Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Excellent writing about unpromising characters

A review of "Broken", by Daniel Clay, from Amazon.
The characters in the book are unpromisingly similar to the inhabitants of a Jeremy Kyle show. The “first person” is Skunk, an eleven-year old girl in a coma; her mother has left; her au pair is torn between a relationship with the Skunk's father and her form teacher; there is a violent dad in the house opposite, living on benefits and dope, with a gaggle of stealing, foul-mouthed, lying, promiscuous daughters; this dad has beaten up a local lad, who is consequently drifting into madness.

And yet “Broken” is a surprisingly humorous, compassionate and empathic story. Its strongest suit is in relation to the issue of aspirations. This is a matter of keen interest to Skunk – balanced as she is not only between childhood and adulthood but between life and death. Surrounded by people who she sees making mistakes and misjudgments, she has to try and work out how to make the best of her own life. Were it not for the sex, violence, language, drugs and nudity (!), this would be the sort of thought-provoking book that would help a teenager to grapple with issues of growing up. As it is, I think I'd rather my children instead watched “Dead Poet's Society” when the time comes ....

The book is also strong on empathy. The author does an excellent job of getting into the mind of his characters – quite a feat, given that they range from emotionally deprived teenage girls who find in promiscuity a substitute for the love that they don't know, through their violent, protective father, to “Broken”, the nickname Skunk and her brother give the nineteen-year old lad who drifts into a terrifying madness. And whereas we are given the ability to empathise with these people, we are shown how society around them simply doesn't have the capacity to care.

With such a grim tale to tell, it would have been easy for the author to have written bleak and depressing social commentary. But – reminiscent of “Angela's Ashes” set in the present day – there is humour and warmth, and a surprisingly upbeat, satisfying ending. I think this is probably the best new fiction I have read in the last year or so. If you are prepared to listen to a story of parts of our society that generally have a discreet veil drawn across them, then here would be a good place to start.

The Dover ID trial and rhubarb

It seems that Judge Jones' ruling - amongst other things, that ID is creationism - is not unprecedented. I found this in "The Telegraph" magazine.
Strictly, or rather botanically speaking, rhubarb is a vegetable, but in 1947 the US Customs Court at Buffalo NY ruled that it was a fruit, as that is how it is normally eaten.
Well, that's settled, then. The botanists were wrong: the judge was right.

Of course, this has great potential for helping humanity to deal with all sorts of messy and inconvenient supposed "facts". For example, if we could get a US court to rule that "its" needs an apostrophe, because that is how it is normally spelt these days - as in "the court was acting beyond it's competence" - then all of a sudden the significant number of people who don't know how to use apostrophes would suddenly find that they were right all along. We could also use it to settle once and for all the debate about global warming. All we need is a judge to say whether it is happening or not. And it would be really helpful if we could get a judge to rule that the value of pi was not an irrational number, since that is how it is used by everybody except a few armchair theoreticians....

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

His Dark Materials - first reaction

I'm only a little way into Pullman's "The Subtle Knife" (book 2), so the real force of the anti-God message hasn't yet struck. However, I wanted to write a few things on what I think so far.

To conceive of a whole alternative universe - in fact, more than one - demonstrates the imagination of a real master of storytelling. Also, to explore these universes not only on the level of language but the level of their science is brave, and he has done it very well. It is this creativity which makes the stories so captivating. There are limits to my appreciation. Although I like Lyra as a character, I'm not convinced that she would have had the intuition and empathy required of her in the books, and from a narrative point of view, I think that they are weakened by the fact that they follow the perspective of different characters - I think I am becoming a bit of a narrative snob in that regard!

In terms of the critique of theism, I've already commented (see below) about Pullman's perception of the nature of God and the church. If God were a being who simply expected creatures to wait on him, and was indifferent to their concerns, I would stand alongside Pullman throwing stones at him. But the Christian message is that this isn't what God is like. God is so concerned that he has intervened in history as a real person - and in fact, he allowed himself to be killed for the sake of his creatures. The church ought to be demonstrating the servant nature shown us in the life of Jesus - and again, I am happy to stand alongside Pullman in his criticism of a church that is authoritarian and denies what God has said.

I obviously don't know where the account is going, yet, but there is a more interesting philosophical point I'd like to make about what I have read so far.

In the book of Job, a godly man called Job finds himself suffering in circumstances that he doesn't understand. He bears this for a long time, but eventually pours out his frustration in a series of discourses. In one of these, he says:
Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.

Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.

I would give him an account of my every step;
like a prince I would approach him.

Job 31:35-37 (NIV)
What he is asking for is a higher court. He says: God is accusing me, I can defend myself, and what I need is somebody higher than God who could judge between us.

Later on, God speaks directly to Job, and at the end of that, Job's attitude has completely changed:
I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?'
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.'

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Job 42:2-6 (NIV)
It's not the case that God has in some way "beaten" Job, for Job to end up like that. In actual fact, God doesn't even say that Job has done anything wrong - although he insists that Job's friends (who insisted that Job must have been getting what he deserved) have said what is wrong, and need forgiveness. What has happened is that, having truly understood God, Job was able to see that he was far from being "like a prince" - God's equal, who could demand a response from God.

The interesting thing is that Job thinks there ought to be a higher court, at which God's actions can be weighed. But God makes clear to him that he is the highest court. He made everything for his own reasons; a person's whole idea of justice is in fact derived from God's nature.

What does this have to do with Philip Pullman? Well, he obviously thinks it is reasonable for him to call God to account in some way. But what is interesting to me, on the basis of what I read so far, is that there are certain things that he places "above" God. One of these is truth. I may, of course, be going wrong here, since I haven't read all of the books, but the alethiometer (the golden compass) seems to transcend all the universes and provide answers to questions almost beyond the capability of any god. Another seems to be destiny - Lyra is the child of prophecies, and the prophecies seem to transcend the Magisterium of her universe.

But from within the perspective of orthodox Christian theology, truth and destiny are only meaningful concepts given the existence of God. The first of these is the epistemological necessity, which I've already discussed many times on my blog. There does seem to be such a thing as absolute truth (the postmodern epistemology is wrong) but we have no reason to believe starting from our own perspective as subjective observers that we are able to apprehend such truth (the modernist epistemology is wrong). I have found no better explanation for the idea of truth - the truth that we all recognise, and upon which we all base myriad decisions every day - than that there is an external, personal absolute in whom and to whom truth is necessity, and from whom we derive our own nature.

So if Pullman suggests (as he seems to) that the idea of truth is something that "is bigger" than the Christian idea of God, and something that one can therefore use to judge God with, where does his idea of truth derive from? An epistemology is required.

The same applies to destiny. Again, the orthodox Christian idea of destiny relates to the fact that God has a purpose for the whole universe, which was why it was brought into being. No destiny can be superimposed on this that can overthrow God's purpose - in fact, the most determined act of rebellion against this purpose (killing God, no less! - that idea of Pullman's is not original) was the act which achieved the destiny that God had planned.

If Pullman wishes to use these ideas to critique God, he needs to first of all demonstrate that a satisfactory foundation of these ideas can be found outside God.

Monday, January 21, 2008

News from Zimbabwe (3)

Part 1
Part 2
... When the future holds forth so little hope, the present becomes meaningless.

And here is where the tragedy of the country's societal deterioration is so stark. We are being changed as a people, our national personality has been affected and continues to be affected. My own view is that long after the national roads have been repaired, and the electricity supply restored and the hospitals replenished with medicines and personnel, long after these improvements take place within our longed-for future, our national psyche will exist in a state of injury and bruising and it will be a long time before we return as a people to where we were before. I think my greatest criticism of the government and our present leadership ... is twofold: they have grown fat and sleek on the suffering of their people, and they have damaged and injured the very personality and psyche of a whole nation. And from such an injury, recovery is slow.

What of the future? Who can tell, other than the One who rules the affairs of nations and holds kings' hearts in His hand? I think we have even stopped hoping as a nation. One becomes a bit suspicious and hesitant of possible solutions to national ills when every glimmer of hope in the past has proved to be just that, a glimmer and not much more. We are grateful for all those who continue to try and make a difference. There are brave and resilient souls in the political arena trying to maintain a viable opposition; there are compassionate and committed people serving within the deteriorating structures of education and health to try and make some difference; there are sensitive and dedicated individuals working within the social sphere to provide some help to at least some; and there are godly and sacrificial men and women ministering within the church, in order to at least slow down the rate of decay of the nation. There are some, and for these we are grateful. But there are fewer and fewer, and the burdens and pressures become ever greater.

Our country remains one of enormous potential, and it is the tragedy of our present history that it remains at this stage just that and nothing more. I may sound very pessimistic and negative: if I have been unfairly so, I apologise and if you think this is an evidence of lack of faith, I trust you are not correct! We continue to look to God, we continue to seek to serve Him, we are seeking to obey the injunction, "Dwell in the land, trust in the Lord and do good". But I would be lying if I told you that we are all upbeat and optimistic. People continue to leave the country, taking with them skills and resources so desperately needed here. One cannot blame them, but the strain of continuing falls on fewer and fewer shoulders.
These three posts are slightly edited extracts of a letter from a Zimbabwean to his Christian family in the developed world.

News from Zimbabwe (2)

Part 1
One of the impacts of the deteriorating school system (let me not repeat the long list of reasons for this, it probably bores you and certainly depresses me!) is that the minds of our children are likewise becoming, well, grey! Bright, living colour has gone, the thrill of learning has largely been replaced by the tedium of classes poorly presented within classrooms poorly maintained taught by teachers who are poorly paid and therefore poorly motivated. Our children are growing up thinking that this is education: that doors are not supposed to have handles; that all children are not supposed to have books and pencils; and that broken window panes are not supposed to be replaced. Our youngsters in the schools and streets are growing up thinking that power and position are to be sought in whatever way necessary, in order to be used to advance oneself and to exploit, exercise control and authority over others. Can you imagine the impact upon a nation when these children are the adults, the decision makers, and the ones who form society?

Families are under tremendous strain, the pressures of normal Zimbabwean life often translates itself, at best, into strained relationships within the family, at worst into infidelity and broken marriages. The diaspora, the dispersion of people due to economic hardships, has created within our society "diaspora widows/widowers" and "diaspora orphans". We see often a greater distance between our teens and their parents than before, a lesser involvement of parents in the lives of their children, absentee parents, children being left to extended family or employed maids and a slow drift away from marriage and family as God intended. With such a poor example in their upbringing, how will our children ever be able to form stable, warm, loving and godly families when they grow up? Bar the grace of God, this seems impossible. There is a greater recklessness amongst our youth than before, expressed in a seething rebellion, a pursuit of the distractions of music, sex and friends, and an irresponsibility about their futures. When the future holds forth so little hope, the present becomes meaningless.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

News from Zimbabwe (1)

How does one describe Zimbabwe at the moment? I think there might be two ways to answer this. The first has to do with the country as an entity. We are in a very poor state indeed. We no longer pay close attention to the inflation figures that are quoted. The latest figures are anywhere between 10000% and 14000% (yes, the zeroes are correct!) (PS This was a November figure. December has risen well beyond this). There is no end in sight to the inflation and economic collapse. For some reason the proverbial "ostrich-head-in-the-sand" attitude seems to prevail amongst our governing powers. Frankly the street assessment is that there are a few in power who are making so much money by taking advantage of the situation that there is no desire to change it. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg, even if that goose only lays eggs by gobbling up and feeding on common people? The impact of this failing economy is evident. All aspects of our contry's infrastructure are falling apart more and more: daily power and water cuts are no longer the exception but the norm; all homes have water containers and candles or some other lighting alternatives; the roads are more and more characterised by deep and vicious, tyre-bursting potholes; the phone system is a hit-and-miss affair; even the cellphone systems upon which we relied for most dependable communication are suffering the effects of price regulations, shortage of skilled personnel and shortage of materials - maladies which afflict all aspects of our industry and economy. Recently, the extreme measures by government to try and control the prices of basic commodities has resulted in the shelves of supermarkets being empty of staples and the black market flourishing. Perversely, the attempt to lower prices, ensure adequate supply of basics and cripple the black market has resulted in exactly the opposite. Hospitals, schools, roads, water supplies, local government, police services - the list of services and facilities in deterioration could go on and on.

There is another approach to the matter of trying to describe Zimbabwe at the moment and that is to look at the country as a people. And here I find greater cause for concern than there is even in the deterioration of the structure and economy of the land. As a people Zimbabweans are generally happy, polite and positive. I see that changing more and more. A friend of mine who is leaving the country soon commented to me recently that he sees Zimbabweans living in survival mode, where more and more energy is being poured into the basics of survival on a day-to-day basis, and less and less energy is available for other affairs of life, sadly including trying to help others survive. Survival mode is most naturally a self-centred mode of existence and there is no doubt in my mind that Zimbabweans are becoming more self-centred as a result of present circumstances. I see this reflected on our roads, for example: less and less concern for the other driver; more use of the horn; less attention to road rules which may slow a journey down. It is reflected in the growth of corruption, at all levels of society - not merely the opportunity to advance oneself - and so someone who has managed to find two loaves of bread at the controlled price will sell the second at an exorbitant profit, rather than pass it on to someone at the same cost. Survival mode means that life is stripped of its colour, its vitality, the extra, humane practices, the kindness, the generosity, the fun times, the travel and so on. Several years ago I told a friend outside that life was becoming grey in Zimbabwe, and I see that being realized more and more.

The World is Changed

A review of "The Elements", by Second Person, posted on Amazon.
I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the ... metal.

Once mighty men in high towers with vaults of gold and armies of assistants ruled the music industry. In many cases they were only obliquely concerned with the quality of the music, and more interested in whether it would ultimately add to their gold. Their cynicism grew, culminating in the mental laziness of reality TV shows and an increasingly rapid turnover of people who they could exploit as “the next big thing”. Through all these years, the really significant artists were those who controlled their own destiny, independent of the record companies.

But with the rise of the new media came a new breed of artist. It is possible to take work directly to the small people – people without vaults of gold, but people in their millions. Sellaband is an agency which seeks to link new artists and “believers” who are prepared to back them with anything from $10 upwards. If a band can raise $50,000 from believers, then the CD can be produced.

Second Person is one such band. Concepts albums are themselves as old as the industry, of course, and “The Elements” is one such. There are five tracks, each named after one of the ancient Chinese elements, with bonus video content. The music is well crafted and easy to listen to. Julia Johnson's voice reminds me of Leigh Nash's – but the musical style is more a gentle version of Fauxliage than Sixpence None The Richer. It is categorised as “trip hop”, though also somewhat confusingly as “post trip hop”. Perhaps that means the sort of thing that you'd listen to the morning after an “intense” party. Whatever, it is fairly mellow music that you can either play loud and enjoy, or have in the background.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Whatever happened to the heroes?

(A review of "Crusaders", by Richard T. Kelly, posted on Amazon)
You can tell it's British literature, because there aren't any. It's the mid nineties. The traditional church (as embodied in John Gore) means well, but is naïve and ineffective. The evangelical church (as embodied in Simon Barlow) is arrogant and judgmental, and unable to make a difference to those people who really need it. Politicians are cynical, or on the gravy train, or more concerned with ideas than people. People have seen it all before - they are wise to politicians and do-gooders, and simply doing what they can to survive in a world that couldn't care less about them.

The language is tough (which I suppose is realistic), the violence is pervasive (which I suppose given the context is realistic) and sex for most people is simply part of the scenery - not dwelt on in voyeuristic detail, but hardly portrayed as making love. This is what the "Common People" of the Pulp song did next - at least, those who live on Tyneside.

The book contains a lot of truth about how people are, how politics is and how our society works. I can't see that it offers any realistic ways to make things better for the most needy of society - perhaps that is part of what Kelly is trying to get across. He presents religion as discredited, local politics and law and order as tainted by vested interest, and national government and the judiciary as unconcerned about people. I have to say that, on the basis of my experience, that's largely a reasonable assessment, but it is an incredibly bleak picture, and it is one which challenges and deconstructs just about every form of utopianism. Does that mean that there is no hope? Well, that's a question for a late night discussion afterwards ....

People can either cope with accents written down, or they can't. It's all-pervasive in "Crusaders", but bearable, at least in my opinion. I could have done with a glossary, though - I only learnt that clarts (as in "soft as clarts") are pieces of mud, especially those stuck to shoes, after I had finished the book.

I picked this book because the idea behind the story - about a church plant in an inner city - was one that engaged me. This book has left me lots to think about - but an Amazon review is not the place to work through Kelly's portrayal of the modern Church of England, the nature of Christian missionary work or what could possibly be done to change the nature of our society. It's a significant book - but at least in my opinion, overly pessimistic.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hello Facebook users everywhere

I use Facebook. You can use it, or not, as you please. A Guardian columnist recommends you don't. Some reactions.

- Whilst I would naturally caution against people putting details of their sex lives, family, date of birth etc. on any web page, there are fewer potentially revealing personal details about me on Facebook than there are on Inland Revenue CDs. Or the Amazon website. Or Google, for that matter - do you know how much of your web history they are tracking?!

- Whilst I would naturally prefer the people who come up with useful internet stuff to be concerned about saving the planet rather than making zillions of dollars, the fact is that the people who are concerned about saving the planet are generally saving the planet rather than making zillions of dollars. On the other hand, there is a significant tendency for people to make their zillions and then throw a few billions back in to save the planet in a few years' time, once they realise that they can only sail one luxury yacht or fly one corporate jet at once.

- "1. We will advertise at you." The adverts in Facebook are far less intrusive, at least at the moment, than those on Myspace (which is a Microsoft production, isn't it?). It is an unfortunate fact of life that adverts are part of the scenery now. But I haven't stopped watching commercial television because there are adverts. At least, not on principle - only because it is rubbish. I haven't stopped going to see films because of the ads or the product placement. I haven't stopped reading newspapers like The Guardian. And at least the new media offer some hope that the adverts I am bombarded with may be relevant to me.

- "3. Anyone can glance at your intimate confessions." So don't confess them. Doh!

- "5. Opting out doesn't mean opting out." - Facebook can send you notices about your account even if you opt out of all email notification. Oh, dear! Well, if the worst came to the worst, tag the sender as "Spam".

- "6. The CIA may look at the site when they feel like it." Dude, do you know how much information the CIA can get about you without referring to Facebook? Do you know what's in your biometric passport? Do you know what powers the Patriot Act gave the US government? Do you know what the US government has to know about you before you can even get into the country?

The socialist nirvana didn't work. You may not like that, but you have to come to terms with living in a capitalist world. At least dissent from capitalism is permitted.

And another thing. The Guardian Unlimited page that I was reading seemed to be taking an unseemly amount of processing power whilst it was being displayed. I wonder why that was? Let's have a look....

Oh. It's adverts for Intel.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Did Sartre really say ...

"... no finite point has any meaning unless it has an infinite reference point"? And if so, where? And if so, what does that say about humans?