be. This is eudaimonia in Greek philosophy.

Another Greek word is well known from the Scriptures, from the Beatitudes of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…’ That word ‘blessed’ is makarios in Greek. This is another word that has caused great arguments amongst scholars and translators. If you read the Jerusalem Bible, or the New Jerusalem Bible, you will hear the word ‘happy’. And this is the version Catholics hear in the readings at Mass on Sundays. ‘Happy are the poor in spirit’. If you go back to other Greek texts of the same period, the literal meaning of makarios is ‘fortunate’. It’s not a particularly religious word; it’s an ordinary secular word. Perhaps the best common translation today would be the word ‘lucky’. You are ‘lucky, fortunate’ if you are poor in spirit.

So you can see the tensions when you have to make a choice about a translation. You can use the word ‘blessed’, which is very rich; but it’s a bit too religious. Because ‘blessed’ is a religious word in contemporary English, which is not actually the original Greek meaning. But if you say ‘happy’ — in the modern idiom this sounds a bit too superficial. And really, in both a religious and secular sense, we are trying to point to a life that is all that it could be — happy, fortunate, rich, blessed, fulfilled, flourishing. I’m going to use the word ‘happiness’ to mean all these things. Happiness in a large sense.

The idea of happiness gives us a good starting point when we are trying to discuss human life, and human actions, and then morality. Because even if we are confused by the idea of rules, of right and wrong, or doubtful, it’s still true that most of us, even those with no faith, would be able to agree that as human beings we are seeking something in life, seeking some kind of happiness and fulfilment. Even if we disagree with each other and with friends and neighbours about exactly how to find it, we at least have a starting point: Here we are as human beings, seeking something, seeking some kind of fulfilment and meaning.

The article is called “Christian Morality and the Search for Happiness”. It’s one chapter in the book Faith Matters: Fundamentals of Faith recently published by St Pauls, London; with chapters by different authors about prayer, the bible, authority and conscience, and Catholic social teaching. Well worth buying! (I can’t find it on Amazon – but there is a link here to the St Paul’s Bookshop page about the book, where you can order it online.)

Faith Matters: Fundamentals of Faith

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The UK government wants to monitor our general levels of happiness and subjective wellbeing.

"Good luck and happiness" (apparently - but I don't know enough Chinese to confirm whether this is what it means, or whether it is even Chinese! Help please...)

Allegra Stratton reports:

On 25 November, the government will ask the independent national statistician Jil Matheson to devise questions to add to the existing household survey by as early as next spring.

It will be up to Matheson to choose the questions but the government’s aim is for respondents to be regularly polled on their subjective wellbeing, which includes a gauge of happiness, and also a more objective sense of how well they are achieving their “life goals”.

The new data will be placed alongside existing measures to create a bundle of indications about our quality of life.

A government source said the results could be published quarterly in the same way as the British crime survey, but the exact intervals are yet to be agreed.

There are currently different views within the government on whether all indicators should be shrunk into one single wellbeing indicator or simple happiness index.

The government already polls people on their life satisfaction but experts say the innovation is that the new tests will ask more subjective questions and will be put to a larger sample size. The combined wellbeing data set, it says, will have a more central role in policy-making.

A Downing Street source said: “If you want to know, should I live in Exeter rather than London? What will it do to my quality of life? You need a large enough sample size and if you have a big sample, and have more than one a year, then people can make proper analysis on what to do with their life. And next time we have a comprehensive spending review, let’s not just guess what effect various policies will have on people’s wellbeing. Let’s actually know.”

It all sounds very straightforward and well-intentioned. But Clare Carlisle digs a bit deeper and wonders whether it is really possible to agree on what happiness is and to measure it when you think you’ve found it. Time for some solid philosophy:

As centuries of philosophical debate have shown, happiness is neither simple nor uncontroversial – and certainly not easy to measure.

In the western philosophical tradition, reflections on what the best kind of life might be have almost always acknowledged that happiness is something we all desire. Philosophers often regard human happiness as an important criterion for deciding what is good and right, and sometimes as the main criterion. The most straightforward expression of this last view is found in the “utilitarian” moral theory pioneered in England in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

According to utilitarians, the moral value of any action is measured according to the amount of happiness that results from it. Even for these thinkers, though, questions of happiness are not simply about how much of it there is. Mill certainly recognised different qualities of happiness: he thought that the pleasures of listening to opera or reading Milton, for example, were “higher” than the kind of enjoyment found in a good meal. Indeed, he famously qualified his utilitarianism by insisting that “it is better to be a Socrates dissatisified than a pig satisfied”. The thought here seems to be that part of the moral value of human life – what we might called its dignity – lies in the capacity to be affected by a great range and depth of experience. And this includes our capacity to suffer.

Critics of the kind of moral theory advocated by Bentham and Mill often talk about the practical difficulties of measuring happiness, which might give the coalition pause for thought. In fact, some of these difficulties were pointed out long before the rise of utilitarianism. Aristotle, for example, thought that the goal of every human life is “eudamonia“, a deep conception of happiness as long-term flourishing, rather than fleeting pleasure. This would be difficult, if not impossible, to record with questions such as “how happy did you feel yesterday?”.

Aristotle also recognised that, unlike some other branches of philosophical enquiry, ethics is not an exact science. In the 18th century,Immanuel Kant made this point even more strongly: of course we all desire happiness, said Kant, but we do not know what it is or how it will be achieved. Anyone who has pursued something in the hope that it will make her or him happy – whether this be a career path, a relationship, or a holiday – only to find it disappointing, and even a source of stress and anxiety, will know what Kant was talking about.

However, the government’s plan to measure happiness raises a further and perhaps more profound philosophical question: regardless of whether this is possible in practice, is it the best way of thinking, even in principle, about what it is to live a good human life? A clue to this idea can be found in the way a term like “utilitarian” is sometimes used disparagingly. When, for example, a course of action is described as “merely utilitarian”, this implies that something important has been overlooked. But what might this be?

Good question. I think that’s enough for one post, but you can read the full article if you want to continue into Heidegger’s answer!

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Three of my favourite contemporary worship songs are ‘Hosanna (Praise is Rising)’, ‘Everlasting God’, and ‘Lord, Reign in Me’. I had no idea who wrote them, or whether they had any connection, but they kept turning up whenever I was at a youth retreat or charismatic prayer group.

A friend recommended Brenton Brown’s CD Everlasting God, which I’ve been listening to in the car for the last week. It’s great to discover that all three songs are by him and on the same album, and that his ‘versions’ (the originals) are fantastic – especially the title track, which is done at half the speed I’m used to.

I know quite a few priests who minister heroically at various youth events, pouring their pastoral energies out, with a real heart for young people – but they hate the music! For them it’s simply one long penance. Thank goodness I look forward to it.

You can listen to ‘Everlasting God’ here (sorry about the cheesy slides – but this is the best version I can find on YouTube).

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It starts as a cute romantic comedy and ends with a vision of the coming apocalypse. This is part of Alfred Hitchcock’s genius, that he can address vast existential themes in films that seem to deal with trivia.

[Warning: Plot spoilers coming!]

It was good to see The Birds again – another film that should have made my ‘greatest films of all time’ list. I saw it years ago, and it shows how deceptive memory can be. As I remembered it, the final shot showed the four protagonists (Melanie, Mitch, his mother, and his young sister) standing on the porch, watching the birds fly off into the distance, with a sense of relief that they had gone. But of course it’s the opposite: the birds themselves stand on the porch, having taken occupation of the house, and Mitch and the others tip-toe through them, start the car, and drive away. Strange how something gets transposed in that way.

I was reading about the longer ending that was written up and story-boarded, but never shot. Mitch drives away, into the town, and they witness the devastation caused by the birds: mangled bodies, burnt-out houses, etc. Classic horror film territory. As they leave the town, the birds gather above them and swoop down upon the car. Mitch accelerates, the birds keep pace with the car, they tear through the soft roof of the convertible, but eventually he speeds away from them. The tough guy saves the day. Refined sports car technology beats the savagery of nature. Human courage and ingenuity overcome the apocalyptic threat symbolised by the birds.

That’s why Hitchcock’s real ending is so much more powerful and unsettling. There is no victory. The stars don’t outrun or outwit the birds. It’s the birds who let them go. There is no apparent meaning to the original attacks; and there is no obvious reason for this hiatus that allows them to ‘escape’. The birds, at every moment, are completely in control. They flock. They attack. They take control of the boat, the school, the petrol station, the house. They take control of the circumstances in which Mitch and the others are allowed to leave. We feel a sense of relief as the car pulls away, but we have absolutely no idea what it means or what is going to happen in the future. It’s a moment of respite and not of resolution. The birds have not gone away.

That’s why, as a parable of human vulnerability and existential menace, The Birds is such a masterpiece. Whether you interpret that menace in psychological or political or evolutionary or religious terms, the chaos is always just beneath the surface, threatening to overcome us, biding its time. It’s not the whole story of human life, but it’s one part of it that Hitchcock was particularly good at telling.

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The focus of inter-faith concern, at least for Catholics, has shifted from Judaism to Islam over the last decade. This is the observation made by John Allen in a recent article.

The Ortaköy mosque, Istanbul (I managed to find a beautiful mosque beside a glorious suspension bridge!)

 

It doesn’t mean that the relationship between Catholics and Jews is less important. Islam, however, is where the bulk of the Church’s time and energy is being invested. Why? Allen gives four reasons.

First is simple arithmetic. There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians in the world, which adds up to 55 percent of the human population. For good or ill, the relationship is destined to be a driver of global history.

Second, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and subsequent outbreaks of Muslim radicalism such as the assault on Our Lady of Salvation, have made Islam a burning preoccupation for the entire world.

Third, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006 unleashed massive new energies in Catholic/Muslim relations. The speech triggered a firestorm in the Islamic world [...], yet it also galvanized thoughtful voices on both sides of the relationship — most notably, it produced “A Common Word,” an initiative of 138 Muslim scholars, representing all the schools of Islam, acting together for the first time to outline common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Fourth, the demographic transition in Catholicism from the West to the Southern hemisphere is producing a new generation of leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Judaism generally does not have a large sociological footprint. This Southern cohort didn’t live through the Holocaust, and they generally don’t feel historical responsibility for it — seeing it as a Western, not a Christian, atrocity. Relations with Islam, however, are a front-burner priority, since many of these southern Catholics live cheek by jowl with large Muslim communities.

Allen goes on to reflect on four implications of this shift to Islam. One of them is particularly interesting for us in Britain after the Papal visit, where Pope Benedict was sometimes wrongly perceived to be against all forms of secularity and pluralism. It’s aggressive secularism that he is against, and not the idea of a secular society. What does that mean? Here is Allen’s analysis:

During Benedict XVI’s Sept. 2008 trip to France, he endorsed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dubbed “positive laïcité” — a French term for which there is no exact English equivalent, though the usual translation is “secularism.” The basic idea is that religious freedom and church/state separation are positive things, as long as they mean freedom for, rather than freedom from, religion.

The emergence of Islam as the church’s central interfaith preoccupation has turbo-charged support for “healthy secularism.”

Proof can be found in the Middle East. Squeezed between two religiously defined behemoths, Israel and the Muslim states which surround it, the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism prevails. Their dream is to lead a democratic revolution in the region. That outlook reflects a basic law of religious life: secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy.

Momentum towards healthy secularism in Catholic thought has implications well beyond the Middle East.

In both Europe and the States these days, there’s considerable debate about the political role of the church. Critics, including many Catholics, sometimes argue that bishops are “too political.” Americans, for instance, are still chewing over the role the U.S. bishops played in the health care reform debate.

If there is a force in Catholicism capable of balancing the scales, it’s likely to be the relationship with Islam, and the perceived need on the Catholic side to offer a credible model of the separation of religion and politics. That points to a keen irony: The specter of shariah might do more to give Catholic leaders pause about blurring church/state lines than a whole legion of liberal Western theologians.

I like that distinction between a secular political space that gives freedom for religion and one which demands a freedom from religion.

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The true spread of people’s blogging motivations is represented more accurately, it seems to me, in this table from jeffbullas than in the Technocrati survey I mentioned yesterday – even though it is based on his own poll of only 492 people.

The top 5 in ranking order are.

  1. Passion
  2. Share with others
  3. Business
  4. Self expression
  5. Put forward new ideas

Not surprisingly the number one reason is “passion” for their topic. In fact of all the top bloggers I know that I have reviewed  and researched, this would have to be the number one reason for posting every day year after year.

Here is the full table. I like the fact that nine people are honest enough to say they blog not to change the world, but to pass the time!

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Why do people blog? A recent report by Technorati doesn’t go into the hidden psychological motivations, it simply asks people. And it gives three main answers: for fun, for money, and for work – whether for the company that employs you, or for yourself as someone who is self-employed.

This doesn’t seem right to me. It leaves out the zillions of people who are blogging to change the world. I can’t think of a better phrase. I mean: to share ideas, to inform, to influence opinion, to speak truth to power, to evangelise, to make the world a more beautiful place, etc.

This is just one small part of Technorati’s recent analysis of the State of the Blogosphere 2010. Part 1 is about WHO: Bloggers, Brands and Consumers. Part 2 is about WHAT: Topics and Trends. Part 3 is about HOW: Technology, Traffic and Revenue.

Here’s the introduction if you are not going to look through the whole report. The blogosphere is all about social networking, mobile blogging, women, mothers, and money – apparently.

The 2010 edition of State of the Blogosphere finds blogs in transition—no longer an upstart community, now with influence on mainstream narratives firmly entrenched, with bloggers still searching for the next steps forward. Bloggers’ use of and engagement with various social media tools is expanding, and the lines between blogs, micro-blogs, and social networks are disappearing. As the blogosphere converges with social media, sharing of blog posts is increasingly done through social networks—even while blogs remain significantly more influential on blog content than social networks are.

The significant growth of mobile blogging is a key trend this year. Though the smartphone and tablet markets are still relatively new and most analysts expect them to grow much larger, 25% of all bloggers are already engaged in mobile blogging. And 40% of bloggers who report blogging from their smartphone or tablet say that it has changed the way they blog, encouraging shorter and more spontaneous posts.

Another important trend is the influence of women and mom bloggers on the blogosphere, mainstream media, and brands. Their impact is perhaps felt most strongly by brands, as the women and mom blogger segment is the most likely of all to blog about brands. In addition to conducting our blogger survey, we interviewed 15 of the most influential women in social media and the blogosphere.

These changes are occurring in the context of great optimism about the medium: over half of respondents plan on blogging more frequently in the future, and 43% plan on expanding the topics that they blog about. Bloggers who get revenue from blogging are generally blogging more this year than they were last year. And 48% of all bloggers believe that more people will be getting their news and entertainment from blogs in the next five years than from the traditional media. We’ve also asked consumers about their trust and attitudes toward blogs and other media: 40% agree with bloggers’ views, and their trust in mainstream media is dropping.

I need to get a smartphone.

The graph about blog topics is fascinating:

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Fr Vincent Van Vossel, CSSR, Superior of the Redemptorists in Baghdad, speaks about the terrible choices facing Christians in Iraq after the massacre that took place on 31 October in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation.

Iraqi Christians are now terrified and in shock. They are faced with a terrible dilemma: emigrate and save the lives of their loved ones, or stay in the country and witness to the faith, risking death.

The massacre was widely reported. Aid to the Church in Need have produced this short video about the worsening plight of Iraqi Christians.

This is the rest of the report about Fr Vincent’s comments, which comes from Fides and Aid to the Church in Need:

A commando of terrorists linked to al Qaeda stormed the church, crowded with faithful during the Mass, taking those present hostage. Iraqi security forces made a raid to free them, but the the militants reacted with a massacre that left 58 dead, including two priests, and about 70 wounded.

Fr Vincent, who has lived in Iraq for 40 years and teaches at Babel College in Baghdad, the college affiliated with the Pontifical Urban University, has issued a heartfelt testimony to Fides: “We are living something that is really terrible. There had never been a massacre of such magnitude, all within a church during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. I have visited the church and listened to the testimonies of the faithful in shock. The terrorists mercilessly killed women and children. The community is traumatized. The church looked like a cemetery.”

The Christian community in Baghdad has lost two young Syro-Catholic priests, Fr Wasim Sabieh and Fr Thaier Saad Abdal, while a third priest, Chorepiscop Fr Rufail Quataimi, is still in the hospital in a serious condition.

“What a tragedy! The two priests who died, not yet in their thirties, were my students at the College. They were very active in Bible apostolate, in interfaith dialogue, and charity. Fr Thaier was in charge of a Centre for Islamic Studies, and Fr Wasin was very involved in helping poor families. We will miss them,” said Fr Vincent.

The Redemptorist recalls that “yesterday a number of attacks hit Baghdad and Shiite areas, which means that not only Christians are under attack, but the whole area is flooded by terrorism. It is hard to see a hopeful future for the nation right now,” he said. “We do not know who is behind these acts, nor where the nation is headed.

Meanwhile, the people suffer. There are such great evils that beset the country.” Hence, the dilemma for Christians: “The faithful say their life has become impossible. Many Christian families are organizing themselves to leave the country. The excruciating dilemma is whether to flee in search of a better future, or stay, risking their lives. In this tragic moment, the Bishops have a great responsibility to speak to the faithful, to give their reasons and hopes, to convince them to stay. The task of our pastors, today, is very difficult,” he remarked.

The funeral was held yesterday, says the Redemptorist missionary. “It was attended by many Muslim leaders who asked the government to defend Christians. We hope that, after yet another massacre, civil authorities listen to the cry of Christians in Iraq and place an end to their suffering.”

The Christian Churches for the Iraqi communities in the UK have arranged a joint remembrance service for the worshippers killed at Our Lady of Salvation for the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad on Sunday. It will be take place on Friday 12 November [NOTE NEW DATE], at 7pm at the Syrian Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Church, 4 Brook Green, London W6 7BL.

This is the response of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, speaking for the Catholic Church in England and Wales:

I want to express my horror at the atrocity that occurred at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Karada, Baghdad and my solidarity with those who suffered and died. This massacre has taken a terrible toll on a vulnerable and diminishing Christian community that, along with other religious minorities, continues to suffer persecution. My thoughts and prayers are with all those Iraqis who struggle against violence and extremism. The Christians of the Middle East have a special vocation as peace builders, as the recent Synod emphasised. I know that they will continue to be faithful to that mission and that Catholics in this country will continue to support the Iraqi Church.

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I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.

Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?  

Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.

The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:

It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.

And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.

The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:

I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.

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