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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

I heard Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna give a talk in London recently. It was part of a promotional event for the International Theological Institute, an English-speaking centre of theology in Austria. See their website here.

360px-Schoenborn-Altoetting1

He was speaking about the role of the Church in a Western culture that is increasingly secularised. He was somehow pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I didn’t take detailed notes, so some of this might have my gloss on it.

The pessimism went like this, and he acknowledged that he was simply repeating themes elaborated by Pope-Emeritus Benedict over many years: There is no doubt that the cultural landscape in the West has become more secularised over the past fifty years or so. The Church seems to have less influence as a cultural and political force; and it has lost or is in the process of losing the big moral battles of the last two generations (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, traditional marriage, etc).

On top of this, the Church itself has in many ways become more secularised. The ethos of many Christians (their attitudes and behaviour) is often not dissimilar from the ethos of the secular world around them. So the Church is both marginalised for being at odds with the culture, and ignored for having nothing significant to offer to the culture; it is both counter-cultural (in a way that is incomprehensible to most people), and yet too influenced by the culture to give a distinctive voice.

The optimism came as a result of the pessimism. Because the Church, in this analysis, has more or less failed in the mighty cultural struggles of the last fifty years, this failure gives it a new freedom to stop worrying about how influential it is on society and concentrate on just being itself and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Instead of trying to win a political argument, and putting all its energy and anxiety into resisting political and cultural change, it can choose to witness to the truth of Christian values on their own terms.

It’s as if we have been gripping the wheel too tightly, judging our worth by the measure of how effective our campaigns have been in particular ethical issues, of how many people we have managed to convince to change their views. Perhaps this is all misguided. Perhaps we should concentrate on purifying ourselves, and the witness we are giving, and leave the results to God. If the Church becomes less concerned about convincing the secular world, and at the same time less worldly herself, she will actually have more to offer the world in an authentic way.

Cardinal Schönborn quoted St Bernadette of Lourdes, when she was interrogated by the clergy and police after her visions, and one of them said to her, ‘You are not convincing us’. And she replied, ‘My job is not to convince you, but just to tell you’. It’s like Peter and John speaking to the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 4: ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard’.

I’m not 100% sure about all this! Yes, Christians need to have the confidence to witness to their faith, without over-worrying about how this witness is being received. Yes, the Church needs to be purified, converted, and each individual Christian needs to become less worldly and more focussed on Christ and his teaching. Yes, if we fail to convince or even challenge the culture, we shouldn’t give up. This is all true, and makes sense to Catholics who are confident in their faith, and have the support of a strong Christian community.

But there are other concerns too. When the Church loses its influence in society, this effects in a negative way especially the many ordinary Catholics whose faith is perhaps less strong, who don’t yet have the inner spiritual resources to self-identify as a confident and creative minority: those on the edges; the lapsed; those without the energy or time to engage in questions about Catholic identity. When the Church is no longer a strong cultural presence, and when Christian institutions are not nurturing the faith of ordinary people in quiet but significant ways, then the moral and spiritual lives of many people suffer.

And I’m also concerned about this apparent failure to engage constructively with the culture. If we do have something to say, shouldn’t it make sense to at least some people? And if it isn’t making sense, shouldn’t we find better ways of saying what needs saying? It’s about the continuing importance of dialogue and cultural engagement.

To be fair to Cardinal Schönborn, he was not suggesting that we should give up on dialogue and retreat into a self-justifying mode of ‘witness’. Quite the opposite. He explicitly said that the Church should step out more freely to engage with the world, with a new confidence. That was his point. If we worry less about results and influence, if we are less afraid of being a misunderstood minority, we can be more truly ourselves, more faithful to the gospel, more creative, more engaged, and more interesting to those who are genuinely searching for an alternative to the worldliness around then.

I agree. Catholics sometimes need to be counter-cultural, in a joyful and confident way; as long as we remember that we are part of the culture as well, and we need to use as effectively as possible all the opportunities that we have to influence that culture, opportunities that come to us precisely because we do still belong to it in so many ways. Let’s not use the category of ‘witness’ as an excuse to opt-out or as a defence if our appeal to reason seems incomprehensible. We need to continue in the struggle to make the Christian message comprehensible – which it is.

It was interesting that the very last comment from the floor was about the fall of communism. It wasn’t really a question, just a statement that we should really be more optimistic, because the greatest threat to faith in God and Christian freedom of the last century has actually been overcome: communism. We forget, said the member of the audience, what a terrifying foe this was in Europe and throughout the world, how much harm it did to the Church and to Christian culture, and how much worse things could have become. And yet it did not prevail, in part because of the struggles of Christian men and women.

Cardinal Schönborn agreed, and thanked this person for ending on a note of hope. As if to say: yes, let’s be a creative minority on the ‘outside’ of the secular culture, but let’s not give up on using the influence we still have through our historical Christian presence and trying to transform the culture from within. Which is exactly what Pope-Emeritus Benedict said in his speech at Westminster Hall.

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When I was reading about Want-ology last week, I came across this wonderful phrase: the outsourcing of the self. It says so much, without needing to be explained; it gives enormous satisfaction by filling a definite lexicological gap.

outsourced self

This is how Rhys Blakely got onto the subject:

Look no further than the growing list of intimate tasks, or ‘hyper-personal services’, that can be outsourced to paid strangers in LA.

There are nameologists to name children, who are then potty trained by hired baby-whisperers; there are ‘elderly-care managers’ and professional graveside-visitors; there are love coaches and ‘decluttering consultants’, and I once met a banker who hired somebody to read his children bedtime stories down the phone.

So is it really surprising to learn that you can now pay someone to tell you what you want?

[Times2, p4, March 14, 2013]

It’s hard to believe some of this Californian excess, but there are plenty of more mainstream examples.

I don’t know if she actually coined the phrase, but Arlie Russell Hochschild is the author of The Outsourced Self. This is from a review by Judith Shuleviz.

In “The Outsourced Self,” Hochschild talks to love coaches, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, nannies, household consultants and elder-care managers, but also, and with deep empathy, their clients. A majority of these people are middle-aged or near middle age; the main thing is, they’re not young, which means they are not yet used to a virtualized and monetized social existence and can still express doubts about it. Most are women, who have long been the main providers of care, love and charity.

Hochschild’s consumers buy hyperpersonal services because they lack the family support or social capital or sheer time to meet potential mates, put on weddings, whip up children’s birthday parties, build children’s school projects, or care for deteriorating parents.

Or these folks think they just couldn’t perform such tasks as well as the pros. The providers sell their services because the service economy is where the money is, or because they take pleasure in helping others. Everybody worries about preserving the human element in the commercial encounter. Very few succeed.

Shuleviz gives this example:

Evan Katz is a love coach who teaches would-be online daters “How to Write a Profile That Attracts People You Want to Meet.” One of his clients is Grace (virtually all names have been changed), a divorced 49-year-old engineer who wants to search for love as methodically as she solves an engineering problem. Katz tells her “to show the real you through real stories.” When Grace comes up with a story about learning humility by scrubbing toilets at a Zen monastery, he reels her back in: “That might be a little too out there.”

On a mass medium like the Internet, the best “real you” is average, not quirky: “Everyone needs to aim for the middle so they can widen their market,” Katz says. He encourages daters to rate themselves from 1 to 10, and not to aim higher than their own rating.

On the other hand, he worries that daters will objectify themselves and others so zealously they’ll equate dating and shopping: “They want to quickly comb through the racks and snap their fingers, next . . . next . . . next. . . . You can be too efficient, too focused on your list of desired characteristics, so intent on getting the best deal that you pass over the right one.” Luckily, Grace escapes that trap when she agrees to go out with a tattooed, bald musician who doesn’t fit the criteria on her list, and falls in love.

We are outsourcing the self all the time. It’s part of what makes us human, that our personal lives are never completely separated from the culture, and that there is often a transactional element to this.

We share tasks; we give and take; we are responsible for each other in different ways. The line between what is personal, familial, cultural, technological, and commercial is always being re-negotiated. That doesn’t mean we can’t make mistakes or cross a line into a kind of existence that is almost depersonalised. This is the real question that Hochschild is raising.

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When there are disagreements about the common good, and clear differences between Christian values and the dominant values within a culture, it’s often suggested that the Church should be more ‘countercultural’, a creative minority that establishes itself as an alternative to the prevailing ethos.

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I’m reading Cardinal George’s book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, and in the conclusion to one essay he explains why he is wary of this kind of approach. I’ll just quote the paragraph in question.

I mentioned earlier, I am not easy with the term ‘countercultural’, because it sometimes connotes self-hatred. There is truth to the claim that the Catholic believer must sometimes stand boldly apart from his or her culture and speak a word of prophetic critique; but, at its limit, the claim to be countercultural strikes me as incoherent.

Whether we like it or not, we are shaped – linguistically, intellectually, relationally, bodily – by the culture in which we live. To stand completely outside of our culture is, impossibly, to stand outside of ourselves. More to the point, the language of counterculturalism can give rise to an attitude both mean-spirited and condescending. A culture is transformed only by those who love it, just as individuals are converted only by evangelizers who love them. [p58]

If you are moved to take a more strident approach to criticising the culture (and how much we need to sometimes!) it’s worth bearing these words in mind. Remember, he’s not saying that we should never offer a ‘prophetic critique’, he’s just pointing out some of the possibly unhealthy assumptions built into the language of counterculturalism. This huge, sprawling, indefinable ‘Britishness [Englishness?!] in the early 21st century’, for example, is my culture, with all its strengths and weaknesses; and I need to recognise it as mine, and love it, even if I am also wishing to evangelise and transform it. The one thing I can’t do, if I stay here, is opt out. There is no bubble.

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Every month in the seminary we have a Day of Recollection: a brief moment of silence and retreat, from supper on Friday until the Vigil Mass on Saturday evening. It’s not a long time, but it means that we are forced to put the brakes on every few weeks, even in the middle of a busy term; and a lot can happen in 24 hours if you really give yourselves over to the silence, the times of Office and Exposition in the chapel, and the reflections that are offered by the retreat giver.

Last weekend we had Fr Christopher Jamison lead the Recollection, the Benedictine monk from Worth Abbey who is now Director of the National Office for Vocation. I won’t even try to summarise the talks he gave (which connected the writings of Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers with our own spiritual lives). A number of thoughts stayed with me, including what seemed to be a throwaway line about St Teresa of Avila.

Historical Portrait Figure of St Teresa of Avila by artist-historian George Stuart (1)  by mharrsch

Fr Christopher was talking about the famous ‘different ways of collecting water’ metaphor in the Autobiography of St Teresa. And just by way of background, he spoke about how he had come to know the Autobiography not as a monk, but when he was an undergraduate studying Spanish at Oxford. Why was this masterpiece of the spiritual life on the curriculum at a secular university? Because, he explained, it was the first major literary work in Spain to use the ordinary language of ordinary people to describe the everyday occurrences of ordinary life. OK, you can hardly call St Teresa of Avila ‘ordinary’; but the autobiography, as well as being a guide to the mystical life, is one of the clearest, funniest, wisest, most honest and compelling accounts of what it is simply to be human, to get through a life, to get through a day. And – this is the point – it was one of the first.

Her faith, in other words, didn’t just use one element of the culture to communicate itself, it almost singlehandedly created a new form of culture, a new genre, to express something that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. It’s like St Mark (if he was the first!) deciding to write a ‘gospel’ when there was no such thing as a gospel before then. It’s like the Cathedral builders of the Middle Ages searching for new forms of architecture that could express the Christian mystery in ways it had never been expressed before.

These people, and many more (please add your own examples from other centuries) were not just using the culture, they were transforming it; they were inventing new forms of culture in order to communicate the faith that had already transformed their own hearts and vision.

We often talk as Christians about being more engaged with contemporary culture, or about allowing the Christian culture we have inherited to have a greater influence on the culture of the contemporary world. The harder and more interesting question, however, is whether it is possible for us today to create new forms of culture in order to express and share our faith. What are some examples today? What are the signs or even the seeds of this renewal?

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In my recent post about Web 3.0 I used the phrase layered reality to describe the way that information from the virtual world is becoming embedded in our experience of the real world in real-time. Instead of stopping the car, looking at a physical map, memorising the directions, and then starting off again; now you see a virtual map on your sat nav that matches and enhances the physical reality in front of you. It adds another layer. The next step – part of Web 3.0 – is that the technology that delivers the layer is wearable and invisible, so that the layering is seamless. We have had mobile conversations via earpieces for years now.

The best example of this is the Google Glass. Messages and information that up to now would appear on your computer screen or mobile phone now appear on the lens of your glasses as part of your visual panorama. Fighter pilots have had information appearing on their visors for a long time, so that they can read instruments without having to take their eyes off the scene ahead. The Google Glass is just the domestic equivalent of this.

Take a look at this wonderful video demo:

Claire Beale explains more about the implications for mobile technology:

Ever since Tom Cruise showed us in Minority Report a future where reality is a multi-layered experience, gadget geeks have been waiting for technology to deliver on Hollywood’s promise.

Now virtual reality is about to become an actual reality for anyone with the right sort of mobile phone after Telefonica, the parent company of O2, signed a revolutionary deal last week with the tech company Aurasma.

Aurasma has developed a virtual reality platform that recognises images and objects in the real world and responds by layering new information on top. So if Aurasma’s technology is embedded into your mobile phone, when you point your phone at an image it can recognise, it will automatically unlock relevant interactive digital content.

For brands, this type of kit has some pretty significant implications. It means that commercial messages can now live in the ether around us, waiting to be activated by our mobiles. If your phone registers a recognised image such as a building, a poster or a promotional sticker in a store, say, it will play out videos, 3D animations or money-off coupons to entice you to buy.

See this video demo from Layar:

You don’t just see, you see as others see, you understand what others understand, it’s almost like sharing in a universal consciousness. That’s part of the wonder of this new augmented reality, and also the danger; because it all depends on trusting the source, the provider. Who controls the layers?

But the idea of layering reality is not really new, in fact ‘layered reality’ could almost be a definition of human culture. Culture is the fact that we don’t just experience reality neat, we experience it filtered through the accumulated interpretations of previous generations. The primordial example of culture as a layering of reality is language: we speak about what we see, and cover every experience with a layer of language – before, during and after the experience itself.

And writing is literally putting a layer of human interpretation on top of the physical reality before you: carving some cuneiform script into a Sumerian brick; painting a Chinese character onto a piece of parchment; printing the newspaper in the early hours of the morning. Endless layers that stretch back almost to the beginning of human consciousness.

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Have you come across the phrase ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’ yet? I’ve just read John Allen’s latest book, A People of Hope, which is basically a long interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. (Dolan has been in the press a lot recently, because of his non-partisan presence at both the Republican and Democrat conventions to say the official prayers.)

Allen says in the Introduction that one of his main reasons for putting time into the book was not just to present a portrayal of Dolan himself, but to make better sense of where the Church in the States is going. Dolan, for Allen, is a figure who represents some of the new-found confidence within the American Catholic Church; and the fact that he has was appointed to New York, and that he increasingly takes centre stage when religion comes into the public square, is a sign that his brand of confident Catholicism is on the rise.

It fits with Pope Benedict’s programme for renewal. Allen writes:

Some time back, I coined the phrase ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’ to describe the distinctive character of Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching. Both parts of the formula are important. Benedict is certainly ‘orthodox’ in the sense of tenaciously defending the core elements of classic Catholic thought, speech, and practice.

Yet he’s also ‘affirmative’ in the sense of being determined to present the building blocks of orthodoxy in a positive key. The emphasis is on what Catholicism embraces and affirms, what it says ‘yes’ to, rather than what it opposes and condemns.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan is Affirmative Orthodoxy on steroids. He is, to adapt the marketing slogan for the sugar and caffeine-rich Jolt Cola, ‘all the orthodoxy and twice the affirmative!’ [xxi]

And later in the book Allen comes back to this theme.

By any reasonable standard Benedict is a conservative, but his main concern seems to be to systematically reintroduce the building blocks of orthodoxy, trying to dust off centuries of controversy and legalistic gloss in order to lift up the positive ideas at their core.

For Benedict, this commitment to affirmative orthodoxy flows from his diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West, which is that in Europe particularly, too many people think they know what Christianity is all about – a rigidly legalistic system of rules and restrictions, intended to shore up the crumbling authority of the Church’s clerical caste.

In that context, Benedict believes the only way to get a new hearing is to stress the deep Catholic yes beneath the familiar litany of things of which the Church disapproves.

For Dolan, affirmative orthodoxy seems more a matter of personal instincts and temperament. In other words, he doesn’t have to think about it, because his own life experience has disposed him to see Catholicism primarily in terms of adventure, romance, and fellowship, and it almost requires an act of will to think of it in any other way. [128]

Dolan himself says:

The Catholic Church affirms, strengthens, expands what’s most noble, most beautiful, most sacred, in the human project. I like to quote a line from Father Robert Barron, that the Church only says no to another no, and two no’s make a yes. It’s only when the yes of humanity is threatened that the Church will say no, to protect the yes. [129]

I’m not sure I like these phrases being used too often, because there is the danger they help create factions within the Church, in-crowds and out-crowds. But to the extent that ‘affirmative orthodoxy’ means ‘happy to be Catholic’ or ‘it does actually make sense’ or ‘it is actually worth sharing’, then that is fine by me!

I sort-of met Dolan twice. In the mid-90s I was ‘common room man’ at the English College in Rome, which meant I ran the bar. Dolan was a guest of the College for Sunday lunch, when he was Rector at the North American College in Rome. It would be indiscreet of me to blog about his choice of Sunday aperitif; so let’s just say that whatever it was, I poured it for him.

And then for World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, the Westminster group stayed outside the main city in the town of Solingen. Dolan gave the English catechesis one morning. The priests didn’t get to hear much, as we were sitting round the edge of the church hearing confessions; but the feedback was very positive.

(By the way – what is Jolt Cola?!)

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When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well. Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

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I led a study day on the New Evangelisation last week. The first talk was simply about what it all means.

In one sense, it’s an odd phrase: Isn’t evangelisation always new?

Even Blessed John Paul II’s famous tag-line is not too helpful in this respect. He said we need an evangelisation that is ‘new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression’. But there is nothing new about needing this newness – haven’t we always needed new ardour, new expressions, new methods? And hasn’t the Church always (well, nearly always) responded with some magnificent and unexpected and new embodiment of the missionary spirit?

Blessed Pope John Paul II during a General Audience

On the other hand, perhaps there is something truly new about the present situation, meaning the situation of the Church during and since Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate. Some of the new factors might include: the crisis of ‘missiology’ (the theology of mission and evangelisation) in the second half of the twentieth century, and the corresponding crisis within the Church’s missionary  outreach; the number of baptised people, of people who have been ‘initiated’ sacramentally, who have not really heard the Gospel message in a personal way, who have not been evangelised themselves, or perhaps have not been well catechised after their initiation; the need to re-evangelise former Christian cultures and societies (this isn’t new, but it is certainly pressing and it feels new to those living through it); or the challenge for Western societies to hold onto their Christian moral and spiritual roots before they truly slip into a post-Christian secularism – one of Pope Benedict’s themes.

I’m just summarising. If you are interested, please listen to the talk yourself.

You can listen here.

You can download the talk here.

[I post about the second half of the study day here, which includes the audio links: The New Evangelisation in practice: five UK initiatives and their significance for the wider Church]

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Following on from the Elephant Parade two years ago, when over 250 brightly painted life-size elephants were displayed throughout London, multicoloured eggs have been appearing around the city as part of the Faberge Big Egg Hunt. Despite the apparent ‘commercialisation’ (I mean sponsorship), I was excited about the idea and longing to get my first sighting.

The problem is that the eggs simply aren’t big enough. They are not so much ‘public works of art’ (as the elephants were), but ‘works of art that happen to be displayed in public’. Maybe the criticism is unfair, and it reflects my own unrealistic expectations. But I went in expecting something as stunning and provocative and bold as the elephants.

They are about two and a half feet tall, mainly on a podium or even in a display case. Some of them lovely objects, but none quite huge enough for the full, glorious impactful ridiculousness of having gigantic coloured eggs scattered around London. How tall would they need to be, in my humble opinion?At least four feet, maybe five. Six would be getting a bit scary…

So yes, it’s a fun venture, a nice addition to London life, a pleasant distraction, and I’m sure it’s all for good cause. But it could have been so much more!

What do you think? Am I being churlish?

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My last post was about people doing what they are not meant to do: defying the social conventions that almost define them, the unwritten rules of behaviour that we take for granted without ever reflecting on. The best thing I’ve read about this is undoubtedly Kate Fox’s Watching the English.

It’s hysterical, and full of profound insights into the strange reality of being English, or British (she can’t quite decide). If you can’t afford psychoanalysis, read this book, and it will bring to light all sorts of habits and behaviours in your own life that you’ve never really thought about. I kept thinking, ‘How does this woman know me so well?’ If you have any drop of Englishness in you at all, you will learn things about yourself that you never knew before.

Why do we English people talk about the weather so much? Why do we say sorry (and actually feel sorry) when we have no reason to be sorry? Why do we queue so often? Why do we get so angry when other people jump our queue? Why are we so unable to express our anger? Why are we afraid of complaining about bad service? Why are we so awkward in social situations? Why do we consistently fumble for the right word or the appropriate gesture when we meet someone, or leave someone, or thank someone, or correct someone, or offer them our sympathy in the face of difficulty, disease or death? Why is this social ‘dis-ease’ almost a part of our genetic make-up?

Fox is one of these social anthropologists who takes part in her own experiments. So she set about systematically upsetting the social cart and seeing how people reacted. A whole morning aggressively bumping into people to see if they did indeed say sorry for her own rudeness. An afternoon pushing into carefully formed queues to see how many people would dare to challenge her, and how they would deal with this unwelcome need to enter into confrontation (loud coughs, long stares, the odd ‘Excuse me?!’).

Here is the Blackwell’s blurb:

In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. Her minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight, queue – and moan about it all – exposes the hidden rules that we all unconsciously obey. The rules of weather-speak. The Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo. Humour rules. Pub etiquette. Table manners. The rules of bogside reading. The dangers of excessive moderation. The eccentric-sheep rule. The English ‘social dis-ease’. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.
It’s a very funny and very revealing book.

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I posted about the Catholic Voices project last year, which trained a group of young Catholics in the art of speaking about their faith in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and public debates.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the launch of their book Catholic Voices: Putting the Case for the Church in the Era of 24-Hour News, written by two of the project’s founders, Austen Ivereigh and Kathleen Griffin. It should be a great resource for any Catholics wanting to understand what their faith really has to say about any number of controversial contemporary questions, and hoping to learn some tips about how to present it.

Here is some of the blurb [slightly adapted]:

Catholic Voices is a new sort of apologetics, one that helped make the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in September 2010 such an extraordinary PR success for the Church. The book is based on the expert briefings given to the original Catholic Voices team. It combines arguments and facts with practical media skills, hearing the question behind the question and listening for the positive intention behind the criticisms. It gives insider tips on how to present arguments clearly, compellingly and concisely in a quick-fire atmosphere. It is aimed not just at those speaking into a microphone, but at the parish priest, pastoral assistant, catechist, teacher, student – and at every Catholic who is wanting to answer questions on difficult topics in the news and give the reasons for what they believe.

And the author blurb:

Austen Ivereigh is a former public affairs director for the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, a writer and journalist, a regular contributor to the Guardian and America magazine who appears regularly as a commentator on the Catholic Church for radio and TV news programmes. Kathleen Griffin is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and senior lecturer in Broadcast Media at the University of Brighton. For many years a producer and reporter for BBC Radio 4, her many books include The Forgiveness Formula.

The new Catholic Voices website has also been launched recently – take a look if you are interested. There is lots of news about the new Catholic Voices Academy, the launch of another book about the development of the project itself, and the new Northern Speakers’ Programme that started this weekend.

[I must declare an 'interest': I've been the chaplain of the group since it's launch last year. But I think I'd be posting about it even if I weren't...]

They are desperate for funds. Here is their pitch to donors.

Catholic Voices is funded by donations from individuals and foundations and relies on the generosity of donors to continue its work. Please help us to:

√ serve both the Church and media by training informed, media-aware lay voices to articulate Catholic teachings on key issues;

√ support Catholics wanting to better articulate the wisdom of their faith through workshops, briefings, and authoritative arguments and information;

√ bring together Catholics engaged in public activities to develop commonly held propositions which express the insights and beauty of the Christian tradition, in order better to ‘put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum’.

If you feel moved to support this work, you can donate by paypal at the bottom of this page here.

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I was at St Patrick’s in Soho Square yesterday evening, for the middle part of a three-day celebration to mark the re-opening of the church after extensive repairs and refurbishment, and a complete remodelling of the crypt area.

St Patrick's from the outside - I can't find a shareable image of the new interior!

The overwhelming impression is of light, order and grace – qualities that I think are much-needed in this part of London.

It’s interesting that the re-opening has been reported in the secular as well as the Catholic press, a recognition that the event, and the church itself, have a particular significance for the wider London community and not just for Catholics.

This is how Riazat Butt in the Guardian reported it:

A former bordello and music hall owned by one of Casanova’s mistresses is perhaps an unlikely site for one of Britain’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, St Patrick’s, which sits amid the bright lights and fleshpots of London’s Soho.

“It is not a conventional parish,” observes Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who has overseen a 14-month, £3.5m project to restore the church and rid it of the damage caused by damp, dry rot, urban pollution, incense and candlelight. It reopens this week with a specially composed Magnificat from James MacMillan and a mass from Cardinal George Pell, who is flying in from Rome for the occasion.

The traditional nature of the celebrations – vespers and canticles – highlights the contrast between the orthodoxy of St Patrick’s and what lies outside it.

Sherbrooke says: “You get a knock on the door and it can be someone who is successful in business, someone who wants a sandwich or someone caught up in the sex industry. We leave our SOS prayer line calling cards in telephone boxes – where you might see other services advertised.

“One man who called said he was a pimp and wanted to break out of his occupation but that it was too lucrative for him to leave. Do we just accept the way people are? People get into ruts they find it difficult to break out of. We can say, as Christians, that God can and does intervene.”

Butt is impressed by the openness and outreach of the Catholic community at St Patrick’s:

The restoration work includes the creation of a crypt, classrooms and a cafe. St Patrick’s and a team of volunteers feed 80 to 90 homeless people a week with the Groucho – a private members’ club – supplying the puddings.

The work to the church will allow the team to cook and serve food from one location instead of having to prepare the meals in their own kitchens and drive them into central London.

Space will also be provided for alcohol and drug counselling. St Patrick’s will be the only Roman Catholic church offering this service in London [...]

Migrant communities continue to be the lifeblood of the parish. On a typical Sunday St Patrick’s – or rather its temporary location at the House of St Barnabas – will attract around 700 people to five services, two in English, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in Cantonese.

Alexander says: “In this part of London you don’t have resident parishioners. There are tourists who know we are here and workers. It is a place where they can rest their weary feet. There is a little bit of bucking the trend going on. The loneliness of this city is more intense than you can imagine. Soho has a darkness as well as the bright lights.”

Parishioners believe the church is important to Soho and to London. Pauline Stuart, who has been part of St Patrick’s for nine years, says: “We’re not the establishment – we can do things that Westminster Cathedral can’t. I do get comments sometimes – you know, ‘what’s a nice girl like you believing in all that mumbo jumbo’. But for me it’s true. I don’t care whether they convert or not. That’s God’s problem.”

It’s open all day, every day, so do pop in if you are in central London over the next few weeks – or indeed any time. There is a map and travel details here.

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Speaking of stone-age tribes and their cultures, take a look at this aerial video of an uncontacted tribe in the remote Amazonian rainforest.



Here is the blurb from the BBC:

An isolated tribe living in the Amazon rainforest on the Brazil-Peru border has been filmed for the first time.

Jose Carlos Meirelles, of Funai, said his government agency needs proof of the existence of “uncontacted” Indian communities in Brazil due to the threat posed by illegal logging and mining. They are known as “uncontacted” because they have only limited dealings with the outside world.

The BBC was allowed to film from 1km away using a stabilised zoom lens.

The pictures here are even more stunning – close-ups of the tribes-people; but I can’t reproduce them because of copyright.

It raises so many moral/philosophical questions. Is it right to contact them and ‘interfere’ with their way of life, and open their culture up to exploitation, alien diseases, etc? Is it right not to contact them, and hold them in a kind of cultural bubble? The shots of Meirelles flying over the village remind me of Ed Harris in The Truman Show, sitting in his control room overlooking the artificially constructed town in which Jim Carrey is brought up and observed, like an unknowing contestant in Big Brother.



Harris is far more sinister, because Carrey is literally imprisoned in this artificial world, unaware that the rest of the world is looking in through the hidden TV cameras. But when Meirelles speaks about preserving their freedom I’m not sure if he is truly liberating them or imposing on them a kind of cultural imprisonment. He says:

It’s important for humanity that these people exist. They remind us it’s possible to live in a different way. They’re the last free people on the planet.

I feel very ambivalent. There is a genuine care being expressed for the tribes-people and their way of life, and behind this the knowledge that the often ruthless logging industry is ready to roll in and flatten their entire culture. But the language reveals the mind of a scientist and anthropologist considering what the preservation of this pristine culture offers to us, the rest of humanity; making God-like decisions, literally ‘from on high’, about how to ‘protect’ a people and preserve them in isolation. I’m not judging – I’m genuinely ambivalent about what would be the best course of action.

On the other hand, at the Uncontacted Tribes website, the debate is framed in the terms not of enforced isolation, but of protecting the land from despoliation and of respecting the right of tribes-people to relate to outside cultures on their own terms:

TV presenter Bruce Parry of hit TV series Tribe said, ‘Protecting the land where uncontacted tribes live is of global importance. We have consistently failed to introduce them to our world without inflicting terrible traumas. It is for them to decide when they want to join our world. Not us.’

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘The illegal loggers will destroy this tribe. It’s vital that the Peruvian government stop them before time runs out. The people in these photos are self-evidently healthy and thriving. What they need from us is their territory protected, so that they can make their own choices about their future.

‘But this area is now at real risk, and if the wave of illegal logging isn’t stopped fast, their future will be taken out of their hands. This isn’t just a possibility: it’s irrefutable history, rewritten on the graves of countless tribes for the last five centuries.’

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily - an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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It often seems that Christians in general (and the Catholic Church in particular) are locked in a perpetual battle with the secular media. The Church thinks the media is out to get it; and the media assumes that the Church has nothing credible to say to the contemporary culture. That’s the way the story is told.

I was at Worth Abbey last weekend, helping with a retreat for members of Catholic Voices. The whole project is built on the idea that the media can be a force for good in society, and that Catholics need to engage with the media more and not less.

Take a look at the promotional video here:

You can read a recent article here about Catholic Voices from the National Catholic Register.

And here are some words of explanation from their website. I especially like the quote from Cardinal Newman:

What’s the idea?

To train 20-25 Catholics in the art of speaking about their faith in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and public debates.

Where does the idea come from?

Catholic Voices has three main sources of inspiration:

1.      A recognition of the need for articulate, reasoned and committed Catholics to be present in the media, especially during the papal visit when the Church will be placed under the spotlight.

2.      Cardinal Newman’s call for “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

3.      Pope Benedict XVI’s 1 February call, in his address to the English and Welsh bishops in Rome, for Catholics in the UK to “insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society” and for “great writers and communicators” to follow the example of Cardinal Newman in courageously communicating their faith.

A kind of Catholic Evidence Guild?

Yes, in the apologetic tradition – understanding your faith and the teaching of the Church, and learning how to express these clearly, succinctly, and reasonably. But CATHOLIC VOICES is different from the old model in that it is geared to the demands of the modern media.

So why the special training?

Partly the training is in media skills. Many people simply aren’t familiar with the idiom and the methods of modern TV and radio. That lack of familiarity can make even the most articulate Catholics defensive or simply ineffective. CATHOLIC VOICES will show how you can be open, transparent and positive in the media, as long as you are also strategic. Part of that is understanding the role of journalism and the pressures that exist on editors and journalists.

A large part of the training will be on the issues that the media – and society at large – is interested in. Church teaching can often seem abstract, aloof or inhuman; it needs grounding in real human experience. Rather than seminars in church teaching, we’re arranging vigorous dialogues with experts where the hard questions are not skirted but confronted straight on. That allows our team to think through their own positions, and for the co-ordinators to assess which speakers will be best to talk on which topics.

Is this an evangelisation initiative?

We do not see our task as evangelising through the media. We respect the media’s role to probe, question, and hold to account those who have power and influence, as the Church does. In responding to this demand, we are not so much evangelising as clearing the obstacles to evangelisation – presenting, we hope, the true face of the Church to replace the often mythical one portrayed in the media. What’s needed is an attitude of openness and transparency: we respect the media’s role in holding us to account, and we are happy to give an account of ourselves. If that leads to people having a truer view of the Church and the Catholic faith, we’ll have achieved our objectives. We are concerned less with persuading people than with articulating the Church’s positions in a way that is accessible, reasonable and accurate.

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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Colosseum by rutty.

The Colosseum - scene of early Christian persecutions

It’s not often that Pope Benedict and the comedian Frank Skinner join theological forces. Skinner has an opinion piece in yesterday’s Times that echoes, in his own chirpy and irreverent way, Pope Benedict’s suggestion that Christianity can have an influential role in the post-Christian West as a creative minority.

I’ll explain at the end why I am not sure about this, but here are some choice quotations from the Skinner article:

Personally, I like our ever-dwindling status. I even like our ever-dwindling numbers. There was a time when social pressure made people go to church. If anything the reverse is now true. Most adults you see in church nowadays are there because they want to be there. That’s not decline, it’s progress. The wheat has been separated from the chaff. We get quality, not quantity, in the churches and the chaff can enjoy a nice lie-in…

Christians have always worked best as an unpopular minority. We were surely at our most dynamic when we knelt, eyes to Heaven, hands clasped in prayer, with a Colosseum lion bounding towards us.

That’s why I think Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is wrong to get his cassock in a twist about changing attitudes to Christianity in this country. He speaks of a “strident and bullying campaign” to marginalise Christianity. But that’s great news. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake”…

I’m a little wary of muscular Christianity. It’s been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the shooting of abortion doctors. It seems to be in direct contradiction to “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”…

Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that…

Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.

This idea works if you believe that people are either wheat or chaff; that we are either ‘true Christians’ or ‘Christians in name only’ who might as well give up the pretence of Christianity now. But, to change the metaphor, I think we are more like seeds: thrown into the soil of the society and culture in which we live.

So if that culture is conducive to Christian faith; if it nourishes it, encourages it, gives it meaning, and helps it to grow — then many of us will indeed grow in our faith. But if it is antagonistic, negative, barren — then many of us who might otherwise have flourished, might give up altogether.

I’m not saying that we bear no responsibility for living our faith, and that we can simply blame the culture. I’m just stating what I think is a historical fact: that in times of severe persecution, despite the heroism and sacrifice of many Christians, many others are pressured into abandoning their faith, and this doesn’t mean that they didn’t have any faith in the first place.

That’s why I believe, much more than I used to, in the importance of building a culture (and institutions) that support Christian faith; and why I am much more sympathetic, and heartbroken, when good people abandon their faith because of the struggles they have had to face.

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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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I have a fetish for lists, and anyone following this blog will know that it runs the risk of turning into a compendium of other people’s lists: “Greatest films… best books… tallest buildings…” I regret not buying a book I stumbled upon when I was doing the Christmas shopping called something like The World’s Top Ten. It was a lavishly illustrated hardback, very like the Guinness Book of Records, filled with nothing but lists of the ten biggest, best, smallest, quickest, oldest… whatever. It could have kept me blogging for decades.

757/767 Mechanical Checklist - Takeoff by Fly For Fun.

Mechanical checklist for flying

Anyway. The point of this post is to defend my fascination with lists. Oliver Burkeman has an article about the importance of making checklists – whether in cooking or in heart surgery:

The Checklist Manifesto, by the journalist and medic Atul Gawande, takes as its starting point the astonishing things that happen when hospital doctors are required to tick off items on checklists as they carry out routine but critical procedures. In one trial, the rate of infections from intravenous drips fell from 11% of all patients to zero simply because staff were compelled to work through a checklist of no-brainer items, such as washing their hands. Many doctors grumbled: it was more paperwork, it wasted time and it insulted their professional judgment by implying that they needed reminding of stuff they’d learned in the first month of medical school. But it worked. A more recent study, which included UK hospitals, suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent a staggering 40% of deaths during treatment. Airline pilots, of course, already rely heavily on them, but Gawande suggests checklists might have impressive effects if adopted throughout business, governance and beyond.

Besides, the stepwise structure of checklists has the salutary effect of narrowing your focus to the next action. When it comes to large undertakings, dwelling on the big picture can be paralysing, and a distraction from the next step, which is the only one you can ever actually take. As they say, I’m told, at Alcoholics Anonymous, where they preach it as a survival strategy, all you have to remember is to “do the next right thing”. Then the next, and the next, and the next.

And just to go up an intellectual gear or two, Burkeman himself put me onto this wonderful interview with the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, who believes that list-making is at the root of all human culture:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

So I think I am now justified in posting a culturally significant list at least once a week…

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

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

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

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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

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

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

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

Thank You God! by Daniel Y. Go.

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

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