Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fifteen - o - eight, at a stadium in North London

I went to see U2 with family. It was a lifetime ambition, and the reaction from many of the fans on the U2 website (many of whom travel to several of the concerts) was that this was a good place to fulfil it.

I wanted to write a song-by-song reaction, but I also wanted to say something, before the immediacy of the concert had faded, so this is a shorter post than I originally intended.

On the back of books like "Get Up Off Your Knees", I have to say that I was expecting an experience that was more ... well, almost sacramental. It wasn't, though it was thoroughly amazing.

U2's concerts have always trod a subtle path, as illustrated in an interview Bono did with a Chicago newspaper in 2001. They make the case for the new album, as is proper - there were seven tracks from "No Line on the Horizon" on Saturday. But also, they have a selection of songs that become the heart of the concert - that pretty much define U2 not just musically but in terms of their political voice. This selection gradually shifts over time - "Bullet the Blue Sky" didn't feature on Saturday. And on top of that, they have a huge repertoire of amazing songs to draw on to fill out the programme.

In the case for the new album, we had "Breathe", "No line", "Boots" and "Magnificent" as the first four songs. "Unknown caller", a psalm with chorus responses from a divine voice, projected the divine words so that the congregation - I mean audience - was singing them back to the band. The remixed version of "Go Crazy" is, in my opinion, unusually better than the album version - it is loud and ... well, crazy. And the band signed off the last encore with "Moment of Surrender".

The tracks that every audience expects to hear are, I think, "Beautiful Day", probably "Until the End of the World" and "City of Blinding Lights", "Vertigo", "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", "Pride", "Where the Streets have no name" and "One". "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" picked up as a reference point the post-election riots in Iran - how long must we sing this song indeed! And they miscued at the end! Afterwards, the band grinned sheepishly at one another. "Walk on" was a fairly inevitable addition, given the presence of Aun Sang Suu Kyi in the news at the moment.

And then the choice of extras. "New Years Day", "Still haven't found" - with first verse sung by the audience - "Far away, so close", "Bad", "With or without you" are all popular live. We also had "Unforgettable Fire", "Sleep Tonight" as an intro to "Walk On" and "Ultraviolet". There was almost nothing I would have swapped away from the programme, although personally I feel "Pride" is a little worn out. In terms of additions? I was surprised that "Stand Up Comedy" from the new album didn't feature - it made the tour tee-shirts. "Stuck in a moment" is a song that happens to mean a lot to the family, but hey, there were quite a lot of other people who would have had opinions too!

This was an amazing evening out, and I'm looking forward to doing it again!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"God's Philosophers" - more personal reaction

Aside from writing a formal review, I had some more of my own thoughts on James Hannam's book.

From my point of view, one of the specious arguments levelled against Christianity is that it is anti-science, and only under the influence of naturalism - at least methodological - can science make progress. Of course, this is nonsense - not only have materialistic presuppositions consistently failed to prove true or useful (life at its lowest level turned out not to be simple, the earth turned out to be finely tuned for life, the universe turned out not to be infinitely old ... I could go on) but a significant proportion of science has been, and continues to be, done by people within a theistic framework. Arguably, even when the individual scientists deny this, they unwittingly borrow assumptions about the nature of truth from a non-naturalistic epistemology - science simply can't operate with the postmodern assertions about the nature of truth which dominate other disciplines.

The Dark Ages represent a challenge to this, though. It was an era when progress was limited, we were told, as a result of the unopposed authority of the church. Only with the dawn of the Renaissance, with its more humanistic focus, did we even come close to the heights of classical civilisation once again. Hannam's book tells a different story of the Middle Ages, with accessible and enjoyable style, and shows that the world is actually more subtle than received wisdom would have us think.

Also, even more personally, his book ticked boxes relating to my expectations of a good book. I have long had a gripe about people who write books and don't edit them properly. You really ought to be able to get your ideas across in around 350 pages, in my opinion: more than this in a lot of cases is indulging the author at the expense of the reader. Hannam's text comes in at just under this length. In addition, it has an index, a list of names (important when there are so many bit parts in 1000+ years of history), suggestions for further reading, and a huge source list.

One more thing is the interdisciplinary aspect. Hannam's background is science, and he writes understanding the science side of things. But what he has written is historically lively and, as far as I can tell, accurate. Knowledge is too often fragmented, and a more realistic and coherent picture can be obtained when study joins up different areas.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"God's Philosophers", James Hannam

For years, the teaching of history has been criticised in some quarters for being insufficiently broad. It focuses on the cause and effect of specific events - often those of significance to the political inclination of those writing the curriculum, or those where the student can be expected to empathise with the subjects studied. Thus in England, for example, children can expect to learn about the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution and the Cold War, but will often learn little about how the United Kingdom or Europe arrived at their current political shape. But even given a general knowledge of history, some areas are more opaque than others. History, it seems, barely existed in pre-Roman times in the British Isles. For a similar reason perhaps - a relative dearth of written sources - our knowledge of the time from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance tends to be pretty sketchy.

It is easy to conclude that our ignorance of what happened means that nothing of any significance actually did happen. So the "Dark Ages" have come to signify an era of intellectual and cultural stagnation between the Classical era and the Renaissance. This has been fed by writers from later eras - both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment - seeking to portray their own time as the new golden age, in contrast to what went before.

Modern scholarship has detected this bias and ignorance, and has started to evaluate the Middle Ages in a more objective light. James Hannam's book, "God's Philosophers", gathers together stories of the people, ideas and innovations from the time. He shows that, far from being an era in which the culture stood still, key developments took place without which the development of modern science and technology couldn't have been possible. In fact, even the humanistic ideas which shaped the Renaissance have their roots in philosophical/religious work from the Middle Ages.

Hannam highlights developments in many areas - mathematics, timekeeping, optics - as well as more obvious ones, such as the printing press. He shows that earlier progress was acknowledged - or at least apparent - in the work of early modern scientists - Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Brahe, and subsequently Newton.

Indeed, Hannam points out, one of the effects of the Renaissance obsession with Classical culture was to come close to discarding all the progress that had been made in the Mediaeval era, in areas such as maths, science and philosophy. Much writing was virtually lost, only to be rediscovered in some cases centuries later.

The traditional demarcation between the premodern and modern eras - a fairly moveable line, though one which probably hovers around the time of Galileo - is actually too arbitrary. Substantially after the start of the Renaissance, Newton continued to believe in Alchemy; astronomy continued to be driven by astrology; medicine arguably continued to operate using a pretty premodern methodology well into the 18th Century.

Also, the supposed clash of cultures between the church and the forces of rationalism was not nearly as apparent as it is suggested now. Galileo's conflict with the Inquisition, as portrayed by Brecht and regularly replayed, has already been shown elsewhere to not have taken place as a struggle between faith and science. Hannam argues further, highlighting the role of the church in establishing universities as centres of independent thought, granting them a substantial degree of intellectual autonomy. The Inquisition itself, he suggests, was not the ruthless and intolerant secret police organisation we have come to know and love. Instead, it was patient and careful, loath to impose heavy sanctions, and operating using a higher standard of judicial procedure than could be expected in contemporary civil courts.

Hannam's theses aren't new; these ideas of the Middle Ages are increasingly acknowledged by scholars, and Hannam helpfully offers a list of books for further reading, along with a very comprehensive list of source material. His book highlights the difference between careful scholarship and the lazy rehash of received wisdom all too common amongst writers who simply present ideas that fit their presuppositions, with little attention to how substantive they are.

The book is fast paced and well-written. It is very hard to dispute his assertion that the cultural and scientific achievements of the era were significant and far-reaching. Perhaps it would be possible to argue that with the withdrawal of intellectual life to the monasteries and subsequently the universities, life was culturally narrower for the general population than it had been under the Romans. However, with the spread of architecture and the growth of cities, even this seems unlikely. This is a very helpful introduction to the Middle Ages in Europe.

"God's Philosophers" (Icon Books), James Hannam